When Vinny saw the pictures he wanted to leave. This old bungalow was not abandoned. He made his way into the dark hallway, peeped through a half open door, and signalled frantically for Sam to come out; there was a shape under the covers, a person asleep. If Sam wouldn’t leave, he would go without him as quickly and quietly as possible. But before slipping back out through the French doors he took another glance at the paintings, luminescent in the moonlight; no one but his friend would think of doing a burglary at full moon. Inside the frame, streetlamps turned the rain into needles of silver and the autumn leaves into gold, car headlights made the wet road shine; the painting was called “Autumn Lights.” On the other wall, “Summer Delight” by… He couldn’t read the signature, didn’t dare pause longer. A hand clapped him on the back.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ said Sam. ‘Lucky he didn’t wake up.’
‘You must be mad, George,’ said his carer. ‘Meeting victims, hearing offenders apologise, fine, but inviting him to your home for a fortnight?’
‘It’s a challenge. Vinny seemed genuinely sorry, scared almost.’
‘First name terms already?’
‘He can do some hard work, and it’s better than a young offenders’ institute. I think I can help him, he’s got talent, and when he sees you…’ The old man laughed. ‘He’s just a skinny kid; he’ll be more scared of you, David, than we are of him.’
Vinny didn’t know why he had said that; usually sullen, when he was nervous words just came out of his mouth. He could go picking up rubbish with Sam or spend two weeks doing housework for the old man. When he heard the man’s name he knew the paintings were his. In his mind’s eye he saw the seaside scene, pinpricks of light dancing on the rippled turquoise sea, coloured triangle sails on the horizon. Then in the foreground, on the beach, a father with his toddler at the water’s edge, the little boy laughing as wavelets covered his toes; you would swear the water was moving. The shallow sea was clear, how had the artist painted clear with solid colours? In the bottom corner, the scribbled writing “Summer Delight by G R Appleton.”
‘Could you teach me to paint, Mr. Appleton?’
Vinny had said the right words; his social worker looked pleased and started ticking boxes, mumbling about positive attitudes.
‘I can see you’re good at drawing,’ said the old man.
‘I love drawing, but I want to learn to paint, paint in colours.’
At the meeting the boy had not sat with his head bowed over his mobile phone screen like most youngsters; his mobile had been confiscated at the door. Instead his head was bowed over the form they had each been given to fill in, boxes to tick, comments to make. The boy didn’t write, he drew obsessively, lively figures dancing round the page.
When Vinny knocked nervously on the door of Mr. Appleton’s ramshackle cottage on Monday morning, he was taken aback to be greeted by a huge bloke with biceps bulging out of a bright turquoise polo shirt. Across his prominent pectorals were stretched red embroidered words “Care West.”
‘I come here three times a day and I’ll be watching you; all the drawers are locked and Mr. Appleton doesn’t keep valuables in the house. You’re very lucky he agreed to take you on, he’s not a well man and I don’t want you getting him stressed.’
The only person getting stressed is me, thought Vinny. The young man led him into the room with the paintings. The old man was sitting in a chair with a table over his lap.
‘Good morning Mr. Appleton.’ The social worker had been giving him lessons on manners.
‘Is your real name Vincent, like the artist?’
‘What artist? Only Mum calls me Vincent, I hate it.’
‘Okay Vinny, what do you want to do when you leave school?’
‘I’ve already left, unofficially.’
‘Did you do art at school?’
‘A bit. Could you teach me to paint like that?’ Vinny looked round the room. There were paintings on every wall.
‘No. I can teach you techniques, but you will have your own style. The only brush you are going to hold this week is a six-inch decorator’s brush; if you and your mate thought this house was derelict then the outside must need painting.’
‘Okay, where’s the paint?’ Vinny knew there would be a catch, but house painting sounded more fun than housework or gardening, and if he got it done today he could be in front of an easel tomorrow.
‘Preparation is important for artists and workmen. First you have to sand down the woodwork. Now, let me introduce you to David, my carer – or perhaps minder would be a better description.’
It was hot work. David brought him out a glass of water before he went on to his next client. ‘There’s an outside toilet, no need for you to go in the house.’
‘Isn’t there any Coca Cola?’
‘No. I’ll see you when I come to get Mr. Appleton’s lunch.’
Vinny wondered if he’d get any lunch.
At one o’clock the boy was summoned to the back of the house where a few broken paving slabs passed as a patio. Mr. Appleton’s wheelchair was perched precariously near to where the garden sloped steeply down to the wall Vinny and Sam had climbed over.
‘What a glorious day,’ said the old man. ‘I suppose you would rather be down on the beach on a day like this?’
‘Nah, the beach is boring.’
‘When I was your age, during the war, I would have given anything to live by the seaside. Even holidays were out. Beaches covered in barbed wire and land mines.’
Vinny thought it wouldn’t be long before the war came up.
