Notes from an unfinished story

The Drawing of the Fish

Grandad would fill his pipe and let Daniel light the spill, then hold it steadily. They would both stare intently at the small yellow and blue flame and with half a dozen rhythmic puffs the pipe would be lit.  There would be several minutes when they would both sit and watch the smoke set off on its way up to the ceiling before turning down in its path to go up the chimney with the fire smoke.

While his pipe was puffing away, William Carr would tell Daniel the news of the day, whether it be of some altercation outside the Queen’s Head the previous night, or Churchill’s latest mendacity.

‘’The man is senile and has to wear a nappy, he shouldn’t be allowed out into the daylight.’’ Other affairs of state would be related to Daniel as if he were an adult and knew what his great grandfather was talking about. But Grandad talked properly and his voice had a lovely nasal ring to it. Daniel just liked the sound of him talking, and when there was a pause he would think of a question, any question, just to keep him going. He wasn’t trying to be clever or anything but when important national figures were mentioned by name, he would say, ‘’Tell me about Mr Attlee, tell me about Princess Elizabeth, or Stanley Matthews, how far away is London?’’ Keep talking Grandad.

Only when Daniel knew that he had squeezed all the talk out of his grandad that he could, would he reach under his armchair and pull out the roof slate, the six-inch nail and the piece of chalk. This was the signal for ‘’the drawing of the fish.’’

Grandad would dust the slate with the cuff of his shirt, and picking up the nail, he would rapidly draw a fish with one movement. His nail would trace a line from the left of the slate in a fluid arc describing the top of the fish to the right of the slate. A little squiggle would outline the tail before the nail would make the return journey round the bottom of the slate to join the line where it had begun, creating an open mouth for the fish, a kissing mouth or a smiling mouth. A couple of loud scratches would make a fin or two, an eye and perhaps some bubbles coming out of its mouth. This was magic as Daniel understood the word. It was all over in three seconds, and a life like creature was created. And his ancient great grandfather’s hand had moved with the speed and grace of a teenage ballerina. With the chalk Daniel would trace with fat white chalk lines the thin, elegant lines engraved by his grandad’s nail.

‘’Daniel has drawn a fish,’’ Grandad would shout to the kitchen with feigned astonishment, even though he had ‘drawn a fish’ every Wednesday for several months. Soon Daniel was adding scales to the fish and seaweed to the picture. Before long he was drawing the fish himself with the nail and Grandad would draw the seaweed.

Each visit to Distington ended with the ceremony of the hot scones, the melting butter and the gooseberry jam, made from the fruit of the two bushes in the back yard. While the grownups drank hot sweet tea, Daniel drank a glass of ‘’Aneurin Bevan’s orange juice,’’ as Grandad called it with a wink.

Adeline and Daniel had to get the service bus back to Howgate, and this entailed a one mile walk down to the beck and up across the valley to the top end of Lowca. ‘’It’ll be two miles for Daniel with his little legs,’’ said Grandma and Grandad from the door. Every time.

The Prodigal Son

When Daniel next went to the library ‘his’ Rembrandt book was there and the painting of the ‘Prodigal Son’ was still on page 203. Why should he have expected that it wouldn’t be?

This time he was armed with not just an HB pencil, but, luxury of luxuries, a 2B and a 6B pencil.

The painting seemed more vivid to him in the weeks since he had made such a bad drawing of it. The kneeling of the son, the all-enveloping embrace of the father, standing, old. Daniel was too afraid of drawing the face of the father and of the head, in profile, of the son. Instead he drew the hands again.

This second time he very consciously paid more attention to the marks of Rembrandt’s brush strokes and the lumps of light paint which defined the knuckles and the sinews in the backs of the hands, and of the thin watery strokes which outlined the fingers and defined the shadows cast on the back of the ‘Prodigal Son’. It was such mundane details which put the hands so close to the surface of the back, the palms so gently pressing.

This was love.

This was love so precisely articulated. Daniel’s drawing had not repeated or recreated Rembrandt’s eloquence, but his drawing had allowed him to see it more clearly.

He didn’t see Rembrandt’s painting as a metaphor for himself and his Dad, it never occurred to him that it should. He didn’t know what a ‘Prodigal’ was, or what the lad had got up to when he was away to warrant such a beautiful forgiveness. Daniel was quite keen to do some ‘prodigalling’ of his own, as soon as he could find out what was involved.

The Concept of Zero

Tom lent Daniel some black indian ink and a good pen to work on his drawing and to work out how to make his marks on the scraperboard. Daniel thought about including a few lumps of coal, ‘flying through the air’, but his skills weren’t up to that.

