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The Life of an Heirloom

About 150 years ago an English oak tree was felled and its timber taken to Yorkshire where a craftsman turned its rough-sawn planks into a beautiful cabinet with hand-cut dovetailed drawers, carved cupboard doors, and shelves fronted with bevelled-edged glass. Capped with a cloud-piercing pediment, the cabinet rarely escaped comment when seen for the first time.

The antique was an accidental acquisition. It belonged to a Mr Bolton—a patient of my parents’ nursing home in Devon—who gave me a hundred pounds towards a trip to Alaska after I gave him a slideshow of my recent ascent of a famous north face. A patriot, Mr Bolton gave me a small Union Jack commemorating Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee with the firm instruction: ‘I want you to plant this flag on the summit of your Alaskan mountain and show me a photo of it when you come back.’

I left the flag on the summit of Mount Huntington, but sadly Mr Bolton didn’t live long enough to see the photo. My parents bought his house and several large pieces of his furniture, including the antique cabinet which subsequently presided over much of my young adult life.

Years later, after the house was repossessed by the bank, my parents had to find a new home for the cabinet. I hired a truck and took it to Sheffield. Finding my rental house too small to accommodate it, a friend offered his garage where the dismantled cabinet spent a year in darkness, crawled upon by spiders until I bought a house and dragged the antique back into the light. It occupied a dominant position in our lounge, weighed down by twenty volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica which were never opened, and decorated with mementoes from exotic corners of the globe. The cabinet was there when our children were born, including my youngest, Rob, who is now a strapping twenty-five.

When we emigrated to Australia, we went by air while forty-four years of baggage went by forty-foot container on a ship—including the cabinet complete with unopened encyclopedias. Our rental house was too small for the cabinet, so it lived in another dark garage where the spiders were larger and more poisonous than their English cousins. Meanwhile, we built our next house. Designed around a bloated sense of what we needed, with five-metre high raked ceilings and enough space to practice our boomerang skills, the house made the cabinet seem small. But it was still granted the best position. Old, loved, and English, it was the heart of the home.

Then home the broke. I moved out; first into a tent, then to a shack by a river which I shared with loft-dwelling possums, white-tailed spiders, and see-sawing emotions, while my children stayed with their mother in the big house. When the house was sold the cabinet came back to me. I hired a truck and took all my baggage to a small town in the Wimmera where I felt at peace. Another shed for the cabinet, until the divorce settlement came through and I bought a house. Creaking beneath the weight of its unopened knowledge, the cabinet leaned over the casting couch for my next love; watching, as if by dint of all it knew of me, it held the casting vote.

After it had chosen, the cabinet travelled back to Melbourne where it dominated the lounges of my next two houses and the first seven years of my life with Rossy. Then Rossy and I sold up, shipped our combined baggage to a shed nine hours away in South Australia, drove away from Melbourne and its upcoming lockdowns and lived in a caravan with fresh air and freedom and watched from a distance while the world went mad.

We built a house by the sea. Unable to accommodate imposing Victorian furniture, we found another shed for the cabinet where it was impregnated with the aroma of wine from a hundred oak barrels being stored there en route to Scotland where they’d exchange wine for whiskey. Then came the notice: ‘More barrels are coming. I need the space.’ The party was over.

The cabinet was homeless again. After being in my life for forty-three years it was time to let it go. I contacted an antique dealer but no one was buying. Ikea landfill was more in demand than hand-made ornate furniture. I contacted my son, Rob: ‘I’ll have it if you can get it here.’

Last weekend, with help from a strong friend and a couple of piano trolleys, we loaded the cabinet onto a trailer and drove it to Melbourne where Rob and his girlfriend’s dad carried it into his house. It belongs to him now. Whatever attachment I’d felt for it will be doubly so for Rob, for while it’s been present for two-thirds of my life, it’s been around for all of his—a fact he was reminded of when he opened the bottom cupboard and removed a crumpled paper shelf-liner on which was scrawled a drawing by a child’s hand; his hand, or the hand of one of his sisters.

The cabinet that once belonged to Mr Bolton—whose flag must still be entombed in Alaskan snow—has passed from him to my parents, to me, and finally to my son. I wonder how long Rob will have it, and what it will know of him by the time he passes it on.


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