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Robbo shook his aerosol spray and started with a broad sweep of his arm. The rattle of ball bearings in the can gave way to a gentle hiss as silver paint frosted the arch beneath the canal bridge. He worked quickly, sketching cartoons, outlining the colourful shapes symbolic of his current style and finally over-printing his name in the blocky, black-edged letters that had become his trademark. With a final flourish of satisfaction he filled in the letters with metallic ultramarine, and stood back to admire his work.
The space was now completely filled with a creation infinitely more satisfying than anything he was producing in his final year at the local art college.
He checked his watch. Just time enough to perpetuate something inspiring down at the station. With no more trains due until morning, he could work undisturbed for the rest of the evening.
Tomorrow, he had designs on the walls of the schoolyard, maybe even the school building itself. The headmaster would freak out when he saw it. He grinned. He’d never liked old Buckley. A chap like Buckley couldn’t even begin to understand how it felt to see an empty space, and experience the overwhelming need to fill it, indelibly, for posterity.
As his evening train pulled into the station many years later, Robert caught sight of his youthful handiwork, still adorning the walls of the waiting room. The colours had faded slightly, but it remained a very eye-catching piece of work.
He shook his head ruefully. What had he been thinking of in those days? And yet, knowing that thousands of commuters must have formed a view on his artwork over the intervening years, he found he was still tantalised by their verdict on his work.
He supposed his activity had been the creative equivalent of carving your initials on a desk or tree trunk…. encountering a virgin space, and leaving something there for the years to come. It was an incontrovertible sign that you had passed this way, a way of extending a small sliver of your existence into someone’s life.
It was Friday evening and the train was full. Picking up his briefcase, he joined the crowds flocking along the platform to the village main street.
He turned right and headed down the road past the school. Here it was again, on the playground wall: “Robbo rules, OK?” in letters three feet high. He grimaced. Old Buckley had been apoplectic, unable to collar him because he’d called in a favour from friends who gave him an alibi.
Crossing the road, he descended the steps leading to the canal to walk home along the towpath. There were more examples of his handiwork under the bridge: “Robbo was here!” in that god-awful shade of ultramarine that had scarcely faded over the years.
He chuckled. ‘I was like a tom-cat,’ he thought, ‘marking my territory.’
Whatever, it was all in the past. He was a different person now. He was the head of one of the city’s most influential design studios, with a penthouse apartment overlooking the Thames, and a little place in the country: an old lock-keeper’s cottage, carefully and tastefully converted. Somewhere to bring friends, lovers and colleagues.
“The boy done good,” he thought, with some satisfaction as he strolled down the towpath, looking forward to a leisurely weekend.
The towpath had been deserted but in the distance he could see an elderly man with his dog, walking towards him. There was something familiar about him, though Robert couldn’t place him at first until he drew closer. Then with a sudden shock of dismay, he realised it was old Buckley, his former headmaster.
He felt the blood rush to his cheeks and was instantly transported back to his school days, cringing with discomfort, annoyed also that the mere sight of a former figure of authority could strip away the layers of assurance that he had so carefully cultivated over the years. Perhaps Buckley wouldn’t recognise him, and they could pass each other with a civil “good evening”.
Robert had recovered his composure by the time they were within a few yards of each other, and he saw quite clearly that Buckley had recognised him. Indeed, Buckley looked almost as dismayed as Robert. Reassured, and feeling more in control of the situation, Robert was the first to initiate conversation.
“Good evening, sir,” he said politely, noting with some satisfaction that Buckley’s eyes drifted over his Armani suit, Gucci shoes and expensive leather briefcase.
Buckley stopped, and then reached out to shake Robert’s hand.
“Good evening Robert,” he said, his voice sounding feebler than Robert remembered. “I see you are doing very well for yourself.”
There was a slight interrogative lift at the end of this observation, and Robert felt obliged to let Buckley know, at length, exactly how well he was doing for himself.
Buckley listened with a slightly bemused, preoccupied air.
Then on a magnanimous impulse, feeling almost grateful that Buckley had given him the opportunity to reinforce his self-image, Robert suddenly changed the subject.
“I think I probably owe you an apology for my ….er… past artistic … indulgences,” he said. “Could we put it down to the follies of youth, perhaps?”
There was a slight pause.
“Not a problem, my boy,” said Buckley, looking uncomfortable. “In some ways I can understand the impulses you must have experienced. I can imagine how much satisfaction one might have derived from such activities. We’ll say no more about it. I wish you well.”
Shaking hands once again, they parted company.
‘Damned civilised of him,’ reflected Robert, ‘perhaps I under-estimated the chap.’
He rounded the corner towards his home, still feeling a warm glow from his encounter with Buckley.
And then he stopped dead in his tracks.
There, on the gable end of his trendy, white-painted lock-keeper’s cottage, in blocky ultramarine letters three feet high, he saw it.
“Robbo lives here! OK?”
“Shit!” he hissed, incandescent with fury. “Which mindless moron’s done this?”