LANDING ON ALL FOURS
In time’s past, painting was what you always turned to: to relax, to create, to express. Putting pencil to paper, or brush on canvas, it helped you breathe easier, take stock, absorb your surroundings.
Now, years later, the paintbrush returns to your hand. It feels so natural, you don’t know exactly why you stopped, though you clearly remember the time – a point somewhere between real life beginning and dreams ending.
Your thumb and index finger pinch the brush at the furthest point, which allows you to flick the tip delicately onto the canvas. You stand back to examine the effect of the olive, mauve, and mustard tones, now flecked with black. The scent of the acrylics that rise up to you from the palette seems alien, yet achingly familiar.
That’s what people always said about you: that whatever happens – and you’ve had more than your fair share of mishaps – you consistently land on all fours. And I suppose, in the past, you did. At least, you appeared to. On the many occasions the world betrayed you, when it unexpectedly split into a vast black sinkhole, somehow you never perished. Down, down, you plummeted, through the twists and turns of what some call life, like a cat flipping in the air, fighting against gravity, until you landed, gasping, unsteady, shaken but upright, in the light.
That’s on the surface though, that’s what people see, but what’s going on inside? They don’t know what’s happening there. The compound damage of years of shock; the intricate web of hairline fractures; body and organs putrefied; bones splintering from continual impact; the gradual disintegration of personality, of heart, of soul. They don’t realise you’ve crumbled, and as your body weakens, unable to support itself, you start to eat away at yourself – for sustenance, for strength – until there’s nothing left but a hull in the shape of you.
They also don’t see that, though you’re back in the light – it’s not the same light. You’ve lost time: it’s later now, the sun is lower, and your empty body is bathed in shadows that claw in from all around.
So why don’t you just tell them how you’re feeling? Explain you’re not coping? Because it’s not that simple. You’ve been brought up not to complain, to keep it all in, to smile. You’ve learned how to tell everyone only what they need to know, so when, inevitably, everything collapses, inside and out, they struggle to believe you’re the same person they knew all along. ‘But you were always so strong.’ (That particular one makes you smile. Though like your bones, your smile is brittle and could easily shatter).
When they ask why you didn’t come to them, why you didn’t ask for help, you shrug as if you don’t know the answer, but you do. You know exactly why. You resent them. You resent them because, even if you did tell them, they’d never understand. How could they? How can anyone? So busy living in pristine houses, driving expensive cars, and pandering over beautiful children. The Victorias and Charles’ and Patricias and Toms. All of them swigging champagne, bleating about ballet, competing over who has the most or richest friends, whilst they vault at top-speed up career-ladders. Misfortune never touches them, saving itself only for people like you.
So eventually, the ‘resilient’ you finds yourself here, in an art class for people with ‘issues’. There are others in the room – maybe eight or more, all in various states of recovery – but you pay them no heed, and they offer the same favour in return. Each person is focusing their attention on the display in the centre of the room – a large aspidistra on a table, coupled with a book and a guitar. Apart from you. As usual, you’re doing your own thing.
You’re allowed to take part in the class because they say you’ve been co-operative, and you admit, being there makes you feel better somehow. It’s partly the brush in your hand, the chemical smell of paint, but there’s also something about the room that reminds you of how you used to be. It’s infused with the scent of honeysuckle and freshly cut grass. The sunlight that dapples the walls and floor originates from the open French doors that let in, not only the warmth of the summer’s day, but the music of the birds, and the restless rustling of the oak trees. These sounds are punctuated by an occasional cleared throat, light footsteps, or a chair grating softly on the wooden floor. Ordinary sounds, which for you, are soothing interruptions.
‘Oh – you’re doing a self-portrait, Sandy.’
The male voice materialises behind you. It’s John, the art therapist. You mash the brush tip onto the middle of the palette and twist it round, and round.
‘Well spotted,’ you say.
‘You’re very good.’ He examines the picture. ‘The shadows are a real challenge, but you’ve got them just right.’
‘I’ve got lots of experience.’
‘You’ve painted before?’
You weren’t talking about the art, but you let it go; ignoring him instead. You expected him to miss the point. The brush continues to circle, the coarse hairs becoming increasingly mangled, clogged with paint. The various colours, swirling together at the central point of the palette, begin to merge into a thick, brown sludge.
You don’t know what it is that sets you on edge. It’s something about his linen shirt, you think. There’s not a mark on it. As an art teacher, you’d expect it to be stained in some way; tired, threadbare, old; but no, it’s white and crisp and clean.
He observes the cyclical churning of your brush but says nothing, and after a moment he steps away. You take a look at the chaos on your palette. You stand and you stare for a few seconds, before tears prick at the inner corners of your eyes. Your lower lip trembles. The bristles are crushed into a paint-saturated mess. You want to continue to paint, but you can’t. You’re frozen, unable to ask for another brush, and you don’t know what else to do.
‘You’ve got the light and shade just right, but you really do need a fresh photo of yourself to work from.’ You didn’t hear him return. ‘You’ve gained weight since you first came in. So much healthier.’ His voice sounds gentle, but you continue to look at your brush, at your fingers which hold it, bony and frail, replicas of other hands in the room.
‘You’re doing really well, Sandy.’
He stretches forward, holding a fresh brush. You see his hand: solidly-built with thick fingers, square nails, and peppered with fine blond hairs. A strong hand, a capable hand – clean, smooth, unblemished. As he leans towards the table-top beside you, the cuff of his shirt shifts, revealing the wrist and underbelly of his lower forearm. Beneath the linen, a series of faded scars appear, in varying shades of red and pink, crisscrossing the pale fragility of his skin. The brush makes a gentle wooden clack as he sets it down.
‘Thank you.’ Your voice is a ghost, fading in the air, as he walks away.
After a moment, you swap the brushes, dispense more paint, and with deft movements, begin to daub iridescent white and lemon highlights onto the picture of yourself.