The Gilder's Apprentice

An exclusive short story for the new year by Stella Duffy

Stella Duffy
Sunday 01 January 2012 01:00 GMT

Whenever the gilder finished a task he took a moment to himself before allowing anyone else to see the piece, be they his own apprentices or the person who had commissioned the work.

He would tell the apprentices to step back, 10, 15 paces. Then he would bring his hands together, one on top of the other – the left hand always went down first – touching the piece very closely, yet not touching it either, so that not a lifeline or fingerprint whorl might be seen on the finished article. He told his apprentices he did it to feel the gold, that they needed to learn to feel the gold moving beneath their fingers, feel it settling on the wood or the clay or the iron, feel it becoming part of whatever it covered. He held his hands close enough to touch the warmth of the gold, for the gold to touch him. When he was done his cheeks would be drawn, his face pale, and he needed to take a minute, to breathe deeply. Then the work was handed over, and the next job begun.

The gilder was much in demand. When he handed back the frame, unveiled the gate, showed the precious jewelled box that had been restored to an even finer state than hoped, people would comment on the depth of the gold, its richness, its warmth. Always its warmth. In 50 years of working the gilder had known difficult times, of course, but there was still a queue for his skill. He was known to supervise his apprentices closely, and their work was also highly rated, but a premium was paid for his own craftsmanship, for the knowledge that his hands had been placed/not placed on the piece at the very end.

The gilder began as an ordinary carpenter's boy, an unsuccessful carpenter's boy at that. There was nothing in dovetail joints or mitre cuts, in chalk lines or plumb lines, in frames or lathes that excited him. He was a good enough worker and although he didn't much care for the job, his was a time with little work and less security; to work was better than not, to bring home a wage was always welcome, what with his father broken since the war and three younger children younger at home, his mother's face grey with worry and the reflection of other people's dirty laundry. He would work out the years of his indenture and being a carpenter would be good enough.

Except that it wasn't enough. He got by, brought in enough, made a living – just. And the day came when just wasn't enough. He wanted more. He wanted special and good and his own. He wanted passion.

He tried to speak to his mother about it but she was too busy filling the looping line with the neighbour's washing and the neighbour's neighbour's washing, as a plain stew bubbled on the stove for her husband's tea.

She looked up from the washing basket, held someone else's clean dirty laundry out to her son and said, "Passion? You don't know the half of it lad, you don't want to ask after passion. This is what passion gets you. Ask your Dad."

And so he asked his father and his father, speech slurring from a mouth half-opening, one eye half-closed, always, against light too bright, any light, the other glass and unseeing, his father answered.

"Passion? Passion got me this –" and he pointed to the foot that was blown off. "Passion got me this –" and he held up a shaking arm, always shaking.

"Passion, a cause, desire running hotter than my stupid head, lost me an eye. You don't want passion, boy. You want safe. Now get off to work and be thankful you've a job to go to and a body whole enough to do it."

And yet.

He tried to be thankful. Under his boss's supervision – one boss, two apprentices, three jobs – he put in a new loft for one of those couples in the terrace where everyone had a new loft. Then he extended a side return for another family in another terrace where everyone had an extended side return. And the clients always exclaimed both their pleasure at the work and their shock at the price. They always thanked him, but they also shook their heads as they wrote out the cheques, offered chunks of cash for less, offered VAT-off ready money. They were grateful, but not that grateful. And he understood the feeling. He was grateful for the job, but not that grateful. He could see when he'd made a good job of his work, completed on time, costs just to the edge of budget, cleaning up after him as he went; the boss insisted on that, nothing made the owners happier than seeing the work done and everything clean and tidy – as if the work had never been done, as if the new things had always been there. The clients wanted new and at the same time they wanted it to look as if the workers had never been there. But the apprentice wanted to do more. Wanted to make a difference, wanted to cause change, wanted his work to shine. Wanted it, and went home, to the family where there was no loft conversion, no extended side return, just three younger siblings and a sad-eyed mother, and a bitter, shaking father, and a wage at the end of the week. Be thankful lad, be thankful.

The apprentice wasn't thankful. He was bored. And as the boredom set in more strongly, so did his tiredness, and the tiredness turned to a lethargy and the lethargy to a depression and although, by rights, he had nothing to worry about, to be sad about – it wasn't his body that was broken, his job that was lost, his child missing out – the apprentice just couldn't shake the sadness. The sadness of every day being not quite enough.

