Mender and Maker
I’m not sure I ever explained properly to you about how I earned my living as a mender and maker. I used to be asked to mend every kind of thing you can imagine and, having been both a sculptor and art school technician, I found I could do a surprising amount of what was asked of me.
It began by chance, because a school friend married a man who ran a little auction house and dealt in old furniture. She had seen a chair I’d restored for another friend and the carved walking stick handles I was making then and told her husband, who started giving me work mending and re-upholstering items he picked up cheap. Word got around slowly and it went on from there. I’ve done everything from remedial taxidermy, through delicate welding jobs on jewellery, to restoring genuine antiques. In lean times, I’ve also decorated houses and fed, exercised and otherwise attended to people’s dependents: elderly relatives, children, dogs, cats, hens, and horses.
My workshop was in a converted byre at the Reed Estate home farm. I leased it, like my little cottage, for a peppercorn rent, but with it came various conditions. I helped Lizzy, Mrs. Oliver and Sarah juggle the various demands in their lives, including helping to maintain and repair the home farm buildings. This arrangement was made considerably easier and more practical by the fact that the workshop was within shouting distance of their back door.The workshop, with its white walls, cool north light and, when it warmed up, rich mix of subtle and not so subtle smells, was my sanctum. It required me to keep it tidy (unlike my cottage), and to respect its tools and various materials. There was a ‘clean’ mending room, dominated by my big worktable, a little area off it with a tiny fridge and a Baby Belling that heated size, glue or soup. A long second room held a saw bench, plainer, lathe (all acquired second-hand) and a woodworking bench and repair area for delicate stuff like jewellery, the one divided from the other by thick transparent polythene curtains. A loft space ran the whole length of the roof, with the small ‘making room’ tucked away at the back under a skylight. The rest was taken up by a tiny office and the small ‘strong-room’ required by the insurance company, all accessed by wooden stairs.
I used to think that if I went blind I would be able to read my post-London working life from the surface of that worktable; every dent and score-mark a story. The network of little cut lines down the ‘paper end’ from back when I first started and hadn’t yet bought a proper scoring mat. The smooth irregular area of glass-like surface, slightly raised, the consequence of a particularly resinous glue leaking from a damaged container over a long weekend. The deep dent from where Barbara Crozier and I somehow managing to drop her little kiln after I’d so painstakingly welded back some broken elements. (We’d been laughing too much about something she’d said about a neighbour). And the surface of the table itself, smooth but for the raised knots, whorls and eddies of its convoluted grain, each plank with a history all its own. I made that table myself, helped by Willie Southgate, a local joiner now long dead. We got the heavy pitch pine from a yard he knew that was selling reclaimed timber – mostly pitch pine – taken from demolished Liverpool warehouses.
Willie helped me tongue and groove, smooth, and then fit each two-and-a-half- inch plank snuggly into its neighbour. But despite their metamorphosis from rough flooring to glowing plank, some still carried deep reddish discolorations from their previous existence. Before that the pitch pine would have found its way across the Atlantic from the northeastern United States, where the tree has a reputation for being able to survive in very poor conditions.
When I get depressed, which happens more frequently now, I go up in my mind to my little making room and spend some time sorting wood, just as I used to do. I had a collection of small off-cuts picked up from timber yards, along with bits and pieces salvaged from broken furniture. There were pieces ofmahogany, walnut, oak, yew, elm, ash, cherry, pear, pine, maple, ash, birch, rosewood,hazel, and holly, some in ‘raw’ form and some in the form of a section, say, of an old chair leg. I kept these along with lengths of blackthorn I’ve been cutting locally for years now, ever since I went on a course on how to make traditional walking sticks. Handling all these, with their variety of grain, weight, and colour, if only in imagination, never fails to lift my spirits.
There was another aspect to my workshop, which had to do with my relationship with clients. Most of the people who came there, whether bringing or collecting things, were women (although often bringing something on their husbands’ behalf).
I had a nice old leather armchair, acquired as part-payment from a client who went bust, that sat between my wood-burning stove and the little space with its kettle, various teas, coffee
percolator and biscuit tin. Its broad well-worn arms provided an inviting perch and, for those brave enough to descend into its depths, an enfolding embrace. I often needed to finish a task in hand when someone arrived and, if that was the case, asked them to make themselves tea or coffee, take a biscuit, and sit awhile.
When we were ready to do business, they would be relaxed and, if I could do something on the spot, were happy to sit and talk while I did the job. Through Lizzy’s interest in local history I’d picked up enough knowledge to ask the right questions about their family or work. After that they just kept themselves amused by talking to me. Since most people like talking about themselves, I learned a lot, often things I couldn’t believe they were telling me. (Obviously, I was careful never to repeat anything they said.) For a long while I wondered why it was that they felt able to speak to me so freely about personal matters.
