© John P
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Bob Hall groped amongst the suds in the washing up bowl for the next dirty pot. His eyes and his mind, however, were focused elsewhere, on the willow tree which was visible through the kitchen window.
It's not right, he thought. It's lop sided. I'll sort that out first thing.
Even as he thought it, he knew it could not wait. He dropped the cup back into the bowl and half dried his hands on a tea towel. Something as ill proportioned as that tree had to be dealt with there and then.
Opening the sagging, yellow, formica-covered door of a kitchen unit, he reminded himself yet again to fix the hinge, which squealed shrilly. Then, squatting down, he began to rummage amongst the numerous tins that filled the cupboard. A few tumbled out and rolled gently across the faded red and white squared lino. With a sigh he stood upright, one of his knees cracking like the shot of a kid’s cap gun. He squinted at the lid of the tin he was holding but it was hopeless without his glasses. Not that he could complain; his long sight was near perfect and he had no problem reading a car’s number plate down the end of the street. But reading and other close work was a different matter. His optician had told him it was normal in a man of his age, that once you turn fifty it’s to be expected, along with falling hair and lower back pain.
He went through to the living room and found his specs resting on top of the deaths announcements in the local newspaper. Recently he had spotted two familiar names among the deceased, no one he had know particularly well, just casual acquaintances. Penny had accused him of being morbid, taking an interest in such things, but he did it more from a sense of duty. It was as if he owed it to the people he knew not to miss their passing on. Not that he had attended their funerals - they had not been that close. In any case, he had an aversion to funerals which probably dated back to the death of his grandmother when he was a child of seven and had stood at the grave side, afraid of falling into the open pit before him, knowing he should be sad and wondering why he wasn’t. Then his Uncle Alfred had crouched down to whisper things in his ear about what happens to bodies in their coffins as the days and weeks pass, terrible things. His uncle’s hot breath had smelt sickly sweet and his eyes had been shot with red.
Bob adjusted the spectacles on the bridge of his nose and once again examined the tins, tilting his head back slightly. Selecting one, he unlocked the back door and stepped out into the yard.
It was a typical late Spring morning. Despite the sunshine, the air was chilly, and what little breeze there was carried a smell of dead cats from the nearby chemical factory. He opened the fold away step ladder and positioned it by the back wall. He climbed the first three steps with a nimbleness that belied his sixty two years. At a recent check up his doctor had remarked upon his ‘rough health’. Bob had puzzled about that. What exactly did it mean and should he be worried? Maybe he should have asked but, although he ate and slept less than he had done when younger, he felt in pretty good shape. The only thing that did concern him was his height. He now measured four centimetres less than when he had been in the army, but the doctor had assured him this was normal. Nevertheless, Bob had no desire to be a seventy year old midget.
He flicked the lid off the can and gave it a vigorous shake. He inserted a thin plastic tube into the spray nozzle, then set to work on the willow tree. Five minutes later he stepped down and backed away to check his work. Those few extra tendrils had done the trick. Now it was balanced. The metallic finish was something of a compromise but it was the closest he could get to a colour match. British Racing green was much too dark. It was ideal for fir trees, as he had found in his mural of the Norwegian fjord, but how could he put a fir tree on a beach in the South of France?
* * * *
Craig Black, the editor of North East View, the early evening programme covering local news and issues, felt smugly satisfied with the way the day's planning meeting was progressing. The two main stories had decided themselves, and a couple of other items had been finalised all in thirty minutes. He was aware that the overall package was a little on the heavy side, however, and that they needed something with a touch of human interest, preferably with a humorous slant. He asked for suggestions.
"I might have just the thing." Alicia Slipper leant forward and stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray with slow, deliberate pressure. She sat back and expelled the last of the smoke through her nostrils. Craig Black thought of dragons. The red streaks in Alicia’s hair and her prominent front teeth were, perhaps, contributory factors.
"Then please, reveal all. Keep us in suspense no longer," he intoned with mock drama, raising a few sycophantic sniggers.
Alicia was unperturbed. She had Black's measure, the distance between her thumb and forefinger, as she had crudely illustrated to more than one of those present. She smiled and waited until she had everyone's attention.
"Something that came in a few days ago that I haven't had chance to follow up as yet. It seems there’s some old boy over in the Northbank area who paints these huge murals of exotic places on his backyard wall."
"Seems like a good idea to me. Anything to brighten up that dump can't be bad," Bradley Small, who covered sports, commented.
Craig Black ignored him and focused on Alicia. "So? What would the angle be?"
"The usual thing. Harmless English eccentric. Apparently he's never been out of the country. He takes his deck chair out into the yard and pretends he’s wherever he’s painted. Cheap way of having a holiday. Bound to raise a chuckle or two."
"Could work," Black agreed. "Where’d you hear about it?"
"The daughter-in-law. Asked if she could be interviewed. Also wanted to know if we paid for stories we used. You know the type.”
There were nods, grunts and wry smiles of agreement from the assembled company. They knew the type all right.
"Also," Alicia continued, "a neighbour has complained repeatedly to the council saying that the murals are little better than graffiti and lower the tone of the area."
Bradley Small snorted.
"That's good," Black enthused, "especially if you can get an interview with someone from the council. Try and get hold of that prat who wanted to close down the sex shop in Forsyth Street. He was brilliant. Worth his own show. Great, so let’s get to work."
* * * *
It was mid morning when Bob heard the scrape of a key in his front door, followed by Penny’s voice. "Hello. Are you in?"
Bob decided not to hear her and continued reading. The sitting room door opened and Penny' s head appeared.
"Oh hello, Penny, love. I didn't hear you come in."
"Listen, I’ve got to tell you. I' m so excited. Let me sit down and get my breath back. I must have run most of the way here."