And then.

His boss noticed and sent for him.

"Look here, we can't all have what we want, we can't all be captains of industry, high-flyers, the makers of difference, we can't all be that. Someone has to stay down here, on the ground – holding down the ground. It would all fly up if some of us weren't down here, you know that, don't you lad?"

He didn't, but the apprentice appreciated the smile in the boss's voice, the attempt at levity, appreciated the older man trying to lift him up while pinning him firmly down, and he took the next job handed out and he determined, this time I will do my best. And I won't mind if the owners want it to be a job that becomes unnoticed. I will know, I will note it, I will do this job as if it were a job of joy forever.

It was a job of dust for five days. Every floor, every window, every door to be sanded, hot-air-gunned, blasted, stripped back to the original wood. (The original wood the Victorians had never meant to be shown as wood, but never mind, the apprentice didn't bother telling them that.) He smiled. He thanked the couple and pulled up carpets and closed doors behind him and went to work. After the stripping and sanding and revealing came the waxing and varnishing. Another five-day job of re-doing to undo the un-doing.

It was Saturday morning, the young couple were downstairs. She, six months pregnant, looking forward with every passing week to her maternity leave and a nesting instinct she didn't yet feel, hoped she would feel. He, first-time father checking books and figures, online statements and paper files, scared to be dad. Both excited and worried, neither fully honest with each other about their fears, preoccupied.

The apprentice was working on the last room. The young couple's bedroom. The other rooms had been exclaimed over, praised, and then – varnish dry, wax polished – the doors were closed off to protect them from the prying eyes of the apprentice who had looked into every nook and cranny, had counted more skin cells and lost hairs in the folds between floorboards than he could remember. Never mind. And, if he didn't feel much cheerier, any less tired, any less hopeless, he could at least say he'd done his best. Given giving it a go a go.

And then. The loose floorboard by the pregnant woman's side of the bed. The floorboard he had fiddled with while sanding, promising to return with claw hammer and new nails before varnishing. That floorboard. He slipped the claw in carefully and began to lift, gently gently, bad timing now to chip, splinter or crack. He felt the slightest resistance, almost as if something were pushing the two-pronged claw of the hammer away, something lightly, kindly, saying no, and then the board gave and lifted, it sat up to welcome him. And beneath the board, in the recess between this floor and that ceiling, in the in-between, there was a mechanism. A slightly rusty, very dusty, spring-loaded mechanism. It was the bell to call the maid who must once have lived in this house. A maid who might have worked for a couple just like these two, a maid who blacked the grates and emptied the slops and scrubbed the front step and polished the floors and perhaps even left a casserole warm in the oven when she went back, once a fortnight, to her own family's smaller, meaner home. The apprentice shook his head. The young couple, a few years older than he was, owned an ordinary three-bedroom terrace. He couldn't see himself ever having the deposit for something like this, not even round here, where gentrification would only ever reach the edge of the old council estate. Not even round here. And so it must always have been. A young couple, with a few rooms, in a newly-built Victorian terrace, in an unfashionable part of the city where the railway ran. And they could afford a maid. On his hands and knees, peering into the in-between, the apprentice thought about chance and birth and luck and good fortune and just how it was. How it is.

Even so, he called the owners.

"Look at this. A bell, for calling your maid. Imagine that. A maid."

And the young woman said she wouldn't mind if it was a bell for a night-nanny, she could imagine getting used to that.

And the young man shrugged and asked if they needed to get it taken out and could the apprentice do it and would it cost more or could he put the floorboard back safely and leave it there and just get on with the job?

There was a distinct tone in the bloke's voice that the apprentice was wasting time when he could be waxing, varnishing, breathing in dust and fumes.

They left the room, shaking their heads over what had been and what was now, but only a little, they had too much what would be to worry about, and they left the apprentice to get on with it.

And then. Against his better judgement, because the apprentice knew he should never ring a bell he didn't want answered – he rang the bell. Quietly, softly. And nothing happened, but a dull thud, not even a real tinkle, too much dust and rust in the mechanism, the spring too old to bounce back. Nothing happened. The apprentice dusted down the bell, vacuumed away a century of small things fallen between the cracks, rang the bell – again softly, again quietly – one more time, and then he replaced the floorboard. Hammered and nailed into place, smoothed, varnished, finished. As if it had never been done, never been rung.

