Sunday, 29 December 2013

Model Behaviour

When Bet's smooth-haired fox-terrier arrived at their home it was nine months old, full of life and raring to go. He had been collected from the breeder and travelled quietly in a basket in the back of the car. Bet had not owned a dog for forty years, but the time had come again."Wills" seemed such a suitable name and she was immediately head over heels in love with him.
Her husband, Jim, was not a dog person, he had never experienced the depth of bonding that Bet felt for Wills. He found dogs rather too needy and demanding and did not like the mess that Wills now brought into his tidy house; the half-dead mice, moles and voles. He did not like the dog hairs that he found everywhere from his dinner plate to his toothbrush. But for Bet the dog was everything that she ever hoped for.

Bet and Jim lived in an old gamekeeper's cottage with a large garden surrounded by woods and fields, an ideal environment for an energetic terrier. Jim taught art at the local school. When early retirement was offered he was happy to accept. Now there was the pleasant prospect that he and Bet could spend more time together and he could re-engage with his creative life as an artist. In a sense, this moment was what they had both been working towards all their lives, a time of togetherness  in lots of quiet, simple ways, a time to pursue their own interests and enthusiasms. Jim converted the old game store at the bottom of the garden into a studio. He put in good lighting, a pot-bellied stove and embarked on his career as a painter.

In the evening Jim, Bet and Wills rested comfortably by the fireside in a tired and contemplative way. Their lives were developing a mutually appreciated routine of work in the garden, dog walks and quiet periods of reading, painting and reflection. Each seemed to gradually accommodate the others needs and Wills animated their daily routine. Life promised to be quite fulfilling.

One evening, at 9.12 precisely,  a month after his arrival, Wills was curled up on Bet's lap by the fireside as she stroked him adoringly. Jim lay sprawled on the sofa watching the gentle cooing of Bet and Wills whilst half watching a shocking documentary about the rearing of dogs for the restaurant trade in the Far East, when  suddenly he felt a pang of such violent intensity that the whole basis of his life was shaken.  JEALOUSY!  He had never experienced such a feeling before. An aching panic settled in the pit of his stomach.  How could it be?  This display of reciprocal love and affection reminded him sadly of what was missing from his life, of the intensity of their young love in their early relationship,  of what had been lost when they were plunged in to earning a living, rearing a family and trying to maintain a creative career.  Jim had to think this through,  he headed upstairs to bed, murmuring to himself, "this is ridiculous, jealous of a dog, a grown man of my age!"  He decided to dismiss the thought from his mind and put his sensitivity down to tiredness and to the  effects of a recent virus.

In the morning, after a difficult nights sleep, the shock of the previous evening was submerged in  concerns of the day.  But although life carried on much as normal, a small worm had begun burrowing into their relationship.
Since arriving at his new home Wills had grown in confidence. He had become familiar with every part of the garden, digging and exploring in the vegetable patch and flower borders, shadowing and chasing any white vans that happened to pass up the lane alongside the garden and taking an active interest in anything that 'happened', such as seed planting, blackbirds building nests and even the occasional stand off with the fish that stirred in the pond.  Wills thrived, the space and attention suited him, he got on well with the other dogs and their owners in the village and the all pervading presence of pheasants, deer, ducks and other wild life gave his daily walks a terrier edginess.  In the house and garden he began watching his owners carefully as they went about their tasks, he learnt to anticipate and gradually participate in the work at hand.

In the garden he watched Bet and discovered he could elicit wonderful praise and adulation by helping her to complete a job.  It felt quite natural for Bet to talk to and direct Wills during the work, to such an extent that he gradually began to sense what she wanted, and could almost read her mind. He was soon planting potatoes, after all, digging was second nature to a terrier. He was able to dig several rows, four inches deep, gently placing the tubers evenly at the bottom of the trench and then cover them with earth. He helped with the watering during dry spells, turning on the hose, and by skilful use of his mouth and paws was able to direct the spray at the rows of plants. Bet had only to start a job and Wills was often able to complete it.
In the house he soon learnt to read the 'wearing of the shoes'. The old, casual ones meant work in the house or garden, the smarter, shiny shoes meant that Jim and Bet were going out, so he headed straight for his basket by the Aga. But best of all were the socks with boots or wellingtons that meant a walk was in the offing, particularly between three and four in the afternoon. He learnt to use the back door handle and in the daytime was able to come and go at will. The electric can opener proved more difficult to master but the incentive of opening his own tins of dog food helped him to find a way with the aid of a bent stick.
Jim, however, was not happy.  His help was need less and less so he spent more and more time in his studio. He would sit, drawing and painting at his easel, or occasionally doing a little reading. The world of art became more stimulating and challenging the more he committed himself to it, with all it's tantalising promise of hope and fulfilment. He would often have breakfast and then go straight to his studio, not coming out until early evening. His paintings were rather rigorous in style, an austere form of abstraction, it was his response to the fripperies and fol-de-rols of Post-Modernism. He thought of himself as a Post-Post-Modernist and in his enthusiasm would sometimes paint all night, just snatching odd hours of sleep.
The relationship with his wife was under strain, they were beginning to lead separate lives. Bet was still entranced by her garden and her little dog while Jim withdrew further and further into the world of art and failed to dismiss his deep-seated resentment of this animal interloper.
Bet could see that Jim was becoming more withdrawn, spending so much of his time in the studio. She asked if he would make a painting of Wills. Jim's abstract work was terribly exciting to him but meant very little to Bet, or indeed to anyone else who saw it. Jim welcomed the opportunity to please her and agreed to paint the dog's portrait.

