A Gift For Janice

Billy stood back and admired the result of his labour, propped up against the workshop wall. Apart from another coat of varnish, which would help bring out even more of the oak’s beautiful grain, the job was done. Maybe the best thing he’d ever made, he thought, and all for Janice. She deserved no less.

He ran his eyes over corners and contours then let his fingers do the same, enjoying the texture of seasoned wood, planed and sanded to a silky finish. Every joint was mortise and tenon or dove-tailed, not a nail or screw anywhere in the construction. That was proper craftsmanship. The oak had been intended for fussy Mrs Forsyth’s wardrobe but something this special deserved the best. It took an effort to turn away – he couldn’t imagine ever again creating anything so perfect – but sweeping and tidying didn’t do itself and he made it a rule never to leave mess until the next morning, so he spent a satisfying half-hour with sweeping brush and dustpan, then made sure every tool was in its allotted place, sharpened and cleaned. A blunt blade was asking for trouble.

Billy didn’t mind the mundane tasks. As the only boy in the family he’d occupied the box room, his two older sisters sharing a bigger bedroom, so he was used to a small space and keeping it in order. In their early days together his neatness and attention to detail had amused Janice. They were endearing, she said, and if he felt now and then like a cosseted pet he didn’t care. She was beautiful, she loved him, and he’d never seen himself as a macho he-man anyway, although heaving around timber all day meant that the scrawny apprentice had developed a decent enough body. He still felt small inside, though: the runt who’d been picked on at school and drifted aimlessly until 4C’s first lesson in the woodworking shop changed his life.

Mr Bryant had seen his potential right from the start. While the rest of the class struggled with lop-sided pencil-cases and mismatched bookends he’d built a chest of drawers that wouldn’t have disgraced an Edwardian travelling salesman’s miniature samples set. God knows where the ability came from; his dad could barely nail two planks together and his mum found a screwdriver a challenge. There was some talk of a great-great-grandfather who’d been a joiner for the nobs up at Henshaw Hall but his gran couldn’t offer anything other than hearsay. Whatever, Billy knew by instinct how to treat wood, how to bring it to life and make it glow. By the time he was twenty-six he’d completed his apprenticeship, added a few more years of experience, and left Cooper & Blake’s to start his own business. With him he’d taken the tools he’d amassed over ten years and the typist he’d found in the last one – Janice, who became his secretary, then his lover, then his wife.

Those first few years after the wedding were, he now realised, the best ones of his life, even in a pokey end-terrace house with a clapped-out Ford Transit as their only transport. There were evenings when he came home from the workshop – to find the house spotless, dinner in the oven and Janice waiting for him with a glint in her eye that suggested she didn’t care if it spoilt – when he couldn’t believe his good fortune. The business prospered. They found a bigger house in a better area, bought a new van for work and a new car for themselves. The future looked nothing but good.

So he didn’t know if it had been deliberate cruelty or simple thoughtlessness that she’d chosen his fortieth birthday to tell him she was leaving.

It wasn’t his fault they couldn’t have children. Well, it was – all the tests had made that clear – but there was nothing he could do about it. He’d wanted kids just as much as she did. He’d even suggested adoption. Janice, however, couldn’t bear the thought of raising someone else’s child. Three miserable months followed, culminating in an uneaten birthday dinner at the Taj Mahal. She’d moved out the same night, to her sister’s. Not long after that he learned she was living with some guy on the other side of town. And then, over a pint last week, Billy’s mate Mal had broken the news that Janice had been seen buying baby clothes and mooning over buggies in Mothercare.

Of course Billy was angry. For the rest of the day he fantasised about her dying in half-a-dozen horrible ways, filled with regret about her treatment of a man who’d never done anything but adore her. The rage didn’t last. When he’d calmed down he admitted to himself that, despite everything, he still loved her and wanted her back, even carrying another man’s baby. But the campaign of letters, flowers and texts that followed achieved nothing except a restraining order. That was when the idea of a special gift took root – something she’d never forget, something that would show her exactly how he felt. And he knew just what to make her.

Billy took a last look around the workshop, at neatness, precision and order in a place where life made sense. At the coffin that leant against the workshop wall. Below his feet, the screaming had begun again.

He grabbed a chisel and flung open the cellar door.


June 2016

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