My friend, Terry Gatfield, lives with his wife, Rosemary, in a lovely bushland setting in Brisbane. Some members of their family live on adjacent blocks, so there is a lot of day to day involvement with their grandchildren. Terry is a Third Order Franciscan and he and Rosemary are involved in an Anglican church.
Terry is self taught in many areas including building and in recent times he has built the most beautiful little hermitage which is surrounded by bush and available on a day basis for prayer and solitude. Terry has retired from teaching marketing both in Australia and overseas.
Terry is a most creative writer, especially of short stories, though always claims he writes for an audience of one. His writing friends, light heartedly known as the Holy Scribblers, are always encouraging him to publish his writing. Two of his short stories are included below.
Birmingham – Shop 43
This story is a little biographical but with a lot of extrapolated liberty. It was written in 2004 whilst I was staying in Macau teaching at a Portuguese university. When I wrote the story I had no idea where it was taking me. This is one of the most exciting parts of creative writing, to be able to let go and allow the soul to take over while exploring distant places beyond the constraints and boundaries of the natural mind and the logic of the immediate. When this happens, and for me a rare occasion, it is a beautiful, celestial experience. However, it can also be the bringer of a painful interior journey where self-realisation brings its pain and discomforts. This story is one of those personal, latter experiences.
Some time back I spent a number of years in Birmingham, England. It is an old run-down city which is famous in times past for its light and heavy engineering, gold smithing and skilled craftsmanship. It is a city with deep roots in the industrial revolution and one that is unable to change quickly or with the seasons. It bears the marks of one gutted by the incendiaries of the Luftwaffe in the 40’s, the disastrous labour party social policies of the 60’s, the destructive Thatcherite denationalisation, the economic rationalist programs of the 80’s, as well as the devastating free-market policies, red in tooth and claw, of the 90’s. However, remnants of a bygone age remain. The occasional smoke-black engineering company stands firm and the odd steam-factory whistle can be heard while the canals, gasometers and the odd craftsman and artisan continue to survive the ravages of time. A city gutted of its soul but a city I came to love, enjoy and be proud to have called my home, even for a brief period of time.
Close to my home, and on route to my work every morning, I would walk past a row of old, large shops nestled at the end of a dark and dank alleyway, most of them derelict and long since closed, with offensive, cheap, plywood sheets nailed across the windows and doors. The ply acted as a target for graffiti artists, displaying grotesquely-drawn artworks of the male and female anatomy and carrying sexually inappropriate slogans. But one of the shops remained defiant. It stayed un-boarded and emerged, as if from the pages of a Dickens’ novel. The dark, faded paint over the shop’s entrance introduced me to Jackobson and Sons. It had a number underneath its sign which ended in ‘43 but time and the cold, damp Birmingham weather had eroded the history and the balance of the numeric. It could have been 1743, or 1843, but possibly it may have been the street number. Outside hung the remains of an old, broken, defunct gas lamp its life abruptly truncated by the bricks of vandals.
On my morning walk to work I would occasionally peer into the small dark window of what I affectionately called, “Shop 43”. There, squinting, I would visually encounter an old, bearded, timeworn craftsman with simple hand tools stripping and rebuilding time-forgotten furniture. For fear of being caught out as a voyeur, or accused of being an intruder, I would spend only a handful of seconds in trying to unravel the mystery of the stories I had created and accumulating in my mind, stories that got thicker and deeper over many months.
On this particular chilly winter morning I was a little earlier than usual going to work but it did not allay my inquisitiveness. It was difficult to see into the shop as no lights were on the inside and I could only see some faint shadowy hints created from the fading watts of the nearby dimly-lit street lamp. With my face pushed firmly against the wavy small pane of Victorian glass at the doorway my heart froze. A big cold hand wrapped itself round the back of my neck. With the ensuing adrenalin rush my reflexes spun me around. It was the white-bearded craftsman piercing me with his dark brown eyes buried deep in his thick bushy eyebrows. In a rich Jewish accent he said slowly, reverently and softly, “Oh I am sorry to startle you, my name is Isaac Jacobson. I have often seen you in the mornings looking into my workshop. You obviously have a great interest in my craft. If you have time you are most welcome to come in and have a cup of tea and to see what I do.”
