by Fay Wentworth
Three of the travellers passed me by as I wrestled with the key in my shop door. The father never spared me a glance; thin, leaning to the shape of his greyhound slinking light-foot at his side. A cigarette drooped, sodden as the man’s hair, and his eyes were dull, watching the distance as his hand limply clasped the lead.
By his side a sturdy youngster; baby-fat legs toddling to keep pace, cherub hands clinging to the chain of a smaller animal, some semblance of a dog in the furry coat and lolling tongue, his pedigree distilled over many matings. The child’s eyes still held innocence and wonder as he gazed at the sun-washed gardens, the spring flowers sparkling with dew, nodding in the gentle breeze. A smile played around his mouth as his breath panted. The dog pulled him forward.
Behind, a gangly youth tarried. He watched as I fitted the key. I smiled at him to dispel my nervousness. His ragged clothes, too small for his bony frame, wafted the smell of the hedgerows to my nostrils and his skin clung to fine bones. His eyes were wistful and sheered away from my smile, slid to the shop window and gazed hungrily at the paintings displayed. Grimy fingers reached for the glass as if trying to touch the colours and his shoulders heaved in a sigh.
“How much for the watercolour?” His voice was hesitant, surprisingly mellow and I paused as the door swung open. The paintings were originals, expensive, but his longing was obvious. And he had called them watercolours, correctly.
“The prices are all different. Come inside and have a look.”
I knew I was being foolish, following my instincts again instead of thinking sensibly. But it was too late. He stepped through the doorway behind me and, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the two dog-walkers disappear over the brow of the hill. We were alone, the boy and I, alone among the treasures of art, and I took a deep breath to still the uneasiness that hovered on the edge of my mind.
He didn’t touch the displayed paintings, but his eyes caressed the brush strokes, his tongue following the lines of his thin mouth as his body hunched towards the watercolours.
“Too expensive.” He sighed quietly, a look of resignation wafting fleetingly over his features. He hadn’t expected otherwise.
“Do you paint?” I was curious and watched him as I opened the shutters, sunlight splaying over the canvases. I switched on display lights and noticed he recoiled from the glare.
He shrugged. “I did, once. Haven’t any paints now.”
“The local college holds courses. Would you like to enrol for one?” I held out a leaflet, an artist beaming colourfully on the cover.
His wistful look turned to derision. “I couldn’t afford to!” He almost spat the words and I flinched. I hadn’t meant to humiliate him.
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled and turned away, concentrating on opening drawers, taking out pad and pencil, showing business professionalism; wishing he would leave.
“I could do odd jobs for you? I work hard.”
I stared at him, confused. He wanted work? I shook my head and his shoulders slumped. “Thought not.”
The doorbell clanged and the old wooden doorframe rattled as he released his anger. He didn’t glance again in the window as he scurried up the road.
The encounter had shaken me; me, the independent career woman, proving myself as good as any man in business; me and my powerful equilibrium, disturbed by a ragamuffin.
For the first time in thirteen years my fingers itched to paint, to expel the emotions that overwhelmed me, onto paper. I clenched my fists in denial. I never wanted to hold a brush again. Grief had dispelled my talent and I had no wish to suffer further frustration through any attempts to paint again. My creative days were over. Now I took my joy in other artists’ work.
I watched for him next day. This time he was alone, leading a lurcher. “You could mow the lawns if you like. Dig the flower beds.”
I stood on the pavement blocking his passage. His expression was surly and I felt colour flame my cheeks. I thought he was going to step around me but suddenly, a thin smile lit his face and his eyes seemed to waken.
“You’ll pay me?”
I nodded, aware of the disapproving look shot with venom by my neighbour. “I’ll pay. What’s your name?”
He hesitated. “Reuben. I’ll be back later.”
He continued on his way and a wave of anger rushed through my mind. “Fool,” I muttered as I re-entered the shop. “You’re a fool.”
He was surprisingly agile in the garden. Soil turned, weeds stacked in neat tumps and flowers spread their leaves in relief. I watched his thin body coil over his labour. When he rested on the grass I took him tea and biscuits and sat besides him, unsure of myself.
“I should like to see you paint.”
He dunked a biscuit and caught the soggy mass with his tongue. “Have you any paints I could use?”
I fetched paper and half-used tubes of pigments. I set up a small easel and gestured to him. “Take an hour out, paint me a picture.” I walked away before he could refuse.
His face was stiff with concentration. His eyes flicked from garden to paper and his fine fingers moved with gentle precision.
It was several hours later when I allowed myself to creep behind his shoulders. I was amazed.
He had captured the euphorial hues of the buds, his grass was alive with the wind, and the imaginary tree shading the meadow my lawn had become was majestic in its spring splendour. A figure strode across the field, upright, free, hair tossed by the breeze, and running ahead was a dog, a beautiful golden Labrador, its tail swaying joyfully, its tongue lolling in happiness. I was spellbound.
