The pavement was hot. I could feel the heat burning through the soles of my sandals making me pick up each foot in turn to cool, like the Sahara ants Mrs Bloomfield had told us about in natural history class. Not that I minded, it was fun being a Sahara ant and helped me forget the awful baseball cap Aunt Delia made me wear to keep the un off my head. I was so busy being a Sahara ant I forgot to look where I was going until it was too late because I was deep into the colours by then.
‘Watch out there, boy, what the hell do you think you’re doing? Take those clumsy great feet of yours out of my meadow!’
An old man with scraggy long yellow hair, an unlit roll up cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth, glared at me with angry eyes.
‘I’m so sorry,” I looked down, ‘I’m afraid didn’t see it there.’ I was standing in the middle of a bright green field with a herd of white cows grazing on rich grass beneath a clear blue sky.
‘Of course you didn’t see it, boy. You didn’t look! Hasn’t anyone told you to watch where you’re going instead of blundering about the place like a blind elephant? You’ve already walked slap through my Storm at Sea, the Desert Oasis, not to mention A Shropshire Sunset. If you keep on trundling carelessly about like that you’ll smash up the bridge of my QE 2 next. Open your eyes boy, see what’s going on in the world around you, instead of playing silly games of hopscotch.’
‘I wasn’t playing silly games of hopscotch,’ I said indignantly, ‘ I was being a Saharan ant to protect my feet and forget my baseball cap. Aunt Delia won’t let me out of the house if I don’t promise to keep something on my head. And it’s either this, or an awful floppy hat like the one Uncle Ben wears when he goes to the beach. But I am sorry if I’ve spoiled your pictures.’ I held out the pound coin Aunt Delia had given me to buy an ice cream, ‘will this pay for the damage? It’s all I have I’m afraid.’
Piercing grey eyes continued to glare at me with disapproval, then suddenly softened as a hint of a smile began to play around the corners of his mouth. Leaning forward he rummaged amongst the loose coins lying in the upturned hat beside him and came up with a matching pound.
‘That baseball cap of yours doesn’t look so bad you know, and it certainly is a hot one. Dare say even a Saharan ant could do with a cooling vanilla or strawberry ice. I’d go myself but I’m stuck with the shop,’ he waved expansively at the pictures. ‘But if you went for both of us, I promise I’ll draw you for posterity when you get back.’ He laughed, ‘mind you, that’s if posterity doesn’t walk over it in the next hour or so. But then as you know, my work isn’t exactly permanent. He smiled to take the sting out of the words.
When I got back with the ice creams he was on his knees, putting the finishing touches to the repairs of A Shropshire Sunset. Catching sight of me he climbed to his feet, put the brightly coloured crayons carefully in a green felt wrap around holdall, wiped the chalk from his fingers on an old rag, then gestured to the wall behind the drawings. ‘Come and join me on one of these mat things, if you rest your back against the wall you’ll find it comfortable enough.’ I did as I was told and for a while we sat companionably, silently enjoying the sun, lost in the pleasures of cold ice cream.
‘Comfy things these cushion,’ he broke the silence, ‘gift from God you might say, well a loan anyway.’ He grinned, nodding across the square towards the Abbey. ‘Has to be at least a thousand or more in there, so I don’t suppose He will miss a couple, not for a day at least, and I’ll put them back before I go.’
‘Go, go when?’ I had only arrived a day ago and he was the first friend I had made.
Tomorrow I think. I’ve been working my way down to the coast for the past six weeks, and though I’m glad to say business has been pretty good on the whole,’ he jerked a thumb at the hat, ‘with September looming it’s time for me to head south. Doesn’t do to be caught in the cold in my line of work. Liable to wind up in hospital, and once there you’ll get sick for sure.’
‘But you can’t go any further south than this!’ My geography marks were not the greatest, but even I knew when you reached the South Coast that was it, and the sea was only a few hundred yards away.
‘Well, yes, in a way you are right, boy. But even the South Coast can turn a bitter cold come November, and sometimes it stays that way right through to May if you’re unlucky. So I always makes a point of heading a long way further south than here. Work my way down through France to the Mediterranean, cross the Pyrenees into Spain, then try to make it down to Andalusia by autumn. That’s about the southern most tip of Spain. You can’t go further south than that. Mind you, even Andalusia can get more than nippy at times in winter, but if it gets really cold I take a job for a while, live indoors. Nowhere else to go, unless Africa takes your fancy.’
‘Africa! Have you really been to Africa?’ I had seen some programmes and pictures on the news, but never actually met anyone who had been there. ‘What’s it like in a war zone?’ There was always a war or something exciting going on in Africa, at least on the news there was.’
‘Yes, I’ve been there. Not that any war was going on, at least not where I was, but then I only stuck my toe in so to speak. Took the ferry across from Algeciras to Tangiers, and came back again the next day. Twenty-four hours in a place like that was more than enough for me, and I’ve never been back. Didn’t take to the place you see, that and the way people kept spitting on my pictures.’ For a moment he looked quite fierce again, then crunched the last if his ice cream cone before grinning like a friend again.