It was just as well that I left early for work that morning. I stayed for what seemed a far-too-long time. The gentle gracious man unfolded his 50 years of experience, repackaged into a brief couple of hours. The dark-timber-stained rustic floors of his workshop had cavernous gaps and the fading and peeling paint on the walls was etched with time in a distant past. The ozone was saturated with a pungent odour of resin, old books and decaying leather. Yet, from the fabric of the workshop the spirit of love, care, craftsmanship and passion oozed from every crack and crevice. This was no ordinary room but one created over aeons of time, richly embroidered with patience and love.
Isaac took me verbally and visually on a journey of furniture restoration. In his deep, rich, mesmerising voice with its accentuated foreignness he explained while at the same time demonstrating that it mattered little what the item of furniture looked like on the outside. Underneath all the years of grime, paint and varnish there was the certainty of discovering fine oak, mahogany, walnut, beech or cedar. It was always an exciting discovery. It mattered little to him if there were cracks, gaps or parts missing. All these things could be made good. But first it was necessary to carefully remove all the countless years of dirt, paint and accumulated materials on the surface. This had to be done gently but firmly with very sharp scrapers to remove the top surface without damaging the timber underneath. It was so important always to work with the natural grain and never to rush the process. Sometimes it was necessary to use harsh chemicals to remove some of the material but this had to be undertaken very gently. But not all was to be removed. The witnesses of history had to remain in the fabric, whether in the form of faint scars, small stains or patterned scratches. Every item had its own story to tell and it should not be destroyed but respected and given due honour. The furniture had to be embraced and respected as living history. It too had a soul.
Often there were deep surface marks, damaged corners or cracks to repair. These had to be filled with suitable natural materials so they became virtually invisible and indistinguish-able from the parent. Sometimes the furniture had to be re-dowelled, glued or re-screwed to return it to its original strength and posture. Often the timber had to be gently re-stained, not to cover or destroy its natural colour but to soften the harm done by the sun’s bleaching and water damage. The re-staining was for enrichment and enhancement, calling for a craftsman’s discernment and care.
Once the natural beauty of the original timber had been rediscovered and enhanced the timber had to be sealed and enriched with shellac, applied with a soft, sable, longhaired brush. Between the coats of shellac the long, gentle process of hand rubbing of the timber was applied with finer and finer grades of glass paper till eventually it kissed and caressing the wood with very fine, soft, wire wool. Sometimes 15 to 20 coats of shellac would be required, taking much time and patience to apply with the applications always moving empathetically and lovingly along the grain. Every coat was hand rubbed. The process was very slow and painstaking and not complete until every piece of the timber yielded its own original character. Finally, the surface had to be enriched with a natural bees wax polish, layer upon layer until it was possible to see deep down into the natural heart of the timber where the grain, colour and texture echoed its God-made beauty. The process was not complete until the craftsman could see his own reflection in the timber, as if in a dark mirror, seeking never to achieve a high gloss.
My brief apprenticeship with the master artist was a baptism of wonder and emersion in another world, now time lost. I left the workshop and ventured into the cold morning as the snow was gently falling. The shrill call of a local factory whistle pierced the air with a jet of hot steam remaining in its wake. I turned up the collar of my long coat and thought long and hard about my own life.
I left Birmingham shortly after that and did not reconnect for a number of years. I returned to the place of Shop ’43, but alas, not only that shop had disappeared but all the others at the end of the dark, dank, cold alleyway had likewise evaporated. Yet the memory of that moment hasn’t.
After this story was penned I sought answers to the larger question, “What was the story all about’? The answer was not slow in emerging – the writer was found not to be the passive objective independent observer but the broken, stained and damage furniture being re-crafted. The process continues.
The Horologist of Dunboe Place
Life is intricately, wonderfully, gloriously and inter-relationally connected. Alas, we so often focus on the particular and not on life’s holism and interconnectedness. Things that happen today, or even yesterday, reverberate into the future. This little narrative may provide a stimulus to aid our thinking towards appreciating that dimension.
The aged grey-haired horologist was an interesting and colourful man who lived in a quaint village close by the timeless River Thames about 20 miles from London. It is one of those villages where history courses deep through the veins of the villagers who are the honoured descendents of medieval Englanders. The architecture reflects their history in the wonderful mêlée of Elizabethan, Victorian, Regency, Edwardian and Georgian splendour. On the fringe of the village is Dunboe Place and although the architecture was not truly Georgian it had been created in the authentically grand design of that period with clean sharp but gracious lines melding with soft gentle curves. Dunboe Place was a small estate nestled reclusively amongst surrounding trees and tidy green gardens.