Abandoned picnic area at the site of the battle of Otterburn.
Some of it was simply that I’m a pretty good listener and, because I’d be working and not appearing to be paying too much attention, they felt free to be more open. But I think it’s also more fundamentally because, for them, I existed as a function rather than as a person. I was an artisan and a woman with no husband, lover, children, or family in the region. I had no social influence and owned no property, land or animals. I simply didn’t register in terms of their basic social coordinates. Lizzy goes to church, takes her place on the committee for the Annual Show, navigates Sarah through the Byzantine politics of sleepover invitations and Pony Club events, while I have no part in all that. I imagine old family servants probably found themselves in much the same situation. That is, their employers felt free to say whatever they liked in front of them because they saw them as functionaries, not as persons like themselves.
Fifteenth birthday party
We had the party at the beginning of the summer holiday, well after my actual birthday, and at Homehaugh because our cottage was far too small. Dad had given me a beautiful deep blue tunic dress, short and embroidered with little dark red flowers around the neck and hem, something that Kate and I saw in a magazine and I had hankered after for months. I wore that and, because Kate had persuaded Dad to relent on his usual make-up rule, enough discrete eye-liner and lipstick to feel almost sophisticated. James brought lots of records and acted as our DJ. We rolled back the carpet in the front room so we could dance, and Hamish, usually so reserved in company, claimed the first dance with me.
Hamish and I had circled each other as sexual beings for a while. Although I was still trying to work out what had changed in how I felt about him, in addition to talking we’d now done a little tentative handholding and even kissed a couple of times. I had been unnerved by how my body responded but hadn’t talked to any of the girls about it in case they teased me. Hamish seemed to sense my uncertainty and had recently been rather wary of me. However, he clearly saw my party as an opportunity to change things. He not only asked me to dance straight away but then insisted on partnering me all evening. I was a little surprised but happy at his insistance.
During the first slow record,he began very tentatively nuzzling my neck, which I found odd but exciting.No doubt emboldened by my making no protest, he was giving me proper kisses by the third slow dance and, by the fourth or fifth, we were experimenting with tongues. I had neither the wish or the will to resist this new, passionate Hamish, who had now guided me down the darker end of the room. In what seemed no time at all his left hand finished its migration down my back and arrived on my bum. At around this point Mrs. Oliver, who kept coming into the room to keep an eye on things, turned the lights up and suggested to James that he play more ’lively’ music. (We weren’t the only ones who’d migrated to the dark end of the room). Hamish then suggested we get something to drink and I followed him out of the front room and turned right but, instead of going on down the corridor to the kitchen, he took my arm and quickly led me up the little back stairs to the dark landing above.
I was more excited than nervous but, remembering Kate’s stories, managed to be firm when he tried to put his hand inside my knickers. To my surprise he seemed relieved. But while I found it easily to control Hamish, I struggled with my own desire and was almost glad when, some minutes later, I heard my dad’s voice saying he’d come to collect me. I tidied my clothes, slipped down to get my coat, and said my goodbyes and thank-yous. Hamish, meanwhile, vanished along the upstairs corridor.
But what most stays in my memory from that year, far more vividly than my party evening, is the Friday evening six weeks later when we got caught drinking by two police officers, initiating the disastrous consequences of what we’d come to call ‘the Judgement’.
One immediate, if ultimately minor, consequence of the Judgement was that it caused real confusion between Hamish and me. After the party I had told anyone who would listen that Hamish was now my boyfrind. But in practice even meeting up became a real challenge after we got caught drinking. I had told girls at school how much I enjoyed kissing and cuddling with Hamish, not least because that was expected of me. But the deeper need, inscutable to me then, was not strictly sexual at all. It had to do with being the focus for Hamish’s intellectual enthusiasm, being what he’d once shyly called ‘his muse’. I certainly enjoyed the physical stuff and being the object of his affection, but behind that there was the business of shared imaginings, that quite other aspect of our relationship. Part of the confusion came from my awareness that our kissing and hugging involved a degree of self-deception on my part. I did enjoyed it, but I also insisted to myself that I must keep Hamish in check or he’d push me into doing something I’d regret. In truth, and from our few minutes on the landing at Homehaugh onwards, I was secretly far more worried about my own desire than his. When a school friend asked if I’d ‘do it’ with Hamish I said: ‘no, or at least not until I’m absolutely sure he loves me.’
