The writing desk

Charles Dickens had one. It’s made of mahogany. That’s about the only carpentry detail they tell you. I couldn’t believe the drivel in the museum, “The back shelf was adorned by knick-knacks, writing implements and flowers.” Nothing about the dovetail joints or the turned drawer handles. They didn’t even mention that it was a pedestal style desk.

I guess I was probably in a minority. Most people go to the Dickens museum because they are interested in the writer not his furniture.

It’s totally not my style but I appreciated the workmanship. I was in London to visit the exhibition of chairs at the Design Museum. That reminds me – Dickens’s chair is made from fruit wood. Fruit wood! Fruit wood! I still can’t believe it. I walked out after reading that. I just couldn’t stand the lazy trivialisation of it all.

I call my style retro-contemporary. I start with something old and turn it into something new. Some people call it upcycling but that’s for hobbyist, not craftsmen.

Pianos are my favourite. You can pick up old pianos for nothing. Folks are just glad to get rid of them so that they can regain the space in their living room. It’s not easy work. Old uprights weigh a ton. There’s usually enough scrap value in the metal to cover the hire cost of the van and the man. I always slip Ted an extra tenner. His muscles are well worth paying for.

You get mahogany pianos but it’s the walnut ones I really love. That’s why I couldn’t resist the desk even though it was covered in graffiti carvings. Actually it was the carvings that caught my attention. Desks often only have walnut veneer – just a thin layer of walnut glued onto some other wood. Those carvings were deep enough to show me that the desk was made from solid wood.

I reckoned I would have a decent slab of solid walnut once I’d planed out the carvings. I gave the guy a tenner. He said I could have it for nothing. He was clearing his uncle’s house. The desk and piano were rejects that no one wanted. I insisted. I like to leave people happy and tenners usually do the trick.

I fell in love with that walnut as soon as I took my tools to it. I sharpened my plane and set it for a light cut. I knew it would take hours to plane deep enough to remove the carvings but for me that’s the joy of woodworking. I wouldn’t have to think about anything else. If you want to find out about mindfulness get yourself a large slab of wood and a freshly sharpened plane.

After four hours I paused. I suddenly realised that I hadn’t bothered to try and read what the carvings said. It was too late by then. The letters had dissolved into random swirls. It looked so pretty that I almost stopped altogether, but I could sense the grain pattern emerging and could tell that it was going to be unique.

I was right. At three in the morning I finally had the surface I’d dreamed of. As usual the walnut was glass smooth but with a warmth that only comes from wood. I turned off my angle poise lamp and stepped back to enjoy the full effect.

The studio lights highlighted the grain pattern. Suddenly a face sprung into focus. It was only there for a moment. I’m always seeing faces, or animals, or monsters in wood grain, but this one was different. It was my face.

I ducked my head around trying to recapture it without success. My neck cracked as I stretched it back and forth. I’d been bent over too long without a break and realised just how tired I was.

I keep a couch and duvet in the studio. I often get so caught up in a piece that when I stop I need to collapse where I am rather than take the hike home. I was asleep before I’d even pulled the cover over me.

I woke early. The sun was just high enough to stream though the window and directly onto my face. I smiled. The desk top was going to look amazing in the low angled light of the morning sun.

It did.

But it wasn’t what I’d imagined.

All my hard work was undone.

The surface was covered in words carved deep into the wood.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I ran my finger over it, feeling the groves, tracing the letters.

I pinched myself. Can you believe that? I actually pinched myself like they do in films. I was checking to see if I was dreaming. I felt the pinch, but why wouldn’t I? Why couldn’t I dream about pinching myself?

I decided I must be dreaming.

I tried to fly.

That sounds strange but I’d heard about vivid dreams. Dreams where the sleeper knows they are dreaming and can control what happens. I’d long ago decided that if I had one of those dreams I’d fly like superman.

Nothing happened.

I checked my tools. I wondered if I could have carved all the words in my sleep. My tools were neatly stacked on their racks and didn’t look like they had been used. Unfortunately that didn’t help. I’m tidy like that. Even if I had used them I would have put them away.

I felt the edges. They were all sharp. They would be. I have a rule that I sharpen things before I put them away. It means my tools are ready for immediate action. The plane is an exception as it doesn’t need sharpening so often. I usually sharpen it during a job – just before making the final cut.

The radio sounded real. There was nothing unusual on the news. I texted a friend something inconsequential and got the response I’d expect. There was the odd person on the street – odd as in not many. I shouted across to one of them to ask the time. It was five past eight. That sounded right.

I turned on my lamp and started to inspect the carvings. The quality was exceptional. Each letter was perfect. I noticed the strange grain direction. It swirled around each letter like ink from a calligraphy brush, as if the letter had grown rather than been chiselled.

It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be.

It was only then that I started to read the words.

It told the story of my life. Starting with my birth in the top left hand corner and ending in the bottom right with me finding a writing desk.

I made myself a coffee, ate three cereal bars, opened the windows and took a stool outside. The only thing that made sense was that the desk must have been giving off some kind of hallucinogenic fumes. You do have to be careful with some wood. I’d never had trouble with walnut.

I checked the wood allergies database and discovered that African Walnut had a systemic affect. That meant repeated expose would cause increasing allergic reactions. Maybe this walnut was African and maybe I had some strange allergy that caused hallucinations rather than skin irritation.

I sat on that stool in the sunshine and fresh air for almost an hour. If there were toxic fumes I wanted the studio clear of them.

It didn’t help. The words were still there. In fact a whole new sentence had appeared along the front edge of the desk. I read it and went back out to my stool.

The words said I had a decision to make. Would I turn the desk top over and read the other side? The side that contained the story of my future.

I went for a walk. A long walk.

It was starting to get dark when I returned. I rushed into the studio in the hope that if I was quick enough the desk wouldn’t have time to react.

I didn’t look to see if new words had appeared. I picked it up, ran outside and lobbed it into the skip.

Back in the studio I took a plank of mahogany from my scraps and set it up for planing.

There was a noise from outside. I cautiously opened the door.

“Is it okay if I take this?”

I nodded and the man lifted the desk top out of the skip and headed to his car.

I returned to my workbench and strip by strip reduced that plank to a thousand shavings.

Slowly my mind settled on the moment in front of my eyes – the swish of the plane and the thin ribbon of wood curling away to the floor.

I looked up and as soon as I saw the piano I knew what to do with it. I’d turn it into a wonderful contemporary writing desk; with plain simple lines, and absolutely no ornate carving. I’d even build a shelf at the back for knick-knacks.

That was as much of my future as I wanted to know.

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