RESTORATION

Chris R-0392-2 Image by Christine Renney

The sitting room at the nursing home is always bright, even on the dullest of days, and yet the air hangs heavy and stale. Breathing it in, I remember his workshop with its heady aroma; the wood shavings and sawdust, the varnish brushes soaking in old jam jars filled with turpentine.

I sit across from him and we begin to talk, and at first I am uncertain as to who he believes I am. I am convinced that he is speaking to himself and that I represent the younger man, still working, providing and caring for his family. Still married and still very much in love with his wife. But as he quizzes me and the questions come thick and fast I’m not so sure.

He hasn’t changed, not really, he is older, yes, and paler. He could do with a fresh coat of stain but, overall, his appearance isn’t so different. I look for the tip of the pencil in the breast pocket of his chequered shirt, but it isn’t there. However, it is the shaking hands I find the cruellest. He had been a joiner and furniture restorer and I picture him at work with the plane, his movements smooth and streamlined. Or with a chisel and the ‘tap tap’ of the mallet, and a bracket or a brass plate sliding into place, the satisfied expression on his face.
‘There you go,’ he would say, ‘how’s that?’

He is constantly preoccupied with his old job. Not surprising, I suppose, given that it had been his trade for more than fifty years. I am impressed by his questions, they are so very specific but I don’t know the answers. But what he is asking has long since passed and so I try to humour him.

I had worked for him a little during the school holidays and at weekends and such, but I hadn’t ever really been that interested. I attended to the sanding and polishing. The work had been monotonous but I had completed these tasks leaving the more interesting and rewarding work for him and his apprentice proper. I had no desire to progress, to move on, to be schooled. My head had been elsewhere, the workshop wasn’t for me. I didn’t belong there, at least that is what my mother had always said. It was an unspoken command that I would continue with my education, go to university.

I do remember the furniture that was brought into the workshop. All the tables and chairs, old and broken. The dressers, chests of drawers, wardrobes and desks; dilapidated and damaged. But when he and his apprentice had finished with them they had been restored, made new. And I had helped – my fetching and carrying, the sanding and polishing, had been a part of the process, although I hadn’t thought of it as such, not until he started with his questions.

He is confused and I believe I can convince, that I can reassure him. He asks how a particular piece is coming along, which hinges, handles and brackets, should we use? Should it be this or that stain, which is the right polish or wax? He talks about how different oak is from teak or mahogany, how to spot infestation, how to isolate and treat it. Despite my hazy recollections he might as well be speaking in code, one that I can’t crack. In the end I haven’t any choice and, shrugging my shoulders, I tell him, ’I don‘t remember.’

I glance down at his hands. They are yellow, the colour of beeswax. He is holding a plastic beaker, fumbling with it, the cold tea spilling into his lap.
‘Shall I take that from you?’ I ask, reaching out.
But he looks down and remembering he grips it a little tighter and will not let the beaker go.

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GHOST LETTER 35

Chris R-0593-2 Image by Christine Renney

I have money now, just a few coins, and gripping them tightly, I delve deep into the lining of my coat as I walk. I work a coin between my thumb and forefinger. I take them out and move them from hand to hand. I thrust the coins deep into the pocket of my jeans only to take them out again and again. I can’t stop doing this, looking at them, checking.
I drop one of the coins and it rolls out into the road. I run after it, suddenly worried that someone will take it. I stamp down on it with my boot and, crouching down at the kerbside, I quickly snatch it back. I have wandered away from the centre and there is no-one around.
Rising I place the coin with the others in my pocket. I have an odd feeling inside. It is something like purpose and yet I haven’t any idea what it is I intend to do.
I reach a parade of shops and, stopping in front of the plate glass windows of the off-licence, I peer in at the bottles, at the wine and the spirits. I don’t have enough but then I see cans of lager in the cooler at the back of the shop.
Although I am still unsure that this is what I want or what I need, I am already pushing through the doors and I know how it works; I spend what I have and then I get more.

CHOSEN

Chris R-1110581 Image by Christine Renney

Robert had received one of ‘the letters’ offering him a room. He had been chosen, selected and it was that simple. He had a month in which to decide. Back when the Scheme was in its infancy Robert would not have had this luxury; a whole month to think about it, to weigh up the pros and cons. Then, one of the men would have knocked at his door and stood on the threshold. He would have had only minutes to make up his mind. In those days most people simply said no but this had gradually changed. Nowadays it was almost unheard of for anyone to refuse, to not accept a room and all that came with it.

