Monday, 23 September 2013

A New Post!

Anna Leigh was five years old. She had long brown hair which her mother sometimes made to curl, and she wore the same pink shoes every day whether there was school to go to or not. On days there was school, Anna Leigh would wake up quite early, swing her legs over the edge of her bed and poke her little toes into her favourite pink shoes. They had elastic-band laces instead of the tie-up kind and took little more than a hop to put them on. After her feet were snug in her sneakers she would quickly bother about the rest of her outfit and run downstairs for breakfast before skipping out the door and down the street to class. 

The school where Anna Leigh went to kindergarten was exactly seven-hundred-nineteen steps from her house. She had counted many times and knew by certain markings in the pavement or by the shadow of particular trees how many steps she still had in front of her; at five-hundred-eighty-nine steps, for example, she had stuck one of her brother's silver marbles in the dirt between two slabs of the sidewalk where a tuft of grass was growing; at three-hundred-eleven steps she stopped briefly to wave at Mr. Stewart who was a bit of a neighbourhood grandfather; and, when it was still warm enough, at just ninety-three steps she always spit a mouthful of water from her water bottle onto a little rosebush that had grown up at the edge of the school parking lot. Almost the whole of this daily journey she walked with her fingers rap-rap-rapping along the long white picket fence that surrounded Mr. Stewart’s home. The posts were clean and freshly painted twice a year, the wood was smooth and the sound was both wonderful and soothing in the little girl’s ears. The only interruption in the white wooden wall was the gate opening to the path that led to Mr. Stewart’s front door.

On days when there was no school, Anna Leigh did exactly the same thing: up out of bed, down into her shoes, up out the door, down the street and into the world. It was on one of these mornings that she found herself suddenly stuck in her tracks at only six-hundred-forty-one steps to go.

“What is this!” she exclaimed aloud (for there are a great many children who narrate their lives in this verbal fashion). “What are you doing here!”

The little girl took three deliberate steps backwards and turned her whole body to face the pointed piece of wood that her fingers had just skimmed. She stared at it. It stared back, in the manner of its kind. She blinked. It did not. “You’re blue!” she said. It did not reply, exactly, but it made no apologies for the truth of this statement, and made no effort to alter its hue. “You’re BLUE!” with more emphasis this time, ensuring that the post could not possibly have misunderstood her meaning. She double blinked at it quite hard and then hustled down the street to Mr. Stewart’s gate.

“Mr. Stewart!” she panted three-hundred-thirty rapid steps later. “A new post! There’s a new post!”

“Oh?” came Mr. Stewart’s voice from the other side of a big newspaper. “Do you mean I have a letter?”

“No, no! Not that sort of post, Sir! The wood kind! Quick! Come look!” The little girl scrambled up the path and took the old man by his hand. He smiled and allowed himself to be dragged along behind the excited child. Before long they were standing side by side, facing the blue board.

“Well, well,” chuckled Mr. Stewart, “would you have a look at that! Blue. Who would have thought.” Then he made a quick blink with only one eye that Anna Leigh mimicked to her mother that afternoon at the end of telling her the whole story. Her mother told her it was a wink, and that she thought it might mean more mysteries on their way.

After a few days had past Anna Leigh hovered at the blue post for only a moment before rap-rap-rapping along on her way again. She waved to Mr. Stewart at his gate and was already preparing to water the roses when she halted abruptly at one-hundred-sixty-nine steps to go. Packed in the middle of hundreds of white posts was one that stuck out like a bright orange flare. She ran back to the gate and called out to her elderly friend. “Mr. Stewart!” she called to the old man as she clambered up to his porch, “There’s another post! Another new post! Come on, come on, come on!”

“Another post?” mused Mr. Stewart. “They sent me to India once, you know. Something like that, my girl?”

“No, no! Not that sort of post, Sir! The wood kind! This one is orange! Come quick!”

They stood together side by side, facing the orange post. “It is a bit orange, isn’t it?” he smiled. She nodded rather expectantly. “Orange,” he said. “Who would have thought.”

This exchange went for just over two years. Every few days another post would be painted overnight and sure enough, the following morning the little girl would come and take the old man by the hand, help him to the sidewalk and point it out. There were purple and red ones, pink, green and yellow ones, some with polka dots or stripes, and some that faded from one colour to another. Anna Leigh was fascinated, her mother was encouraged, and Mr. Stewart was beaming… and sick.

One morning when Anna Leigh was just about eight she hopped up the stairs in a pair of new pink shoes. Mr. Stewart gave her an approving once-over. “Well, well,” smiled Mr. Stewart. “Your mother told me that you were growing up but I just couldn’t believe it. New shoes, would you look at that. No denying it now… things really are changing.”

“For your fence, too! I found one more, I think. It looks like a sunset, or a lion’s fur or something. Do you want to come and see it today?”

“Actually,” said Mr. Stewart, “I have something to show you, if you’d like.”

Anna Leigh helped the old man to his feet and followed him inside the house. She had never been inside the little white home in all the years that they had been neighbours but had always been curious. When the door opened, she gasped. There was art everywhere! Floors, ceilings and every inch of every wall were covered in beautiful murals that seemed to move about when you looked at them. She was speechless. He led her through the house, talking about the different scenes and colour palettes, influences and genres. Most of what he said didn’t make much sense to her, but the art spoke to her with a clarity that words could never touch.

“My wife was an artist,” he said in the kitchen as they sat down at the table to rest. “She painted all of this while we were together here, while we were raising our family. Now, though…” He paused to clear his throat a little. “Now I have to go.”

“Where are you going?” she asked quietly.

“Not so very far, just a little ways across town. It’s a nice place, with very nice people. I put in my name last month, and now I have a room that faces the street, so that I can people watch like I do here.”

Slowly Mr. Stewart walked over the door of his large kitchen pantry and opened the double doors wide. Every shelf was filled with tiny pots of paint in full spectrum. Old tins and mason jars, the type that once held baby food and re-purposed containers of jelly and jam. While she was taking it all in, Mr. Stewart pressed something into Anna Leigh’s hand. Paintbrushes.

“They belonged to my wife,” he said. “It was in honour of her that I began painting our fence. It was because of her that I learned to stop trying to look so normal in the eyes of our neighbours. It was my beautiful bride that made me so brave… even brave enough to leave her legacy here. With you.”

A tearful week went by on the street. Anna Leigh and her mother held a small going-away party and many of the neighbourhood people stopped by to wish him well. The girl went over every other day to help him pack and clean, and pry off a few painted floorboards out of the closet floor in his bedroom to take with him. Friday morning his sons came up to help him move, and then Mr. Stewart was gone.

It took another two weeks for Anna to find the fastest route. It took three-thousand-two-hundred-ninety-five steps from her door to the new fence. It only took another three days for Mr. Stewart to notice the change as he stared out his window towards the street. “Well, well,” he murmured as his eyes filled up with tears and memories, “would you have a look at that! Blue. Who would have thought.”