Mary found the letter at the bottom of the ‘dressing-up’ box, sticking out from the lining. The envelope was still drily stuck down but it seemed eager to open as she pulled it out. She knew she had no right to read it but she couldn’t resist.
Jimmy – I’m writing this for you to read after I’ve gone. It won’t be long now and I want to explain things. It doesn’t seem possible for us to talk about important things any more.
She heard the door creak and hurriedly buried the letter again. He came back into the studio with coffee and cake. They had been working for a couple of hours and both needed a break from the concentration of looking and of sitting. Today it was the painting in the red dress, and she always began to ache from perching on the arm of the chair. She hoped he would move on to another pose soon, one of the easier ones.
She had been sitting for him once or twice a week for months now, in different clothes and positions, but she hadn’t been allowed to see any of the results. None of the paintings ever seemed to be finished. He just went from one to another and back again, never satisfied. The more he painted the more frustrated he got.
It was an unlikely job, but she had been pleased to find something that could be fitted into school hours, and around the other bits and pieces of work she used to make ends meet. She liked the atmosphere of the studio, its quiet north light, the smell of turps and linseed. It felt like a world away from the city, and her otherwise hectic life. Sometimes she would take her daughter to the studio too. There were a couple of paintings that included both of them, and Jamie had let seven-year-old Ginnie do and wear whatever she wanted instead of imposing anything, as he did for Mary. When Ginnie was there things were more relaxed, and Jamie became a bit more forthcoming, more present.
Jamie often seemed angry or unhappy when he was painting, but Mary wasn’t concerned. More amused, if anything – it reminded her of her own childhood tantrums of frustration. But he kept it all tightly contained, only the occasional oily rag flung to the ground with a grunt or a muttered curse, and she knew it had nothing to do with her. In fact, she sometimes wondered whether he really needed a model at all, caught up as he seemed to be in a wholly private battle with paint, light, perspective. One of Mary’s friends had asked, when she described the set-up, how do you know he’s any good? He might just be a weirdo. But Mary said, ‘Because of this,’ and showed her friend the one piece of Jamie’s work she had been allowed to see, indeed, allowed to have. It was a quick pencil sketch of Ginnie sprawled on a sofa in her school uniform, a fluid fleeting line with moments of precision – her bony wrist and soft curve of cheek through hair. It was exquisite, as a drawing and as an image of her beloved daughter. For that drawing alone, Mary would have put up with much more eccentricity.
After so many hours in the same room, Mary thought it strange that she knew so little about Jamie. He rarely spoke about anything personal, and there were few clues to the rest of his life in the studio. As time passed she was growing more and more curious. Hours of sitting still gave her imagination plenty of scope. The temptation to pry when she had a chance had finally overcome her sense of good manners when she spotted the letter, and its opening line only added to her curiosity.
She began to speculate about the writer – a woman, she thought, from the handwriting, and obviously someone close to him. Perhaps there was a sad love story there, with a tragic illness and early death? Or an acrimonious divorce? Though she found it hard to imagine Jamie in either scenario, he seemed so self-contained. She began to plan for the next opportunity to look at the letter, or even to ‘borrow’ it so that she could read it in peace.
Do you remember when we were 19? You were so full of enthusiasm and talent. You were going to be the next Lucian Freud. You used to draw everything, all the time. Except me – you said you wouldn’t do that until you got better at it, until you could do it well enough. But you never did, did you? You stopped painting and started assembling, and ‘engaging in a hermeneutical interpretation of the life-world’! No more portraits, thanks to that bloody man from Cork St.