But I knew perfectly well this expected response was stupid. I wasn’t really sure where love came into it. I certainly enjoyed basking in Hamish’s attention and desire; I probably enjoyed anticipating my own desire’s satisfaction without any of the complications that might follow if that should actually happened. I couldn’t, of course, have talked about any of this with Hamish. Sex, although it haunted our every moment together after the party, remained quite literally unspeakable. We both knew that local convention dictated I had only to say the word and he’d find a way to get hold of condoms but, like most of my peers, I said nothing. Nor did he press me, although he was certainly passionate enough within the limits I’d set him.
The reason we’d become close in the first place had to do with the shared vulnerabilities of our interior worlds, a mutual revelation that had felt extremely intimate. His confessions in that respect deepened my admiration of his love of poems and poets, of a vocabulary – words like ‘soul’ and ‘angelic’ – we would never have dreamed of using in public. For his voracious appetite for reading as an almost spiritual passion, something that corresponded obscurely with my first intimations of wanting to be an artist. My confessions, he told me in a hushed and stumbling voice, had given him hope of finding someone to share his secret life with, a soul-mate, spiritual fellow-traveller, muse. He even referred to me shyly as ‘a sort of guardian angel’. I, of course, lapped all this up, wholly unaware of the consequences of being placed on such a high pedestal.
I did not know then that traditionally both souls and angels are sexless. Had I done so I might perhaps have saved myself a certain amount of trouble and unhappiness, although I rather doubt it would have made any difference. We were caught between two conflicting desires, between the needs of body and mind, in a way we could not possibly have understood at that age. Between our budding physical desires and an obscure need for what we’d internalized as something ‘higher’ and ‘purer’, an elevated life of the creative mind. A tension that, briefly but memorably, lit up everything around me and made being the focus of Hamish’s attention somehow vital to my emerging and very vulnerable sense of the artist I hoped to become.
All of this became increasingly irrelevant when, after we were all caught drinking, his father explicitly forbade Hamish from having anything further to do with any of us. This made communication between us increasingly difficult. I quickly came to see less of him and feared he would soon find another muse. To try to prevent that happening I contrived a secret meeting between us, despite almost insuperable difficulties. But two days after we met he sent me a note saying that he’s decided we must stop seeing each other. He added, almost as an afterthought, that he now knew he wanted to follow his father into the church. At first I thought I was heartbroken, then I felt humiliated, something which quickly turned to plain anger. However, my preoccupation with Hamish was soon overshadowed by other, less personal, issues.
Dad had not been entirely well for some time before the Judgement, although he consistently denied that there was anything wrong with him. It didn’t help that the practice had been slowly falling off, the inevitable result of greater competition in the region. This meant that I needed to do more to help at home, as well as focus on school as part of the process of getting myself to art college. Despite Dad’s half-hearted protests, I also took a Saturday job at the Co-op to help pay for my keep. When I did get offered a Foundation place at Newcastle I lost my nerve, deferred for a year, and then spend it doing the practice’s paperwork, cooking, general housekeeping, and worrying about his health which, fortunately, did begin to improve. During the three years between Hamish dumping me and my going away to London, I stopped going to church and, in consequence, I don’t think we exchanged more than a dozen sentences together. We simply chose to politely ignore each other. It was horrible but, despite feeling increasingly abandoned and lost, I passed my Foundation year and was offered an interview at Chelsea School of Art.
One Friday evening
On a beautiful clear Friday evening, a couple of local police officers took the little road above the village on their way back from a half-day training session. They stopped for a leg-stretch and a cigarette and heard voices arguing in the little plantation below the road. Given the place and time of day, they sauntered down to investigate. That’s how seven of us were caught arguing heatedly with Maggie Hunter, who supplied us with booze, along with her two brothers, Charlie and Eric, who had come along in the hope of cadging a beer. We were drinking lager and, apart from Lizzy and Peter, were under age. We were arguing with the Hunters because James, who had the money we owed Maggie, had not turned up. Neither had Kate.
The two policemen were local. The more senior of the two was a strict Methodist and knew our approximate ages. We were asked for our parents’ phone numbers, the lager was confiscated, and we were sent home.
For years I believed our being caught drinking was the cause of the Judgement. I was almost entirely wrong.
One of the policemen rang Mr. Oliver, who was working late at his office, within half an hour of leaving us. Mr. Oliver rang his wife and, when Lizzy got home, she was sent straight to her bedroom to wait for him. Shortly after Lizzy got to her room Kate crept silently across the corridor, swore her sister to absolute secrecy and, uncharacteristically tearful and frightened, told her what had happened.
