The wood sang its sweet song to Gwendolyn Harper, but for once she could not listen.
Most days, she could hear little else. Her ears filled with a thousand tunes and she was happy. Now there was no room in her broken heart for the joy of wood.
Sunday morning and the crowds were yet to arrive. Gwen worked in the timber section of Handy Pavilion, amongst the vast shelves of potential. Rough long baulks of framing pine, neat thin strips of hardwood decking, huge pallets overloaded with sheets of plywood and MDF. This was her kingdom and these were her people, and yet she would give it all away from one sweet kiss from the man she loved from afar.
Norman, his name was. Norman. Nor-man. New hire. Worked in power tools. He was a young man of perhaps twenty, perhaps less. He had a tufty little beard which didn’t suit him, and yet which could not obscure his beauty. There were tattoos up and down his arms. She wondered how far they extended beneath his shirt, beneath his apron.
Gwen had goggle eyes and was shaped like a barrel. She knew that people thought her about fifty years old, and half-Maori. That probably made her half white, but people didn’t bother saying that part. It didn’t matter. She was not fifty, nor Maori nor–for that matter–was she white.
She was startled from her thoughts by a burst of singing. A middle aged white man in a polo shirt was looking with a critical eye at a pallet of 3mm plywood. He picked up a piece and inspected it. Not a professional, but not a complete amateur either. Gwen had not seen him before, but imagined him a maker of bird feeders or dollhouses. The plywood sheets seemed to like him. They sang sweetly, their voices strong even in the vast echoing cavern of the Handy Pavilion. Too bad the man could not hear.
Sighing, she looked back to Norman, who was in deep conversation with Axel Platzoff. Axel had been acting weird lately, but Gwen only had eyes for Norman. Norman with his stringy hair and his tight, tight jeans.
Gwen’s parents had never cared for her to become involved in the selling of timber. They were old school. They loved the trees. And why should they not? Trees are wonderful, important things. But they are not the only things. There are houses and bookshelves and coffee tables. There are birdhouses and clocks and chairs and garden furniture. A tree is a tree. Timber is potential. Timber is a tree nearly grown up and wondering what to do with its life.
The man in the polo shirt picked a sheet of plywood that seemed to meet his requirements, then noticed something and approached Gwen. Was he going to ask for a discount over some flaw? No. The label had worn away, and the barcode was unreadable. It was an easy fix, but it made people uncertain.
“No worries,” she said. “We can fix that at the counter.”
“Thank you so much,” the man said. From his voice and manner, he was extremely middle-class and exceptionally polite. Probably one of those lefty types, happy to have a black woman to be polite to because it proved something something. “He’s a nice lad,” the man added.
“Who?” Gwen asked. She knew who he meant. Her question was an implication that it was none of his business, rather than a request for information.
“Well it’s none of my business,” he said.
There was a but coming.
“But I see you looking at the lad,” he added. “Shave him and wash him, and he’d be a handsome kid.”
“He’s not a lad, not a kid,” Gwen said. “He’s a grown man.”
The man laughed. “Of course. No offense meant. He’s a smart fellow, too. Bought one of the new Dremels from his department the other day, and he really knew his stuff. Don’t know if he’s single. But let’s be honest, do you think you’d be his first choice?”
Gwen flinched, as if he’d thrown a punch at her. She recovered, humiliated by his words, humiliated by her reaction.
“Okay, take your plywood and get the fuck out,” she said. She was breaching half a dozen company regulations, talking to him like this, but she didn’t care.
The man smiled and nodded apologetically. “I’ve spoken out of turn,” he said. “I’m sorry to have done so. Here, take my card. I owe you a favour. Feel free to call it in any time and I’ll do what I can. No charge.”
He passed her the card. Blinking back stinging tears she took it, fearful of breaking further regulations. When the man was out of sight, tried to tear it up. It resisted her attempt, remaining stubbornly whole. She grabbed it tighter and tore harder. Not only did it not rip, it left a shallow cut in the tips of her left fingers as the edge passed through them.
Only then did she look at the card. It read ‘Richard Pennington’. Beneath the man’s name she expected to see that he was a solicitor or maybe a dentist. Perhaps she thought it might say ‘The Devil’–but then she’d be the first to admit she was rather prone to cliché.
Instead, the little piece of white card read ‘Richard Pennington, M.Phil, Master Alchemist’.
The Pavilion was beginning to fill with the Sunday crowd. Every week they seemed to arrive earlier, all trying to beat the crowd. Humans. Pack behaviour defined them, even as they attempted to mitigate its effects. Gwen looked down at the card in her hand, and looked up to Norman. To his obvious relief, a customer had given him the chance to get away from Axel. Now he was showing a cordless drill to a baffled looking young man.
Gwendolyn Harper listened to the song of the timber, audible even as the Pavilion filled with noise. Once again, she found that she could appreciate its beauty.