The other thing that Mary was deeply curious about was the paintings of course, but Jamie had been absolute about that. If she looked, she wouldn’t be modelling for him anymore. So when Ginnie dragged her to an internet café she decided to do a bit of cyber-stalking. Google images came up with a few examples of Jamie’s work but it gave her no inkling of what his paintings would be like. The images were all several years old and seemed to Mary to be the kind of thing that provoked ‘But is it art?’ conversations and scornful exclamations – ‘a child of three could do that!’: a cardboard box disassembled and pinned to a wall, a scattering of polystyrene packaging, not a drop of paint in sight. So she searched again, looking for text this time. Various reviews came up, talking about an exciting new artist who was pushing the boundaries with his ‘conceptual but concrete’ work. These too were old – nothing more recent than seven years ago. So Mary added that date to her search and found an obituary. It spoke of Fay, the dedicated wife and ‘muse’ of Jamie Clifton, the celebrated young British artist. She and Jamie had been together since they met as students and he was quoted as saying, ‘without her I could not have achieved anything – she was my inspiration, my best friend and my best critic. I don’t know how I’ll go on without her.’ I was right, thought Mary, tragic illness; she must have written that letter when she was dying. But as she read on, it became clear this was not the case. Jamie’s wife had died suddenly in a car accident, a major pile up in fog on the M1, which had involved several fatalities. Another article, more salacious than the first, included the tragic fact that Fay Clifton had been carrying their first child, combining this invasion of privacy with an inappropriately smiling and sexy photo of Fay, wearing a red dress, a dress that Mary suddenly recognised, the red dress. Their hour of internet time ran out, leaving Mary even more determined to get another look at that letter.
I think you stopped looking at things clearly when you stopped drawing. I know you stopped looking at me. You were so wound up in trying to be the creative genius at the cutting edge. I know you weren’t really happy, so insecure. It took all your effort to believe your own press releases. I should have tried to bring you down to earth, I know. I’m sorry, but you were so driven and you so needed to be told it was all true. I couldn’t bring myself to burst the bubble. And the money! I was as weak as you were when it came to the money.
A few days after her internet session, Mary’s curiosity was unexpectedly rewarded with a chance to look at the work in progress. There had been a knock at the door downstairs. Jamie would usually ignore visitors when he was painting, but this time he didn’t; expecting someone special, she thought. ‘Paint delivery,’ he said as he hurried to the stairs, wiping his painty hands with a rag, not taking time to pull across the cloth he always used to shield his work from dust and eyes. Not special then, just necessary. But whoever it was seemed to have a lot to say for a delivery man. She could hear Jamie being encouraged out into the street, so she walked cautiously across the room to look out of the window. There was an animated exchange taking place, with many arm gestures and much pointing at Jamie’s car. ‘It’ll be insurance details at dawn then,’ she thought, with a small smile. As she turned away from the window she was dazzled by the splash of vivid reds on the canvas – the dress, in all its velvet luxury. But lifting her dark eyes to the face of the figure, she was unnerved to find an expanse of tortured paint, hardly recognisable as a face, except for two crudely outlined pale blue eyes.
Feeling surprisingly shaken, she quickly resumed her pose, and tried to show no sign that she had moved when Jamie reappeared. He was distracted by the encounter in the street, and barely acknowledged Mary’s enquiring look. ‘Nothing important. Let’s get back to work.’
Well, my dear, you know where this is going by now. I’ve had enough. I’m leaving. You’ve gone too far away from where we started. I don’t think we’ll ever get back. You stopped seeing me as me a long time ago. You’ve turned me into your official muse, the selfless angelic helpmeet in your artist’s biography. Well that’s not a role I ever wanted, thanks.
After that quick look at the red dress painting, Mary was less eager to see the rest. But as Jamie worked she watched him more carefully and realised that he never really looked at her face as intently as at the clothes and the chair she sat in. He’s not painting me at all. He’s making it up.
Mary now began to find her sittings more burdensome. Before she had been happy to accept his rules and his silence. It had been an undemanding experience, with little of the potential discomfort and awkwardnesses of life classes, for which she had modelled from time to time. But now she could not stop wondering what he was looking at, or for, when he painted her. I’m going to have to quit, she thought, but she needed a good reason. It didn’t occur to her that, according to their agreement, all she had to do was confess to having looked at the painting. The idea of making that confession never crossed her mind, because what she had seen had felt like an invasion of something much too private. She tried to hint that she might need to be away for a while, and offered to find another model as replacement. But his negative response was surprisingly vehement. ‘No, please – you’re perfect. Just don’t be away for too long. Please,’ and he looked her in the eye, for the first time, she thought.
So she kept on going, kept on wearing the clothes of a dead woman, watching him trying to recreate something which he could never quite grasp. If this is art therapy, she thought, I don’t think it’s working. Something seemed to have changed though, after that plea for her to stay. They began to spend more time talking over coffee breaks, just desultory conversations mostly, about the weather or the latest tube strike, but they made each other laugh a little from time to time, and Mary’s misgivings receded. She hadn’t tried again to read the rest of the letter, and she made sure she didn’t catch even a glimpse of any of the paintings.
