The phone rang at work, one afternoon, and a lady asked me if we (Jackson’s Drawing Supplies, an art materials shop) knew anybody who would do some calligraphy in a hurry. It’s been a long time since any calligrapher left a business card with us, so I told her “Sorry, no active calligraphers that we know of…except maybe…”
I assumed it was for a wedding, and that she wanted someone to address the envelopes in a curly copperplate-style script. I can do that, surely, I’ve been writing envelopes all month…
“Well, I sort of do it…only…I don’t know whether my work is good enough…I’ve never done it for a client before, you see…”
“Please send me a sample of your calligraphy work today.”
What? Today? I took a photo of some amateurish sign I’d made for the shop’s calligraphy section (“Clearance Sale— Calligraphy Nibs”), added a nicer shot of outgoing Scarlet Letterbox envelopes I’d written in gold on black, and e-mailed them to her.
“We would love for you to do the job for us,” she wrote back the next day. And so they sent me the project specifications.
“What the F*(#”
It turned out that I’d been speaking to a representative of Darwin’s Government House—a historical building in the city—and that the gig was a page in their huge visitor’s book, to commemorate a visit from Prince Charles in less than two weeks’ time.The lettering wasn’t in copperplate at all…they wanted Gothic blackletter, or at least batarde. I would have to learn to write an entirely new lettering style. Nothing could stand more opposite to the swashy “cupcake shop” script I had been practicing. Also, they wanted an heraldic badge, the Prince of Wales’ feathers, at the top…in colours and gold. One page had been marked in the book…I would have just one shot at it, and there were less than 10 days to do it.
Holy ostrich feathers, Batman, what had I gotten myself into? When I told friends, via facebook, what I had been asked to do, most made very strange comments like “Congrats! They picked the best person for the job,” or “They should be honored that you have consented to do the art work.”
I reeled in confusion…who were these glib and cheering people that seemed to know me so very little, after all these years? Only Helen grasped the utter weirdness of a job like this winding up in the reluctant, sweaty palms of a royalty–oblivious troglodyte like me, and she alone said something I could actually relate to:
The story ends happily. I managed the heraldic badge admirably (I think so, anyway), and although the letters are a bit ho-hum—no virtuoso gothic writer, me—they are readable, and clean, and centered.
I only spent 19 hours agonising over this simple page—most calligraphers would have dashed it off between breakfast and tea time—but it was delivered on schedule, in one piece, and Bonny Prince Charlie signed the recto page…probably without glancing at my verso page, because the poor man only has to appear at dreary official engagements—ribbon cutting, guestbook signing, niceties-mumbling, tea slurping and biscuit nibbling—about 12 times a week (he is described as “the hardest-working member of the royal family”) and he’s actually a deeply intelligent and compassionate person with serious philanthropic, philosophical and environmental interests, so that it really seems he had the tougher gig between the two of us, and who can blame him for being blind to visitor’s books?
The ladies of Government House very kindly sent me photos of the signed guest book, afterwards. This is the closest I will ever be to royalty…but a hand’s breadth between my writing and his, is pretty close.
I was more deeply honoured by this incongruous juxtaposition of our scribbles than I let on because, while I don’t give a rat’s ass about the titles one inherits at birth from one’s forebears, I respect the man: the way he has chosen to spend his time on earth, the efforts he has made to understand the issues, to help others, perform his duties, and still be himself. He cops a lot of flak for some of these things, but any person who believes passionately in anything, and does something about his convictions, will have critics, no?
Except that I am still waiting to be paid for this job that I did in early April; but I rang my clients yesterday and they seemed surprised to hear that I haven’t received my fees, so maybe something will happen.
Any day now.