Once upon a time, there was a skinny little girl who dreamed the big world through huge glasses. Then her hair was cut short. Her mother was an impatient soul so it might have been nits or insolence, but short it was, and it meant that the little girl was constantly mistaken for a boy. One day in her third year at school, the little girl’s teacher was ill, so Mrs Maitland came to teach the class. Mrs Maitland brought along her daughter, who was the same age as the class children. This daughter may have been called Cassandra and she certainly didn’t have to wear the drab school uniform. Instead, she wore a red tartan pleated skirt and a jumper knitted from sparkly turquoise nylon that scratched the little girl’s face as they were squeezed together in the jostle of the queue for the midmorning trip to the toilet. The little girl hummed a tiny tune as her gaze wandered from Cassandra’s fluffy blonde hair to the downy skin of her neck to the harsh brash glitter of the jumper. This pleased the little girl, so she let her eyes roll up and down, up and down, like search lights on the lookout for textures and sensations. But her poor little cheek was getting quite sore, so the little girl was relieved when Mrs Maitland pulled her over to the other queue. Then, once Mrs Maitland had given the word, she tagged along until the little girl found herself in the little boys’ room, in front of a crowd of boys who considered her in a mixture of sympathy and embarrassment. The little girl turned slowly on her heel and, trusting their silence, left the little boys to their urinals.
Sometimes, still, she would look in the mirror and see a small scoundrel of a boy in drag, his Adam’s apple swelling before her eyes. He would stare back defiantly, as if she was the absurd reflection, and often she agreed.
The cafe is so steamy I have to take off my glasses as soon as I step inside. The pretty young thing takes my order and I place my glasses on a small table, put my violin underneath and sit facing the doors where I can watch the comings and goings of busy shoppers and tired workers. It’s my Friday night treat, a coffee on the way home from rehearsal: a good strong cappuccino in the winter; vanilla latte in the summer. If I’ve played ok, I’ll reward myself with a caramel wafer too. I’ll balance it on top of the cup, let the steam soften the waffle and melt the caramel inside until it becomes one big delicious gooey mess.
Pretty Young Thing brings my cappuccino and caramel wafer and places them on the table with a cheery ‘there you go, enjoy!’ and a charming smile. I thank her and smile back as charmingly as I possibly can. Then, having tonged four small brown sugar lumps into my coffee, I settle down to stir, to gaze and to consider my day.
My eyes follow the gracious curve of the street outside; Georgian facades sit neglected above modern plate-glass and neon shop fronts. I like the way the view is enclosed and halved by white wooden frames of the double glass doors of the cafe, and the upper edges of the scene softened by weeping branches of a birch tree set into the pavement. The sugar lumps are smaller, but definitely still lumps. I need to nail those arpeggios in the final movement. If I buy pasta on the way home I can have tuna bake for supper. Will he come in tonight? The sugar has dissolved now, so I take out the spoon and place the caramel wafer on top of the cup.
On a Friday nearly three years ago, the wafer collapsed at my mouth. As I caught and juggled with the wreckage, strings of caramel stuck to my lips and chin. A man appeared and silently offered me a handkerchief. I thanked him and wiped my face, but the stickiness just spread. I tried licking the handkerchief, but my tongue was coated with caramel. He went to the counter and came back with a small cup of warm water and some paper napkins. He placed them on the table, smiled kindly, and walked back to where his coffee was waiting.
I cleaned up my face and hands, and wondered if etiquette covered borrowed handkerchiefs. I couldn’t give it back sticky, but if I took it home to wash, would he think me a thief? And if I never saw him again and couldn’t return it, would that make me a thief?
He was sitting by a window, nursing his coffee and staring out at the rain.
‘Hello. Sorry. Thanks,’ I said.
‘Oh, no problem at all.’ His voice was deep soft bass, softly Welsh. He belonged in a miner’s choir.
‘Your handkerchief is all sticky.’
‘That’s the beauty of proper handkerchiefs, they can be washed.’ His hair was wild and grey with a patch of white above his right temple. He had jolly cheeks, a small sensitive mouth and tiny shining eyes packed with stories.
‘I’ll wash it. I come here every Friday about this time, pick it up next time you’re passing.’
It wasn’t long after meeting that Tom invited me to his studio to sit for him. I thought he was joking. I’m on the short side of tall; on the plump side of skinny; middle-aged and flabby-middled. But he was charming and persuasive, as if it was entirely natural and neither of us had a choice in the matter.
He would always want me to take off my glasses and remove my make-up. Sometimes I posed in whatever I happened to be wearing, sometimes he’d hand me a brightly coloured kimono or a silk scarf, other times he’d ask me to undress. I treasured the delicate vulnerability of lying before him, his eyes lightly brushing my body as the paint whispered onto the canvas.
Once we were settled, the stories in his eyes would come out to play. Tales of feral summer days in the hills with only a penknife and his wits to keep him alive; being squabbled over by doting older sisters while his mother worked at the slaughter house; criminal uncles; aunts rude as owls; tender art teachers and mutinous sheep. Once I saw how it was done, I found stories of my own. But while his had the exuberance of imagination, mine were just things that had happened to me. He said he liked the way I saw the truth, which I suspected meant my stories were dull, but I enjoyed telling them anyway, and Tom was an attentive listener.