Daniel took longer than he thought making the scraperboard, but Miss Palmer was delighted.

It looked more like a Constable sketch than a Bewick engraving. However, in his finished scraperboard, he had not included the stench of the cowshit slurry in the beck and he had left out the smell of the tar from the tar plant and coking ovens which were up on the hill, not far behind the trees on the right. Although he included the steaming train and the two men, their dog and the engine driver, Daniel did not include the fountain of coal or evidence that there were five hundredweight of coal being stolen by two very nice men from the village, two friends from Lowca School and their dog ‘Beaut’.

Miss Palmer sent the scraperboard drawing off to her friend at Durham University. When her friend replied she typed out his response and gave it to Daniel. She wanted him to write to him and thank him for his kind praise, but Daniel thought that doing the scraperboard was enough of a kindness.

This triggered a continuing dialogue with Miss Palmer after lessons about the direct and indirect confluence of Mathematics and Art.

Daniel borrowed a book on Mondriaan from the Art Room and showed her his flat colour grid paintings, but he also showed her Mondriaan’s earlier sketches of trees. In these paintings, he didn’t so much draw the trees, but the spaces between the twigs and branches. The ‘negative space’.

Miss Palmer excitedly answered by telling Daniel about the invention of the mathematical concept of ‘zero’, which she described as, ‘’more significant than the invention of the wheel’’.

‘’Where would you cricketers be without ‘ducks’?‘’ she laughed.

She brought Daniel in to a conversation about mathematicians and artists.

About seeing patterns in apparent chaos.

About the poetry of numbers.

About the purity of thought.

That sort of stuff.

Sit Down

‘’Sit down and I’ll get you a cup of tea and the paper,’’ said Daniel.

‘’ Er yer ganna dae a drawin’ ev ‘ez?’’

‘’Can do,’’ said Daniel, surprised.

Tom sat with the paper on his lap, not really reading it. Daniel picked a flat ‘’woodworker’s pencil’’ from the mantelpiece and began drawing. The flatness of the pencil lead guided his hand into straight lines and shallow curves and he soon found a rhythm for the drawing of the droops and the collapsed flesh of his dad’s face.

‘’This is me!’’ said Tom after a while. It was a minute or two later that he completed his sentence with an angry ‘’Fucked.’’

Daniel was well into the drawing before he realised that Tom was ‘posing’. Normally Tom would just get on with what he was doing, watching television, reading, fidgeting with the cast on his wrist, but staying as still as was appropriate for his ‘lad’ to draw him. But here, Tom was staring at Daniel with the gaze of a man saying ‘’Here, draw me like this, this is how I want to be drawn.’’

And Daniel responded. His pencil did not move any quicker than it normally did, but it moved insistently. Daniel had an eraser in his left hand, not to rub out any mistakes and exaggerations but to modulate the rapidly darkening tones of the graphite and to create highlights in the flesh and greyness in the hair.

‘’Ambipedaled.’’ Said Tom.

‘’What?’’

‘’Bein’ ‘ebble ter kick wid both feet.’’

Daniel smiled.

Daniel just drew. There were no thoughts that this might be his last chance to draw his dying father, or that this drawing would be a preparatory drawing for an oil portrait. It was just another chance to sit and ‘’BE’’ with his dad again in an ordinary, mutually agreeable, activity. Like in his youth.

It Wasn’t Right

Sandra usually made Daniel breakfast in bed, but the next day Daniel was up at six, set the kitchen table for breakfast and was in his studio before Sandra and Rachel were awake. They knew not to disturb him, they showered and dressed downstairs, ate quietly and left for work, and school, in silence.

Daniel didn’t notice them go. He had a canvas primed and ready on his easel. He had traced one of the drawings of Tom into the damp paint. He set about laying a full palette on to an A2 sheet of thick white glass which he had stolen from Art School twenty years before. The careful process of squeezing the paint out of the tube into small turds on to the pure white glass gave Daniel the opportunity to engage with and relearn each individual colour.

All the time he was working on Monday, Daniel thought that he was doing well. He was in a hurry, but he laid down his paint in a careful, methodical manner. He was only working from a line drawing, but he was pleased with the flesh tones. His dad’s life-long sun-tan had faded since his strokes, his skin looked dry now, almost transparent.

By the end of the daylight when Rachel came home from school, Daniel felt that he had built the structure of a good portrait. He happily made a curry dinner while Rachel practised her Mozart in her room. Before he changed out of his painting clothes he went into the studio to tidy up his mess and clean his brushes. It was dark now and the yellow light of the room’s bulbs changed the colours of the painting. He was shocked at how weak it now looked. He knew that it would look better in the daylight of the next morning. He knew that he would be a grumpy arsehole over dinner.

