The Artist’s Eye
by Julie Thorndyke
Absence. This park bench is about absence. This park bench is in the grounds of the artists’ studio complex where Samantha has a borrowed space.
This park bench is empty. The grounds are deserted. Few people visit this converted institution during the week. It is ghostly, eerie, it has a haunted quality. It is late winter—there are still some brown leaves kicking around the bases of the bare elms. Shadows move and twist on the mock gothic landscape. Pigeons and rats are the only inhabitants of the arches and turrets of the nineteenth century terraced gardens and gabled outbuildings.
No one sits on the wooden planks of this seat. There are cigarette butts around the base of the bench, in amongst the brown leaf litter and torn grass, recently shredded by a tractor-driven lawn mower.
There is a high stone terrace, with a lethal drop to the stony, under-fed, under-filled river below, where a weir is coloured lime-green with moss and the barest trickle of water can be heard between bird calls. Between the grimy glass of a disused greenhouse and an ancient clipped hedge, a magpie caught in a cage set for feral cats loses hope and expires.
* * *
The head curator stood, watching the gallery assistants unpack and hang the portrait, arms folded, chin in hand. A tall, lean man, Ken’s limbs folded and unfolded slowly, deliberately, like a praying mantis. He rocked back and forth on his heels, eyes fixed on the gilt-framed rectangle of canvas now in place on the well-lit ivory wall. He stretched on his own white gloves over patrician fingers and adjusted the painting by a millimetre. Handing the spirit level back to the assistant, he sighed. The identifying plaque, in clearly accessible Arial font, was already adhered to the wall:
Portrait of a young girl
The curator stroked his chin cleft with a cotton finger. He’d been criticised for accepting this painting. “Pure chocolate box!” said his wife, Arlene Horst, the eminent art historian. They publicly claimed to never talk shop at home. Certainly the child was very pretty. Luminous ringlets, buttery skin, lips heightened by ruby tones, jewel colours in swathes of drapery. It was in the mode of Renoir, French in rendering and design, but completely lacking in provenance. The donor was the spinster daughter of a veteran, whose father was said to have brought home the painting as a spoil of war.
Ken stepped back and re-crossed his arms. He might just have hung a blatant fake or a stolen original. He traced, with a practised eye, the painterly brushstrokes of the child’s plump fingers and smiled. A remembrance of his own daughter’s sweetness, before Samantha became so angular and pierced, black and spiky. Let the critics sneer – chief among them, his wife – this one corner of the gallery would be his tribute to childhood. Had the gallery been empty, he would have lent forward and kissed those red child lips. He didn’t. He went to his desk to puzzle over the documents of the donation, sip whisky and wonder what to put on the gallery insurance policy.
* * *
Samantha lent against the rough, rendered wall of the old hospital and lit a cigarette. She kicked the mondo grass edging the concrete pavers that sat oddly with the tessellated tiles of the turn-of-the-century verandah. What a mish-mash of styles this place was! If it were up to her, she’d raze the lot to the ground and build a wide, open, glazed structure with a black, slanted roof like giant eagle wings ready to take flight. She hesitated to enter the building, to walk through the dreary corridors of institutional grey. Ash was piling up on the cigarette she held between her bare, anxious fingers. She flicked it toward the mondo grass. She only smoked occasionally, from boredom, in the way that her father sucked the whisky bottle, at home and in his office at the gallery. To fill in the time, to avoid binging on carbohydrates, to avoid thinking about the next thing, the next day, the next canvas. Her mouth felt foul and the cigarette, worse. She spat out the fag and squashed it with the sturdy heel of her black leather boot.
She didn’t like this empty place, but it was convenient and spartan, with nothing to distract her from work in progress and no nagging doubts about whether her father had eaten a meal or whether her mother was due home from overseas or not. Away from home, she could put these worries about her parents into proper perspective. They were her parents, not her problem. She would worry about them later. She checked her watch and saw that it was already four pm. The day was getting colder and she wanted to do three hours work at least. Her father thought she was out with friends, had learnt not to ask questions. She checked her phone: no messages. Mum usually sent a text once a day, she was off-schedule. Samantha needed to talk to her, but in person, about doctors and appointments, about practical things and whether a baby could fit within their household. She was long past the time for abortion, although nothing really showed: Dad hadn’t noticed a thing and Mum had been travelling for months.
