When I visited him, and we sat across from each other and began to talk, I was uncertain as to who he believed I was. In the beginning, I had been convinced that he was speaking to himself. And I, of course, represented 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 quizzed me and the questions came thick and fast I wasn’t so sure.
He had restored furniture and was constantly preoccupied with his old job. Not surprising, I suppose, given that it had been his trade for more than fifty years. I was impressed by his questions, they were so very specific and I didn’t know the answers. But what he was asking had long since passed and so I tried 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 happily 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 past it. But when he and his helper 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 was confused and I believed I could convince, that I could reassure him. He would ask how a particular piece was coming along and I did remember the names of many of his old clients. In fact, much of it was surprisingly familiar to me.
Hinges, handles and brackets, this or that stain, the right polish or wax. 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 have been speaking in code, one that I couldn’t crack. In the end I hadn’t any choice but to shrug my shoulders and tell him that I didn’t know and despite his confusion it was written, all too clearly on his face, his disappointment and disbelief.