Imperfections, by Katie Gooch
artwork by Myriam Frey

Lizzie wasn’t even sure this was the right place; from the outside it looked like nothing more than an old barn roofed with corrugated iron. By the doors a van and trailer were parked at a hectic angle, as if the driver had merely pulled to a stop without reference to the half-dozen parking bays marked on the uneven concrete in faded white paint. Lizzie parked her own car, a horribly feminine and awkwardly tiny Fiat, neatly within one of the cavernous spaces. Next to the grubby van the little black car looked like a toy or an optical illusion. From here she could see the handwritten sign on the door that confirmed she was indeed in the right place, but she felt rather stupidly like a trespasser all the same.

In the sticks, well into the sticks, fifteen miles from town off a single-track road and then off a farm road and up a track that had done nothing for the toy car’s suspension. The place was isolated. She was isolated. What was it that had made her make this crazy trip? The unexpected, gaping time hole that was her afternoon off? Unexpected because she’d forgotten she had booked the time. She’d done it three months ago when Elliot had been promising to take her away for the weekend (an away game in Portsmouth no less). Back then time off was synchronised with his ludicrous shift patterns. Back then she would have considered this expedition a waste of time. Back then she’d had a bed to sleep in, one that had not been tainted with someone else’s perfume. That was why she was here; it was the bed.

She got out of the car, February drizzle grizzled at her as she headed for the door. Inside the barn was just as it looked from the outside, a single skin of corrugated iron propped upon a wooden framework. The room was open to the high ceiling and she could hear the pelter of the rain as it fell harder. Blue-orange strip lights hung from cross beams and the smell of farm and dry dust mingled with that stronger, meatier, scent of wood. It smelled of raw sap, and polish, and oil, and wood dust, and scorched wood and savoury, wholesome like something  that would nourish both flesh and soul.

By the doorway, in the cold, stood a thick round table, half complete, unstained or polished, in its wide centre was a knot that looked like an eye. Lizzie felt watched.

Somewhere through a partition, some kind of machinery started up, which at least indicated someone was here. Lizzie walked past the seeing table and ran her hand over a walnut chest of drawers that looked like something out of Alice in Wonderland. The closer she got to it, the further away it seemed. She pulled out the top drawer and it slid smoothly and felt heavy and real and meaningful. For a moment she felt a flutter of panic at the bizarre thought of opening the bottom drawer and climbing inside where she might be forgotten, like some pauper’s baby with no crib for a bed. Only, she soothed herself, she would be safe in there, and it would smell so good. She imagined keeping clothes in such drawers, they would all come out smelling of that wholesome, decades matured goodness; it would be like keeping your clothes in a fine sherry cask.

That thought made her want a drink, even at this time on a winter afternoon. That was something she had to fight lately. Misery, and surviving Christmas, the season of goodwill to all men, in the turmoil of a betrayal had inspired an over-reliance on the anaesthetic qualities of a few drinks in the evening.

*

‘It might take me a while,’ he said, ‘I make pieces for the love of it, the art of it. I’ve got a piece of wood in mind, for the head. I’d have to source some more and I’ve got a few big orders on at the moment.’ He roughly sketched something on a scrap of paper, a sketch that probably meant more to his eyes that hers. His hot breath fogged in the cold room, the thick wool of the neck of his sweater clung around his throat. The stubble that started under the neckline and ran up his chin and cheeks and over his upper lip was the shade of grey that had once been dark. There was a shaving of sawdust clinging to the spikes of hair near his ear. Lizzie found herself watching the undulation of the shaving as he spoke and thinking of the hair and skin and sinew and bone beneath. She was thinking of the art and carnivorous construction of the man. His hands were big and dry, raw almost, and the fingertips were stained almost yellow, like a smoker, but she could smell nothing but the butchered wood he worked with.

The plume of vapour about his mouth when he spoke made her imagine positioning her mouth close to his and inhaling the heat of his exhalation, like blowing back dope as a kid. It would be more intimate than kissing him, consuming that which he had rejected, reclaiming his last heat and moisture. Intoxicating.

‘I like a high bed,’ he was saying, ‘do you like a high bed, Lizzie?’

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ Lizzie said, stupidly thinking of the high bed, like high tea or high table, something distant and exclusive.

‘I like a bed you get on to not in to. I don’t like to feel the floor too close to my spine, except when I’m camping, but then the earth is the spine.’

‘At the moment I’m sleeping on a mattress on the floor.’

‘You shouldn’t put a mattress directly on the floor, it’ll spoil it; a good mattress needs to breathe.’

