Published in Issue 16 of Visionary Tongue, 2002.
The painter erected the easel whilst the subject of his inspiration wandered in the background seeking the optimum pose.
“Stand there Isabel… near the lamp.”
“But isn’t the light all wrong? I thought you wanted a subtle silhouette rather than a full frontal!”
The painter — a paunchy man with a goatee — laughed out loud.
“I’m not a photographer. I’m an artist. Things will shape up from my mind as much as from what I actually see.”
Isabel — a rather tall woman in a dressing gown — took an ungainly stance, leaning on the arm of a sofa.
“Is this OK?”
“I’m not sure… perhaps you “
The man pointed at the tassel of the dressing-gown, hinting at what her next move should be.
Abruptly, there there was a banging from above. The ceiling shook and the light fitment twirled. This was an earthquake region, after all, but there
had not been anything quite as formidable as this particular tremor within his years living at the foot of Attic Slope — a meandering forest that
reared into the sky on one side of the valley.
Mrs Arkson — the cook and general domestic help — rushed into the room without knocking.
“Mrs Arkson, I’ve told you never NEVER come into my studio like that!”
“I’m sorry Mr Williams, but… I was scared… the saucepans fell, didn’t you hear them.”
Jonathan Williams shrugged — still furious at the interruption.
The model, meanwhile, was standing by the window, staring into the distance
“There are two people on horses coming,” she said, as if nothing had happened. “One’s got a big tall hat.”
“Isabel you had better change back into your outdoor clothes,” said Jonathan Williams, as he simultaneously hustled Mrs Arkson towards the kitchen. He absent-mindedly picked up an ornament that had fallen off the mantelpiece. Luckily it was of a bronze statuette and not one of the porcelain figurines dotted about the room, some of which had been dislodged from the positions they had been in before the earthquake tremor. Just as he was in the process of straightening them there came the sound of loud knocking at the front door followed by the insistent clamour of the front door bell.
Jonathan hurried in response knowing that Mrs Arkson was hard of hearing (or pretended to be deaf when it suited her purpose). Opening the door he was confronted by a man and woman in riding habit; the woman near to swooning was being supported by the top-hatted man who was the first to speak.
“May we rest here a while, perhaps you’ll be good enough to let me use your telephone. My wife and I have become disorientated after our horses bolted during that blasted earth tremor. They had been skittish before it happened, seeming to know there was one coming. I am Sir Malcolm Youngman and this is my wife the Lady Sarah. She is still in shock I think after our experience and I would deem it a great favour if she may rest here a while.”
Accepting that they were who he said they were, Jonathan invited them into the drawing room.
“Would you like a drink, perhaps a brandy would help settle her Ladyship’s nerves?”
“You are too kind” said Sir Malcolm but I do agree it would be a great help, especially for my wife.”
“You may use the phone whilst I see to the drinks if you care to.”
With that Isabel entered the room clad now in a smart tweed suit. She was introduced to the unexpected callers and made aware of why they were resting in the drawing room.
“We are the guests at Lord Arthur’s place, some miles from here,” said Sir Malcolm. “I thought it wise to let him know we are safe and comparatively well, and that we will return to The Grange when we have regained our composure.”
He then picked up the phone and proceeded to do just that and was already seated when Jonathan entered with a tray of drinks.
“I think brandies all round are called for, that tremor upset us too, just as I was preparing to paint a portrait of Isabel…”
“I thought I recognised you,” interjected Sir Malcolm, “aren’t you Jonathan Williams the artist?”
“I have been addressed as such among other things, and I like to think I do paint portraits passably well.”
“This is extraordinary,” replied Sir Malcolm. “My wife and I were thinking of having our portrait painted in Hunting Pink riding habit. Could we see some of your work whilst we are here? Perhaps we can make arrangements to commission you to paint us sometime in the near future.”
“In the near future? Why not sooner, Sir Malcolm? Why not now? Mrs Arkson can soon clear up the minor collateral damage…” The Painter swung his arm
in a semi-circle as if to demonstrate how minor. “And then you can sit for me. Both of you can sit, indeed. I am always ready to oblige. And, of course, your dear wife…” — the Painter turned with a smile towards the blonde bombshell who had been introduced as Lady Sarah — “would look exceedingly well in Hunting Pink, set off by a rosette… ah yes.”
“Have you then, such costume at your beck and call, Mr Williams?” boomed Sir Malcolm. “This natural glitch, shall we call it, in earth’s tectonic plates must mean we have time to spare on what was otherwise a pressing matter for my wife and I. We have to be sure there is no looting, no loose morals… waiting for such behaviour to be quashed by the authorities might allow time to stay and sit…”
Meanwhile, Isabel, the erstwhile sitter, was busy attending to household duties alongside a now calmer Mrs Arkson — who, no doubt, had quickly righted the saucepans before returning to the domestic fray in the sitting-room (or drawing-room, as the painter called it). Isabel was no slouch as far as the main chance was concerned — and she had spotted the glinting gems at Lady Sarah’s throat. But she took care, also, to balance
Sir Malcolm’s chimney-hat upon the mahogany claw-stand… as if this very act issued a stamp of approval to Sir Malcolm and Lady Sarah sojourning, albeit temporarily, at the foot of Attic Slope.
The phone suddenly sounded out an old-fashioned ring. This proved, at least, that the lines had not been damaged during the earth tremor. The painter waved it aside, but, in defiance, Mrs Arkson hobbled over to answer it.
