Not every writing desk has a hidden compartment.
Not every grandfather has a colourful past.
Not every grandfather starts out as a beige, boring bloke who has nothing interesting to say and turns into a charismatic public speaker driving a classic Bentley.
Sadly, I don’t know what happened to the Bentley or any of my grandfather’s possessions, with the exception of his writing desk.
I come from a long line of dull, steady males. The family business, so to speak, is numbers. More specifically, we have a skill for managing money — other people’s’, and in recent times, our own. Despite there being nine children in my grandfather’s family, his wealth was such that all his children inherited a vast fortune, and because of the aforementioned propensity for money management, our family is extremely well off — except for Uncle Billy, but that is a whole other story.
The writing desk arrived on the back of an ancient Chevy truck — early 1950s was my guess.
“Must be a bugger trying to get parts for that,” I said pointing at the relic of a previous century.
“Not really, I’ve been collecting ‘em for forty years. Used to be everywhere once. I keep two working and cannibalise the others for parts. People love ‘em. Just seeing them driving around gets me heaps of work — more than I can handle.”
He had a point, but the big rear wheels meant that it was quite a drop from the tray — a steep ramp and an ageing furniture removalist made for an unsettling spectacle.
Jim — he didn’t like being called James, even though his name was in metre high letters on the side of the truck — survived the ride down the ramp with the trolley and my newly acquired writing desk.
“I’ll bet you paid a pretty penny for this beauty?” said Jim, who was in danger of becoming chatty.
“Inherited it. Do you think it’s worth a bit?” I said.
“I don’t see pieces like this much anymore. Mostly, hard to move chipboard crap. This is old and well made. Weighs a ton, but that’s okay. I need to move something interesting now and then, or I start to wonder why I’m still doing this at my age.”
“I noticed that your truck says, and sons,” I didn’t get to finish my thought.
“Boys aren’t interested in the business. Moving shit around is beneath them, I guess.”
I didn’t push it because he sounded sad and I understood family disappointment.
“Can you put it in the front room, the one on the left?” I asked.
“Anywhere you like mate. It’s all the same to me,” he said with the hint of a friendly smile.
From the window of my house, I watched him pack up his truck and drive away.
My Californian bungalow was built in the 1930s in a quiet working-class suburb of Melbourne — my parents’ house, back in the day. They did the predictable thing and sold up and moved to Queensland where they promptly died. They lived long enough to get a decent tan before a tourist bus, laden with people from far away, compressed their car to the size of a pizza box.
A boring life lived for just one goal — to retire. A distracted bus driver took away their dream of unlimited shopping for ugly clothes and endless games of golf and poker.
My siblings and I were bequeathed an equal share of a considerable estate, and I took some of it and bought back our family home. The planets aligned and the property was for sale. “You were lucky to get this house — I had several buyers lined up — all original features.” I waited for his lips to stop moving before asking for the keys. His blue suit did not have a single spec of dust on it — I know this because I was inspecting it while he was giving me real estate speak, at a mile a minute.
“Luck had nothing to do with it,” I said when there was a nanosecond break in his speech.
“Luck had nothing to do with it. I paid 15% over the asking price, and I slipped your colleague $10,000 to make sure that the vendors didn’t get greedy.”
The man in the dust free blue suit didn’t speak again, and I could tell that his colleague had neglected to mention the little sweetener I had provided.
I remember my father saying that the writing desk had been in the family for a long time and that my grandfather had made some alterations to it.
It had been several months since the settling of my parent’s estate, so the arrival of the writing desk came as a surprise. It was my understanding that all their possessions were to be sold at auction. There wasn’t any paperwork — no explanation, just the desk. I was glad I was home when it came — finding it on my front doorstep would not have put a smile on my face.
I let it sit for several days until my curiosity got the better of me.