‘It’s not a good mattress; it was the cheapest one I found on the Internet.’

‘A good mattress is an investment. If you order a bed from me you’ll have to promise to put a good mattress on it.’

‘I will.’

He smiled, nodded, his eyes were the faded grey of November skies, they made Lizzie feel desolate. He looked away and stroked a paper-dry hand over the wood of the foot of the bed; it was a loving caress. Lizzie put her cold fingers to the inset heart shape, a dark cherry wood in the light oak, there wasn’t even a seam.

‘This is a wedding present for my daughter,”’ he explained.

‘What a lovely idea.’ And it was, heart-breakingly lovely. She could not imagine being able to make something so beautiful and being able to give something so solidly meaningful to someone else. It made her want to cry.

God! What was wrong with her lately? At first there had been indignant rage at the betrayal but now there was only a chasm where her heart ought to be, and occasionally the void filled unexpectedly with bitter tears that vented themselves at the most inappropriate moments. He averted his eyes as if he sensed her unseemly sorrow and she felt guilty at the idea of tainting his beautiful thing with her ugly emotion.

‘I have some other pictures in the house.’

She followed him across the concrete in the drizzle that had thickened, like gravy, to sleet. In his chaotic, dog-scented kitchen he cleared a corner of the bleached pine table of junk mail and bank statements and she dutifully leafed through snapshots of furniture. They were like magazine models without the tropical backdrops, the carefully sculpted pieces stood in bad light inside his workshop or in the bald sunshine of the yard. She flicked through the photographs, like an album of his children and grandchildren, beautiful things he had created, invested himself in. She supposed he would call this his portfolio, so different from her work portfolio: a dry cross-section of case histories and certificates from tick-box courses in the square rooms of chain hotels. The photographs did not do justice to the almost live things she had seen in the cold warehouse.

He made her tea without asking her and she drank silently, staring at the dozen photos of beds that somehow looked ominously dark, as if they might eat you in your sleep.

He leaned his washed-out jeans against the edge of the table and watched her, it was like being watched by that eye in the table, like being seen by something more solid and permanent and wise than herself.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, at last looking up at his grey eyes, ‘I feel incapable of making a decision, any decision.’

*

Upstairs the house was crooked; it was the crooked man’s house, of course. Up a crooked mile of track and she was something like the crooked sixpence. Was she on a crooked stile? Maybe, maybe it was a matter of using the rude planks to climb over into the next field, but would the next mile be any less crooked?

The bedroom of the crooked house had a floor that rolled away from the doorway where she stood, if she had put an orange on the floor it would have sought and found the wall by the low window without a shove. The wide planks of floorboards were polished smooth by the feet of three hundred years.

She made the descent toward the bed, barely noticing the snow that was now falling against the window. It was cold up here. The head of the bed was an asymmetric curve with the black bubbles of an enormous burr at the core of its curve, some of the wood was polished to a high, deep shine and some was the burr’s naturally hideous, beautiful roughness. There was even a wedge-shape split in the wood and Lizzie ran her cold fingers over it.

‘It is the imperfections that make it so perfect,’ he said, a possessive palm clasped over the burr as if it were a breast. Lizzie glanced shyly at him as if he had made a judgement on her soul. ‘I can do whatever you want. This bed has no two legs the same,’ he stooped and bundled blankets and duvets onto the mattress and revealed the wide square stilts. Lizzie felt slightly embarrassed for the lady, skirts hoisted so unceremoniously. ‘This bed was made for this room, it belongs to the house now.’ He ran a sandpaper hand over his stubbled chin and they sounded at odds, like crunching gravel. He laughed at himself, ‘I couldn’t part with the house because of the bed.’

‘It feels like it grew here.’

‘You should never make love in a bed that hasn’t been made with love.’

It wasn’t the cheesy line that seduced her, he could have merely offered she try it out, it was the idea that something imperfect could still become something useful and loveable and permanent and beautiful.

Lying on the bed with him, his dry artisan hands on her goose-pimpled flesh, the sand paper of his stubble on her breasts and cheeks and temples, Lizzie felt as if she were being exfoliated, shedding the stains of past grubby hands from her skin. And when she had been planed smooth and waxed and polished to so high a shine, so startling bright and real again she threw up her arms and crunched her knuckle against the perfect burr so hard it drew blood and he kissed the blood away.

And later she drove home in the new-white world and her knuckle stung in the cold. And there remained a scab for days and still later a whisper-white scar that would never heal, where he had kissed her.


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