The first problem was solved easily enough with the arrival of the community service boys and their buckets of brown paint.
‘Da!’ the boy shouted. ‘They’re at it again!’
He looked down from the second floor window and watched his da’s images being obliterated from the long strip of wall bordering the football pitch. The plaintive mewing of his new wee sister came from the back room.
‘See, son – it’s a compliment really. It means they’ve noticed it. The less time it lasts, the bigger the compliment. It was a good send-off, but.’
The boy watched as his da’s flamboyant black and silver representation of a train, with a smiling coffin floating in a cloud above the driver, was brushed away. The long horizontal lines of the carriages were distinctively his and the serenity he’d achieved was comforting for the whole family. It had been a commemoration wall for his Uncle Kasso who’d spent his life working on the trains, emblazoning their carriages with swathes of colour and dramatic patterns of secret lettering, legible only to other artists.
The train, whose roof he had been decorating last week – a twenty-first birthday train for a mate - had unexpectedly started and he’d fallen under the wheels and been crushed. Auntie Ariane hadn’t stop crying since.
‘Such a shame for your ma too,’ Otto said, ‘but her brother, your Uncle Kasso, was a great artist and will never be forgotten. A clever man too. Managed to get away from school without the taint of a single standard grade. Not many folk can achieve that!’
‘He’ll no see ma new wee sister now,’ the boy said.
‘No, son. I’ll have to put a real special birth painting there for the bairn, won’t I? There goes my sign.’
They watched as the smiling face that was Otto’s mark – a pupil in the centre of each of the ‘O’s, the two ‘t’s for the nose, a smile curved below, and the whole enclosed in an almost complete circle of bright red capital G – was extinguished by darkness as if it had never existed.
‘Tell me again,’ Otto said. ‘I want to know you’ll always remember.’
‘G Otto: he was an Italian, a long time ago who painted on walls nearly as well as you do.’
‘Well done, lad!’ Otto scruffed up his son’s dark hair with his good left hand.
The second problem was going to be more difficult to solve.
‘How’re you going to do Hayley’s birth painting now?’ the boy asked.
Otto looked wryly at the stookie on his right arm, his spraying arm.
‘Bad timing, wasn’t it, son? At least I’ll no have to change nappies for a bit. Maybe you will!’
The boy was forever getting into trouble at school for covering his jotters with pictures and stylised lettering. Maybe it was because he himself was tall and thin, but he was especially fond of margins, those long slim rectangles of blank space which spoke to him of the connection between the skies and the earth. He would draw the little world in the bottom few lines of the page and fill the heaven space above with moons and suns, stars and winged creatures, some human, some animal. Then he would get a bawling out from the teacher for ruining yet another jotter.
He aspired to decorate the close mouths all round Partick. He loved those beautiful vertical stones which defined the entrances, and he looked up longingly at the unreachable pairs of red sandstone pillars which held up each and every bay window in the burgh. But there was a strict code of honour: you didn’t do folks’ homes.
When he grew up, he wanted to be an artist like his da and uncle. He wanted to get commissions for wall work too, for new babies, weddings, funerals or any other surprise celebration. He wanted to work under cover of darkness and illuminate the world his patrons would waken up to, with colours and images and words that would flare briefly and burn into the memory of all who saw them. He wanted to be paid like a real artist, in food and drink and clothes and goodwill.
He still remembered the delight on the faces of his aunt and uncle when his da had taken them on a surprise walk on their wedding day last year, down to the entrance to the cycle track under the expressway.
He’d got together with his mates and they’d lined the underpass with celebratory images – roses, champagne, hearts and horseshoes and the happy couple holding hands under sunshine and blue skies without even a hint of the cloud that had now descended on his aunt with the loss of her man. He’d been allowed to paint the lucky black cat crossing their path, and he wondered if maybe it was somehow all his fault because he hadn’t been good enough to paint luck properly.
He would have to do a painting to make her feel happy again, as well as to welcome wee Hayley and make his ma, who’d lost her brother, smile, and his da feel better about his broken arm.
‘Can I stay with Auntie Ariane tonight?’
‘That’s a nice idea, son. You’ll be a comfort to her. But no nonsense, mind!’
He went down to her landing and chapped the door. He’d changed into dark clothes, which she might take as a mark of respect. His bedroom was above hers, and he had heard her weeping gently through the nights for her lost man.
