For his ninth birthday, grandmother had sent him a large wooden box filled with thick tubes of paint, a variety of horse hair brushes, and sheets of paper that felt rough to the touch. His mother complained about the impending mess and told her husband that the gift was far too advanced for a nine-year-old – He won’t appreciate it properly! His father agreed; the boy disagreed. They were beautiful. His new paints deserved a masterpiece – not a mess.
Every day for the next few weeks of summer he would finish his breakfast as quickly as possible, the spoon scraping against the bowl as he shoveled thick, grey porridge. Every spoonful would stick to the roof of his mouth, slowing him down and forcing him to swallow without chewing to speed up the process. Hurriedly, he would gather his bowl and cup and drop them into the sink, the sound of ceramic hitting the stainless steel echoing through the house as he dashed up the stairs and into his bedroom. He would slide the wooden box from under the bed and haul it down the stairs. The case was a third of his size with a red leather strap, and he needed both hands and all the strength his small frame could provide to ensure it didn’t hit any of the steps on the journey down.
The kitchen, with its wipeable linoleum, reassuring lack of soft furnishings and spacious dining table, not only eased his Mother’s fear of the mess, but was also the perfect space in which to create his masterpiece. Mother would still insist he lay down newspaper. The box sat to the left of him, open and inviting, beckoning him, like a siren. In front of him lay a battered exercise book, opened to the middle, past the scrawled notes and doodles of the previous school year, to dog-eared but otherwise pristine pages. The book acted as a safe place for him to explore ideas without tarnishing the pure white paper. To the right of the beaten blue book were two HB pencils, a sharpener, ruler, and small pink eraser, scuffed from previous use. And there he sat, the arrangement before him untouched yet painfully alluring.
In the evenings, his mother would begin to prepare dinner, and he would rush to tidy away his paints, desperate to avoid morsels of food or spilt drinks contaminating his special paper. After eating, the three watched television. His mind would wander. Images flickered on the screen. Ships? Pirate, merchant navy, even cargo? Surely these would be deserving? His father changed the channel, and a group of stallions galloped across a field, their hooves clattering in a flurry against the ground. Brilliant animals, horses are, his father remarked. Horses?
Mother sent him to bed at 8 o’clock, and he reluctantly complied. Some time after he had nestled himself under the sheets, the hushed voice of his mother crept up the stairs and crawled under the bedroom door – I think there’s something wrong with him, she hissed, He’s not been outside to play with his friends for over a week now; do you think he’s being bullied? Her voice had become warped with worry. His father’s voice was muffled, deep and low, reassuring in tone. His mother continued, But he isn’t enjoying himself, look at this, paper rustled, look at these drawings, a boy his age shouldn’t be obsessing like this; ’’ts not healthy, her voice had begun to raise slightly, assuming the boy had fallen asleep. He listened to his father reply, the comforting rumble of his voice enveloping him. Mother fell silent, and her sigh, barely audible, was the last sound to climb the stairway.
His mother worried still. A boy his age should be playing outside, she’d tell his father, He’s not even touched the bloody paints. Her husband agreed. The next day, Mother led him to the front door, outside to the curb, and encouraged the boy to play with the huddle of children gathered on the street. When he turned to protest, the door had already been shut and locked.
He returned with pockets stuffed. Mother, in her once crimson apron and wearing a single marigold glove, opened the door, and asked why he was back so soon. Instead of answering, he wriggled past her hips and took his place at the kitchen table, triumphantly spreading his newfound treasures before him. Some had wilted in the warmth of his pocket. Two yellow and violet pansies from Mrs Wilson’s flower beds, a piece of the fern bush from the Sayers’ front garden, an oak leaf burnt in shades of amber and gold, and three stones that he believed to look like planets or chunks of meteorite. He slowly began to explore the page with his needle-sharp pencil, a shaky imitation of the petals unfolding on the squared paper. It was wrong. He didn’t just want to paint a flower. A flower wasn’t good enough for the paints.
He couldn’t resist anymore. Perhaps he just needed to see the colours painted before he could produce their masterpiece? After washing his hands in the kitchen sink and drying them on the table cloth, he lifted one sheet of the thick, ivory paper. Using a ruler, a fresh pencil and painfully slow precision, he drew twenty squares of equal size in 5 rows. He was unsure which brush to use, finally settling, after minutes of careful deliberation, on a brush with a flat, square head. Gently he pressed the hairs into his fingertip, then his palm, his inner arm, tracing the veins, his cheek, his temple, infatuated with the feeling against his skin. He squeezed pea-sized portions of paint onto the ‘palette’ — a Tupperware lid his mother had lost the box to – and marveled at the tiny shining globes of colour.
He lost track of time as he placed each colour into its own box, taking care to write the names underneath each in his neatest cursive; Vermillion, Scarlet, Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Orange, Ochre, Lemon, Sap, Emerald, Azure, Violet; he knew the names of all twenty by heart, and if you had asked him he would have recited them forward and backwards. They were perfect. They stood against the alabaster paper like jewels, presenting themselves to him, demanding they be pored over. And so he pored. But still nothing. These colours deserved more than pansies, or stallions, or pirate ships, or planets. They deserved so much more than he could give them.