“Where did you learn to paint like that?” His gifted talent excited me.
He shrugged. “I lived with my grandmother for a while, in a house. She painted and I copied.”
“You don’t live with her now?”
“She’s dead. Don’t have time to paint, or money to buy paper.”
“Sign it,” I instructed. “In the right-hand corner.”
He looked uncomfortable.
“Just your first name, Reuben.”
He held the brush aloft for a moment and then marked a sloping R and a squiggle.
“Very artistic.” I smiled. “You must come again.”
He jumped to his feet. “You said you’d pay me. I must get back.”
He followed me to the house and stood at the door.
“Come in.” I walked through to the kitchen.
Warily, he followed, his eyes afraid as he stared at the windows and he shivered as the door slammed behind him in the breeze. The key fell from its hiding place on the ledge of the doorframe and he picked it up, slowly placing it on the table. His eyes never left the door. Then he reached for the handle and opened it, watching it, hands dug deep in his pockets, until he was sure it would stay for him to escape. I smelt his fear. Breathing quickly he snatched the coins and turned, his steps reaching for the freedom beyond the walls.
“Will you come again? What about your painting?”
I saw him shake his head as he ran across the grass towards the gate, and his foot kicked the pigments beside his easel and scattered them. A great sadness welled in my heart and I gathered his borrowed materials and took the painting through to the gallery.
I found a wooden frame to fit his picture and hung it on the wall. It was quite beautiful. He would only be about thirteen, maybe older. Thirteen. Thirteen years; had it really been that long?
I had loved this shop the moment I set eyes on it. I was on holiday, touring aimlessly through the lush countryside, seeking solace for my hurt. I took a room in the village; the shop was for sale. It was a spur of the moment decision, a crazy madness that saw me moving within days to the other end of the country, my past a shadow in my mind.
It took thirteen years to build up my stock of watercolours. Collectors began to know my name, I was commissioned for special purchases, but I never picked up a brush again myself.
Now Reuben had rekindled that old yearning and my fingers traced his brushstrokes. Could I still paint? Was I strong enough to try? Thirteen years was a long time. Had my life been different it would have been my son holding the brush and mixing colours; I liked to think he would have inherited my talent, had he come alive into this world. Maybe he wouldn’t have had the gift, but I would still have loved him.
I suppose I knew in my heart that Reuben wouldn’t come back. As I walked to work the next day the neighbour told me the travellers had moved out.
“Good job too,” she said. “Made a right mess of the meadow, they did. Left piles of rubbish and several hens are missing!”
I smiled politely and strode across the garden. The kitchen door swung open at my touch and a shaft of fear speared my mind. Slowly I walked through to the gallery. The paintings had gone, all but one. His painting hung crookedly, alone on the magnolia wall, surrounded by dust squares where the watercolours had been. I took the painting down and carried it to the kitchen where I hid it in a cupboard; then I phoned the police.
The insurance company wasn’t happy. There had been no break-in; the kitchen door had been unlocked. The stern police officer pointed out the folly of hiding a key on top of a rickety doorframe.
“One shake,” he pushed against the door to emphasise his point, “one shake and the key would fall. And look at that gap!” He pointed to the space below the door. “Slip the key from under and there you are, easy pickings.”
I didn’t say a word. He was right. I should have been more careful, hidden the key better, especially after… I saw Reuben standing in my kitchen, heard the wind bang the door and the rattle of the key as it fell. Of course, it might not have been the travellers. There had been several thefts in recent weeks, and they had all been attributed to the wide boys in the nearby town.
“Had any dubious callers lately?”
I shook my head and he sighed. “Ah well.” He snapped his book shut and stood up. “I should replace that door, get some security locks.”
I nodded and showed him out. I knew I would never see my paintings again.
I recouped some of my losses. I cleaned the walls and built shelves to carry bric-a-brac for the tourists. I bought cheap paintings from local artists and recovered the walls. His picture I hung high, almost to the rafters, where the late sunbeams caught the golden hair of the dog, and brought alive a meadow in the beamed shadows. Several tourists liked the painting.
“It’s not for sale,” I said, studying the R and squiggle that spoke of Reuben. “It’s not for sale.” And they would turn away, disappointed.
I suppose you could say it’s an original, a unique original. Maybe one day it will be valuable. Maybe one day Reuben will come back and the deep ache in my heart will ease.
But somehow, as I sit at my easel in the garden, my hesitant hand splashing watercolours across the canvas, I doubt it.
Fay has pursued her love of creative writing through careers, marriage and motherhood. Over 80 of her short stories have been published in popular, small press magazines, anthologies, and placed in competitions. She has recently had a collection of short stories published by Butford Publishing Ltd entitled Destiny’s Footprints. Details are available at www.butford.co.uk.
She has also had two novellas published in large print, available in libraries: Chase a Rainbow and Winds of Change.