It is my cardinal principle that I should always be open to fresher experiences. Life is more interesting and you forget to grow old that way. So accordingly, after my Two and a Half Hour Tai-Chi class I was sauntering along this quiet road. It was a hot day and I was gently steaming with sweat, that sort of sexy sweat that makes you wonder what was going to happen next. And that was how I met this old man. He was outside a house working over someone’s antique table. He was short and stocky, very pink faced in the sun; he was wearing an old sea Captain’s hat and all around the fringes his grey hair showed. I stopped to say hello. He replied very rudely but then he suddenly looked up and I think that was the moment we clicked.
Within seconds we were laughing in half mockery at each other. He showed me how he was working to replace green leather top to the antique writing table. He spat on the mold he used to make impressions along the edges of the leather cloth; then he held a blow torch to it. “Watch carefully”, he said, “when the spit sizzles and bubbles the mold is hot enough to press down on the leather and make an impression on it”. He pressed down and rolled the mold along the edge of the table cloth. Then he dipped his finger in some vile looking substance and rubbed it over the impression the mold made. All the time he was talking, explaining what he was doing. Suddenly, I, at my venerable age, was acting the apprentice to this even older man.
Life is funny that way. We were talking non-stop, butting into each others sentences eager to out do each others experiences and exploits. It was too magical to stop. This old man was too precious to let go. I suggested a drink. He lifted his hat and scratched his head. Then he pulled out his wallet and showed me there was no money in it. Next he emptied his pockets and put the contents on the table. There was only folks, an original Alexander the Great coin all squashed and flattened big but very obviously with the head of the Greek Conqueror, worth a whole lot of money; then there was a Chinese coin from about 900 AD and also a Roman coin from the time of Christ. Along with this there were two flints from the last ice age. I believed him. It was all too obviously daft to be a put on! This may be his party trick and he may have done it many times before but it still did not take the magic away and, the man and everything about him was genuine. I had a feeling he was tweaking my nose but underneath that humour there lurked a genuine character. I did not mind buying him a drink, hell, I did not mind buying him many drinks if I could chat to him for some time. So that is what we did. He had to work on the table and let it dry. I went away and cashed some money. I knew then this was going to be a long afternoon.
We went to the local pub, chose a comfortable corner and sat down. We talked of the war, he was eighty years old, we talked of many countries most of which he had traveled, he tried his Russian and his French and his Italian on me; We laughed at politicians and their imbecility, we told stories about women, we bragged about the deals we had made. His deals were more serious and larger in terms of money than mine; he told me stories of how he made money on property and lost it all over and over again, he told me stories of how he would traverse countries in search of brass or gold or artifacts all the time chuckling pink faced as the cider got to him. For me it was like being a young man again drinking with friends with no care for time. His wife then called. That is the curse of mobile phones. She woke us up momentarily from our dreams.
He explained politely that he had met a friend and could she eat by herself just for tonight. Then we resumed our boyish chatter, vying to outdo each other with our stories.
It was getting late. We had been in that pub for four hours and the talk veered again to the value of antiques. He then stumped me with his trump card. He told me where there was a beautiful Charles X chair made of French walnut for sale. I was well and truly nailed. How could I ever resist a Charles X chair made of French walnut? I had never heard of one before but what with the drink and our spirits I felt I had never ever sat on a chair that was not a Charles X chair made of French walnut. The devil-may-care spirits of my youth once again descended on me.
Bow legged and holding on to each other we went in search of the Charles X chair made of French walnut. It was in the attic room of a friend of a friend. We climbed dark stairs, we peered into the gloom and I just perceived a very ordinary looking chair in the corner under a load of abandoned picture frames. With my expert eye I scanned the chair and with my expert hands I stroked the wood. Yes, I said sagely, that could be French walnut. What made me think it was French walnut as opposed to English walnut or German walnut or Italian walnut, Lord only knows. The seat was woven rush. I vaguely recollected seeing something similar in old French houses but those in France could have come straight from IKEA for all I knew.
I have a wholly unhealthy faith in my instinct and anyhow even through it all I knew alcohol could make fools of us all. But I just knew all would be well because my new friend was too knowledgeable and too proud and too good natured to slip me a bad deal.
That was how two old drunks happened to carry a two hundred year old chair through the streets of the town, taking turns to sit on it every few yards, laughing like children, smacking each and bending over in uncontrollable laughter like they do in films.
That chair cost me more money than I could afford, but friends, the experience was more valuable to me than the cost of the chair and to make the story just such a perfect fairy tale, the chair is I believe the real article. It is folks, a Charles X chair made out of French walnut. I have pictured it above. Judge for yourselves.
But the point of this post is not about the chair, it is not about my new found friend, it is not even about what a great time we had. It is about opening ourselves to new experiences. Henry James, as I have remarked before, calls it opening yourselves to “wider existences”. I am always boring my friends with that phrase. Hold on to that wonder. Let the world into your hearts. Be like children again. Do! Have fun!
Who knows, you too might end up owning a Charles X chair made of French walnut!
So long folks!