And yes, I’ve met someone else. You saw him at the last exhibition. He’s a sort of artist too, an art teacher, at least. I guess I’m consistent. You’d like him, I think, if you gave him a chance.
One day, arriving as usual at half past nine, she rang the bell to no avail. She walked across the street to look up at the studio windows, but she couldn’t make out any sign of life. She rang the bell again and knocked loudly. No reaction. So she tore out a page from her diary and wrote a quick note. ‘I was here. Where were you? Hope everything’s ok. See you tomorrow? Call if not.’ Pushing it through the letter box, she knocked one more time, then headed for the bus stop.
The next day she went back, and this time he let her in. ‘Sorry about yesterday. Something … came up … Listen, we need to talk. Do you want a coffee?’
‘Sure … what is it?’
‘I’m sorry, but I’m not going to need a model anymore.’
‘Have you finished the pictures then? I didn’t realise.’ She looked around the studio as if expecting to see them complete.
‘No… I just realised that they were a mistake. Pointless. I’ve got rid of them.’
‘What? All that work? What do you mean “got rid of”?’
‘I took them to the tip,’ he said, half angry, half embarrassed.
‘Nothing to do with you, is it?’ He seemed angry with her now, but she wasn’t willing to let it go.
‘I’ve sat here for months while you made those paintings, did everything you asked. They were partly mine, and Ginnie’s! I reckon it is to do with me. What was it all about? How can you call all that time and effort pointless?’
‘Ok, if you really want to know, I was being a complete fool. Do you know what I was trying to do? I was trying to get Fay back, Fay and the baby who died inside her in that car. What an idiot! And I thought I was getting back to reality…’ He shook his head angrily.
‘Back to reality?’
Jamie looked at Mary tiredly. ‘Do you really care?’
‘Yes – get off your high horse and explain yourself, boy.’ She smiled at him, at her own motherly tone, and he smiled back faintly, his angst deflating a little.
‘When Fay died, all the razzmatazz of the gallery and the agents and the other arseholes suddenly came clear as shit and I remembered what it had been like before. So I tried to get back to the beginning and remember her, us, and remember how to paint. She was dead but she could still be my “inspiration”, like she always had been. How pathetic is that! No wonder the paintings were all crap.’
‘I don’t think it’s pathetic. Everyone wants to keep their loved ones alive if they can, however they can. You tried harder and for longer than most, that’s all.’
‘But I was making it all up. Don’t you see?’ And only then did Mary see the letter from the clothes box lying on the floor. She looked at Jamie, looking at the letter, and lied.
‘What is it?’ ‘It’s a letter she wrote me a few days before she died. I found it yesterday. You can read it if you want. Then you’ll understand how much of a self-deluding fool I’ve been.’
And I’ve got to go now Jimmy. Because we’re having a baby, me and Will, and I need to sort my life out before it arrives. I’m sorry. I hope you get what you want, whatever that turns out to be.
Mary put down the letter gently. ‘Oh… I’m sorry. This really is nothing to do with me… I’ll go then, shall I?’
‘There’s no reason for you to stay is there? Thanks for everything.’
‘What will you do now?’
‘I don’t know… see what happens. Maybe go away somewhere for a bit. I’m not making any definite decisions for a while – I don’t seem to be very good at that.’
‘Well – keep in touch …’
For the next few months Mary didn’t hear anything from Jamie. She passed his studio occasionally but the blinds were always drawn. Jamie did go away. He travelled randomly for a while and ended up in a chilly cottage in Scotland in November.
One morning he woke up to find the world had disappeared under snow in the night, more pure and clean than he could remember since he was a boy. He opened the cottage door and stepped on to the path, holding his hand out into the still falling snow. He watched a snowflake settle in his palm, and slowly melt. Rubbing his cold hands over his face, he looked up into the grey-white sky and felt more snow landing on his flickering eyelashes. It was real and cold and present, and glorious.
When he returned to the city in the spring he had filled sketchbooks with finely observed drawings, of pine cones, of sheep, of the window of the cottage, anything and everything, seen as clearly as he was capable of seeing them.
Mary’s phone rang one day in April. ‘Can you come and sit for me? Wear whatever you like.’
Copyright © 2014 Fliss Watts