The circuitous life of things
A week of downpours saw my elderly neighbour ask if I could help ease a garage door swollen by the rain. With lockdown measures in place we dutifully kept our distance as I worked outside, Maureen happily chirruping away about how George, her husband, used to do these kinds of jobs, only his arthritis had now curled his once strong hands into knots of unyielding tendon and aching bone. This unexpectedly put me in mind of Tom, the blue and white family budgerigar of my childhood, whose left foot was frozen in a permanent fist that he was forced to drag around like a ball and chain. This physical disability didn’t seem to slow him down, nor did it affect his reputation as a renowned escape artist, leading me to wonder in later years whether he had in fact been the avian equivalent of Keyser Söze, and performance little more than an elaborate ruse on his part to buy some time to plan his next bid for freedom. It was not uncommon, for instance, for us to return home from a school run to find Tom waiting for us by the door, prompting my mother to cry “oh no, Tom’s out!” and send her scurrying after him with a towel. Despite these more energetic moments, he did struggle to find his balance when resting on his perch, his one awkward, useless appendage causing him to lean heavily to one side, giving him the appearance of someone perpetually recoiling from the world, a philosophical stance that I can all too easily identify with.
If he could tell his tale I’m almost certain it would have been in the form of a gritty prison drama, characterised by long stretches spent in solitary confinement under the menacing gaze of the cat, all the while carefully memorising our daily routine. I can't recall what came of Tom, although I like to think that he finally succeeded in one of his breakout attempts and experiencing some part of the great outdoors. Keeping birds in cages strikes me as an appallingly cruel and selfish act, much like the instinct to hunt animals as trophies, which once stuffed and mounted will never retain the beauty of the creature that you have now removed from the world. A family friend kept parrots, all of which had, either from boredom or the onset of failing mental health brought on by their miserable circumstances, had plucked themselves into a semi oven ready state inside their cramped cages. I struck me as cruel then, even more so now.
Perhaps this explains why I found myself unexpectedly thinking of Tom manfully struggling about with one good leg as Maureen catalogued George’s various aches and pains. I felt for George, who Maureen informed me had just turned eighty, and while I’m sure there are many things he would much rather be doing than messing around in the cold with a waterlogged door, it is surely better to have a choice, however unattractive that might turn out to be, than have limitations forced upon you. It’s something I tend to think about quite a lot, wondering how I would respond should I suddenly find myself without the use of a limb or one of my senses, and how poorly the equipped the world is to accommodate the additional needs of others. Maureen explained how they had been forced to make some changes to their usual routine, partly in response to George’s condition, but mostly due to COVID. The daily walk around the local reservoir had been substituted for a meandering walk to the local shop to pick up any essentials, and parts of their prized garden now permitted to go fallow and provide a home to wildlife. Worst of all, sahe said, family visits had been all but cancelled, with just a bi-weekly resupply visit from her daughter, the grandchildren waving from the pavement.
As much as it was nice to catch up with Maureen, I don’t like it when people stand over me when I’m working, as I feel the need to engage with the conversation which just makes everything take that much longer and increases the likelihood that I will screw up, which I inevitably do. Ever the gracious hostess, Maureen asked if I would like a drink, but I must have misheard as a couple of minutes later she presented me with a large tumbler of George’s Christmas whiskey and insisted that I take half a Terry’s Chocolate Orange as a thank you. A quadruple whiskey and a couple of chocolate orange segments certainly takes the edge off a chilly January excursion, but the strong boose immediately went to my head causing me to sweat profusely, my cheeks flushed an embarrassing ruddy hue, as I shaved down the edges of the doors between gulping, unsteady breaths. When she asked if I wanted another, I politely declined on the basis that I probably needed to be able to see what I was doing. “I can put it in a cup of coffee for you,” she suggested as a kind of compromise, but again I refused, pausing only to picture Debbie’s deepening confusion at being summoned to help carry me home after innocently sending me next door to help the neighbours only an hour beforehand.
Truthfully though, I wasn’t interested in any kind of payment, whiskey or otherwise, as it’s nice just knowing that I’ve helped somebody. The garage door had swollen to such a degree that it couldn’t be closed, and she was understandably worried about thieves nonchalantly strolling into her garage and helping themselves to her various treasures. She needn’t had worried, though, since as I worked, Maureen started to make an inventory of everything in the garage, pointing to each item and asking if I had any use for it, the bulk of which seemed happy enough gradually rusting into obscurity. It’s a familiar tactic employed by my mother who will try to pass along items that she has purchased on impulse only to realise she doesn’t actually like or want, before rationalising the expense on the basis that it’s something Paul can use and she probably had me in mind when she bought it.
