Oak, Apple, Walnut

‘OH, VICAR, I’m so pleased to see you.’ The Reverend Snaith was taken aback by the fervent relief in Rose Browning’s voice. His parishioners tended to react to his unscheduled pastoral visits with a mixture of anxiety and suppressed irritation. Rose was actually dragging him in through the front door by the sleeve of his black winter coat, down the narrow hallway and into the living room where, beside a roaring fire, an elderly man was slumped in an armchair. His leg, propped on a stool with a cushion underneath, was encased from hip to foot in plaster. He was staring into space.

‘How are we today?’ the Vicar asked. The man continued to stare, showing no sign of replying, or even of having heard.

‘Come through to the kitchen, Vicar, I’ll put the kettle on,’ said Rose, and a few minutes later he was sitting on a hard kitchen chair beside a Formica-topped table with a mug of hot, weak tea in his hand.

Peter was an uncommunicative man at the best of times. He had never actually been to church but had volunteered (through Rose, of course) to make that beautiful new altar rail when it was needed. He had worked all his life as a carpenter – or was it joiner? The Reverend Snaith was a bit woolly on distinctions between trades. Joiner, maybe. He remembered Rose telling him once that during the last war, when Peter had been too old to fight, he’d worked in a factory making crates for aircraft parts.

‘I think we need marriage guidance,’ Rose whispered. Reverend Snaith’s heart sank. He himself had never been married, whereas Peter and Rose had been together nigh on fifty years. ‘He’s like a bear with a sore head since he broke his leg. Well, you saw the expression on his face.’ Reverend Snaith tried in vain to recall the expression – any expression – that Peter might have been wearing, but could recall none.

‘Maybe your husband’s still in some sort of pain,’ he whispered. He didn’t like this whispering game but there didn’t seem much choice as Peter was only a few yards away behind a thin partition wall.

‘It’s not that, it’s because he’s indoors!’ A tiny piece of information, and the situation suddenly became clear to Reverend Snaith. The couple had remained successful, if not exactly joyfully married for all these years, because they each had their own territory. On every one of his previous pastorals, he remembered now, Rose had been in the house and Peter had been either ‘down the garden’ or ‘out in the Lodge’. The Lodge in this case was the breeze-block equivalent of a big shed. Peter had built it himself, had even made the blocks. He had everything out there, saws of various sizes, and nails in old tobacco tins labelled in biro on sticking plaster, stacks of wood, a lathe and a lethal-looking home-made circular saw. He remembered watching Peter at work once, while he was making the altar rail. Those hands! Like tree-bark, they were, covered in half-healed cuts. Long, sensitive fingers, the nails black and broken and scabbed with glue.

He did his best to reassure Rose. More to be seen doing something than anything else, he fished around in his briefcase for one of those little booklets Relate were so keen to foist on him, though he doubted it would be of any use in this situation.

‘Goodbye for now, Mr Browning. Chin up, and all that!’

‘Do us a favour, Vicar, said Peter Browning with a heavy sigh and still without bothering to turn his head. ‘If you’re going out the back way, would you check the Lodge door is bolted? I’m likely to be stuck in this chair for a long time. Don’t want burglars getting in there.’

‘And that’s the most he’s said all day,’ said Rose Browning at the back door. ‘I don’t know what to do for him, honest I don’t. He’s got the TV and his newspaper, and every issue of Carpenter and Joiner for the past ten years – he’s never thrown a one of them out, keeps them in a drawer beside his chair. He could be doing the crossword or something. He’s a stubborn old man. I don’t know what he wants, and he just won’t say.’

The door to the Lodge was ajar. Worse, Reverend Snaith caught a glimpse of light from a naked light bulb through the dust-smeared window-glass. ‘Our Father which art in Heaven’ breathed Reverend Snaith, ‘please don’t let me get hit over the head.’ Always, in Midsomer Murders, pushing a half-open door resulted in being felled by a blunt instrument and waking up in hospital with a headache, swathed in white bandages, surrounded by policemen.

But it was only a girl in a brown coat; a shortish, mousy sort of girl. She had her back to him and seemed engrossed in examining oddments of wood and sorting them into a wicker creel. He knocked, she did not turn. Then he remembered – the granddaughter, Sophie – profoundly deaf. She’d be about eighteen now; used to come to church with Rose, when she was a little tot. Not singing, of course, but smiling occasionally, as if she was listening to her own music, inside her head.

She turned. Taken by surprise she signed ‘Hello’ before reverting to speech for his benefit. ‘Zo-fi,’ she said, carefully. ‘Come visi’ Gran-da.’ She gestured to the basked of wood offcuts she had been collecting.

The Vicar knew even less about wood than about marriage guidance, but Sophie did. It felt as if she had spent most of her childhood in the Lodge, watching Granda working. He had never been much good at signing but he would show her a piece of wood, let her examine it, even taught her to sniff and memorise the perfume of it, and then write the name in sawdust for her. And she had signed each word back to him. Oak, apple, walnut. She picked up a packet of fine sandpaper and added it to the top of the basket, along with a mysterious brown package.

The Reverend Snaith was a curious man, and he dearly wanted to know what was in the package. Sensing this, the girl unwrapped it and showed it to him. It contained two things. The first was a roll of some canvas-like material. As she unrolled it he saw that it was full of tiny hand-carving tools; miniature chisels, knives and gouges, each in its individual pocket. He was fascinated. They even went up in size, from the smallest to the largest.

The other thing was a book. She opened it and flicked through the pages so that he could see. It was full of colour photographs, instructions and diagrams. A little wooden dog caught his eye – very simple, just an arc of wood, with a cube for a head and two pyramids for ears. Later on in the book things got more complicated. There was a bird sitting on a bough, a lion, even a chain carved out of a single piece of wood. He gazed at it for some time, trying to work out how it had been achieved.

Sophie grinned and picked up the basket. ‘Do’ worry ’bout lock,’ she said, pulling a spare key out of her pocket and showing it to him.

That evening the Reverend Snaith sat down in his study with a mug of cocoa and began to rough out his sermon for the following Sunday. His visit to the Brownings had given him the gist of an idea. ‘Some people pray,’ he scribbled, ‘some people write hymns, some people sing and others make things out of wood. We all worship in our own particular way.’ And, he thought, taking a sip of his cocoa, we all listen in our own particular way. Most of us listen to the things people say, but a few of us – like Sophie – listen to the things they don’t say.

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