A woman came to the barn today. Her hair was the colour of walnut wood. Her eyes were the colour of bracken in October. Her socks were the colour of cherries, which was noticeable because all the rest of her clothes were sad colours. She carried an enormous shoulder bag, canvas. It had a big buckle (square) but it was hanging open. The woman’s mouth was open too. She was shifting from one foot to the other by the door so I told her to come in. The words came out a bit mangled due to the fact I was wearing my mask. She asked what I’d said, so I took it off and also took off my ear defenders and I said it again. She came in. Her socks were very red indeed. So was her face.
‘I’m sorry to be so rude but I’m gobsmacked.’ She did look it, to be honest. ‘Did you . . . you didn’t, did you . . . make all these?’
I told her yes.
‘Wow! I just can’t believe it!’ she said, looking round.
I asked her why not.
‘Well, it’s not exactly what you expect to find in the middle of nowhere! I’ve been past the end of your track so many times and I just had no idea that all this was here!’
I put my ear defenders and mask on the workbench and informed her that indeed, all this was here. Perhaps I should have pointed out as well that this is not the middle of nowhere. Not at all. Exmoor is the most somewhere place that I know and my workshop is an extremely somewhere part of it. I did not say this though. It would have been rude to contradict her.
Morning light was pouring in on us from the three windows. It outlined the sloping rafters. It floodlit the curls of wood shavings. It silvered the edges of the curves and arcs all around us and made strung shadows on the floor.
The woman was shaking her head so that the walnut-coloured hair bounced around her face. ‘How lovely! They’re beautiful, so beautiful! It’s like a scene from a fairy tale. And how strange that I’ve stumbled across this place today of all days!’
Today is Saturday, 9 September 2017. Is that a particularly strange day to stumble across a Harp Barn? I smiled politely. I wasn’t sure if she wanted me to ask why it was strange. Lots of people find things strange that I don’t find strange at all, and lots of people don’t find strange the things that I find very strange indeed.
The woman kept looking at me and then gazing around the barn and then back at me again. Then she pulled the strap of her canvas bag to rearrange it in a different way over her shoulder and said: ‘Do you mind my asking, have you been here long?’
I informed her that I’d been here for one hour and forty-three minutes. Before that I was out in the woods, having my walk. She smiled and said: ‘No, I mean, have you had this place a long time? As a workshop?’
I told her I came here when I was ten years old and I was now thirty-three years old, so that meant (I explained in case her maths was not very good) that I’d been here for twenty-three years.
‘No! I just can’t believe it!’ she said again. She seemed to have a problem believing things. She shook her head slowly. ‘I think I must be in a dream.’
I offered to pinch her.
She laughed. Her laugh was interesting: explosive and a little bit snorty.
The next thing that happened was I went across and shook her hand because that is what you are supposed to do. You are not supposed to do pinching. I knew that really. ‘My name is Dan Hollis, the Exmoor Harp-Maker,’ I said.
‘Pleased to meet you. I’m Ellie Jacobs, the Exmoor . . . Housewife.’
Housewife does not mean you are married to a house. It means you are a woman who is married to a husband and your husband goes off to work every day and you don’t go off to work at all but embark on house-dusting, house-hoovering and various ironing and washing duties and other things that happen in a house, and in fact you aren’t really expected to go out of the house at all except to get yourself to a supermarket and then you go up and down the aisles with a trolley and a list, looking sad. What a lot of things are embedded in that housewife word.
‘It’s funny,’ she mused, her eyes wandering around the barn again. ‘Harp-playing was on my list.’
I asked if she meant her shopping list.
She paused and looked at me with arched eyebrows. ‘No, my before-forty list. Lots of people have them, apparently. You know – the list of things to do before you reach the age of forty. Like swimming with dolphins and seeing the Great Wall of China.’
I asked if she had swum with dolphins and she said no. I asked if she had seen the Great Wall of China and she said no. Then she added that she had a few years to go yet. I asked her how many but she didn’t answer. Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked her that. There are lots of things you are not supposed to ask, and I fear that might be one of them. So I changed my question and asked her what would happen if she didn’t manage to swim with dolphins or see the Great Wall of China or play the harp before she reached the age of forty. She said, ‘Nothing.’
We were silent for a bit.
‘It smells lovely in here,’ she commented finally. ‘I love the smell of wood.’
I was glad she had noticed it because most people don’t, and I was glad that she appreciated it because most people don’t. Then she gestured towards the harps. ‘They’re utterly exquisite,’ she said. ‘Will you tell me something about them?’
