It is not as if he came into my life, rather I came into his. He was a fisherman and still is. He was a wedding present to my parents but I do not know the donor. He wore a nondescript greyish sou-wester, a blue jersey and black Wellington boots.
I entered his life as a week-old baby, carried into my parents’ dining room. He hung on the wall above the fireplace where I grew conscious of him. I was intrigued by what he was doing. My parents did not know who he was or where he was sitting.
Later I knew more about him. I realised he was sitting on an upturned basket on a beach, white-bearded, smoking his pipe and mending a net. Behind him was a substantial, rotting, greeny-brown up-turned boat, used as a storage building. In the side of its hull were large double doors. Scattered around him were crab and lobster pots and in the distance was a church. As I got older I thought of him as Peggotty from David Copperfield, beside his upturned boat.
Decades later when I was saying good-bye to my mother before leaving for New Zealand, she asked me if I wanted anything from her house. As we spoke, I could see the fisherman looking at me over my mother’s shoulder from the wall behind her. I simply could not ask if Peggotty could come to New Zealand with me. We parted, thinking my mother, the fisherman and I would never meet again.
When my parents died, my brothers kindly asked if there was anything I would like from the house. Generously, they agreed to me having Peggotty. Weeks later he arrived in New Zealand in a different frame. I did not like the new frame and had him re-framed in a frame as I remembered. He now sits perpetually mending his net, he has not aged, and is in a frame in which he feels more comfortable. He has a bronzey-grey and black frame matching his net, and sky and the sand of the beach.
I asked the owner of the arty, expensive shop in the city centre, where Peggotty had been framed, if he could give me any idea of the painting’s value. He looked at both me and Peggotty over his half glasses, sniffed and said, “About a thousand bucks, I suppose.” I left his shop with its expensive art work for sale and thought to myself, “About a thousand bucks, eh! Well, I know where some of Peggotty’s stable-mates hang, which include art galleries and a university; so there.
I can see him any day I choose now he lives with, or hangs around, me. I have got to know more about him. As I look at him this afternoon, he looks just the same as he has always looked.
I know he was painted in 1903 and I know by whom. I looked carefully at the church. I knew it was gothic with a spire. I learnt it was a style common in Northumberland. The painting told me it was on the coast. A British Ordinance Survey map showed only one church with a spire on the Northumbrian coast. A few years later I visited Newbiggen-by-the-Sea. I was able to visit the church of St Bartholomew.
It is without doubt Peggotty’s church. When I was looking around the church, the vicar came in and we had a chat. I told her about Peggotty and the church. By strange coincidence she was coming to New Zealand a few months later. I didn’t invite her to call on me to meet Peggotty, I simply walked along the foreshore to where Peggotty had been painted. As I observed the area, I thought of the shadows in the painting. The sun was shining and the lie of the strong, long shadows indicated Peggotty had been up early the morning he was painted.
There is now a road and shops there and a cafe. We called in the cafe just where the rotting up-turned boat had stood and I imagined I was sitting where Peggotty had been sitting in 1903. I hope Peggotty continues to hang around and sees me leave my life and much later sees one of my grandchildren leave theirs.