“I remember when you lived in that house,” he said. “The one on the hill. It looked like it was leaning over the street. The wind used to whip through the maple trees and sing in the eaves. I saw you once, dancing in the leaves. You had on a white dress and you kicked up the leaves with your bare feet in a flurry of red, orange and green. It was a woodland ballet.”
“You played the guitar on the bluest of days; the clouds were reflected on the ground, the music wound through the garden, peaceful as the sound of rain. I listened while I worked – entranced – sending messages to friends that I had found my muse.”
He smiles at me, a man I know only a little, who used to live across the street from me when I lived in my old house, when I was living a different life. He had a little girl. Her hair was red, blazing in the sunlight. She wore cute little dresses with sunflowers on them and did fingerpainting in the garden.
On days when the air was still I heard the man arguing in the kitchen with his wife. The windows were always open, even in winter. “We can’t wait forever for your paintings to be sold,” she shouted. “Why don’t you take the job at the University?” She stormed out of the house, stumbling on a Bob the Builder toy the little red-haired girl had left at the front door.
I heard his wife was one of the top lawyers in Sydney, that she earned in excess of half a million a year. She wanted her artist husband to get a ‘proper’ job, not because they needed the money, but so she could save face with her work colleagues. I remember thinking how hard it is for the artists, writers and musicians among us to live in an ethos driven by materialism. When did it become a truism that the size of your paycheck is equivalent to the size of your heart?
When we put our house up for sale I remember going to collect the mail and seeing the man standing illuminated in his doorway, glaring at the For Sale sign as if trying to bore a hole in it with his eyes. For the 6 weeks the house is on the market I don’t see him again but a painting of my house in miniature mysteriously appears on my doorstep, wrapped in recycled paper. The house totters on a hill, surrounded by a field of grasses and roses.
Five years later I ask the question that’s been on my lips all that time. “Was it you who did the painting of my old house?” “Yes,” the man replied. “After your house went on the market I saw you standing beneath the magnolia tree in your garden, your hand on the trunk. You looked so sorrowful, like you were saying goodbye to an old friend.”
“Thank you,” I say. “That painting has helped me say goodbye to what was in fact, my old friend. My house. My garden.”
The man tells me he is still painting. That he has had several successful exhibitions; that his main thematic influences are the search for home and family. And his wife?
“She had another baby – a boy. She decided to give up work. I told her about you, how you inspired me the way she used to, how I envied your spirit, your love of nature. How I wished she could still be like that. She changed overnight. Now we exist on what I make from my art. There is more joy in our house than ever before. Thank you.”
He walks away, head held high. I imagine him whistling, nodding pleasantly to strangers. I resolve to uphold his image of me, flawed as it is. I like to be viewed in a positive light. As I see him cross the road, turn into his street, I feel glad. But I still don’t know his name.