Design: Lovers come and go but a linen cupboard is forever

More than just a piece of furniture, a linen cupboard is an almost forgotten way of life

My French grand-mother kept her pistol in the linen cupboard, under a stack of square starched pillow-cases. The cupboard was in her bedroom, on the ground floor of the little village house inland from Etretat in the Pays de Caux in Normandy. My grandfather was often away on business, and he gave her the pistol to reassure himself that she would be safe during his absences. He was an engineer, a very practical man. He taught her how to aim and fire the gun and made her practise her shooting regularly. If a burglar dared to come through the window at night, he would find my grandmother waiting for him with the pistol cocked.

The linen cupboard was of pine, as ornately fashioned as a side chapel in a cathedral. Tall and wide, reaching from ceiling to floor, it filled up almost the whole of one wall. It had been made in the mid-19th century as part of a dowry. In those days, in the countryside in France, you started off your married life with the furniture and clothes you expected to last a lifetime and that you would hand on to your children at your death. A bed and a crockery cupboard and a linen cupboard were crucial items. The massive panelled door was opened by a large iron key inserted into the massive lock. The pediment and front of the cupboard were heavily carved with intricately twisted garlands of corn and flowers. These florid decorations embodied the local style in Normandy, the corn and blossoms symbolising the fruitfulness of the marriage of the young people who had been given these pieces of furniture.

The linen cupboard made you think of secret sexy places, of the fullness that was pregnancy. It was a sort of household god. To me as a child, it was like a little house inside the house. A special place that you needed special permission to enter. We never went into my grandparents' room unless invited. Sometimes I accompanied my aunt to help her get out the clean sheets, or to put them away. Apart from the pistol, the cupboard was full of household linen. It brimmed with everything a family might need during a lifetime, everything made in dozens, most things stitched by hand. The sheets were pure linen, thick and heavy, embroidered by my grandmother with her initials in a raised silky monogram. In those days, linen was not a luxury but simply the hard-wearing material from which most household things were made, your clothes as well as your sheets.

During the Sixties, linen went out of fashion, I suppose because it was seen as not high-tech enough. Too peasanty. Everybody was into futuristic clothes and fabrics, white plastic boots and satellites and Telstar. The vogue came in for man-made fibres like Terylene. My grandfather came back from working in the States bringing nylon-mix sheets, so the linen ones were hardly ever used any more. They were special, laid away as memories of an earlier, more leisurely time. Like so much else in my grandparents' house, they qualified as "best": to be kept in a box and wrapped in tissue paper. Part of the charm of the linen sheets was their bulk and weight, the elaborate care that had to be taken in laundering them. They had to be hung up properly to dry in the garden, ironed with a hot steam-iron while still damp, pressing the monogram on the back so that it would stand proud, and then folded in threes before being put away. It was a lot of work. When my mother was a child, a washerwoman came in once a week to do the laundry in a big copper in the back yard, but in post-war France, you had your own washing-machine, did your own wash, and stuck to synthetics.

I longed to inherit a pair of those linen sheets, but did not. But last Christmas, my dear neighbour in France, a farmer who still does things the traditional way, gave me a pair of the two dozen linen sheets she had sewn and embroidered for her own trousseau 35 years ago and never used on her own bed, because her husband claimed they were too scratchy. He prefers cotton with a dash of polyester. She uses the linen sheets, some of them, to make up beds for the workmen who come and stay on the farm in summer, helping with the harvest. Lucky workmen, tucked up at night, after an exhausting day, in this superlative bedding; it's no more than they deserve. The sheets, when she brought them round, were yellow and thick, slightly rough to the touch. Now they have faded a little from being washed and dried in the sun and air, they have bleached to cream colour, and they are smooth as smooth can be to lie on. It takes two people to hang them out on the line, they are so heavy. They have drawn-thread work decorating the upper edge, all done by hand, and my neighbour's initials in stump-work. They are wedding sheets, and make night-times feel like honeymoon. I was completely overwhelmed by the generosity of this gift.

When you open the door of a linen cupboard, you smell the outdoors, you smell summer. The sweetness of sun and wind which has dried the linen outside, the little bags of lavender that have been slipped between the layers to scent them and to keep moths away. It's like having a hayfield inside the house. Particularly powerful in winter. You can stick your nose into the starched piles of sheets and let yourself believe that summer will come again.

But as people vacate the farms, as unemployment bites and the younger generations move to the cities, the old ways of living get lost. Traditional linen cupboards now sell in antique shops for huge sums and belong less and less to the country people who made them. They now decorate the salons of Parisian second homes rather than being used by working families.

People can get a bit precious about linen cupboards and their contents. There is a scorching satire, in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, on a lady novelist rabbiting on about the almost mystical rapture of sleeping in fresh white linen. I always felt a bit sorry for this lady. Rupert Brooke, after all, went on about the rough male kiss of blankets, so I didn't see why she shouldn't rave about the smooth female bliss of clean sheets. French cynics define love as the contact between one epidermis and another. Well, lovers come and go, but a linen cupboard is always waiting, with the sensual, consoling caress of its sheets. That is something not to be despised.

Michele Roberts's new novel, `Fair Exchange', is published by Little, Brown, price pounds 15.99

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Travel
travel
News
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014
peopleTim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
News
people
Life and Style
techApp to start sending headlines, TV clips and ads to your phone
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift crawls through the legs of twerking dancers in her 'Shake It Off' music video
musicEarl Sweatshirt thinks so
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan in What If
filmReview: Actor swaps Harry Potter for Cary Grant in What If
News
Our resilience to stress is to a large extent determined by our genes
science
Travel
travel
Sport
sportBesiktas 0 Arsenal 0: Champions League qualifying first-leg match ends in stalemate in Istanbul
News
Pornography is more accessible - and harder to avoid - than ever
news... but they still admit watching it
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Energy Engineer

    £25000 - £30000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy En...

    Sales Representative, Leicester

    £25-£30k Plus Car: Charter Selection: Major well established nationwide market...

    Sales Representative, Birmingham

    £25-£30k Plus Car: Charter Selection: Major well established nationwide market...

    HR Administration Manager - Hounslow, West London

    £28000 - £32000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Administration Manager...

    Day In a Page

    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
    Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

    Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

    Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

    But could his predictions of war do the same?
    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

    Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

    Young at hort

    Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

    Beyond a joke

    Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

    Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

    A wild night out

    Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

    Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

    It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
    Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

    Besiktas vs Arsenal

    Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

    As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

    Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

    The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

    But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

    Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

    Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment