The Custodian

Here was the beginning.  A scratch, no more.   An inch or so of ragged edge, a tiny rift.  Yet, scored across a patina of mahogany that had seen the passing of two hundred and twenty-five years, such a mark was a sacrilege, a venial sin.

How proud was Mrs Birdhoot of that table; how honoured she felt to be its custodian, how acute her distress when a carelessly rested piece of mechanical foolishness with its sharp metal edge had caused the hurt!

“We never own such art,” Berkley, her son by her first marriage had reminded her; “We merely share the honour of preserving it for another generation.”

Tegan Birdhoot had wept and worried about the scratch for days.  She felt she had betrayed the trust of Berkley, her darling Berkley, who had found the table for her at a fashionable London dealer.  “Mother, you will love this!”  And she did.

Her husband, Roydon Birdhoot, only shared her appreciation of the table for its value, but she forgave him because his money brought many treasures within her reach, to be snared by his ample chequebook.  His joy was in ownership.  He was no custodian.  In his mind the table was his; a shrewd investment to be exhibited to those whose admiration he sought..

.  Mr Birdhoot was usually severe in his censure of Tegan because she was his third wife and he could not overcome his mistrust of women.  All the more surprising, then, that he seemed only vaguely concerned by this sullying of his table’s lustre.  “Unfortunate, but a simple mark.  I’m sure you can find somebody to get it repaired, Tegan, my dear.”

Tegan readily assented, and sought the services of ‘Peterkin and Son, Restorers of Fine Furniture’ for the task…

Martin Peterkin came.  He spent an age, it seemed, with his nose almost touching the table top and his spectacles, free-roaming, equally close.  Now and then he would push the rebellious lenses back into place, and gradually, when they thought he was not paying attention, they would slip down his nose again.

Tegan was solicitous.  “Are you all right, Mister Peterkin?”  She feared he might have fallen asleep.

Martin looked up with a start, and his spectacles made a run for it. He jammed them irritably back into place.  “Yes!  Yes, Mrs Birdhoot.  Yes.”  He ran the flat of his hand over the table’s surface once, paused, then repeated the gesture, several times.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” Tegan asked.

“No.  No, thank you.  It’s a nice card table.”

“Do you think so?  My son found it for us; it’s Georgian, about 1790, Berkley says.  Berkley is so knowledgeable about these things.  I love Sheraton!”

“Do you?  Yes, yes; although this table is not actually Sheraton, of course.”

Tegan’s jaw fell the number of inches required for her mouth to accept a golf ball.  “I do not believe I heard you correctly, Mr Peterkin, did you say, ‘not Sheraton’?  It so obviously is.”

“A late nineteenth-century copy, often known as Sheraton Revival. The Victorians liked Sheraton too. The quality of the relief carving gives it away. I do hope you didn’t pay too much?”

“No; fortunately, it seems.”  Tegan silently wondered:  was the twelve thousand pounds she had persuaded her husband to pay for the table too much?  “Can you manage to take out the scratch?”

Martin raised himself above table level to inspect the mark defacing the table’s finely polished mahogany top.  “We should be able to take care of the scratch for you.”

There was a note of reserve in Martin’s voice that Tegan found disturbing, “Well, there’s nothing else wrong with it.”  Then, having paused for reflection:  “Is there?”

Martin saddened her with a look, before lowering his head to the level of the table-top once again.  “There is crazing to the finish, though no more than you would expect to find in a table of this age, but…”  He ran a reverent hand over the folded top of the table, two or three more times, as though each pass might reveal a hidden message in Sanskrit, or awaken songs of tree spirits long dead.  “Please, Mrs Birdhoot, you must feel this for yourself.”

Bewildered, Tegan came to the table, replicating his gesture with a trembling hand.

“There, you feel it?”  Martin asked, removing his spectacles and meeting her turquoise eyes with his own earnest blue stare.  “It’s like a very slight ripple, but indisputably there. The veneer, I’m afraid, is raised.”

Tegan might have demurred, were she not aware of her lack of sensitivity in the touching department.  Cats she stroked had a tendency to spit at her.  “What does that mean?”

“It’s quite common in furniture of this age.  In an original Sheraton the construction would have been solid mahogany; this cabinet maker elected to use veneer on a cheaper wood, which has become unglued. That is the culprit…”  Martin waved an accusing finger at a nearby radiator.

“The heat?”

“Also…also the dryness of the air, yes.  Victorian furniture was made of wood seasoned less thoroughly than the timber we use today, I fear.  Shrinkage can cause it to crack, or as in this case the glue to let go,”   Martin shook his head sorrowfully and drew himself erect; “Thickly sliced veneers, you see?”

“It’s only very slight.  Barely detectable,” Tegan muttered, reluctant to admit she could not feel the defect at all.