Samantha’s car was the only one in the car park. There was nobody else in the studios, apparently. Well, fine, no distractions then. She had work to do, in private, and this was the place to do it.
The hall she entered was hung with a temporary exhibition of student photographs of the usual things: black and white studies of homeless people, close-ups of unshaven old men on park benches, urban streetscapes. Beyond it, the old wards, large enough to be useful studio spaces, complete with running water, enhanced by new skylights, were completely functional; but no money had been spent to improve the corridors that connected the spaces, and the institutional feel of the building was intact, from the pitted mosaic mural in the atrium, to the steel bars across the arched windows, the battered balustrades in the stairwell. Rolf’s studio was on the first floor. Samantha’s footsteps echoed on the stairs, like a pacemaker trying to pulse a dying body into life.
* * *
Trans-seasonal travelling is the pits. You planned to be practical and take matching, co-ordinated pieces, designed to be layered as required. But, afraid of the cold (and how dispiriting to be away from home, and cold in your very bones) Arlene always packed too many extra garments, thick socks and even a fluffy dressing gown, for who could feel really comforted by a thin, synthetic hotel blanket?
Her suitcase was a tumble of half-worn clothes and clean underwear—she hated that, usually kept neat, orderly piles even when travelling. But this morning she searched in haste for the silk shirt she knew she had packed, must have packed—but it was nowhere. Putting on a different, heavier knit top, she felt hot and hassled and out of sync. Arlene couldn’t be bothered to sort out the tangle in her suitcase. Thought about ringing home, but knew there would be no answer. Thought about the life she had been living, the life she had wanted, and knew there was no synchronicity in any of it. She wondered how many bottles of whisky had been drunk in her husband’s study this week. More, or less, in her absence? Why was there no clearer clue to his missing her, or wanting her there, not here? She opened her laptop, checked her schedule and decided to cancel the last appointment and fly home tomorrow. A few phone calls organised it, left no one feeling slighted. There was no point calling Ken. He owned a mobile phone but never remembered to turn it on.
Arlene remembered when un-tasted, still-wrapped airline food was a take-home surprise to be tucked into her carry-all for her daughter. She remembered the baby days, the soft pressure of new warm skin on her cheek—how she had willingly drowned in it, floated in it like bathwater, swam in it like an ocean pool. A touch so soft and gentle, enriching her, enlivening her, drenching her with spring rain. As a child Samantha had been tactile, loving, demonstrative, anxious not to be separated. She recalled how the down on the Sam’s baby arm had tickled her neck each night as the child clung on for one last good night kiss. There was peace in these memories, and comfort of the most spiritual kind. Innocence. Nothing that could be saved or preserved. A jar of golden sherbet-drops to be taken out and swallowed, one-by-one, until childhood was gone.
How long ago that all seemed. What would please her now? Clothes and jewellery she always got wrong. The only jewellery Samantha ever wore was a tiny silver cross, a christening gift from her grandmother. Some foreign art magazines, filled with glossy photographs of new work, were already tucked in her bag. On impulse she had also bought, from a stall in a backstreet market, a fat baby-faced buddha with a lopsided smile. She held the pendant in her hand, then touched the warmed green stone to her dry cheek. She had whisky in a duty-free bag for Ken. Arlene hadn’t sent her daily text to Samantha, but would be home tomorrow, have a proper catch-up. She hoped her early return would be a welcome surprise.
She tipped out the mess that was her suitcase and began folding, sorting, repacking. There in the bottom of the suitcase was her silk shirt. Calm and smooth, un-hassled and unworn. The cream folds were delicious to her fingertips.
* * *
Samantha’s friends had warned that there might be an expectation of sexual payback for her use of Rolf’s studio; but Sam knew she was just part of the general strategy to make it appear he was using the place, not ignoring the conditions of the grant. Rolf was strangely asexual, seeking out neither men nor women. He was focused on himself in a form of childish, unquestionable, egocentrism.
