Our families’ traditions had been connected for centuries. We commissioned the paintings and the Arringtons maintained them. But Father had explained to me that they weren’t just paintings, they were special pieces that demanded careful alterations between the seasons to bring out their best qualities. But only special artists like the Arringtons could see and tease out these changes.
He came by at the start of each season, and just before he arrived, the servants would remove and lightly dust the huge collection of oil paintings from the walls of our home and place them on the cloth-laden floor of the great hall.
The first time I met him, I had sat at the drawing room window awaiting his arrival since breakfast. And then I saw his black Morris Oxford approach as it kicked up large clouds of dust from our tree-lined, gravel driveway. The car stopped in front of the house and a tall man with round glasses stepped out. It would always strike me how someone so acquainted with the nature of beauty and the intricacies of colour dressed so drab.
On this particular day he wore simple, brown woollen trousers, a tweed waistcoat and matching cloth cap. He rummaged in the back seats of his Oxford before pulling out a large, brown leather case. As he walked past with the case in his hand, he pushed up his glasses and gave me a nod with a slight smile. I followed him in and watched as Father greeted him and directed him to the great hall.
I peered out from behind the hall’s oak doorway and watched him tip-toe and rearrange the paintings on the floor. He made deliberate adjustments to the spaces between the frames and peered at the paintings as if looking for some tiny, lost thing among them.
He finally settled down on his knees in front of a painting of a country scene. The painting showed a large sycamore arching from the left, framing a church with a crooked spire in the distance and on the right a lone figure was standing on the river bank.
‘If you want to make yourself useful,’ he said. ‘Fetch me the amethyst.’
I said nothing and ducked back behind the doorway.
‘You do know what amethyst looks like don’t you?’ he said without looking up. I thought perhaps he was talking to an assistant whose arrival I hadn’t noticed. ‘It’s the medium purple. Not too dark, not too light. The name’s written on the tin. Come on then.’ He looked at me and flicked his head towards his leather case which sat open at the edge of the room.
I approached the case with caution while Mr. Arrington continued to stare at the painting. I looked inside the case and saw a large collection of small tins of paint of the most impressive and wonderful colours I’d ever seen. The colours were so bright and unreal it was as though he had captured a rainbow and bottled the colours. Each metal tin was only a few centimeters high and sat in neatly arranged rows; on the front of each was a small fingernail sized sample of colour along with their name neatly printed on a tiny white label.
My eyes darted between all the colours until I found the amethyst, I carefully removed the tin and handed it to him.
‘Thank you,’ he said.
He prised open the tin with a small flat blade and dipped a tiny brush into it so only the smallest amount of paint was visible on the brush.
‘Detail is shy. You have to tease it out, discover it. It doesn’t always want to be found, it would rather hide away. But if you look carefully, with patience, you not only discover it, you nurture and encourage it and then it rewards you. Does that make sense?’
I nodded without having understood a word.
He dabbed some amethyst onto the face of the figure on the river bank.
‘This gentleman here,’ he indicated with his brush, ‘has a purple glint in his eyes because amethyst signifies sobriety. And since the death of his wife, time has healed his heart enough for him to travel the river again. Do you see that?’
I nodded, but all I saw was a grubby face without any detail.
Each season Mr. Arrington came back and repeated the routine of rearranging and scrutinising the framed paintings in the great hall. And I continued to help him fetch the paints whose names I became familiar with as he continued to carefully pick out details few others could see like a bergamot in a lemon grove or a single mulberry on a hawthorn tree. Then I started noticing them too. By looking past the pictures and understanding what they signified I came to appreciate them. And in doing so, I realised that just because somethings went unnoticed, it didn’t make them unworthy — if anything it made them more special for those who did notice.
Then one day, just after the war broke out in ’39, Mr. Arrington came by unannounced. However, this time he was dressed in a soldier’s uniform rather than his usual woollen trousers and waistcoat. He called me into the great hall stretched out his leather case of paints in front of him.
‘Here take this,’ he said.
‘Why? Won’t you need it?’
‘I might be gone a while. But I’ll be back.’
I took the case reluctantly, it felt heavier than I expected and had to use both hands.
‘Back when? What shall I do with it?’
‘I’m not sure when I’ll be back. Just keep it safe,’ he winked. ‘And don’t forget to look for those details, in everything, not just in pictures,’ he said, ‘You understand the importance of detail now?’
‘Good. I’ll see you soon lad. I’ll just say goodbye to your father and I’ll be off.’
I sat on the steps with the case of paints resting on my lap and watched Mr. Arrington drive away with his car kicking large clouds of dust into the air. And as I watched the dust gather, form, and swirl before they settled, obscuring his car as it continued along the path, I thought of those large clouds, of how they were made of small pieces of grime and dirt, of how the grime was formed from smaller things we couldn’t see. And as his car disappeared through the gates and the dust settled as though he was never there, I looked up at the sky, at the clouds, of the uniqueness of each white wisp above my head and thought about the paintings again; I thought about a small, purple glint in a grieving man’s eye and of how father never talked about mother’s death; I thought about that lone bergamot in a lemon grove and the single mulberry on a hawthorn tree, about myself in this big house, and of the outside world, of the beauty in all things, but of the sadness too; and as I opened the case and gazed at all the wonderful colours, I thought of Mr. Arrington and all the other soldiers, in all the countries, going off unnoticed into war — of how some will die without anybody seeing them die and how one day everything will be forgotten.