In the morning the painting didn’t look better to Daniel. The memory of seeing it in the yellow artificial light the previous evening haunted the way he looked at it. He was angry with himself and attacked the picture, challenging every mark and brushstroke he had made. The anger brought energy and he tried to use that. He sustained that anger throughout the day and by the time Rachel came home he had an exciting painting. The colouring was vibrant and accurately caught the chalky complexion and the dark shadows of the eyes. The drawing under the paint held the picture together and it did indeed look like Tom.

But it wasn’t right.

So You Did Find God

The studio was stiflingly warm. He had left the fan-heater on all night, but Wednesday’s paint was touch dry. He tidied up his palette and squeezed gobs of fast-drying clear medium into spaces between key colours. He had six new, thin, flat brushes. He pressed his thumb and forefinger round their fibres and began to paint.

There was no order to the making of his marks.

He was just painting.

He did not put right the exaggerations and mistakes of the previous day.

He had new painting to do and he would make new, better, mistakes.

He had shadows to bring to those deep spaces between the nose and the eyes. He had to give new shape to the lid of the left eye. But these were simultaneous acts with the need to repaint the frenum and other unnameable parts of the face and its flesh. Soon the six different colours on his six different brushes had to be cleaned, wiped and reloaded, each new colour to be addressed to its rightful place in the painting. The thousand calculations per minute involving size, shape, tone, colour, degree of transparency, gesture were Daniel’s litany and the music of the movement of his brushes would soon overtake the mathematics of his looking. This was painting. And Daniel trusted in his hands and his eyes and his vision. And in this particular time, he carried the vision of his father. Not his father’s ‘character’. Not his father’s ‘soul’. Just his father, Tom. Just a person reconstructed in paint. Daniel recognised when his brain was operating in top gear, and he knew, after twenty years of painting full-time, that his hands and his eyes understood things which his brain could not grasp, could not believe in, did not have access to. Sometime in the process of the painting of his dad, in the transition from fierce intellectual control of the drawing and the manipulation of the paint, to the surrendering to the authority of his natural gifts, Daniel recognised that he had finished the painting of his father. Something in the arrangement of paint was telling him that he had to stop.

It was only a painting.

It would not change the world or make people’s lives better.

It was just a painting.

It took some time for Daniel to be able to ‘see’ what he had done.

It would be hard for him to separate himself from the making of it. It would be hard for him to accept responsibility for the painting, to take ownership of it, to take pride in it.

He would be very nervous about showing Tom the painting, not because it was an inaccurate portrait or that it did or did not define a very fine man. He was afraid that Tom would recognise that ‘strangeness’ again which so alarmed him when Daniel was a boy. He was even more afraid that the painting had stepped into the realms of ‘spirituality’ and that Tom would say, with a hint of triumphalism in his voice. ’’So, yer did find God efter oah? Eh?’’

Daniel still had lots of technical work to do on the painting, but he was already planning to go on his own to Lowca for a quick visit after the Rugby game on the Saturday. Rachel had orchestra practise on Saturday morning and her Grade 8 violin test was coming up. Sandra’s headship was all-consuming, of her time and of her spirit. Taking the picture to his dad was a personal thing and full of risks. He didn’t want Sandra and Rachel involved in the emotional minefield that was his mam, his dad and his own self. He knew that the painting would drag up forty odd years of intimate family discordance, not because it was a bad painting, but because it was so fiercely good. It would remind Tom and Adeline of so much pain. But getting the painting to his dad was still the most urgent thing in Daniel’s life.

The phone call at eight o’ clock on Saturday morning was still a surprise.

‘’He died at two this mornin’.’’

The Blue Biro

It might have been on the following Friday night or the Saturday night that Tom was watching the television from his chair by the side of the fireplace. Daniel got out a sheet of writing paper and a black biro to draw him.

Daniel sat in the chair beside the TV, ‘’Homework,’’ he said, ‘’Just carry on watchen’ t’telly.’’

Tom was used to acting as his son’s unpaid model. Daniel had done dozens of drawings of him. The drawings usually went straight to the bin. This drawing, just of his head, was for Miss Klein and it was quite good. Daniel’s biro ran out of ink half way through and he had to use another one with a thicker point. He was still very pleased with himself.

‘’Who’s that supposed to be?’’ said Adeline, when she came back from her bingo. She immediately regretted saying it. It was a very good drawing.

The next morning, Daniel jumped out of bed to look at it. The second biro he had used was blue. It must have looked black in the yellow light of the living room lightbulbs. He couldn’t take it to show Miss Klein. She was gone to America before he could do another.