I’m sitting crossed-legged in the school hall, the sun streaming through the long windows. The floorboards are hot to the touch, and the smell of polish is choking.
(If you scrape your fingernail just right, you can make a curl of varnish jump off the wood.)
Next to me, Elizabeth Makepeace is making sure the holes in her white socks run in perfect lines. Something stinks, somewhere. Probably Ciaran Jenkins has trodden in dog poo again.
Mr Haverty is telling us juniors about Jesus’s parable of the talents. How the clever servant was given five coins by his master, and used them to make five more. How the next-cleverest servant cottoned on to the plan, and turned his three coins into six. How the third, dim, servant buried his one coin in the ground, to keep it safe. The first two servants get big pats on the head. The last guy gets shown the door.
‘God has given us all special gifts,’ says Mr Haverty. ‘And we mustn’t hide them away. We must make our talents grow.’
Back then, it made perfect sense. Use it or lose it. Now, it seems pure Biblical The Apprentice. Complete with Lord Sugar’s pointing finger of doom. ‘You’re fired.’ (And they will cast him into the darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth).
When we were in Year 6, everybody knew what their special gift was. Robert Gregory could sing. Really sing. Laura Watts was the best goalie the school had seen in years. Kathryn Corrigan could play loads of musical instruments. Even that weird extra-big recorder thing.
Mine was that I could gulp stories like lemonade. And I could draw. I’d draw things for anyone who asked. ‘Will do you me a horse? A face? A crow?’ (Actually, the crow didn’t come out very well. My client wasn’t best pleased.)
My primary school made a teatowel for parents. We had to draw ourselves doing our favourite thing. Amongst all the kids playing football, netball, badminton, I’m sat reading at a table. I haven’t even bothered to draw myself any legs. Legs. Overrated.
Years later, I think about the servant who buried his coin. And I really feel where he’s coming from. I’m standing there with a shovel in my hand, thinking – ‘I’ll come back for that later. It’ll be safe there. But now I’ve got some serious work to do.’ And I went off to do everything else but the things I loved best.
A talent, something that you’re good at for no reason, something you love doing, may be a gift. But just because it comes naturally, doesn’t mean it’s easy. Making your talent sing is the hardest work you can ever do. Because it’s a part of who you are. You have to face down that awful black feeling when you get the yips and it’s just not going right. When you look at everyone else’s talents, stacked high and gleaming, and feel your own is a tarnished chip of tin, only fit to slip into the earth.
A friend of mine writes songs. He says the hardest thing is listening back to one of his songs, when everyone else is happily singing along. He’s the only one who can hear all the places it should be better, the note he fudged, the middle eight that sags, the lyric that jars. But he keeps writing, because the songs won’t leave him alone.
What the parable can’t explain is that talents have a funny way of springing up, regardless. Push them underground, and they grow roots.
After a long break from artwork, I started painting on trainers, to make a bit of money while looking after my baby. It made me dust off my paintbrushes and pencils. It sent the rust flaking from my fingers, and tested my eye, my ability to meet a brief. To create something that delights people. I’m always touched by the way my lovely customers react when they open their parcel in the post. It’s my dream to create that feeling on a wider scale, with books instead of shoes.
If there’s something you love, something that was your favourite thing to do as a kid, take five minutes now and do it. Pick up the pen and doodle, dust off the camera, shake that ass, throw your head back and sing your heart out. Go on. Please.
Because, trust me, it’s never too late to reach for the spade, and dig up what’s buried deep, longing to feel the sunshine.