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Authors: Maria Blanca Alonso

Tags: #coming of age, #bohemian, #art school, #lesbian 1st time, #college days

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BOOK: The Art School Dance
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Yes
please, love,’ she answered, and Gran smiled again with a smugness
that annoyed me.

Stephen
brought the tea things through and played ‘mother’, filling the
cups and handing them around with an irksome dignity.


Lovely,
just like a cup of tea should be,’ said Gran, slurping at the cup,
her lips puckering as they sucked at the rim, and Stephen smiled
proudly, as if it was important that he should impress my
family.

Stephen had
learned a lot about impressing people since he started work. He was
polite, he spoke as they did about inconsequential things, idle
gossip and tittle-tattle. I switched on the television, though
there was nothing of interest showing, and waited for them to
finish their chat.


Shouldn’t you be getting off now?’ I said to Stephen, when
I thought the conversation was dragging on for too long. ‘It’s
getting late.’

He looked at
his watch. ‘Yes, I suppose I ought to be going. Do you want to
stroll part of the way with me?’

I got his coat
from the hall, and to my annoyance even this afforded a subject for
further conversation; it was admired, its material fingered, he was
asked where he bought it and heads nodded approvingly when he
answered, acknowledging that Stephen was going up in the world.
Donning my own jacket soon put an end to all that, for I wore the
leather one with my name on the back.


You’re
not going to shame Stephen by wearing that, are you?’ said
Gran.


I don’t
mind,’ said Stephen.


It’s
dark, no one’s going to notice,’ I told Gran.


But why
‘da Vinci’? Are you ashamed of your father’s name, is that it?
Going to change it by deed poll, are you?’

It did
sound like some kind of arrogant self-recommendation, I had to
concede, in the same way that my signature –‘V.Fair’, never
Virginia Fair- looked like a teacher’s report whenever I put it to
a piece of paper, but there was no point in starting an argument,
Gran and I had had the same one many times before, so I took
Stephen by the arm and led him to the door as he called out his
goodbyes. We walked along the street at a fairly brisk rate, and it
occurred to me that perhaps Stephen
was
a little ashamed of the way I dressed after all. That would
never change me, though, he could take me as I was or he could drop
me.

Maybe this was
what I wanted, and I wondered if Stephen would ever leave me of his
own accord. It would certainly ease my conscience if, when the time
came, he was the one to make the break, but I didn’t think I wanted
the break to come just yet, nor even as soon as it eventually did,
or in the way that it came about. And it was quite apparent that
Stephen didn’t want to bring an end to our romance just yet either,
for around the corner from his house, in the shadow of an alleyway,
he paused to embrace me and we kissed as we had done when we first
met, furtively and with an adolescent ardour. This had to be the
one thing that bound me to him, I thought, the brief moment of
passion, the regular physical release. Perhaps without this I would
have found the creative aspect of my life hindered, distracted by
frustrations. In this respect I still needed Stephen, for a little
while longer at least; in this respect I would admit to being
selfish.

*

The following
morning, in defeat and desperation, I decided to take Stephen’s
portrait into college, to work on it there in the hope that I might
finish it by Christmas, thinking that I might get some advice on
what was wrong and what could be done with it.

To my
astonishment people were enthusiastic when they saw it. Ben noted a
vitality in the painting, a vibrant animal quality; Maggie, the
painting tutor, said that it was not just a portrait but a portrait
of a living person; Ian, the printmaker, qualified this by adding
that the person was not just any living person but a person who had
‘lived’. Even Gus liked it, says that I was really starting to
paint at last, and there were others among the students who were
also complimentary.

This praise
was all very well, quite gratifying, but I was still left with the
problem of pleasing Stephen; he was expecting a painting he could
show to his parents, something they could be proud of, and they
weren’t going to be too pleased to see their only son looking like
an ageing orang-utan. During the morning break I took Maggie to one
side and explained my dilemma to her. She was usually the most
sympathetic of the three tutors and she listened attentively to
what I had to say, rolling herself one of her awful cigarettes
wrapped in liquorice paper. In her mid thirties, I suppose she
could have been attractive if she tried, but she never seemed
prepared to make the effort; her hair was always in need of a wash
and brush, her clothes were scruffy and she stank of the foulest
smelling tobacco imaginable.

