Note: This is the third in a series of posts related to the tales in Making Things Work. The posts are new material, not excerpted from the book. Each post is tied to one or more of the book’s chapters, here “A Case of Mistaken Identity.”
It was one of those early summer days when the damp chill of spring has retreated just enough that you’re ready to bare some skin to the sun. 16 degrees Centigrade, 61 Fahrenheit—one of my favorite mnemonics.
The Second World War had ended 35 years before, but judging by its freshness in the national psyche, at least among people I knew (you could still hear “Bloody Yanks—over-fed, over-sexed, and over here” at any blue-collar workplace frequented by men of a certain age), the elapsed time might as well have been no more than a week. Being not only a bloody Yank, but also female (in a trade dominated by men), and sufficiently middle-class to have graduated with a A-Levels (in a trade then dominated by people from the working class), I was a magnet for extra resentment.
In those days I didn’t have friends as such. My friend was my first dog, Oscar, the runt of a litter born after my mother’s bearded collie, Alistair, escaped and mated with the neighbors’ Irish setter, Sherry. But even if those men of a certain age in the village and the nearby town of Wisbech weren’t my friends, I hoped they would at least accept me as an honorary member of their number. I admired their work ethic, their skill at car repair and gardening, the way they kept their homes well maintained and neat as a pin.
I’d recently completed my City & Guilds training in Furniture Craft Part I and turned 21. I’d built a simple workbench and put it in front of the dining room window, a few feet away from a small combination jointer-planer. After augmenting this equipment with a router and some cheap hand tools, I was ready to try my hand at earning a living as a custom furniture maker. I had a few small commissions—a chest of drawers for a neighbor, a spice cabinet, a Welsh dresser, a simple bed.
As a hedge against the chasm of structureless days and irregular income, I lived by compulsive self-discipline. My meals were the same every day: breakfast of porridge with honey; an austere cheese sandwich on homemade bread followed by an apple for lunch; vegetable soup for dinner. On Saturday I allowed myself a quarter-pound of roasted peanuts from the village store cum Post Office on Well End as a special treat. I tracked my spending down to the half-penny in a narrow-ruled pocket notebook and scheduled my work days to the minute.
8 a.m.: Start
11 a.m.: 10-minute tea break
1 p.m.: Lunch: edifying myself with books on woodworking and philosophy while eating sandwich and apple
2-5: Back at the bench.
The word “fun” did not feature in my lexicon. It was irrelevant to the kind of serious life I intended to live. Given the chance to do work I found meaningful, I’d gladly settle for predictability and the equivalent of minimum wage.
But this one day—so balmy, so green—felt wasted indoors. I had my bike; it was my sole form of transportation in every season. If there was ever a day made for bicycling, this was it. I could quickly eat my lunch, then take the bike out for a spin.
On the other hand, what if someone saw me? They might think I was goofing off. The shame would be unbearable, even if I was simply outside to enjoy a half-hour of fresh air in the middle of a regimented workday.
Don’t be stupid, I told myself. Do you really want your life to revolve around what other people think? I decided to risk it.
I set off to the east along a narrow road flanked by brick row houses and bungalows. It didn’t take long for the village to dissolve into farm fields beneath a broad blue sky. The lupins were in full riotous bloom. Apricot verbascums with raspberry centers brightened the gravel at the roadside. Butterflies fluttered past as I pedaled slowly, intoxicated by the sweet scent of stocks. This brief bit of pleasure was balm to my soul.
After a quarter-hour of this reverie I realized it was time to turn back. I was pedaling happily through a neighborhood near my home when I spotted an old man in a yard at my left. Apparently he’d been sweeping a path. Of course. One of those men who kept their place spotless. How lovely! I thought. But wait… Now he was shaking the broom in my direction. And…hang on…what was that he was shouting in my direction?
I knew I should not have gone for that ride.
It took me years of working at the bench to come up with a response to that man’s anger, which was based on egregiously faulty inference. On the other hand, of course, he may have just been insane. But I’m too ready to accept criticism to feel satisfied with that explanation.