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At last it’s all as it should be. After a lifetime’s effort I can dwell on the small steps that led to where I am today.
It was in the mid-sixties, when I married Claire, that my career began. When we bought an old house with cellars where I could organize my collections. At first it seemed easy. Metal tins of formula for our daughter Stella had neat snap-on lids. I saved them. Because I could never spoon the powder into the baby’s bottle without spillage, Claire said I wasted it on purpose to empty the tin. In reply, I stood on the tins I had saved to squash them and prove their lack of importance.
But other receptacles – glass jars, margarine tubs, cardboard tea-bag boxes – failed to satisfy. The chink or thud as the contents went in was unrewarding. The future seemed uncertain until, rooting around in my parents’ garage, I rediscovered the pleasant clatter of drill bits in a tin. Not wishing to imitate my father, that insular being, I had repressed this memory.
This tin, which I inherited, now has a place of honour on my bedside table. On the grey hinged lid pitted with wear is printed CHRONIC CATARRH pastilles in carmine letters, under a sun bearing the word Rayglo. Delicate grey-green rays emanate from this sun, from the top of which emerges a tiny joyful figure eating a pastille. Such a figure would in reality be half a million miles tall.
Possessing this tin was still far in the future, and I had my own drill bits to house. On a visit to France with Claire, five-year-old Stella, and the new baby Eric, fate smiled. In a shop in Angoulême, I acquired an elliptical tin of boiled sweets, illustrated with raspberries and the words Les FRAMBOISES de la VOSGIENNE in red, purple, and pink
Once home, I unpacked it excitedly. Disappointment. Too small for bits above three-sixteenths! (In those days I scorned metric.) I used it instead for pieces of a doll’s house chair I’d made for Stella in soldered wire, condemned by Claire because of sharp projections.
The following summer, on another trip to Europe, a real breakthrough. In a supermarket in Andorra, I obtained a flat chrome-yellow cigar tin. The hinged lid was labelled ORMOND junior, with the signature and portrait of Ormond. One September day I merged my scattered bit collections into this tin. It was the afternoon Stella was rushed to hospital. A swing in the recreation ground had struck her on the temple. Through the gash I saw bone. Claire rode in the ambulance, leaving me with Eric. While my son played with rusty washers and a magnet, I emptied my twist bits out of an old custard carton. Oak shavings fell out (They were from a rail of coat hooks I put up when Claire was pregnant with Stella.) I tipped out the masonry bits from a cracked willow pattern cereal bowl. Blue-black twist bits and grey masonry bits now lay together. A moment’s hesitation – should the two categories stay apart? I decided I must merge them to ensure Stella recovered. If I kept them apart . . .
Another item from Andorra was a large bottle of liqueur titled ANIS DEL MONO, soon emptied once Claire and I came home to our bank statement (Despite repeated discussions we failed to agree who caused the huge overdraft.) I used the bottle for diluting concentrated windscreen wash. In high summer, as the cellar window and its cobwebs blazed with light, I mixed in the proportion one to ten. Sometimes in winter, sun from a clear sky struck through at a low angle, illuminating fallen lumps of plaster, and I mixed at one to five.
The label portrayed the eponymous mono (monkey) improbably dressed in waistcoat and trousers in tones of blue, brown, and orange. A legend read, Es el major – yo lo digo y yo no miento (It’s the best – I say it and I don’t lie), no doubt a statement by the monkey himself. One sunny morning, when I topped up the screen wash before setting off for work, my hand still smarted from striking the kitchen table to make a point. As I poured the gurgling liquid, very blue against the white plastic of the reservoir, Claire’s accusation still rang in my ears. She said I deceived her about money.
A third Andorran item was an olive-oil tin, CARBONELL (prizes in Saragossa, Cordoba, and St. Louis, Missouri). It bore a picture of a girl in a red shawl, camellias in her hair, sitting on the wall of an olive grove, smiling and raising slim bare arms to pull down an olive branch. Beside her on the wall was an olive-oil tin with exactly the same picture. Although hard to see, the tin in this picture no doubt bore a miniature of itself.
I remember when the tin was emptied. Claire and I threw a fancy dress party, and the last of the oil went into a salad. Our friend Neal, as a priest, and his wife Kath, as a high-wire act, were last to leave. Neal was drunk and made remarks such as, “Life is . . . life.” Claire, as Cleopatra, also drunk, leaned on him laughing and said, “I have a confession, Father. I went with you twice tonight behind the garden shed.”
Kath seemed not to mind. She fixed me with a look. “Well?” she asked, sprawled in her gold leotard, knees fifteen inches apart. I looked from her green spangled thighs to Claire’s breasts, flushed under white cotton, nipples erect. From Kath’s wide smile to Claire’s. With a turgid mixture of emotions – confusion, anger, despair, but mainly a desire for clarity – I went to bed, still in my clown suit.
