We Were Young

Entry by: Kent Ocelot

14th August 2015
“My God, you have such a face for drawing,” he’d said, knocking my chin with his index finger.

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.