It must have been 1946, because the War had ended and the landlord, Mr. Smedfjeld, had just died of TB. My father was cleaning out the cellar.
“Don’t touch those rags,” he said.
“Why not?” I said.
“They belonged to Mr. Smedfjeld,” he said.
“But you are touching them,” I said.
“It doesn’t matter so much for me,” he said, “I have already lived a long time.”
The cellar, where my father told me it was better him than me should handle Mr. Smedfjeld’s rags, was, like the three flats above, long and narrow. At one end a door led under the front steps into a small area surrounded by wooden palings on which my father hung out the gunny-sacks we used instead of rubbish bins. At the other end of the cellar a short flight of cement steps led to the back garden. Just before the end of the War my father and Mr. Smedfjeld between them built a crude cement porch where there had been only a rotting wooden cellar door, and put a door where our kitchen window had been, so you could step out onto this porch from the kitchen.
This porch was like all my father’s handiwork and repairs, which were not only crudely executed but often misconceived, useless projects in the first place. When it became necessary, for example, to shift furniture from one place to another it would happen that our sloping and irregular floors made things tilt in unexpected ways. Instead of propping up the short legs, as a sensible person would do, my father sawed bits off the long ones, meaning that over time all our furniture with legs grew shorter and shorter.
To prevent wear on our linoleum rugs my father regularly coated them with varnish, a brown spar varnish meant for outdoor use, that left the floors sticky and dirty and eventually obliterated whatever colour or pattern they had possessed.
When moving our upright piano into a space too narrow to accommodate the full width of the top, my father dug a groove in the wall and plastered the piano in. We could never again either move the piano or have it tuned without tearing out parts of the wall.
The piano episode was one of the times my mother shed tears. There were others.
On a memorable occasion, while my mother was in hospital for one of several useless operations for a nervous bowel, my father mixed together all the dregs of paint he could find in old tins lying about the cellar, mixed them together in a sort of pink sludge, and painted all our picture frames. My mother, when she returned, her suitcase still unpacked, looked on these horrors and flung herself across their double bed with the shortened legs and wept inconsolably.
My father would not pay for any sort of hauling or delivery or removals, and always bought things anyway second hand, or better yet discarded, or, at the minimum, of inferior quality. He trundled home whatever it might be—a sofa, sacks of potatoes, a fridge—on our iron-wheeled lawn mower, cleverly flipped so that the blades did not turn and the iron wheels ran free. The resultant repertory of sounds, according to whether it rolled over slabs of slate or knubbly concrete or paving blocks, told us from a long way off his progress home.
When these sad things needed to be discarded they had no value whatever and could not be sold at any price, although my father never gave up trying, and haggled in the street with the rag and scrap-metal men, usually Italians, wanting money for what they refused to haul away without payment. Consequently, the sad sofas, sagging and musty bed springs, broken easy chairs with no colour or nap left on the once green or burgundy velour, chipped enamel-top tables and rusty tin food-safes, were buried in the back garden in pits, dug to a depth of four, five or six feet according to the article, this requiring a day’s labour with a small garden spade in the heavy bluish clay.
Naturally he tried to enlist my brother and me in these useless labours, particularly as we approached adolescence and must have seemed to him strong enough to make ourselves useful in other ways than with the dusting and running errands, and cutting out the flannelgraph images on Saturday night, which we did for our mother, who was Downstairs Superintendent of the Sunday School. But he was useless at explaining the purpose of tasks, or at demonstrating any useful knacks or ways with tools, even the most basic things. His saw was dull and rusty, the hammer had a rounded and nicked face and was missing one of its claws, the garden tools were inappropriate or broken and too small for any determined or useful work. And so we made ourselves scarce on every possible occasion.
It is not purely coincidental that on the day I determined to leave home for good, running away with a friend to hitchhike across the country, I had been coerced into agreeing to help with the piano, digging it out of the wall by the fireplace and taking it out to the back garden to be refinished with steel wool and varnish remover, a demented project of such potential for violence that it seemed easier to leave and never come back.