There was not a lot going on at the office, so I took a few days off to organise my newly acquired house. The inside of the house was still much the same as I remembered it as a kid. Naturally, some things were different, but all the features that made it unique were still there. The beautiful doors, the wood panelling and the polished floors. The pencil marks on the inside of the linen press doors had been lacquered over, which was a shame. I remember my mum lining me up every year on my birthday and carefully checking to see that my feet were flat on the floor.
Miraculously, the ornate brass key was still in the lock of the writing desk. It had a cardboard ticket attached to it by a thin yellowing string. There was something written on it in pencil, but it was indecipherable.
I turned the key, and the lock clicked into place easily. The timber shutter rolled back smoothly revealing the many pigeon holes and the embossed writing surface. The green leather inlay had been well used and was showing signs of wear. As far as I could see, there wasn’t anything in any of the compartments, but I was determined to search thoroughly — you never know what you may find. I’ve purchased some old pieces of furniture over the years, and some have produced the occasional gem. Old receipts taped to the bottom of drawers (did the new owners plan to return the piece for a refund?)
It was a warm afternoon. An intense light came through the windows of what was once my parents’ bedroom. To this day I’m not sure why, but I was sleeping in my old room just down the hall. The writing desk had my parent’s bedroom all to itself.
I pulled the heavy desk away from the wall, prised the thin timber planks from the back and peered inside. I saw what I expected to see — the superb workmanship of a master cabinetmaker. His maker’s mark was burned into the side of the cabinet where no-one would ever see it until the unit came apart from age and neglect. I sat and looked at his name burned gently into the rich cedar boards and tried to imagine what he was thinking before he completed his work by nailing on the wide planks at the back of the unit.
The wear on the drawer runners revealed which drawers had been the most popular.
The layout was beautiful and straightforward until I came to a feature that did not make sense. For a moment, I forgot that I was looking at the reverse side of a set of drawers because I was staring at a small drawer face which could only open in my direction — a hidden drawer! Exactly what I had hoped to find.
Usually, hidden drawers are activated by a lever mechanism. They reflected the security consciousness of their owner and the skill of their creator.
On this occasion, the owner did not want anyone to stumble upon its existence — this truly was a secret drawer.
You know that my breathing changed as I reached for the finger sized hole that served as a handle. Skillfully crafted, this drawer moved with the same ease as its more used cousins. I pulled it all the way out and held it in my hand. The drawer was not much larger than a packet of cigarettes and contained a silk wrapped mystery. An adventurous and inventive moth had nibbled at the edge of the exquisite fabric, but it was still intact. I delicately unfolded the cloth. The tender care that someone had taken reminded me of Furoshiki, the ancient art of Japanese gift wrapping.
Once revealed, the contents proved to be Chinese not Japanese, which was equally intriguing. A single gold coin, about the size of a fifty cent piece wrapped in an ancient material, probably velum. The words written on the vellum were Chinese in origin and my Chinese language skills were, and still are, deplorable.
“A gold coin and a bit of cloth with Chinese characters drawn in ink.”
“Let me have a look,” said the only Chinese friend I had at that time. Linda was born in Australia, but her parents insisted that she learn their native tongue.
“I have never seen some of these symbols before, but I’m pretty sure that that one says danger and this one here means crayfish,” said Linda.
It didn’t say crayfish, but I didn’t hold it against her. Her Chinese language professor spent two days researching the script, and when he got back to Linda he handed her the piece of material as if it was infected with smallpox, and he was a Canadian Indian.
“Take my advice and burn this,” he said with his grim eyes wide open. “I don’t know where you got it and I don’t want to know. Just get rid of it. Nothing good can come of this.”
Linda said that he would not talk to her after that and a short while later he resigned and moved to the United States where he became a huge success as a television evangelist.
“The dude was an atheist, for fuck sake,” said Linda one Friday night over several gin and tonics.
“I didn’t think Chinese people drank gin and tonic,” I said, just to make conversation.
“Fuck you and your little dog, white boy,” was her reply.
