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.