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Authors: Zillah Bethell

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BOOK: Girl in Profile
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“Yes, of course, no problem. How is Maggie?”

“All right, I suppose. She's got no neck.”

“What?”

“There's something wrong with her neck now. And she's got a limp.”

“There are probably stretching exercises…”

“And don't forget Jamie's medication has to go in the fridge.”

“I remember.” Their eldest kid, Jamie, has got ADHD. They get given loads of money to send him on adventure holidays. He's been white-water rafting, abseiling and potholing, and he's still as mad as a rat. They even got money for a trampoline.

“If he does enough roly-polys,” the key worker said, “he's not going to stab his little brother in the eye, is he?”

“It's very kind of you,” Steven apparently replied, “but I'm not quite convinced of the logic of that.”

I put the phone down, hum a little tune, avoid Drew's evil eye. I'm not just in his bad books, I'm in his Salman Rushdie books, as my mother would say. How soon we become our mum and our dad. He's not even doing the hundred skips, press-ups and v-sits he does every night before bed to keep his body looking ripped, cut and buff. They sound like characters from a western, don't they: ripped, cut and buff. There's only one thing for it – I get up, walk over, let the towel drop just to remind him what he's got. (Women's work again.) Then I go into the kitchen, make more cheese and crackers, put the last dill pickle on top, present it on a plate like the head of John the Baptist.

“Yum.” Drew grins. Mr Stinks wags his tail. He's a passion for dill pickle, that dog.

It's all in the details, I'm telling you. The minutiae.

Elizabeth

Wishbones

Wendy's all sympathetic foliage. Sometimes I wish she was deciduous, I have to say.

“You did the right thing.” She pats the air above my arm. If our bones should meet they'd surely break. Two pinkies could pull our legs apart like wishbones. “He was, after all, starving himself to death. It's what Eleanor would have done.”

I bet. The meddling old witch.

“She always did the right thing, whatever the cost to herself, to others… They've been feeding him up on milk for premature babies, jelly beans, chicken broth, marrowbone.”

I groan. Where's my book?

“I barely recognised him, spilling out of his wheelchair he was. A little
piano
,
I suppose, as Eleanor would say. A little dishevelled. He said, ‘Do I dare eat a peach, Wendy. Do I dare eat a peach?' And I said, ‘Oh, do dare, Peter, do. It'll put roses in your cheeks.' His wife died of an eating disorder, apparently. All the good things he cooked for her she spewed back up in his face.”

The print is blurry.

“Nurse said he could go on for years, now that he's eating properly.”

Fucking cunt. It's all I am, all I ever have been. Please forgive me, Peter, if you can.

“Of course, one wonders how long one wants to go on for. Doesn't seem much point without Eleanor. All I have left of her is a few knick-knacks. Good of her to leave me anything really – after all, I'm not family. Just the dog's bowl, a fox print I once sent her.”

“I thought she was very rich.”

“Yes. Yes, she was.”

I can hear the tick-tock of a melancholy heart. Sad, faltering, slow. Satie floats through from the Blue Room, pages turning in a restless mind. What is life after all but the tick-tock of melancholy hearts, pages turning in a restless mind. Hurly-burly, wind driven. I need to be forgiven.

Gwen

The Narrative Gone Elsewhere

I wake to find L'Homme Femme stroking my arm, checking me for goosebumps so she says. I've dozed off in the middle of another interminable sitting for
Madonna in Repose
. Like the tramps from my childhood who fell asleep on top of lime kilns, sank, were asphyxiated, ashes by morning.

She takes a gulp from the glass of Pernod she normally cleans her brushes in, hides her hieroglyph eyes.

“I would, actually,” I tell her, “if Rodin wanted to watch. I've done it before.” And I have. A spectator joined in once when we collaborated on the floor.

Her eyes betray nothing as she scrabbles in her dressing-up box for a hat and scarf. It is snowing outside. “I'm taking you to Les Deux Magots. I can't paint you this thin.”