His imagination also found its way into the paintings. It’s true, he never said he was going to paint my portrait, but the finished paintings always surprised – shocked – me. You must understand how ordinary I am: intelligent looking I’ve been called, which means plain with glasses. Well, he seemed to use my plainness as a framework on which to construct his ideal woman; the paintings never looked like me.
The last time we met I tried to talk to him about it, but it went badly. I started with ‘you know I adore you,’ and somehow ended up at ‘look, is it me you want to engage with, or your own damn imagination?’
He stared at me really hard for a second, took a deep breath as if he was about to say something, then looked away and sighed.
We sat in silence for a minute or two.
‘Tom, I just asked you if I matter and I’d really like an answer.’
‘How can I answer that?’
He spoke quietly but sternly, like I was a little girl, and at that moment I felt like one. I couldn’t answer; couldn’t even think. I just grabbed my violin case and ran.
The city night air smelt shiny and sour. I sunk deep into my scarf. As I walked home, my mind danced the tarantella to snatches of Jacques Brel and Édith Piaf, who made their way to the foreground so I could only briefly seize a single thought to hold out by its scrawny neck for inspection, and even then the poor thing’s legs flailed wildly and sometimes it managed to escape before interrogation. The first refused to talk until a sheepish grin spread slowly over his face, then all at once he spat out ‘muse!’, pulled out his tongue, thumbed his nose and ran off into the fray. The next looked haughty as he called out ‘my dear, you are simply a wet dream in the midlife crisis of an artistic fart’ and, maintaining his dignity, did a little jig, each step accompanied by a loud raspberry. Another yelled over the music, ‘don’t matter now, do it, babe. He ain’t never comin’ back. You blew it. Pyoww! Pyoww!’ He whistled at the smoking muzzles of the guns he’d made with his fingers and skipped off to flirt with the accordionist.
Once home, I flopped on the sofa and cried for a while, then tried to pull myself together. Blowing my nose before the bathroom mirror, I noticed that the red rims made my eyes greener and the salty glaze made them sparkle. When I see people crying, it sparks some empathy that makes me cry along, so the tears that welled in the green eyes blinking out from the mirror swelled the surge until a solitary drop fell. I watched in the mirror as my bottom lip stretched momentarily, sinking down at the corners as my chin twitched up to reach it, a tiny gesture that showed I was about to give in to self-pity and there was nothing I could do. I sobbed as I walked from room to room, mirror to mirror, checking in each one. But all I could see was the green fading and the red taking over. The blotchiness set in and I was done for. I knew that no amount of cold wet flannels would disguise my defeat.
The tears continued, numbing me as I put fresh linen on the bed. I made a glass of warm apple juice and a bowl of buttered semolina, which I took to bed on a tray and which both comforted and went some way towards restoring.
‘Now, get a hold of yourself, woman’ I said firmly.
I lay in bed, closed my eyes and hoped for sleep, but instead a piano tinkled and Jacques and Édith returned, ‘ne me quitte pas! Il faut oublier…’
I brought the curtains down on the Gallic drama queens and ushered in the orchestra. A little Beethoven to soothe, I thought, Pastoral Symphony.
Beethoven sat very patiently while I tried to calm myself, but he was soon joined by Mozart. I’d heard all about him, and sure enough it wasn’t long before the peace was disturbed by his twitching and heckling. I decided to put his energies to good use by sending him up to conduct the orchestra.
There was commotion as the orchestra was rudely dismissed, but then Mozart sat at the piano and played just the thing I needed to hear: Chopin’s Nocturne in C#. He played so beautifully, so soothingly: everything will be ok.
Violent coughing came from the stalls.
‘Pardon me, Madame.’
Straight away I recognised the sickly-looking composer.
‘Monsieur Chopin, welcome. By any chance, is your paramour with you?’
‘Madame Sand!’ he proclaimed.
As Chopin spluttered, George Sand strode to the spotlight.
‘At your service, Madame.’ She bowed with a flourish, sucked on her cigar and let the smoke trickle from the side of her mouth. ‘Alors, ma petite chou-fleur, it is a man, no?’
‘Always it is a man. He is mean to you?’
‘Oh, no. Not at all. Never. He is lovely to me.’
‘Ah, then he is weak! I know of that!’
Chopin stifled a cough. Ms Sand raised one eyebrow.
‘He is a Welsh mountain goat.’
‘He sounds superbe!’
‘Mais, ma chère… but he doesn’t return your affections?’
‘I think he does. Sometimes I think he does. I don’t know what he wants from me, what he sees in me. He looks at me like he cares but sometimes I wonder if he sees me at all. He paints pictures of me, but they are not me… I don’t know.’
‘Does he make you happy?’
‘He is the colour in my life.’
‘Tell me, fifille, does he have to meet you?’
‘He knows I am always at the cafe on a Friday, he meets me there when he wants to.’
‘Bien, ma trèsor, do you really need to know why?’
Pretty Young Thing takes away my empty cup and plate. I pick up my glasses and wipe away the steam.
‘Hello, do I know you?’
Tom sits down opposite and hands me a folded piece of paper. I put on my glasses, unfold the paper and see a simple pencil sketch of a woman. This woman is average height, average weight and her glasses are the most interesting thing about her face, which, if you were feeling kind, you would call handsome rather than pretty.