This was the home and workplace of the Horologist which fits snugly within the hamlet. It was fortunate that he domiciled at the end of six terrace dwellings as it was at times a cacophony of sound, especially on the hour. His ever-expanding family of clocks would combine their voices each hour, some chiming, others striking some even cuckooing. Now, no hand-crafted timepiece was ever that accurate, not even Big Ben which still needs to be adjusted a tad from year to year. Thus, the mechanical choir would be eager to start their performance, some a few minutes before the hour and other little laggards a few minutes after. So the chorus’s voice was sometimes long, out of sync and guaranteed to be out of harmony every hour and even on the half hour by some. Fortunately, the dear lady Joan who lived next door was as deaf as a post. Of course the other side of the Horologist’s house was filled with clean pure air which joyfully soaked up the sound like a sponge.
The second advantage of being at the end of the terrace was that it provided the Horologist with northern light. He loved the northern light as it was soft and provided long daylight that eliminated the long hard shadows of the summer evenings. The soft light was a special blessing as he preferred to work in natural light which avoided an incandescent glare materialising on the lens of his watchmaker’s glass. This glass, in fact, appeared to be glued permanently to his right eye like a sort of monocle. In the uncurtained bow-fronted window stood his thick high-set oak workbench which not only provided good illumination but gave him an effective 180 degree view of the Dunboe estate. This served not only him but others on the estate. Daily greetings by all the neighbours and passers-by were a seven day a week event that was usually shared in silence. But it took very little time to learn the art and skill of lip-reading and of shared body language. Just about everyone knew the Horologist and that included the school children.
A Boys School was situated close by and it was not a usual occurrence for a group of larrikins to come home by way of Dunboe Place at 3:30 in the afternoon. They would stop at the bay window to pull faces and waggle their tongues at the Horologist to get his attention. He would clench his right hand fist and wave it above his head and fiercely, though fun-filled, pull an angry face to show his large tea-stained molars while screaming, “Bugger off, ya blightas or I’ll set me big dog’s teeth on ya’s”. He never did own a big dog but on that command the kids would ritually scatter to all points of the compass in some sort of joyful way which you can only do when you are young. It was a harmless game which he enjoyed as much as they. But there came a Wednesday afternoon that was different
This particular spring afternoon after the game had been played all the boys scattered except one who was new to the group of scallywags. He stood there mesmerised with his eyes glued unblinking on a carriage-clock held softly in the Horologist’s palm. Time froze. After some long silent minutes the short well-dressed boy’s eyes moved to the Horologist’s. They questioned each other. Without a sound the Horologist beckoned him with his right-hand index finger to come in. The boy pointed to his chest and moving his lips without a sound said, “Who, me?” The Horologist replied again without a sound, “Yes, you!”, and he indicated the door. The boy hesitated at first and then slowly turned, walked to the heavy-oak front entrance and entered as if in some type of trance.
The boy stood in the middle of the room and seemed rather perplexed, his eyes scattering randomly across the huge collection of clocks on the shelves, the bench, the side table and those hanging ceremoniously on the walls. The sound of the clocks ticking and chuckling amongst themselves was fascinating. It was a sound he had never heard before in his life. The Horologist stayed silent. The boy spoke first with an air of mystery whilst his eyes continued to weave all over the room. “Are all these clocks yours?” “Well, most though not all. But they are not clocks. They are my children, family, my teachers and friends.” The boy, still standing in a mesmerised state retorted, “What do you mean?” “You see,” replied the Horologist, “they all have personalities and souls. Many think they are just simple mechanical things. But no. If you take care you will discover from them all you need to know about life, the soul and psychology. But you must understand them well to get them to impart their secrets. They all have them, you know, and every one is unique and very, very special.”
The boy continued to feast his gaze on the newfound wonder but it was obvious that he was taking in all the Horologist was saying. “Let me show you, lad. Pick out a clock and let’s see what it is able to tell us.” The boy pointed to a very ornate large French clock which stood on a circular plinth bearing an enamelled Roman numeral face which was draped with a circular motion cast of a slender naked lady carrying flowers in her hand. Its flourish of beauty displayed to perfection the art deco style. “What does that tell you?” the boy asked. “Oh”, responded the Horologist, “I thought you would like that one. Most people do. But she does not have a good soul. The outside is beautiful but she is rather cheap inside and you can’t rely on her. The one who desires her will constantly have to keep watch on her – she will need a lot of maintenance. Yet she is a joy to look at, isn’t she?” The boy nodded in agreement.
