This story was written for the Arts Council England funded project Writing Edward King: Cityscapes of Portsmouth, and was originally published on the project website. That site has now been decommissioned, so I am republishing the story here. It is based on the early life of the 19th century artist Edward King, who lived the last 25 years of his life at St James’s Hospital in Portsmouth, after suffering from poor mental health following the death of his wife. The story is inspired by his painting Trees by a Wall.
You can find out more about the Writing Edward King project by watching this video:
Rosie, scratchy and cross in her red dress, sits on the pebbled beach, tugging off her boots and stockings. Gunning, barefoot already, is hopping back and forth on the sun-scorched stones. Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch. Teddy, half-blinded by the sun, hesitates at the crest of the gentle slope down to the sea, timid at the eye-watering brightness of the beach, uncertain of the stones shifting beneath his feet.
Rosie runs past him down the slope after Gunning, boots and stockings in one hand, hem of her dress gathered up in the other. Do hurry up, Teddy. We haven’t got all day. Rosie, the middle child, the rose between Gunning’s and Teddy’s thorns and yet, as their father would say indulgently when she was cross, the thorniest one of them all. Teddy half-stumbles, half-slides down the slope, content to travel in the salt-fresh wake of his older siblings. Rosie catches up with Gunning and they enter the water, ploughing up white foam, laughing, buoyed by the confidence of their precious extra years of living. Teddy lingers at the water’s edge. Their shadows are tiny, each one curled in tight to its owner, cowed by the ferocity of the midday sun.
Teddy keeps his boots laced up, plays a game of dare with each gently incoming wave as Gunning and Rosie paddle. Teddy has never cared for paddling, secretly fearful of the grabbing hands of receding waves on his ankles. He shades his eyes with his arm, contents himself with observing the stones through the clear sea; how they shimmer and change colour, not quite solid beneath the ripples and the shadows of ripples. Under the surface, Rosie and Gunning’s pale calves and ankles waver, detached from their bodies. Teddy finds it unnerving, this magical ability of water to change the way things appear to be, to make a liar of the light.
Rosie and Gunning exit the sea in a commotion of spray and panicked giggles and Teddy’s heart pitches forward in his chest. But it is lateness, not sea monsters or grasping waves, that has prompted their flurry of activity. Rosie shakes seawater from the hem of her dress, but it is no good, the fabric is stained wine dark. Quick, Teddy, quick. We mustn’t be late for music practice. What will Mother say? Do hurry along. She wrenches her boots onto her bare feet – there is no time for stockings – and disappears in a whirl of red, back towards the cottage. Gunning, ruddy face splashed with sea water, bestows upon Teddy a friendly cuff around the head. She’s right you know, old chap, best not to keep Miss Grace waiting. The ‘old chap’ is Gunning’s jocular way of reminding Teddy he is the baby and always will be. And then Gunning is gone too, leaving Teddy alone to scramble up the slope.
By the time Teddy, ever the tardy one, enters the stifling cottage Father insists on renting every summer, Miss Grace, straight backed at the piano, is playing the opening bars of a Schubert piece, Rosie standing demurely beside her. Mother is frowning into her sampler, pretending not to notice the tell-tale strip of naked skin between Rosie’s boot tops and sea-darkened hem.
Rosie sings Ellens dritter Gesang,Ellen’s Third Song, one of Teddy’s favourite pieces. Most of the words, except for Ave Maria, are in German, which Teddy does not understand but he likes it anyway. Du lächelst, Rosendüfte wehen. He lingers in the doorway, the music stirring conflicting emotions he cannot name but that cause a satisfying pain somewhere deep inside him. In dieser dumpfen Felsenkluft, O Mutter, höre Kindes Flehen. Rosie’s voice is like the seawater, clear but inflected with ripples and their shadows. O Jungfrau, eine Jungfrau ruft! Ave Maria! Gunning jabs Teddy in the ribs, startling him from the drifting light and shade of Rosie’s song. Go and fetch the violins, there’s a good chap. I think we might have got away with it, you know. Teddy goes to fetch the violins. His rendition of Three Blind Mice faultless, but punctuated by Mother’s hissed, Agnes Rosina King, where are your stockings?
In the absence of Father, called away to London, Miss Grace is invited to stay to a late luncheon of cold roast lamb, boiled potatoes and peas with mint. She eats with the same board-stiff poise with which she plays the piano, but when Teddy tugs on her sleeve and asks if he can learn to play Ellens dritter Gesang on his violin, she softens, and with a glimmer of a smile says, Maybe next year, Edward, if you practice very hard. Teddy senses her tone of faint forbearance, understands that what she is saying is the opposite of what she means, and promises to himself that he will prove her wrong.
After luncheon, Rosie would usually practice her needlework while Gunning and Teddy accompany Father to forage for views and objects to sketch. But with Father away and Mother having one of her heads, they are permitted the rare freedom to do as they please, so they amble northwards under the softening sky, against the flow of a summer-indolent stream, until the solid edges of Eastbourne dissolve into silky green fields. Teddy trails behind, lost in the scent of chalk and grass, Rosie and Gunning’s chatter no more comprehensible to him than the sound of the bees meandering from one cluster of tiny pink flowers to another, bending the stems over with their weight.
