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You CAN Get the Wood, You Know

I live in a house with 12 rooms (including the toilet) and 57 cupboards. This design is more than mildly eccentric and I can’t help wondering what the fetishist who lived here before me kept in all his cupboards. Perhaps he had one can of Heinz produce in each – a different can for every cupboard of course. But not a baked bean remains; there is no trace of spaghetti, scarcely even a spoonful of soup.

Over the last few days I have been contributing to this eccentricity of design. Floor to ceiling shelves have appeared in one of the rooms and in the fullness of time, 6000 books will grace them. Fortunately the floor is solid concrete and the shelves are firmly fixed to the walls and ceiling beams. I think they will cope well with the strain of supporting all those books.

It all started just before Christmas when I went looking for a carpenter; preferably a local one. I let my fingers go for a walk through the yellow pages for a time while I read a book. When they came back from their trip, they reported no success. They were somewhat exhausted after their unaccustomed exercise and had to rest for a while to get their breath back.

Once my fingers were back to normal, I pondered another plan of attack. There had to be a carpenter somewhere in the suburb. As I cogitated, my letter box filled up with junk mail among which was the local freebie newspaper – well, several of them in fact. It seems to be my unalterable fate to choose houses that sit smugly where several boundaries fuzzily merge and since nobody can decide exactly where one ends and another begins, I always get every freebie newspaper going and my letterbox groans under the weight of the accumulated junk mail. On rare occasions, I actually find a letter in my letterbox, but these occurrences are few and far between.

Normally all my junk mail gets thrown away without being looked at, but this time I decided to browse through the newspapers in search of carpenters. I perused the small ads which, one and all, were set in much larger type than the rest of the paper and which were obviously its primary raison d’Ítre.

There, in the centre of the page, in eye-catching gothic type was an advert for a carpenter. No job too small; special offer – 20% discount on labour in January and February. Ring this number. So I did.

Since it was Christmas Eve when I rang, I was unperturbed to find that the carpenter was on holiday. The answerphone message explained this, but begged me to leave a message anyway, so I left one and rather to my surprise my call was returned later on the same day. I felt this was an extremely good omen. Far too often businesses ignore such cold calls. When you do finally get through to them, by dint of much phoning at eccentric hours, you say:

"Behold, here I am. I have lots of money that I am eager to give you."

And they say, "Sorry squire. Rushed off me feet. I don’t want any more money."

I have recently had variations of this conversation with untold lawn mowing companies, and a myriad or two house cleaning outfits. None of them wanted my money and all refused point blank to take on my business. I find this attitude impossible to understand. Why are they actively turning down work?

"I want a library," I explained to the carpenter. "I’ve just moved into the area and I have quite a lot of books that require shelving. I’ve got a room put aside for it so I wondered if you could come round and measure up and give me a quote."

"Oh yes, I can do that. But it won’t be until the new year now. How about the 11th?"

And so it was agreed and in due time he arrived to measure. We paced the room and I explained my requirements. We measured the room, we measured several books in order to figure out how far apart to space the shelves and to decide how deep they should be. Numbers were scribbled on the backs of envelopes and then crossed out and amended as sizes and shapes were argued about and mutually agreed. He appeared quite taken aback by both the oddity of the job and the enormous quantity of wood involved. He had obviously never seen or done anything like it before.

"All those boxes," he said, pointing at the quivering pile in the basement, "they’re all full of books?"

"Yes."

"That’s a lot of books," he said.

"Yes."

"I’ll take these figures away and work them up into a quote," he said. A couple of days later he rang back with a firm offer. It was just a little bit over $3000.

"That’s a lot of wood," I said.

"Yes."

Towards the end of the month the carpenter turned up to begin putting up the shelves. Unfortunately the company from whom he had ordered the wood failed to deliver it so he hung around for a while twiddling his thumbs and drinking coffee then he went away again. The next day the wood was delivered and he began work. However it very quickly became clear that that only a fraction of the wood that he had ordered had actually arrived. They had delivered all the shelves but only about a quarter of the uprights. He rang and complained.

"Oh sorry. We’ll send the balance round tomorrow."

The next day the wood delivery man turned up with more wood than I’d even seen in one place before. Close examination of the paperwork revealed that this wasn’t the balance of the order, it was the entirety of the original order. Again.

The wood man professed himself willing to take the whole lot back, an offer with which we were less than thrilled, but he refused point blank to split it and take back only the unrequired portion. We now had not quite twice as much wood as we needed for my library and the carpenter was spitting tacks, of which he had a more than adequate supply.

"Can’t trust anybody," he said. "If you want a job done properly you have to do it yourself. How do these morons remain in business? They can’t even manage to fulfil a simple order without stuffing it up completely! Hah!"

He sawed a plank in half and banged nails into it with unnecessary violence.

"Take that, you bastard!"

Over the next few days my library began to take shape as the shelves slowly grew. As a job, I suspect that the carpenter found it rather boring since it was very repetitive work. When you’ve seen one bookshelf you’ve seen them all. Nonetheless he exhibited enormous enthusiasm, for it seemed that the final purpose to which the shelves would be put had really taken hold of his imagination.

"I’ve never built a library before," he confessed. "I’d love to see it again when all the books are up on the shelves; just so I know what it looks like."

"Of course," I said, flattered that he was taking so much interest. "Come round for coffee when its done. I’ll give you a ring. Mind you - it won’t be for a few weeks. It takes a long time to unpack and arrange books on the shelves."

"I can imagine," he said. "Do you have them in any particular order?"

"Alphabetic by author," I said. "If you don’t do that, you can never find anything when you’ve as many books as this."

He nodded, impressed. "Yes, that must be a problem."

I gave him a basement key so that he could come and go as he pleased. The room filled up with sawdust as he cut and sanded and every so often he brought in an industrial size vacuum cleaner and sucked it all up. We would lie in bed early on weekend mornings soothed by the rhythmic banging of nails, the occasional cries of "Ouch!" and the restful rumble of huge power tools wreaking havoc on the seemingly endless supply of wood.

And then one day it was done.

He has done a superb job. Every inch of available space (and a few inches of unavailable space) has been filled with shelves. The geography of the room and the geometry of oblong bits of wood that intersect each other means that some of the shelves are a little awkwardly placed, but I had expected this, and it didn’t worry me.

"You’ve done a brilliant job," I said. "It’s magnificent!"

He beamed. "Don’t forget to let me know when you’ve got the books up."

"You’ll be the first to know," I promised.

I still have far more wood than I know what to do with left in my garage, but the carpenter has promised to take it away and use it in other jobs. After all, if he doesn’t do that he will make a thumping loss on this job since the wood people are refusing to take it back (humph!) and I have paid only for the quoted volume that he needed to complete the library.

And now, at long last, I can unpack my books. Only then, I think, will I feel truly at home.


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