by R J Dent
Behind the shed was the woodpile.
My father used to put any pieces of wood that ‘might be useful’ (which was every piece of wood he came in to contact with) on the woodpile. At the back, leaning against the shed wall were all sorts of doors: three interior doors, a front door, several kitchen cupboard doors, even a loft hatch cover. There were planks and floorboards at the bottom of the pile; stakes, posts and battens in the middle, and small pieces of dowelling and blocks and off-cuts on the top. There was also a plastic bag half full of wood chips and sawdust.
There had always been a woodpile. I never knew of a time, era or decade when there wasn’t a woodpile.
Very occasionally, my father would take a piece of wood from the woodpile and use it for some project he was working on.
When that happened, whoever noticed the diminished woodpile would notify everyone else.
– The woodpile’s gone down a bit.
– Has it?
Sometimes curiosity would get the better of someone.
– What’s gone?
– A broom handle.
– I wonder what he’s making.
– A broom?
– Nah. Too complex.
– No he’s not.
My father’s ladder was probably the unsafest ladder in existence.
It was a wooden ladder and the stiles (the twin vertical supports) were old, rotten and split. Not only that, but several of its rungs were missing and an equal number were broken.
My father got the ladder out one day. He stored it behind the shed next to the woodpile.
My brother and I were at the bottom of the garden, just deciding on the best way to spend the morning, when we saw our father carry the ladder into the garden and set it down on the grass. He obviously needed it for whatever project he was currently working on, but the poor state of the ladder meant it was impossible for anyone to use it. So he had decided to repair it.
My father is not a carpenter, but that fact has never deterred him from attempting to make a multitude of things from wood.
We stayed a reasonable distance from where our father was working. It was far enough away for him to overlook us, but close enough that we could see what he was doing. If we stayed perfectly still, he’d probably not notice us, which was good, because our father had a tendency to shanghai and press-gang innocent bystanders into service. And no one needs that on a sunny Saturday morning.
We watched as he inspected the ladder by walking around it and saying:
He tutted a few times at the generally poor state of the ladder, then he kicked it gently a few times and tutted some more. The inspection over, he lifted the ladder up and leaned it against the house, then ran his fingers over the broken rungs and the split and warped stiles.
He then went into the shed and emerged with a hammer, a saw, a screwdriver, a bag of nails, a pot of creosote, a paint brush and a broom handle which had been sawn into six one foot lengths. He put everything down, then used the hammer to knock out the broken rungs.
Once that was done, he carefully slotted the first piece of sawn-off broom handle into the rung-holes.
Even from where we were at the foot of the garden, my brother and I could see that the broom handle was thinner than the original rung, which meant that it was very loose in the rung holes.
Undeterred, our father went back into the shed and emerged a few seconds later with a ball of twine, which he used to wind around the ends of the broom handle cut-off.
He then pushed one of the string-wound ends into the rung hole. Once it was in place, he levered the other end into its hole with the screwdriver. He then repeated the operation five times until all of the missing or broken rungs were replaced. For extra security, he then hammered a nail through the stile and into the rung.
It took him over two hours, but by lunchtime he’d completely rebuilt, restored, revamped, and refurbished the ladder.
Once it was finished, my father leaned it against the house wall and gingerly put his foot on the bottom ‘rung’.
He looked around for an assistant and although my brother and I quickly ducked out of sight, we were too slow.
– Come here you two. I need you to do a job for me.
Knowing exactly what was in store for us, my brother and I inched forward reluctantly.
– Come on. Come on. I haven’t got all day, you know.
Once we were less than two feet away, our father gave us our instructions.
– Right. You go up the ladder and check the guttering for blocks. You hold the ladder for him.
– Is it safe?
– It’s the safest ladder in the world.
– In which poll?
– Is it one that’s just been written?
– Is it a safety poll?
– All right, you two, less of the so-called comedy. It’s too early in the day.
