He couldn’t at first pinpoint where the whispered children’s voices where coming from. But as he noiselessly neared the tree he caught sight of the two of them perched on a branch high above him, their two heads close together, deep in secret conversation. They clearly hadn’t noticed him. They must have tired of the family gathering which was into its second day and slipped away unnoticed by their parents. The twins spent much of their time together since their mother had died. Rumour had it that she often brought them there to teach them the ways of the wood. They certainly had few equals for their woodcraft. It was true that the tree was a familiar destination for many of his family who were often drawn to it as a source of refuge, comfort or inspiration. It’s twisted branches always gave him the impression that it was not only old but almost human. Had he been alone, he might have talked to it out loud, sharing the trouble that filled his heart at the thought of leaving home for the first and possibly last time, but as he was not alone, he made do with the reassuring feel of its bark on his finger tips. Deep down he felt reassured, knowing that the tree approved of his decision. Since the soldiers had begun meticulously searching through the villages nearby , dragging away young men to fight against the rebels, he’d had little choice. He was of a fighting age and would surely have been “recruited”. It was only a matter of time. When he overheard his uncle that afternoon saying he’d spotted a group of soldier in the next village, he knew his turn had come. Taking his leave of the tree with a parting caress of its trunk, he donned his backpack and shifted silently on heading for the wood beyond, not wishing to be seen by the children above.
She lay back on the warm grass of the high pastures and looked up at the sky afire with the setting sun. It had been a hot day. “I don’t know the answer,” she said out loud though nobody was there to hear her but her dog and the sheep. “Why would he ask me such a question?” She folded her hands together behind her head and sang softly the song her mother had taught her just before she died. It was odd when you thought about it: having to fend for herself although she had only been twelve at the time had not been easy, but singing that song always calmed her. “How could I possibly know?” she pursued her thoughts once the song was over. “She passed away before she could tell me.” Her dog, a collie, came and curled up next to her, nuzzling her hands with its long, pointed nose. “What do you think?” she asked the dog as she turned to face it, propping herself up on one elbow. The dog had belonged to her mother while she was still alive. “Do you think I have special powers?” she asked him. To her surprise he jumped up and barked as he wagged his tail. The noise startled the sheep nearby who had been grazing peacefully. The dog bound off and circled the flock to make sure they didn’t get it into their silly heads to try to run off. “But even if I knew, I wouldn’t tell him. He’s not to be trusted.” Only the other day she’d caught the man rummaging through her mother’s belongings under the pretext that he’d dropped his pen there somewhere. What rubbish. She’d done well to hide her mother’s precious manuscripts in a secret place.
“In every picture there’s many a story,” he said as he lent forward to look more closely at the picture of the two musicians. “Take these two, for example,” he added, glancing at the young girl that sat across the table from him before turning his attention back to the picture. “They’re called Mujigka. They’re very good. I heard them the other evening with my parents,” she informed him. She came once a week for a discussion. Her parents called it a lesson, but he preferred to talk of a discussion, an exchange. “It’s not so much these people themselves, but rather it is something that speaks through them.” “How can a picture talk? I can’t hear anything,” she asked, perplexed. He couldn’t help laughing. “It must be confusing when I talk in images of images that can talk,” and he would have laughed again with renewed gusto had he not noticed that she was on the verge of being upset. “Let me give you an example. Can you imagine what they are thinking as they look at each other? They seem to be in an intense private wordless conversation.” “Maybe they can read each other’s minds,” she said, warming to the idea. “Whatever it is they are thinking to each other,” she pursued, “the conversation seems to have them bound tightly together.”