Next day I demolished the garden shed and burned the timber. Then in the cellar, with a small disc attached to my craft tool, I cut the top off the oil tin. I heard Claire’s footsteps overhead. My father had given me a cardboard box of augur bits up to one inch in diameter. I tipped them into the oil tin with a satisfying clunk.
My mid-career triumph was my screw box, the kind joiners carry, remarkable less for its construction that its materials. A warehouse by the harbour was crammed with timber salvaged from many lands. Two curved ribs twice my height, in amber aromatic wood, could have come from some Barbary pirate ship. My choice fell on an old soap box, which I used for the ends of my project. In curved tapering Roman letters, the long-serif kind common in the nineteen-twenties, LIGHT SOAP LTD. graced one end, UNLIGHT SO the other. For the sides I used offcuts of half-inch plywood. One bore the logo WELDWOOD R1, the other:
The handle was a length of roughly rounded timber from one of a pair of stilts I had made for Stella and Eric.
I needed a screw box to help Stella with her house. I took to buying screws in boxes of two hundred from builders’ merchants, more economical than in dozens from Henry Fulljames. But I missed the creosote and fish-glue smell of Fulljames’ and the way the sun picked out footprints in the film of sawdust. The house was in an unfashionable quarter frequented by women of ill repute and their clients, mostly sailors. It proved to have dry rot. Stella, heavily pregnant, deserted by two friends who were to share the purchase, sat in a bedroom armchair watching me under the roof. I crawled up and down the ceiling joists, almost in tears with frustration, uncertain what to do. In the kitchen, Claire was also near tears, Stella reported, as cleaning fluid on the cracked vinyl disappeared through holes in the floorboards.
I have a clear memory of my screw box perched on a wall plate in front of a roof light, with a background of distant cranes, masts, and oily water.
My late period might be called minimalist. When in the seventies I bought Claire a sewing workbox in the market, I little suspected it would be the vehicle for my final revelation. The box is thirteen inches by nine, overall height five inches. A step in the inner lining once supported a plywood tray. The hinged lid, rounded front and back, had (yes, had) a lozenge-shaped inlay in mother-of-pearl. At first I thought the box was solid oak, but when the corners chipped, the oak was revealed as veneer on softwood.
By the early nineties, both lid and tray were lost. As Neal, now a widower, would have no room for it in the flat in Roquetas de Mar, Claire left it when she joined him. I cleared it of half-used cotton reels and button cards and emptied fluff and stray threads onto the lavender in the garden. Next, a thorough brushing. A new container! In a sudden burst of energy, I reassessed my collections.
CHRONIC CATARRH held blunted jigsaw blades. I ditched them and now use that tin for my extensive range of pills. Les FRAMBOISES de la VOSGIENNE was dented, and the lid rusted on. I flattened it and its contents with a lump hammer. CARBONELL still held augur bits, worn from three lifetimes of making holes. My carpenter’s brace had been stolen, and I had no desire for another. I gave the bits to a bric-à-brac shop and recycled CARBONELL along with ANIS DEL MONO.
ORMOND junior now held various collections, some extensive, some embryonic. Besides drill bits, they included wall plugs, a dead wasp, and a glass bead of my mother’s. I looked at them and at the empty workbox with its smooth, almost silken, lining. In a simple playful gesture I emptied ORMOND junior into it and placed the tin to be recycled.
Still unsure what I was doing, I roamed the cellar unearthing lost collections. Vine eyes and netting brackets reposed in a clear plastic box that once, at some family Christmas, held chocolate coins (I remembered Stella in a new green dress, little palms chocolate-smeared.) Nails and bolts from the demolished shed filled a jar which once held Devon honey, from the holiday where Mother and Eric caught a grasshopper. Springs from old garden chairs hid among wood shavings in mugs that lost handles when Claire (or maybe I) threw them at the wall.
There remained only the great screw collection, diminished by use and loans to neighbours and friends. By this time, the screw box was green. My grandson Mel, before going with Stella to live in Hungary, had insisted I paint it (WELDWOOD bled through.) I wondered whether to give it to Eric. But Eric’s problems leave him no interest in making things.
The screw collection was still in some kind of order. Mostly in sagging cardboard boxes distinguished by labels such as Twinthreads 10 x 2 BZP. Some kind of order? What kind? Distinguished? By what distinctions? I stood in my cellar with its ancient mushroom smell, surrounded by long shelves, cobwebs, broken orange boxes, and rusty skeletons of strange artifacts, and weighed these questions.
The sun neither beat on the small square window nor struck through onto the floor. It was night. No moon. Suddenly I saw that the order I had sought was illusory, all distinctions false. With sudden vigour, I seized a hatchet from the wall and smashed the green screw box to bits. In a rattling shower, I tipped the screws into my new container, freed from their faded mouse-chewed cardboard. There on top of the bits, the plugs, the wasp, the bead, lay cheeseheads, roundheads, self-tapping, countersunk . . . stiff, silver-grey, or bronze-coloured, jumbled against the flaking white lining, pointing in every direction.
I had reduced everything to one statement.
It was a new kind of order.