Triptych in blue
Munir ran out of blue just as Summer unfolded skies of the deepest, most startling, ultramarine. All he could do was to turn his back on the vast, Fenland sky and take to painting peaches instead; peaches that he had picked fresh from the garden, and which were now arranged in a plain-glazed bowl at the centre of his brown table. Next to the peaches he positioned a pot of old palette knives. The blades were blotchy and bloomed with rust. Munir picked up a dry brush and stippled the paint so that it formed a fine gauze on the small canvas. It was so sheer in places that it looked more like the fog of his breath against glass, or dust on a mirror. The composition was simple. There was no view, no distant blue; no here and there; no strange faraway. Just the immediate, unambiguous, blue-less now of his kitchen.
He liked the muted, ochre simplicity of the peaches and yet, as he painted, he was like a bundle of knots all bunched up inside his too-big, baggy shirt. He scowled, and he set his back to the window and the taunting square of sky behind him. He painted seven pictures, each of which was no bigger than the palm of his hand, and he planned to sell them along with the fruit at market. Later, as Munir rubbed out his brushes, he wondered if, deep down, everyone was sick of blue.
Munir wondered how many peaches he would need to sell to pay Horin, who would be making the next trip to town, to source a tube of Prussian Blue. There was no question of palming Horin off with fruit – he had peaches enough. His garden ran down to the river and he irrigated it at night for free. Although Horin denied it, who else could it be sloshing about with a bucket when everyone else was in bed, with the windows flung wide open, the better to hear the crack of their peaches as they withered? Horin’s outsize, swollen fruit was testament to his furtive forays to the water’s edge; he would have peaches to feed to his pigs right through to November when everyone else would be sucking bitter blackberry pips from between their teeth.
‘Where’s the challenge of a peach?’ Horin asked. He turned a picture in the palm of his hand, as he might a pebble, before throwing it down on top of the unsold fruit. ‘Paint me my portrait, and I’ll find you some blue.’
That evening, Munir cleared the table and sliced up the peaches.
‘He says his eyes are blue, but they are grey.’
‘If he says so,’ his wife replied and they ate on, in silence, into the dimming light.
Horin believes the sea can talk.
He is fifty-nine.
He has brown hair made bright and brittle by the sun. It is the colour of wheat, ripened, then flayed, by the sun.
His skin is the colour of leather kicked over with dust.
He has a bicycle. He keeps pigs.
When he was nine years old, Horin found himself on the suddenly steep shingle that marked the fraying edge of Aldeburgh beach.
He turned a pebble in his hand and assessed its weight. He was barefoot and ankle-deep in water. He stood there and looked at the tiny pebbles that bulged between his splayed toes. The stones were not smooth. They hurt and tickled at the same time. Even though he was giddy with cold, he liked it. The tide was coming in. A wave slapped against his shins and streamed between his legs. As the water pulled back against his calves, he saw the tiny, pretty pebbles rush away like beetles from around his feet until there were two hollows under his heels. His toes could no longer grip and the next wave knocked him over. As he went under, he heard the sea.
What makes me blue?
He wanted to answer, the sky, but he was face down, and the sea poured into him as if he was an empty bottle. It filled his ears, his mouth and his lungs, and he sank. His fingers felt stupidly for the pebble he no longer held. Then, perhaps out of pity, the sea threw him back on to the shore to his parents. Because they were angry, they dragged him away and did not care when the stones cut his knees. They hauled him right up the beach, away from the reach of the highest tide, beyond the brittle, frayed line of seaweed and the knotted-up fishing nets, and the oil drums, the crab shells, the rusted tins, and the four-pack plastic. That’s where they took him and where they beat the water out of him. In the years that followed, wherever Horin moved, the sea formed a shadow behind him – it crept up the rivers, along the dykes, and across the Fens – through Harwich, Framlingham, and Cambridge.
In the evenings, Horin waters his peaches and watches the brackish water soak away. He reasons that every bucket thrown down is one less bucketful in the sea. It feeds a thirst that is so great that no matter how much water he sloshes about it cannot stop the earth from breaking apart or the soil from crumbling to a thick, ochre dust. He knows that in the end everything becomes either salt or dust. That even the sea, one day, will run out of blue.
Then Horin remembers the paint.
It is believed that when Munir Shurrab painted Pig-Keeper and Peaches, very few words passed between the artist and his subject. At least that is what Shurrab’s wife, Alicia, notes in her diary. There was, at one point, a disagreement about paint. No other documentary evidence survives to confirm this.
The portrait is believed to be Shurrab’s last work. It is exceptional in that Shurrab is remembered for his intensely luminescent, compact landscapes. As far as it is known, this is the only portrait Shurrab painted. The identity of the subject is a mystery, but Alicia’s diary makes reference to visits from a man who kept pigs and who was believed to be a member of Shurrab’s community.
The painting shows a man in his late fifties. His hair has been combed, and is parted to the right. The man is wearing a shirt buttoned up to the collar. Shurrab has included items that could be symbolic, and that hint at the man’s status: a bowl of peaches stands on the table; a bucket rests between his feet. There is what looks like a bicycle in the background, but it is difficult to distinguish from the deep shadows that obscure the space behind the man.
The subject has clearly been arranged and, even if the relationship was strained, Shurrab would have needed to direct his model. We can imagine his instructions, but perhaps a more terse conversation took place. We cannot be sure.
‘We have an agreement.’
’Did you find it?’
’I need it.’
’What do you mean, not yet?’
’I'll bring it.’
’When you’ll be needing it.’
’I need it now.’
The sky was so blue that day it hurt.
‘It is necessary.’
‘And when it has gone?’
‘Then I’ll find more.’
‘It is not that easy.’
The portrait took form.
‘The paint. I insist.’
Alicia made sporadic entries into her diary. Not long before Shurrab’s death he became increasingly agitated, and he would wait at the door for the pig-keeper to arrive. On his last visit they argued. She writes of the pig-keeper handing a tube of paint to her husband, which he grabbed. The screw top was seized on tightly and Shurrab had grunted with the strain as he tried to remove it. The more he struggled, the more he damaged the tube until the thin, metal casing split apart to reveal nothing more than a thin, shrunken finger of dry paint. It looked like a dull, black slug that had been poisoned with salt. When Shurrab cut into it, he found a tiny amount of tacky paint. At this point, Alicia writes, he wept.
Alicia’s diary does not reveal the identity of the pig-keeper, nor does she explain why Shurrab had chosen him as a subject. She describes him as grey-eyed and shambling. Yet her description is inconsistent with the portrait, and with the assertive demeanour of the man. His eyes, which engage the viewer in a fierce, direct stare, are not grey. Look closely, Shurrab has painted them the deepest, most startling, blue.