'No wonder his son had become an accountant. He’d seen the arse hanging out of his father’s trousers all his life and knew that wasn’t for him. Philip was better with his brains than his hands anyway, which disappointed Bill in one respect but comforted him in another. On the whole, he was glad his son had an indoor job with no heavy lifting.
Crossing the yard and passing through a small porch, he entered a large kitchen that had once been part of the buttery when the house was young. This room was really all he used now. A vast, black, iron kitchen range took up the whole of the wide fireplace. On the mantle above was an ornate 18th century French clock he had restored as a wedding present for his wife. She never liked it and he never wound it; that said it all, really. Time was actually kept by a large, round, wall-mounted railway clock whose ticking was sometimes the only sound Bill heard. A pine Welsh dresser bore a few fine china plates like medals on a war hero. The huge farmhouse table in the middle of the room he had dragged out of a barn in rural Wales; it had taken him weeks to clean off the engine oil and chicken shit, but the wooden top was now beautiful. Around the table were six fine Windsor chairs, all different, their fruitwood frames mellowed by time and his craftsmanship. It was a room full of memories, and not just his. Each piece of furniture, each painting; they all had stories of their own, all had lived in other lives, been useful and loved.'
THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE CONTAINS 'SPOILERS'
‘My sources tell me you did a nice little job for the V&A a while back. A Tudor chest that had taken a battering during a move? No one else would touch it, but you had the thing right as rain in the end.’
‘I can’t comment on that,’ said Bill, smiling. ‘Those kinds of jobs come with a vow of silence.’
It was true. ‘Trappist jobs’ they were called in the trade, and no matter how good you were, you wouldn’t get any more work from a really big museum if they heard you’d bandied their name about.
‘Have you ever heard of the Blakeney Chairs?’ asked Skates. He took a cigarette from a gold case and lit it with a gold lighter the size of a small brick.
‘I’ve heard of them, of course,’ said Bill, ‘but they’ve not been seen in years, decades even. They’re a bit like the holy grail to the right collector, and just as elusive.’
‘Yes, just like the holy grail,’ smiled Skates, ‘but no longer quite so elusive. I’ve got them. Three of them, anyway.’
Bill sat back, surprised. These things happened in the antiques trade, of course, but not often.
‘That’s not something with which you need concern yourself,’ answered Skates loftily.
Bill had heard enough. Such high-profile pieces came with all sorts of trouble. He thought it was time to bring this conversation to a close and began to rise from his chair to see this man out of his workshop and his life.
At nearly seventy years of age it’s an affront to be manhandled, especially in your own workshop. But it wasn’t so much the act itself that took Bill’s breath away; it was the speed with which it was done. Skates must have made some sign because in the blink of an eye Bill went from almost standing to being pinned in his chair, his shoulders gripped by hands of steel. It was as if two huge vices had him in their grasp. He could no more have struggled out of that grip than fly. Warren had him pinned like he was nothing. That was the frightening thing; like he was nothing. Just an old man too slow and frail to defend himself.
Warren let go, and Bill resisted the urge to rub some life back into his shoulders. Skates had not moved. He now made a motion with one carefully manicured hand, and Warren walked back to where he had been standing prior to assaulting Bill.
Skates smiled and said, ‘Let’s not get off on the wrong foot, Bill. I have a very special commission for a very special craftsman, and you are that craftsman. There is no one else capable that I know of. And you will be well paid, I assure you.’
Bill left his face in neutral, but his mind was racing. ‘What is it you want me to do?’
‘I have a set of chairs so famous and so valuable they would form the pinnacle of anyone’s collection. They are also of great historical importance. You, Bill, will use your talents to create for me a set of four museum-Bill left his face in neutral, but his mind was racing. ‘What is it you want me to do?’
‘I have a set of chairs so famous and so valuable they would form the pinnacle of anyone’s collection. They are also of great historical importance. You, Bill, will use your talents to create for me a set of four museum-quality chairs.’
‘Four chairs,’ said Bill. ‘I thought you only had three?’
‘Well, to be absolutely truthful, I have two in good condition and one that is, oh, let’s say, past its prime. What I want is to have four Elizabethan chairs, all genuine, but with ‘some restoration’.’
‘So you want me to do a shuffle, then. A mix and match.’
‘Exactly,’ said Skates, ‘but one that only you and I will know about. And Mr Warren here, of course, but he can be as silent as the grave when he needs to be.’
The thought went through Bill’s mind that if Mr Warren stayed silent it was probably only so he could more easily appreciate the screams of his victims.
Bill leaned back in his seat. ‘Without seeing the chairs I have no idea if what you’re asking is even possible. The older the piece, the more difficult it is to make the components good enough to match.’
‘And why is that?’ asked Skates, without any real interest in the answer.
‘Making good and making more is fine for anything 18th century and beyond. All the components were
much the same. There are slight differences, of course, because they’re handmade, but nothing like with really early stuff that is all to pot, no two legs being the same, let alone any carvings or decoration.’
Skates remained silent.
‘Mr Skates, I have been in this game all my working life and I do know what I’m talking about. If you want four museum-quality chairs made from two-and-a-bit old wainscots, then you need a fucking magician, not a furniture restorer.’