The appraisal

The shop was from an earlier time.
Antiques, it said, bought and sold.
Inside the light was low,
yet there was a gleaming that seemed not to be reflected,
but to emanate from old artifacts,
Cups, pots, tureens
and cutlery . . .
Even old dark wooden things
Seemed to glow

I had to wait. The appraiser had a customer already,
a shabby hopeful with a thing of wood
that I could not identify.
– Ah, said the bald appraiser, who looked himself like something manufactured in a past century.
– Ah, he said again.

Was it possible, I wondered,
to buy a suit like his off the hook,
or had he stolen it from his own stock?

I stood in a mockery of patience,
holding my well-wrapped pot,
hoping for enough to pay a debt or two.

– Ah, he said once more, taking from the customer a weird, dark object of time-blackened wood that looked a little like a coal scuttle.

– This is lovely, a prize. It’s old, it’s genuine, see how thick the veneer is – that’s hand-cut.
And the little leather wheels. That’s for sliding along the table
without scratching the surface. Original varnish.

But I was staring not at the object
But at his lustful hands
as they caressed the wood,
and I thought how Dr Freud had got it wrong.
Men lusted after things, not organs.
We value breasts and gonads because when we stroke them
we are stroking in our minds
guns, mechanisms, truncheons, shrunken heads and polished marble.

This lubricious seller of antiques
had forgotten his customer,
of that I’m sure.
He wandered blindly in a world mapped by his hands,
a region where the language was all of craft and manual cunning:
majolica, ormolu, marquetry, stringing, patination, knurling, salt glazing, porcelain,
earthenware, tempera, gesso –
these were some of the terms that magically
had realised themselves as walls and grounds and roofs and windows
and made a place where he could sit and rule.

– Look, he said, at the carving underneath, but he did not so much look as consume with his fingers.

The customer had had enough by now.
– What is the bloody thing? He said in a voice so loud that I could swear it cracked some bric-a-brac.

– You mean you don’t know?

– I’ve no idea. It’s been around for ever.

The appraiser held the heavy wooden thing
At arm’s length and said:
– This is a cheese boat.
The customer frowned.

– When this was made and used,
they knew how to banquet. They sat and ate, and ate
and drank for hours.
The wheel of cheese travelled along the table,
each diner . . .
– How much is it worth?
A savage bark more than a question.

The appraiser hooded his eyes, breathed deeply
and named a figure that almost tempted me
to kill the pair of them and steal their piece of wood.

– That’s not enough, the shabby, seedy, would-be seller said.
The appraiser smiled and I could not see his eyes.
Reflected light made his glasses quite opaque.
He handed back the cheese boat and gave the man his card.

– If you change your mind, he said . . .
But the customer was wrapping up his prize.

– You shouldn’t use newsprint. The ink will transfer . . .

but the customer was bent on escaping
into the harsh outdoors.
Perhaps he was a thief suddenly afraid of capture.

– Now, what can I do for you?
The head turning, the automatic smile,
a happy expectation of something to stroke.

I unwrapped my aunt’s beloved cheese dish,
which was big enough to hold
more cheese than I could afford.
Its cover showed bluish nymphs on a yellow background.

– Could you tell me, I said . . .

– Ah, yes, this is a good day for cheese.
He set the base on a table
and scrutinised the top, turning, staring, stroking.

Then he shot me a quick look and said,
Do you like it?
– Yes, I said and I could tell
he saw straight through the lie.

– I hope you do, he said
because this – he set the top on the base – This
is a fake.

– A fake? You mean it isn’t a cheese dish?
Then what is it?

It is a cheese dish – earthenware pretending
to be porcelain.

– And worth how much?

– Even (he said) – Even if it were true porcelain . . . listen.

He lifted the ceramic cover and flicked it,
and even I could hear the flat clack
of cracked china
when there should have been a chime.

– No, he said. I can’t help you.
And as he handed me back the pieces
of my worthless heirloom, he took off his glasses.
I saw his eyes glaze
and turn to finely wrought majolica,
and I knew he was still slavering
over the recently departed cheese boat

I thought my aunt deserved a reprimand.
Once free of the shop,
turning back once to make sure it had really been there,
and hadn’t been my own fevered creation,
I walked into a traffic-maddened intersection,
and placed the cheese dish down right in the middle.
Then I moved on to the footpath
and watched.

And do you know, the thing had magic in it.
For an hour trucks, cars, motorcycles and buses
swerved to avoid it.

At last a scowling policeman scooped it up
and took it away.

I wonder if they dusted it for prints.