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The Painting. Chapter 1: Blanket of Leaves

Last update - Thursday, January 11, 2007, 00:00 By Metro Éireann

Adam came to Ireland because it was a rich country but also because it was an island. It would never change. True, the sea would batter its coast and take some land and make new land somewhere else. Also true, global warming would bring with it unpleasant consequences, and the sea would soon enough creep up the streets and little roads. But, nevertheless, what attracted Adam to Ireland was its dependability. Dublin, where he now lived, would always be on the east coast. Athlone, where he had not yet been, would always be in the centre. Adam valued permanence. He did not regret leaving Poland. He had grown up in the town of Bialystok, in the east. In the time of his grandfather, it had been nearer the west. In the generation before that, there had been no Poland. And again, for some time in his father’s childhood, Poland had ceased to exist. Adam himself remembered clearly the excitement and noise among the adults as the Berlin Wall came down and Poland became, again, a different place. Poland never stayed still. But Ireland did. That was why he was in Dublin, Ireland’s capital, in the late autumn. And that was why he had bought a yard brush. 

The leaves had started to fall. Adam stood at his only window and looked at them fall and slide and gather and disperse, along both sides of the street, and down its centre, under the Jeeps and Volvos, and carried in the wind, over garden walls and past his window. They never stayed still.

Adam was an artist. His work was often called ‘precise’. The precision impressed, and quite often frightened, people who looked, or even glanced, at the paintings.

–How did he do that?

–It’s even more exact than a photograph.

–There’s something evil about it; let’s get out of here.

The street disappeared under the thick carpet of leaves. Yet no one seemed to care. Women parked their sports cars on top of hills made of leaves. Old ladies stood still, surrounded by leaves, and waited for the wind to blow a pathway for them. Men came home carrying laptop bags and brown paper bags full of wine and cheese. But Adam saw no one carry a brush.

Adam painted only what was permanent. It was why he painted. Stones. Cliffs. Cathedrals, bridges. He had painted ruins, but only after they had stayed unalterably ruined for hundreds of years. He accepted slow change; he realised that time would not stand still. But sudden things – fireworks, puberty, death, the snow that blanketed Poland, suddenly, in a matter of hours every year – they all upset him. He had lost his father, suddenly; his mother, suddenly. His brother; grandmother; girlfriends; several jobs; his house keys, many times – all suddenly.

The Irish leaves fell like Polish snow. But unlike snow, shockingly unlike snow, they lifted, fell, dispersed, re-gathered, became the rustlings of Adam’s nightmares. They never settled and let him rest. He lay down but he could not sleep. The drug addict in the room next to Adam’s played the greatest hits of Tina Turner until two hours after dawn. But it was not the adult-orientated rock that kept Adam awake. He quite liked Tina Turner. All those years, she had never changed. No; it was the leaves.

Adam bought the brush. He could not afford it. But as he stood on the windy street, he was almost happy. He started outside the house of an old woman. He swept the leaves off the path.

–Excuse me.

He turned and saw, not the old woman, but a younger, very attractive woman.

–Are you from the Council? she asked.

–No, said Adam.

–Then piss off, said the woman.

–Go on.

Her hostility was a shock. Adam had hoped that his sweeping would be welcomed. His new neighbours would smile and wave and he, in turn, would smile and wave. He was a lonely man, and shy. By providing this help, he would become a neighbour. But Adam’s help wasn’t wanted.

–Why are you doing that?

–You’re only making it worse.

He gave up.

He stood at his window and watched as a man from the City Council came down the street and swept away most of the leaves. No one came out and objected. Adam had never felt more isolated and alone.

But then he got a job.

It was quite an unusual job. He had to pretend that he was a student of art.

–But I am already an artist, said Adam.

–My friend, said his new employer, –that does not matter. Listen. You ring the bell and when it is answered, you say these words to the nice lady who stands there: ‘I am a student from Russia, do you want to see my paintings?’

© Roddy Doyle 2006

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