Smell of Linseed

(Copyright 2001)

My seven-year-old son watches me painting his bedroom. He sits on one of the unopened tins of paint, his bright eyes following me around the room as I methodically cut-in the edges with a small brush, then swap the brush for a roller to paint the large surfaces. We do not talk - it is a moment of closeness that need no words. Occasionally, I catch his eye and give him a wink. He smiles back.

It is a quiet, warm Sunday afternoon and the only sound is the swishing of the roller against the plasterboard. A feeling of peace settles over me, yet at the same time I sense that there is something missing. I dip my brush in the can of paint. It is acrylic paint, a thick water-soluble mixture that gives off a pungent artificial odour. It is then that I realise what is missing. It is the smell of linseed; the smell of my own father...

My Dad had been a professional house-painter when the trade required more than just the ability to apply a coat of paint. Back then, a painter needed to be an interior decorator, colour consultant, paperhanger, carpenter, glazier and plasterer. Dad once told me that the painter was the most important of all the trades; he erased the architect's flaws, the builder's mistakes and the plumber's mess.

A painter also had to be an artist, able to tint and blend colours by eye to suit a customer's particular requirements. I especially liked to watch Dad tint the big drums of paint that he bought direct from the trade wholesaler. To my young eyes it was an activity close to magic. Dad would crouch on his haunches beside the drum of virgin white paint, his trays of tubes and bottles containing various tinting liquids and powders at his side. Sometimes he would refer to a colour chart, sometimes he would have a sample of fabric or a photograph, and sometimes he would have no more than an image in his head after listening to what mood the house-owner was trying to evoke in a room.

Dad would select a tint from his collection and add a few drops to the paint, constantly stirring the liquid with a large flat stick. The tint would hit the white paint and instantly start to spiral down. For a while nothing would seem to happen, then the paint would suddenly change colour. He would methodically continue stirring, then add some more tint, perhaps of another colour. I was often surprised at the tints he would choose; more than once they seemed to bear no relation to the required colour, yet the final result was always perfect.

I was too small to help much with the mixing, as the amount of effort required to stir a five-gallon drum of paint for half-an-hour was beyond me. I could, however, help with kneading the putty that Dad used to fill small holes and gaps before painting. He would lever a chunk of the off-white mass out of its container with his putty knife and I would work the stiff lump between my hands until it became soft and usable. Dad would then wrap the putty in a sheet of greaseproof paper, ready for the next day's work. Sometimes, if the putty was stale, or the weather cold, Dad would add some drops of linseed oil to make my job easier and my hands would smell of the oil for hours afterwards.

Like any other father back then, Dad would go off to work early in the morning and come home late in the evening, so I rarely got to see him work. Occasionally, however, he would get a job that required him to work over the weekend or a public holiday, something that excited me because it meant there was a chance he would ask if I wanted to go with him.

"I've got to work tomorrow," he'd say over the family dinner table on Friday night.

Mum would sigh and nod understandingly. We weren't poor, but we certainly weren't rich either. Dad's weekend jobs often helped pay for our annual holiday at the beach, so it was accepted as a necessary sacrifice. I'd keep my head down, pretending to concentrate on my dinner, but all the while hoping to hear a few special words.

"Don't suppose you want to come along?" Dad might ask, looking at me. "I thought it might be a bit boring for you."

"I reckon it'd be OK," I'd reply, trying to sound casual. In fact I was bursting inside. Tomorrow, I would be Dad's offsider, his apprentice and mate for the day. Just him and me.

"You'll have to get up early," Dad would warn. "No mucking about."

I'd promise to go to bed straight after dinner so I'd be ready. The next day, I'd be awake before dawn. The rest of the house would be still asleep, but Dad would already be in the kitchen making us breakfast. We'd eat in silence, watching the first rays of the morning sun tint the eastern sky pink. Half an hour later, we'd be in the car headed off to the work site.

The type of job on which I usually accompanied Dad were those where he was working alone inside. Mostly these were spec homes that builders constructed in small housing estates, usually no more than half a dozen houses together. Sometimes Dad would be hired to paint the lot and sometimes he would just be asked to repaint a few rooms in one house to suit a prospective buyer. Generally, the builders had finished with the houses and, except for the painting, they were just about ready for their new owners.

There was always something eerie about the row of dwellings standing empty, uncurtained windows staring blindly. It was if they had suddenly been deserted, their occupants fleeing some unknown catastrophe. As we drove down the street past the houses, it felt like Dad and I were exploring a lost city.

If Dad had been working at the house the previous day, there would be no unpacking of the car to do. He would pull out the set of keys the builder had given him and unlock the front door of the house. While Dad started sorting out his equipment, I'd walk through the house, opening doors, looking through the empty rooms and breathing in the fresh-paint and timber smells. Sometimes I'd go out the back door into the yard and explore the interesting piles of timber offcuts, electrical wiring, cardboard boxes, broken bricks and piles of sand the builder might have left behind. It was better than any playground in a park.