The boy’s hand stretched out to a more pedestrian wall clock in a dark oak case. “Now”, said the Horologist, “that is one with strength of character. You can trust him. He can be depended on. He was made in Germany and is finely engineered. Not one of the fancy types, of course, but he will guarantee to keep time perfectly. You must take care not to overwind him, but let him take a little breath of his own for he is quite independent and does not like to stand out. He rather enjoys being a little reclusive. But I love him even though he is a solitary figure and likes to stay on that cold wall away from some of the noisier friends of his.”
“I do like this one”, said the boy as he gently picked up a brass carriage clock with two hands and held it to his left ear. The horologist was delighted that he had picked up that one. “Oh yes”, he said, “a wonderful example of nobility. He is an excellent example of fine engineering and has a first-rate pedigree. Nothing was spared when he was created. Excellent material and breeding – he came from a rare family of statesmen and craftsmen. His character can be depended on and he will never let you down.” The boy gave it a gentle kiss and returned it to its home on the shelf.
The Horologist held up one that did look interesting. “What about him?” The boy looked puzzled and tried to read the soul of the clock. He paused awhile and held his hand to his chin in a gesture that showed he was trying to capture its ancestral heritage. “I am not so sure,” he said slowly and quizzically, “tell me about him.” The Horologist shook his head and said, “There is every reason not be sure. This clock is driven by a battery. That is a bad sign and signifies a cheap movement that needs a constant supply of energy. This one requires a battery to keep it going. When the batteries run down so does he and inevitably he stops. You can seldom determine in advance when this will happen.”
The boy’s attention moved to the oak workbench in front of the bay window where his gaze was arrested by a diamond-like glitter. “Do you repair jewellery too?” “Oh that’s not what you are thinking. It is one of the clock jewels”, responded the Horologist. All good clocks have jewels. Some of the better ones have over twenty. The gear shafts of the clocks have to pivot between brass plates. The pivots wear easily and to prevent wear happening little jewels are inserted at the contact points. Unless you take time, use discernment and are a little wise you may never see the jewels. You should never look on the outside of a clock. It is the inside that is important. Always take time and look on the inside.”
“What are those springs for?” asked the boy. “Most clocks have three springs. The large mainspring provides the energy while the smaller of the larger springs provides the power for the striker on the hour. The bigger one is the muscle and strength of the clock. He is strong but he must be controlled otherwise a lot of damage is done. So, a tiny mechanism called the escapement comes into play. And this little fellow”, the Horologist held up to the light in a pair of tweezers a tiny spring, “is the heart of the clock. It is the escapement hair spring. Although is the tiniest thing in the clock it is the most important part. Though tiny the clock would not operate without it and unless it is fitted properly and finally adjusted the clock will never keep good time. This is the true heart of the clock. Don’t neglect the heart.”
Just then there was a tap on the window. The Horologist turned around and said, “I am sorry, my young man, but I have a customer who has come to pick up her clock.” He motioned to her with his fingers, 3 minutes. “You will have to excuse me now. But before you go I have a little something for you.” He moved over to his dark stained-oak cabinet and opened a draw brimming with old watches. He rummaged around and pulled out an old chrome-faced Timex watch with a large scratch on its glass face. “Here”, he said winding it up and setting the time. “Take this as a gift. Come back on another day and let’s talk some more about my family and friends.”
The boy was overjoyed, thanked the kind Horologist and left. But he never did come back and, as time slipped by, the event drifted from the mind of the Horologist. Many years passed by and eventually the Horologist gave us his profession due to deteriorating eyesight and dwindling trade but he retained his family and kept them in good health.
It happened one day, however, as the now elderly man was visiting his friend in Chertsey-on-Thames on a snowy winter’s morning that he passed a small shop that sported a new professional business. Of interest to him, he stopped and looked up at the sign which read, “Chertsey Holistic Health and Medicine”, and under the name was a small slogan stating, “If your clock runs down, see a Horologist. If your body runs down, see us!” The Horologist was amused and as he gazed into the half-shuttered casement window he caught sight of a young man’s arm and on his wrist was a watch. It was a chrome-faced Timex with a large scratch on the glass face. The Horologist gave a silent chuckle, threw his scarf around his neck and turned and departed, leaving only his footprints in the snow.