ON the first morning I worked with Michael Kelly, I arrived at eight o’clock, as agreed. “Let’s see how much we can get done in a day,” he’d said. He planned for us to complete the framing for a small timber studio, even if we had to work until dusk.
His shop-home is a model in the artful management of space. It has a narrow paved courtyard, only eight feet deep and fifteen wide. Yet Michael and Nadeen sort and store stacks of salvaged timber out there, and inside too, in neat overhead racks and shelves Michael has crafted. Chairs hang from hooks high on the walls until they’re needed.
We began. The studio was to be seven feet long and high, and four feet wide, plus a steep pitched roof. Michael assembled the simple tools: hand saw, tape measure, pen, set square, hammer and nails. He let me do the sawing.
“I’ve got a simple tip for sawing a straight cut,” he told me. “As you saw, lean the blade lightly against the inside top corner of the timber.” It worked like a charm – I guess it stops the blade wobbling while your elbow pumps back and forth. Next, I learnt to place the groove precisely, by steadying the blade with my other thumb as I began.
In Michael’s hands, the saw flowed over the timber like a stream over a stone. In mine, it stuttered and stopped. I didn’t know how hard to push.
Last year, I was caught up in melancholy and a longish writing project – perhaps the two go together – and didn’t often go outside. I grew unaccustomed to using my body. When I re-emerged in the summer, I wasn’t so sure how my limbs would respond to orders. One day, I watched some new friends practicing acrobalance, a kind of circus balancing act in pairs. I hung back because I had no idea how strong, or weak, my muscles were. I didn’t know what my legs would do if I tried to use them. Likewise, when I danced, I wasn’t quite sure how my booty would shake (this may be congenital).
That hesitance lingers. For people unused to making and doing, it takes practice to gain confidence in your hands. When I pushed on the saw, swung the hammer or lifted timber, the physics didn’t click. My reactions seemed less than equal-and-opposite.
We cut the first length from a long piece of timber and used it as a template for the others. When they were all done, we began nailing. The initial, unfinished frame was beautiful; so satisfyingly square and logical.
We worked diligently throughout the morning, stopped for a coffee, then worked through lunch. Michael regularly tidied our offcuts and swept up the sawdust gathering in the courtyard. Small spaces demand order.
The pitched roof required angled cuts. Again, we created a template – this time a triangle – and cut matching pieces and nailed them in place. By three o’clock, well ahead of schedule, we set solid the quivering ribs of our roof and manoeuvred the frames together: the studio’s skeleton assembled in but one short day.
Later, I walked home grinning stupidly, closed my bedroom door, turned up the music and danced my joy away, limbs flailing.