It has inhabited the space under the window in my mother’s living room for decades. It is as unnatural a wood colour as you could imagine while still being wood, waist high, as long as a coffin and weighs enough to make you think it might actually contain a rather corpulent body.
It wasn’t part of my childhood, although there were predecessors that I remember well. They were of equally mysterious origin and design. This particular sideboard though, entered my parents’ small living room when I wasn’t looking. Most likely while I was busy being something and doing something, somewhere else. I can’t remember when I first noticed it. In itself that’s surprising because it’s not an item that’s easily overlooked. If you saw it you would wonder how anyone wouldn’t remember the first time they saw it – rather like how people claim to remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when Kennedy, Lennon or Elvis died – because it’s so ‘there’.
The sideboard doesn’t blend in with the overall decor, doesn’t match any of the other wood furniture and certainly doesn’t harmonise with the soft leather suite. Rather, it hulks. If I were one to anthropomorphise inanimate objects, I would say that it’s like that large uncle who came for a weekend years back and just didn’t leave, but sat there, day after day, trying hard not to be noticed, while everyone around him pretended it was okay for him to still be there.
The last time I was in the same room as the sideboard I decided to give it a bit more attention – maybe in lieu of ignoring the uncle, now long dead. I was also trying to keep very quiet as my mother slept away the daytime hours in her armchair. I’m guessing it was made around the middle of the twentieth century. There’s nothing grand about it in the aesthetic sense; no inlaid wood, clawed feet or small drawers made exclusively for postage stamps. It’s a no-fuss piece of furniture built to do a job – the epitome of utilitarianism. It left the factory intended for a lifetime of storing, keeping, saving, guarding, holding, retaining, and just plain putting, of things that had no other natural place of residence…for example the drawer that held my mother’s ‘smoking accoutrements’, as she liked to call them when she was feeling posh.
Fortunately, my mother has since given up smoking (barely before it succeeded in giving her up) but she used to have a kind of telepathic connection with that drawer. It didn’t squeak or make any kind of noise but the second anyone touched it she would jump to attention, even from a deep sleep, and ask what the person thought they were doing nosing around her personal stuff. Never mind that underneath, in the cupboard part, were all her letters and documents that could throw a wickedly bright light on all sorts of family secrets. She cared only that one of her overprotective children would take it into their daft heads to clear out her stash.
The workmanship of the sideboard might be plain but it does not say temporary, or stop-gap. It certainly does not give the impression that it will do until you re-decorate or get bored with it. Such ideas were probably alien to the men who applied their planes and braces, chisels and saws, rasps and files to this behemoth that holds court in the sitting room of a small council house in London. I was, one day, admiring the dovetailing of its drawers – while picking my way through countless buttons from thrown away clothes, pieces of china patiently waiting to be glued together and a small collection of mobile phones that my mother had been bought but refused to use – when I found a page of non-verbal instructions for a small cupboard.
My father was an untrained but excellent handyman. If he made something, it lasted, be it a bunk bed (he made extra large ones for us when we were kids so that we could sleep two on top and two on the bottom), a rabbit hutch (that later served as a dog kennel once the bunny bounced off) or a conservatory that survived the great storm of 1987. He must have appreciated the workmanship in the sideboard and I’ve no doubt it was brought into the house by him after one of his famous trips to the house clearance auctions.
When he became sick he couldn’t handle heavy tools but still had the desire to make things. He’d decided to try a flat-pack cupboard he bought from a chain store that specialised in such things. The non-verbal instructions were ironic as by this time my father was also losing the ability to speak. The Allen keys were still just about manageable for him and he succeeded in making one last thing for his home, for his family. The new cupboard was a poor specimen, cheap material held together with a few dowels and screws, but it made a sick man feel useful. It soon chipped and lost its alignment, but wasn’t put out for the bin men until after my father died.
Just as the drawers hold dozens of useful things that never are used, so too the deep cupboards are full of useless items that are priceless. The most important are old biscuit tins full of even older photographs. Those smiling people, long gone, had the foresight to write on the back of the snaps – Cousin May with her Yorkshire terrier, Uncle Frank on his wedding day, Rita at Southend – keeping the accidental beholder connected to them.
Unfortunately, the accumulation of this pictorial family history slowed as my parents aged, and then ceased altogether with the advent of smartphones and the consequent near extinction of physical photos. Knowing that there are thousands of family shots on sim cards, computers and even in clouds is comforting, but really no substitute for the biscuit tin treasures to be found in sideboards all over the world.
A few years ago I would have confidently said that I would never purchase anything like that sideboard. I might even have added that I wouldn’t have taken it for free. Now, I’m not so sure. I look at the awful excuse for a sideboard sitting in my own house and wonder if the pretty pine, with its suspiciously perfect knots, is losing its appeal. Every drawer has had to be re-glued (no dovetailing here!) several times, and they can’t bear the weight of more than a few serviettes. The doors threaten to fall off if opened too energetically, and the feet actually do fall off whenever that poor facsimile of nineteenth century farmhouse fashion is moved for cleaning.
One day the thing that has inhabited the space under the window in my mother’s living room for decades will be emptied of its treasures, which will be duly distributed around the family. The keeper of the treasures will be harder to place. It won’t fit into a student bedsit, will clash with the genuine Victorian chaise, and is a bit too unpretentious even for shabby chic. I hope that when the time comes someone in the family will, nevertheless, take on the sideboard and allow it to hulk usefully for future generations.
Helen Kreeger was born and raised in London, but has lived elsewhere for many years. She has been published in Blunt Moms (USA), ARC 25, 26 and 27 (Israel), Writing District, (UK), Café Aphra (USA), Scrittura Lit Mag (UK), Free Flash Fiction, With Painted Words (UK), and Café Lit (UK).