Summer with my Grandmother (pt II)

A.L. Kennedy

This is the second part A.L. Kennedy’s touching portrait of time spent in her grandmother’s cabinet-making workshop as a child (part one was published yesterday).

The young A.L. Kennedy has been taken along to the workshop in the early morning, only to discover that she does not have her grandmother’s hand for French polishing. Looking back on the woman’s life, she also reflects on a possible reason for the the ‘strange, harsh, passionate way’ she had of loving her husband.

And what was her craft? French polishing. And all the allied arts and tricks and mysteries of staining, varnishing, colouring, spraying and lacquering, of hiding faults, revealing beauties, of renewing and creating surfaces. And she was good – she was the real thing – although initially more by accident than choice. Her mother had put her into service and – always awkward, independent – she’d walked out at lunchtime on her first day – her employers had given her potatoes to peel for their lunch and some others for herself – the others being, as she said, not fit for pigs and so she had told them at the time and had then been punished with an apprenticeship to a French polisher – a strange job, a man’s job, one which condemned its practitioners to early deaths – so many toxic fumes and substances, the risk of fire. And – in the days before health and safety, before cheap and effective compressors and guns – French polishers had to take mouthfuls of meths, of thinners, and spray them out through their teeth, this leading to almost inevitable professional intoxication and addiction. But my grandmother survived, she learned, she excelled. She even took on custom jobs – all of the handrails in a Welsh University once – an awful lot of effort but satisfying – or the teak on a fancy boat, or some celebrity who wanted her speakers to match her piano – high-gloss black lacquer over shoddy chipboard and veneer, something both difficult and offensive about the request, and still she fulfilled it, she pulled it off. But what she loved, of course, was proper wood and proper finishes – they were her obsession. She would stalk round other people’s homes, running her big, hard, leathery hands over their sideboards and tables and cupboards, loudly finding fault. The world was full of second-rate rubbish, of bad fakery, of good wood spoiled, of messing.

But not in her workshop – in her own corner within the wider workshop, never there – not in her special room with its broad tables carefully covered in clean sheets from the Financial Times, with the spray guns hung up in good order and the extractor hood ready, caked in years of accumulated vapours that had formed a crust like yellowish, poisonous snow. And here too were her bottles and bottles of special, secret mixtures, polishes and stains, with their sour clever breath and her immaculate cloths and wadding that she would make up into pads for laying on the French polish in delicate coat after coat, smoothing down a suspension of beetles’ wings, insanely temperamental, wonderfully lovely, the heart of her craft.

And on the walls about her, were colour charts of brown and brown and brown, whole panels set out in neat squares of what I could only see as exactly the same shade of brown, but for her they were different, for her they were unmistakeably only themselves and only a wazzick wouldn’t see it. And there were wazzicks on all sides. Like the men who tried to bring in pieces for her that hadn’t been sanded to a frictionless glide. They might set down, say, a table and before they could escape – grown men scurrying like kids – she’d have swiped down one of her paws across its top and let out something between a groan and a scream and then would come the tirade, the blistering, diminishing abuse of all they were and ever could be and, no don’t take it away, she would do it herself and – sure enough – she would take up the glass paper and smooth and smooth until all was well. And this was my grandmother, this man-destroying tyrant, this magnificent perfectionist with untireable arms and unfathomable ways of seeing.

*

On that initial day – after crunchy bacon sandwiches from the far-away, communal canteen – she had begun to introduce me to her skills: to show me her patience, her delicacy, her confidence. I had only met the woman who couldn’t leave a wrapped present alone, who always had to peek. She was the one who couldn’t sew or knit or even really make a sandwich because of her big, rough hands – my grandfather, a steelworker, cooked and cleaned and petted, his was the gentle touch. And she would panic if he was late home from work by more than a few minutes, would fret over his health, over everyone’s health, would worry herself to prostration over vastly unlikely possibilities. But here she would pour herself into the art, work until she was at least leaning up against perfection. Her hands became clever, deft, would lay down the finest veils of varnish, irreproachably even. And she’d never taken an apprentice, because no one was good enough – not for her recipes, for her discipline, for the glory of what she could do.

But I was her only granddaughter and I truly did love wood and I was taking an interest and while she worked our awkwardness and jangled nerves and silences fell away as she explained things and yet … I was hopeless. Let loose on off-cuts with the spray gun I produced only ugly runs and trails and gummy horror. I was unable to learn. I liked to sand – surely it wouldn’t take a genius to sand – but I couldn’t feel the subtle lines of things – how sharp corners must stay sharp, how horizontals must stay absolute, constant – and, in any case, I got too tired too quickly. And my French polishing … even with the easiest mixture I could feel its hackles rising under my pad, outraged as I slathered it on all wrong – and I would smooth it back with meths, almost wash it away with meths, and try another pass and then all would become just as sticky and dreadful as before and on it would go, never improving – but somehow she didn’t shout at me, didn’t rant, only smiled, because yes it was so very difficult and she would make up another pad and we would try again …

In the end I was consigned to making up the cardboard lattices they sometimes used to pack round items for shipping, or to whittling away at off-cuts. I was company for her – I was the reason that for the whole of that summer no one in the workshop could ever ever swear – on pain of her displeasure – but I was no apprentice.

And I was already heading somewhere else – off into books and writing – towards a different craft, one that my grandparents held in a kind of superstitious respect. They suspected it would lead to dark moods and complications and long walks in bad weather – which it did – and eye-strain and spectacles – which it didn’t. Eventually, my grandmother told me that she wouldn’t be telling me her special recipe for polish, because it could only have been for me if I was serious about the work. But she did give me a bottle of her mixture – a dark brown mystery, unstoppered it smelt enjoyably bitter and alert and I did use it, did painstakingly polish a pair of old wooden shuttles – relics of my hometown’s industrial past – and in the end they didn’t look too bad.

And in the end she was proud of what I did – she lived long enough to see that start of my being published, to talk about it endlessly to relatives and strangers. And she could read the story I wrote about her and the potatoes and losing one job and finding another and then my grandfather could show it to people at her funeral, still helpless with her loss, pressing the magazine into the vicar’s hands because this would be the kind of thing a vicar would understand and was proof of her, was something still there.

No one explained to me until she was long gone that her first husband, the one I never met, had died soon after their wedding. One day so much in love that they were each other, had the same haircut, wore suits cut from the same cloth and then a corpse beside her, waking to a corpse and what we would now call a nervous breakdown – they’d have to sit her on a chair in the street if the house was empty, so horrified was she by being alone. And a new husband, younger, an athlete, a man who would and did outlive her, but always the dreams of her first love, of Jack Peace, not Joe Price. And always she would tell my grandfather in the morning – I dreamed of Jack – and he would bear it. And the tantrums and the screaming and the rages that blew up from nowhere and then evaporated – he bore it all, while she doted on him in her strange, harsh, passionate way. They were together more than forty years.

I’m the same build as my grandmother, I look much the same as she did at my age. Another unwomanly, angular perfectionist. And maybe she helped to make me self-employed, to keep my own hours and to always own my workplace – not just before everyone else came in. And my house is full of wood, of finishes and waxes and grains. Only one thing in the place is French polished – a table. I did it myself. And thought of her shaking her head at me all the while.

Read part one of this piece, published on Wednesday 25 August.

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The War Artist
Summer with my Grandmother (pt I)