– When’s the best time for it then?
– For your type of ‘comedy’? Never. And certainly not when there’s a ladder to…
– No… To use for an important job.
– You weren’t going to say ‘Not when there’s a ladder to test’, were you?
– You said it was the safest ladder in the world.
– It is.
– So why is a test needed.
– I never mentioned a test.
– And why are you forcing me to climb it? If it’s as safe as you say, don’t you want to be the one to use it first?
Our father sighed.
– All I’m asking is for you to climb the ladder and check the guttering for a visible blockage, that’s all. Is that really too much to ask?
– Yes, because I’m scared of heights.
– That’s just a state of mind. Climbing a ladder will cure it. One day you’ll thank me.
– Climbing your ladder is a bona fide and proven medical cure for vertigo, is it?
– Don’t start using that scientific mumbo-jumbo you seem so keen on.
– Why not.
– You always forget that just because you can prove anything with science, it doesn’t necessarily make it true.
My brother looked at me and shrugged helplessly.
– It’s almost as though the age of reason deliberately avoided this house and garden.
– I think that’s exactly what happened.
– Right. Enough of your cheek. You get up that ladder and check the gutter. You hold the ladder for him.
My brother and I silently agreed to get the job done as fast as we could.
One new ‘rung’ broke as my brother stepped on it.
– Oh, you clumsy ha’p’orth, our father chided. Be careful. Those rungs are brand new.
– Those cut-off pieces of broom handle are very, very weak. They’re fine unless you stand on them. They’d snap if a heavy feather landed on them.
To prove his point, my brother gently placed his foot on another ‘rung’ and put a slight amount of weight on it. It groaned and creaked and I heard the beginnings of a soft splintering sound.
– All right. All right, our father barked. Get off it. I’ll sort it out.
He shooed us away and laid the ladder back on the grass. My brother and I went in for lunch. We made it last, working on the theory that we wouldn’t be asked to help during a meal. Once we’d finished, we waited until our father went into the shed for something, then we dashed down to the bottom of the garden and hid, screened from his view by the apple and pear trees. We made it without him seeing us. With a bit of luck he’d forget about us.
When he had finished mending it, the ladder was re-runged and creosoted. Once it was dry, our father put the ladder at the back of the woodpile, where it remained from that day onwards. It might still be there, for all I know.
I thought the experience with the ladder would curb my father’s woodwork enthusiasm, but instead it seemed to inspire a surfeit of carpentry confidence in him, because he suddenly wanted to make things out of wood at any and every opportunity.
It was a change from him making things out of metal or concrete, but I’m not sure it was an improvement.
The first object my father mentioned making was a rabbit hutch. It was a Sunday and we were all sitting around the table at lunch time when he mentioned it.
– But we haven’t got a rabbit, my mother protested.
– No, but you never know, my father said hurriedly.
– We’re not getting a rabbit in order to justify you making a hutch, my mother declared.
– I don’t mean for us. I mean to sell. People pay good money for rabbit hutches.
– People pay good money for good rabbit hutches.
– I’d make good hutches.
– So now you’re planning on making a set, are you?
– Mum, setts are for badgers, not rabbits, my brother said.
– You can keep out of this, my mother snapped. There’s no room in this house for a comedian.
– Perhaps I could live in one of dad’s hutches, then. They sound like they might be roomy and welcoming.
– They would be.
– I don’t think so, my mother said.
– Well, I think you’re looking a gift horse in the mouth, my father said.
– I just don’t think our fortune’s going to be made by selling home-made rabbit hutches, that’s all I’m saying.
My father paused for thought.
– Coffee tables, then?
4: Coffee Tables
After my father had mentioned coffee tables, my mother made the mistake of considering it seriously.
– Go on, she said cautiously.
– Mahogany’s very nice, my father said, launching into what was clearly a well-rehearsed sales pitch. Everyone loves a sanded, waxed and polished mahogany coffee table. They’re solid, reliable. They look good. Why, we could sell them for fifty pounds each. And if I made fifty a year, that’s… that’s quite a lot of money.