‘Nasty habits they have over there, boy, dead nasty. But what about you, staying at your aunt’s for the holidays are you, with your Mum and Dad?’
‘No, only me. I usually come here for the second half of the summer holidays.’
‘Well, there’s nothing like a bit of independence I always say, makes a man of you. Where did you spend the first half?’
‘Nowhere really, I stay on at school as a rule,’ I tried not to sound defiant for I really hated this bit, but people always asked you to explain. ‘ It’s not too bad and not at all like term time. You can even go into town in the afternoon, if you ask first.’
‘Your dad in the army or something then, always on the move?’
‘Not exactly, but my parents are always on the move, going off somewhere or other, which is why they don’t have time to come back for the holidays. But wherever they are I always fly out to join them for Christmas, Dad said Mum insists on that.’ I stared hard at a shop across the street, bracing myself for the questions that always followed. But he just nodded and lit his cigarette.
‘Know what you mean, spent more time than I care to think in school myself, though being a little older than you I was teaching. Leastways that’s what I thought I was doing, at one of those fancy Art Colleges. Not quite the kind of school you go to I know, but once you take away the flowery bits they all boil down to the same thing, and the terms still seem to go on for ever.’
‘Is that why you left? Because of the terms I mean. God, I wish I could!’ I didn’t usually bring God into things, but it was the first time I had had a real conversation with a grown up and it seemed an adult sort thing to say.
‘That was part of it,’ he blew a cloud of evil smelling smoke into the still air with evident pleasure. ‘ But mainly because I found out I was a fraud, well admitted it anyway, I must have known for years of course. But then we all tend to avoid the obvious…. if it’s disagreeable.’
‘I’m not sure I understand…’
‘Of course you don’t, boy,” he interrupted, ‘ and why should you. Pay no attention to me, I was just rambling. Comes from spending too much time on my own, makes you start talking to yourself. Anyway, you have your own problems to face, like those endless school terms stretching out like a life sentence before you, wondering how on earth you’re ever going to get through them all. But look at those people,’ he waved an arm, embracing the street, ‘most of them went through school as well, and I bet a lot of them hated every damned minute. But they survived the experience and I don’t suppose many of them give their school days a second thought now. Not that it helps much when you’re still going through it.’ He smiled as an idea occurred to him. ‘Tell you what, before I go I’ll to let you in on a little secret of mine. Doesn’t work for everybody, but if you’re prepared to practice a little, you might find it a help with your school problems and a few more you haven’t encountered yet.’
A couple of pretty girls with long tanned legs who had been admiring the pictures bent down to put some coins in the hat. ‘Thank you ladies,’ he gave them a beaming smile. The ice cream must have gone down a treat, for he had ignored most other people who had added coins to his hat. As if knowing what I was thinking and was somehow embarrassed about it, he rummaged in the hat and came up with a handful of coins.
‘Here, boy, take these and get us another round, same as before for me, and don’t pocket the change mind!’ He winked to show he was joking.
The morning was wearing on and there was quite a queue at the ice cream van, so it was a while before I got back. He was kneeling over a paving stone working busily with his chalks, and for a moment or so ignored me, though I sensed he knew I was there. Then he leapt to his feet, flung his arms wide and cried. ‘Behold Posterity, de da!’
It was a perfect portrait of me in vibrant living colours and the best present I had ever had. He had even drawn an oval frame to make the setting more real. No one had ever done anything like that for me before. I wanted so much to thank him but suddenly my throat ached and I couldn’t speak. So I hugged him fiercely instead. It was the only way I could express the way I felt.
‘Hey there,’ he disentangled himself gently, ‘it’s only a picture you know, and I doubt it will last the day. Come on now,’ he smiled, ‘let’s have our ice cream; see what goes into the hat, and whatever it is we’ll split. How does that grab you?’
I shook my head. ‘Thanks, it’s a great idea, but I can’t stay. As it is I’m going to be late for lunch, even if I run the whole way, and Aunt Delia does her top if anyone’s late for lunch, even including Uncle Ben. But would you mind telling me your name before I go?’ I asked shyly, ‘I would like to know, even if we never meet again, because of the picture and that.’
‘Why bless you, boy,’ he turned a little pink, ‘what a nice thought, there’s not many who bother to ask. But since you have, most call me the Painter Man, and I would be right pleased for you to do the same.’
‘Painter Man,’ I rolled the name round my tongue. ‘I like that, it suits you somehow.’
‘Descriptive anyway,’ he grinned. ‘And if you have to go I had better tell you about that other matter before I forget. Mind you, as I said before you have to put your heart in it, and even then it’s not for everyone.’ He paused, rolling another evil smelling cigarette, then changing his mind stuck the scraggy tube behind his ear.
‘Everyone needs a secret place to escape to when the going gets tough, somewhere really wonderful and beautiful, specially for you.’ Painter Man leaned forward and tapped me gently on the chest with his finger to emphasise the point.
