It was a delight to read out my short story, commissioned for this year's festival, on a crazy hot Saturday in a deliciously cool tent in Queen's Park. The inspiration came from John Blandy, a local artist who has been painting the same lime tree, from the same spot, every day since 1997.
He’d been watching the man for over 20 years now. Almost every day the thin, angular figure in the green cap was rooted to the same spot with his easel and Tupperware box of pastels, in front of the old lime tree in the park.
He liked the fact that he knew almost nothing about the painter, not even his name. But for three hours each morning, they both did their work, separated only by the glass of his study window, which faced west onto the park. He, shuffling words around until they became novels or essays or articles, and the painter silently applying pastels to the paper.
They say that every writer tells the same story over and over again, just in different ways. Similarly, the painter was telling the same story, from the same angle, yet always different due to the constant shift of light and seasons.
Over the years he had learnt to see the lime tree through the eyes of the painter: the joyful burst of its tiny brown buds in spring; the luscious bloom of green in summer; the golden drift of leaves in autumn and in winter, the stark grey branches, stripped bare like bones.
In his 20s when he had travelled to India and read a lot more books, he’d been fascinated by the philosopher and writer Krishnamurti. One particular phrase had stayed with him - ‘the observer becomes the observed’. He still thought about it from time to time, turning the meaning over in his mind: when we trulylearn tosee something, then the boundaries between ourselves and that which we are seeing, will dissolve.
That morning, in the delicate mauve light of the midsummer dawn, the man was out especially early. Although his easel was set up, he wasn’t painting. Instead he stood completely still, contemplating the tree.
Pausing from the overdue essay he’d been grappling with, he noticed that the figure’s usual sharp lines were blurred, as though someone had smudged them with their thumb. He thought it might be a smear on his spectacles, but when he glanced towards the nearby bandstand, that was as clearly defined as ever.
He kept looking up from the desk, and each time he saw that the figure was becoming hazier. Usually he would pause for his first coffee an hour after starting work, but this morning he pulled on his jacket and hurried down the stairs.
He was almost at the park railings, when he saw that the man was no longer there. Only his easel and box of pastels remained on the grass. He walked quickly through the gates and along the path, scanning left and right. In the distance a lone jogger in a red tracksuit was stretching by the children’s playground and he could hear the thud of a tennis ball on the court by the café.
He reached the lime tree, setting his feet in the two worn patches of brown earth, where the painter usually stood. The piece of white paper backed with hardboard and clipped onto the easel was blank.
He stared at the tree, seeing it once again through the painter’s eyes: the vibrant green draping the upper branches; the small heart-shaped leaves threaded with tiny veins; the mottled, brownish-grey bark.
He walked towards the tree and laid a hand on its trunk, feeling the cool, solid mass beneath his fingers. A sudden shift of cloud, and the lower part of the tree was dappled with sunshine. For a moment, he thought he saw the familiar outline of a thin, angular face in the pattern of the bark, but seconds later the sun slid behind a cloud and it was gone.