Sunday, September 5, 2010
Life Class with Cactus
I look down at my paper. Look at his. Look at her. Lean towards him. "Brian," I whisper, behind my hand. "Her breasts don't look anything like that."
He glares at me. Peers at her. Scrutinizes his work. "Yes they do," he says and carries on drawing.
I can't believe I'm doing this. I've got a bag packed with my dressing gown and my flip flops. They said to bring a book to read, just in case, but I'm not into reading really. I picked up a Hello magazine at the paper stall in the bus station. Room 54 I'm looking for.
I didn't know whether to wear my earrings or not. I thought it might look a bit overdressed, so I took some out. Just left my studs and the big hoops. I took the stud out of my nose. I thought it might look like a zit in a drawing. Taking my kit off is no big deal. What I'm worried about is whether I can keep still. They said they'd tell me the poses. But what if I get cramp, or the twitches? And what do I do when I've got my period? Uh oh, here it is.
I peep around the open door. A man stands with his back to me. I cough, to attract his attention, and he turns, head tilted in query.
"Hi, I'm Karen... er, the model."
"Karen, you found us. Well done. Didn't change your mind then?"
"No, no, I'm dead keen. Really." A bow tie! A fucking bow tie!
"Super. I'm sure you're going to be a great asset to us. Come on through. I'll show you where to stow your bag. Do you want a coffee? I'm Paul, by the way."
He looks young for a lecturer. Dark hair brushes the collar of his crumpled linen jacket, sleeves pushed up to the elbows, pockets bulging. And the bow tie, now I see it close up, is not one of those clip on types. It's hand-tied and covered with purple, pink and green splodges, like the painting of Monet's garden. It tones in with the stripe on his shirt.
I follow him into a cluttered office. Three desks piled high with books and folders. Walls papered with posters, newspaper cuttings, timetables, sketches.
"We all muck in here," Paul says. "Did you bring a mug? If not we're bound to have a spare. If it hasn't got a paintbrush in it, it's for coffee... but don't count on that."
I drop my bag on the floor and hang up my jacket on a spare peg. He talks over his shoulder while making the coffee.
The walls are covered with students' work. Nudes in various poses. Big, bold, bulging bits. Firm thighs and floppy penises. Wrinkled brows and breasts. Big feet stretching out towards me like the figures in the Michelangelo pictures we've looked at in my class. Way, way above our standard. There are some very large canvases propped up against one wall, work in progress by the look of it, and stools and easels dotted about the paint-splattered floor. I mustn't gawp, I think. Look as if you're used to it.
"This is second year work," Paul says. "We don't usually leave stuff on the walls, it gets nicked, but we had crits late last night and we're finishing off this morning."
I nod. "It looks fantastic." Christ, what a dumb thing to say.
"So we won't actually need you until after lunch. It'll give you time to find your feet, get settled in."
"Thanks," I say weakly. "Where do I get... er... changed?"
"Well, Cactus uses the office, or sometimes she uses the loos down the corridor, first left then right."
"Yes, she's been with us for years. Our most experienced model. Any problems, ask her. She knows as much as we do I reckon. Actually, it's her birthday today and we're all going down to the pub at lunch time. You'll come, won't you?"
"Thanks, I'd like that." What sort of a name is Cactus, I wonder? Later, in the pub, she introduces herself.
"G'day, I hear you're the new competition."
She looks like Zandra Rhodes on a bad day. It's hard to tell how old she is, and no one's guessing, but not young. Australian. Henna'd hair, long, caught up on one side with a ribbon and some beads. Drop-out from a hippie trail that petered out in Clapham. Nobody knows why she moved to St Albans but she's been at the art college for years. Did St Martins and Goldsmiths and was hung in the National Portrait Gallery several times she reckoned. BP Portrait Awards, and it was true because I checked. Professional interest. If I was to learn from her I needed to check out her credentials.
It's a short pose to start. Paul shows me what he wants then takes my dressing gown from me. If he hadn't I don't think I would have let it go. He's very good. Never lets on that it's my first time. Gives the students their instructions and then winks at me. All I can hear is the scratch, scratch of charcoal on paper. I just look down at my feet and try to calm the tremor in my knee.
Later, in the loo getting dressed, Cactus bursts in from her class. I have my back to her and she's going on about some 'bloody little shit' in her class. I turn to say something and that's when I notice her breast. Or rather, the lack of it. Immediately I look away but she's noticed.
"Aw don't let the boob freak you, kid. We're all used to it around here. Did you hear what I was telling you about that snotty little shit in Duncan's group?"
I'm a bit thrown, but collect myself together quickly and we go down to the refectory for a coffee. I don't mention her breast, but that night I can't get her out of my mind. Next day I have a word with Paul.
"Let me show you something," he says and leads the way into a store room. He rummages through print drawers pulling out sheet after sheet. He clears a space on the bench and spreads out the contents of an old portfolio. "This work goes back years," he says, "before Cactus became ill. She always brought out the best in students, but after her op she was even better. Look at this." He points out a pencil sketch in which a younger Cactus is depicted curled in a foetal position. Another, lying on her back. One sitting reading a book. "Now look at these later ones", Paul urges. "Look at the face."
I don't quite know what he's getting at but even my inexperienced eye can see that there's something different about the later drawings. It's as if the artist has tried to get inside her to show her thoughts and emotions. You could feel the life within the body. You could sense the artist striving to capture the essence of Cactus.
"I've never known a model like her," says Paul. "She has the ability to make her body fluid and somehow the students respond to this. Whatever she's thinking is there in her face. And she can hold it without becoming wooden." He traces the outline of a sketch with his finger. "And after her operation it was as if the students were drawn to see more in her. More than the external features. She demanded their close scrutiny, and it paid off." He turns up some more sheets. "Look, fluidity. Age doesn't matter. Never do you see a sketch of Cactus that looks wooden. The scar doesn't matter. Our results soared."
I leaf through the work, captivated by the images. Cactus with long hair... Cactus with no hair... Cactus with headscarf. Cactus with a trace of silver, light as a baby's breathe on a frosty morning. Applied with love.
"We knew the op wouldn't stop her," Paul adds, "and it hasn't. She rules this place and she knows it."
I didn't take to modelling. I surprised myself in that. I thought I'd be a natural and I tried hard for three or four months because I really liked the idea of it. Cactus thought it was funny. She tries to be helpful in her own inimitable way.
"You're too tight-arsed", she says. "It shows in your face."
She resolves to take me under her wing and I move in with her when her flatmate leaves. We go up to London to the galleries... Tit training she calls it. We look at lots of nudes. Work by Stanley Spencer and Lucien Freud. She met Freud once, she says. Knew one of his models, years ago. Henrietta somebody or other. Married a poet.
She takes me around the back streets of Soho and shows me where the clubs were, where artists and models used to meet. Coffee bars where poets read their work. She's a mine of information, from erotica to high art. She once worked in Paris as a Bluebell girl she said. Not the Bluebells but like them. A poser rather than a dancer. But she never did stripping. She preferred a bit of class, she said. It was in Paris that she got into modelling for artists. Then she came back to London and phoned around the art colleges. She has loads of art books and posters and she's always being invited to private viewings where she takes me and introduces me as her apprentice.
To Paul's relief I quit modelling. Saves him the trouble of sacking me. But I stay on, no pay, tidying up. And when I can, I join in the classes. The following year I enrol. I become obsessed with life drawing. I draw Cactus day and night. On paper she's... serene. So different from the exuberant creature she is to live with. And she transforms my life. Shows me possibilities I hadn't even dreamed of. Opens doors I didn't even know existed. And shoves me headlong through them, into situations like... this. Not the first, but certainly the most important award ceremony I've achieved...
...I feel myself being pushed forward. Gentle pats of encouragement. Smiles and nods of approval. An envelope is pressed into one hand and a microphone to the other. Paul throws an arm around my shoulders and kisses me hard. "You did it, babe," he whispers. "I knew you would."
There's applause and the woman in black looks straight at me. "Congratulations, Karen. This is very well deserved," she says.
Someone brings Cactus and props her on an easel beside me. Cameras flash.
Later, on the way home, Paul reminds me that we need to stop at the chemist for more morphine. They know us well by now. We sign for a box of capsules and pop in next door for some fish and chips.
The nurse comes out to the kitchen when she hears the front door. "How did it go then?" she asks.
"She did it," Paul says. "Just like we said she would."
"That's fantastic." She hugs me. "Congratulations. She'll be so chuffed." She accepts some chips while putting on her coat. "I'll see you tomorrow evening. Janice will be here in the morning."
"Great. Thanks so much for staying on a bit," I say. Paul sees her out.
I go through to the front room which is being used as a bedroom. The single lamp on the bookshelf gives a warm glow and brings out the rich, vermilion in the curtains. Throne-like, a commode fills one corner, past its usefulness now but we just haven't got around to taking it back to the Red Cross. The table is littered with nursing paraphernalia, at odds with the pieces of sculpture which have been pushed to one side. Above the fireplace is a large canvas, unframed, acrylic. A woman reclining, nude. Part of my degree work. Paul's watercolours cover the remaining white walls. Landscapes from Tuscany, the Dordogne and Derbyshire. A bed sticks out from the wall at an awkward angle so that people can move around it. It hums, pulsating imperceptibly as the ripple mattress does its stuff.
From the mound of pillows a voice, weak, yet cutting as ever. "You're back then. About bloody time."
I lean forward and kiss the shrivelled cheek. "Yep. Brought some chips. Do you want some?"
"Go on then... aren't you going to ask me how we got on?"
"You'll tell me anyway." The eyes close and the head relaxes into the pillows.
I take the wrinkled hand resting on the bedspread and into it I press the envelope, wrapping the fingers around it. "This is for you," I say. "We won."
The eyes remain closed, but a slow smile creeps across the tired features. "That'll pay for the undertaker then," she whispers, pushing the envelope towards me.
I flop into the armchair beside the bed. I'm weary too. There are not many nights that I don't get up to see to her. She still hallucinates. It's the morphine, the doctor tells us.
Paul comes in with a cup of tea. "Do you think she's pleased?" he asks.
"Of course she is," I answer, then louder, so she can hear me, "but she won't admit it. Prickly bugger." Her eyes don't open but she forces a smile.
The tea is good. I doze. When I come to I can hear Paul moving around upstairs. Cactus is asleep. The automatic syringe driver whirs as it spurts another dose of painkiller into her frail body - more angles, now, than curves.
Once, Paul asked me if we were lovers. I remember being deliberately vague. "Yes, I love her."
We came very close to being lovers I think, but our relationship was more sensual than sexual. On the surface she came across as a really hard case. Tough, brash, prickly as hell. Like her name-sake, not beautiful, but if treated right, given to rare moments of extravagantly lavish display. When Cactus flowered she held everyone in her spell. And she still has the capacity to surprise us.
A couple of weeks ago I found her passport when looking for something she wanted in an old suitcase. It expired in 1975. She's probably an illegal immigrant. Geraldine, her name was... is. Geraldine Marian Short. Born Adelaide, 1934. Married. Maiden name Carpenter. There's a child on the passport too. A boy. Born 1956. Graham. Stamps from different countries. Malaya, Fiji, Singapore, India.
"Dead," she says when I ask about the child. Then she turns away from me.
"What about your husband?" I persist, feeling I ought to notify somebody that she's near death. She'd always said there was no one.
"No husband," she says. "With the fairies."
We can't get any sense out of her on this subject. She obviously doesn't want to be drawn. Within the pages of her old passport a very different life is hidden. One she doesn't want to share with us. An Australian childhood. A mother and father who probably went to their graves not knowing what had become of their daughter. How had they felt? What had happened to make her want to cut herself off so completely from her former life? We'll probably never know. In her work Cactus exposed herself on a daily basis but she only let people see the parts of her she was willing to share.
The night she died I was with her, sleeping in the armchair. Her breathing has rattled for days, but I'm awakened by a change of pitch. I call Paul to come downstairs and we stand beside the bed feeling helpless, but strangely privileged. I pull up a chair and hold her hand. The rattling eases and we become aware that her breathing is slowing down. For a second I think, 'Oh, she's feeling more comfortable'. Then, like an engine coming into a station, it slows... and purrs... and comes to a halt.
We sit for awhile, each with our own thoughts. Paul's hand shakes as I take hold of it. Gradually we become aware of the sound of the syringe driver still pumping morphine into her. We disconnect the pump and switch off the ripple mattress. The room is suddenly quiet for the first time in months.
The funeral is a colourful affair. The front room reverts back to its former use. All her things get taken down to Oxfam as she wanted. Only the images remain. Photographs, sketches, paintings, prints. And my last drawing, completed the night she died... Still Life with Cactus.