Moving into a room would mean security and peace of mind and Robert would at least have time to himself. He wasn’t quite sure just what he might do with it but in the room he would of course have access to media. He wouldn’t have to work. In fact, he wouldn’t be allowed to work but Robert, like almost everyone else in the city hated his job and he was all too aware that he was just a cog in a not so pristine machine. Robert didn’t even know what it was that he did nor how nor why it mattered. But he supposed that somehow he was part of it and that he helped to keep the mill wheel grinding, as it were.

Robert had worked at the same office for over twenty years and he was proud of this. He proved himself resilient, hadn’t given in and dropped out like so many in the city had. Robert had always considered himself lucky not to have been placed in one of the factories or the yards or the foundries. The work he did was boring, yes, but it wasn’t physically hard and he had always been able to manage the long hours.

Robert enjoyed having money in his pocket. It had only ever been just enough to pay the bills, his rent and buy his food. Robert had always saved for that rainy day, for when he needed a new shirt and tie or shoes. For when he had to replace a mug or a plate. On the few occasions he needed to replace the bigger and more expensive items, his old armchair or stove for instance, Robert had found it particularly satisfying handing over the cash and filling out the forms, arranging for delivery and installation. Once he had moved into the room Robert wouldn’t ever have money in his pocket again but neither would he have to scrimp and scrape to save.

There was much he needed to do. Robert would have to give notice at work and to the landlord and to clear the flat of his belongings. He would be allowed to take just his clothes but eventually even those would be replaced by the standard issue. The little money he had he would give to his sister along with the almost new stove. Everything else was worthless and he would have to pay someone to cart it all away. And then he would re-decorate, re-instating the neutral colours he had over the years rebelled against.

GHOST LETTER 34

Chris R-0210 Image by Christine Renney

I have managed to settle at last. I sit on the pavement and look up. The buildings above the shops, once regal, are now in disrepair. The City glares back at me in the windows but one of the blinds is broken. Where the slats have fallen away I can see an old filing cabinet. It is standing just behind the glass and there are cardboard boxes stacked on top of it. I wonder are all the rooms up there like this one? Used for storage and filled with junk?
This is the busiest part of the City or at least it soon will be. I am often here, in this place at this time before it all begins. Standing I can hear the clash and clatter of the metal shutters being raised up from the front of the shops a little further along the street.
I walk toward this sound.

A LINK IN THE CHAIN

Chris R-0992 Image by Christine Renney

After almost twenty years Jack took his job for granted. He was a refuse collector, a garbage man, or at least this is what he told anyone who bothered to ask. He in fact worked at a landfill site, one of the largest in the country. He was the man on the ground, in charge of the day to day operations.
Much of society’s waste can be recycled, can be shredded and pulped and will break down and disintegrate. But much of it will not and burying this safely and as efficiently as was possible Jack considered to be an important and necessary task. He didn’t want to look at the bigger picture, hadn’t any desire to grapple with the wider implications.
He worked in the here and now and far too often he had stood as if accused, had been pulled into unwanted debate time and again. And so he had started to lie, he was a bin man and Jack wouldn’t elaborate and he couldn’t be drawn, not anymore.
Over the years, after each promotion, his wife hadn’t been able to help herself and had boasted to her sisters. But all family had been warned not to talk about work with Jack and although this had proved a little awkward at first it had soon become commonplace and was accepted.
His three daughters, now all teenagers, were thankfully unafflicted by any sort of youthful idealism. They were entirely uninterested in environmental or green issues and couldn’t care less what their dad did for a living.
Jack hardly thought about his work at all. In the mornings he rose alone and as the others slept he moved almost soundlessly from bedroom to bathroom to kitchen. When he left the house was still in darkness and seemingly undisturbed but when he returned in the evenings it was noisy and alive, the four women bickering and laughing together. Jack didn’t mind that he was excluded, taken for granted and quite happily he moved at the periphery, occasionally glancing in at them.