Pushing her
glasses up the bridge of her nose, puffing out a noxious cloud of
smoke, she said, ‘Look here, Ginny darling, who do you want to
please, yourself and your peers or your boyfriend and his folks?
The painting is good, so why do you want to spoil it by making it
look like some bloke from the pages of a fashion magazine? If you
want to be an artist you can’t think about other people’s feelings,
only the truth.’


But the
truth of the matter is that Stephen doesn’t look like that,’ I
pointed out.


I
should fucking well hope not!’ she laughed, choking on the
yellow-brown fog she exhaled. ‘Christ! I wouldn’t like to wake up
in the morning with a face like that on the pillow next to mine!’ I
was about to tell her that I never woke up with any face on the
pillow next to mine, when she went on: ‘The further truth of the
matter, the most important truth, is that the painting says
something about people in general and not just the particular
person you know as Stephen. It says that there are people who are
predatory, people who are cunning, people who are driven by animal
instincts. You leave the painting as it is, Ginny; it’ll go a long
way to getting you a place on a degree course.’

This was the
deciding factor, of course, leaving Sleepers Hill for some place
better, but still I was a little troubled. ‘What about his
Christmas present, though?’ I asked.


For
fuck’s sake, girl!’ Maggie said, impatient with what she saw as a
confusion of priorities. ‘Buy him some cheap bloody
aftershave!’


But he
was expecting something special.’


Calvin
bloody Klein, then!’

I stayed
silent for a moment, deliberating, plucking up courage; then I took
a couple of photographs from my pocket and showed them to Maggie.
‘This is Stephen,’ I told her.


Yes,
very handsome, though perhaps a little too chubby around the
cheeks.’


I don’t
suppose you could, er, knock something up for me from one of these
snaps? You know, a portrait he might like.’


Knock
something up’? Don't be so fucking insulting!’ she said, standing
and storming off in a temper, muttering to herself, grumbling that
I, an art student, should have known better than to ask.

There was no
one else I dared approach, I was stuck, I met Stephen that night in
the ‘Crofters’ where the lights were so bright that they hid my
burning cheeks; I told him that the portrait was finished and he
was pleased, he naturally wanted to see it.


There’s
a slight problem there,’ I said. ‘You see, the tutors all think
it’s so good that it could be the one piece that swings a place on
a degree course for me.’


That
good?’


That’s
what they say, and if I’m going to take heed of their advice I
really need to keep it with the rest of my work, include it in my
portfolio. So you see, it’s not going to be possible to give it you
for Christmas.’


I’m
disappointed,’ Stephen confessed, and this was obvious, his head
was bowed and his lips were pouting into a sulk. ‘I understand,
though.’


You
do?’


Of
course,’ he said, looking up and smiling. ‘You’ll still let me see
it, though? You’ll let me show it to Mum and Dad?’


Certainly,’ I lied. ‘I’ll bring it back from college just
as soon as the varnish has dried.’

*

Though the
problem of the portrait was solved, though I had found an excuse
not to give it to Stephen as a Christmas present and would think of
other excuses to prevent him ever seeing it, I was now presented
with the subsequent problem of finding money for an alternative
gift. The next instalment of my student loan wouldn’t arrive until
the New Year, I was going to be short of cash for Christmas as it
was, and the only answer I could think of was to tout around for
work. The market hall was the obvious place to do this, since most
of the stall-holders knew me, so on the first Saturday in December
I made a tour of the place, early in the morning before the crowds
arrive. I didn’t hold out much hope, had always been pessimistic
when it came to matters of my personal prosperity, but surprisingly
I managed to get a couple of jobs. Old Mrs Littlehales, who ran the
button stall –that was all she sold, thousands and thousands of
buttons of all shapes and sizes- she needed the sign over her stall
repainting, and Arthur, my butcher pal, wanted a few posters to
advertise his Christmas offers on turkeys and the like. It wouldn’t
not bring me much money, perhaps a few pounds plus the cost of
materials, but every little bit helped for a penniless art student
and I agreed to do the work.