The old man was eerily good at reading his mind. ‘Well, you don’t want to hear about the war. Let’s go for a walk after lunch, you can wheel me along the promenade.’
At the clifftop, Mr. Appleton decided they should go down in the lift. ‘I don’t trust your driving down the path.’
On the promenade Vinny began to get the hang of the wheelchair, but hoped he didn’t see anyone he knew. They paused to enjoy the view. The boy perched on the wall; all the benches were full of other old people taking in the sun. It was going to be a boring afternoon.
‘This is your first lesson, Vinny. What do you see?’
‘Hey, this is just like your painting, “Summer Delight”.’
‘Yes, it was a day just like this, I wanted to capture it for ever, but the painting’s all I’ve got left.’ George paused. The boy wasn’t listening and the man wasn’t sure if he had spoken the words out loud, wasn’t even sure if he had nodded off for a while in the heat. He took a ten pound note out of his wallet. ‘Go and get us an ice cream. I haven’t had one for ages, not supposed to with my diabetes.’
‘Is that why you can’t walk?’ Vinny was relieved to hear him talking again, for a moment he had wondered if he had quietly died. He decided to keep him talking.
‘No, got all sorts of things wrong with me, paying for my past sins.’
Vinny wondered what the sins might be. It would be rude to ask, but now he had started talking, he wanted to ask lots of questions. ‘If you’re very ill, why did you take me on? Why do you trust me with that money? I could just walk off and leave you.’
‘Yes, and you could have pushed me over the clifftop, or you and your mate could have stabbed me in my bed, but you didn’t. Perhaps I would have deserved it. I need to atone for the past.’
The old man was rambling. Vinny wondered if he was mad.
‘Why did you break in to my house, do the other things?’
‘I dunno, bored.’
‘I did far worse when I was your age, during the war.’
‘But you couldn’t have been bored, in London, being bombed and all that. I bet it was exciting.’
‘It was, for we boys, but we did some bad things because we could get away with it; our dads away, the blackout… Billy was the leader, we followed, but that does not excuse us. He kept daring us to do more, once it went badly wrong; if that was in the news today everyone would be shocked. No one found out; we fled and soon after there was an air raid, the house was flattened by morning. I’ve never told anyone this before. It all comes back when you’re old. I can’t undo the wrong.’
Vinny didn’t know what to say. Part of him wanted to know exactly what happened, though he couldn’t imagine this feeble old man doing anything wicked. He was not used to grown-ups talking to him about serious things.
They ate their ice creams in silence, then George continued as if only seconds had passed. ‘Get yourself an honest job, go to college, learn to be an artist, but don’t get sucked into anything bad. Walk away, like you did that night at my house. I sometimes wonder if things in my life were sent as a punishment… Okay, sermon over, back to the art lesson.’
‘I can’t do scenery, only people.’
‘Lots of painters do scenery because they can’t do people. Watch everything that’s going on, that toddler digging in the sand, the couple holding hands, children splashing in the waves. Now let’s go to the so-called art gallery.’
Ten minutes later Vinny awkwardly manoeuvred the wheelchair into the small gallery full of holiday makers. ‘They’re not half as good as your pictures,’ he whispered.
The gallery owner frowned as George talked in a loud voice. ‘Flat, no life, no light. Your figures have such life, now you must play God and create a world for them to live in.’
By the time David returned to get George’s tea and help him to bed, the painting room was scattered with pencil sketches of people, dogs, and seagulls.
By the end of the week, the window frames and French doors were painted a bright blue, but indoors no paints had appeared. Vinny had taken George out in fine weather every afternoon, but on Saturday morning it poured with rain, and David and Vinny climbed up in the tiny loft and fetched down mysterious boxes.
Soon the battered old dining table was scattered with tubes, tins, assorted brushes, but no paper or board. Vinny was shown how to mix colours.
After lunch the wind blew the rain away. To David’s disapproval Vinny wheeled the old man down to the sea front. They looked at the muddy grey waves and beige foam.
George laughed. ‘If you can capture the colour of that sea, then you are a real artist.’
‘There are still people to paint, and dogs.’
‘Windswept holiday makers, fed up children, could you capture all this in a picture?’
The boy laughed. ‘I’m going to call it “Summer Delight”.’
By the end of the second week, a painting stood on the easel. Vinny had opted to try oils. The social worker was talking to the boy out in the garden, and David was examining the work of art.
‘It’s not finished yet, of course,’ said George, ‘but I think it’s pretty amazing. It’s got movement and light.’
‘Better than some of those pictures at the gallery. Your challenge was a success, then, turned a thief into an artist.’
‘He was never a thief. He’s done his two weeks, but we’ll only know the challenge has worked if he turns up next week and the week after, if he wants to keep learning.’
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© 2017 Janet Gogerty
Janet loves writing novels, short stories and blogging. Her favourite theme is how ordinary people cope when strange things happen to them.