The Old Lathe

By Betty Billingham

Phuti crouched among the scrap iron strewn behind the shed, listening for his pursuers. All was quiet, but he wasn't deceived. A stifled curse as a foot slipped, confirmed his suspicions and he pressed himself lowecr, concentrating on quietening his panting.

A bird took off in a flurry of flapping wings as careless feet sent something crashing to the muddy ground. Another curse and Phuti had pin-pointed his second tormenter.

"He's not here. Bet he squeezed through the fence. Probably trying to give us the slip by the quarry." Jake's voice was less than two feet away and Phuti held his breath in alarm. But he need not have worried, for the suddenly noisy feet were now moving away.

A piercing whistle was answered with a shout from among the heap of wrecks on the far side of the scrap yard. Ever alert to tricks, Phuti remained in his refuge. Time passed and his legs became quite numb. Only when a little bird hopped unconcernedly near him, did he finally dare to move.

His struggles moved a heavy steel sheet, exposing a sturdy but surprisingly elegant metal trestle. "A lathe" he breathed, turning the wheel and finding to his surprise that it still ran freely. The steel sheet had protected it well. Even the belt was still good.

Phuti loved wood and spent many hours whittling. His teacher back home had once shown him a glossy magazine with pictures of wonderful things made on a machine like this.

"If I had you, I could also make beautiful things." he said, stroking the machine as he rose.

"That bit of rubbish will never make anything" said a gruff voice. Phuti spun round in terror, but the man only laughed as he fished a pipe out of his pocket and filled it, tamping the tobacco down. The richly spiced cloud of smoke that enveloped the youngster, reminded him of happier days, sitting at his father's feet listening to ancient legends, and he felt reassured, even as a thousand excuses to account for his presence, cascaded through his mind.

"Don't worry, lad" the man said. "I saw them chase you. What have you done to make them so angry?"

"Nothing" he answered, kicking a stone in embarrassment. He could not explain why the City Tech bullies picked on him. He was small, his English bad, but he had a feeling they were angry because he liked to study. That he could not understand. There was so much to learn. He dreamed of becoming a businessman in a three-piece suit and making lots of money, so that his mother and sisters need suffer no more. He touched the lathe and excitedly asked: "You sell that?"

"You don't look as though you could pay the scrap value" the man answered, his eyes resting on the well darned clothes, now torn once more and covered in mud.

"Can I work for you to pay for it?" Phuti countered quickly.

"You're a sharp one!" The man laughed again and jabbed the end of his pipe in the boy's chest. "I like that, lad," he said. "What's your name?"

"Phuti; is the name of a buck from the forest, which runs fast."

"Well you certainly showed them a clean pair of heels! Tell you what, you come Saturday and we'll see how badly you want this thing."

But Phuti did not confine himself to Saturdays. He wanted that lathe so much that every free moment was spent at the yard.

At first Big Joe, the pipe smoker, remonstrated, but the boy was useful and willing. He found jobs without being told. Mountains of scrap were exposed from under luxuriant vegetation and soon rows of salvaged parts appeared, neatly stacked alongside the shed.

But it was one of his regulars who opened Joe's eyes to the change. "Didn't know you had that XJ6 under the brambles," Fred said, stepping into the cluttered little office and easing his big frame into the rickety chair. "Your lad's removed the radiator for me."

Once keen and eager, Big Joe had grown fat and disillusioned in his old age and seldom visited the outer regions of his domain. When Fred had paid for the part and left, he ventured along the cleared paths and discovered that the Jaguar was only one of several more valuable wrecks.

"How did you know to get the radiator out?" Big Joe asked Phuti later.

"Was easy," he replied with his big grin. "My father had yard like this in Kigali. "He repair many motor-cars there for the UN soldiers."

"He taught you? But you're too young."

"Oh no. I play in the yard since I remember. Our toys were car parts and many times I help my father and Uncle Joseph after school."

"Where's your father?"

Phuti swallowed, sudden tears rising, unbidden. "He's still there" he said in a small voice. Phuti recalled with shame how he had been so terrified by the roar of the plane's engines, that he had not cried at leaving his father behind. The tears had come later.

"Is he still working in the yard?" Joe remembered the horrifying pictures of the fighting on the TV.

"No. Soldiers burn it. They shoot us and kill my brother and Uncle Joseph. We run to the airport."

"The nice soldier with the blue beret, he push us into the plane" said Phuti. "Mother was crying but father say he must stay to help the rest of the family."

"So how come you end up here?"

Phuti explained that his mother had a 'sister' in Bristol. She was not really a sister - just a distant cousin, but it had been enough to allow them to stay. Suddenly the boy looked full into Joe's eyes. "Father said the plane was full of angry White peoples and we had to hide under blankets in the back. Why were they angry?"

Big Joe turned away, with a gruff rejoinder that made Phuti think Big Joe was also angry. People here were very strange. Worried and perplexed, he slipped away from the yard to talk to his aunt, but when he reached home he walked into another crisis. His mother was hysterical. A letter had arrived from a cousin in Burundi. Phuti's father was dead.

"What do we do?" His little sisters and baby brother flung their arms around him as he entered, sobbing uncontrollably. Their outburst brought home to him that he was now the head of the household. He must guide and provide.

The following day was Sunday; the yard was closed. Phuti did what he could but was thankful when he was able to escape the mournful atmosphere. He was soon wriggling under the fence of the yard. So far he had refrained from touching the lathe lest it anger Big Joe, but today he felt entitled to work on it and he was soon clearing away the undergrowth, moving and stacking the other scrap that had been stored behind the shed.

