A short story
It was an hour after dawn when the young man opened the front door and went down the little drive from the house, past the clutch of bright red roses on the wall and the hollyhocks by the little gate. Clinking it shut behind him, he crossed the cobbled road and walked purposefully down the side-street to the river.
It was a morning of golden light; steam rose off the current under the far bank and the swifts and swallows screeched as they swept up and down the cool green mass of water that flowed, slowly and stately, to the great ocean in the west.
His backpack slapped on his shoulders as he went downstream along the bank, until he reached the small stone jetty under the ancient Portuguese oak that stretched out its canopy across the bank towards the water. The trunk of the tree stood behind an old wall, tipped with a section of classical iron-wrought railings, the whole a clue as to the history of the house up on the low slope.
Upon the third of its storeys lay a cloak of slate, a signal of wealth, and although its roofline was tired and needed repair, graceful ironwork on its ridge pointed upwards from it to the new morning. The young man paused by the railings, looking up at the quiet house, and he wondered at its provenance and age. It was many years since the house had been truly inhabited, but there was a car parked by the side door, as though hiding from the grandness of the street-side facade.
He turned away and went down to the water’s edge and the jetty, where a small piece of flat ground held the marks of his previous visits. Putting his pack on the ground, he opened it to reveal a folding stool, and a board with a piece of water-colour paper taped to it. He was home on holiday from his art course at university, and this was his third morning back in his most favourite of places on the river.
Perching on the stool, his long legs confidently kept the watercolour board in place and he worked steadily, sketching out the first strokes of the image he held in his mind. There was the radius of the mighty bend of the river in from of him, the boating pontoons on the right under the lime trees, and then the opposite bank, where a wild hedge of bushes and small trees leaned down to the water, many of them in full blossom; white, yellow and a faint tinge of pink flared occasionally at him as the breeze moved or a bird alighted.
It was a scene he returned to again and again, and each time the results were different. On the right of the picture was the path towards where he sat, with the great houses behind and out of sight. A dove crooned contentedly above him in the oak, and his fingers moved with purpose upon the paper. He was a good draughtsman, and it was an hour before he stopped, and with a few corrections he decided the time was right for colour. The pencil in his right hand was replaced by a brush, and a small palette of watercolours appeared in the left, steadying the watercolour board at the same time. It was a balancing act, but the long legs helped to keep the board at the right angle.
It was an hour later, just after a pause for half an apple and a sip of water, that he heard the gate in the wall behind him open slowly. Surprised, he turned his head to see an old man with an immense beard step through the gate and down onto the ground. The man looked across at him, and nodding his head in silent greeting he turned to shut the gate, age and rust eliciting a slow sigh of metal on metal as he did so. Then he stood there, looking out over the river with his hands behind his back, as though drinking in the very joy of nature. The young man dropped his glance and went back to the colours.
He was slowly adding light to the surface of the green river under his fingers, when, several moments later, he became aware the man was standing right behind him, unafraid of the proximity between them.
He turned to the man and his look of question was answered by the old man, who simply said, “You have a good eye, boy. The perspective is cleanly done,” and he leaned forward to indicate with a finger where this was true.
The young man nodded in appreciation, blushing slightly, and the old man continued. “It’s good to see someone so young here on the bank, drawing. Most of you don’t seem to give much appreciation for arts nowadays,” and this was said in such a sorrowful way that the young man leaned back and looked at the old man again.
“May I ask what you mean by that?” he asked, a little more than annoyed. He had many friends of his age who were artistic and he thought the old man’s comment was slightly patronising.
“I do not get many visitors your age,” said the old man, “I’m in residence for the summer up at the quarry, and it’s mostly old people who come to see what we do,” and he looked at the young man, knowing that he would be only too aware of what he was talking about. There was an old limestone quarry to the south, set in some woods, where every summer sculptors came to work and socialise. It was a society that had existed for over twenty one years, and was now world famous, despite the small number of works and artists.
“What’s your name? Do you live here?” The old man asked, his beard nodding vigorously with each word.
“I’m Stephane,” the young man replied, and he continued, “And yes, I live in the village.” There was a pause before he continued, “Are you working on something up at the quarry?”
“Yes I am!” replied the old man, beaming a little at Stephane’s reply. “I paint too, but working with stone is the most satisfying thing. Stone lasts longer than paint, for thousands of years if the conditions are right. With stone you can stay alive in people’s memories for ever,” and he stopped, waiting for Stephane to refute the fact.
“A bit like graffiti,” Stephane cunningly replied, inviting the argument and happy with knowledge. The word had dropped into the conversation like a stone into water, causing a circle of widening ripples.
“Graffiti? What?” And the beard twitched alarmingly in discontent. “Graffiti is nothing but the work of idiots, what do you mean?”
Stephane stood up and looked squarely at the face before him, enjoying the moment he had created. The piercing blue eyes set in the network of wrinkles and weather-beaten skin before him flickered in argument.
“Graffiti is horrible, it disfigures and alters, it is the work of hooligans and malcontents,” continued the old man, and Stephane waited for the outburst to come to a halt.