The painting went well, Wills seemed to enjoy being the centre of attention and was quite happy to pose in the studio. The spotlit plinth brought out an inherent theatrical streak in him. He was particularly  fond of a pose similar to the one on the old record label, he could hold that position for hours. He was soothed by the procedure, the careful observation, the movement of the brushes, the colour mixing on the palette and the noises that Jim made as he muttered to himself. A certain degree of bonding was taking place. The painting was complete after two weeks of patient work. Jim was quietly pleased with the result and Bet was delighted, she hung it in pride of place in the sitting room, then, without telling Jim, she submitted it to an exhibition at the Royal Society of Animal Painters. The painting was not for sale, of course, but it succeeded in creating a lot of interest. Jim was surprised and shocked at this attention after years of neglect and was thrilled to receive fourteen commissions to paint dog portraits, enough work to last him at least a year. Somehow his ability to capture a certain indefinable 'dog-ness' about his sitters had struck a chord with many owners.

As demand for his work increased, he was able to command higher prices. The money and success allowed Jim to indulge a latent foppish tendency; he grew a goatee beard, wore a red silk neckerchief, an artist's smock and beret and purchased a large mahogany palette from a London sale room which was rumoured to have belonged to Sir Edward Landseer. Jim enjoyed the praise that he received as a successful dog artist although his workload was quite punishing.  Wills was needed regularly as a model to assist with the tricky problems of anatomy. He missed his time with Bet and was also having difficulty with some of the dog visitors. There was a large poodle from Pimlico with pom-poms who periodically pee'ed on the plinth. Wills was disgusted! The chihuahua from Cheltenham chose to chew his favourite chintz cushion. Unforgivable!

One morning a chaffeur-driven car with an heraldic crest on the bonnet pulled into the driveway. A disdainful-looking corgi was lifted carefully from the passenger seat and carried into the studio. Before Wills could enter the door was closed and locked. He peered through the window. The arrogant expression on the corgi's face made Wills wince. He scratched on the door but Jim took no notice. Wills was livid, this was too much! He felt let down. Jim was just an opportunist, a fair-weather friend who had used him only to further his art career.
When the sitting was over and the studio door unlocked Wills collected his cushion, his water bowl and his rubber bone. He carried them back to the house with a somewhat injured air. Bet was delighted to welcome him home. She patched his cushion and payed him lots of attention. Wills was so happy to be helping Bet again in the house and garden. He fetched logs for the fire, put the rubbish bags in the bin and even helped her to set the table.

One Tuesday morning, about nine-fifteen, when Jim had already been painting in his studio for several hours, he heard his car start up and was shocked to see it being driven slowly past his window. In the passenger seat was Bet. In the driving seat sat Wills, looking assured and confident, wearing Jim's cap, tilted at a jaunty angle.
Bet wound down the car window. "Wills is taking me to Tesco's. We've left your breakfast in the oven."
Jim blinked his tired eyes, but Bet and Wills had gone.

Woodcarving and story are copyright of Peter Murphy.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

House and Home.

Matthew Dickinson had done it! he'd finally finished renovating his house. For years all his spare time had been devoted to improving his neglected 1930's bungalow. Windows had been replaced, the roof re-felted and the crumbling brick chimney rebuilt. He'd also refurbished the living room and in the kitchen had made exciting modern design choices. The garage had been renovated and the driveway paved with attractive multicoloured blocks. Now, at last, he had the house that he had always wanted, and it coincided perfectly with his retirement from a career in insurance.

Matthew was a bachelor, looking forward to the freedom and the opportunities that he imagined his new life would offer. Not having to go to work, he tucked into a breakfast of porridge with chopped prunes and two slices of wholemeal toast. He drank a mug of strong, dark tea then settled into an armchair with his cat, Humphrey, purring quietly on his lap. he was comforted by the new Wi-Fi thermostat that he had fitted on the wall and the thought of twenty-four inches of loft insulation above. Light reflected from the perfectly glossed mouldings on the doors and skirting of his living room. It was a moment of pride in a job well done. Over the years he had visited clients' houses and knew that not many had achieved his high standards. Most houses were a never-ending project of half-hearted updating and botched maintenance.

