Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A guest at my table - Arthur Bentley

People often reveal more about themselves than they mean to in the way that they live their lives. Some people don't want to shout about themselves or draw unnecessary attention, but in their quietness and inner completeness they shine a light far brighter for its contrast. Arthur Bentley was one such person.

I don't remember quite what the necessity was that drew me into the shop, but it must have been quite pressing because the outside window was distinctly unfavourable. It was a small, depressing little town, limping on with the imminent threat of closure of the local tin mine. And our nearest town. When my then husband first took me there I nearly turned the car around and left the county there and then. Every area has its grim reality sited not far from its picturesque; but both are two sides of the same, and to know one you have to understand the other.

The town itself consisted mainly of little run down shops selling cheaply-made items at budget prices. It was tempting to go elsewhere. Indeed, to be fair, I often did. But proximity has a draw and often popping in for something is all you want to do. Mr Bentley's Hardware store was just a little run down shop on a back road with dark brown woodwork and peeling varnish on the outside. The windows were dirty with caked on grime and the display of assorted items looked like it had been there since the early '70s.

There was a whitish laminated pegboard with hooks at odd heights to which a strange and random assortment of items had been added, as if done without any thought whatsoever, though surely that had not been the case. There were thin plastic hooks for doors that bent under the slightest weight, blue nylon meshy pan scrubs like spaceships, and corn-on-the-cob skewers in vivid yellow plastic. All looking a little tarnished by age. Inside appeared, at first glance, to not be much better. The same cheap items lined the shelves. The floor was clean in some areas but not others. I can't remember whether there were actual wood shavings on the floor or not, but there was certainly a heavy gathering of something rounding the shape of the room and preventing entry in all directions.

Whatever brought me into the little shop that warm late summer afternoon when shafts of light bounced dust particles up and down  suspension ropes holding the walls to the inside, was obviously found and purchased. And so I returned, again and again. I soon found that the shop was in fact a tardis and the quickest route was to simply ask for what I wanted, however unlikely I thought it to be. Time after time Mr Bentley would disappear to a far off shelf under the cloak of dust, or open one of the row upon row of tiny draws behind the till and reappear with something in his hand. This front part was the only part of the shop to appear looked after. It gleamed with polish, mahogany handles and care; a stark contrast to the layer of dust elsewhere, making it appear like two-tone shoes. But Mr Bentley seemed not to notice.

As time went by I began to learn that there were things here I couldn't find elsewhere. Sometimes I was astounded that such things still existed. We lived in a mid 19th Century farmhouse/cottage and were keen to dress it likewise, with simplicity. That hooks were still being made and hinges in the same shapes was wonderful news. But with every transaction there was a necessary time factor to consider. If I was merely nipping in I needed to allow an extra five minutes, for every purchase was neatly and correctly packaged in old newspaper and tied with string. There was no quick exit; it was part of the deal.

Standing there in his Dad's old brown shop coat, I gradually learned more about the quietly smiling Arthur Bentley, hiding behind his full beard and glasses. He had been a History teacher upcountry for many years, but now in his early sixties had given it all up to come back to his childhood home after his mum and dad had died in quick succession. He had no wife, no family, responsibilities or great needs. He lived simply and quietly and it gave him pleasure to be here in this quiet space with the occasional ring of the bell on the back of the door giving a slow rhythm to his life. I saw in the old fashioned rows of tiny drawers, so highly polished, a way he found to give meaning to his existence, to keep a bit of the past - his past - alive in a way that gave him comfort. All this was long before such places became popular in 'nice' villages in the Cotswolds, before shabby chic, before even that long-lost town got an urgent makeover under  E U grants for rural poverty.

Arthur shared a little of my vision for a past that never quite existed. And, just as I loved to watch him tie each parcel lovingly in newspaper and string, in a manner to which I don't ever remember being seen done in my lifetime, he would help me search for unusual items. In an era before enamelware was everywhere in shabby chic shops, it was harder to find and the best was made almost exclusively in Poland from ancient thick world war 2 machinery, giving a thick coat of white with a dark blue edge. Arthur and I would pore over the thick paper catalogue of line drawings of large pitcher jugs and milk pails (for my goats). Sometimes these would have to be ordered and might take a few weeks to arrive from Poland but I don't remember ever being disappointed in my quest.

Standing here now with him idly stirring the Risotto and me polishing wine glasses for reasons unknown (but exclusively connected with my guest), we are both drinking in the calmness and the quiet. The sound of the stream, only feet away below my kitchen window, is the loudest thing around. We talk intermittently and lapse into a pleasant silence. There is no need or hurry. Like the Risotto, it is to savoured.

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