An art-school acquaintance, Rolf had the studio as part of an emerging-artist-in-residence programme, but hardly used it in winter, preferring to be at home, sketching as he lay under his doona, with a beanie and football socks layered on to keep out the cold. He went to the studio once a week, making sure he was noticed by the gardener, the volunteers, whoever was around to witness his occupancy. He phoned the administration to complain about the leak in the corner of his studio. He ordered pizza and gave inadequate directions, so the delivery boy had no choice but to knock on every studio door. Rolf could have been a public servant in another reincarnation. He had the arts bureaucracy eating marble chips out of his hand. He would emerge from his bedroom in the spring with a dozen or so carefully drafted charcoal drawings and convert them to large-scale canvases in a blaze of activity—there would be paint splashed energetically on the floor and sections of each painting worked on in a simultaneous frenzy of brushwork. The series that resulted would be thematically coherent and fully integrated into the philosophical bullshit he had been blogging onto his website all through the winter. He would need extra time in the studio to finish the collection—but when it was all over, the board would offer him a solo exhibition and free publicity. A mentoring role to next year’s new artists. Rolf knew exactly how to work the system.
Samantha unlocked the steel door of the borrowed studio, locked the door on the inside and pocketed the key. She threw down her bag and took off the baggy jacket she had been wearing all winter. Rolf had enough sense to keep an efficient heater in the studio. She turned it on, rubbed her hands together in the warm air expelled from the whirring fan. She began pacing around the canvas that her father knew nothing about. Unlike her usual work, it was figurative, detailed, and lightly washed in the hues of ancient stained glass. Six-foot by four, it was nothing she could keep secret at home.
She switched on the CD player, programmed to repeat Thais’ Meditation, and began work.
* * *
Samantha sees the park bench from the high arched windows of the studio but doesn’t focus on it. She sees shadows, the movement of light and the tracery of branches on the bare plaster wall. If she had looked, she might have seen the shape of a man, a man in a brown woollen coat, resting there a minute or two, before shuffling off, his feet silent on the soft, uneven ground.
She might have seen him, or she might not: the rich blue wash of the woman’s cape was almost right; the red gleam of her jewelled bodice pleased her at last.
Sparrows flew in, after the man had stepped away. Finding no crumbs, they didn’t linger.
At last, Samantha pulled off her boots and stood flexing her toes, surveying her progress. The painting would take another day, possibly two. Her forearms ached and her brain was dulled from concentration. The background was still to be finished. The figures were done, she thought, but could not be sure. She needed to rest, could not continue without a break. She gathered her brushes and turned off the CD player.
She stirred the warm dozy liquid with her index finger, creating a spiral in the sludge below. It was heavy, this water, heavy with detergent and pigment. She stirred and whirled her hand to create a whirlpool of the sluggish purple pond in the stainless steel trough. Cleaning brushes could take forever, and Rolf had left his soaking too, but she had no reason to go home.
Outside on the park bench, the man in the brown woollen coat had reappeared, but she didn’t notice him.
Sam thought about sleeping the night in the studio. There was a clean-enough sleeping roll in the corner of the room – another of Rolf’s gestures to his make-believe work ethic. There was a large can of vegetable soup on the paint-splattered ledge above the sink, a tin of crackers, and a microwave in the common kitchen area down the hall. Instant coffee, but no milk. A sleep, an early start at first light, and she might be finished tomorrow. She dried her hands, took the can of soup and padded to the kitchen, her green woollen socks catching on the splintered floor of the hallway.
She was reading the tiny microwave directions on the label when the man in the brown woollen coat grabbed her from behind.
* * *
It was her shadow-self who walked alone along the leaf-blown path to the weir, and contemplated the moss on the cobbled creek-bed. She climbed down and lay on the wet pebbles, allowing the brackish water to trickle into the dry folds of her clothes, her skin.
In the secret places of her body, another life slowly pulsed to silence. It took longer, but was just as quiet in the change from being to non-being. The little shadow rose in the wind and caressed her mother-shadow as they evaporated into the rising mist.
Dead. As dead as the empty cigarette lighter Rolf pulled out of the pocket of his brown woollen coat and tossed into the murky river. He walked purposefully up the bank to the studio. Time to stir up some paint.
* * *
She was dead, as dead as the wreath of flowers that had been delivered, fresh, to the house two weeks ago on the day of the funeral. Arlene had enjoyed the fragrance of the freesias, stooped to consider the pale lemon markings on the open throats of these spring flowers, white in their purity, audacious in their scent, temporary in their existence. And recoiled in sudden guilt at her enjoyment of the flowers, when her daughter, her sweet absent child, was now a pile of ash waiting to be collected from the crematorium.
