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A garden party with Chagall

IT was a charming scene - a few ladies in summer frocks gathered on the lawn to paint and to have tea - a Seurat painting in an English garden, all pastels and dappled sunlight. But at some point during the course of that long, golden afternoon Chagall arrived, gave Seurat the boot, turned adults upside down into children, and painted the grass a bright blue. It was all because of those rocks I had brought back from the railway house. There was a kind of magic in them, I think.

I had been up to the abandoned railway line the previous week, poking among the rubble of the railwayman's house, wandering along the old trackbed, following the footpaths that bind the Bedfordshire countryside together into a patchwork of farms and villages. I was in a melancholy mood. Our year of living in rural England was turning out to be a lonely experience for me. The village we had chosen to settle in was charming - close to my husband's university and pretty as a post card with its thatched cottages, rose gardens, and broad water meadows. But I found it a terribly shy place, parochial in its habits, and wary of strangers. I longed to chat with folks about rural ways and old days, but I couldn't get beneath the polite smiles and nods.

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It was while musing thus in the ruins of the railway house that I spotted some stones lying in a nearby field, probably brought to the surface recently by a farmer's plow. They were whimsically shaped, some round with flattened bottoms, some pyramidal, some smooth and nearly square. In shape they reminded me of the thatched cottages down on the village green, and I took them home.

WITH some paint from the shop, I painted them to resemble the village cottages, with rosebushes clinging to their walls and wispy gray roofs that looked somewhat like thatch. They were humble, humorous - the kind of love objects a child brings home from kindergarten. I put them on the windowsill to dry and forgot about them.

And then, overnight, as if released from a capped bottle, the village began to unfold. Perhaps it was the English love of things tiny and nursery-like. Perhaps it was my silent exaltation of the small, subtle charms of the village. Whatever the reason, my cottage rocks had managed, in their simple way, to open the door for me a little.

The next day the doorbell rang. Some neighbors stopped to inquire about the little rocks in the window. Had I done them myself? Where had I gotten the idea?

I explained that where I came from, rock-painting was a popular hobby and people were always capturing their houses, their pets, the bugs in their gardens, on stone. It was easy. Everybody did it. It was fun.

The hook went in.

Could we perhaps arrange an afternoon sometime when I could show them how to do it?

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Of course we could.

And so the following Thursday I found myself seated in my neighbor's garden surrounded by ladies in summer dresses and card tables laden with field rocks. My neighbor was providing the tea, I was providing the expertise, and the others had brought their own rocks and whatever paints and brushes they could scrounge from their grandchildren's paint sets.

We started gingerly, feeling our way, sitting rather awkwardly at our card tables, talking about the garden and the weather. There was a sense of discomfiture among the women, each one unsure of her talents, of whether or not her work would measure up to that of the others. A little row of white-washed stones grew along the edge of the card tables, stiff and precise, with black windows painted in grids, like jail bars. No charm. No joy. And I had said it would be fun. I was beginning to despair.

But then, at the darkest moment, help arrived. Chagall came, in spirit, bringing with him his brilliant palette and his flying cows and his lovers embracing under starry skies. He came in answer to prayer, and I knew he had arrived when my knee accidentally knocked the leg of the card table and the wet rocks went flying, to land paint-side down in the flower bed. I retrieved them and set them right-side up and dirt-smeared on the card table, mumbling apologies. Somebody giggled and stood up quickly, upsetting the cobalt blue onto the grass. It pooled into a circle of intense blue, cupped in the green grass like a mountain lake. We salvaged what we could of the remaining paint and sat down.

But by now the Chagallian spirit had settled over us all. Everyone's work was ruined. Nothing could be perfect anymore. The best we could do would be to tidy things up a bit and have fun. We touched up the damaged rocks with fresh paint, adding a few daubs of pure color here and there among the grass stains to give the illusion of flowers. My neighbor said they were herbs, and showed me how a dormer window fits up under a thatch roof and how wire netting protects the straw from the burrowings of birds and small animals.

Each rock prompted a story. I learned never to stand in the doorway of a thatched cottage in the rain (no eaves) and how the railway engineers used to ``accidentally drop'' a little coal on the tracks by the railway house during the depression years. I learned about the plans to clean the cobwebs out of the old corn mill and turn it into a craft center and how the old farm buildings down by the river had been fixed up and let to weekend artists and writers from London.

WE painted all afternoon, stopping briefly for tea, and then painted again until shadows fell across the lawn and grandfathers came back from the allotment gardens to find their kitchens empty and dark.

When we finished, we had a village of cottage stones sitting on the lawn, a kindergarten celebration of all that was timeless and quintessential about the village itself and the people who lived in it.

The big ones went home to become doorstops and paperweights. The little ones went off to the Women's Institute, where they fetched 50 pence each at the next jumble sale.

Chagall himself would have been proud, I think.

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