We Were Young
By which he’d meant: My God, you’re ugly.
Age is a great equalizer. I’d known it would be even then, aged 22. No one would link me with the painting on the wall, a nude study by an artist who a casual observer may pity for having to spend so much time gazing at the model. It’s far rarer to be unattractive enough to be noticeable than attractive enough, but I can’t say I miss the distinction.
There was nothing wrong with her, the girl on the wall. Kind enough, clever enough. But I suppose if the random mix of genetics turns out a psychopath, they get no more social sympathy than I did for my nose.
The lessons were a gift from my brother to both of us. His friend, William, a draughtsman who needed the money, and his sister who liked to draw and had nothing else to structure her day. Every Wednesday at 4:00.
“I want you to stop – stop trying to outline,” he said to me, inexperienced teacher that he was. “Does your face have a line around it? Does my hair? How many flowers have lines at their edges? Silly girl.”
I’d never been called a silly girl before. From watching friends, I thought those admonishments affectionate, but it stung.
“That’s why you’re being paid,” I snapped. “To teach such things.” He glanced up, and I anticipated some display of an artistic temperament.
He snapped my sketchbook shut and smiled at me.
“You’re quite right, Miss Kingsbury. I apologise,” he said. “Shall we begin?”
“The shadow on the index finger doesn’t match that on the ring finger.” Tilting his head. “It looks as though you drew them two hours apart. But aside from that, very nice.” He nudged me with my sketchbook, generous in his flirtation. Kind boy. “Who’s the lucky man who sat for you?”
“The gardener’s boy,” I replied dully, hoping he’d assume my red face was for his teasing.
“You might bring him in one day,” William suggested. “Weathered people are an educational challenge, not to mention excellent conversation.”
“I want to focus more on – on the female form.” I looked up in time to see his eyes snap away. Out of two obvious conclusions, I couldn’t be sure if he’d come to the correct one. It was a secretive time, and I wouldn’t have blamed him for assuming my evasiveness covered more than a general desire for privacy. However, he was aware of our family circumstances.
“Of course,” he said.
To this day, I shy away from looking at my own hands.
I saw his lips mouth ‘the female form’ and knew whatever conclusion he’d arrived at originally, he was at the correct one now.
“I’m honoured that you’d trust me with these, Miss Kingsbury,” he said, giving himself time to think.
“Margaret. Margot,” I finally corrected, to help him stall.
“They’re very pri…er, detailed. I see. I see. You see, Margot, the way you’ve shaded under the jawline…would you like these corrected, my dear?”
“If you wouldn’t mind.”
“You’re shading under the chin and along the neck is reversed – it makes the neck appear to grow outwards. That is the dominant error.”
“As detailed a critique as you can manage, William.”
“Of course. Of course.”
My mother was dying, and I wanted to draw her. I wanted to sit by her bedside and sketch her bone structure and hairline, the slender line of her neck. I wanted my mother, who I resembled aesthetically, to feel that not only was she worth capturing, but she was worth capturing now.
“How would you like me?” I asked.
“However…however. Looking straight at me, though, Margot. I’m afraid it may be uncomfortable.”
“I’d like to colour the final work, the one I show my mother,” I told him after an hour or so of his eyes flicking towards me.
“Your lilies are capable enough, but people are a different matter altogether. Perhaps you’d prefer we showed your mother my study?”
My head snapped up to see him twinkling at me as he changed pencils. I couldn’t believe the audacity.
“Perhaps not.” I smiled back.
It took five months for me to show my mother her portrait. I sat on the edge of her bed and showed her the time and effort I thought recording her was worth.
She glanced at it, at the beloved minutiae of her appearance, of her lovely, lovely face.
“Don’t,” she said, lifting a wrinkled hand and pushing the book away with the strength she had left.
William had been paid for one month more, but he’d taught me well. If not for him, I would be pushing away the picture that someone had seen fit to hang on a gallery wall, understanding as little about appearances as my mother had.
I could lie and say I stopped caring what I looked like, but why? I had known that age would be a great equalizer and I waited to not be notable – it turns out that therefore I have grown old gracefully and some of my botoxed or fallen-from-grace contemporaries are the ones to be pitied. Because they have not learned yet, as I had so much more chance to, that to be attractive is not the only reason your appearance is worthwhile.
My mouth was used for kissing, for speaking, for singing. My eyes saw the Red Arrows, dolphins swimming behind my yacht as I sailed from Morocco to Spain, men dressed as women walking down the street with no one turning a hair.
My gardener’s boy’s hands were used for drawing with as much love and care as his were. They were used for growing things, vegetables, herbs and flowers which my retroussé nose could smell from the kitchen.
My dull, thin, colourless hair caught on trees in Peru, in Provence, in Costa Rica and stayed there. I have existed in the world for an entire lifetime.
Such is life.