I yawn, get dressed, flaunting my modesty yet protecting it, gauche yet faux naïf, vulnerable yet omnipotent. Does she see what Rodin sees? All the ways in which a body aches against mortality. My belt is loose; I am too thin. My money goes on paints, canvases, outfits for Rodin to see me in, undress me in.

We step out into the snowflakes, each of them unique, each of them talented. And there are so many of them. I allow one to melt on the blue veins in my hand and think of my work, my painting, the empty canvases in my room. I run to escape the thought and L'Homme Femme lollops beside me in her purple velvet trousers, faithful as a dog.

Les Deux Magots is steaming with cocoa, aromatics and tobacco. I see him straightaway, in a corner of the room with a red-haired young woman. Henna or a wig. Sleek as a fox. The sort of woman I've tried to be for him. She places a finger on his lips as though delivering a kiss or stopping his speech. He's wearing a greatcoat, his hair and beard fizzily damp. He reminds me of Cadwallader, the giant from Tenby who strode silently through the town in oilskins, holding a shrimp net. All the little shrimps Rodin catches in his net.

“Cocoa and syllabub?” L'Homme Femme has to repeat it. I nod and cry – there is a snowflake in my eye. Pretending to look at the
jonque
, the second-hand goods on display. Books, pictures, old dolls, a musical box, a dandelion paperweight. Time suspended, interrupted, me in the shadows absent yet present. The ordinary girl. The invisible girl. Am I so absorbed into my surroundings that he doesn't even notice me?

Their profiles, giggling ivory cameos against the ochre-hued wall. The glass is smooth, heavy. It could hurt someone.

“There you are. Anything quaint?”

I point out the shrimp catcher and his trawl. “Imagine that wild gentian head between his knees. It'd probably come off the same time he does. Kiss me now, if you dare.”

She does, vehemently, spilling the tray of cocoa and syllabub. Rodin notices as I intended. Gets up.

“You are part illusion.” Her lidless eyes, the scalded arm accuse me.

“How's my starling?” The wet lapels of his coat, the thickening waist beneath, the hands that rub, smooth, caress new clay.

“Cold. Lonely. Miserable without you.”

He peers fixedly at me. His eyes are the colour of the veins in my hand. What does he see? The ordinary girl? Can he distinguish me from my surroundings, the second-hand goods on display?

“Do you remember this body? How you used to say it was like the sun breaking through the clouds?”

“I remember.”

“Promise then. Promise you'll visit soon.”

“I promise.” Hollow. Hollow as a tree where fairies dine, blow dandelion clocks. This paperweight could hurt someone if I let it. I imagine it splintering off his heavy skull, startling the henna-haired woman. Time released, recontinued.

I watch them all wave away. From now on I shall paint pale women in pale rooms, their hands left holding the dead weight of some object: a book, a letter, the body of a cat. The story told. The narrative gone elsewhere.

Elizabeth

Augustus Gloop

Time treads water in the Blue Room, nearly drowns. Light comes up, blinds go down, we endure. A talk on dog breeding with Daniel and his bitches, Debbie gets crafty with crochet, and cinematography of the early twentieth century by somebody from Gower.

“And what did you think of that?” Nurse Tinkerbell always asks, after ushering the visitors out; but most of us have lost consciousness by then and don't know where to find it again. Peter Pan stays away. I caught sight of him once in the corridor. He was fat as a buttery bollock. He looked like Augustus Gloop. I smiled, he turned, went back into his room. My heart descended a scale in A minor and when the G came it cut sharp. Surprisingly sharp. What is life, after all, but scales in contrary motion, one hand going up, the other going down?

Gwen

Drafts

First draft.

Mon Maître,

My heart stopped yesterday at two o'clock in Les Deux Magots. If you do not keep your promise you will be responsible for the death of this artist. If you are sincere when you say that I can produce great work it is your duty to the world to keep your promise. I have it on good authority from the horloger on Boulevard St. Germain that if a clock is stopped for more than twenty-four hours it will never keep true time again. It jolts, sticks, gets ahead or behind. It slowly begins to rust. A pendule must be kept well-oiled and in use to stay true.

