`I'd like to make you a chair'
IT is terrifying to wake toward midnight, emerging from uneasy dreams and sensing that someone is there, stirring outside in the shadows. This winter night, the first thing we heard was a faint creaking, then the sound of a door being pushed stealthily open. All at once there came a loud crash of something being knocked over and the thump of someone falling heavily. We approached cautiously, remembering warnings to avoid confrontation at all costs, never approaching a burglar who may be armed or violent.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
At the kitchen door lay an upturned chair with a broken leg, and beside it sprawled the intruder, our first housebreaker. The telephone was close at hand, to dial the police in a matter of minutes. We had to act quickly before he did. Slumped there, he was the most unlikely of thieves, lumbering, clumsily built, with spiky ginger hair and a gaunt, grizzled face. He looked a born bungler, as if anything he took up would be botched, burglary included. He was staring from us to the telephone, making no attempt to rise to his feet.
``Don't 'phone them,'' he said at last in a husky whisper. ``It was finding the door unlocked that did it. There's something about a locked door... I'd rather be deid than be sent back. I promise I'll go straight.'' He was shivering, his face almost greenish in tinge with terror. He was far more afraid of us than we were of him. ``What were you up to?'' we asked, still hesitating to pick up the receiver.
He stammered out an explanation of sorts and a picture arose of someone weak rather than wicked. He was newly released and finding work was difficult for ex-prisoners. In all he blurted out we heard echoes of a key turning, a door clanging, felt the intolerable desolation and frailty of the human heart, all the horror of captivity, however much deserved. Which was the greater crime, a bungled housebreaking or the handing over of so wretched a soul to the police?
There are sudden impulses in life, either to be rejected as mere folly, momentary madness, or else instantly obeyed, times when you step into the unknown, trust the untrustworthy. All right, we told him. ``You've promised to go straight. We believe you.''
Our intruder stumbled to his feet and picked up the broken chair. He tried to say something, his jaw moved, nothing came out. ``I learned a bit of joinery in there,'' he brought out at last in his gruff whisper. ``I'll come back one day and mend your chair.''
We hoped he wouldn't. He had scared us stiff and wrung our hearts. He went off down the garden, a hulking figure in a tattered, greasy jacket, starting violently when an owl hooted. He stood for a moment in a patch of dappled moonlight, looking up at the trees that grew all around our home, then disappeared along the deep woodland lane, among elms, limes, and birches.
For a long time we couldn't get the sight of that stricken face from our minds, nor the sound of that desperate, pleading voice. ``I have been one acquainted with the night,'' Robert Frost wrote. Our would-be burglar was such a one. The broken kitchen chair was so vivid a reminder of that midnight visitation that we stacked it out of sight in a garden hut.
We had almost forgotten the episode when, one morning in early spring, we started as we opened the back door. There he stood, our bungling burglar, instantly recognizable, only a little less haggard and a good deal tidier. ``I've not forgotten,'' he said. ``I've a week's holiday from work and so I'm back to mend yon chair.''
He was so deeply serious that we led him to the shed where, along with the chair, wood from a dismantled wardrobe and dressing table was piled high against the wall. He eyed it all, touched a panel of walnut, ran his hand slowly down some oak. For such a lumpish, blundering, awkwardly constructed man he had surprisingly fine hands. ``I like the feel of wood,'' he said.