I told her yes. I informed her that they are Celtic-style traditional harps and they would have been fairly widespread in Britain during the Middle Ages, especially in the north and west. I told her I had carved the Elfin from my own design out of the sycamore tree that had fallen by the brook four years ago. I mentioned that I had made the Sylvan from ancient beech and the Linnet from rosewood. I showed her the drawers of strings and explained about the red ones being Cs, the black ones being Fs and the white ones being As, Bs, Ds, Es and Gs. I told her about each one being a different thickness and the importance of tension. I showed her the holes in the back of a sound box and how the strings were anchored inside. I explained the use of the levers for sharpening the note. I told her about the pebbles. I gave her a couple of pieces of wood so that she could hold them and compare the weight. I expanded on the different resonances of different woods.
Then I realized that I had not asked very much about her, so I stopped telling her things and I asked the following eight questions: How are you? Do you have any pets? What is in your enormous shoulder bag? What is your favourite colour? What is your favourite tree? Where do you live? Do you enjoy being the Exmoor Housewife? Would you like a sandwich?
She answered me the following answers: fine, thank you; no; a big camera and a jotter pad and a thermos with soup; red; birch; about five miles south-west of here; um; that would be very nice.
I made twelve sandwiches using six slices of bread and substantial quantities of cream cheese. I cut them into triangles because I reckoned she was a lady.
I’ve noticed that the act of cutting always helps me think. I do some good thinking when I cut up wood to make harps, too. That might have been why, over the triangles of the sandwiches, I came to a decision.
‘He gave you one?’
‘Just like that?’
‘Well, pretty much.’
Clive lowered the motoring magazine and transferred his full attention to my face. His eyebrows drew together and two deep vertical creases appeared between them.
‘I presume you’re having me on?’
‘No,’ I said. Then added, ‘I’m not,’ to underline it.
‘So he offered, and you just took it?’
‘Well, it was . . . it was hard to say no.’
This was going to be tricky. I couldn’t explain it to myself let alone offer an explanation to anyone else. Which is why I’d been driving around Exmoor for the last half-hour – with frequent stops to look in the back of the car and check that it was true – before I finally headed homewards.
Our nice but nosy neighbour, Pauline, was out in her garden, so I had gone straight inside. I had launched myself into the kitchen. I’d swept a brief kiss into my husband’s receding hairline. I’d sought out the kettle, filled it to the brim, spurted myself with water in the process and abandoned it. Then I’d blurted out a tangle of sentences that sounded frothy and ridiculous. I’d blushed, become aware of it, and blushed some more. Now I stood limply grinning by the fridge.
Clive closed the magazine and tugged at the neck of his sweatshirt. ‘Sorry, El, but I have to ask: exactly how long have you known this man?’
My mind travelled back to the strange encounter of earlier; the huge open door of the barn that had enticed me in, the warm scent of wood, the light falling on the myriad harps, and there, in the centre of them all, the lone figure. There had been some sort of tool in his hand but already my memory was playing tricks on me and I couldn’t say what it was. He had initially appeared to be an alien. His lower face was covered by some sort of blue mask and he was wearing ear defenders, presumably protection from sawdust and machinery noise. But the minute he’d taken them off, I was struck by the beauty of the man. He was tall and sinewy with dishevelled jet-black hair. Although his skin looked weather-beaten, there was a strange translucent quality about it. His face was classically sculpted, as if a great deal of thought had gone into every line and curve. But it was his huge, dark eyes that really claimed my curiosity. I’d never seen eyes like that before.
‘I only met him for the first time this morning.’
Clive was as nonplussed as I’d been an hour earlier. He leaned forward, his expression wavering between amusement and disbelief. ‘I don’t get it.’
I laughed manically. Explanations swam round my head but not one of them managed to formulate itself into words.
Clive was clearly preparing to escort me to the nearest asylum.
‘Come and look,’ I tried. Once he saw it, surely he would be as enthusiastic as I was?
I led him outside into the bright chill of the September air. Pauline, I noticed gratefully, had disappeared. The car was still unlocked. I flung open the boot. Clive’s eyes nearly popped out of his head.
‘Ah!’ I cried in a voice that was half irony, half relief. ‘So I wasn’t hallucinating!’
It’s a good thing we have a hatchback and seats that go down. I stood back to allow my husband a thorough examination.
The harp was carved out of red-gold wood (cherry, Dan had told me, to go with my socks). It had a lovely soft sheen and there was a marbled swirl in the graining at the joint where it would rest against my shoulder. A light Celtic pattern was carved along the sweep of the neck, and embedded in the wood at the crest was a shiny blue-black pebble. Apparently Dan always puts an Exmoor pebble into his harps. Each stone is carefully chosen to complement the style and character of the instrument. This harp – my harp – was a lovely size, just as high as my waistline when it was standing. Now it was lying on one side, nestled cosily in the tartan rug in the back of the car.
Clive knocked at the wood of the soundboard with his knuckles as if to check it was real. ‘But this is quality craftsmanship!’
‘I know,’ I said, smug now, almost proud of Dan. ‘He’s been making them all his life.’
‘This would cost – what – two thousand pounds? Three? More, even, if it’s all hand-made. Look at the carving along the top.’
‘The neck. It’s called the neck. Apparently.’