Your starling.

Second draft.

Dear Rodin,

You say I am wild, childish, barely civilised. Would you draw me just this side of the fence, the way Augustus draws Dorelia? Or would you draw me outside the parameters of respectability, looking in? You say I take your energy, your teeth, your nails. Well, I can give them back to you. I keep them in a little box by the side of my bed. You say the winter fills you with chills and gloom. Come and see the sun breaking through the clouds as I undress. Come and hold spring in your arms.

Third draft.

Rilke says you lie down on the floor and listen to the gramophone with that woman. If you do not keep your promise I shall make a scene. I shall follow you to Notre Dame and I shall make a scene. Before God I shall make a scene. Edgar has just jumped in from the moonlight, left muddy pawprints on this letter to show his displeasure at you too.

Gwen John.

Moth

God

Drew tries to make love to me. I refuse for the first time in seven years of marriage. The guilt makes me angry.

“Fuck off and leave me alone. I'm exhausted. I'm thirty-two and I feel like forty-two and we haven't got any decent contraception. If I got pregnant now I'd have to consider a termination. And I don't want you coming off on the sheets either. Nothing dries in this weather.”

I get up, look at the night sky. The stars have vanished like God's run out of sparklers. What are we all but little animals in his great big black magician's hat, pretending to appear, pretending to disappear.

Elizabeth

Westerns

Dear Elizabeth,

Boy am I sore. I've taken up football in rec. I mostly play on the line doing the dirty work – blocking, rushing the passes, that sort of thing. The side to side movements have my ankles and knees sore as heck. You know I've got the heart of an eighteen-year-old, but my body tells me I'm forty. Think I'll ever learn? Ha ha. These young guys that think they're hot, the old man surprised them some. It's fun to try to prove them wrong.

My cellie Buckwheat got a stay of execution while they wait on a case in West Virginia. It sounds good at first, but they can take a stay and go on and execute you. A stay is not completely safe. But I'm happy for him. I fully expected him to go. He honestly said I can't see myself growing old here and living the rest of my life here. Maybe it'll be for the best. He has a dream where he has ninety candles on his cake and he wakes up just before he can blow them out. You'd love Buckwheat. He's a no-nonsense, very honest, speaks from the heart guy. We watch westerns together. He's the guy who gallops up to the corral in a cloud of dust. I'm the guy laid back on the grass with a hat over my face, maybe chewing on a stick of gum. Kind of lazy. Kind of indolent.

Cardinals are kicking butt. A seven-and-a-half game lead. They stay real consistent and that helps. Seems like they're coming together at the right time. Our pitching staff is getting healthy again as well. That, my friend, is where the games are won and lost. Cardinals are probably one of the better defensive teams going. Defending and pitching are the two main ingredients of a championship team.

I had some words with the prison chaplain the other day. He said Moses was a basket case too, and then he parted the Red Sea. Makes you wonder what he's got in mind for me. As a great catcher from the 1950s team of the New York Yankees, Yogi Berra, said, “It ain't over till it's over.”

I'm sending two pictures to you and you can keep them. These are my wonderful kids whom I love so much. I got them from Mary, my ex-wife. My daughter is wearing some make-up and a little lipstick – my baby's growing up!

God, I wish Minnie would visit.

Gwen

Preparing the Canvas

I prime canvases endlessly, try not to wait for you. Warm rabbit glue in a copper pan, add a little chalk, stir the mixture gently with a wooden spoon. Sometimes I let the liquid boil so that it fills with air bubbles that will leave little sinkholes in the linen. Apply to the canvas with a wide brush or cloth. Wipe clean. Repeat. Behold – a perfect canvas, an undulating skin ready to be coloured in.

BOOK: Girl in Profile
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