My client arrives. He has a timeless face, familiar somehow. Not reminiscent of a person I’ve known, but possibly a gargoyle or tree sprite I have carved onto a banister or bed post.
‘You are aware of my methods?’ I ask. ‘My technique is a little eccentric.’
He nods. ‘I have procured the tree.’
What I do is beyond carpentry. I like to think of myself as an artist but maybe every good carpenter is. I avoid standard rectangular furniture, I let the wood guide me. The material itself designs the piece. While I try to stay within the requirements of the client I often go off spec; dining room chairs may become ergonomic thrones, a lamp stand may have intact branches expanding out of it. Generally my customers are delighted by my imaginative riffs on their requests. I have become highly sought after by the most artistic and the most affluent.
‘It resides within,’ I tell the client and usher him to my workshop.
The tree has already been delivered but I have deliberately not yet met it. Usually people bring planks or blocks but occasionally I work with a tree in its entirety. I cross my fingers and hope for oak or chestnut or even pine.
He has chosen Yew. It has many colours and intricacies but I always feel uncomfortable using yew. It is so ancient; such a quiet, wise material and usually I have to battle to find my way into it.
I put stools either side of the trunk and gesture for my client to sit. We both place our hands on the bark.
I take a deep breath. ‘Right, give us your brief.’
‘No brief. You have free reign, but,’ the client smiles, ‘I would like to observe.’
Observing and free reign. Usually the customer tells me and the wood what they need. As they describe what they want I study the material and connect with it. Then I dismiss them and begin work, usually in a frenzy, not sleeping, barely eating, until it is complete.
‘This will be more expensive,’ I tell him.
That smile again, cold and amused and so familiar. ‘The cost is not a concern.’
I stroke the trunk and sniff it. The presence of the client is at first discombobulating, both to me and the tree but after a while I forget about him and clamber all over the trunk, inspecting it, feeling it, licking it, listening to it. There is no sparkling chatter as from any birch, or melodic song, like a willow would make; there is silence, and behind that infinity.
I’m not sure if it takes ten minutes or ten hours, the wood seems unwilling to give up its secrets but finally our minds meet. No picture comes into my head but I follow what the tree silently demands, working blindly, obediently, with the client watching all the time.
After many hours or many days or many weeks or a few moments the piece is finished. It follows the grain, it enjoys the whorls of branches; it has purpose. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever made.
‘Perfect,’ the client says. ‘Now, in you get.’