Years and years ago, when I was in my final year at university, and waking up to ice on the inside of the newspaper-stuffed rotten sash windows in my student flat, my brother and his wife were travelling round the world. Pre email, internet, social media, blogs or anything else we rely on nowadays, the rest of the family left behind had a map, some pins and a ball of string with which to chart their progress round the globe. Every time I went home for the holidays, my Dad would point to the latest series of pins on the map, and report proudly on how he and Mum had sent a letter to a Poste Restante box in Thailand, and how Richard had collected it! There were letters home to prove it, pale blue airmail missives – tracing paper thin, with exotic stamps, and written on in tiny writing – detailing wonders and expeditions.
I got airmail letters from Richard too. They were like treasure. I used to read them in that icy flat, looking out at a Newcastle yard strung with frozen washing, imagining what it was like to eat breakfast on the beach, or hot spicy street food for supper.
When they returned, one year later, Richard wrote me another beautiful letter, this time to my lodgings in London. It was all about Boston: the colours of the sky, whale watching, eating clam chowder on the dock. He wanted me to paint a picture of it all for his ‘future kitchen’. He included a quote from ‘Moby Dick’ to get me inspired. It was ‘a commission’.
I was inspired. I was also scared. How could I live up to such a task? I filed the letter away in a file labelled ‘Letters and Precious Stuff’, and tried to ignore it. I managed quite well, suddenly immersed as I was in babies and domestic chores. Richard’s letter called out to me now and then over the years, a siren song from the depths of the filing cabinet, and I read it and folded it carefully away several times, but I hadn’t now picked up a paintbrush seriously for almost 15 years. The fear of attempting any painting had grown enormous, let alone such an important one.
It was ages before I started painting again, and finding the confidence to begin – and carry on – was quite a feat. But this year has been an exciting one, full to bursting with new hopes and opportunities. I decided to paint that picture. I knew what it would be (I think I always knew). How could it not be whales balancing clam chowder on their tails, in an explosion of life?!
I already think it is not good enough, that I should give it another shot, that it’s a very poor relation to the painting in my head. Perhaps it is! But what does that matter? It’s from me, to my brother. Finally. With love.