– It’s two thousand, five hundred pounds a year, my sister said.
– Exactly, said my father, as though the number proved him right. And just in time for Christmas. And we can have one for the front room.
I marvelled at his cunning.
This was a deliberate ploy on his part, because we had a coffee table in the front room, but it was one of those gilt-legged, glass-topped things with a print of a famous painting trapped under the glass.
The writing at the edge of the painting said: Nymphs and Satyr (1873), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). Copyright © The Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, US.
The painting depicted several naked women (nymphs?) dancing around a hairy man (a satyr?) who was sitting by a stream. It looked as though some of the women were trying to pull the hairy man into the stream.
Initially, my mother had loved that rather unlovely object, but after my sister spilled tomato soup over it, leaving a wrinkled red soup stain over much of the picture and obscuring quite a lot of it, my mother went right off that coffee table. She often mentioned getting a new one.
And now it was obvious from my mother’s expression that she was going to approve my father’s coffee table project.
– All right, she said. But you need to start on smaller, less important things first and build up to coffee tables. What do we need that you can you build that will show your carpentry skills at their best?
My father thought about this as he ate his lunch. He looked out of the window as though seeking inspiration out there, which perhaps he was.
– We need a bicycle rack, he said. I could build one of those.
My mother nodded.
– A bicycle rack it is then.
5: Bicycle Rack
– First you take your timber frame and you set it out where you want it on the ground. Then you add your cross-beams, and secure them with nails to the frame…
I stopped listening to my father’s running commentary on how to build a bicycle rack. I really wasn’t that interested. He’d talked it to death.
He’d been working on it for over a week, drawing plans, then discarding them and starting again. He had commandeered a roll of white wallpaper, which he drew his plans on. Unfortunately, it was wood-chip paper so his lines weren’t always straight – they squiggled and squaggled all over the place.
– It’s the wood chips, my father said defensively when I asked him about the squiggly pencil lines.
– Can’t you use ordinary wallpaper?
– This is fine apart from the wood chips. Besides, he said, pointing at a wiggly line, that’s obviously a straight line.
– Obviously, I said.
My father looked at me askance.
– It’s the wood chips, I added, nodding knowingly. They make the line crooked.
My father shifted his attention back to his plans. My heart began to slow back down to its normal pace.
Just then, my brother came out of the house and made straight for us. He looked at the lines on the paper.
– What’s this?
– A bicycle rack. Obviously.
– Oh yeah. Of course. What’s it accused of?
– The bicycle. You’re going to put it on the rack. What’s it done? Something wheelie bad?
– It put its spoke in.
– Was it incorrectly at-tyred?
– Was it saddled with blame?
– Or did it brake something.
– Perhaps it simply couldn’t handle bars.
– Or perhaps it was framed.
My father groaned.
– Oh, no, not more of your ridiculous puns. Now’s not the time.
– Is that because now’s the time for torture on the rack? It’s nice to see we’ve got our priorities right.
My father stood up from nailing the pieces of wood together.
– Right, let’s test it out. Go and get your bike, he said to me. So I fetched my bike and wheeled it over to the new wooden bicycle stand.
– Well don’t just stand there. Wheel it in.
I wheeled my bike onto the stand and made sure the front wheel went into the slot between the parallel battens.
– You can let go, my father said.
I let go and the bike toppled over. As it fell, the wooden battens popped free with a loud rending sound and the screech of pulled-free nails. My bike hit the ground with a crash.
My father looked around sheepishly.
– Where’s your mother?
– Shopping, my brother answered.
My father visibly relaxed.
– Then let’s get this bicycle rack fixed and functional before she gets back.
He very nearly succeeded, but the demonstration he did in the afternoon let him down.
by R J Dent
Copyright © R J Dent (2014)