The first job Dad would get me to do was help him unfold and lay out the dropsheets. He'd had these canvas dropsheets for as long as I could remember - they had once been white, but were now covered with paint drips in a thousand colours. We'd carefully lay the sheets around the perimeter of the room, or if Dad was painting the ceiling, over the entire floor.

Then it would be time to sit down on one of the unopened tins of paint and watch Dad prepare his brushes and rollers. After he was satisfied that the equipment was ready, he'd sit down on a tin beside me and roll a cigarette while he looked around the room and planned his work. I think he used to paint a room in his mind before he picked up a brush, working out what parts to do first and where he would have to get up to before he could break for morning tea or lunch. Dad would never leave something half painted, once he began a wall, ceiling, or even a door, he would continue until it was finished.

Finally, after every thing was ready and the job was right in his mind, he would pick up his brush and begin.

And I'd sit watching him. We didn't talk much; words just didn't seem necessary. Sometimes however, Dad would tell me a story about another painting job or blokes with whom he worked over the years. There were a lot of other stories he could have told me; things about the war or what he'd done while working on his brother's farm out west. These stories would certainly have impressed an eight-year-old, but Dad chose instead to talk about simple things, such as how he used to remove the paint from house walls with a blowtorch and how he would prepare the tins of hot creosote to paint the stumps. It's only now that I realise those simple stories told me more about my father than I understood back then.

The hours would pass quickly. I would become almost hypnotized by the rhythmic slap and swish of the brush and roller and the gradual transformation of colour.

When it was time for a break, Dad would carefully set his equipment aside and we would sit down to eat the lunch my Mum had prepared the night before. We'd munch on corned-beef sandwiches or homemade meat pies followed up with chocolate cake or Mum's special Monte Carlo biscuits. Dad would pour a cup of steaming black tea from his battered old Thermos and I would have a drink of cordial.

After lunch, Dad would return to work. Sometimes I'd explore the backyard some more or read a book that I'd brought with me for a while. Every now and then, when I was watching my Dad paint, I'd wonder how long it would take to learn to be as good as him.

"Dad, can I help?"

He'd consider this for a moment, looking around the room. "Sure," he'd say. "There's a spot over there you can do."

He'd find one of his empty paint pots and pour a small quantity of paint into it from his own pot. He'd select one of his smaller brushes, one he'd been using for the trim perhaps, and take my hand in his. Wrapping my small fingers around the handle, he'd show me how to hold the brush properly.

"Not too hard," he'd say, "Or you hand will be aching in a few minutes. "Hold it firmly, but relaxed. Don't scrub the bristles, but just paint with the tips. Dip it into the paint just a bit, that way it won't drip."

I would try to make the brush move in the manner I had seen him do it, but something eluded me. In his hand, a paintbrush seemed to come alive, the bristles moving in response to subtle movements of his wrist and fingers. It was the same way an artist would work on a canvas - or a sculptor work on a block of clay - hands, eyes and mind working in unison to unconsciously control the tools. Dad would watch me for a while, making a few comments and occasionally taking the brush back to demonstrate something. Then he would return to his work, leaving me to continue with my patch of wall.

He had no illusions I would ever follow him into the trade, yet he always took the time to show me his craft, with the same care he would have taken with a promising apprentice. He would always take the time to explain, or if there were no words, patiently show me how to do something.

When he saw that I had exhausted my interest in painting for a while, he'd show me how to pour the leftover paint back into the tin and clean my brush. He'd then check over the patch of wall I had done and tell me which bits were good and which bits needed improvement. He probably painted over my amateurish attempts the next day, but for the moment he left my work alone so I could be proud of my small accomplishment.

Late in the afternoon, as the sun began to set in the sky, Dad would call a halt to work and we would get ready to go home. If he was coming back the next day, Dad would finish up by stacking the tins of paint in the middle of the room and neatly fold his dropsheets into compact canvas squares. He'd check his brushes and rollers one last time, then walk through the house making sure all the windows and doors were secure. Then he'd pat me on the shoulder.

"Time to go home, son. Good day's work."

We'd lock front door of the house and climb back into the car. Before we had left the street, my eyes would be starting to close and and I'd be fast asleep by the time we got home.

My Dad's long gone now, taken from me earlier than either of us probably felt we deserved. I didn't get to share any of my adult life with him, but I like to believe he would have thought I turned out all right. Sometimes I find myself remembering stuff he taught me and I'm always surprised how important the little things turned out to be.

"Dad, can I help?"

My own son's voice brings me back to the present. I look down at his eager face, watching me paint his room. I wonder if this is one of the times he will remember when he is old and I am long gone.

"Can I help?" he repeats.

"Sure," I say.

I pick up the brush I am using for painting the edges and, taking my son's hand in mine, I fold his small fingers around the handle and show him how my father taught me to paint.