Monday, 11 February 2008

Learn to be still

I dream of a closed doorway in front of me. I am stood on a narrow, muddy street before the door, which is not quite as tall as I am and has been painted black a long time ago. The paint has peeled in places to reveal paler wood underneath. There is a cast-iron knocker in the middle of the door, a little below my waist height, and I know that I have just knocked. I can hear a shuffling inside, reluctant footsteps coming to answer my knock, and an excitement starts to grow inside me. I am sure that what lies beyond the door is wonderful beyond my imagining. My heart beats in my chest loudly, and I have butterflies in my stomach. The footsteps halt, and I hear the chains that lock the door being undone. Then an elbow drives into the soft spot below my ribs and I am brought, with a gasp of pain, back to consciousness and the woman who lies beside me in my bed. I half-open my eyes, and hear her whisper, learn to be still.

In the morning I sit quietly at the kitchen table, a heavy oaken table I built myself. The table top, six feet long, which I have polished every day since the table came into the kitchen, is scarred and burned and pitted. Knives have gouged into the wood, hot pans have been carelessly left atop it, dishes have been banged down upon it, and vases smashed. I pick up the newspaper, a tabloid with little news and tedious gossip, and before I can turn the pages a dish is banged down in front of me containing burnt porridge, the paper is whisked from my fingers, and she tuts and sighs and says, I wish you would learn to be still.

I stand in the garage, a quiet space. There are no cars here, just my bench, my tools, my lathe and my saw. This is where I work, where I think, where I come when there's nowhere else to be. Sunlight lights the bench, shining through the long, high windows and making small motes of sawdust float in the air, shining like fairy dust. I turn the lathe on, to start turning the legs of a chair; the kitchen needs a new one again. An angry hand throws the cutoff switch by the door the garage, killing the power, and the lathe dies with a quiet whine that could be a cry of despair. A red face beneath unruly blonde hair screams learn to be still!

The lathe has learned to be still. It will not come back to life.

I stand by the tree I planted thirty years ago on my wedding day. It has grown well, it is tall and strong, has a shady canopy under which I have rested on many summer's days in the past. Adverse weather has shaken it, but never broken it; it has withstood pests from without and within, and its heartwood is firm and beautiful. Standing here by it I can feel its stillness, its peace, its oneness with itself and with nature, and I am moved. There are tears in my eyes as I heft the axe and swing and feel the steel bite deep into the trunk of the tree. The muscles in my back and shoulders soon burn but I persevere, and finally the tree falls with a crash like the fall of angels. I am crying too hard to see its final resting place, but not so hard that I can fail to hear the stentorian shout: LEARN. TO. BE. STILL.

Even in the small hours of the morning the garage is a quiet place and has a stillness of its own. As I plane and sand with small motions and soft, white noises, and join together the pieces with dovetails and a gentle tap of a small, padded mallet, I wonder if I can somehow capture and keep this time and place, this blessed solitude. Memories swirl around me, as though carried by the sawdust that drifts lazily through the air, and one phrase resounds through it all, and I flinch from it as though I had been woken again from my dream by an elbow in my side: learn to be still.

She is heavier than I remember, much heavier than when I first carried her, across the threshold so many years ago. My back twinges and I stagger at first before I find a rhythm to my steps that lets me proceed as surely as I did across that threshold. She sleeps angrily, I see now, her face contorted into a snarl that I have seen every day for so many years, and I wonder what has made her so unhappy. Then I am back in the garage, and I lay her down in the coffin I have built from the tree that celebrated our marriage. I stretch my back, then lift the lid and place it gently on the coffin and nail it into place. Then I take the pot of sealing tar and apply to the edges of the lid as I have to every other joint of this box, and make it airtight. I put the pot aside, and I hear a movement; she has woken inside the coffin. I sit down in my chair that will soon move into the kitchen to replace the one she broke and as she struggles futilely inside the coffin, using up the last of her oxygen, I quietly say to her, learn to be still.

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