after the painting by Mary Fedden
I kept seeing her around and about, but mostly on the beach. This is a small community and after five years or so I know who everyone is, except those who visit in the summer, though I am getting to know some of the regulars. I reckon she’s my age. When she looks at me in the store, and I look at her and smile, her smile tells me these things.
I have trouble with my hair. It’s thinned and doesn’t grow quite as it should. When I was pregnant and then nursing my children it was positively luxuriant. But later, and despite medical advice (and treatment I was unsure about and abandoned) it became an embarrassment, until he reassured me (just once) and I became an ‘adored woman’. He never ever spoke of it again and loved me so wholly and beautifully I had no reason for it to matter in his company, in his arms.
But seeing her, and often on the beach, more and more regularly, seeing her with her mane of strong dark brown hair flowing behind her in the wind, I felt a curious desire for such a wealth of hair. In fact, I began to feel something stir in me that was desire of a different kind. I can’t think I had ever looked at a woman in quite that way in any previous life. It was always men I sought, I wanted.
Her name is Sara, no h, just an A at the end. She said that when I eventually introduced myself. We were walking towards each other, barefoot both on that glistening skin of water the sea creates between the tides coming and going. It was about midday and I was, I was thinking and walking. I do this now. I don’t bring my sketchbook, I don’t look everywhere I can and more so, I have begun to retreat into my most private self. Perhaps it’s my age and so many years of feeling I had to be wholly attentive and active. Being in this remote place, almost permanently, has slowed me down, and I have begun to dream, to see beyond what I usually would have seen moment to moment. I’ve been re-reading the prose and poetry of Kathleen Raine, who understood this sea-swept place and was haunted by its ghosts, and who dreamed.
Never, never, again
This moment, never
These slow ripples
Across smooth water,
Never again these
Clouds white and grey
In sky crystalline
Blue as the tern’s cry
Shrill in the light air
Salt from the ocean,
Sweet from flowers
Oh yes, ‘the sun that rose this morning from the sea will never return . . .’* I have become a watcher, no longer an observer. I put my camera away last winter and now hold moments in my memory. Here I can sketch. I can have all the time I need, and more. And I knew when I began to talk to Sara I wanted beyond anything else to sketch her, to know her line by line with the pen, and later bring the texture of her into paint.
Painting is where I am now. It’s direct, mesmeric, challenging, wholly absorbing. My needles and thread only deal with our clothes, my clever printing and collaging lies dormant in my studio, a studio I rarely enter now. I have a room upstairs in the loft that is all light and sky. There’s just an easel, a table, a chair, a small bookcase, a trolley-thing of paints and brushes. Even that’s too much. I always collected things around me. I brought so much in from outside and now I’m trying, trying to have as little as possible. This is where I will paint Sara. I’m already thinking this as we take the first tentative steps towards knowing one another. Names, where we live, (we both know). Partners, family, children? I have all this, but not here, only my companion, my love who caresses me with such care and attention. There are my cats and my hens. She has no one, or rather she talks of no one. She asks the questions and avoids giving answers. She just nods and doesn’t answer. Otherwise, she’s a straight yes / no person. She doesn’t feel she has to qualify anything.
We’re standing together. We’re intent on looking at each other. Words seem a little unnecessary because what we both want to do is look. ‘I can tell you paint’, she says, ‘It’s your finger nails’. My perfect nails and the pads of my fingers hold the evidence of a morning at my easel. ‘I have seen your work’, she says, ‘One could hardly not. You’re well known beyond these shores.’ I feel myself blushing slightly. I thought blushing had stopped with the menopause, not that it troubled me much, the menopause that is. Blushing though was a torturous part of my adolescence, but let’s not go into that.
‘Your husband,’ she says, ‘he’s up very early. I see him sometimes here, on the beach.’
‘Do you get up at five?’ I am surprised. My husband gets up before five.
‘Sleep is difficult sometimes. I walk a lot. I need to be out, and walk.’
Her face, her head is larger than mine. She is a larger woman altogether, bigger *****, long-legged, but with youthful ******* that seem taut and well-rounded under her brown frock, no, her brown dress. I only think frock because that’s what he says – ‘I love that frock.’ And he means usually whatever I am wearing now that’s old and rich in memories of his hands knowing me through a dress, sorry a frock, which remains for me (and possibly for him) the most sensuous of sensations, still. Au nature has its place, and I love the rub of his skin and body hair. But when we are lovers, and we are still lovers and usually when travelling, in hotel rooms or borrowed cottages, or visiting friends and dare I say it, staying with our various children. Last autumn in Venice, in this large, amazing marble-tiled room, with this huge bed, he undressed me in front of a window opening onto our own terrace, and I was beside myself with passion, desire, oh all those wonderful things. And for months afterwards I would return to that early evening, remembering the lights coming on all over the watered city as he kissed and stroked and brushed my body through my Gudrun Sjödén frock. I would replay, find again over and over, those exquisite moments of such joyful touching as he then undressed me, and with such care and tenderness I felt myself crying out. Well, he says I did. In one of his poems (for your eyes only, he had whispered) he admits to his own celebration of those moments again, again.