His new status meant more time at home, in his chair, reading the paper, looking out of the window, seeing the daily ebb and flow of commuter traffic and watching the comings and goings of his neighbours. It meant endless cups of tea, too many biscuits and an ever-thickening waistline. In the afternoons he flicked idly through his well-thumbed DIY magazines, more out of habit than with any serious intention of further work.
He was bored!
He would have to get out and make more effort to extend his interests. He needed a new direction and new contacts.
He tried the salsa class in town but that didn't last long. Several women set their caps at him and made the evenings difficult. And it didn't help that he had no sense of rhythm .
After the horror of these classes he found himself drawn back to his favourite DIY store, P&Q. He needed to get his bearings, take stock and enjoy walking those isles again. After all it was important to keep abreast of any new developments in the world of do-it-yourself.

The following Monday, at opening time, Matthew was one of the first in store. The staff were going to their respective posts and the sound of their cheerful banter filled the air. He slipped past a greeter who was engrossed in telling a colleague about a new display of domestic wind turbines and headed through the large lighting section. A gust of cold wind caught him as he passed the automatic door to the garden centre. He walked along the aisles, viewing the goods and marvelling at the high shelving that reached almost to the roof. Sun shone through the skylights illuminating the swirling specks of dust in the air above. He felt at home and quite emotional as he realised that this warehouse contained everything that you could ever want or need in a house. 'What an achievement for mankind,' he thought. 'If only people valued what they had in such a place, with its power to improve lives.'

An elderly lady tapped him on the arm and interrupted his reverie.
"Excuse me dear, can you read this label for me? I want to make some curtains for our John's flat. Could you tell me if I need some tape header and curtain eyelets like these? What do you think? Matthew studied the labels for a moment and then gave her the clear confident advice that she needed."Yes this is the one,  They work a treat, ever so easy to fit.  I've just used them for my own curtains." The lady was impressed. "Well if that's the case I'll take them.  Thank you so much, you can't beat a personal recommendation."  And with that she set off for the checkout.
As he wandered the store, Matthew developed a sixth sense; he recognised when customers were uncertain, hesitant or ignorant and they in turn responded to something in his manner that invited them to ask for guidance.  They were grateful that his advice was so thorough and thanked him.  He knew from experience that many of the staff were far too self important or busy to deal with such queries.

At the end of a long first day he was tired, yet fulfilled, as he went home to bed for an early night.  The pattern of his days at P&Q were now set.
In the morning he couldn't wait to visit the store again and assume his self appointed role as an aid to the helpless and uninformed.  It was the Wednesday evening of the second week that his new routine took an unexpected turn when he found himself locked in at closing time.  He'd been reading an obscure green efficiency label on a new line of Italian air conditioners in one of the less frequented areas at the back of the store.  He'd quite lost track of time and the store was eerily silent.  He wasn't upset by his predicament but strangely excited at having this temple of DIY all to himself.
He made his way to the power tool section, which he regarded as the real heart of the store.  On display in all its glory, he saw the new 'De Wilt' two-gig mega drill with the laser home drilling device.  He grasped it, noticed the perfect balance.  It was smooth and comfortable in his hand, almost sculptural, like a pebble on a beach.  Next to it was the latest electric mitre saw with an eighteen tooth-TCT blade and a base of aircraft grade anodised aluminium with polycarbonate Resin Guard, plus extensions.  Best of all, its assorted clamps were in matching colours.  Nearby he was thrilled to discover a new display of paint spraying equipment just in from the Far East.  It was a technology he had never seen before, developed from the US air force drone programme.  A rechargeable version with go-fast stripes designed to paint high ceilings and walls by remote control.  Aluminium case included!

Feeling peckish he walked up to the empty cafeteria on the first floor.  The coffee machine was still warm and he chose a drink, an assorted packet of biscuits and a cling-filmed egg sandwich.  He left his money on the counter and sat at a table on the balcony surveying the scene below and thinking about where he would sleep the night.  He could hear odd bumps, creaks and squeaks.  'It's just the metal building cooling down', he thought to himself.  Refreshed, he set off to find a suitable bed.  The baths in the showroom were far too hard and cramped, but at the back of the store he found a space behind some boxes and on a pile of bubble wrap he had the best sleep he had enjoyed for a long time.

