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The Red Tool Box

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

The Red Tool Box
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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 long-socks-with-sandals look was strictly for tourists and Poms – and he considered himself 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 slim 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 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.

Field Editor Beverly Rhodes is from Perth, Western Australia. Now retired, she 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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