`I'd like to make you a chair'

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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.

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.

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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.

By the end of the morning he had mended the chair. He held it out to us awkwardly, gulping. He still had something to communicate and communication was not his strong point. We waited. ``All that wood lying out there doing nowt,'' he began. ``I'd like fine to make you a chair, not a kitchen one, a real one.''

``A real chair!'' we said dubiously, but he was wandering away on his own train of thought. ``When I was in yon prison workshop, I kept thinking about chairs, something you sit in to talk to friends. I've never done much of that, squandered away my life, you'd say....'' His voice trailed away. ``Go ahead and make us a chair,'' we said.

The next day he turned up with a bag of tools, a hone, a plane, sandpaper, a bottle of linseed oil, and shellac. We were going to greet him, then realized we didn't know his name. ``Call me Chairlie,'' he said. He measured the wood, stroked it. ``The chair's still in my heid,'' he said. ``It'll take shape as I work at it.''

The main fact in life became the creation of Charlie's chair. At first we had joked about it, asking when it would be ready, but he was so profoundly serious that we were ashamed. You couldn't be facetious with Charlie. When we passed the shed, we had glimpses of his face and it wore a quite new expression, a kind of rapture, and we would look away as if intruding on something intensely private. ``Blessed is he who has found his work. Let him ask no other blessedness.''

Charlie was very definite about one thing. ``You're no' to see it till it's ready, mind! Gie's your word that you'll no' come and keek at it.'' What was going on in his head, we wondered, as he honed and carved, planed and polished? Was the act of creation exorcising that dark time? When he left at night, he lingered with us for a moment, giving off a distinctive odor of linseed oil. ``Aye, aye, it's coming on,'' was all he would say, then he would be off.

One morning in mid-May we heard him call to us with a funny, excited note in his gruff voice. ``It's ready!'' He opened the door of the shed like an artist unveiling his painting for the appraisal of the curious and the critical. For days he had lived alone with his wood, and now he had to offer the result of his toil to our judgment. As he had once looked between us and a phone, now he looked from us to the chair, eagerly, hopefully.

What had we really expected? Another botched job? It was one thing to repair a broken chair leg, quite another to construct a new chair. We could only stare, nearer to tears than to words. Charlie's great hands, infinitely sensitive, had sandpapered and oiled and smoothed till the wood was like satin. ``I've had a tussle and a trauchle with yon wood,'' he said with pride.

We would never see the like of this chair again. It stood for something beyond itself, for an act of liberation. It was not a Van Gogh-like chair, not yet a Chippendale or Sheraton, but it had a fine, clean line, its own elegance. It was the kind of chair you could sit in at ease with yourself and the world. ``It's beautiful,'' we said. ``You must sell it for a lot of money and set up a carpentry shop of your own.''

``That chair will never be for sale!'' he exclaimed almost angrily. ``It's yours. I'll never make another that means so much. When you sit in it, you'll mind how I gied you my word and kept it.'' He swept up the shavings and gathered together his tools. ``I'll be on my way,'' he said.

Spring comes late in Scotland, but while Charlie had been working, the garden and the woods had grown daily greener and the trees were now at their loveliest. He was better with wood than with words, but now, as he looked up at the elms and birches for the last time, he became almost poetic. ``There's the providers,'' he said, touching the bark of a silver birch.

As we watched him go, we were tantalized by the ``what ifs'' that life poses. What if he hadn't gone straight, what if we had regretted our impulse? And yet if we hadn't followed our instinct, there would be no chair and maybe no Charlie. After all, we thought, no one has ever reproached the good Samaritan for his impulsive behavior.

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