You’re
prostituting your talents,’ Gus told me, when he found out. ‘And so
early in your career, too. This is a poor start, Ginny.’


This is
a poor girl, Gus. I need some cash.’


You
shouldn’t be in this business for the money,’ he said, tut-tutting
gravely, and we had a bit of an argument about it in the studio,
there was a general debate about artistic integrity, opinions
offered for and against Gus’ view. I wasn't really interested in
their opinions, though; without being boastful I knew my work was
good, that one or two bits of commercial crap would not diminish
its worth.

*

My estimation
of the quality of my work was corroborated later that week, at the
regular ‘crit’ which was held in the studio each month. Over a full
day, sometimes two, the tutors gathered together all us students
and lambasted our work, and at this particular ‘crit’, the last one
of the year, I was one of the few people to earn any praise,
primarily on account of the portrait and the crucified side of
beef. This wasn’t to say that everyone’s work was bad, it was just
that the ‘crits’ were always so stiff; there were often occasions
when the insults came thick and fast, sometimes with such venom
that you might feel like giving up, and I’d seen some students,
girls and blokes alike, almost reduced to tears. Generally we were
able to give as good as we got, though, we had to believe in our
work and defend it and to hell with any respect we should have for
our elders, the tutors.

It being the
last ‘crit’ of the year, we followed it up with a bit of a booze-up
in the ‘Commercial’, and the tutors came along for an hour or so,
to buy drinks for those they might have offended, to continue
discussions a little more amicably. I found it a welcome change,
after the years at school, to be able to say what I liked to those
who taught me, to disagree and to argue and even to insult, to be
on first name terms and treated as an equal, to have my opinions
respected and considered rather than dismissed as adolescent
whimsy.

After the
‘crit’, then, about a dozen of us gathered in the pub, along with
Maggie and Ian, who treated us to the first round; Ben had said he
would follow, he had a little paperwork to complete. We got through
our first pint, talked over some minor grievances which had arisen
from the ‘crit’, and Ben arrived just in time to buy the second
round. He had Paula with him, but this was no surprise to any of
us; she might dress too smartly to be either student or staff, but
she was just as much a part of the art school as any of us.

The
‘Commercial’ was a quaint little place, though it was always
obvious that it would never survive in this same state. At the end
of a cul-de-sac in the centre of town, it was almost Dickensian to
my way of thinking, with the street cobbled and dimly lit and the
pub itself dwarfed all around by the rear aspects of shops and
offices, so grubby with their crumbling brickwork and rusting fire
escapes. Inside the pub the ceilings were low and the rooms so
small that at such gatherings our group from the art school could
fill a whole room. One great thing about the place was that there’s
waitress service; a button was pressed on the wall -which Ben now
did- and a barmaid came to take the order.


Drink
for this motley crowd,’ he told the barmaid, and she jotted down
what we wanted; pints of bitter, glasses of lager, bottles of brown
ale and the like. There was no change out of the money he gave her,
not after including a tip for her service, but none of us students
felt guilty; we were sure that he was on a good salary and could
afford it. We still thanked him, though, appreciative, knowing that
he was not obliged to treat us but did so freely.

All talk of
the ‘crit’ was soon finished with and the conversation became more
general. If I ever thought back later to the conversations I was
drawn into in those art school days I would see that they really
give me quite a broad education; we didn’t only talk about
painting, but also about music, film, theatre, literature, subjects
I learned little about when I was at school. School just helped me
to pass exams, it didn’t really teach me anything. Just about the
only subject we never touched upon now is politics; as art students
we were not in the least altruistic, not at all interested in the
welfare of others. But there again, the same might well be said of
many politicians.

BOOK: The Art School Dance
13.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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