I wasn’t sure if he expected a reply, but I couldn’t think of anything to say so I kept quiet and waited. It was the right move, for a moment later he continued.
‘But we have to create that place, boy, paint a picture of in our minds. Brush the canvass with bold sweeping strokes of imagination showing where it is you would like to be. The fine detail and artwork of things that mean the most to you. Memories, feelings and such can always be added later as you go along. Though you have to forget the bad ones, because they don’t belong there. This is your own private place, where everything is happy and free. As life moves on new features and new experiences will be added to the treasure without losing any of your familiar favourites. And the picture will remain with you always, a living haven of peace and happiness, waiting to welcome whenever you have need of it.’
‘I’m afraid I couldn’t do that Painter Man. I don’t have much imagination; in fact Aunt Delia says I haven’t any at all. So I wouldn’t know where to begin.’
‘Rubbish boy, doubtless your aunt has many aptitudes, but character assessment is obviously not one of them.’ He was looking fierce again, though whether at Aunt Delia or me I wasn’t sure. ‘Of course you have imagination, boy, everyone has. Just picture a scene where you felt really happy. It can be anywhere, a landscape, a garden, an orchard, a house, or even a particular room. Just close your eyes and let it come to you.’
I tried, I truly did. I would have done anything to please the Painter Man, but I couldn’t come up with a single idea. In the end I just opened them again and stared at him in dumb apology.
‘You can’t recall being happy anywhere?’ He shook his head slowly, some dust or a fly must have flown into his eyes for he blinked rapidly and rubbed them with the heel of his hand.
‘Well now, lets see,’ he blew his nose loudly on the bit of rag. ‘Is there any place you’ve enjoyed looking at, perhaps at a certain time of day maybe?’ He paused, head cocked on one side like a suspicious chicken.
I thought for a moment then smiled happily, at least I could answer him with something. ‘I can see the sea from my bedroom window, and if I’m awake in time I love to watch the sun come up from the horizon first thing in the morning.’
His face broke a broad smile and he danced a little jig right there in front of me. ‘You see boy, you see, I knew we would find it if we tried hard enough, just knew it.’ He grabbed my hand and we jigged wildly together for a moment, uncaring of the curious crowd. Then holding me at arms length he looked deep in my eyes. ‘ Now boy, you had better be off or your aunt will kipper you for sure. We probably won’t meet again, you and me as my ferry sails soon after five-tomorrow morning. But I want you to promise me you will come back here by seven, no matter how difficult it might be. I can see you’re a determined boy, so I want your promise you’ll be here no later than seven. Will you give me your word on it?’
I nodded dumbly, not trusting myself to speak. Yet I had to know one last thing about him before he went. Taking a deep breath to steady myself I said. “Before you go Painter Man will you tell me why you were unhappy at that school?’
‘Why bless you boy, of course I will.’ He smiled to show he understood how important the matter was to me. ‘I had been teaching art to students for more years than I care to remember, until one day I finally had to admit to myself I couldn’t paint. No matter how hard I tried I was a fraud you see; a teacher who had pressed his counterfeit knowledge on countless talented students, while my own was restricted to drawing picture post cards,’ he pointed at the paving stones. It hurt like hell at the time, but then moments of truth often do. But I got over it, and over that bloody school as well, not that it was the schools fault. But instead of being the end of everything, it turned out to be the beginning. I won’t say there haven’t been ups and downs; of course there have, and the world would be a dull place without them. But it was my admission that day that gave me my freedom. The chance to do what I do well, and to do it when I like and anywhere I please. And mark my words, boy; such freedom represents riches most people can only dream about. So always remember, whatever you think you want may turn out to be not what you really need or want at all.’ He winked and smiled at me head askew to satisfy himself I would remember what he had said, then satisfied dropped to his knees and began work on a new picture.
I never saw Picture Man again, though I kept my promise, climbing out of the kitchen window in time to get to his pitch by seven the following morning. Fifteen minutes before the street cleaning truck came by to wash the pavements, but just in time to commit my secret place to memory before it was brushed from human eyes forever.
All the pictures had been scuffed beyond recognition by passing pedestrians overnight. All that is bar one, which he must have drawn in the first light of day, long after the last reveller had retired to bed. It was a magic scene looking out from the dunes. The tide was out and beyond the sweep of clean wet sand a gleaming silver sea stretched out to meet the breaking dawn. Bright shafts of sunbeams reached up like searchlights to bathe the morning clouds in gentle hues of pink and gold against a background of growing azure blue. Standing on a sand dune in one corner of the picture, a young boy stood, gazing with hope at the magnificent panorama unfolding before him. A baseball cap on his head and an ice cream cornet in one hand.
Over the years the composition has changed in harmony with events just as he said it would, but the basic picture remains the same. I couldn’t count the number of times I have visited that beach in times of stress or trouble and watched the breaking dawn from my favourite sand dune. And thanks to Painter Man, I still do.