THE RED TOOL BOX

United by a com­mon de­sire to cre­ate, two art stu­dents form a spe­cial friend­ship for life

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - News - BEV­ERLY RHODES

Art has the un­canny abil­ity to bring peo­ple to­gether.

IT WAS EARLY IN 1981 when I first met Ge­orge. I re­mem­ber the date well as it was just a few short weeks af­ter some mis­cre­ant had as­sas­si­nated John Len­non.

I was in my early 30s, emerg­ing from a world of tod­dlers and tantrums and seek­ing a cre­ative out­let un­re­lated to the hum­drum of house­work and rais­ing lit­tle ones. My chil­dren, then aged three and five, were just en­ter­ing kinder­garten and school life.

At 65, Ge­orge had re­cently re­tired and was seek­ing a re­ward­ing hobby for his golden years. For both of us, paint­ing was ‘it’ and we met at a lo­cal TAFE paint­ing class. Thus be­gan a friend­ship that was to last for 25 years – un­til the day he died.

In the late 1950s, Ge­orge ar­rived in Western Aus­tralia as a ‘£10 Pom’ im­mi­grant from Bri­tain with his wife and two chil­dren. He wasn’t a tall man but was as neat as a pin, with

greased hair, a mouth­ful of large teeth (all his own) and mag­ni­fy­ing specs that gave his blue eyes a Bambi-like ap­pear­ance. His dress code was smart shorts (even in win­ter), a neatly pressed shirt, long socks and shoes – never san­dals. (The long­socks-with-san­dals look was strictly for tourists and Poms – and he con­sid­ered him­sel f nei­ther.)

Ge­orge was a man who lived life to the full; he worked hard, played hard, and had an opin­ion about ev­ery­thing. He adored his wife, his fam­ily, his friends, and was loyal and out­spo­ken to an equal de­gree. A sl im and vig­or­ous man, Ge­orge took pride in his fit­ness and health and walked three kilo­me­tres ev­ery day. “I’d no more go with­out my walk than with­out chang­ing my un­der­wear,” he’d say.

And as the only male in a paint­ing class full of women, Ge­orge was in his ele­ment. He ruled the roost and we were his hens. He adored his sin­gu­lar role and looked af­ter his brood with the same at­ten­tion he gave to ev­ery­thing.

He took to paint­ing with an awe-in­spir­ing level of pas­sion and com­mit­ment, even con­vert­ing the spare bed­room of his home into a stu­dio. (A stu­dio! How I en­vied him his stu­dio, as in my own home I had nei­ther the space nor the funds for such a lux­ury.) His paint­ing equip­ment was com­pre­hen­sive – an easel, qual­ity paints, lin­seed oil, tur­pen­tine, brushes, pal­ette, can­vases, char­coal pen­cils, fix­a­tive, pal­ette knives – even a rolling pin for re­mov­ing air bub­bles when glu­ing.

Ever prac­ti­cal, Ge­orge housed many of these items in a tool box – a red metal tool box with a can­tilever tray – built to take hard knocks and pur­chased from a lo­cal hard­ware store. Not fancy, but sleek, shiny and very red – the sports car of con­veyance for paint­ing equip­ment.

For about six years Ge­orge and I stud­ied to­gether through var­i­ous units un­til the com­ple­tion of the course and other com­mit­ments drew us apart, though we al­ways main­tained per­sonal con­tact as we lived within a cou­ple of kilo­me­tres of each other. I’d some­times see him on his daily walk or at the lo­cal shops and oc­ca­sion­ally we’d touch base with a ‘proper’ af­ter­noon tea, shar­ing a cuppa and a chin­wag.

Fast- for­ward some years and

I of­ten re­mem­ber Ge­orge, his big per­son­al­ity, gen­er­ous spirit and un­fail­ing en­cour­age­ment

Ge­orge was now about 80 years old. He rang one day and asked me to come to his house, say­ing he needed to ask me some­thing. While his dear wife Dorothy served tea and cake, Ge­orge ex­plained that he was giv­ing up paint­ing and giv­ing away all his ‘stuff’. Ev­ery­thing – paints, boards, can­vases, com­pleted works, rolling pin and even the pre­cious red tool box! “I can’t paint, Bev. I don’t know why I ever thought I could,” he de­clared in the man­ner of a man who has had the scales of love fall from his eyes. (He was mis­taken about his paint­ing abil­ity be­cause he had turned out some unique and won­der­ful works.) How­ever, Ge­orge had de­cided he was through with paint­ing, and no amount of talk­ing could per­suade him oth­er­wise.

And so it was that Ge­orge be­queathed all his paint­ing equip­ment to me. “You have the best tal­ent and are most likely to use it,” he said. Af­ter con­sid­er­able per­sua­sion and feel­ing quite wretched about his de­ci­sion, I ac­cepted this pre­cious gift on the pro­viso he could re­claim it at any time. He never did, of course, and I still use much of his equip­ment to­day, more than 20 years later. As I paint I of­ten re­mem­ber Ge­orge, his big per­son­al­ity, gen­er­ous spirit and un­fail­ing en­cour­age­ment.

The most trea­sured item is the Red Tool Box, still in good shape, vi­brant red and barely scratched de­spite be­ing rather paint splat­tered. The

orig­i­nal shop sticker is still firmly in place al­though the price has long since worn off.

But that’s all right be­cause to my mind some things, like friend­ship, are beyond price.

In 2004 I learned that Ge­orge was very ill and, to­gether with his daugh­ter Penny, I vis­ited him in hospi­tal. “He’s very con­fused and may not recog­nise you,” Penny warned be­fore lean­ing over her frail fa­ther as he dozed in the railed bed. “Dad, there’s some­one here to see you.” As I leaned over, Ge­orge opened his eyes – “Bev!” he said, and with sur­pris­ing strength pulled me to him and planted a kiss hard on my cheek be­fore laps­ing back into a se­dated, semi-con­scious state. He didn’t speak or rouse again dur­ing our visit, and died two days later just a cou­ple of weeks shy of his 90th birth­day.

Ge­orge’s fi­nal rest­ing place was a bushland ceme­tery where birds, kan­ga­roos and rab­bits abound. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Dur­ing the committal ser­vice a lit­tle grey rab­bit hopped up and sat at my right foot as I stood at the grave­side.

Brought me un­done, that did.

Now re­tired, Field Ed­i­tor Bev­erly Rhodes has be­gun learn­ing wa­ter­colour tech­niques and re­cently went on a paint­ing trip to France. She is ‘grandma’ to Lu­cas, Sa­muel and Jacob and has a faith­ful com­pan­ion in her mini dachshund, Mag­gie-May.

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