He sank his grief in the work and it was not long before he could walk all round his beloved lathe. He cleaned the worst dirt off and lovingly oiled it. From his pocket, he took a few pieces of discarded sandpaper, and was soon rubbing away at the rust. His efforts exposed a name and address, amateurishly engraved in a hidden corner. Intrigued, he determined to visit the place. Perhaps they could help him learn to use the machine well.

Retrieving his pen from his jacket, made him notice the time. He could expect reprisals when he got home. It would be worth it, he decided ruefully, as he admired his handiwork. Soon he would buy his mother a new dress. She would be proud of him when he sold his products. Tenderly he covered his machine with a tarpaulin, torn from the wreck of a 3ton lorry. All it needed now was a coat of paint.

Suddenly he remembered his enemies. They were becoming harder to shake off so he quickly buried the lathe under a heap of cut vegetation.

Late one evening the following week he knocked at the address he had found on the lathe. No one answered, but he saw a shadow move behind the curtain. Shivering in the rain, he knocked again, but it was the neighbour's door which opened.

"She won't open at night. What do you want?" The voice came through the slit regulated by a safety chain. Politely Phuti explained.

The door closed and Phuti feared he would get no reply. Then he heard the chain removed and the door was opened wide.

"That will be Harry Hawk you'll be wanting. He's in the Elizabeth Home."

"Oh! Thanks." Phuti started to turn away but the woman beckoned. "Nice guy," she confided. "Disgraceful the way his children treated him. Sold his belongings while he was in hospital!"

"Really?" Phuti was always polite though he wondered why this old woman was telling him all this. The old man obviously couldn't help him any more.

"Yes," she said. "When he was finally discharged, his house had already been let and they had booked him into the Elizabeth. Bet he's missing his workshop." Phuti pricked up his ears. He was not slow to see an opportunity. With only the occasional prompt, Phuti soon acquired a remarkably comprehensive picture of the dedicated carpenter and his beautiful work.

Determined to visit the old man Phuti left the yard unusually promptly the following day. Just pausing long enough to clean off the paint and change into his only suit, he soon stood before the lofty portal of the Elizabeth Home.

"It's past visiting hours," he was told. "You'd better see Matron." The way the word Matron had been said promptly brought up visions of dreaded visits to the headmaster. But despite the starched uniform, her blue eyes twinkled behind steel rimmed spectacles as she listened to his hesitant story.

"You may be just what he needs" was the unexpected comment as he finally ran out of words. "I've tried to offer him my garage to set up another workshop" she admitted, "but he seems to have lost heart." Abruptly rising, she ushered Phuti to the door.

"Come, you can take him his cocoa; let's first see how you two get on."

The gaunt old man answered only in monosyllables as Phuti spoke but, remembering the neighbour's description, the boy persevered his words soon tumbling over themselves in his enthusiasm as he described the restoration work he had already done.

"That was a good lathe" the old man suddenly interrupted. "But why do you come to me?" Phuti was undaunted. He explained his desire to make beautiful things and the frustration caused by his lack of knowledge.

"I love wood and so do you. I come to you as teacher" he said simply. Reaching into his pocket he gently placed a little carving on the table beside the old man. "I made this for my father but he is gone. Now I want to give it to you," he said as Matron returned.

Pausing at the door he looked the old man full in the face. "Can I come again?"

"If you want" was the discouraging reply, but Phuti had seen the gnarled old hand run caressingly over the smooth wood. It had been made with love and he was confident the old man would see that. He smiled broadly as he waved farewell.

In his eagerness to tell Big Joe about the visit, he was careless when he left college next day. He arrived breathless only to be told to 'hold the fort' while Joe drove to see a customer. Disappointed, he went to feast his eyes on his treasure. A small place he had missed caught his eye and without realising it, he was soon absorbed. He was therefore totally unprepared for the blow that knocked him to the ground.

Before he could gather his wits, they were on top of him, punching and kicking him.

"Take that you Black bastard" he heard Jake shout as he rolled on his side in a tight ball, trying to protect his head with his arms. Blows reigned down on him from all sides and he involuntarily opened himself up after a sharp kick in the spine. Hazily, he saw a circle of grinning faces, spinning in a sea of red.

Vaguely aware of the sound of an engine, he simultaneously heard a rock bash his beloved lathe. Gasping with pain, he struggled to defend it, but received another blow, knocking him flat once more.

He hardly felt the body which landed across his legs, nor was he conscious of the gasps from his tormenters as their chins met up with a hard, balled fist. But he was aware of the strong arms which lifted him and the softness of the cushions on which they placed him.

"My lathe," he whispered. "Don't let them hurt my lathe."

The water stung as someone bathed his battered body. Phuti struggled to open his eyes. It was Fred, and the look on his face was grim.

"The lathe is OK and those villains are being locked up" he said. "Seems I came just in time. Here's the ambulance, you can tell your story to the officer here as he rides with you."

Big Joe had fetched him home when the hospital released him and now sat talking to his mother.

"Phuti," he spat the word out so abruptly that the boy jumped in consternation. "You've worked well. Here's the chuck" he placed it on the coffee table. "You've earned the lathe but I want you to continue working for me - for a wage." He smiled at Phuti's gasp of joy. "I'm worried those devils will probably be sprung today, so Fred has offered to bring the lathe in his truck. Where are you going to put it?"

"Matron said we can use her garage," he answered, and told the story of finding the previous owner. "I have a teacher now and we will make beautiful things together."

1995 © Betty Billingham