Thursday, October 25, 2012

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Nine

Jerome van Starke stretched out upon the antique wicker chaise lounge, his head upon the large brown corded sofa pillow, images of the day's faces—emotions and enigmas, profiles and recognitions—making entrances and exits upon his inner stage. The fashions and body movements, the glances and stances. So few looking at him, don't look at the 'homeless man,' the 'unfortunate,' the 'emotionally challenged.' Occasionally he would find an inquisitive eye, one that couldn't quite figure out who he was and what he was doing sitting on a street bench watching people go by. The police knew him by now. Only dogs met his eyes consistently, a mixture of bored curiosity and latent sympathy. He always included a dog in his paintings, lower right, looking out at the imagined viewer, his name underneath in a flourish, 'van starke.' The owner of the restaurant that faced his bench would tell his patrons that the man was “une artiste, nothing to worry about, not a beggar, but a painter looking for inspiration,” and he would point to the painting behind the cash, a portrait of the owner which Jerome had painted for him, having used Anthony van Dyck's portrait of Cornelis van der Geest as inspiration. There was the owner, complete with the slightly limp piccadill ruff collar of the original painting from 1620 but a much more handsome specimen than poor old van der Geest.

He reached over to the crumbling white plaster Grecian style pedestal and pressed the cd player on and let the soothing melodies of Coeur de Pirate wash over him like a sacred rain, the piano notes like drops of water upon his face. He looked at the figures on the pedestal, handmaidens, one hand over a breast, one holding a jug, libation bearers, and he imagined the flow of wine, wine falling into the river of life like red coiled snakes.

His burnt umber rags were neatly hung on a suit hanger upon the back of the door to his studio, his lace-less shoes positioned on the mat like offerings to Hermes. He now wore honey-coloured wide wale corduroys and a large denim shirt. A half-completed oil painting on the large easel reflected the late afternoon northern light.

Conjuring up the two women he saw today walking arm-and-arm, expressions of contentment, their colourful thin scarves flowing in the cool air, he visually placed them in the painting to the left of centre, envisioning the colours, the brushstrokes, the tonal contrasts.

He was glad he had decided to venture out on a Sunday. It had been worth it, those faces. Just what he needed for the painting. Weekday mornings, he found, produced a monotony of morose facial expressions, grey-steeled, rushed, yet, with less-concern in their tired eyes. They came like a river from the direction of the Central Train Station, an army of suits, shoes, purses, briefcases, shoulder bags, holding digital devices before them like maps guiding their steps. Lunch-time crowds were the most interesting by far. A mixture of office workers, students, tourists and those with time on their hands. Time on their hands. Was it incised upon their palms? Their expressions were a mixture of release and forgetfulness, the day half over; the lunch buyers, the sun seekers, the health walkers, the window shoppers. The evening rush hour towards the train station was much more hurried, their gait anxious with the passing of every second, not wanting to miss their departures. Determination in their strides and on their faces.

No, quite definitely, lunch-time crowds were the most inspiring.

His occasional forays into Dorchester Square were also beneficial at times. Leaning back on the park bench facing the equine statue was his place. His other place. The occasional tour guide would pontificate about the statues in the park, calling it an 'equestrian' statue, but he was not one to correct, he was not a stickler as was said. Equestrian, equine, what did it matter to the tourists who would likely forget about it by the next encounter with Montreal history. The unmounted horse was a favourite view. Rearing, the horse's expression of fright at what he imagined would have been an explosive sound, the soldier looking up with determination, pulling down on the reins in a frozen attempt to control that remnant of untrained wildness, that glimpse of a true nature in face of a fabricated horror. How few looked at the statue. Truly looked. It was now a place to take the sun, leaning against the warm concrete base, cell phone to the ear. Pigeons invariably perched on the outstretched forelegs like dark furies.

He closed his eyes, listening to the music. The image of Thérèse sitting across from him, laughing, wine glass half-full, the glimmer off the white dishes before her, the background music massaging the atmosphere, the glowing lights and the table candles, the shadows and darkness through the windows, the dark reflections off parked cars, the passing headlights. It had been three months since he last saw her.