Shadows longer now, they come to a deserted farmyard, a cluster of ramshackle barns, littered with summer-parched depressions of what once were muddy puddles. At the edge of the farmyard is a low wall with some dark-trunked trees, boughs weighed down with green. They are holm oaks, Teddy knows, as he has sketched their leaves, some spiny, some smooth-edged, many times with Gunning and Father.
Beyond the crowning arches of the holm oaks is open country, a vast expanse of emptiness and colour spreading up into The Downs. If Teddy squints, the space beyond the trees is a canvas of pinkish orange splashed with faded greens and whitened blues. Rosie and Gunning clamber onto the wall, buckled by the tree roots twisting up and out of the earth, and walk along it, arms out for balance on the narrow, uneven stonework, heel to toe, heel to toe. But Teddy only has eyes for the space and light and colour stretched out before him, unbroken and magnificent. All the colours are in flux, pulsing and waning like murmurating starlings. He walks into the shade of the largest of the holm oaks. His lungs feel empty, as if he has fallen and knocked out all his breath. Teddy puts his hand to the tree trunk to steady himself.
The tree is humming. Singing. The tree is singing Ellens dritter Gesang. Ellen’s Third Song. The flinty couch we now must share, Shall seem with down of eider piled, If thy protection hover there. The murky cavern’s heavy air, Shall breathe of balm if thou hast smiled. Then Maiden, hear a Maiden’s prayer, Mother list a suppliant child. Ave Maria. Faint but unmistakable vibrations in B-flat major, travelling into Teddy’s fingertips from the tree’s crumbling trunk. Teddy closes his eyes and there is the scent of growth, of greenness, of the soft downy undersides of the oak leaves and the bitterness of bark and the soft chalk and the sun and far, far in the distance now the salty sea, as faint as the tree’s song but there, a note, an undertone, the shadow of a ripple.
Eyes open, Teddy is under water now, in the shade of the holm oak. Teddy is the twist in the light beneath the ripples and shadows of the oak leaves, he is the shimmering stones beneath lazy waves, he is Gunning’s wavering calf disconnected from his upper leg. He is the light and shade of Rosie’s singing, he is the ecstasy of colours in the space beyond the trees, the parched mud in the farmyard, the beetles scurrying in the cracks between the bark, the laughter of his siblings as they teeter on the narrow wall, the yellowhammer calling in the distance. Six-year-old Teddy, suddenly seeing the weft and weave of light, shade and shadow and how it is everything, even the sounds and smells and the sensation of the roughened tree bark beneath his fingers. Stunned, Teddy falls to his knees in amongst the tangled roots, brittle twigs digging into his tender skin.
Beyond the shimmering light, Teddy sees a figure. An old man, sitting at an easel beneath a pergola draped in cadmium yellow roses. A man with a contented face, a man who paints cosy bucolic scenes and drinks tea with Martha in the parlour. It is Gunning, the real rose amongst them, barely changed from childhood, his round, kind face, full of ripples but without shadow. And, Rosie. Mrs Agnes Franks, as she will become, her face softened by motherhood, rocking her daughter in the geometric shadows of Brooklyn on a bright, sunny winter’s day.
And then, a young man in Leipzig playing Ellens dritter Gesang, over and over on his violin, trying and failing to find the right balance of light, shadow and shade. A young artist with paint under his fingernails, watching his daughter sleep beneath scattered, Cornish light; a life without shade or shadow with Lovie and Madeline. Full of light, but not balanced, not true. The shade and the shadow hidden but waiting. And it takes them, stealing Lovie and Madeline’s light in different ways, one to death and one to indifference, leaving him alone, drowning in shadows. The murky cavern’s heavy air. A blanket of ash, the crushing weight of shadows. Heavier even than the summer leaves on the bough. And one day, an old man filled with the shadows of ripples, walking in the grounds of an asylum in Portsmouth that had for years absorbed still more of his light, he would see some trees by a wall with a pinkish horizon beyond and would think, I could make that light. White, with a touch of raw sienna. A little ochre. Alizarin and white for the pinkness, sap green for the far distant trees and the tiniest dab of ultramarine in white for the milky blue sky. I could find the balance between the light, shade and shadow, yes I could. So he makes some light. A tiny speck. But light.
Rosie and Gunning are climbing the tree. Teddy picks himself up off the ground, limbs aching as if he has fallen from a height, as if he is a frail, old man of sorrow. He staggers against the tree. It hums, soothes him. Rosie’s voice above, muffled by leaves. Goodness, Teddy. Don’t dawdle so. We shall have to go home for supper soon. Still trembling from the shock of the vision, he shuffles to the buckled wall, a small boy seeking comfort from his brother and sister. Teddy tries to climb up, scrapes his shin. Gunning pokes his smiling face out through a curtain of leaves. Beyond him, Rosie in silhouette, perched in a v-shaped branch, holding her arms up to the sky. Put one foot there, old chap. See, just where that stone is missing in the wall. The sinking sun makes a halo of Gunning’s hair. Then you can step here, where the tree trunk splits in two. You can do it, Teddy, I know you can. The sinking sun is dazzling Teddy. It’s too bright. Gunning reaches down, stretching his arm out as far as he can. Just one small step, Teddy. Then grab my hand and step up.
Teddy takes his brother’s hand, and steps up into the light.
(c) Annie Kirby, 2019