That night the apprentice sat in the pub with his mates. They talked about football, rubbish. Telly, rubbish. Women, not rubbish, but not easy, definitely not easy. And work. Rubbish. The apprentice's friends talked about this girl in the office, and that bloke who sent out the cabs, and the old girl in accounts and the old bloke in shipping and each one of them had horror stories of the Monday to Friday, Monday to Saturday for those like the apprentice, and each one of them laughed at his mates' stories and told his own like it was high drama, and each one of them, having told the tale, moved on. Back to football, still rubbish. And because they had known each other since school, since before they were even teenagers, and because they met every Friday night and said the same things every Friday night, and because they knew how it was, at home, all the lads went easy on their mate the apprentice when it came time to buy his round. They liked him, he was a good bloke, things were bad now, had been bad for a while, things would get better eventually. And because they were his mates the apprentice let them go easy on him and make a fuss or insist on paying his way, he just went up to the bar and ordered the half dozen half pints.

He carried over four half pints, went back to the bar for the last two and a few bags of crisps. A gesture, and welcome. His hands full, he turned and bumped smack into an old man.

Shit. Sorry.

The apprentice swore first, the old man swore next, they said sorry at the same time. Smiled. The apprentice looked down and, where he expected beer on his shirt, lager on the old man's jumper, where he had felt the swell of the half-pint glasses, had caught the sway of moving liquid, the old man was reaching out, almost touching the glasses, the crisps, just. And the beer did not spill. And his mates did not take the piss. And the crisps were eaten. It was a good night.

When last orders came around, the apprentice got up to go. Those with their office jobs told him to sit back down again, but the apprentice was adamant. Saturday working was bad enough, with a hangover it was hell. He held up his hand, smiled round the table, and walked from the bar with shouts of "loser" ringing behind him. He heard it every Friday, had done since he started his apprenticeship. He was beginning to wonder if maybe they were right.

Late Friday night, winter, cold outside after the warmth of friends and fumes in the pub. The apprentice zipped up his jacket, pulled the collar up around his ears, started down the road on his walk home.

"Lad. Wait up. Lad."

He turned. The old man was standing in the doorway.

"Do you mind? If I walk a way with you? I don't like to walk on my own, winter, icy roads."

The apprentice looked at the old man. He had to be 80 if he was a year, he wasn't going to mug him, and if this was the way old blokes came on to young men these days, well, it wasn't going to turn him gay either.

"I'm turning right at the end of the High Street. Any good to you?"

"Yes. Yes it is."

The old man nodded and they walked together.

As they walked the old man asked the apprentice about himself. The apprentice told him about his work, the relentless days of it, how even though he felt he was doing good things for people, nice things, there was no shine to his days. The old man nodded, he too had once worked in that way. But he told the apprentice something else, something that made the apprentice laugh and shake his head and say I wish. I wish.

"You don't believe me? Look."

They were almost at the end of the High Street, the apprentice was about to turn left, the old man right, and as they stood there, in the cold night, at the dark end of the long street, the old man reached into his pocket and pulled out a tin. It was a tobacco tin, the kind the apprentice's grandfather used to keep his tobacco and rolling papers in. The apprentice smiled to see it and in the dark night he caught an image of his grandfather, long gone now, another man, like this one, whose work had made him happy.

The old man put arthritic fingers to the lid of the tin and pulled carefully, with a slight twisting motion, a twisting that the apprentice thought seemed odd for a rectangular tin, and yet the lid eased off anyway.

He held out the tin to the apprentice.

"Do you know what this is?"

The sodium light washed everything out to yellows and greys, but even so, the apprentice thought he knew what he was looking at.

"Gold leaf?"

The old man nodded.

"I was a gilder by trade, for 60 years, more. I can teach you – if you like? It's slow learning, takes time, but they'll notice your work all right, I can promise you that. Look."

And the old man carefully pulled a fine sheet of gold from the tin, he held it up to the streetlight and then, turning to the apprentice, he winked.

"Over here I think."

The apprentice followed the old man towards a parking meter.

"These'll all be gone soon."

"They're replacing them with ones you pay for on your mobile."

"Fine if you have a mobile."

The apprentice shrugged. "Or a car."

The old man pulled a little vial of oil from his pocket, and another of gum, he smeared both on the meter, working it with his index finger. He then held the gold leaf out to the timer on the parking meter, sizing it up, and with fingers that moved carefully and deliberately despite their twisted joints, he placed the gold on the parking meter, stretching and smoothing it out, sliding his thumb along the metal and making the gold one with the meter until he had completely covered the face of the parking meter.