When the old sculptor had finished, Stephane asked, “Is this your first time here?” And there was a shake of the beard in reply.
“No, this is the third time I have been invited here,” said the old man, and he suddenly smiled at the thought. “I came here first about fifteen years ago – the figure I carved then is in the square by the school,” and Stephane wondered silently how remarkable the history of the quarry really was.
“Have you been down here by the river many times?” he asked with intent, and the sculptor shook his head.
“Not really,” he replied. “This year the house,” and he indicated with his head the old building behind the railings, “Is to be renovated at the end of the summer. The owners have kindly let a couple of us use the kitchen and rooms for lodgings while we are here. Of course, I know the river, but I have never really had time to spend much time here…” and his voice trailed off as Stephane moved towards him.
“Come with me,” the young man said and he crossed the few paces towards the wall on which the railings stood. The old man followed, his face full of query, and Stephane led the way towards the end of the wall, where the railings ended and great blocks of sandstone climbed the slope above the bank, their shape obscured by greenery of great age. They were obviously part of the original embankment, when the river and its village had paid host to traffic rich in stone, cognac, salt and clay.
Stephane stopped in front of the stonework and waited for the old man to reach him. “You work in stone you said?” And the sculptor looked at him with interest, knowing there was to be a revelation of some sort. He nodded in reply.
“So did the ancients in this village, and the next along. Much of the stone quarried here is part of some of the greatest buildings in France, you know that, no”? And the sculptor nodded again, waiting.
“So, imagine what someone would have done on a hot summer’s day to reflect what they saw here, perhaps a graffiti artist of some sort,” and with that Stephane leaned towards the wall and pulled back the hanging ivy.
The old sculptor’s mouth opened with amazement and he exclaimed with a note of appraisal as he saw what the ivy was hiding. There, scratched and riven into the sandstone, was an image of a galleon, complete with gun-ports and masts.
“Oh my goodness!” was all that came first. Then there was more. “How old is this? Goodness, this must be ancient, this vessel is from the sixteenth century, surely?” And he turned to Stephane for answers. The young man was grinning, for he always enjoyed any reactions to the ancient carving. He had come across it when he was a child and he cherished the fact that few had ever seen it.
“It has always been here,” he said. “No one in the village knows how old it is, for it may have been done before there were even any houses here. There were always fishing boats along the river long ago, and some trading boats in the very early history of the jetty. It may be that a galleon came here to refit, perhaps, before Rochefort, further down the river, was built,” and at the mention of the old fishing village that became one of France’s most important naval bases, the sculptor nodded slowly in agreement.
“It’s impossible to find out when the jetty was built for the first time, for transporting the stone, but it is probably from that date..” And Stephane stopped, aware at the vast amount of time he was talking about.
“Oh my, you could be right,” the man with the beard said. “It may well have been just that,” and he leaned closer to examine the carving in more detail. “This is fascinating, someone put some time into this,” and turning to the young man, he said, ”They may have just used a nail, I suppose. I wonder who it was?”
And Stephane replied easily, for he had thought of this for many years, “I suppose it was a stone-worker, perhaps one of those who built the wall. But I do know something, this is maybe one of the oldest examples of graffiti in France,” and he turned to the sculptor with the beard, happy with his argument.
The sculptor, in turn, noted the rise of the shoulders and the clear unblinking gaze on the face in front of him, and he knew he had to change his words. “You like graffiti, then?” he asked with a soft smile, and Stephane nodded in front of him.
“Yes. I do. I think it’s an art form, just as sculpture or fine art is. I’m at university in Bordeaux, and my girlfriend there is a graffiti artist. She painted the end wall of the teaching block last year as an assignment,” and foraging in his pocket he took out his phone. A few seconds later he was showing the old man a photograph, and the sculptor’s face lightened in appreciation.
“Oh my, I confess you might have persuaded me,” he said in an even tone. “You have shown me two examples of graffiti, each of them as worthy as anything I have worked on, and perhaps one of them,” and he pointed at the carving of the ship on the wall, “Rather more important that anything I will ever do.”
There was a pause as his words sunk in, and then he softly asked, “Do we hide it again?”
Stéphane reached forward and pulled the ivy gently back in reply, and the ship was gone again behind a wave of green. “I always hide it,” said the young man. “I worry that someone will come and damage it,” and the sculptor nodded in agreement.
“A good idea, I am surprised it is not encased in armoured glass,” he said, and then he looked at the young man. “Will you come and visit me in the quarry? I’ll show you what I’m doing this year and we can talk some more. You have enlightened me this morning to something I have never really thought about, and I would like to talk more with you.” And the beard cracked with a nervous grin.
Stephane smiled broadly in reply. “Of course I will. I would love to see what you’re doing,” and so they parted, the young man going back to his stool, and the old man going back through the gate, pausing to look back at Stéphane as he picked up his brush again.
Behind the ivy, the ship settled back into the dark, as it had done for hundreds of years, dreaming of a high tide in a summer long ago when gnarled fingers and an old rusted nail had given it life for the first time. Stories set in stone are immortal , so they say.