All of a sudden, April has gone and May is upon us. The equinox is already a month passed and spring is in full spate. The air is thick with birdsong; I’ve heard my first chiffchaff and there are rumours of a cuckoo. The swifts will be here any day now. The chill has gone from the air too, mostly, and I have emerged from the gloomy house, blinking in the sunlight, to have my breakfast alfresco. I park myself on my dad’s bench and bask.
Strictly speaking, this isn’t really my dad’s bench anymore, although it is possible that one or two of the original timbers remain from when he first built this, sometime towards the end of the last century. But successive repairs over the years mean that the bulk of this old bench is actually the product of my own handiwork – Dad’s bench, my arse – it’s mine!
Do you know the fable of Trigger’s Broom? Trigger, the road sweeper in the TV series Only Fools and Horses, proudly boasts that he has had his broom for donkey’s years. Sure, it’s been necessary to replace the head a few times, and the handle too, but otherwise his trusty broom has seen good service and has lasted forever. And so it is with this bench. The Elmer the Elephant patchwork of different colours and shades of wood tell their own story. The provenance is clear, but the authenticity less so.
It was assembled in Sussex, in the house that had previously belonged to my grandfather. My dad’s workshop was downstairs, tucked into the chalk bank that ran along the side of the house. Well made and in possession of a plain beauty, the bench wears its craft lightly. Nothing too ornate, fancy or complicated, but carefully constructed all the same. Now, I am no craftsman and, frankly, a bodger when it comes to working with wood. But it is this straightforward design that has encouraged me, over the years, to gradually replace the rotten and broken timbers, legs and supports, one by one, or more, as the occasion demands. I remove the old pieces, measure and copy them, then cut and shape the replacement wood, like for like. Wood is a generous material, forgiving of mistakes and tactile to work. Not only that, but it exudes wholesomeness – there is a genuine feelgood factor at play here. Moreover, it gives me a sense of achievement that is perhaps unwarranted and, most importantly, the bench lives on.
I’m paraphrasing here, but I recently heard a woman on the radio saying something to the effect that we need to keep one foot in the past and the other in the future. However, as she herself pointed out, the trouble with doing this is that you are left with your unmentionables dangling over the present. The bench is a case in point. It has a history, which is where the sentimental value comes from, while also enjoying a future as the result of my labours. Thankfully, nothing is dangling, and right now it is playing host to my backside, seated firmly in the present. But where the bench has the balance right, I have been less successful; if it wasn’t for my fundament, there wouldn’t be much of me engaged with the here and now. I am all too often lost in a haze of nostalgic whatifery and regret, or worrying about the uncertain future. It doesn’t leave much room for living your best life. A recent bold claim that I could draw a line under things and move on was testament to breezy optimism – I can talk the talk; walking the walk is much harder thing to achieve. Which is daft because, as I sit out here, enjoying the spring sunshine and the heat on my face, anticipating the arrival of the swifts and drinking in the soporific buzz and hum of the bees, I should be able to filter out the noise of the past, and the insidious anxiety about what might or might not happen. Instead of gloomy ruminations then, on what really is a truly gorgeous morning, let me chase away the demons, just for a while, so I might sit back on Dad’s bench and enjoy living in the moment.