I knew her when she was alive, before she lost her sight.
She was the life of the place in those days. During visiting hours, the nice young men of the press would come to see her, like a herd of donkeys in their smart grey suits and with their hair all oiled. They would stand respectfully in the corner, just watching her paint, and sometimes one of them would ask her a question. Mostly simple little questions, and quiet. If she was having a good day, she would give them back simple quiet little answers, and all the young men would scramble to grab the words and save them in their notebooks. Some days, a question would catch her imagination, and she would lay down her brush and turn to look at them with a smile.
In the evenings, after everyone else’s families had packed up their card games and sticky toddlers, she would amuse the rest of the residents with stories from her youth. Oh, they all had stories to tell – it was all that most of them had left – but when she started to speak everyone else fell silent. They were wild stories, about the loves she had known, and the friends, and the daring adventures they had had. They say now that she was a fabulist, but all I know is that as she spoke, the lines faded from her face and her eyes blazed, and around us the dusty chintz seemed to melt away and we were there with her as she spun across the dancefloor, or bathed naked in the moonlight, or ran from the police hand-in-hand with the beau of the moment.
As her illness progressed, she became more solitary. She found it harder to paint as the light faded from her eyes, and she no longer welcomed the press men. They still came for a time, but her answers were sharp, and the herd dwindled. One spring morning when she turned to look at them, there were tears in her cloudy eyes. She took the pen from the unresisting hand of the nearest man and slashed at her painting. The sharp metal nib ripped through the canvas in places, and left rivers of ink mixed with the oils in others. I had to retrieve the pen and help her back to her room.
After that day, the press men were no longer permitted to visit, and she stayed mostly in her room, drawing pictures of fantastical creatures with grotesque bodies and spidery legs. Pens were forbidden, but we brought her pencils and paper, which seemed to calm her. The tremor progressed relentlessly, and her eyes became entirely opaque, but still she would sit and make marks, and chew on the ends of the pencils as though engrossed in a master work.
By the end, she did nothing but sit and hum solemnly to herself, and chew on those pencils. It was only after she was gone that I came to clean out her room and discovered how many of them she had hidden away, on top of the wardrobe and under the mattress. One of the gnawed ends caught my eye and it almost looked like a face, as a defect in the grain of wood often does. Then I peered more closely at another, and spread the collection on the desk in wonder. On each one, rendered in toothmarks in the soft wood, was a portrait of someone she had known. I found amongst them a crowd of old folks, a herd of press men, and my own face.
Gloria Hanlon 2016 All Rights Reserved
Photo credit Chalmers Butterfield 2006