Sara’s dress is calf-length. There’s nothing else. As the breeze wraps itself around the loose-fitting brown cotton her naked figure is revealed inside itself. No ring, no jewellery, nothing to hold her hair now flowing behind her. She has positioned herself so it does; flow out behind her. This is so strange. Am I dreaming this? We have become silent and together look in silence at the sea. I can hear her short breathes. She turns to me with a smile and looks straight into my eyes – and says nothing – and then walks backward a few steps – still with her warm smile – turns and walks away.
I tell him I met Sara today and ask if he sees her on the beach in the early mornings. Yes, he has, in the distance, mostly. He has said good morning to her on a few occasions, but she has smiled and said nothing. Five o’clock is far too early to say anything, he says. She swims occasionally. I keep my distance, he says with a grin.
I tell him I would like to paint her. I should, he says, You should go and ask her, do it, get it done and out of your system. It’s time you stopped being afraid of the face, the portrait, the figurative. I’d give so much to have been able to paint you, he says ruefully, my darling, my dearest. And he strokes my arm, kisses my cheek, then, he slowly and carefully kneels down beside my chair, places his arm across the top of my thighs so when I bend to kiss him his bare forearm touches the edge of my *******. He puts his head in my lap, and I caress his ears, his quite white hair.
Sara’s door is open. She’s living in Ralph’s cottage, a summer-let habitable (just) in the nearly autumn time it is. I call, ‘Sara, it’s me’, thinking she’ll recognize my voice, not wishing to say my name. She appears at the door. ‘I have the kettle on, she says, ‘I had a feeling you might be by.’ Her accent is, like mine, un-regional, carefully articulated, a Welsh tinge perhaps. There’s an uplift and a slowness in some of the vowels. ‘You will come in’, she says, more a statement than a question. It’s rather dark inside. There’s a reading lamp on, but she has the chair, her chair, close by the window. There are letters being written. There are books. Not Ralph’s, but what she has brought with her. Normally, I would be hopelessly inquisitive, but I can’t stop myself looking at her, wondering even now, in these first few moments in this dark room, how I will position her to paint her form, her face, her nature. What will I paint? I look at her still-bare feet, her large hands.
And so, with mugs of tea, Indian tea I don’t drink, but here, as her guest I do, but without milk, we sit, I on the only other chair (from the kitchen) she on the floor. And she watches me look about, and look at her.
‘I’m rather done with talking, with polite conversation. That’s why I’m here to be done with all that for a while.’
‘I came to ask you to sit for me. To let me draw you, paint you even. You can be completely quiet. I won’t say a word. I’ve never, ever asked anyone to sit for me. I’m not that sort of painter. But when I saw you on the beach it was the first thing that came into my head.’
‘I should be flattered. Though I have sat for artists before, when I was a little younger,’ surprisingly she mentions two names I know, both women. ‘I know how to be still. But, those are days in a different life.’
‘I only want to paint you in the life you have now.’ And I realise then that what I want to paint was Sara’s ‘aloneness’. I think then I have never been truly alone since he came into my life and took any loneliness I had from me. Whenever we are apart, and still there are times, he writes to me the tenderest letters, the most touching poems, he quotes his Chinese favourites down the telephone. We always, always speak to each other before bed, even when we are on different continents and time-zones. He told me I was always his last thought before sleep. And I wonder if I would be his last thought . . .
‘Do you want to do this formally?, said Sara.
‘I don’t know. Yet. I’d like to draw you first, be with you for a little while, perhaps to walk. A little while at a time. Whatever might suit you.’
‘Would you pay me? I have little money. It would be useful.’
‘Of course’, I say this directly, having no idea about what one pays a model. He will know though. He knew Paula Rego and didn’t she have a female model? I think of those large full-length figures rendered in pastels. Her model’s name was Lila, who for more than 25 years, had sat for her, stood for her, crouched for her, hour after hour and day after day. I remember a newspaper piece that went something like this: since 1985 Lila has helped to give life, in paint, and pastel, and charcoal, to the characters in Paula Rego's head. Lila was all Paula Rego’s women.
‘Sara’, I said, ‘help me please. It’s taken more than a little courage to come to see you, to ask you. My husband says I should do this, finally get myself painting the person, the face, body, not as some exercise in a life class, but the real thing.’
‘Of course’, she says, ‘Let’s go and walk to the point.’
And we did. Not saying very much at all, but I suppose I did. She made me talk and gradually I laid my life out in front of her, and not the life she would have found in those glossy monographs and catalogue introductions, and God forbid, not in those media features and interviews that I suppose have made me a name I’d always dreamed of becoming, and now could do without.
‘I suppose you have a studio’, she said suddenly, ‘Is that where you’d want me to come?’
‘Yes, I have a studio. No, I don’t think I want you to come there. Not at first anyway.’ I was floundering. ‘ I’d like to draw you, paint you possibly on the beach, where we met, so there would be sea and sky and breeze blowing your hair.’
‘And a steamer out on the horizon belching smoke from its funnel and the sea blowing white horses and dancing about. I’d be right by the seastrand with waves and spray and foam, and under a greyish sky. Not a sunny day. A breezy day. In my brown dress, sitting on the sand by the tide marks, looking out to sea, looking at the steamer away in the distance, sitting with my left hand behind me holding myself up, and the shape of my legs akimbo bent slightly under my brown dress. How would that be?’
‘Perfect’, I said.
And it was.