Wednesday, 6 August 2014
A narrow footpath flanks the playground of the infant school, where I help in the classroom during the afternoons. Each day, I pass along the path on my way to the school office, where I must sign in. I always arrive whilst lunchtime recess is taking place, and the children whom I have come to know are at play in the playground. More often than not, I am espied and the children run to the fence separating the footpath from the playground, calling my name and waving to me, which I find most touching and uplifting.
One breezy, brilliant afternoon in early summer, I am hailed as is customary, this time by a little boy whom I recognise as having been in the reception class where I help a couple of years ago, although I do not recall his name. I pause to speak with him, and he asks me a question, which at first I do not understand, but catch the word, 'artist'. Intrigued, I ask him to repeat himself, and then I realise that he is enquiring of me whether I am a "great artist"! Surprised, much affected by his question, I shake my head in denial, and reply that, no, I am not, although I would like to be almost more than anything in the world. He answers that he remembers me as having been good at drawing. I thank him sincerely, astonished that he should remember me at all, much less ascribe to me proficiency in a discipline I have not practised for years, although I do assist the children in their own work where appropriate. I take my leave of him, and continue on my way, a glow of appreciation having been kindled by the child's praise.
The little boy has eyes of an intense, unwavering, crystalline blue. They meet my own with the candour of childhood, ingenuous, confiding, reminding me that I have a duty to safeguard such innocence and vulnerability, however delighted and moved I am with the compliment bestowed upon me by one so youthful.
Later, I am given to realise that I have been made the gift of a new gem to hang on the necklace of compliments safely stowed in the far reaches of my mind; a sapphire, perhaps, of the same azure brilliance as the eyes of the little boy who unwittingly laid balm upon a wound.
Above my head, suspended from the bedroom ceiling by a length of black cotton, and a brass headed drawing pin, there swings a polystyrene model aeroplane, much faded by the sun, crafted by my youngest nephew from a kit, when he was a little boy. I am visiting my mother, and have chosen to sleep in the back of the house, in the bedroom once used by one of my sisters, and now designated the room of her son when he comes to stay. I awaken very early, to a pearlescent morning, pale light seeping through the summer curtains, and casting a fragile shadow of the aeroplane on the ceiling, a shadow tracing each delicate manoevre of the plane as it turns slowly in the current of air drifting through the open window. Unable to return to sleep, I lay and watch the subtle pirouetting, captivated, and then moved by a sudden impulse to photograph the eccentric craft and it's attendant shade, although I have at my disposal only a tiny digital camera.
Across the landing, a few steps away, the door remains closed upon the room in which my father slept during the latter years of his life, a room quiet and pleasing of aspect, that, as the eldest daughter of the house, was originally my own, and in which, after I had finally left home, in the tranquility of the back of the house, he found peace and security. The wardrobe still contains my father's clothes, most poignantly his homely, plaid dressing gown, and the tweed jacket he was wearing on admittance to hospital after having suffered the stroke that paralysed the lefthand side of his body.
When I visit my mother, I take pains to open the curtains of this closed room in the morning, perhaps opening the fanlight if the day promises to be warm, drawing the curtains again against the coming of night, and shutting the window. The room is not intended as a shrine; it is simply that my mother cannot bear to remove the possessions that speak so powerfully of my father's presence; his hairbrushes, watch, and spectacles, the knitted garments contained within the chest of drawers, his jackets, shirts and overcoats hanging neatly in the wardrobe.
Longing for the sound of his voice, the generous, delighted smile with which he greeted us, the gentle pressure of his hand upon our head or shoulder, as though we his daughters were still tender children, I often pause whilst in the room, to open the wardrobe door, taking care that the sound does not reach my mother, to touch the clothes that he inhabited, lay my cheek against the reminiscent roughness of woollen cloth, draw in the lingering scent of his skin, his hair, until either comforted, or overwhelmed by an unassuagable grief, I close the wardrobe, and steal from the room on tiptoe.
I once asked my father if he could make paper aeroplanes, knowing that, as a child, he had created little models from balsa and thread, which he hung from the ceiling of his bedroom, much as did his grandson generations later. We were travelling together on a train bound for a London terminus at the time of my question, leaving him small scope for demonstrating his skill, and would soon part company, myself to journey onwards to Scotland, and he returning home to Hampshire, but a day or so later, a manilla envelope addressed to me in my father's fine, rhythmic italic, arrived by post, bearing within an elegant aeroplane fashioned from a sheet of manuscript paper. I have it still.