A Short Story from the April 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard
It was a very beautiful chair. People did not believe that he had made it himself. They asked how much it cost. Only their children understood. They always asked to sit in it and he always let them. Parents stood aside and smiled wryly, as if apologising. But the children knew what Karel's chair was for.
His hands were old. He could not make things any more. People knew that he was poor, and that he could not afford to eat well or keep his house warm. They offered to buy the armchair at a low price. Karel smiled and shook his head. They did not ask again. They knew it was Karel's chair. But they let their children visit him.
He had a strange accent. The children asked if he was a Russian spy. He nodded gravely and they shrieked. He showed them his woodworking tools and told them the names. Some of them tried to make things. On his mantelpiece was a collection of animals with the children's names cut on them. Terry said: "It's s'posed to be a horse. It's for if I ever go away". He put it into Karel's hands. It was the first thing he had ever made.
One day Rosie cut her hand badly, and had to go to hospital. After that the children did not come any more. Karel sat in his armchair and smoked his pipe and waited. They did not come. Only the ticking of the carriage clock disturbed the silence.
He stroked the arm of his chair. It was old and darkened walnut. His fingers ran idly along the engravings, feeling the wood twist and writhe under his skin. It could be a blind man's chair. The leather upholstery was scented and soft as vintage port, the back smooth and caressing. But for the sighted there was the inlay. The swirling flows and florets of mother-of-pearl had a luminous rainbow sheen which danced and flickered in the firelight and gave life and power to the grain. Slowly the fire died. The room grew darker. In the gloom Karel dozed.
He had come to England in 1926, the year of the General Strike. He was young and excited, anxious to start work, eager to use his hands to carve and chisel and polish, ready to pass on his dead father's skills. First he found work on the docks, later on a building site. For three years he did only heavy labouring, and made enough to live. Then he was made apprentice to a cabinet-maker. It was what he had waited for. He soon earned respect for his craftsmanship and his pay was raised. He began to receive commissions to make furniture for the wealthy families of the area. Although there was a slump and very little work, these families had more money to spend than ever, and he often praised his good fortune in having a skill he could sell at such a time. With time he became well-known. His furniture appeared at auctions and fetched high prices among the rich. But he never became wealthy himself. The market was very small. Most people could not afford such luxury, and he made only small profits on what he could sell. The wealthy knew his situation and often wrangled with him over his price. Sometimes he even had to sell at a loss.
In 1953 he gave up and went back into paid employment as a joiner. He was obliged to use pine and cedar, and thin veneer, and to work to deadlines. The furniture he made was mediocre. He did not bother to initial it. The owners of the firm came round for inspections. They knew nothing about wood. They asked instead how long he was taking, how much material he wasted, how many he could produce in a week. Karel worked on. disheartened.
He calculated that he earned approximately fifteen per cent of the final price of each table, and twelve per cent of each chair that he made. He did not have the energy or the heart to make things at home, and so when it became necessary to have a table of his own, to replace one which was worm-rotted, he was obliged to save for five weeks in order to buy one of those which he made at work in four hours. The humour of this did not escape him. One day, after work, he passed in front of an antiques shop and saw one of his own chairs for sale. It was one he had made at the request of a writer in 1938. He remembered it. The writer had asked grandly for a work of art. Karel had taken six weeks over it, and then the writer had been furious at the expense, demanding a lower price or no sale. In the end Karel had sold it for cost. Yet it was a magnificent piece for all that. It was priced at seventy pounds. Karel stared at it for a long time. Then he went into the shop and gave the owner a deposit of thirty shillings. Every month he returned with another thirty shillings. It took him four years to pay. In those four years something went out of him. He never made anything of his own again.
When he came to retire the firm were very nice to him and the manager made a little speech. All the employees had an extended tea-break and he was presented with a carriage clock and a solid silver wine goblet. They shook his hand and wished him luck and hoped he would not forget them and would come back for visits. He said he would like that. Then he was on the street and alone. He clutched the goblet and the clock tightly all the way home, and then he locked the front door and drew the curtains and sat in his armchair and wept quietly.
The chair creaked a little under him. He woke up. The fire was nearly out. The children had not come. He stared into the darkness. He sighed and stood up wearily, his hand went up to stroke the wooden figures on the mantelpiece. Pain seized him momentarily, in the silence he could almost hear their shouts and laughter. The children understood. They knew what things were made for. He breathed hard. There was life in the crude cut of their figures, life and vitality and perhaps even joy. And there was a kind of beauty and truth in the creation of things for their own sake, to be used and loved and perhaps abused but still loved. Karel's chair had been sold for the last time. It should not have been made for sale, but for love. And it was. His heart jumped. He went to the light and switched it on. He was dazzled. He caught at his breath. The first thing he saw was the table he had made and bought from work.
He stared at it, a sense of distaste growing inside him. It did not belong here, in the same room with the armchair and the animals. His chest felt constricted. Pain stabbed at him. It did not belong here! He went over to it, grasped the edge in both hands, and began to lift it up. The table weighed very little. He dragged it to the doorway and manoeuvred it through. His breath came in short gasps. He wanted to sit down. The table stuck fast in the doorway. His strength seemed to ebb away. He realised that something was happening to him. He became frightened. His chest tightened as if in a vice. He could not move the table. He walked unsteadily through the other door into the workroom and found a small hatchet. His legs shook. There was a ringing sound in his ears. He stumbled over to the table, swung the hatchet down. The shock ran up his arm and made him gasp as the wood splintered and flew. He struck again, and then again. His eyes clouded over. He could not breathe. He dropped the hatchet and staggered over to the armchair. He fell sprawling into it. The blood pounded in his temple and behind his eyes. He did not have the breath to cry out. His hands went down to the arms of the chair, gripped them hard. His back arched in pain and then his body doubled over, fingers searching in the carvings and grooves of the chair-arms, groping in panic for help. Hideous laughter seemed to burst all around him. Toneless music deafened him. The room turned grey and dull. He tried to look round at his animals, at his chair. They had become empty and lifeless. All the colour had fled. He could scarcely see them. There was nothing left. His mind began to race. He knew what he had done, what they had all done. There was no escaping it. Only the children understood. But money would teach them not to understand. It would make them forget. It would stop them listening. It would stop them looking. It would stop them loving anything for its own sake because it had the power to beat them and trample them and starve them until they they learned to care more for cost than for life itself. And he had not understood that. He was like the children. Only the grown-ups understand the world they have made. He did not fit. His chair did not fit. That was the real truth.
The room seemed to tilt away from him. His hands froze on the edges of the chair. His head rushed as though in a strong wind. He knew that his heart had stopped. His face was a white mask, but somewhere in his whirling brain a smile flashed momentarily. He did not belong. His animals and his armchair and his love, they did not belong. It was all alright now.