A strip of old blue paint flakes off the door as I lift the latch. It falls to the ground, resting on the overgrown grass like a petal shed from one of Nana’s beloved cornflowers.
The door opens with a creak and I peer into the gloom. Weak rays of sunlight filter through the windows at the back of the workroom, smeared with years of dust and neglect. The light dances clumsily on tarp-shrouded humps whose shape I remembered so well. Musty air catches in my throat. It speaks of being sealed like a tomb, a memorial to the most practical of men whose tools now lie obsolete.
There’s a hint of wood chips in the air. Very faint, like a distant memory, but enough to recall countless pieces cut, shaped and smoothed to exactly the right shape and size.
In the corner, covered by an ancient oil cloth, sits the abandoned power saw. Next to it, shoved unceremoniously against the wall, is the workbench. His workbench.
It had been a long, hot English summer. Quite unlike anything I’d ever known in my 11 years. June, July and now August had hardly seen a spot of rain. At first it was fun, running around the garden like little savages in swimsuits, splashing about in paddling pools, turning a fierce shade of pink whose heat kept us awake at night.
Then the hosepipe ban came into force. The sun kept beating down. Grandad’s carefully tended lawns turned dry and yellow. The flowers in the herbaceous borders drooped like surrendering soldiers. The dank, green-tinged rainwater in the butt behind the shed was soon used up on the thirsty tomatoes.
With no hosepipe to frolic around with, we quickly tired of playing outside at our grandparents’ house whilst our parents were working. We’d read all our books, climbed all the trees, explored the woods at the back of garden (now parched and buzzing with insect life), and built as many play camps as we could with old bean sticks and blankets from the shed.
Biscuits had been baked, raspberries and green beans picked, peas shucked from their pods, tomatoes gathered from the tangy-sweet smelling greenhouse.
We had became blasé to the heat whose novelty was now quickly waning.
We were bored. And boredom is a dangerous thing in pre-teen sisters.
I wipe the grime from the heavy cloth and yank it down onto the floor. Mindful of grandad’s meticulous ways and half fearful he’s still watching me, I bend to fold it neatly and place it to one side.
The workbench sits there patiently, just it has for more than half a century, waiting to be useful. The vice is slightly ajar, ready to tighten its grip whenever needed. There is still a slick of ancient Vaseline on the thread of its screw to ward off the rust that dots the handle and the screws holding it in place. Faded numbers mark the inches along the length of the bench. A carpenter’s pencil, its broad flattened tip sharpened with a Stanley knife, nestles in one of the grooves.
I bend closer and breathe in. A faint but still powerful cocktail hits my nostrils - stale sawdust, the sweet tangy tobacco he rolled into five cigarettes per day (three for breaks and one after his midday and evening meals), the strangely plastic scent of the neon pink gel he used to clean heavy duty dirt from his hands. If I close my eyes, I can almost hear his calm countryman’s voice telling me the right way to hold the chisel.
The whirring squeeea of the circular saw stopped abruptly as our girlish voices rose to crescendo. The workroom door opened, and he stepped out, fixing us with a gaze that silenced us in an instant. It wasn’t his style to scold or shout at us. He didn’t need to. We knew he expected better of us.
“I think you two need to do something useful,” he said. “Why don’t you give me a hand in here?”
The card game we had been playing was deserted on the parched prickly lawn. We rushed to the doorstep and put on our shoes (no bare feet in the workroom) and joined him at the door. He smiled and led us over the threshold into the cool within.
The workbench was shoved to the side of the room. The floor around it littered with scrunched up newspapers and with spent dog ends. The circular saw and all sharp tools were banished, locked away, for safety’s sake. The workroom was locked. Hadn’t been opened for months.
Grandad was spending most of his time sitting in his armchair by now, staring into space. The twinkle in his eyes extinguished. His hands, unaccustomed to idleness, picking at the upholstery. When he got up to potter around the garden, someone had to go with him to be sure he didn’t wander off. We’d learned that lesson when he disappeared - only to be returned by the local bobby. Everyone knew the man who’d built so many village houses, and where he lived – even when he didn’t.
