The Myriapoda Portrait

June 10, 2010 at 9:43 am (Art, Children, Costume, House) (, , , )

Christopher makes me uncomfortable. He simply won’t lie. My project had become stale recently, and so I took the days and miles of road to visit Lesleigh, her son, the pale boy Chris. His forearms and face were almost tanned with a spray of freckles, and his hair looked translucent and thin. He asked about what my project had been before it keeled over.
I told him, “About the lives of a young man and a woman, who never existed. I wrote their diaries, took photographs for them, and even bought some of their clothes.”
Back in my crusty corner of studio amongst the nodding approval of my tutor, any idea seemed to be of value if it were only unthought of previously. Christopher kept asking questions that I ignored fluttering inside the hollow of my ear. “Why did you bother? Who was it for? Where are they now?” and I just shrugged and smiled, feigning bemusement. What this idiot would give to be a tortured genius!
I remembered the charcoal shapes I’d scribbled on a piece of corrugated beige cardboard, winding and twisting like strands of ink in clear water. How my tutor had grinned and enthusiastically spouted words like “Energy” and “Fresh”. How Lesleigh had smiled politely at them before asking if I had any more pencil sketches. I preferred those sketches too, once I was out of the chemical-dust haze of the studio.
Taking a big bite into the heart of the matter I turn to Chris and say, “Sometimes grownups need to be told to stop daydreaming.”

***

In the months before my project began to fester, I found myself buying pair after pair of neat red shoes for her. They collected first along the floor of my wardrobe, then later upon the carpet beside it. Some were shiny and bright; others supple, comfortable and faded. Dresses too, all of them red and white with stripes or frills, polka dots, stitching, tie-dye, zigzags, check or abstract swirls. The daffodils pushed up with the springtime and, alarmed by their warmth, I assigned them to her as her favourite and picked yellow flowers in the wild parts of the park. These sheets of uncut grass were closed in with young slender trees and clumps of lilac. Long, dry threads of grass sprouted husks and seeds which sprung rough to the white skin on the backs of my knees. I walked for as long as I could in this enclosure, eyes barely open scanning the ground for tulips or crocuses, my fingers spread, palms to the ground, the warm spring breeze against my fingertips. In the dim, the hot and the fragrant, I simulated the Dorset countryside, her crimson dress billowed at my thighs.
I strayed out into the fields, my moments fading into landscapes. Soon I had lost it, the thread of humanity that pricked at my ears and caught my fluttering eyelashes. I found myself lodged into the solitude that once sprung Romantic poetry. In a moment of heat, colour, and the sweet smell of dry grass I find that I have written:

“Because that is all that is left. That is all I can see here, wild crocuses and ferns with no arms or temperaments, with no care for my little linen covered book.”

***

Chris taps my knee impatiently. I twitch slightly below the thin red silk of my skirt and pull my face into a slow, unconvincing grimace.
“Don’t you think about them at all anymore?” he asks, placing a tangle of broken buttercups in my lap, roots brittle and long. I push my fingers into the yellow, greasy mess of plants and pluck at it absentmindedly, accepting the gift.
“Christopher,” I mutter, still with lips forced into a grin, “I’ve said lots about my friends, why don’t you tell me something about yours?”
And so in the moist comfort of a hollow old oak tree, I met young Jessica.

Even in his corduroy shorts, he runs fearlessly through patches of nettle and bramble, two of his waddling steps to each of my paces. Soon we are in the untamed ground at the bottom of the garden which runs along the edge of the property around five trees deep. Chris, no doubt, believes it to be a forest. He jogs on ahead of me, stopping every few feet for me to catch up with my calm, adult gait. Soon enough we come to the thick trunk of a felled oak tree. We clamber into the hollow; his bare fingers dig into the soft, half rotten leaves. He buries into the moist ground for a minute, fingernails blackening. Out of this shallow hole he pulls a grubby Tupperware box filled with wilted green leaves.
“Her name is Jess.” He opens the box. There is a millipede about the length of my hand and thickness of a fat marker pen. In the shady mess of leaves and twigs, it laces itself into pale shapes.
Surprised that a boy as young as Chris had chosen to make this featureless pet a creature of the opposite sex I ask, “Why do you think your pet is a girl?”
He looks at me as if I’m simple, “Because she’ll grow up to be a butterfly!” he exclaims with a patronising note to his voice beyond his years.
It’s stupid and cruel, but I do not want to say no, I had come to love Jess and her stickled, mottled skeletal plates, her thread legs pushing her body into tangles. I don’t want to say “Jess will be cold and white forever” or “Boys can be pretty butterflies too” so I just smiled again. I cough as if to correct myself and mutter “Ah, how silly of me.”
The smile was weak, he crumples his smooth face into a scowl.
“But you chose to have that silly girl and those silly boys.”
“That’s different, I made her.”
“Someone made Jess, too. We learnt about it with frogs.” He looks up at me, all doughy cheeks and innocent, round, parody eyes.
Ask me anything, Christopher. Any of the classics: how you were born, what happens when you die, whatever scientific jargon you want explained: Clouds, stomachs, sea-beds and aeroplanes. Just don’t make me shrug, my lips sliding over themselves for what seems like forever mumbling “I don’t know, I don’t know”
But I couldn’t shout at him, not with the little bastard being so unbearably right. I grab his wrist, Jess lays brittle in his pink hand. “Christopher, Lesleigh will be wondering where we’ve got to.” and tug him sharply to his feet. He stares blankly at the floor and murmured “Mum”, finding the stranger ‘Lesleigh’ with his hot little tongue.

***

I bought a bulky suede overcoat for Paul, the last piece of my project. When I tried it on it dragged at my shins and draped a few inches over the tips of my fingers. Though it suited his persona perfectly, I had always pictured Paul as a lean man, and not of a great height. But the pockets were deep and well lined. Something I had always hated in the clothing of my own sex was a tendency to stitch pockets so shallow that the hands were only covered to the knuckles. A good sized book could fit into Paul’s pockets, alongside pens, notepads and plastic wrapped hard-boiled sweets. In the inner breast pocket, I keep a picture of a child around eight years old. The photograph is a little smaller than a man’s palm, quite old but surprisingly lacking in nicks and creases. The boy’s soft hair falls lightly upon his thin brows, a finely spun thread compared to Paul’s own thick, close-cut auburn hair. His eyes are dark creases in the glare of summer sun. Boney pale in front of his grubby white t-shirt, his arms are held out stiffly, and in his open palms rests a vibrant green caterpillar curled snugly into the nooks of his fingers.

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