Brown and withered the flowers fell, dropping pollen on the ebony table in the hall. The house was layered with a film of dust. There were used dishes, newspapers, clothes strewn in the most unlikely places. The housekeeper, superstitious and full of grief, had quit on the day of the funeral. She wouldn’t work in a house of death, Marie said, even with her heavy gold cross prominently displayed on her bosom. Had listened in on the phone call that revealed to Samantha’s parents that her murder had robbed them not only of their daughter, but their grandchild as well. That girl had always been up to no good, thought Marie.
Ken and Arlene’s mourning was unorderly and conspicuous. Neither of them had left the house. Visitors were turned away, email was unread. The phone was never answered, and the machine had reached the limit of stored messages. The door of their home studio, full of Samantha’s bold acrylics and mixed media constructions, had not been opened.
Rolf came, with a mate in a borrowed van. The six-by-four canvas was wrapped neatly in brown paper, sealed with masking tape. He shook Ken’s hand and clasped his shoulder, explained about the painting. Left it propped up in the hall beside the flower strewn table.
When Rolf was gone, Samantha’s parents tore at the wrapping like feral cats and stood, speechless, at the calm beauty of the revealed figures. A king and queen, in regal robes of medieval design, stood hand in bejewelled hand, gazing with mournful purpose from the flat surface of the canvas. This final painting was unlike anything their daughter had ever produced before. Richly coloured, translucent, lit from behind as if it were a stained-glass window. To see their own emerald and sapphire eyes, transmuted into these almond-shaped gems located in the elongated, Modigliani-shaped faces, that were nevertheless their own, was an assault on both their hearts and their minds.
It was if they saw each other through their daughter’s eyes. Through a mirror of her own invention, a kind of reverse Portrait of Dorian Grey.
Ken stepped across the tiled floor of the foyer where they still stood, and ran a shaking hand over the surface of the painting. It was as tall as he, and he had never stretched a canvas as large as this for his daughter’s use. Should he have? Should he have asked what she needed? Why did she hide this from them, why, oh WHY had she been in that damn borrowed studio at all?
He looked at the background more carefully, and felt with clumsy fingertips the rough patches of primer still showing through, could understand the parts Samantha had not finished. He knew how she would have stippled this stone colour around the figures and darkened the shadow below the angled sill, that was still merely etched out in pale charcoal. He knew that the gothic window panes would have been finished with a blaze of pure light. He knew that there would have been a final touch of high illumination on the chalice that gleamed aloft in the right hand of the queen.
He turned and saw his wife, and saw that she was every bit as majestic as the woman in the painting, although convulsed in silent tears.
* * *
At the gallery, the curator inspects a newly hung exhibition by the artist Rolf McKann, one-time friend of his lost daughter. How sympathetic Rolf had been after her death! With his boyfriend, he had visited Ken and Arlene and drawn them back into daily life. As they grew closer, it was only natural that Ken should help Rolf get established in his career. In one of the paintings, the cut-off view of a woman’s throat shows a small silver cross against the beautiful line of her collar-bone. Something buzzes in the curator’s head; he rubs his wrinkled temple. Walks away to find a coffee. He has given up whisky, has not replaced the bottle that once lived in his filing cabinet.
From the gallery café he observes the grey outline of the city against the rain-laden skies. Bracts of flowering eucalypt, like cheerleader pom-poms, wave at him as if signalling a message. The air currents strengthen and the city lights begin to come on. Arlene will be here soon. They have begun eating dinner together, companionably, in restaurants, prolonging the hours before they must go home. They will take a trip overseas soon, and both intend to take a long absence from work. A cottage in Kent has been offered them for the English summer, and they will gladly accept the change.
