I have recently joined a creative writing course as a way of trying to clamber over the writing blocks I keep bashing up against. The theme for this series of sessions is ‘writing about art’ and, at first, I wondered how that would go. I need not have worried, though, the class is relaxed and informal, the tutor welcoming and encouraging. I find that I have not only reignited the creative writing spark, I come to it with new experiences that I hope enrich the words and their meaning. Last week, we were set a ‘homework’ task. We had two paintings to choose from and the task was to marry description of the piece alongside ‘something more’. Almost immediately, I found a story thread itself through my mind and wanted to dash home and get on the computer. This is the result. I won’t tell you what the painting was until the end, though you may work it out for yourself …
Lately, the visits had left me with a burning, helpless hurt at sight of her, “don’t you understand me?” eyes but, for this final visit, those forever cherished eyes, which bore unconditional love and hope and belief returned. I didn’t know it would be the last visit; I didn’t know.
I never considered it then but, looking back, there is recognition that she held onto me as much I her. We were clinging together, a flimsy, barely-floating raft launched time and again at cruel waves, challenged to survive, or give in to the force that presented itself. I clung to her and yet, at the same time, I had no need to cling for she was everything she could be, and more. She was solid as well-tended drystake walls, warm as hot-water-bottled beds, yet firm and straight as Roman roads; she was all I needed when life’s plans cut me harshly from everything I knew. She faced her losses, with grace; some might say she was stoical but I think of her as practical, willing to face another day, and another yet, despite the keening that screamed relentlessly within her.
I remember the day she held my small hand as she showed me the room; it’s there like an imprint, forever etched just as it was. I wanted it to be that way in perpetuity. The pine bed with its burnt orange blankets, pillows and sheets in softest cream. Two chairs, pine with wicker seating; solid and reassuring. A wash of blue on walls and doors, ewer, jug, water jug, coats and cardigans. The contrast of the forest green windows, looking strong and determined; secure. Small pine table with drawer for my nick nacks, atop which stood toiletries in pretty ceramic bottles, soap that smelt like her and the hairbrush that may have been my grandfather’s. It certainly wasn’t the type for a small girl but I treasured it all the same, its brushes gentle as though they whispered through my curled locks. Pictures, mirror and towel hung on long nails that seemed to have been hammered to the very soul of the room, defying time and wear. The wood floor with its pinkish blush, soft, inviting. Pictures showed a young man in a blue shirt mirroring the room’s comforting hues, and a young woman in pink, reflecting the floor’s. It was all so perfect; no need for words really though she gave me two – “it’s yours” – and I sank in believing it was forever.
No one tells you then that forever is ungraspable; forever is fantasy; forever is a wish, a hope but it’s not permanency. Forever, in truth, is only as long as it can be and sometimes it’s gone too soon. Years passed like the landscapes in Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem that she always read me, even when I was thirty-two; “faster than fairies, faster than witches, bridges and houses, hedges and ditches”. I recited it to her once, just four days before that final visit and I noted the faint flicker of remembering, of connection, though I could never match her reading, never bring that sense of speed and movement and gasping fun to it.
I emptied her home with a detached calm that belied rising panic and agony; how could I do this to her? Give me all the logical reasons in existence – I’m sure her voice would have been in there too – but there was no logic, no reason or belief that could break the tearing, renting ache as I dismantled it all. The Room was last, demoted to “The Room” in a vague, but lukewarm, attempt at lessening the blow. It was all I could do not to lie on the cosy bed of my childhood, close my eyes and never waken, but she deserved more than that of me so I took it apart, piece by agonising piece, until it was done. By then it was a bare room, just a room, and said “goodbye”. I suppose I could have kept all the component parts but, somehow, it would never have seemed right; those things belonged to my past now and marrying them into my future would not cool hurt’s flame. I kept just one thing, just one small and enduring reminder of all she had been, all she was and all we had shared. She knew I’d done it; I knew she knew I’d done it but we didn’t dare tiptoe toward that desolation. It was the only time of pretence between us, though our eyes shared the truth in quickly grasped snatches, gone before they had chance to arrive.
She’s been gone more than a year now; anniversaries and special days have all passed by and I’m told the platitudes every bereaved person comes to know. Gran has gone and with her the anchor that kept me safe; held onto me when no one else was there. I don’t see her standing next to me or hear the wisdom of her words though, just occasionally when I brush my hair with the old hairbrush, I am back in that sky-blue haven, enveloped in her love, and strong again.
© Liz Mackenzie
6 October 2017
(The painting I chose to write about was Van Gogh’s Bedroom)