While visiting the BP Portrait Award 2012 exhibition Dawn Reeves and I were particularily drawn to three portraits. They have inspired these three short tales – to view the three portraits from exhibition click the links at the end of each tale.
by Joanna Sterling
5a Atlantic View
What a surprise, you remembered, this year. Imagine my delight when I felt the squidginess of the parcel and realised you had been busy with your knitting needles. All that work, such plain neat stiches. Just as good as M&S. I usually stick to green, complements my eyes. I’ve never worn red before. I am sure it’s good for me to have a change. As our mother would have said.
Am settling into the new flat. The movers broke some of Aunt Phyllis’s china. That ugly pattern, do you remember? All bright colours and geometric shapes, by some famous maker? Name like Clarence Cliffe I think.
Not having much success with my window boxes. I read somewhere sea air is the devil, the salt. If I can toughen up so can they.
Have you heard from that feckless brother of ours? I still have some of Maurice’s boxes. And only one spare room now. There’re piled up almost to the ceiling. It’s impossible for me to get the place straight. No one’s going to want to come and stay in a room with all that clutter. He promised to collect them before he left on his latest trip. A postcard arrived from some part of South America three months ago, saying weather dreadful, food hot, scenery magnificent, back soon. Have you room for 17 boxes? I’ve no idea what’s in them. A couple are beginning to smell. I unpacked one. Ethnic wood carvings from Papua New Guinea. I’ve mounted a couple on the wall; they covered up an unpleasant looking damp patch surprisingly well. One’s a man with a beard and tribal headdress, reminds me of Maurice a bit. It’s the set of the eyes- they follow me around the room, as if he’s here keeping an eye on me or is it his things? I do miss him you know. Maybe you could pop in for a drink the next time you are passing. Not many people make it this far.
p.s. The views of the sea, waves crashing against the rocks are Daphne Du Maurier to a ‘t’, and it doesn’t rain here all the time, really it doesn’t.
Relief in Grey
By Dawn Reeves
The portrait world had moved on. My agent had said, “it’s gone as far as it can. When you can’t tell the difference between the painting and the photo, just use a bloody camera.” It had been my life’s work perfecting the technique. I sacked him and pressed on. Julia was a model of patience. I decided to go big. A two metre portrait would breathe life into the form. The limitations of a black and white palette were challenging but it offered the chance to go behind the black, shade the white, to dazzle with an ellipse of greys; to become art.
My brush was as fine as the translucent downy hairs on her chin. Four thousand strokes in an inch. After two years, the painting was nearing completion when Julia’s father died. She sat silently, her eyes brimmed with water. It was a turning point. The emergence of grief began to take the picture beyond realism, back to the painterly.
We drank heavily and talked about her most intimate childhood memories; the way her father’s warm hand rubbed away her stomach ache; the bedtime stories of Russian ballerinas. I pushed for a perfect teardrop, asking about the pain he’d been in at the end, the shape of his mouth as he took his last breath.
But the tears had set like gel over the whites of her eyes. The effect was stunning. The substance, such a concentrated form of humanity, felt ethereal, otherworldly. Desperate to capture the sorrow in that viscous liquid, I painted on into the night; finally falling into my leather chair, admiring the work through the prism of a whiskey glass. I awoke to find Julia gone, released. The essence of her pain left on the canvass.
Always with Him
by Joanna Sterling
The coat reached almost to the ground. Double breasted brown tweed with flecks of green and blue, buttons made of horn. The lining red silk, threadbare and faded now, except behind Marika where the colour remained as vibrant as she. He wore the coat no matter the weather. People commented upon it. Didn’t he have another? Wasn’t he hot? He just smiled and replied – it was a good coat. He liked his coat. It had seen him through many trials and adventures. He wrapped the coat tighter around his bony frame. The excess material hung loose about him now. He had to have her close to him always.
The photo had been taken in Budapest. A cold day, Marika didn’t have a coat, she’d hugged herself to keep warm. They didn’t care. They were young, they were in love. You could wrap two people under his new coat, especially petite Marika. No one knew she was there. In the park they could huddle and cuddle. The only give away two pairs of feet. But who looked at feet. If he pulled up the collar around them they could be quite private. He liked to remember those days. The feel of her breasts pressed close to his chest, only two fragile layers of material separating them. If he shut his eyes, there was the smell of lavender water. She dabbed it behind her ears just at the point where her hair started to curl. Her nose wrinkling up when she giggled.
Marika, his Marika.
All he had left now were his memories and the photo taken that day in the park in Budapest. He remembered the old woman, she had lent him needle and thread. How each sway and jerk of the train had caused the needle to stab his fingers. And how the lights on the train kept going out. It had taken a long time to sew her photo into the inside of his coat – next to his heart. At each border checkpoint his pockets were turned out. But the photo was safe.
And Marika? She was taken to Vyhne to labour for the Nazis. She had not been safe.