More Than Life
You will be thinking, quite correctly, that she cannot be a close friend if I call her Mrs Jones, and you will be right. I know her only by sight. I pass her house every day on my way to my business. Her house has no front garden, so one passes close to a bay window where I very often see her sitting. She is usually reading but looks up at the sound of footsteps without. On the very first occasion that I caught her eye she held my gaze for several seconds. Longer than one would do with, let us say, a shop girl. There was a lifetime's sadness etched upon her features and I found myself profoundly moved.From that day on, whenever she espied me her face brightened and widened into such a beneficent smile that I could not help but return it. Hence began our friendship.
I enquired of people in the neighbourhood as to the name of my new friend. Some thought Smith, others Davies. No-one seemed certain, so in my mind I settled on Mrs Jones. I wondered whether it would be possible for our friendship to develop. I am a man like any other and I have, of course, my appetites. But be assured that my interest in Mrs Jones was, in the beginning at least, entirely platonic. I would have said as much to her husband, had I ever set eyes on him. But to this day I have not done so. The room where she sits is dark, outside the small pool of light from her reading lamp. I have seen only the shades within, light movements but no forms.
I have reason to believe that I appear a confident man. People with whom I deal in my business will tell you so. But I have my doubts and demons and I have never summoned the courage to knock at that door, that dark green door of Mrs Jones's house. I have stood before it, yes, but then my spirit has sunk within me and I have walked on, quickly. On such days I have not even dared to raise my head to meet her eyes through the window. I have felt ashamed of my quickening desire.
Then came the change. One a certain day of late Spring Mrs Jones, through the bow window of her sitting room, was a different woman. I noticed first her porcelain complexion. It was perfect, more than one would think possible in this life. But there was the suggestion of an accompanying stiffness. I think I almost frowned, and hurried on, perplexed.
On the following day I approached her window quietly, hoping to be able to observe her for a moment or two before she became aware of my presence, but she looked up immediately. It seemed to me that her smile had become fixed. She looked at me with unblinking eyes. I was, I admit, unnerved.
For a day or two I took a different way to my business, but then, regretting my cowardice, passed once more by Mrs Jones's window. It then that I realised that she was an artist's mannequin. And yet she moved. So who was controlling her? We live amongst such mysteries. This gave me cause for deep thought.
A new art gallery opened in the town, fashioned from a former church. It had been long in the making and I was eager to see it. As I walked in the very first painting I saw was of a woman, sitting in a dark room with a small pool of light illuminating the top of her head and the book which she was reading. It was entitled simply, "Woman, reading." The artist's name was difficult to read. It was, without question, a portrait of Mrs Jones. Had it, I wondered, been painted from life, or after she had become an artist's mannequin?
I studied the painting as closely as the gallery restrictions permitted. The brush strokes were bold, assured, vibrant. My friend was portrayed full of life, more than life as I had seen it through her window. I stayed looking at the painting until the time came for it to close. And then, with a certain nervousness but determination, walked to the house where Mrs Jones lived and looked into her window.
She was uncharacteristically slumped in her chair, she eyes closed, her book on her lap, hands folded over it. The life which was so strong in the painting was absent from the woman, if woman she still was.
On the following day, and each of the days until the exhibition closed, I returned to the gallery. Mrs Jones looked subtly different each time. On did I imagine it so? You will not be surprised to learn that after much deliberation I decided to buy the painting.
It hangs now in my own sitting room, where I can admire and talk to Mrs Jones every day. I still pass by the window of the house where she lives. We rarely exchange a smile these days. If we do it is only in passing. What I have at home is so much more satisfying.
‘I adored darling Alexandra,’ one of them said. ‘She was the only person I know who could paint a masterpiece, look glamorous and make everyone feel special – all at the same time. Such a tragic loss. She was much too young to leave the party. Much, much too young.’
Ella had amassed an impressive list of famous names who had turned up to pay their respects. The vicar of St Mary’s had given her details of the hymns and music and had even handed her a copy of his own tribute.
‘Alexandra Barker was a very special person,’ he added. ‘A talented painter yes, a wonderful friend, yes, but more importantly, she had a very generous heart. I don’t think many people know this but she helped at the soup kitchen we run for the homeless sometimes. We all loved her.’
At two minutes to twelve, with the church full to bursting, the funeral cortège pulled up outside the church. Four pallbearers solemnly hoisted the lily-strewn coffin on to their broad shoulders and with slow, dignified steps carried it up the church path and into the nave. Alexandra’s daughters, clad head to toe in black and close to tears, followed close behind. After them came a distinguished-looking man, flanked by two teenage boys. The younger boy had a gold stud in his ear and the older one looked as if he was on the verge of breaking down.
‘Who are they?’ whispered Ella.
The photographers were too busy snapping the family to answer but after a few seconds one of them whispered back.
‘Alexandra Barker’s daughters. The bloke is her son-in-law. He doesn’t half fancy himself. I had to do some studio shots of him once and he was a right prima donna. Quite a ladies’ man too, or so I’ve heard.’
‘I thought she had three daughters,’ murmured Ella, glancing at the newspaper cuttings she’d printed out about the artist’s life and times.
‘There are. I don’t know where the other one is. You’d have thought she’d turn up to her own mother’s funeral. She’s the middle one – if I say so myself, a bit of a looker. We can’t have missed her. I’m sure I would have clocked her a mile off.’
As the clock struck twelve, each chime long and laborious, the church doors closed theatrically behind the family.
Ella quickly took her laptop out of her bag and using an ancient gravestone as an impromptu seat started writing her story for the afternoon edition.
‘Famous names from the art world were out in force today to mourn the death of celebrated painter Alexandra Barker,’ she typed at breakneck speed.
As Ella typed, a commotion erupted outside the churchyard. A glamorous blonde in a scarlet dress, matching heels and a slick of bright red lipstick had jumped out of a cab and was elbowing pedestrians out of the way in her haste to get to the church. It didn’t help that the tiny figure was carrying two huge bags, one on each shoulder. The bags whacked a couple of people in the chest as she hurried past but she didn’t stop.
The blonde woman swept through the church gate and, spotting Ella, dumped the massive bags at her feet.
‘Look after this lot for me, will you darling?’ she said quickly, then hurried into the church.
Brass weights falling to the floor, crash,
As the silver blade rips through cloth
And draws its lines in the tender flesh.
A moment when, in facing death,
A man sees life, slip before him
Fleeting, like a black cat stealing
Through a moonless night.
And knows what is lost.
Is grey and misty,
Slipping and sliding,
Slurring out of focus,
As the edges of a field
Shimmer and shift
In the dewy mist
Behind is passed, as if seen
Through the glass window
Of a speeding train, blurred.
Image superseding image
Like so many missed chances.
And what is left?
Is it love or beauty
Pride or reputation,
Anger or despair?
What is left of life?
When the breath is breathed,
The feather floating in the air
Fallen softly to the ground,
What remains? Carrion for
Carnivores. A shell uninhabited.
Or something more than life.