"There," he said. "Now the time can't tick away."

The apprentice stared at the meter. It was clean and sharp and bright, it was warm with a red gold that held light even as it reflected it.

"Yes," he nodded, "please. Teach me how to do that."

The old man staggered then, gasping for breath, he reached out to grab the apprentice's arm.

"Are you OK?"

"Just a little faint, that's all. Not as young as I used to be, the blood doesn't flow as well as it did."

The apprentice offered to walk the old man home, and the old man offered to take the apprentice on.

In the morning the apprentice walked the long way to work, so he could go past the parking meter. And it had not been a dream and the meter was shining. In the thin winter sunlight it was the warmest thing on the street.

And so the apprentice began his second apprenticeship. While he still worked six days a week for his carpenter boss, he now worked two evenings a week and every second Sunday with the gilder. He started with oil gilding and slowly, carefully, built up to water gilding. He started with alloys of copper or brass or zinc and then, eventually, because he was a quick student and because he worked hard, the old man gave him his first sheet of 24 carat gold to work with. He worked it well.

Time spent with the old man was a pleasure, and the apprentice found that because he looked forward to his Tuesday and Thursday evenings, to his Sunday mornings, his other days became more pleasurable too. He started to add effects to the work he did as a carpenter, offering a small flourish of gilt here, a touch of gold there, and when they were brave enough to say yes, the clients liked what he gave them, liked that he left his mark. But even though he worked all the spare hours he could with the old man, as the days of his first apprenticeship began to draw to a close, he never could make his own gilding look as rich, as deep, as the old man's. The apprentice's gold was always lighter, yellower. The old man's gold glowed warm, shot through with a deep richness that was almost red. And the apprentice wanted to know how to do that.

He asked the old man.

The old man frowned, ran a hand over his face, nodded, smiled.

"Yes," he said, "I think it's time."

He told the apprentice about the first gold mines in Egypt and Nubia, about the uses of gold in medicine and science, gold for food and gold for the gods, of the gold waiting in the vast oceans, and then, when he had told him the first 78 secrets of gold, he told him the 79th.

And when he had told him the 79th secret, he showed him how to do it. The apprentice watched, amazed, excited, understanding, quiet. When he had given it all up, the old man thanked the apprentice, and said he really needed to sleep, he was tired, it was time.

As he stood at the door, ready to leave, the apprentice asked the old man, "Why me? Why did you decide to share the secret with me?"

The old man smiled and said, "You called me."

"I did?"

"You rang the bell."

And the apprentice felt again the rusty spring mechanism beneath his fingers, the dust covering the old servants' bell.

"You rang the bell and that night, in the pub, you said sorry to an old bloke who bumped into you."

The apprentice looked at his mentor and friend, saw the man's pale face, even his lips now drained of blood.

"You bumped into me on purpose?"

"You looked like you needed a hand." The old man closed his eyes, "You should go now lad, I'm very tired."

The apprentice helped the old man to his chair, looked around the workroom for what he knew would be the last time, took in the gilt-backed chair, the gilt-edged books, the gold-tipped pencils and pens, the gold-backed mirror, all the things the old man had shown him how to make lovely, make shine, and he saw they were all a deeper gold now, a redder gold.

He wished the old man goodnight and he thanked him. But the old man was already gone.

All that was very many years ago, and the apprentice is an old man himself now, his hands are arthritic and he must work even more carefully, deliberately. His unhappy father and tired mother are dust, the brother and sisters all grown up. There is a wife, and children too, a wife who wears a ring of warm red gold. They found each other late in life and took a chance on pleasure. He likes to say the children – the same age as his little brother's grandchildren – keep him young. He likes to say it, but it isn't true.

The apprentice has his own lads working for him, girls too – times have changed, but techniques haven't. He shows them the tricks of the trade, the dovetail joints and mitre cuts, the sanding and polishing, smoothing and finishing. Sometimes he teaches gilding too. But only if they are hungry for the difference, for the shine.

One day he will share the trick that the old man showed him. He will whisper the method for making gold richer, redder; the passing of real gold, true red gold, from hand to object, from lifeline to piece, real gold made precious by his almost-touching of it, made precious by his blood in it, his life in it.

It is tiring, literally pouring himself, his life, his life blood, into everything he does. But he does love the job.

© Stella Duffy 2011

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