Johannes Vermeer was a deep thinker. He knew this because his mother had told him one day after finding him sat round the back of the baker’s shop, hidden from view, staring at the plumes of smoke coming from the chimney of a neighbouring house.
Vermeer hadn’t understood his mother’s anger and astonishment when she found him there; after all, he wasn’t doing anything wrong. Nevertheless she said, it was late, going on for sunset, and she hadn’t known where he was. He argued that he had only sat down for a minute to watch the smoke form different patterns against the sky; it was very clear that day, and although cold, without knowing it he’d been there for hours.
Ten years on from that day, and his mother still worried about him. She worried about the long hours he worked at the apothecary, and the bruises that seemed to appear out of nowhere, marking his otherwise flawlessly pale skin. She had suggested that she should take a look at them, but Vermeer refused and tugged at the sleeves of his shirt, pulling them further down towards his wrists and hiding the purple blemishes.
Early one cold winter morning, Vermeer set off on the short walk to the apothecary. As he breathed he could feel the sharp, icy air fill his lungs and he concentrated on the ground in front of him, so not to slip on the ice. In some ways he enjoyed being out so early; it was like making the first footprints in freshly laid snow. He arrived at the shop and entered through the back door, and still wearing his outdoor clothing, began his work, sweeping, putting in order jars and bottles, removing some of them from their places to dust the shelves, cleaning the weighing scales. It wasn’t a man’s work, his brother had told him, but Vermeer didn’t mind, one day he would become the apothecary himself, and not just the assistant.
An hour later, the apothecary arrived and opened up the shop for business. He was a short, round little man with a bad temper that Vermeer knew only too well. Of course,
Vermeer never challenged his master as he wanted to keep his job; he knew the small amount of money he earned was important to his mother. So he endured his master’s occasional fits of temper and did everything in his power to keep him happy. The day went smoothly and for once, his master sent him home early.
Walking home by the canal, eyes fixed on the ground, something caught Vermeer’ eye.
Lying on the ground in front of him was a shiny pearl earring. It looked so out of place, clean and beautiful, contrasted against the dark and dull ground, it could not be mistaken. Jeremias paused, bent down, and picked it up very carefully between his
thumb and forefinger. He’d never seen anything like it. The pearl was large, bigger than he’d ever seen before, and as he turned it into the light, hundreds of colours came alive on its surface, shimmering and shining. It was entirely mesmerising.
A shout awoke Vermeer from his dream-like state, and he looked up.
‘Oh! You there! Yes!’
Vermeer focused on the small woman hurrying toward him, her face was red and flustered, her hands stretched out in front of her.
‘You found it, you found my mistress’ pearl, thank you so much!’ gushed the woman, now standing very close to Vermeer, she reached out for the earring.
Vermeer released the pearl from his delicate grip, and let it fall into the woman’s palm.
Her fist closed tightly round it.
‘Thank you so much – erm?’
‘Johannes, Johannesburg Vermeer’ stammered Vermeer.
‘Mr Vermeer, yes, my mistress will be so pleased, I’ll return it to her straight away.
Thanks’ said the woman, without taking breath.
She hurried away, and as Vermeer watched, she caught up with a young girl, no older than himself. She was all wrapped up in a blue cloak, and standing not far ahead of him.
As the woman gestured toward Vermeer, who was still standing fixed in his spot, the girl lifted her eyes to look at him directly. Even from this distance Vermeer could tell she…