“Slight, but enough.  Mrs Birdhoot, I can patch up the scratch but I cannot repair your table.”  Martin gave his verdict in a dolorous tone, “When I prepare the surface there will be movement, you see?  The veneer will move.  There is no stability.  The only way is to strip off the old and replace the veneer, renew the boxwood stringing, everything.”

“Oh, my goodness!  At what cost, I wonder?”

“I would have to ask for more than a thousand pounds. And the result would be serviceable to look at, but any expert would detect new, thinner veneers.  The restoration would devalue it.  Whereas a Sheraton Revival table in good condition might command a figure of, say, six or seven hundred pounds, a restored example could not expect to fetch more than four.”

Six or seven hundred??”  Tegan face was pale with anguish.

“Just so.  Repair is quite impossible, you see?  Economically absurd.”  Then, thinking for a moment, Martin said:  “Second opinion.  Yes, you must certainly seek a second opinion.  I will leave you with that thought, shall I?  No, please; I do not charge for this kind of consultation, Mrs Birdhoot:  I’m sorry I could not bring you better news.”

The visit was suddenly over.  Martin Peterkin, restorer and cabinet maker with the most impeccable reputation, was leaving.  Mrs Birdhoot, whose husband had invited his friend Ellis Margrave to her dinner party this very evening in the expectation that the table would be on show, was panicking.

“Take it!”  Mrs Birdhoot blurted; “The table.  Take it with you!”

Peterkin’s head ratcheted carefully around.  He carefully replied:  “You want me to repair the table?”

“Yes.  No!  Oh, Mr Peterkin, I must be honest with you.  I shall pay you rent, of course, but I cannot have the table in the house tonight.  I have a dinner guest who is an expert in antiques and who, I am sure, will verify your findings.”

“Ah.  Your second opinion.”

“Yes, but when he informs my husband that on my son’s advice I have used his money to buy a fake, there will be consequences.”

“Madam, a Victorian reproduction hardly qualifies as a fake!  I take it your husband believes it to be a genuine Thomas Sheraton.  He will be displeased?”

“Litigious, I should think.”

“An expert in antiques, you say?”

“He has friends,” Mrs Birdhoot lowered her voice deferentially, “At Southerby’s.”

“Dear, dear!  I see your difficulty, Mrs Birdhoot; yes, I do.”  Martin gave repeated nods to emphasise his appreciation.  Eventually:  “Very well, I shall store this table for you.  Let me give you a receipt…”

“You won’t describe it as ‘Sheraton Revival?”

“I shall merely say ‘antique card table’.”

“Thank you.  I shall tell my husband the table has been taken for repair, and I shall think of another stratagem to avert the crisis.  Oh, Mr. Peterkin, I am so grateful!”

Roydon Birdhoot was satisfied with his wife’s explanation for the table’s absence and impressed by her choice of restorer.  “I have heard he does very fine work.”

Her dinner went as well as Tegan Birdhoot’s dinners were wont to go.  Her husband’s celebrated guest Ellis Margrave was wooed by her Coquille Saint Jacques then charmed into satiety by her Coq Au Vin.  He was wined and dined amply enough for Roydon Birdhoot to procure his promise to return for further therapy in a month’s time.

“My stepson’s birthday.  We would love to have you join in our celebration. The Sheraton should be back from the repairers by then; it’s a rather fine table, I should like your opinion on it.”

Mrs Birdhoot felt sure something inside her was dying.

The ensuing four weeks were to be a test of Tegan Birdhoot’s resilience, of Tegan Birdhoot’s sheer strength of will.  She decided her only course was to find a genuine table that could pass muster for the lame duck now residing in a corner of Mr Peterkin’s workshop.  It would take every last penny of her personal resources, but failure would mean her husband’s humiliation, with consequences for herself and her son Berkley too dire to contemplate.

From the morning moment when Roydon departed for his work to the hour of evening when he returned, she ran the ether up to white heat in her pursuit of a genuine mahogany Thomas Sheraton card table.  ‘Phone call after ‘phone call had the same result.  No, this dealer had nothing of her description in his stock, that dealer thought such a table very rare, the other dealer thought she was mad to even ask.

“Sheraton?  Original, not ‘style’?  I do get them from time to time, but they’re always pre-sold.  I can take your details…”

As the third week approached its zenith, Tegan was in a state very close to a breakdown; for not only had she failed to find a replacement table, but Martin Peterkin was becoming impatient.  “I am really not insured for storage of my customers’ furniture items, Mrs Birdhoot, I am afraid I will have to insist you take your table back.”

The dove of salvation arrived, as doves so often do, in the nick of time.  In this case, the white feathers adorned a certain M. Clement Theron, a Chelsea art and antique dealer.

“Ah!  I believe I may have the solution to your dilemma, Madame!  I think I may know of such a table.”

“Oh, M. Theron!  You have it in stock?”