Speaking to my friend Sarah about this phenomenon she confirmed that it was much the same with her own parents, who would predictably enough arrive for a visit with a carload of their own castoffs, much of which Sarah would have to then decant into the extremely limited storage space offered by her cramped second floor apartment. Our shared theory is that it’s rooted in some variant of buyer’s remorse, since the afflicted party is able to rid themselves of unwanted items without any tangible sense of guilt, comforted by the knowledge that someone else is going to put it use. “It’s as though they have decided they can’t stand to have this junk cluttering up their own home,” she says, “but can’t bear to just get rid of it, since this would be a waste of money and poor judgement on their part, which the older generations view as a kind of cardinal sin despite having bought the fucking thing in the first place.”
According to this unofficial law of physics, certain objects flit between friends and relatives like wandering electrons, regifted and exchanged in thanks without ever finding a true home. It’s the same when it comes to family heirlooms of a certain dubious bent, presumably given in the same questionable spirit that ensures the next generation find themselves the unwitting guardians of ugly vases and any number of porcelain dogs or peasant girls clutching bouquets of flowers. All of this is ably helped along by the curious fact these objects command inexplicably high prices on the Antiques Roadshow for the simple reason that the ceramicist in question ensured a limited run by immediately cutting off their own hands with a bandsaw after they opened the kiln door and saw what horrors their unrestrained imagination had foisted upon the world. This is why anything of a suspected monetary value but otherwise devoid of any aesthetic appeal would habitually be shuffled to the back of a shelf as something worth holding onto, but not for public display, until it was time to pass it along to a relative. Anything of an uncertain pedigree and unlikely to illicit a gasp of surprise from Roadshow crowd are immediately farmed out to unsuspecting rubes in a torturous and seemingly endless cycle. Whatever remains eventually washes up in the flotsam of charity shop windows, patiently awaiting its opportunity to re-enter the cycle. Part of the problem is that it’s difficult to say no when a trusted relative or close family friend tells you that such and such an “antique” once belonged to great auntie Agnes and that she would have wanted you to have it despite having never clapped eyes on you, and your own creeping suspicion that Agnes wouldn’t have cared for a set of nesting dolls you’re sure you once saw advertised in the back pages of the Mirror.
I drew upon this hard won knowledge as Maureen began to expound on the virtues of a set of rusting plug-in electric radiators. “These would be great for your garage,” she said, pulling off a dust sheet with a mildly theatrical but completely unwarranted flourish. “They look pretty old, Maureen,” I said, catching my breath, “and by the looks of things they’re probably not entirely safe, you know” the cracked Bakelite plug betraying its age. “Oh no, they’re perfectly safe,” she assured me, “you can take them now or pick them up later in the week, I really don’t mind!” Sensing a trap, I quickly changed the subject, and with that Maureen lost interest in the radiators and moved onto the next item on her list, a barbeque, which I promised I would borrow once the warmer weather arrives.
It’s not the first time I’ve found myself in this kind of predicament. I once repaired some windows for a neighbour who, after I’d finished, led me out to her double garage in which was housed a piano, its once expensive veneer peeling off in great sheets and wobbly keys stained the nicotine yellow of a forty a day addict. When depressed, the keys elicited precisely the kind of unsettling maudlin cry you would expect from such a neglected relic. This, I was told, would be my payment, not on top of the sixty pounds we had agreed at the start of the day, but instead of it. “You’ll have to find a way to transport it, but I want it out of here by the weekend,” she insisted, craftily steering the conversation into a rhetorical cul-de-sac. My guard down, I momentarily caught myself actually trying to figure out how this would even be possible with my extensively knackered 1989 VW Polo hatchback, before my brain thankfully clicked back into gear and insist I ask for the original payment. “But this is a Shaftenmeiser,” she insisted, “one of the finest pianos you buy, and worth much more than sixty pounds let me tell you,” but I stuck to my guns. “Whatever it once was, it’s clearly dead now,” I said indignantly, “and besides, I need the money Mrs Lowball, and taking this thing will surely only cost me.” We jousted for a couple of pointless rounds before she eventually conceded, but I knew that I wasn’t the first tradesman to be presented with the mouldering Shaftenmeiser. After a long pause, standing teapot style looking sternly at the piano with a substantial hand resting on a substantial hip, she turned, and without any discernible sense of shame asked, “could you at least get rid of it for me?”