‘Ma wee lad!’ she said, hugging him fit to crush the breath out of him. Her hair smelt old and sad. She turned away weeping, holding a tissue to her watery eyes, her face bloated with grief. He thought she looked really quite scary like this but because he knew her well, he wasn’t afraid.
‘I’m sorry, son. I miss him so much. I just can’t believe I’ll no see him again.’
He let her sip coffee and talk about Kasso, her beloved Kasso. He was waiting for it to grow dark. And all the time he was doodling up the margins of her unread Evening Times, seeing it in his head.
‘You should’ve seen what he did on the coast train when you were born, son. He and I were sweethearts even then,’ she paused to pull another tissue from the box at her elbow and hold it to her eyes. ‘He wasn’t called P Kasso for nothing. What a welcome you had into the world and everyone from here to Helensburgh and back again could see it for days. D’you know, son, I don’t think there is a square inch of his work left. Not anywhere. And he must have painted acres. I’ve got his drawings here but, and all his paints.’
It was the opportunity he’d been waiting for.
‘Could I get some, please, Auntie Ariane? For ma da,’ he added quickly.
‘Anytime, son. Kasso would’ve been happy for him to have them.’
‘Eh?’ For the first time she looked directly at him.
‘Can I get them now? The cans?’
‘Oh. Aye. OK, son.’
He knew exactly what he wanted and piled them into a Safeway bag, his heart thumping at the excitement of it all.
‘Right, I’d better be getting up the stairs.’
‘Bless you, son. Mind how you go and keep away from trains, whatever you do, pet.’
The boy went upstairs and waited at his own door until he heard Auntie Ariane close her door for the night. The sound of Hayley’s thin wail trailed through the painted glass panel towards him. He turned and tiptoed down to the back court.
He sat and waited by the bin shelter, the smell of rotting oranges and old bones dampened by the cool of the evening. The black and white feral cat stopped in its tracks, stared unblinking at him and then scuttled past, tail down, belly to the ground, and into the bin shelter to rustle through the rubbish.
He looked up at his own backroom window where the pink curtains glowed warmly. His ma was behind them, in there with Hayley. He felt shut out. He hadn’t seen his ma properly for days now. She was too busy with the baby. He missed most being hugged, and the way her long dark hair, which smelt of roses, would swing around him like a cape of love.
He was cold and stiff by the time the last bedroom and bathroom lights in the close were extinguished, apart from his hands which he'd tucked under his oxters to keep them warm. The half moon was high above the chimney pots as he crept through the close, careful not to let the front door bang.
It was the first time he’d done it for real, with proper cans, on a proper wall. He knew he had to work quickly and that he had to keep the jet spray of colour moving to avoid the drips that characterised an amateur.
But he knew exactly what he was going to do, and it was as if his hand had done it many times before, in another life. And, for the very first time, he could use his own sign.
Like all great artists who work in the dark, he’d already learned to tell the colour by its smell: black smelt of soot; yellow had a bright acidic smell; red was mellow and strong; blue had a thin, light smell; green was bright and sweet; and white had no smell but made him breathe more slowly. Gold and silver were the only two he could not distinguish. Both smelt coppery and, under the yellow streetlight, looked identical. He would risk golden stars and a silver sun.
He shook up the cans as quietly as he could, muffling their rattle under his dark sweatshirt, then quickly painted his Uncle Kasso in a blue heaven, with silver, or maybe gold, stars and a moon. He was beaming love down in long lines from his fingertips to the earth far below him, and wee new Hayley was bathed in a cone of golden, or maybe silver, light. Quickly he painted a woman with weeping eyes being comforted in another cone of love. He put himself onto the wall, cuddling the feral cat that was no longer afraid of him. It had a gift smile on its face for Hayley. Behind him, with her arm around him, his ma with roses in her long glittering hair, and his da with no stookie. All the lines were upward, with the great distance between heaven and earth connected by his uncle’s love.
Then, in his own special script of tall thin letters, weaving in and out of each other until they were more pattern than words, he wrote in Kasso’s heaven: Hello Hayley.
Finally, he flourished his sign, the sign his da had said would be his for always. A great big star high up in the sky with a long tail streaming behind it, which he dashed off with trails of both gold and silver.
‘Tell me again, so I know you’ll never forget, son,’ his da had said.
‘G A Comety: an Italian artist, who reached up to the sky because his ma was a comet with long shining hair and his da was G Otto.’
‘That’ll do just nicely, son. Well done!’