“Ah, no, no, no, Madame.  One never has such a piece in stock, no, no.  I believe it may be available, although of course we must negotiate a price, oui?  I imagine fifteen thousand pounds will secure it for you.”

“Oh, my goodness!”  Tegan Birdhoot was grateful to be sitting down.

Over the ensuing few days, Tegan martialled all her available funds, stripped her credit cards and made a pile of any jewellery she thought her husband would not miss, with the single purpose of accumulating M. Clement’s price.  As a rich man’s wife she had only a very small nest egg of her own, and after every avenue had been explored she still fell short by five hundred pounds – every avenue but one.

“Dear Mr Peterkin, I cannot take the table back, so I propose, reluctantly, to sell it.  With your permission I would like to ask a Mr Hogg to view the table on your premises?  I will agree a price with him on the ‘phone.”

It was a massive gamble, one only a desperate wife and mother whose marriage was forfeit might take.  Fortunately, it turned out well.  Tegan, though destitute and in debt, was able to cook dinner for Berkley’s birthday celebration secure in the knowledge that a genuine Thomas Sheraton table nestled happily in her drawing room.   Ellis Margrave, their returning guest, could not fail to be impressed.

The table, she considered, was substantially the same: a little deeper in colour, perhaps, and of course without that guilty scratch, but its mahogany top was polished to a fine, deep bloom.  Her husband was convinced by it and pleased with the ‘repair’ she had commissioned.    All was well.

Dinner consumed and drinks poured, all gathered in the drawing room.  Ellis Margrave instantly picked out the table.

“Ah!  An original Sheraton!  See the quality of finish these Georgian furniture makers could achieve?  Exquisite!  How did you come upon this little beauty, Birdhoot?”

“Actually,” Berkley the birthday boy stepped forward, “I claim the credit for this spot.  I must say, mother, you’ve polished it up quite impressively.”

“Very impressively,” Mr Birdhoot conceded.

“Shall I tell you what attracted me to it especially?”  Berkley went on, emboldened by wine;  “The dealer showed me.  It has this little secret drawer which you simply will not find unless you know where to look…”

“Really?”  Tegan’s voice rose in protest, “Darling, I’m sure our guest doesn’t need to be shown every little detail…”

“Nonsense, Mother – it only takes a moment!  If you’ll allow me…”

But mother had placed herself determinedly between her son and the table.   “Berkley, dear, you are boring our guest!”

“No, no!”  Ellis Margrave assured her; “I’m intrigued!  I don’t think I’ve seen one of these with a secret compartment added.  Do show me, Berkley!”

Berkley’s enthusiasm was gathering momentum.  “It’s extremely rare, I believe.  What’s more, I remember there’s this charming little message written on the base of the drawer;.  ‘Here my heart waits.’

“Mother!”  Tegan’s hands seemed to have clamped themselves to the table, so firmly her knuckles were white.  “Please move, Mother!  I want Ellis to see the secret drawer.”

“Must you?”  Cried Tegan.

“Must I what?  Good Lord woman, you’re as white as a sheet!”  Berkley gently but firmly steered his mother aside, then bent to grip the edge of the table top,  lift slightly and pull.  “There!  You see?  And you can still make out the message.  I have often wondered for whom it was written?”

Ellis smiled indulgently,  “For some lover, perhaps.  Quite delightful!  A fine piece, Roydon, and in good condition for its age.  Only an old Jeremiah like me would be able to just discern a small scratch repair on the top.  Should you sit down, Tegan?  You don’t look very well.”


© Frederick Anderson 2019.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content






10 responses to “The Custodian”

  1. great story and I can appreciate her love for the piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderfully unexpected tale with a magnificent twist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, David, we endeavour to please! Hugs as always!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think I’m as shaken and gobsmacked as poor Teagan.
    That was one rollercoaster ride of a story with an unbelievable twist-twist finish.
    I think my nerves spiked higher with every paragraph and sentence.
    Another outstanding short!

    I have to go recover now. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry about the nerves, Mae! I discarded the additional paragraph in which Tegan creeps out in the middle of the night carrying one of Roydon’s collection of shotguns. I’ve got to get back in tracks for writing shorts now – quite hard! Glad you liked it!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Poor Tegan….I had a feeling that repairer was not to be trusted…

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh Fred, an exquisitely deep tale and so beautifully told. Poor Reagan. Huge hugs for you. Xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Reagan!!! Teagan… bless predicitive text on my phone and no specs on. 🤦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He-he! And I gave her the short spelling, too. That’s what happens when I dabble in unfamiliar names! Dear Jane, I hope you are coping and your mother is home and well; you must be run off your feet. Take care!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I picked her up and brought her home today. All physical aids are in place and working, Mum and Dad are settling back down together. I am here till all the care services are in place and I feel they can manage without me. Then I may sleep for a little while, back at home… Huge hugs for you Fred. Xxxx

        Liked by 1 person

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