I’d loved him for not pretending, for not sitting me down and then, for whatever reason, drawing something…adjusted. Something different. He hadn’t developed my chin, hadn’t thickened my hair, hadn’t made my eyes even. I knew that he thought I was ugly. I glowed at him, because, to him, I was worth drawing. To him, my face was worth recording. It made me worth hanging on a wall, forty-odd years later.
I wish my mother had known.
Last year, my last in my twenties, I felt young.
Despite a three year old wearing me out, I felt young.
When I saw students I had taught, also in their twenties and with children, calling me "Miss", I still felt young.
When I looked at my husband, I still saw the young man I fell in love with. The natural ease in his smile and the laid back look in his eyes.
Even being 9 months pregnant and finishing my last week at work in a hot September classroom, I felt young.
It's not time that ages us. It's stuff.
It's the things that happen to us, the good things, the great things, the funny things and the sad things. Some of this 'stuff' keeps us young, some of it ages us.
The three year old kept me young, I have had to learn all the characters from Fireman Sam and can pretty much nail their accents if needed...young.
I know, and can identify on sight, most of the marvel 'good guys' and a beat number of 'bad guys' too...young.
Keeping up with the students in the classroom, being able to name at least three Kardshians...young.
Knowing who was top of the Premier League and who had bitten who in the last match...young.
I'm not sure, but feel pretty certain that being able to rap all of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, most of Ice Ice Baby and have a good go at Rapper's Paradise qualifies me as young.
I WAS young. We WERE young.
Then our daughter died. She was still born.
I look at photos of before that day and after and I see two different women looking back.
Since then I have had my thirtieth birthday, and people ask me how does it feel to be in my thirties now. In all honesty, it felt the same as the last day of my twenties. But if I compare year on year...I feel I have aged a decade.
It wasn't my birthday in April that aged me. It was my daughter's, last October that piled the 'oldness' on.
Not just feeling it myself, but telling everyone and seeing everyone else feel it, and being helpless too it...older now.
The dry sarcasm I have when people use phrases that make me bristle, 'lost my daughter' 'at least you have your son'. I didn't lose her, I know exactly where she is and my son is not a consolation prize... older now.
There are times when I feel young again, or more the memory of youth is still there, like a familiar smell or an old pair of jeans. But I realise, once I've buttoned the jeans up and start to feel comfy, that they have a hole in the knee, they aren't the same jeans anymore.
When I see photos of those times (when I feel young for a moment, when I forget) and I can remember how I felt, but I just don't see it in my face anymore. I look older now.
I was young. Not so much anymore. But it wasn't time that aged me, it was stuff.
I had been rung up at 8.30 on the Sunday morning. I was still asleep and listened to the voicemail a couple of hours later. I needed to listen to it twice before it sank in. It was from the Care Home where my father had been for the last few years.
It said that my father was seriously ill and that I should come as soon as possible. It also said that they had been in touch with my sister in Canada.
My wife Fiona found me sat at the kitchen table, staring at my phone. When she asked what was up, all I could do was play the voicemail again on speakerphone, so that she could listen.
“Don’t worry, Bill” Fiona said, “I will make all the arrangements. I will ring Zoe and tell her”.
I had composed himself a lot when Fiona returned half an hour later to say that Zoe would take the train tomorrow.
Fiona offered to drive me up in the afternoon, but I said No, I would rather catch the train that Zoe would be on tomorrow and go with her.
I told Fiona he didn’t need her to come and so she dropped me off at the railway station the following afternoon.
Zoe already seemed a bit frazzled when I sat opposite her; she half-smiled in greeting, tidied up some of the books and papers she had spread out on the table in front of her, and then went back to her screen.
"A moment, dad, please" she quietly said, without really looking at me.
I settled back into the chair, and tried to make myself comfortable. I got my phone out of my jacket's inside pocket and put it on the table in front of me. It was tiny compared to Zoe's, but then I did not use it much. I checked to see if there were any more messages from my sister.
Going to catch the first flight there
That was still the last one, and that was now over 12 hours old. Or maybe longer.
I heard Zoe's tablet or laptop or whatever snap shut.
I looked up and she was looking at me, waiting for me to say something.
I simply stared back, thinking where had all the time gone that my one and only baby was now all grown up and obviously well in control of her own life.
"Well? Any more news? How are you feeling?"
"No, no more news. Your aunt is getting the first flight from Canada. Nothing more from the Home. I am OK, I guess."
"Have you rung them this morning to see if there has been any change with grandad?"
I paused. I hadn't rung myself. I couldn’t face doing it.
"You got Fiona to ring, didn't you?"
"Yes, I admit I did. She said they told her there was no real change, but he hadn't had much to eat, or much sleep in the night".
I gave Zoe a weak smile, admitting to myself that she knew me too well. I thought I might as well get the difficult bit over and so asked:
"How is your mother?"
Zoe looked out of the window for a few seconds, I could see the anger building up in her lips, but she seemed to be making a conscious effort to let it go before she turned to face me again.
"Look dad, it's probably not a good day to get into all that. You both were young, I was very young...isn't it time to be thinking about grandad?"