As they drive through the city, diagonal ripples of rainwater in the gutter, cross-hatched by the lines left by the concreter’s trowel, bother him with an irrational sense of déjà vu. Arlene drives, as she has done ever since Sam’s death. Ken should get his eyes checked for new glasses, but doesn’t want to know. Caught in a snarl of traffic, they sit in silence and wait for the outward lanes to clear. Ken turns the radio on and the tones of Thais’ Meditation fill the car. He struggles to focus on the cars beyond the rain-streaked windscreen. He observes that Arlene is moved by the music. The banked-up car brake-lights gleam red, staring back at him, like a host of devil eyes.
copyright Julie Anne Thorndyke 2015
In Good Company
by Julie Thorndyke
“We’ve been waiting for you,” says Christina. “Rather like goblins.” She smiles a gentle smile. Her hair, drawn back from the serious forehead, I recognise from her brother’s paintings; her calm welcome I accept without question; her gracious leading, I follow. I can’t quite conceive how she knows who I am—why she should be waiting to greet me.
Another woman appears at her side. “Here’s Elizabeth,” says Christina. “Your other welcomer.”
“Come to the poet’s room,” says Elizabeth. “Judith and Emily are waiting. Judith is particularly anxious to greet another Aussie.” This slang word slips rather strangely from the tongue of this Victorian lady.
“You are surprised,” she commented, “that I know the lingo. We don’t stagnate here, you know. We are all up-to-date; we know what’s been happening in the world. Robert is quite enamoured with rap. Although I must say, postmodernism does not appeal to us at all.”
“We are so looking forward to hearing your poems,” says Christina. “Your reading is scheduled for tomorrow.”
“…my…reading?” I gulp. Is this heaven or hell? I wonder.
“Yes, of course, all newcomers are scheduled to read their work, as soon as they are settled in. You must not deprive us of your words.”
“We won’t monopolise you, of course,” adds Elizabeth. “The novelists are waiting to meet you too.” She guides me to a book-lined room where a glowing fire radiates warmth and light. Chopin plays a waltz on a grand piano in the adjacent ballroom. Through the arched, open doorway, curtained with rich velvet and scarlet silk, I can see a group of people in various styles of dress listening attentively. A pair of dancers, feet clad in ballet slippers, dance on the elegant parquet floor. Chopin (Chopin!) lifts his eyes to me and graciously nods to acknowledge my presence. The dancers twirl and I feel faint.
Elizabeth guides me to a wing-backed chair near the fire. A bearded gent bows and offers me a down pillow for my back. (How does he know about my sciatica?) Although I must say that it is not painful at all today.
“Thanks, Will,” says Christina. To me she adds: “Such a gentleman, our Will Shakespeare. He has had such a calming influence on Sylvia.” A woman, dressed in apparel evidently from the nineteen-sixties, takes Shakespeare by the hand and leads him to the ballroom where they begin to waltz.
I close my eyes and wonder when I will wake.
A cup of fragrant tea is placed on a small table near my elbow. “This will help,” says an Australian voice. “It is normal to feel a bit disoriented at first.” I know this woman from her photograph. I turn and face Judith Wright full-on to say thank you.
“It’s alright,” Judith assures me. “I am not deaf here. You will find that all your aches and pains are gone. Some people still wear their glasses as an affectation, which of course is up to them. But I was only too happy to throw mine, and my hearing aids, out the window.”
She sits companionably on an ottoman in front of the fire. “Feeling better?” she asks.
“So I am really here…this is really it…I mean, we are in…?”
“In heaven?” she laughs. “Yes. Heaven for poets, writers, artists, readers…all in this precinct. The sportsmen have a different pavilion; the mathematicians and scientists too. There is a bit of heaven for everyone.”
I look around nervously. “And… where is He?”
“You were expecting a gilt throne and a voice of judgement?”
“He dwells with us as he has always done,” Judith replies. “In and amongst us. In our words and in our deeds.”
“Will I see him…?”
“You want to know if you will see God?” asks Judith. She points to the pen and paper I hadn’t seen before on the table beside me. “You will find him in the words he gives you. The artists paint him; the musicians play his melodies. He lives in every breath we take.”
Chopin finishes the waltz and a new music fills the room. A symphonic sound, something I have never heard before. I am entranced; I fall into a dreamlike state and am lifted, it would seem, high into the air and floated into a realm of golden light. I feel welcoming angels all around me, the presence of God in the ineffable holiness of the trance. I drift back to my chair, open my eyes again and smile at the gathered faces.
“You were blessed,” says Christina. She hands me the pen and paper. “We are longing to read the poem you will write.”
I take the pen, and words flow without effort, without strain.
I am in heaven.
Copyright Julie Anne Thorndyke 2015