Lived. Past tense. He wasn’t living any more. Not the active, useful life which was the only way he knew. He was a moving shell housing the faintest whisper of the man he once was. Some days, he didn’t even remember his own name.
He didn’t know who Nana was. He knew she looked after him, and that he loved her. Assumed she was his mother.
Some days, he went outside to howl his rage and frustration at the heavens.
A stack of neatly cut lengths of timber lay on the floor. He handed a pencil to my sister and showed her how to measure and mark the pieces to the length against the inches on the workbench top. For me, a square block with sandpaper wrapped around it to smooth any splinters from the wood held tight in the vice’s grip.
Cutting the wood and handling sharp tools was his job. But he called us both over to watch him work, always making sure we kept a safe distance as he operated the saw and carefully carved out holes with a chisel. He was calm, methodical, benevolent. Nothing in his capable weathered hands or mischievous blue eyes to say girls had no place in the workroom. An Equal Opportunities grandfather.
Hours passed in contented industry. Measuring, sanding, sawing and carefully fitting together the pieces of the puzzle. When we were finished, two stools sat amid a pile of sweet-smelling shavings. We didn’t even whine when he handed us brooms and a dustpan to clear up the mess. Our fights were forgotten, and there were two new pieces of furniture for the play house built on top of what had been a bomb shelter in the dark days of war.
The last time I saw him was in the care home. Defeated and confused by his unfamiliar surroundings, he still had moments of lucidity. Those moments were the worst – a reminder that he knew what he had become but could do nothing to escape his internal prison cell.
He looked into my eyes – the same blue as my Mum’s and my Nana’s – and said “I know those eyes so well”.
I tried – and failed - to cheer him with talk about the plants in the surrounding gardens.
“They’re dying now, just like me,” he said. Then, after a heavy pause: “I want you to go and get my shotgun.”
I looked at him, unsure what to say. He sank back into the depths of himself and was lost again.
By Christmas Day, he was dead.
After a glass of lemon squash and slice of cake in the sunshine as Grandad smoked his fourth roll-up of the day, we returned to our work. He had laid newspapers under the stools. A sharp chemical smell filled the air as he opened a tin of varnish with the flick of his long-handled screwdriver.
We sat cross-legged on the ground in front of the stools, each holding a brush and listened obediently as he told us how to apply the varnish to the naked wood without leaving streaks or loose badger hairs.
We were very proud when we completed the task. Even more so when he tipped the stools to show us the underside of their seats. While we’d been finishing off the crumbs of Nana’s sponge cake, he had added a hidden inscription to each in bold letters: our names, the date and the honourary title ‘Apprentice Carpenter’.
I woke up in a cold sweat, shaking and in tears. Horrified and heartbroken at the betrayal my sub-conscious had committed.
It had started as a simple childhood memory of Nana and Grandad’s house. But like so often in dreams, the details were off. The road in front of the house was different. The layout of the house was skewed. The garden back-to-front.
The worst inaccuracy, the greatest betrayal, was Grandad. He wasn’t the gentle, patient, thoroughly decent man who’d played such an important role in our happy childhood. In my nightmare, he was a monster, harsh, sadistic, with vicious sharp teeth. We cowered in the corner of the shed, aghast and shaking with terror as we watched this monster grab the baby from the pram left in the garden next door and take off with an evil grin on its cruel, alien face.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
How could I have dreamed such a thing? What was wrong with me that my mind could defile his memory in such a way?
Now it’s time to banish that monster and exorcise the false ghosts. To reclaim my memories of a golden childhood denied to so many.
The house is being sold. The buyers have plans to modernise, so the workroom, play house and sheds will probably be bulldozed to make way for decking, bamboo curtains, water features and a barbecue pit.
I pull the workbench from its corner, brush the debris off and test if the handle on the vice still turns. It does. Good.
I take the pieces of wood I’ve brought with me, cut by hands more expert than mine, and set about sanding them down with the long, unhurried movements he had taught me. When they are as smooth as satin, I fit them together like a poor man’s Rubik’s cube and secure them with plates and screws.
Three coats of varnish, and it’s ready. A stool. Like the ones we made all those years ago.
It just needs one final touch.
I tip it over and write under the seat: “Artisan – then, now and always.”