She tried to smile at me, but there was still too much of a scowl.
I muttered under my breath, "I was only asking" but she was already looking at her device again.
There was a bing, and I looked out of the window, thinking Zoe might want some privacy
"I think that was your phone, dad".
I picked it up and opened the case and woke it up and read the message.
"It's your Aunt Jane. They are on the flight."
"Who is coming with her? All of them?"
"No. your uncle has important business he can't leave"
Zoe and I smiled at each other. We had heard this excuse many times before.
"Zach isn't coming either. But the two girls are."
Zoe just nodded at this, and went back to staring at her screen.
I looked out of the window again and thought about what Zoe had said about her mother and I having been young.
I had been fairly young 25, when I left her mother for Fiona.
That was a similar age to when my dad left my mum for another woman. Which is why I get uncomfortable asking Zoe about her mum, as I am instantly taken back 30 years to my dad drunkenly asking me how my mum was, a few years after he'd left her, and I even more drunkenly physically attacking him whilst screaming "You broke her heart, you bastard" until I collapsed in tears, and my dad gave me a final kick to my side before walking away and leaving me.
That was definitely the low point in my relationship with my father.
15 years ago my mother died and he did pop up at the funeral, but kept at the back, out of the way. Jane went and had a good talk to him, but I just grinned at him when she tried to engineer a big reconciliation.
Since then we have been in more and more contact over the years, but mainly when Jane was back in the country to arrange it.
Five years ago, his second wife died and Jane even managed me to talk me into going into the funeral - which wasn't too bad, as I had only ever spoken to the woman about half a dozen times in my life, and I even got a new job out of meeting one of her nieces there, so I still have some fond recollections of the day.
"Dad, dad, we're nearly here"
I must have been so absorbed in my memories that I appeared to be asleep to Zoe, as she was gently waking me up.
I looked at my phone again - no new messages - before putting it back in my jacket pocket.
"Families, eh?" I said as Zoe was looking at me, as the train slowly came to a stop.
We got a taxi from outside the station and I told the driver the name of the hotel we'd booked into.
"Aren't we going to the home first?" Zoe asked, so I told the driver the name of that, and he nodded in recognition and set off, through the town centre.
Father and daughter sat next to each other in silence for the short journey. He looked out of the window again, recognising buildings he had visited when he was young - the old swimming pool, now a shabby looking DIY shop; the old police station site that he was surprised to see was now quite a smart looking cul-de-sac; and the closed down and boarded up pubs. Every single pub they drove past was no longer in business, had not been touched since and were all slowly succumbing to the elements.
The taxi pulled into the Care Home grounds.
Zoe had already pressed the buzzer and a member of staff had opened the door for her whilst I was paying the driver and then looking round the grounds, and over to the park on the other side of the road. That is where Jane had introduced me to Zoe's mum, when they were all young and carefree, and the woods at the back of the park could well be where Zoe was conceived.
I turned round and hurried to the door that was being held open for me.
"Aunt Jane is already here" she whispered.
We were shown the way to his father's room, and on the way Zoe tried to work out how long it was since she last saw Jane. A long time we both decided. I only every saw my sister every few years now, and then not for long. I had never bothered to travel to Canada to meet her husband and friends, and since our mum died she didn’t come back to this country for as long or as often. I missed her on her last visit, as she only spent a couple of days visiting dad after he moved into the Care Home, before travelling round the Low Countries. I had not been bothered enough to come and see either of them.
I entered the room before Zoe, and stopped in the doorway.There was a bed along the back wall, and there was a small figure laid on their back in it. I had to keep looking before I recognised my father. He was much thinner now, not only in his body but also his face. I went closer and was shocked by how old my father was.
There was a woman with her back to us, looking out of the window.
I went over and said "Hello sis".
"Hi. I am just looking out at the park. Remembering when we were young." Jane turned round and walked over to Zoe and gave her a hug.
The two women chatted for a few minutes before Jane decided that Zoe should go back to the hotel and have a meal with her cousins, whilst she and I would stay and keep vigil.
"You got here quick" I said eventually. My sister was still staring intently out at the park.
Jane turned and smiled at me. "Or maybe you didn't. I thought you would have been here yesterday."
Jane went back to look out of the window.
"Have they said about...well, you know..." I couldn't think of the right words to say.
"I assume you mean how long he's got. Or do you mean how long will you have to stay here?"
I got up and went to stand by her.
"Both, I suppose".
"God knows. A day or two. A week at most. But, you know Bill, God knows. Literally." She looked me straight in the face, and then smiled.
“When we were young, you were such a bright, happy boy, and so religious Bill. We were so close as well, a real brother and sister. Do you never wonder where it all went so…”
“Wrong?” I finished her sentence for her, and as I did so, I turned back and looked at the frail and pathetic lying motionless, barely breathing on the bed.
“Life made it all go wrong, sis. We all stopped being young, and believing everything we were told. That was the start of it all”.