“Yes?” she croaked, holding the mouthpiece as far from her mouth as viably possible. She listened for a while — then, putting her hand over it, she turned to the assembled company and made a simple announcement. “I cannot hear exactly what they’re saying — but the gist of it is that the army have surrounded us!”
“The Army?” the painter asked dumbfounded.
Mrs Arkson returned her attention to the phone and again took up a listening pose. Isabel had simultaneously scooted over towards the nearest window and reported spirals of smoke rising up beyond the ridge of Attic Slope. Sir Malcolm and Lady Sarah appeared bewildered — either by the antics set in motion by the telephone call or by the decided lack of attention they were receiving, evidently, eager, as they were, to sport the clothes in which they were to sit. The painter, however pulled himself together and hustled his guests towards the nearest wardrobe, where a whole selection of garb in Hunting Pink did hang.
There was obvious disappointment at what Sir Malcolm and Lady Sarah saw in the wardrobe.
“They will not do at all,” they said, almost in unison, “They’re a bit old fashioned don’t you think?” said Lady Sarah pointedly. “We have our own tailored outfits at home, I think we ought to wait until we can get them before you start painting us,” she concluded.
“It really was not our intention to pose for you at this time, we have not discussed terms, and we really ought to find out if we can return to Lord Arthur’s place; they’ll be worried at our prolonged absence… Perhaps your servant got it all wrong about us being surrounded by troops.”
With that there came a knocking at the front door. Jonathan hurried to see who was there knowing that Mrs Arkson would only respond to the ring of the bell in the kitchen. He was surprised to see a group of soldiers standing on the forecourt. The officer in charge touched his steel helmet in salute as he spoke.
“I hope the noise of our manoeuvres hasn’t upset your household, Sir. They will soon be over, but I would advise you to remain within the confines of your property for the next hour or so as the exercise passes this way to the final phase.”
“Thank you officer,” said Jonathan, “we wondered what all the kerfuffle was all about, especially coming so soon after the earth tremor we experienced,
I hope it didn’t affect your exercise…”
There was relief all round when Jonathan took the news back to the drawing room, and as Mrs Arkson came into the room he spoke irritably to her.
“You must have had one of your deaf moments when you answered the phone; you got the message all wrong; the army is mainly on a training exercise. Be off with you and prepare a light meal for our guests.” Then turning to the two visitors he invited them to bide a while until everything settled down.
“You’ll have to stay a while now, perhaps we can discuss terms about the portrait you want me to paint. We could fix a date for later in the year.
Would you consider adopting a pose for me now; I could draw a preliminary sketch while we wait for tea to be served. It would give an idea of what attitude you would like to adopt.”
The temporary pose was thus swiftly conducted by both Sir Malcolm and Lady Sarah. Despite the need to remain frozen, Sir Malcolm was continuously fidgeting, evidently concerned that he was showing his ‘best side’ or he wasn’t being sketched to the full effect of what he considered to be his winsomeness. Lady Sarah, in turn, nervously fingered the studs at her throat, darting glances to either side. A watching Isabel decided Lady Sarah was acting like a frightened rabbit, sufficiently attractive, however, once to have been a bunny girl in the suspiciously salacious establishments that were said to exist beyond the sedate realms of Attic Slope.
The ground, though, was hardly sedate, continuing, as it did, to suffer a series of after-shocks. The Army fellows seemed to be patrolling outside, taking part in mock salutes and practice parades. The punctuating shouts of one of their number was decidedly irritating to those currently billeted — in strange tableau — within the painter’s house. The painter himself continued to scribble vigorously with his pencil, making overt shading manoeuvres with the well-handled lead-point as well as more suspicious streaks and strokes apparently trailing across the whole expanse of his pad-top, skidding against the grain and against the splintery knots in the recycled paper. He hardly seemed to look up at the fidgetting poseurs… to check whether what was emerging on the coarse drawing-surface bore any resemblance to the actual reality it purported to imitate.
There followed some fitful discussion on the Philosophy of Aesthetics before the guests eventually left, staggering as they did, against the onset of further after-shocks — acting as if they were on a wind-tossed ship. A groundswell of applause filtered from the army fellows as the guests departed on fresh horses (steeds supplied, indeed, by the army authorities, as a token of good will).
Isabel waved to the couple from the front door.
“Don’t worry — I think the worst is over,” she called, as she fiddled with the shiny splinter in the palm of her hand which she had picked up off the carpet near where the couple had been posing. She had spotted it glinting within the pile, just as the couple made their farewells. She did not think they had spotted her prising it from between the tufts.
Isabel returned to where Jonathan was meticulously tidying up his pencil-box. She then took one glance at his preliminary efforts regarding the anticipated full-blooded portrait of the just departed couple.
“You’ve left out the jewels,” she observed.
“Of course,” Jonathan said. “I saw you staring at them and I thought they
would look much better on you.”
And he quickly snatched off the pad’s top sheet revealing a second — more accomplished — sketch which he had surreptitiously drawn, no doubt, under the cover of seismic confusions which had earlier ensued. This second drawing depicted a scantily clad Isabel, sporting Lady Sarah’s sparkling paraphernalia — all evidently, executed from imagination alone. At which point, Isabel opened her hand, to reveal nothing… nothing except a fatal fleshy pinkness.
The ground shuddered.
Mrs Arkson was the first (and last) to realise that pride always came before a fall or, in this case, the worst after-shock of all. At least, the war had been fought — not won, not lost, but finished. She smiled. The optimum pose. The ultimate one, too.
The claw-stand toppled over, squashing the forgotten chimney-hat. Then the drawing in of night, hunting tremors through the body of the earth.