The store was already open when he was woken next morning by the sound of the P.A. system calling for Tracy to go to soft furnishings.  The first early customers were moving about.  An elderly couple paused near to where he lay.
"Do you think one of those electric fires would do for us Albert?"
"I don't see why not, love.  There would be no mess, no cleaning up.  It'll be nice and simple and this one's got a lovely mahogany surround where you could display your china.  I'm sure our Paul would install it for us.  I'm getting fed up lighting fires, and all that bending."
"Yes, love, no more heavy buckets and dusty ash, and it would look so modern.  But we'll need a hand taking it to checkout."  Matthew startled them as he appeared from behind the boxes of shower units.
"The perfect choice Madam! And it has an automatic timer, to switch it on before you get up in the morning."
"Oh, has it really! said Dot.  "Fancy!"
"I'll fetch a trolley from the next aisle," said Matthew.  He loaded the fireplace and pushed it to the checkout where he left them with their thanks ringing in his ears.  As he passed the hinge department he was able to help a young couple by explaining the crucial difference between adjustable self-closing hinges and rising butt hinges.  And so it continued throughout the day.
In the evening he went home to rest and think about things.'Perhaps I should apply for a job at P&Q, they seem to favour more mature people' The thought was instantly dismissed. 'No good, too much of a commitment, I wouldn't be able to come and go as I pleased. But I suppose I could carry on as I did today, just popping in when I feel like it.

On his next visit he didn't leave the store at closing time but slipped quietly behind the racks for a while. When the store had closed down he came out and spent an hour tidying the boxes of screws that had been left hopelessly out of order.
He went upstairs to the empty cafe for a sandwich and a drink from his flask. As he sat on the balcony admiring the view over the store shafts of moonlight sliced through dramatic areas of dark shadow. Suddenly Matthew tensed. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he could hear his heart beating. Someone was out there, near soft furnishings. He reached for the million-candle power torch that he had borrowed from 'lighting' and used it like a searchlight in a World War 2 POW camp. The beam slowly traversed the darkened store. He wasn't sure but he thought he caught a brief glimpse of a woman's arm and a neatly turned ankle by the pelmet display. Realising that there might be someone else in the building that night was a shock to him. Who could it be, was there another intruder like him?
Going downstairs he was emboldened as he gripped the powerful torch and headed to where he thought he'd seen the figure.
"Anyone there?" he called. For a moment there was silence, then a shuffling sound as a woman stepped out of the shadows and into the light. She introduced herself as Bridget and was relieved to discover that this man with the torch was not security but another 'overnighter' like her. Matthew in turn was delighted to find a like-minded person and as they wandered the aisles together they talked about why they chose to stay over. Bridget, he learned, loved fabrics and felt it her duty to personalise and improve the goods in some way, working on them quietly, strengthening the stitching here and there or adding a little hand embroidered motif or an individual message to be discovered after purchase.
Nearing the builders yard the air was much cooler. "You must meet Len, he's a retired builder and a regular overnighter. He beds down amongst the rolls of insulation."

"Now then," said Len to Matthew, "you've come to join us, have you? I suppose you want to know what we're all doing here."
Matthew nodded.
"Well, I can't explain it. All I know is it's better than being at 'ome. I'm usually 'ere four or five nights a week."
Matthew looked surprised. "That's a lot of nights, Len, why's that?"
"Well, it's since my wife died. I look at it this way, I've spent my life in the fresh air on building sites and yards like this. I loves the smell of the stuff, and the special silence of a builders yard at night can't be beaten! There's something comforting here." He paused for a moment. "And I keeps it tidy! Bridget," he said, "why don't you take Matthew over to meet Tom? He said he'd be in tonight. He's a right character is that one. He only comes in now and again but he's been an overnighter longer than any of us. He used to work at Kew Gardens! Well, I must push on now, I've got to sort out these racks of plastic guttering.
In the garden centre they found Tom doing a little night-time watering and dead-heading near the stack of recycled oak barrels. He invited them both for a brew-up in one of the garden sheds where a couple of other overnighters had made a cup of tea. Eric, 'the sparks' from electricals, a shy, quiet man with a duff eye, had wired up a kettle, and Deirdre, a retiree from the paint department, had brought in some colourful iced buns to share.

That evening was very significant for Matthew and Bridget. It was the start of a romance that led to their being married under an awning in the P&Q car park. The company, unaware of the couple's night-time trysts, were amused by the idea that anyone should want to marry in their car park and willingly gave them permission, seeing, no doubt, some useful publicity. They even laid on extra help for the reception and served food and cheap champagne from the 'Bacon Butty' van. Len was pleased to be best man and Deirdre made a wedding cake iced in a bold, colourful design based on hand tools. The sun shone and the day was a great success. Matthew was pleased with their honeymoon plans and knew that Bridget would be delighted. They slipped away later that evening to spend three joyful days in Birmingham at the 'Homes and DIY Trade Fair.'

Bridget had been happy to accept Mathew's proposal on condition that she be allowed to redecorate and revamp his bungalow."That kitchen!" she said. " I hope you don't mind but I hate all those stainless steel units. I prefer maple."
"Wonderful!" said Matthew. "Now we can start all over again and turn this house into A PROPER HOME!"

Woodcarving and story are copyright of Peter Murphy.