The dilapidated house sags heavily on rotting foundations, the load-bearing structure strengthened only by its stubborn will to survive. Knocking on the once green wooden front door sends echoes bouncing through dark corridors beyond. I decide to stop peering through the letterbox, or at least the hole where a letterbox would once have been, and knock again, a little more aggressively this time. This is my last hope.
A click signifies some kind of reception. A movement, a latch falling, the door handle turning and slowly the wooden gateway edges ajar revealing the dusty face of a smallish man, perhaps in his mid-fifties, sporting a beaming smile spotlit by the bright morning sun. I thrust my hand forward with a very British hello but am met by a tentative gnarled stump where his right hand should have been. Brain freeze ensues as he looks quizzically at me, so I quickly produce my left hand, this time greeted with enthusiastic fingers welcoming me
Stepping through the cool dark interior of his home-come-workplace, we pass discarded wooden frames cracked and snapped beyond any reasonable rescue, heavy machinery casually leans against damp walls purring with comfy malcontent, and wires of all colours hang off every protrusion from floor to ceiling carrying, what sounds like, a high voltage current. Seemingly tangled in a web of wood shavings and crackling electricity we stumble on through the dark maze, briefly emerging in a beam of dusty sunlight emanating from an unseen window above. The yellow shaft descends through a cavernous ceiling space and settles on a life-size photograph of Chairman Mao resplendent in his military regalia, the over-bearing communist-red glowing like a beacon on a foggy night. The unfinished hand carved heavy wood frame oozes intricately fashioned Chinese style and the skill of its artist suddenly becomes very clear. My host smiles at me and pointing to the work of art claps his hand and stump together as if praying. Then he ducks back under the surrounding wires and is gone.
We congregate in what was once the living room, a workshop
“So, I need this framed for a client,” I say in my best Mandarin, or perhaps that’s what I thought I said, which it obviously wasn’t when he begins to talk at speed about something entirely unconnected to my request.
“Ahem, no, sorry, I’m not interested in a headshot.” I lubricate my mouth with a swig of warm bottled water and try again, this time with a healthy dose of Charades. He finally seems to understand and smiling back ejects a weak groan as he sits down muttering deadlines and workloads to himself. I’ve evidently arrived at a very busy time in this man’s life, so, apologetically, I start to roll my image back up, my last hope dashed by a life-sized portrait of Mao.
In the far corner of the living room, a room which I had up until that point assumed only contained two people, a noise upsets the silence, dust motes begin to dance and a piece of wall starts moving towards us. A fake wall. From behind the painted plywood construction emerges a neatly dressed woman and child, both smiling, the mother holding a tray of teacups, the daughter a packet of wafers. They approach the table, set down the cups and motioning to the slouched artiste suggest it’s in his best interest to take my offer else his family relationship may take a turn for the worse.
With the wink of an eye, a knowing smile, a quick rub of a stiff missing limb and a slurp of scalding hot Pur, our hero breaks the stand-off with a hearty chuckle and handing me a cup of steaming tea, sets about his business.