Clive was scrutinizing as only Clive can scrutinize. ‘It’s – well, I have to say it’s pretty cool! But Honey-pun, there’s no way you can keep it. You do know that, don’t you?’
The voice of logic. It came hurtling through my haze of surreal, heady joy, and it stung. ‘Of course I do,’ I mumbled.
Clive straightened and shook his head. ‘The guy must be insane.’
I sprung to Dan’s defence. ‘He’s definitely not insane. But he’s a little . . . unusual.’
‘That’s a cert! What could have possessed him? A woman he doesn’t know from Adam comes waltzing into his workshop one day and, on the spur of the moment, he decides to give her – to give her – nothing less than a harp. A hand-made harp that took him God knows how long to construct. Sell, fair enough, I could understand sell, but give? Even the materials must have set him back a bit. Come on, Hon, get real! You must have misunderstood. He must have meant you to pay.’
‘No, he didn’t. He made that quite clear.’
Clive frowned, unable to comprehend such a concept. ‘Well then, I guess he gave it to you to try out, hoping for a sale, and you completely got the wrong end of the stick.’
‘I didn’t! Look, I told him about fifteen times I couldn’t possibly accept it. He just didn’t get it. He kept asking why not – and he was so . . . I don’t know, so open, so well-meaning, that I felt stupid and couldn’t think of an answer. Then he said, “Don’t you like the harp?” He sounded really hurt.’
‘He sounded hurt? El, I think you’re pushing it a bit.’
‘No, I swear it’s true! And then he started pacing about the barn, hunting for another, better one to give me! So I had to tell him it was a lovely harp. I had to tell him I loved the harp. And it’s true. How could I not? But I said again and again I’d never be able to play it and it would be wasted on me, and I kept on protesting.’ I leaned over and gazed lovingly at my gift. ‘While I was protesting he just carried it to the car and put it in.’
My mind leapt back again. I had felt so touched by the man’s extraordinary gesture. I had not been able to resist plucking a few strings, as the harp lay there on its side in my car. I did it badly of course, never having done such a thing in my life before, but the sound was rich, wild and resonant. It had a strange effect, like a shower of golden sparks soaring inside me.
‘Good,’ Dan had said. ‘You can cross it off your list now.’ He had walked quickly back into the barn and shut the door behind him.
I had stared at the door for a long time.
Today, of all days. After all my wandering and crying and remembering.
Clive’s voice jolted me back to the present. ‘Look, El, I’m afraid it’s going to have to go back.’
The words bore down on me with their dull weight of common sense. Of course he hadn’t realized what day it was today, and what that meant for me. I probably should have reminded him, but my stubborn streak wouldn’t let me.
‘I know. You’re right,’ I said, trying to sound as if I didn’t care.
He was rubbing a hand over his brow. ‘I’d love to buy it for you, Hon, really I would. But it would be way too pricey. And you’d get bored of it pretty soon anyway. You’ve never shown any interest in playing a musical instrument before, after all.’
‘I suppose not.’
‘And we can’t be in this man’s debt. It would be taking advantage.’
I put my hand on his arm. ‘I know it would. I never should have accepted. I’m sorry I was so stupid. It was one of those crazy moments. I don’t know what came over me.’
‘I don’t either!’ he said.
Then I made myself say: ‘Well, do you want to come with me to return it? I think you’d be interested to see the place. It’s a converted barn at the end of a long track, right out in the wilds and it’s full, totally full of harps – and bits of harps. You can see them at every stage of their creation. It’s really fascinating.’
Clive scanned my face as if there was something there he didn’t recognize. ‘How did you find it?’
‘I just discovered it by chance. It’s not signposted or anything, but I thought I’d go up the track and see where it led. I had an idea there might be a nice view or something. I never expected to find a harp workshop. I certainly never dreamed I’d come back home with a harp.’
‘The guy’s a nutter!’ Clive declared. ‘Or else he fancies the pants off you. Either way, it would be wrong to keep the thing.’
I promptly removed my hand from his arm. All that remained of the magic had now been shattered.
‘I don’t think my pants come into it!’ I snapped. ‘But you’re right, I should return it.’ I slammed the boot shut. Clive is a big man and I am used to him towering over me, but at that moment I was feeling exceptionally small. ‘I’ll take it back now. There’s no point in even getting it out of the car really, is there?’ I was struggling to control the bitter twang in my voice. ‘Are you coming?’
He shook his head again. Sometimes his lack of curiosity amazes me.
‘No, I think I’ll leave it to you. If I go with you, it might look as if I forced you to take it back. It’ll make me look like the wicked ogre. You go, Hon, and don’t forget to make it clear it’s your choice, and you’ll have nothing more to do with it. OK, love?’
The ‘OK, love’ did not make it any easier. I was in no mood to be OK‑loved.
But I got into the car and I drove up the hill and back the way I’d come, to the Harp Barn.