Jack had been on site half an hour or so at most when the two men from head office arrived. He recognised them instantly although over the years their paths had crossed no more than a handful of times and as far as he could remember neither of them had ever visited a site before. They wanted something, this much was obvious.
‘How can I help you?’ Jack stumbled, trying not to sound surprised.
They were straight talking and businesslike and pulling chairs they sat in front of his desk, and without an intro or any fanfare they told him what they wanted him to do. It was to bury a man, dispose of a corpse. They couldn’t tell him any more, only that it was important and necessary and that he had been carefully selected to perform this particular task. That it needed to be done swiftly and the employee who delivered the casket would help him but no-one else on the site could know. He would be rewarded financially and of course it wouldn’t be forgotten.
They were asking him but Jack really hadn’t any choice. Somehow he managed to agree and proffering his hand he even shook on it.

Jack couldn’t remember being at home on his own during the day before. His wife worked part-time but not today and he hadn’t any idea where she was, what she was doing or at what time his daughters returned from school. He realised that they led lives he knew nothing about and that he could so easily just go back, make the necessary arrangements, make the phone call and become a part of something. But he didn’t.
When they came home it was together, his wife was first through the door and when she saw him sitting at the kitchen table, dropping her shopping bags to the floor, she stopped abruptly and behind her his daughters stumbled.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked, ‘has something happened?’
‘I have to quit,’ he said.
‘What do you mean? I don’t understand.’
‘I need to quit my job.’
The girls pushed their way past their mother and stepping over the shopping the four of them then stood and gaped at him.
Jack told them what had happened, what it was they had asked him to do. He put it succinctly, was as workmanlike in the telling as the men from Head Office had been earlier. When he was finished they didn’t react as he had expected they would. They didn’t question, didn’t try to make sense of it. Instead of engaging in awestruck debate they stood in awkward silence. His wife looked up, down, everywhere but at him and at last she said, ‘Jack, I really don’t think that you should have told us this. Come on girls,’ she sighed, ‘let’s go in the other room. Your father needs to be alone, he needs some time to think.’

GHOST LETTER 33

Chris R-0314-2 Image by Christine Renney

I try to convince myself it is sudden, this want, this need. It has been growing inside of me, unbidden, a well without water.
How can I talk again after so long? Each time it surfaces I suppress it and resist. I could so easily run, abandon the City, and make again for the road, find that other place, the one in between here and there, where I could stand off to one side and, unheard, shout at the sky and down into the earth.
I look up, not because I must, or because I might stumble or have gotten too close to the edge and could fall into the abyss, I look up to see what is happening right here and now. But it is too bright and, squinting into the harsh light, I am hardly able to see. Everyone is moving so quickly and everything is blurred. At last someone slows a little and I focus on him.
I watch him moving in closer and he bends and drops a handful of coins onto the pavement in front of where I am sitting.
‘Thank you,‘ I say, staring down at them but when I raise my head he is gone.

VANTAGE POINT

Chris R-0851 Image by Christine Renney

He repeatedly makes his way down and comes back up. He times his visits for when the place is at its busiest, at rush hour, early in the morning and again in the evening.
He moves through quickly, weaving his way amongst them, his progress almost frenzied. Once he is clear, he slows and pushes his way back.
He has established a routine of sorts and, loitering on the outskirts, he waits. He steps out a circuit beginning at the edge of the ring road and eventually taking in the grounds of the cathedral. When the grass verge begins to widen, he makes toward a remaining section of the old city wall. There is an iron railing and, clambering, he swings himself around it and steps down onto the narrow ledge below.
In his ragged and dusty clothes he leans back against the grey stone. He can see so much from up here. It is the ideal vantage point.

Most of them have disappeared into the buildings. He watches the others, the ones still moving in and out of the shops. The tableaux from up here always looks the same but it isn’t. Some of the shoppers leave and others arrive and he is all too aware that this is constantly changing. Only during the lunch hour, when the workers emerge from the office blocks, can he be sure. And it is important that he has completed his circuit and is back here by then.
But he still has a little time and he lifts the rifle. It isn’t real but a replica. Still cost him a pretty penny though and leaving it here is risky he knows. But he can hardly carry it with him and anyhow the fact it hasn’t been taken and is just as he left it, propped up against the wall, reassures him that he hasn’t been discovered, that nobody knows.
Pushing the rifle hard against his shoulder and crouching he takes up position. Pressing his eye against the telescopic scope he picks out first one shopper, then another, and another. CLICK, CLICK, CLICK.