Tuesday 23 May 2023

The Sum of His Parts by Jane Spirit, a flask of tea

Eric had only joined the local pastel class because Joan had pestered him into it, but he’d soon had to admit to her that he was enjoying those Thursday afternoons in the village hall. Before he’d packed up work, he’d often dabbled with creating a formulaic water colour whilst on holiday, but he’d been reluctant to expose his artistic inadequacies to anyone outside the immediate family by joining the local art club. Then Joan had noticed an advert for a new pastels class whilst she was doing her weekly yoga at the hall, and she’d talked him into trying it. He still recoiled a little when asked to show his work to the group at the end of each session. He regarded that as a grotesque parody of an infant’s school ‘show and tell’ but revelled in the process that led up to this finale. Every week their tutor, Jill, would demonstrate the pastel she was working on and the photograph of an animal on which she had based it. Before they had a go too, she challenged them not just to look at the photograph, but to ‘really look at it’. That was Jill’s mantra as she moved amongst them during the two hours that followed and as they collected up their pastels, paper, pencil, flasks of tea and bottles of water to leave: ‘Really look at what is in front of you’. Eric had become accustomed to her insistence and to the familiar space in which he worked. He liked the way the other class members beavered away at their tables, untroubled by his presence and he by theirs, intent on their own piece, but always polite about each other’s efforts. So, Eric was somewhat taken aback when Jill set them homework and asked them to bring it with them to what would be the last class of term.

Jill wanted them to observe themselves in a mirror, and then to draw and colour exactly what they saw. Her voice rose a little as she sought to enthuse them and to remind them one last time that they should ‘really look at what you can actually see’. Eric was unsettled by the idea of putting himself as well as his art centre stage for others to look at. At the same time, Eric, for all his shyness, did not want to let Jill down by not contributing something ready for next week, even if it was only partially completed.

Over the next few days, the more Eric prevaricated, the more the homework nagged away at him. On Friday he and Joan were already committed to looking after their two youngest grandchildren, so he couldn’t make a start in any case. Then the weekend vanished in a haze of shopping, gardening, and lunch with some older friends in the village who then inveigled them into playing cards all evening. On Monday he and Joan had pottered into town together to look for some new curtains and he’d picked up some fresh ingredients to cook a rather elaborate recipe for their evening meal. He had made no progress on the self-portrait.

On Tuesday morning Joan went out to yoga followed by coffee with a friend. She would not be back till lunchtime. Eric occupied himself happily for a while moving a lightweight desk and chair into the spare bedroom that had the only full-length mirror in the house. Then he collected his paper, pencils, and pastels together in readiness. By this time, he was tired and decided to sit down and concentrate on looking at just his top half with his hands resting on the desk. He was unnerved to find that he was smiling at himself. This seemed rather conceited, so he adopted a passive expression and began to look again at the man in front of him. His attention was drawn immediately not to the face, but to the pre-historic neck. He hadn’t really looked at it for years, not closely, but now he watched it disappearing into the deeply old-fashioned turtleneck jumper he had put on against the chill November day. He marvelled at how much the neck reminded him of the giant tortoise he had attempted to copy in the third week of class. Lifting his chin, the sinews strained and stood out as they extended like stretched ropes above the solid carapace below. He was satisfied that he had done what Jill had asked and he quickly sketched his elderly tortoise neck just as he saw it. As he finished, he heard the front door open. Relieved to have made a start he hurried downstairs to greet Joan and hear how her sociable morning had gone.

On Wednesday, Joan went out early. She was driving a neighbour to a hospital appointment, and they had decided to make something of the trip by doing some shopping afterwards. Determinedly, Eric sat down at his desk, looking again at the sketch from yesterday and beginning to work on the neck with his brown, grey and black pastels. As he shaded, he noticed afresh the back of his hands hovering over the paper as they emerged from the sleeves of his jumper. In the mirror they looked slightly iridescent. He saw the blue veins below, the dark blushes of old bruises, the little liverish spots, wrinkles, and the ghosts of cuts long ago healed. He could think only of Jill’s photo of the salmon which they had tried to replicate a few weeks back, finding immense difficulty in conveying the glinting fish skin’s constantly changing quality as it seemed to mould itself around the endless dimples and ripples of the water.

He had lost track of time now but did not want to stop as he tried to capture on paper the slippery fishes that were his hands. Hurriedly, he pencilled in some connecting arms, shoulders and a chest between the hands and the neck. Then he stopped for a coffee and half a packet of chocolate digestives. As he climbed back up the stairs, he pondered on whether he should perhaps be looking for more in himself than just the reflection of other kinds of creatures.

Settling back at his desk Eric immediately confronted his face in the mirror seeing a squarish cardboard coloured box that rested solidly on the tortoise’s neck. Its bald surface was smooth, apart from some fine lines incised across the top. Beneath these lines a pair of furry caterpillars dangled over matching limpid puddles, each with a darting tadpole seemingly trapped in its gelatinous waters. Yet more creatures, Eric sighed, but then he laughed as he looked again at the face and saw a familiar central raised vent and two carefully moulded bars fixed around the meshed opening beneath. Through this the heat and sound from the hidden engine could disperse and on it, moss would sometimes begin to grow after a long winter of neglect in the field. Eric worked on the pastel confidently now that he had recognised his face. It was the front of the ramshackle old tractor his father had kept, and that Eric had ridden on when he was a boy.

The next day, Eric was both nervous and excited to take his self-portrait to class and pleased that this week Jill began by inviting them all to show their work to the group first before continuing to work on it. He was proud of his piece, even if it was unfinished, and thought he might title it, ‘The sum of his parts’. As always, the class expressed polite appreciation. Jill commented on the pastel’s surreal qualities, which he took to mean she liked it. Somehow though, he did not feel like adding much to it during the class and, when he got it home and Joan proudly arranged for it to be framed and hung in the spare room near the mirror, he lost interest in it.

Years later one of the grandsons came to help his dad clear out the house. Eric was dead by then and Joan had decided to move into a flat in town. The boy moved rapidly through the empty bedrooms and took down the mirror as well as the pastel ready to be disposed of. He paused to look again at the familiar image with its strange combination of tortoise, fish and what appeared to be the face of a vintage tractor. He wondered why his grandfather had been inspired to create it. Later he carried the picture down and out of the house. He had planned to place it alongside all the other stuff ready to go into the skip but found himself moving it instead to rest against the pile of more precious objects to be kept, at least for now. Hurrying back to his sorting, he didn’t even notice the thin bloom of moss green that had begun to gather over the mouth of Eric’s lugubrious, square face.

About the author 

Jane Spirit lives in Suffolk UK and has been inspired to try writing fiction by going along to her local creative writing class. 


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