“Don’t worry about me,” the old woman wheezed, lowering herself with difficulty onto a fallen tree trunk by the path-side. “Go on on your own. Get away as far as you can.” It had been a long climb and even the young girl that accompanied her was out of breath. “I’m quite happy to rest a moment with you Granny,” was her reply, seating herself next to the old woman. “Why are those men after us?” she asked, taking the old woman’s up-turned hand in hers so as to study the lines of her palm. Her grandmother sighed. “It’s a long story, my love. If only I could spare you the consequences of it, I would. But it seems that the past has caught up with you too.” And she fell silent again leaving only the birds and the wood creatures to make the occasional noise. There was no sign of the men who must be following them. “If you won’t tell me why, how am I to look after us?” the girl insisted. The old woman turned to look at her, her hooded eyes scrutinising the girl at length. Anyone could see that she was on the verge of adulthood and would soon have to go her own way and fend for herself. “We come from a family where the women are not like most other women,” she began…
He sat on a large, paint-stained cloth on the ground, his brush in one hand, the pot of paint in the other. A spattering of white paint tainted his hair which was already flecked with grey. There was even a white spot of paint on his upper lip. None of it seemed to bother him. “I wasn’t always a house painter,” he said thoughtfully. “I used to specialise in painting murals.” He placed the half-empty can of paint at his feet and lay the brush across the top of it. “Murals! That was good work,” he added, emphasising the word good as he examined the wall he’d just finished. “Nowadays they project coloured plastic on the walls using computers. No mess … and the results are guaranteed … all in a fraction of the time.” He rubbed his hands on the cloth and stood, not without some difficulty. “Run along boy,” he said to me. “And when you grow up don’t forget that progress is not always for the good.”
To think that this place had once been one of the most sophisticated venues in town, she thought. It had been a place of joy and happiness. Her father used to bring her there as a child to meet the artists and discuss their paintings with them. He had not been an artist himself, but an amateur rather; a connoisseur. She had listened to their conversations about colours and forms and meanings, barely grasping what they talked of. She regretted now that she hadn’t paid more attention. Fifty years later, the centre had long fallen into ruin. One or two of the original walls remained with here and there fragments of murals as poignant memories of former glories. The destruction had begun during the war and subsequently continued through neglect: not just the venue had been lost but the artists too and her father with them. With what remained of her right hand she pushed the tiny lever of the steering mechanism of her wheelchair and trundled back the way she’d come, not wishing to see any more.
Photographers like David Hockney work with the fragmentation of pictures (and the cohabitation of different times and perspectives). Nature often does the same thing if we are looking for it. In this iPhone snapshot the panes of the window create the frames but the lines beyond add an effect like stained glass, fragmenting even further the picture.
He turned his back on the paintings which filled the rest of the workshop, letting out a deep sigh, and began to examine the papers on the trestle table that had served as her desk and her work space. Her presence was still as strong as ever and could be felt in everything in the room despite the fact that she’d been long gone. One large faintly coloured sheet with a circular motif caught his eye. He was fascinated by the whole process of artistic creation. For him some of the byproducts of that process could be almost as beautiful as the artworks it would finally produce. Taking hold of the sheet he lifted it up and turned it so that the sunlight streaming in through the double windows caught it, highlighting the many tiny coloured dots that were scattered across its surface. The similarity to a star map was evident although he could make out no recognisable constellations. It was so engrossing that several minutes passed unnoticed. If he looked at it long enough he suspected he might be pulled into the drawing and be carried away to another world.
From his hiding place behind the curtain of the confessional he had a good view over most of the cathedral. The place was empty, as was normal on an early afternoon. It was harvest time and the town’s people were out in the fields gathering in the corn. The deep silence of the church was filled with a smell of incense and the faint crackle of burning bees wax candles. Most of the side chapel in which he was concealed was in shadow. Just a small patch of the shining wooden floor boards in front of the altar was lit by the light coming from one of the many stained glass windows above, casting brightly coloured patterns that continually moved and transformed. The display was fascinating. He’d never noticed it before despite the fact that he was a regular visitor to the cathedral. The silence was brutally broken by the crash of the main door of the cathedral being opened violently and the sound of hob-nailed boots on the stone floor as a band of armed men entered.
What is this emerging from the waters next to the Hull Marina? Above all it is a call from the past, a memory of something long since forgotten, a connection broken off that is only visible when the tide is right. Visually, the gentle ripples it makes on the salt water and the mixtures of reds and greens of rust and erosion make it almost poetic when no doubt originally it was part of some ugly contraption …