On measurement

A lot of things have happened in the last twelve months; stuff that I haven't been able or willing to write about here. Maybe I will, eventually, but for now I will leave most of the consequences of that single unexpected, shocking event of 8th of February 2009 unwritten. But there is one thing I can say: the house where I spent seven or so years of my life, the house where I lived with my parents and my sister until I left Tyrone in the autumn of 1988 for Manchester is no longer our house; my sister handed over the keys to a local man, a neighbour, a few days ago.

The last time I spent a night in that house was there was at the tail-end of last year, in November. I returned to help my sister with all the things one must do if one sells a house; going through all the papers and reports, emptying the cupboards, looking through the drawers. I didn't do much in the house itself, other than reading twenty-five year old school reports which commented on my need to work harder in Physics and French. No, the task really reserved for me was to clear out my father's shed, the shed where had worked for many years as a stone mason, making headstones and monuments, chiseling names into granite slabs and polishing kerbs and crosses for later assembly in the cemetery.

I spent almost an entire Saturday filling trailer-loads of stuff, all kinds of odds and ends which came from not only my father's entire working life but also his father's working life. Each trailer-load I towed with my parents' old car through narrow country lanes to the Coalisland municipal dump, a few miles away across fields misty with winter rain. For whatever reason (in the overall scheme of things I mean) on that particular day at times it rained very heavily indeed and I hurled one item after another into the steel bins of the dump under a constant downpour submerged in the very weak blue-grey light of winter. At that exact moment, bizzarely, I knew that my cousin and aunt might have been strolling down the broad boulevards of Paris under brilliant autumn sunshine, because, as it so turned out, that was the exact weekend they decided to visit Paris.

In the shed there were heavy power-tools which had rusted from years of neglect, grinders and drills and polishers, heavy machines whose function was unclear to me. All kinds of compressors and mixers blasters and drills, dense lumps of steel and metal with dangerous-looking wheels and levels and pistons. Although most of them had rested inert for the best part of a decade, I still felt vaguely worried that they would unexpectedly spring to life when I approached.

The rain drummed on the shed roof while I piled high the trailer. In the rafters I found the wooden fence from the yard of the house in Cookstown where I'd lived as a child more than twenty years previously. The wood was covered with a very thick layer of dust and almost came apart before I could load it onto the trailer. As a small child, that fence marked the limits of the narrow area in our back yard my sister and I played in. My father had kept this fence here all those years.

I thought of my father's hands, hard and callused from a lifetime of hard manual labour. He hardly ever wore gloves. I remember as a child sitting on his lap and putting my tiny fingers inside his enormous hands, and I imagined that all people when they grew up would have hands like my fathers'. I remember the faint shock I felt the day I looked at the hands of my physics teacher and saw they were soft and slender, so unlike the my father's giant digits.

There were so many tools in that shed. There were axes and mallets and hammers and spades and shovels, rakes and hoes. There were chisels and drill-bits and countless drawers and cupboards filled with screws and nails. There was a small folding crane and out back there was a mixer and a wheelbarrow with a petrol engine. I thought of what the physical legacy of my own life-time's work would be: nothing at all. A few invisible bits flipped on hard-drives scattered across continents, if hard-drives were still around and were not replaced by something else even more incomprehensible to common sense. Nothing created. "You have to know how to work with your hands," which is what my father always insisted. I thought of Richard Powers' meditation that almost everything people do today consists of symbol manipulation, changing one set of characters into another, something computers are supremely suited to do.

Then there were the many rulers and tapes and spirit levels. One worn and scratched folding white plastic ruler I saved and took with me back to Paris. That ruler was an essential tool; one needed to know exactly where to drill the holes, to cut the kerbs, to lay the dowels. I remember my father using this ruler when I was with him during those long days at the cemetery. Although there were other rulers there in the shed which seemed even older, this was the one I took.

At the end of the day, after help from a friendly neighbour, everything was gone, the shed emptied. My hair was thick with dust, my clothes damp from the constant drizzle. Leaving the shed I put my hands in my pocket and found the plastic ruler. It was the only object I chose to save.