It was true, she was breathing heavily, Bob noticed, though he put it down to the twenty kilos of excess baggage she carried around her hips and thighs. She took off her black nylon anorak and threw it over the arm of a chair which she then flopped into, sighing hugely. Bob placed his bookmark in the open book and closed it reluctantly; his own sigh was silent though probably more heartfelt.
"I’ll not beat about the bush,” she began. “The television people are on their way over. They'll be here any minute."
"Why? What's happened? Someone's house burned down?"
"Don't be daft. They're coming to see you. Well, not only you. They want to talk to me as well. That Alicia Slipper, you know. Her on North East View."
Bob began to listen with attention to what she was saying, but he was still confused. "What are they coming here for?" Then things began to take on an ominous clarity in Bob's mind. "What have you been up to?"
"Nothing," she said, defensively. "I rang them about your painting, that's all. I thought they might he interested and it so happens I was right."
"Without asking me first? It's not on, Penny. You'd no right."
Bob placed his book on the coffee table and stood up. Penny had not mastered the art of concealing her true feelings so he was forced to watch the girlish excitement drain from her face.
"I might have known you’d be like this," she pouted. Then, unwilling to concede defeat so easily, she returned to the attack. "Just think, you'll be on telly. You and your painting. You'll be famous. Everyone will see it and know how good an artist you are. Come on, dad. They'll he here in a minute."
Before he had chance to respond the door bell rang and Penny had gone to answer it. He could hear her talking in the hall, voice lowered, no doubt explaining how he was being awkward but that they shouldn’t pay him any attention, he would come round given time.
"Dad, this is Alicia Slipper who I was telling you about."
It wouldn’t have surprised Bob in the least to see Penny drop to her knees and kiss the hem of their exalted visitor’s skirt.
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Hall. I’ve been told a lot about you," Alicia said, stepping forward, hand extended.
"Yes, well, I think you may be wasting your time."
"Dad," Penny growled through clenched teeth.
"No, please, I understand perfectly”, Alicia Slipper interrupted. "Perhaps if I could take a minute to explain. We haven't decided whether to use this story yet. I'd just like to talk to you about your painting. If we think it would make a good story then I'm sure we could allay any fears you have about appearing on television. But the final say would be yours, naturally."
Bob looked at the carpet and shook his head slowly from side to side. Penny raised her eyes to the ceiling and silently screamed. Only Alicia Slipper remained unmoved.
"I would very much like to see this mural of yours, Mr. Hall. No strings. I really am interested," she charmed. All part of the job.
"Aye, all right. No harm in that, I suppose. It's out the back. Follow me."
A smile reappeared on Penny's face. She had to give credit to Alicia, but it was no more than she’d expected. Having watched her on television every evening, she felt that Alicia was close to being an old friend.
"I'll put the kettle on," she announced. "Would you like a cup of coffee er. . ?” At this point she hesitated, uncertain of the reporter's marital status and not wishing to offend by a presumptuous use of her Christian name. Alicia ignored the offer, keen to get on with the business.
Bob led the way into the yard. It was a small, square space, enclosed by the house on one side and three walls, slightly over two metres high. In the rear wall was a door which led out to an alleyway. In the centre of the yard a white, moulded plastic table and two chairs of the same material were grouped.
Alicia Slipper had not really given the mural much thought, and she found it difficult to withhold a profanity when she finally confronted it.
"Extraordinary," she said, aware that its creator was watching her closely for a reaction. "The South of France, I think your daughter in law said."
"Cannes," Bob confirmed.
Having been to Cannes on a number of occasions, Alicia knew that Bob's picture bore absolutely no resemblance to the reality. She had certainly never seen a weeping willow on the beach. Nor could she recall a backdrop of dense woodland receding to snow capped mountains. The Tyrolean cottage in the near distance was prettily painted but totally outlandish. On top of all that, the garish, comic book quality of the colours made her think of Walt Disney on LSD.
"Well, what can I say? I'm speechless," she said. "Where do you get the ideas? Your daughter in law tells me that you've never been out of England. Pictures in travel brochures? Holiday programmes on T.V?”
Bob chuckled, though Alicia failed to see what she had said that was so funny.
"Haven't got a television, love. Never saw a use for it. No, it's all come from inside here," he said, tapping the side of his head.
"Is that so? Well, please don't take this amiss, but I’ve been to Cannes. I know it quite well as a matter of fact, and. . .”
"Don’t tell me,” he interrupted. “I don't want to know. I don’t want to seem rude, but I think you were about to say that my mural is nothing like Cannes."
"Yes, you see that willow ...”
"No, I'd rather not know, if you don't mind. To me, that is Cannes. It’s how I want it to be. When I sit out here in the summer, to my mind, I'm in Cannes."
"Well you could be," Alicia said, deciding the time was right to push for his consent to do the story. It was even better than she had imagined. Eccentric and then some. Craig Blank, as she referred to him in his absence, would have to be delighted. "I mean you really could be in Cannes. We'd fly you to Cannes for a few days, all expenses paid, luxury hotel. Then you could tell the viewers how the place is different from your imagined version. What do you think?"
This idea had suddenly occurred to her, but she was sure that she could sell it to Craig and the idea of a few days in the South of France at the company's expense would be very pleasant.
“Could I go too?” Penny asked.
"Wait a minute,” Bob said. “Before we all get carried away, Miss ..... er. Wild horses wouldn’t drag me there."
* * * *
"So the old boy wouldn’t play eh?" Craig Black said.
"Afraid not. It’s a pity. I quite liked him too,” Alicia replied. “Mad as a March hare but there was something about him. You should’ve been there. That painting. God. He changes it every year, you know. It's his sixth. His wife left him three years ago when he filled his yard with builder's sand for his Sahara desert scene."
"No really. It’s true. And you’ll never guess what his next project is."