He had lost count of how many paintings he had completed, how many portraits of Thérèse he had produced. She was always the beginning of any painting. The focal point, standing in the forefront of vanishing points, or, in this half-completed painting, to the extreme right of the canvas as the vanishing point was off canvas in his modern version of Carpaccio's The Disputation of St. Stephen. Rare were men in his paintings. Women predominated his scenes. Hearing his neighbour’s dog bark, he looked over to the distant wall where his favourite painting hung. His modern version of Carpaccio's Vision of St. Augustin. The dog in the original was timeless. Absolutely timeless. He replicated it as closely as possible. Thérèse as St. Augustin, sitting at a desk with laptop open, looking up at the light, pensive, books and papers surrounding her. In the distance, he had painted a fireplace with a miniature of the original painting above the mantel shelf. A wing-back chair and ottoman at the left side, and shelves with modern books and small statuary and china pieces. The dog looking up at Thérèse expecting to be fed, or was he, or she, perceptive enough to notice inspiration alighting? He could never sell the painting. Not now.

A knock at the door, a familiar knock. Jerome turned off the cd player.

Maurice, the man who looked after the property stood before Jerome, a package in his hand.
“I found this within the flyers and junk mail. You must have missed it on Friday.”
“Ah, merci mon vieux. And how are you today?”
“Uh, I am feeling like shit. My gallbladder is killing me again.”
“Maybe you should cut out cheese, and pasta.”
“How can I cut out cheese, how could I live without my cheese?”
“What about having surgery? It's not a complicated procedure anymore. A few holes, and they do it all by miniature camera, vacuuming it out with one of the tubes.”
“Ah, my friend, you make it sound like a bit of plumbing. The cleaning of a drain, eh. No, no, I am not ready for the knife, monsieur. Not yet. My brother had a camera put down his throat to look around in his stomach and he's never been the same. No sir, I am not in a hurry for the knife.” Maurice paused, half turning, “There were two men here earlier asking of you.”
“Two men? What did they want?”
“They didn't say.”
“What did they look like?”
“Hmm, well, they didn't look like artists. Expensive suits, faces only a mother could love.”

Jerome thanked him for letting him know. Shutting the door, he listened to Maurice's low moans as he descended the stairs. Maurice, he feared, was half in love with his pain. He looked at the package postmarked Trieste. He tore the envelope open and drew out a slim volume entitled Alacrity and Karma on a Yacht off Palmyra, by his good friend P. K. Loveridge. The cover, pastel colours of palm trees, white sand beach, a sail boat in the distance on a placid aquamarine sea. Jerome turned to the title page and found an inscription to him:

Dear Jerome,
My latest offering from your humble servant. Have settled in Trieste at a friend's place, will be here a year. Come and visit if you can. Give yourself a rest from all those fetid paints.
All my love to Thérèse,

He flipped a few pages and a piece of paper fell out. Picking it up he read:

Ah Ha! If you have found this slip of paper, you are well-rewarded for your curiosity. And here I thought you might have tossed the book onto your shelves to be forgotten. Yes, my dear Jerome, a collection of poems. From a writer of novels you ask? Well, it is a narrative poem. You'll find it all here, sonnets, villanelles, haiku, triolets, rondeaus—have I lost you yet?—ghazals, odes, acrostics, blank verse, clerihews, dramatic dialogues and a Rubaiyat or two. You might even recognize yourself within. The spirit only of course, the spirit only. Read it if you can in small doses. Something to ease the pain of your insular existence. I jest, I jest. I do hope it is readable. May it not be “compassed murkily about.” P.K.

PS: Do visit! Plenty of room here for you and Thérèse. You should smell the harbour. And the coffee, ambrosia. Ciao.

Jerome placed the book on the chaise lounge and walked over to the window. A visit to Trieste is just what he needed. Fresh air, new faces. Thérèse having left him three months ago, he was still lethargic and withdrawn. He relived the scene, going to her flat, no one answering his knocking. Her landlady, the petite Mrs. Shimoda he had painted in one of his canvases, coming out below to say the apartment was empty, and recognizing Jerome, pausing before saying she has moved. No, she did not have a forwarding address, she was sorry.

Jerome pressed the cd player on again and walked over to his easel. 

© ralph patrick mackay.

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