I walked along a second floor corridor inside a three storey block, counting down numbers on doors which all looked the same. Then I found the right number and I knocked on the door. I stood in my grey polyester overall carrying my wooden toolbox in one hand – the one Dad had shown me how to make, dovetail joints and all – and an address in the other. It was sometime during the 1980’s
The door opened and a very large man appeared. He had a very ruddy face and wirey grey hair with a healthy pair of pork chops reaching down the sides of his face.
Hello, I said. I’m…
You the sewing machine man, he asked.
Yes. That’s me.
Come in, lad. Said the man.
I stepped into a small and narrow hallway. The man was around six feet six and his shoulders almost touched either side of the hallway walls. He showed me into his small kitchen and then he turned and, well I hoped he was going to ask if I wanted a coffee or cup of tea. Instead.
Guess where me washing machine is, he asked. He caught me off guard and I must have looked bemused.
Go on lad, guess. He had a little glint in his eye and a smile on his face.
Council have just fitted brand new kitchens for all the residents.
A single cupboard door gave me a clue. I let out a blow.
Blimey. I don’t know.
I thought it was a silly question.
No. I didn’t think you’d guess. No one ever does.
He stepped over to the single door and opened it and revealed his washing machine. He gave me a wink and held out his meaty hand – palm up – like the magician might when he shows you the lady he has just sawn in half is, in fact, still in one piece.
Blimey. I said again.
Would you like a cup of tea, asked the man. He smiled even more. He’d scored a point and I was fair game but I had passed his test.
Over a very strong tea with a few leaves on top he told me his mother had recently passed away. But before she died she had told him to get her sewing machine serviced. No doubt with a list of other things that he should do. A mothers love lasts until the end and at the end, for some, it’s their children they worry about, and not themselves. They are just dying, and that day they knew would always come.
I won’t be using it. Said the man.
But, you know. I promised Mum.
The machine was a flat-bed Singer and it was sat in an old long-legged cabinet. One of those where you press a button and reach your finger into the blank piece on top and lift it out. Then you reach inside and lift up the machine which swings up on two hinges. Then you drop another small leaf for the machine to sit on. If I’ve serviced one I’ve serviced a thousand – maybe more.
Have you got the foot control, I asked.
Oh, it must still be in Mums room. Said the man. I put the machine in the lounge ‘cos I didn’t want anyone in Mums room. Not yet. Wouldn’t be decent and she wouldn’t approve.
The man left the room and headed off to ‘Mums room’. Meanwhile I opened my toolbox reached for a screwdriver and began to strip off the covers.
Standing next to me was a wall unit in a mahogany finish. You used to see them years ago but they seem to have slipped from fashion these days. People would buy one or two of these units and place glasses, or Goss, or a plant or a picture of their aunt Maude on the shelves. Maybe some drinks in the drop-down cupboard – a bottle of Johnnie Walker, or a Martini, or maybe even a soda siphon. And behind the sliding cupboard doors at the bottom, maybe some records or a sewing kit.
The man had covered every flat surface on his wall unit with grass-green felt. Then he had placed small toy farm animals on the felt. Cows and sheep and pigs and the like. I spotted a small toy green and yellow tractor with a farmer type chap sat on top.
It looked quite strange.
I’ll find it, don’t worry. The man shouted from his Mums room.
I stepped over to the small window and surveyed the scene outside. An old factory building sat across the street. A sheer wall pockmarked by line upon line over line of grimy frosted glass windows. The type with fine wire inside and dirty georgian style wooden window frames holding them in place. I craned my neck to see two enormous chimneys reaching up from the factory into the dirty grey skies above. The name of the owner stretched up the side of each chimney. A trademark in the sky. Wisps of grey smoke escaped from each chimney to be lost amongst the grey ceiling above.
The street below was crowned in cobbles – dark grey and almost black. Here and there a cobble or two was missing leaving small pools of mud-brown water. The slope down into the gutter on either side was brightened by an occasional dandelion. A rebel in protest against the drab grey of the world it found above.
A small girl sat poorly dressed on a small doorway-step set into the factory wall. I remember now as I write about then, thinking how her bare legs were dirty. She wore white socks only they looked quite grey and scuffed and worn black sandals. You know the type, with the single thin strap stretching over the foot with a tiny brass buckle and pin.
I could see that she held a doll and she cradled the doll and she spoke to the doll and she pulled the doll close and whispered. Maybe she was telling the doll all her secrets. Maybe she was telling her dolly not to worry and that everything would be alright.
The man reappeared.
Here you go lad. He held the foot control up like a prize. He was very cheery but I think I saw a tear on his cheek. He’d been back to his mothers room, don’t forget. I set back to work.
The man asked me my name and I told him what it was. Then he asked me about my job and I told him about that. Then he asked where I lived and I told him where I did.
Ah. The land of bread and jam. He said. It’s always stuck in my mind in a funny kind of way.
Then he told me about himself. He’d been a dustbin man for many years. Each day he and his mates would ride in a dustcart and walk up and down the streets collecting people dustbins from outside their houses. He’d swing the dustbins up over his shoulders and onto his back and carry them out to the waiting dustcart where he’d empty the bins. Walking the streets and lifting and carrying and emptying bins.
He gave me another cheery smile as he watched me service his mothers machine. He seemed to like the way I did what I did.
Would you like another cup of tea, lad.
He went off to make another.
I finished the job. The machine cleaned and oiled. Tensions set and balanced. Electrics checked and tested. Machine test sewn. I wiped my hands on my old cloth.
I looked again at the wall unit only this time I did not see grass green felt and toy cows and sheep. For just a moment I think I caught a fleeting glimpse of what the man saw.
I saw rolling green hills and fields for as far as the eye could see. I saw fat lazy cows and contented sheep all gently grazing under a warm summer sun. In a far field I saw a farmer bounce along driving his tractor and I heard its distant rumble and I smelt the sweetness of that fresh country air.
The man appeared with his cheery smile two teas in his hands – and I looked upon him anew.