I always return to her. There were times, of course, when it was not possible. She disappeared during a few brief months of marriage, then came back to me towards the end, as if to something illicit. Then, as before, I had no access to her thoughts, but could see each passing mood like the transient shadow of a cloud. Sometimes a tear would trace the curve of her cheek, but once committed to a pose she would never abandon it, and the tear remained for me to capture. I would echo its path with the very tip of my brush – yellow, crimson, blue, ash grey – as it caught the pale winter light.
It was at this time that tiny symmetrical cuts appeared across the inside of her thigh – she made no attempt to hide them – and for a while the skin of her face grew taut across her cheekbones. I suggested, as though the thought was casual, that I could increase her rate, but she refused. After all, we had agreed a contract.
We met in my final year at art school. I was the only mature student in my cohort, and rather apart from the rest. By then I had learned not to be intimidated by the youthful talents around me, or daunted by their head start. A decade spent in the city had nearly broken my spirit, but at least let me save enough money to live modestly while I looked for some other footing in the world. I turned to painting in the hope of becoming whole again.
The life class, held every Thursday afternoon, was a thing of contrasts: intimate but clinical, focused and yet, with repetition, casual. We sat in a broad semi-circle, our gazes converging on the model like beams forming a hologram, while our tutor, a gentle sculptress, moved silently behind us then whispered her suggestions.
We were a diverse group. Overt careerists, stylised and driven, strugglers who had stayed the course but would never become artists, and the odd one or two who could already render soul onto canvas. We all, evidently, cradled some internal idea of success.
The models sat or lay before us, like the human condition. Pensioners cramping up, muscles flickering. Acned youths with uncontrollable erections. Girls from the local ballet school, flexible and muscled, at ease in even the most demanding pose. The bold, the modest, the sad, the defiant. These were our subject matter.
She came at the end of the year, when we were preparing our final portfolios. She was young then, barely older I guessed than my classmates. And yet she was nothing like them. They gave no sign that they thought her any different, and perhaps to them she wasn’t. But her way of placing herself before us, her detachment, the sense she gave of occupying space and no more than that, immediately held me. It was like painting an object superimposed on a tableau, except that the object breathed, had interiority, but chose to be merely visible.
‘Will you sit for me privately?’ I asked, when she emerged from behind the dressing screen at the end of the class.
She looked at me for a moment. ‘Tuesday evening is the only time I’m free.’ she said eventually. ‘I can do six-thirty to seven-thirty, same rate as I get here.’
I gave her my card. She glanced at it then said, ‘I can come next week if you want.’
‘Please,’ I said. ‘I’d be grateful.’
My flat was small, top floor of a city tenement. What would otherwise be the living room became my studio, lit during the day by the industrial skyline through ill-fitting French windows which opened onto a tiny balcony. I slept in a box room just off the front door, and, when not painting, washing or cooking, spent the rest of my time in a white-walled annexe with only a sofa, laptop and bookcase. Such was my life. All else I’d left behind.
She arrived wearing a cream raincoat above a thick Aran sweater. I could feel the winter air from her as she passed me in the narrow hall.
‘It’s through there,’ I said gesturing, and followed her into the studio, thinking that she was much smaller than I remembered, tiny, neat, and, in fact, plain.
‘Will this be warm enough for you?’ I asked. ‘I can turn up the heating.’
‘It’s fine,’ she said, and I noticed a faint dew of sweat on the skin of her throat.
‘Let me pay you before we start,’ I said, realising that my palms were also damp as I reached for my wallet.
‘No need,’ she said, ‘we can do it at the end. Where do you want me?’
She was businesslike. I found that helpful. ‘In this chair please, just sit how you wish. I’ll leave you to change.’
When I returned she had arranged herself side-on, one leg outstretched, the other lifted over the chair’s arm. Her clothes were folded neatly on the table. I could smell her deodorant.
‘Is this okay?’ she asked.
‘It’s perfect,’ I said. ‘Could you hold it for twenty minutes?’
‘As long as you like,’ she said. She tilted her head slightly and rested her gaze at a point on the wall opposite. Immediately I had a sense of her withdrawing into the immediate perimeter of her body. She was present but utterly contained. There for me to paint.
But instead I sketched. It seemed to make sense. All she offered that evening was her outline, close and vivid, so I set myself to learn it: its shape, its shades, its promise of depth and density.
