I looked over the low wall into my neighbour's garden. "You having problems with that door Louise?" I hadn't heard her swear before.
"You could say that George. I bought these new tee hinges because the old ones were rusted through and now I find the post is too rotten for the screws to hold the bottom one. I'll have to go to B & Q in town and get another piece of wood."
"You'd go all the way into town and pay a high price for a piece of wood when your next door neighbour has a woodworking business and probably more than enough in his scrap box?"
"Not from choice, but you know what Gregory is like when he sees me even talking to you."
"He's afraid that my handsome physique and natural charm will seduce you away from him?"
"Hardly." She giggled as she looked at me in my old, blue bib-and-brace overalls. Her face registered shock when I clambered over the wall and jumped down on to her lawn. "He's in his office, he'll see you."
"Let him, you need professional advice on this job. Have you determined how far the rot extends?" She shook her head, no. "Then you really do need professional advice."
After prodding the surrounding woodwork with my pocket-knife for some minutes and suggesting that all the cladding on the front of the shed needed to be renewed, Louise looked despondent. "It's not your fault or anything you did that caused the problem. The previous owners tried to hide the shed by planting bushes in front and these kept the wood damp and didn't allow them to creosote it. You removed the shrubs, but the damage was already done. The bottom of the door is rotted and so are most of the lower boards either side."
"What are you doing here Carter?" The angry voice I knew belonged to Louise's husband.
"Mrs. Sillett to you Carter."
I wasn't about to go down that route, not for that pompous, arrogant, stuck-up pratt. "As we are neighbours and as she needs advice on a wood rot problem, I'll stick to Louise, if you don't mind, Gregory." I deliberately used his first name too.
"It only needs a coat of paint. You're just trying to up the job and make it cost more. Typical cowboy builder method."
I could easily have hit him for that remark but with Louise there, I held myself in check. "With the motor mower, strimmer, hedge cutter and all the other hand tools in there, there's probably over two grand's worth of equipment and you want to complain over a few pounds of materials? Even an accountant should see that is most unwise."
"Gregory," Louise cut in quietly, her voice quivering slightly with controlled anger, "If you can fix this door with a coat of paint, then get out of your office, leave your computer and do it." She waited a few moments before going on, "I thought not. If it doesn't involve pushing a mouse or opening a spreadsheet, you are completely out of your depth and useless. That's why I do all the gardening and decorating and such repairs as I can. People come to you for investment advice because you are familiar with stock markets and such-like and they know you know what you are talking about. I'm asking George for advice on this rotten wood because that's his job and he knows what needs doing. I shall, if he agrees to help, be doing the work, so the extra cost will be minimal. If that means he comes over here or I have to work in his workshop, so be it. You can watch from your office or come and check but I must ask you to keep your opinions to yourself and not presume to know more about it than someone who has learned the trade. Now I'm sure you have other work to do."
I'd never heard her speak to him like that before and it amused me to see how red his face went and he blustered a bit before turning on his heels and returning inside.
"I hope I didn't put you in an impossible position George, he just wanted to belittle you and my efforts. What are my chances of doing the job? The tools I have are fairly limited as is my skill."
"With a little help from your friends?" She smiled and nodded. "Very good, but you'll have to make a complete new door as it is a non standard size and if you try and repair this one, it will only last a year or so and then you'll have to make another anyway."
"Can I put a window in it?"
"Yes, with even more help from your friends, but it will mean more work and take longer. Let's see if we can find some sound wood higher up to fix the bottom hinge temporarily and measure up to see what materials we'll need."
Over the next few weeks, mainly at evenings and weekends, Louise spent many hours in my workshop and I enjoyed her company and she seemed to enjoy mine. At 34 years old, even in her 'work' or gardening clothes, she looked very attractive and her sense of humour complimented my own. Not only that, she'd inherent practical skills, enjoyed working with wood and, with only minor mistakes, made a good job of the door and of replacing the shed front. Partly to prolong her company, I suggested we re-felt the roof. It would need doing in a year or two anyway but wasn't in dire need at the time. Finally she proudly painted the door bright green and creosoted the surrounding new woodwork, something Greg complained about because the smell pervaded her clothing. All through our time together, we behaved correctly and the only time I held her hand was to remove a splinter that entered her thumb. Gregory never came to check on her while in my workshop but we knew he watched when we worked outside and, while he didn't directly stop her from working with me, made snide remarks about her doing a tradesman's work and became angry if he saw us laughing and joking together.
All too soon, from my point of view and I think from hers too, we finished the job and I only saw her when out in the garden. Six weeks went by and then, one evening, I answered a knock on the door and to my astonishment she stood on the doorstep. "George, feel free to say no, but I miss the woodworking and working in your shop and I wondered if you would mind if I made a couple of Christmas presents? I'd like to make a jewellery box for mother and a box for Gregory. His would be a surprise gift and perhaps he'll realise that I have some talent for woodwork and I can do things other than cook his meals, wash and iron his shirts and decorate the house. I thought for him, a box like they have for collections in churches would be a good idea. He puts all his 5p and 10p pieces in a bottle at the moment and when it's full, he donates it to charity, so I thought a nice box with a coin slot in the top and some way of getting the money out later would be a good idea." Of course, I was only too pleased to have her company again but I wondered how she managed to persuade Gregory to let her do it. "I told him I was going to do it whether he liked it or not. I need a bit of freedom to do my own thing," she said. Over the weeks it took to make the boxes, I learned that all was not well in their relationship, although she didn't go into details.
We decided on mahogany boxes, dovetailed together and with chip-carved decoration. I added the refinements, again to prolong her time with me, because she would need to practice the techniques before working on the boxes. More frequently now we 'accidentally' touched each other but always the action was covert. Never did we hug or kiss. Only once did Gregory call round and then only to bring a visitor friend of Louise's who didn't wish to come to my workshop in the dark. He opened the door abruptly and without knocking so we guessed he half hoped to find us in a compromising situation. As it happened we were at separate benches, me gluing up a frame and her chipping away at her carving.
A week before Christmas both boxes were finished, in fact they were finished before that but we found the need to keep applying more wax and buffing it up to enhance the finish. In truth, it made little or no difference but both of us tried to believe it did. That weekend she packed her mother's box and made two hour drive to give the present to her. They didn't see each other too often and her mother opened it straightaway. "She was over the moon with it and could not believe I'd made it," Louise told me later, "I had to explain all the processes before she was convinced I hadn't bought it. She said to say 'thank you' to you for showing me how." I'm sure she half expected Gregory to do the same when he received his, but it was not to be.
Early on Christmas morning, a knock on the kitchen window while I prepared breakfast, alerted me to Louise crying outside. Putting the box on the kitchen table she sobbed on to my chest while I held her tightly. "What happened Louise? I guess he didn't like it."
Several minutes later she'd composed herself enough to tell me. He unpacked it, looked at it for no more than two seconds before tossing it on the bed and said, "At which car boot sale did you buy this ugly thing?" I'm sure he knew I made it and that you'd helped. Probably it was a reaction to all the time I spent with you that made him reject it in such a horrible way. When I started crying he just ordered me to finish packing ready to spend the two days over Christmas at his mother's." I continued to hug and comfort her until another knock on the window. Gregory peered in and when he had our attention signalled Louise to come out and go with him. She shook her head no and I held her tightly. I thought he would come in and try to take her by force but after some hesitation, he turned and left. I'm no macho man but my work keeps me fit, his sedentary, computer based occupation, made him soft and overweight and I knew the outcome of any tussle would be in my favour. Minutes later we heard his car drive off.