What would you do if some spotty stranger stuck their nose in your face? Would you politely cough and move away? Maybe glare at the lack of manners? Give them a shove?
Violetta had devised all these methods and more to deter the gawpers: professors with their round glasses and scratchy writing, bored schoolgirls with skirts that would make a nun blush, a housekeeper who tutted as she bustled. But Violetta could no more fulfil her angry wishes than she could skydive from Westminster Abbey. She was stuck – suspended against a background of green wispy reeds and water with more ripples than creased clothing. She sat, glum, fixed expression painted on her face.
Violetta wasn’t quite sure when she had arrived. There was nothing, a blank canvas... and then she appeared. She remembered a hand stroking her nose, shading it a dainty pink. First she was a sketch, then a defined outline, which became a solitary figure, before finally appearing as ‘Woman by the lake’. Couldn’t her creator at least have come up with a better title? She knew he worked in brushstrokes, rather than words, but it smacked of indifference.
This maker was still a mystery. Many had arrived to scrutinise the black scribble at the edge of the frame, blemishing her yellow, ruffled skirt, and failed to pinpoint him. She had been tested, analysed and evaluated. Essays had been written on her strange beauty, and critical articles published in riposte. If only these arts writers had bothered to ask, then Violetta would have happily told them her name and story – before ripping apart their waffling theories. She was not a “distressed fiancée, who watches the turbulent waters, representing her inner turmoil as she waits for a loved one” and nor did the “muted shades of her dress suggest a retiring sensibility and demure nature”.
Her juddering train of thought was ambushed by a movement. Approaching from the door was a bent figure, hand clenching a polished walking stick. The clicks and taps as it moved reminded her of Morse code. She could see now that it was a man heading straight towards her. He stopped and leaned closer, sucking his teeth. His upturned features were an ordnance survey map; his forehead a field and his eyes two drying ponds. Contour lines stretched out in arcs across his skin.
She knew those crumpled landmarks. Those eyes had studied her with interest, looking feverish with excitement or tense with frustration. What’s more, she was acquainted with the now wrinkled (but still stained) hand reaching out.
“Hello old girl”.
It was him alright – the cheek of it. The prodigal artist returning after all these years, only to wipe his smudged fingertips all over the clouds above her head, and smile at his work. No apologies for painting her in such an uncomfortable position that she had suffered a bad back for the last six decades. No offers of commiseration at the levels of boredom involved in being the star attraction of a drafty hall. He hadn’t even given her a shawl to ward off the chills.
As his fingers traced the line of her arm, Violetta made a snap judgement. She seized the thin wrist, dragging the surprised pensioner swiftly into the painted scenery. She felt a rush of air as she toppled backwards, and down onto a hard wooden surface. She looked up to see a canvas – her canvas – hanging on a cream wall. In one corner, a very startled looking gentleman stared in puzzlement at the floral parasol he was bearing.
Leaving him trapped like a bug on a windscreen, she sauntered off. The late afternoon threw soft squares of light through the windows. Violetta stepped out into the garden.
Spread below was a tapestry: two satin lakes, surrounded by shorn velvet fields and a grey-blue linen sky. The scene was pinned together with trees. Breathless with excitement, she made her way towards the water. Every few yards Violetta would halt to pluck up flowers, making a bouquet. Her nose twitched in delight, and the petals felt soft in comparison with their scratchy painted counterparts.
Revelling in the feel of grass under her feet, she arrived at a small jetty. From here she could turn back and study the vast building she had left.
Violetta leaned over the edge of the planks, and stretched out her hand. Her touch broke the surface – making the water hiccup. It was cold and sloppy – unlike anything she had imagined. She tried to hold the liquid, but it melted through the cracks in her fingers.It would be so easy to walk away. She could leave the artist where he was – dangling in his own creation, puzzling visitors. She could rip off her ruffled dress (which was already splitting along the seams – not used to movement) and let it float across the lake in its fading decadence. She could offer her sash to the wind, and pull out her jewelled headpiece to give to a passing magpie. She could run.
Impossible. Violetta sat back, stroking the flowers, her fizzing thoughts subsiding. She recognised her surroundings – they had been her background for years. But what lay beyond the edges of the frame? Noise and busy lives? Or empty space?
No, easier to stay in this moment – with the scent of honeysuckle and the sound of swans. She idly picked apart her bouquet, ripping out stamens and peeling stalks in half. She busied herself with un-doing the flowers until she was left with a multicoloured mound.
Her slender frame rose; she arched her neck to see the birds darting like paper cut-outs. She flung her arms wide. A small storm of petals were let loose, the purples, pinks and yellows briefly in flight, before they were blown back towards her. They settled on her dress, on the lake. Confetti, caught in a split-second snapshot.
The sun slid towards the end of the lake. She stretched. She would enjoy the walk back, the early evening breeze, the call of roosting birds. She would slide in through the French doors, across the smooth floor. She might even have to find a chair to climb back in, and let the old man go, but she would take her time...
The next morning, the cleaner looked in bewilderment at the petals scattered in front of “woman by the lake”. Though even more odd was the painted lady – surely she had been seated before?
This is dashed - as I am writing this before heading out the door for holiday (although I should be in Spain by the time you read this!). Thanks again to my wonderful friend Ellen for assuming another persona - this time in a vintage dress from a market stall, and a sash from my dressing up box - so that I could take photos of her to accompany another photo essay.
I was overwhelmed by the thoughtful and funny responses I had to my 'Style Yourself' giveaway. I was so impressed that I would like to incorporate some of the best answers into a future post, so that everyone else can read them. However, there is only one book on offer. I used random.org to decide the winner (adding in the emails as numbers at the end), and can happily say that Catherine will be getting a package from publisher Weldon Owen soon! Please could you email me your address?