The story of the sketch of my Grandma, drawn in her school exercise book.
|My Grandma's "Box of Bits" fascinated me as a child, and when I visited, I loved to browse through it. There were postcards, letters, cuttings from magazines and newspapers, leaflets, photographs and sketches.
She told me that the sketches were done by a childhood friend of hers, Art Rankin, who became the famous cartoonist,"Artie-R". Grandma had had to sit next to him at school when they were twelve, and he would grab her exercise book and do a quick line drawing of the teacher or a classmate.
"I hated him for getting me into trouble", Grandma told me, "I wouldn't always notice what he had done, it might be a big picture on the back page, sometimes just a cheeky little drawing at the bottom of my work. Our usual teacher knew it was him and ignored the pictures. But one relief teacher was a real battle-axe. Mrs Sweetman was her name, and she got madder with me each time it happened. Trouble was, Art's sketches got wickeder, and they were often of her!"
Grandma smiled as she leafed through the collection of sketches cut out of the back pages of her exercise books. "That year my books ran out before anyone else's! Great-Grandma was really mad the day I came home with only half a book left!"
I picked up a folded piece of lined paper. The front had a picture, unmistakably my Grandma, even after fifty years, looking sideways and laughing. I opened it and read in neat, school-taught handwriting, "Hey Annie, I think you are the prettiest girl in school. Art Rankin".
I held it out to Grandma. "Did he really write this?"
She looked at it long and hard, then turned it over and stared at the picture. For a long while she stared into the distance and I didn't dare break the silence. Finally she spoke.
"Yes, he did like me, and funny to think of it now, he showed it by annoying me. That was our last year at primary school, and next year we were at different high schools. We hardly ever saw each other again."
"Did you like him?" I asked, surprised at this insight into my Grandma's love-life.
"Yes, but everyone did, except that one teacher. He had so many friends. Everybody wanted to be his friend." She looked at my excited face. "Oh, I didn't have a crush on him or anything" she said, and laughed. "I met your Grandad at High School, and we really were besotted with each other!"
I pondered the word "besotted", thinking how well it fitted a couple of my school friends. But Grandma still looked at the picture.
I saw the picture again many years later. I knew that Artie-R had recently died, and that a book commemorating his life and work was to be published. I put my name down to buy a first edition.
I expected the book to have a selection of his cartoons from over the years, and I wasn't disappointed. He had a rare gift, and I felt that the world had really lost something now that there would never be another "Artie-R" cartoon. I flicked through the book, and there at the beginning were some of the sketches I had seen in Grandma's Box of Bits. The one of my Grandma was there. Hurriedly I turned to the acknowledgements. "Grateful thanks to Mrs Anne Charles, who was a schoolmate of Artie-R from ..." and I remembered Grandma's faraway look.
I asked her about the pictures in the book.
"Yes, well, dear, I read in the papers that he was dying, so I wrote a letter to his publishers, saying I had all these pictures he'd done. They just about fell over themselves in their eagerness to see them, because Art hadn't kept anything from that time. I didn't want any money, but I did want to hand them over to him myself. I had something I wanted to say."
"What was that?" I imagined my Grandma making accusations to the famous man on his deathbed, about how he got her into trouble at school.
"So they arranged a visit" she went on, unheeding. "He remembered me and we talked a bit about things." Her voice trailed away and I waited.
"I said I just wanted to thank him for telling me I was pretty" Grandma continued "and I told him that always after that I did feel pretty. You see, that's how come your Grandad noticed me at school: I felt pretty so I looked pretty."
I was trying to take all this in, and there was silence for a while. "Did he say anything to that?" I finally asked.
"He just laughed. He was weak with the cancer, but he hadn't really changed. He drew another picture of me, in exchange for all the ones I was giving him."
"I'd like to see it," I ventured.
"Of course, dear, go and get my Box of Bits!"
The picture took my breath away. In a few simple lines, Artie-R had captured my Grandma, with her wrinkly face and thin hair, her smiling eyes and sweet expression. I had to agree with what he'd written: "You're still the prettiest girl, Annie. Love, Art."
When I handed it back, Grandma put it carefully in the box, with her first picture.