“No need to pick on the dog, lady,” was my retort.
It went on like that for about another hour and then I had to go. I jumped on a number twelve tram because I was in no fit state to drive.
I’m a circumspect kind of bloke, but the time had come.
When I arrived home, I had sobered up a bit, which was just as well. I fed my small dog which Linda had threatened to penetrate and took the translation that the recently installed televangelist had provided and sat in the comfortable chair by the gas fire.
I’d been foolishly carrying the gold coin around with me since I found it. I retrieved it from my pocket and held it in my left hand.
I was sick of being average.
I wanted what my grandfather had.
I held on tightly to the elaborately carved coin and carefully recited the words.
I tried facing in different directions — nothing happened.
I tried speaking slowly, shouting until my voice hurt, whispering — nothing happened.
My small dog sat patiently as I ran through these routines — he’s cool, he doesn’t judge.
I went to bed that night and slept soundly; my little dog curled up next to me. I should have been upset or angry, but I wasn’t. I felt light and free. As unencumbered as I have ever felt — no fear, no anxiety.
When I woke, I showered and ate breakfast, fed the dog and took him for a walk. At the end of our morning journey, I found an average sized man in an expensive suit standing on my verandah.
“Good morning. Are you Michael Find?” said the expensive suit.
“Yes, I am. Can I help you?” My small dog sniffed him and decided that he was not a threat. I trust my dog’s instincts when it comes to all things human.
“We received your manuscript, and they flew me down from Sydney just to talk to you about it. I can’t remember the last time they did that. The taxi dropped me off and left me here, and I’ve been waiting for you for nearly an hour.” He didn’t sound annoyed — he sounded desperate. “They told me if I didn’t come back with your signature on a contract they would make me read young adult manuscripts from the slush pile for the next twelve months.”
“You are going to have to slow down, man. I have no idea what this is all about,” I said. Amazingly, I still wasn’t angry, annoyed or anxious — I’d been like this since I woke up — it was an awesome way to be. “Come inside, and I’ll make us some coffee.”
I opened the big old redwood front door and led him into my kitchen. The coffee didn’t take long to brew, and we sat around the green Laminex kitchen table that I found sitting on my neighbour’s lawn a few weeks ago. I gave the desperate suit owner my second favourite coffee mug. I had to glue the handle back onto it after the move. I could have thrown it out, but some things should be repaired and cherished. This was the first time it had held coffee since its resurrection, and I admit to wondering if the glue was dry.
While staring at the patterns on the surface of my coffee, I remembered sending my manuscript to a bunch of publishers — about eighteen months ago.
“Who did you say you worked for?” I asked.
“Harper Collins,” he said, and I was sure that was one of them. “You haven’t signed with anyone else, have you? My boss will kill me if you have.”
“No, it’s still up for grabs.”
Whenever I come back from walking the dog, I always check the answering machine attached to my land line — yes, I still have one of those. The only time I receive phone calls is when I go to the toilet or walk the dog — which is one of many things that I am destined never to understand.
In all the excitement, I hadn’t checked, and something told me it would be a good idea if I did that now.
The red light was blinking and by the time the man from Harper Collins had finished his coffee I’d written down fourteen numbers — all from publishers wanting me to call them back urgently — I didn’t. Harper Collins had lost sleep to catch an early flight and sit on my verandah. He would do. The contract had more zeros than I had seen in a while and I knew that when I re-signed in twelve month’s time, I could name my price. That was how it would go — I knew what this was.
The symbol that Linda thought stood for crayfish was, in fact, an ancient symbol for turning one hundred and eighty degrees. ‘A complete turn around’ in modern parlance.
That was what happened to my grandfather — he turned from being an annoying arsehole into a mega successful real estate mogul — and it all happened overnight, so to speak.
He divorced his wife and married his curvaceous secretary, bought an expensive German car and holidayed in Europe — oh, and bought an antique writing desk.