I spend my days at a 60 x 60 cm table with a laminated beech surface and folding steel legs. It’s an exam desk, really, the kind I sat my school exams at, with a groove for pens. I couldn’t fit anything larger in the corner of the room where I work.
H. and I refer to the room where I work as the bottega. I think he might have come up with it when we first moved to this flat. It was intended to be my study as well as the guest room, and so has a small double bed on which I sometimes sprawl when sunlight floods in, imagining myself on the terrace of a top-floor flat in Trastevere. Since most of the hours spent here are taken up with translation from Italian, bottega sounded much more appropriate than workshop, and, let’s face it, its connotations of creativity and genius sound much more inspiring – and carry the hope that wondrous things will produced here. Once I learn to prioritise and put my life before my work.
You might say that 60 x 60 cm isn’t a proper desk for a professional adult, that I can’t possibly spread out. Well, that’s true, I can’t spread out as I would wish, but there are advantages to that. For one thing, when my table gets seriously cluttered, the clutter can take up only a 60 x 60-cm area, so, instead of a large, unsightly expanse of mess, it appears like a miniature mess, a bijou mess. Moreover, a mess that’s quick to tidy up. As for spreading out, this is still possible – and happens daily – thanks to a little inventiveness.
My work space can occupy up to two different surfaces, depending on need. My 60 x 60 desk, also known in our household as the scriptorium, is where I do the bulk of my work. On it, resting on a Botticelli’s Birth of Venus mouse mat to stop it from sliding, raised on a shoe box from a Regarde le Ciel pair of ankle boots, rests my beloved, hard-working 13-inch personal assistant or MacBook Pro. In front of it, there’s a silver Bluetooth keyboard and, to its right, a salmon-pink mouse on a mousepad with colourful Rosina Wachtmeister cats enjoying a smiling yellow sun. Or at least that’s what the artist intended. I had to cut the side with the smiling yellow sun off because it hung over the edge of the 60 x 60 cm table.
On the shoe box on either side of the laptop, I keep a chip of smoky quartz and chunk of rainbow fluorite. I toy with one or the other while searching for a word or struggling with the structure of a sentence. In the far left corner of the scriptorium stands a smallish, square box painted with pink roses, that came from a pair of Laura Ashley china cups and saucers decorated with the selfsame pink roses. It’s my mess-reduction box, where all the bits and pieces the 60 x 60 surface won’t tolerate are thrown: post-it notes, bits of paper scrawled with reminders, business cards, bookmarks, a bottle of Faber Castell black ink and a tiny hand mirror. I can’t remember why the mirror is there, perhaps a necessary accessory to a brilliant idea I may have once had. The box is primarily used as a support for a small, bright red angle-poise lamp. I’ve always loved angle-poise lamps and, since childhood, I’ve always liked them red. Next to it on the box lives a piece of blue-grey celestite. Next to the bright red lamp, its understated sparkle has a soothing effect. When translating a particularly lacklustre piece of prose, I sometimes pick it up and look for the rainbows hiding in its clusters of crystal points.
On the far right-hand corner of the scriptorium stands a miniature wooden crate with “FULHAM SW6” engraved on it. I have no idea what this container was ever intended for and the owner of the bric-a-brac shop in Norwich where I bought it didn’t have a clue either. But since I spent my happiest years in London in Fulham, SW6, I had to have it. It’s perfect for holding pens, scissors, a rectangular magnifying glass, a wood and brass candle snuffer, a wide paint brush for cleaning the computer keybard, several highlighters, the plastic orange geometry triangle I’ve had since school, a cloth for wiping the laptop screen and other odds and ends.
And, of course, there’s a candle – sometimes a pillar candle in a glass dish, other times a dinner candle in a bottle, or a nightlight in a holder, but always a candle: I’ve kept one on my desk since my mid-teens.
Oh, and there’s a tiny pottery owl with colourful mosaic patterns, which I picked up in Dijon after touching its magical stone counterpart carved in the cathedral wall and making a wish. Someone on Twitter once asked me if my mosaic owl had a name. I quickly called it Rabelais and decided it had to inspire my original writing.
And so the scriptorium has all the necessities for my work. Of course, when I translate, although I overtype in English the original text, I still like to glance at the paper copy of the book, its pages kept open with a large paper clip, resting on a bamboo stand for which there is no room on the 60 x 60 surface, so matter how strategically arranged its contents. This is when I need the secondary work area, and so I put up another folding table, a 48 x 37 cm folding pine table, not very steady on its legs, but a perfect annex desk with enough room for the bookstand and even a mug of tea. Its small size and light weight make it a versatile travelling writing table I sometimes carry to the living room if I want to scribble while the news or the football is on, or onto the balcony if I want to pretend I’m a writer living in a warm climate, that the gutter where the pigeons nest is actually a dovecote, and the delightful terracotta water feature where the lady blackbirds come to splash around energetically is actually a marble fountain sculpted by Lorenzo Bernini.
On Friday evenings, my working space undergoes a small transformation. Bluetooth is disconnected on my MacBook, and keyboard, mouse and cat mousepad, rainbow fluorite and smoky quartz are put away into the shoe box, which is then removed from the scriptorium and placed under the jute basket on the floor next to the table, where I keep the books I’m translating and the bamboo bookrest folded flat, the clipboard with my daily to-do list, my personal notebook, a book or two I’m reading for pleasure, two or three books I mean to read as soon as possible, various notebooks and my Belgian tapestry pencil case with Flemish gable patterns, which contains all my fountain pens, drawing mechanical pencils, travel ink jar. The laptop is also closed and pushed to the back of the table, ready for my command, but no longer commanding me. In its place, real paper, real pens and real, glossy black ink. No translating until Monday. I can unlock that door in my head and let my thoughts and wishes out to have a good stretch, fill their lungs and breathe words into my pen.