Mrs Oliver had been out but returned home earlier than planned due to a confusion over an appointment. She went to her bedroom to change her shoes and, as she did so, heard sounds in what should have been the empty attic room directly above. She went up the back stairs in her stockinged feet and pushed open the attic room door. On the small bed in the corner she saw James and Kate having vigorous sex. She told them to get dressed. As they did so, she noticed James try to push a large fishing bag that had been partly hidden by his clothes under the bed. This turned out to contain a miniature bottle of vodka, two six packs of lager, and an estate wages envelope containing the money we owed Maggie. Telling James to stay in the attic, she took Kate downstairs and demanded to know how long this had been going on. Thrown by her mother’s uncharacteristic anger, Kate finally admitted that they’d been having sex all that holiday, either in the old hayloft or, when nobody was around, in the little attic room. Mrs. Oliver then questioned James about the contents of the bag. He told her the alcohol was for our gathering that evening and the money to pay for it. Mrs. Oliver then rang his mother, who immediately drove over. After further interogation about contraception and the guest list for the drinking party, followed by a private discussion between themselves, the two mothers issued very clear instructions that had nothing to do with morality and everything with damage limitation.
Jamie was driven home and Kate banished to her room. The two mothers quite reasonably assumed that, since James would not now arrive with the alcohol, we would abandon our intended party and drift back to our homes with no harm done. But Michael happened to have been given a six pack of lager in return for a favour by a school friend. It was this that we’d started on to placate Maggie and her brothers while waiting for James.
Mr Oliver returned home incensed by the call from the police. He summonsed his daughters, telling Kate to wait while he interogated Lizzy. For ten minutes he made it abundently clear how angry and disappointed he was at her irresponsibility, then sent her to her room. Despite her resentment at being blamed for everything, Lizzy had quickly sensed her father was more worried about Kate’s absence from the drinking party than her being there. What Lizzy did not know was that Kate had recently been in serious trouble for playing truant from school and had come within a hair’s breadth of being expelled.
Kate told her father exactly what her mother had instructed her to say: that she’d not joined us because she’d been been unwell. He questioned her at length but she stuck tearfully to her story. Mr. Oliver, having discussed the whole matter with his wife, then told Lizzy he’d decide on her punishment next day.
‘Our drinking den, seemingly still being used (2001).’
Years later Lizzy heard from Peter what happened between the twins and their father. Sir William questioned them together. Peter confirmed what the police had said, while James gave the story agreed with his mother. This proved disastrous because Sir William knew something that his wife did not; something that James, in his confusion, had entirely forgotten to tell his mother. After lunch Sir William, hearing James say he might go into the village later, had casually asked him to deliver a small package to the doctor’s house. James had agreed and delivered the package on his way to pick up our alcohol, which Maggie always left in the old stable-block nettie. He then met Kate as planned. But James stuck to the agreed story that after lunch his mother had caught him reading comics instead of revising as he’d promised to do and had grounded him for the rest of the day. This didn’t tally with what Sir William knew, since he’d received a discreet phone that told him the small package had been delivered. So James was clearly lying. Reminded of the delivery, James clumsily tried to modify his story. At which point Sir William sent Peter to bed and called his wife. He must then have arrived at a more accurate version of the afternoon’s events. Peter could hear the row going on from his room, although not its content.
Early next morning Sir William went to Homehaugh and confronted Mr. Oliver on his own doorstep. Mr.Oliver was still in his dressing gown when he opened the front door, while Sir William was in tweed three-piece suit and old school tie. He proceeded to make it abundantly clear what he thought of Kate’s seduction of James and of Lizzy organizing a ‘drinking den’. Mrs. Oliver, still upstairs in bed, could heard every word. Sir William then announced that the twins were now expressly forbidden from any further contact with the Oliver family. From this confrontation a sequence of events unfolded that had very serious consequences for a great many people.
Lizzy believes that Mr. Oliver, a proud man now seriously wrong-footed by someone he heartily disliked, simply lost all his usual calm, somehow convincing himself that James had in fact seduced Kate and that, in consequence, Sir William’s behaviour in confronting him on his own doorstep was a gross insult to both his daughter and himself. We both knew this explanation didn’t really fit with her father’s character, but it was all she could come up with. To the best of her knowledge her father never asked why Kate and his wife had lied to him. It may be, however, that the knowledge that they had done so helped explain why he completely ignored everything they and Lizzy said on the matter. That included their pleas that he let the whole affair rest. A bitter feud then began between the two men that, in time, would effectively shatter not only the world we had grown up in but the assumption of continuity taken for granted by the local community.