And so it began. Sometimes she came each week, sometimes each month, sometimes after an indefinite break that I would inevitably end with a phone call.
We are always becoming something else. Everything, ultimately, is transitory. You realise this if you look intently at an individual human form over a period of time. The body changes, and with it the life it carries. Things appear and then are gone. But I learnt that something glimpsed need be no less real for its brevity. Each canvas, I felt, held its own truth. I watched as her figure slowly grew fuller, the belly more convex, the nipples widening, their surface becoming minutely more coarse: a girl maturing through her own particular stages of womanhood.
Gradually, too, her feelings unlocked before me, like gifts for me to depict. She was always still, always impassive, and yet I came to know things that somehow, over time, she ceased to conceal.
There was disappointment. I read it on the map of her brow when she tied her hair back to show her high, pale forehead. It showed in her breathing too; more shallow, infinitesimally less trusting of life.
By the time the cuts appeared, she had taken to viewing my progress at the end of each session. I had recorded them: small and carefully aligned; my painting a document and I her witness. She stood, as if considering, for a while. No others followed. I noted that she never passed comment, other than the occasional almost involuntary nodding of her head. And then one day this changed.
‘You’re beginning to recognise me,’ she said, as I held the door for her to leave.
I was astonished. And gratified. Perhaps I had seen something that was mine alone to see. By now quite a few people had looked at her image on canvas, but no painting is a person, after all.
At this point my work was selling steadily. The portraits of her usually went quickly. Art, I’ve come to feel, can be a mechanism for vindicating dreams, for making hope tangible. Perhaps my buyers felt this too, and hoped for the same things that I did.
‘Is she your lover?’ I was sometimes asked by a client or a gallery owner.
I would always laugh and shake my head. Then one day I heard myself say, ‘No, but perhaps I’m hers.’ This was not so implausible. Surely I knew her better than any lover could? And yet in my mind was an image of railway lines tapering to the distance: always promising to converge, never converging.
Then, perhaps eight years from our first meeting, she disappeared. When I called there was no reply, not even voicemail. I knew her so well and yet not at all. Between us was nothing more than an ad hoc verbal contract: date, time, duration, fee. Beyond that she was not mine to seek or trace.
There had been spaces before, of course, but never a sudden void. I knew of her marriage, and of its end. I knew that sometimes she was just going away. But also that she would be back. Not now.
For a while I painted her memory, and then other things. In dreams she often sat or lay before me, her image never constant, always elusive. I could only look on, as if looking would keep her before me. I hoped, because I was afraid not to.
And then at last she called. I lifted the phone, and for a moment it was hard to realise I was actually speaking to her. There was no explanation, and no acknowledgement that time had passed.
‘I can come if you want me to,’ she said simply.
‘Why ever would I not?’ I said. ‘Come tomorrow, come any time.’
‘Six thirty then,’ she said, and I was left holding the phone, like a residue, in my shaking hand.
She arrived, bringing the past with her, but also something new. The lustre had gone from her hair, and her coat hung differently across her shoulders. But neither of us had ever commented on her appearance, unless brush strokes are comments, and so I kept silent. I followed her to the studio – nothing there had changed in her absence – and then left her to prepare herself.
When I returned she was sitting facing my easel directly, but her eyes were cast down. Her pose, if something so uncontrived could be called a pose, might have been that of someone waiting for a bus or a train. She was thinner than I remembered, the musculature of her legs diminished, and the skin of her chest lay flat across one side, a neat fading scar running from her sternum to her armpit.
I began to paint. Once again she was before me, and once again I absorbed myself in her image, as if resuming a story.
I no longer felt her distance. Perhaps she had been robbed of it. It was as if the five or six feet between us contained different air, less dense, less separative, like the moment when a marriage becomes just two people together. She sat very still, and I felt that I was looking at all the moments of her life, condensed, made actual in that immediate space and time.
When the hour had passed, as ever I thanked her and left her to dress. I hesitated longer than usual before returning, and found her standing at the easel. She had not put on her coat. I came to stand beside her, and we looked together silently at the drying canvas. Eventually, at some indeterminate point, I felt the warmth of her shoulder against my arm, like something entirely new, that begins again.
About The Author
Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story Breath, first published in Fictive Dream, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story The Homing Instinct, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, is available from Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook.