Sunday, 31 July 2011

Art History

In 1973 a plate crashes to the floor.  Spaghetti bolognaise covers the lino.  
A lurid shade of red.

“Margaret, would you like to come up to the front of the class now?  Show everyone what you’ve done today?”

“Oh, I...”

“It’s ok, everyone has to do it”

Margaret got down from her stool and detached the paper from the easel. 

“Well, I thought, the kids are all grown up and almost ready to leave the house, the youngest is.  The rest have gone, well Michael’s in his third year of medical school you see so he moves back in the summer, but Michelle’s expecting now and Darren has long since moved out, with his girlfriend, so he says anyway.  Do you have any? Oh, that’s nice, anyway now that they’re all gone and well, since I got made redundant I was given the option of retiring you see, and we thought with my pension and what Pete earns we can probably make do, only problem is I’ve never been much of a house keeper, well I mean I like to keep my house nice, but, you know, I’ve never been, what do they call it these days? OCDC? So I was thinking, well now I don’t know what to do with myself.  House is tidy, dogs fed and walked, what else is there?  So my daughter Michelle, the one who’s expecting, well she says that her friend’s dad, who’s a widower, bless him, I know, can you imagine?  Well she says that he takes these adult education classes, and here’s me thinking that there’s no way I’m going to go back to school, especially not at my age, I mean I don’t know what it was like for you but at my school I couldn’t wait to see the back of them and vicey versai, you know? But ‘no’, she says, ‘it’s not like that, you just pay for what you want and you do it yourself and this old fella, the one who’s a widower (bless him), he’s been doing these pottery courses and its really cheered him up, you know?’ So I think, well where’s the harm, so I ask her ‘where’s the harm’ ‘exactly’ she says. ‘Exactly’.  So I have a think and think, what would I like to do and, well, I’ve never been a good drawer, so life drawing sounds good, beginners class.  Drawing fruit, I thought.  Drawing fruit, she thought! Now I know, only fruits here are a few bananas, ha ha ha, or maybe...”

The woman mouthed him over there, and pointed to a man sat two tables behind Margaret.  She couldn’t understand why. Margaret gazed at her tuna and sweet corn sandwich.  No appetite pet?  No appetite.  Margaret continued to smile at the woman talking at her, whose name she had already forgotten, and looked around the canteen, wondering who all the other people were and what interesting conversations they were having.  But Margaret didn’t know if she’d be able to talk to them, even if she had the chance.
The clock hit half one and everyone shuffled back into the art room.

“I bet you couldn’t do that!”
“I could!  I learned how to spin three plates at once”
“I bet you couldn’t do it on your finger”
“I bet I could”
“Un uh”
“I bet you you couldn’t”
“Bet I could.  Bet you a million”
“Paula!  Margaret!  DINNER! NOW!!!”
“Yes mum”
“Yes Mrs. Halpen”

“Art class?”
“Yeah, they run them at the”
“How much his that going to cost?”
“..local adult education centre”
“Where’s that then?”
“It’s not that much at all.  It really isn’t.  Just round the corner.  I could walk”
“I don’t know.  It’s been pretty tight”
“Well, we’ve been talking about me looking for work again”
“You know... you know that might not be... the best idea”

“Now this moment.  This is one of the hardest parts of drawing.  The first line on a pristine piece of paper.  But it is also one of the most exciting.  I want you all to look at the giant stack of paper on the table over there.  If you’re still not convinced, go and take a look in the cupboard.  I want you to let go of your anxiety and make a mark on the page.  Just... go for it.  Close your eyes if you need to.  And don’t worry if it doesn’t work”
Margaret closed her eyes and though about all of the different things she would be able to draw.  Her mind raced.  People’s faces that stuck in her head.  People lost in conversation. The apple tree that hung over her fence from her neighbour’s back garden, the two pieces of chocolate, left on the pavement to melt in the mid-day heat.  The vegetable fat slowly seeping into the concrete while its form just about held.
She closed her eyes and made a mark.
That didn’t look very much like a thigh at all.

“You hear this?  Art history?”
“I said, do you hear what your daughter just said?”
“What’s she done this time? Why do you always call her ‘your daughter’ when she’s done something wrong?”
“Did you hear?”
“What? What?”
“She said she wants to go and study ‘art history’?”
“Drawing?  I didn’t think she was any good at drawing.  Don’t you remember what her teacher said?  Said she was awful, he did.  Don’t you remember?”
“It’s not drawing”
“I said it’s not drawing”
“What do you mean?  It’s not drawing but it’s called art?”
“It’s looking at paintings.  Three years spent looking at paintings and she wants us to pay for it”
“But you don’t have...”
“Of course we do!  We’ve worked long and hard to have enough money to send you to university, a chance we didn’t have, me and your mother”
“That’s right.  Why don’t you take a leaf out of your sister’s book?  Eh?”
“She said she wanted to study English. English!”
“But she realised she’d be shooting herself in the foot”
“Wouldn’t be able to get a job, would she?  She knew it”
 “But you didn’t ever ask her if she was happy being a legal secretary, did you?”
Margaret didn’t say anything else.  She caught that look in her mother’s eyes.

“I bet you can’t balance a whole tray on one finger”
“Bet I can”
“With a plate on it”
“And food”
“...yup.  Bet I can”

Bi-Annual Student Report
Year: 2
Subject: Art
Teacher:  Mr. Jenkinson

While Margaret displays a willingness and enthusiasm to learn, unfortunately in this instance it is not enough.  She displays such little natural aptitude for the tasks in hand that I would wonder if she were deliberately not trying, were it not for her obvious enthusiasm.  Aside from the occasional bout of chatting in class, which she is no less bound to than any of the other girls, she is an otherwise model student.  In most instances like this, I would say ‘must try harder’, but in this case trying is not the problem.

Margaret got down from her stool and detached the paper from the easel. 
Thumbing the corner, her palms went prickly.  A light sweat.  The air tasted bright.
A step
And with every
A step
Movement she
A step
Saw a full
A step
Plate falling
A step
To the
A step
“It’s ok.  Everyone’s starting out”

Margaret turned the paper around and all but closed her eyes, wishing she had never taken this fucking class and just stayed at home.
“It’s really nice, Margaret!  You’ve come so far in the past couple of weeks.  You’ve really caught something here, it’s very atmospheric.  We’ll make an artist out of you yet!”

Margaret sat down again and couldn’t help but blush.