Many years ago in London’s East End there was a man who used to sit with paints and an easel and paint pictures of brick walls. Myself and friends would laugh at him and could not understand why he would want to do this. However, 55 years later he was the inspiration for the story below.
Hitting the Wall
Copyright Stevie Turner 2022
There he was again. Janet tagged along behind her older sisters and their friend, each one pumped up with a confidence and bravado that can only come from being part of a clique. The shabbily dressed man wearing a frayed black overcoat ignored the girls’ gibes and carried on creating a replica of the wall in front of him.
“Why are you painting stupid bricks?” Eloise peered over the man’s shoulder. “That’s a really boring picture.”
Patsy gave the man a dig in the arm with her elbow, causing the paintbrush he was holding to judder across the canvas. The man seemed surprised, and sighed in frustration. Janet cringed at the hoots of ensuing laughter, and felt a hot wave of shame rush over her.
“That’ll liven it up a bit.” Patsy chortled. “Painting bricks? What a bloody joke!”
Without a word, the man removed the damaged canvas from the paint-spattered easel, and put it underneath his chair. Digging into a voluminous bag by his feet he brought out a large sketching pad and some charcoal and then sat in silence with the pad on his lap, staring at something far away on the horizon that Janet could not see.
“Come on Pat.” Lydia grabbed Patsy’s hand and linked her other arm through Eloise’s. “Let’s get rid of Janet and go to the park.”
“Mum said we’ve got to take her.” Patsy shook her head. “You know she did.”
“I don’t want to go to the park.” Janet piped up. “I’m going to knock for Mary… see you later.”
“Thank God for that.” Eloise rolled her eyes skywards. “I’m so glad I haven’t got a little sister.”
Janet saw the man visibly relax as her sisters and Eloise walked away. He opened his sketchbook, looked at the wall, and began to draw a line of bricks across the page. Janet moved closer, fascinated by the speed and accuracy of the man’s grimy hand as he drew.
“Why bricks?” Janet asked in a thin, nervous voice.
The man shrugged.
Janet made a face.
“Well, it’s not a proper picture, is it?”
The man looked at Janet and smiled.
“It is to me.”
Every nook and crevice in each brick was being faithfully replicated in front of her eyes. Janet saw the initials JP appear on the last brick in the third row, which she had written in chalk on the wall the previous day. The letters in the sketchbook were slightly forward-sloping, just the same as her own handwriting.
“They’re my initials – Janet Page. I wrote that.” Janet announced, less timidly now.
“So now you’re in my picture.” The man looked at Janet. “And you said it wasn’t any good.”
“I – I didn’t mean it.” Janet blushed. “What are you going to do with it?”
“I’ll take it home and put it on my wall, so it’ll be a wall on a wall, won’t it?”
“That’s superb, I think.” Janet didn’t know if it was superb or not, but she liked to copy her eldest sister’s phrases. She pointed towards the wall. “See that brick with the hole? That’s where I threw my ball at it.”
“These houses are old; the bricks are soft.” The man’s agile fingers deftly re-created a charcoal hole. “I wanted to paint them before the bulldozers move in.”
Janet liked the sound of the word. She kneeled down next to the man.
“What’s a bulldozer? I’ve never heard of it.”
“You know.” The man replied with a touch of irritation. “It’s when the machines with the big wrecking ball on the end turn up and raze the houses down to the ground.”
“They’re being knocked down?” Janet looked at the man incredulously and then pointed to where her mother regarded her inquisitively through the gleaming glass of their large front bay window. “But they can’t be! We live in that house next door!”
In alarm, the man dropped his stick of charcoal and looked at her. For the first time he noticed the girl’s white pinafore smock and button boots, the type depicted in photos of Victorian street urchins.
“These houses were condemned ages ago.” The man’s voice was shaky. “They’re empty.”
“You just saw my sisters.” Janet guessed the man was mad. “They live with me. One just knocked your elbow on purpose.”
The man bent forward, picked up his charcoal stick, and began to sketch a little girl standing by the wall wearing button boots and a pinafore smock over a blue cotton dress.
“I didn’t see anybody except you.”
Janet suddenly wanted to be at the park with her sisters. Nothing seemed how it was supposed to be.
“I’ve got to go and tell my mum about the bulldozers.”
“Okay.” The man shook his head in disbelief. “Off you go then.
After he had sketched Janet’s features, the man looked up in surprise. The street was empty. A pigeon fluttered out of the exposed rafters of the girl’s house. Tatty remains of a curtain poked through broken glass in the front bay window. He laughed nervously to himself and vowed to return the next day with another clean canvas. It was amazing what could happen whilst painting old walls; it was as though each brick could tell a story.