The Veteran Artist

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He had blue acrylic under his rugged fingernails and flecks of yellow across his brow. Tributary lines ran to the corner of his eyes in wrinkles speaking of laughter mired by underlying pain. He stretched back his arm and ran his long brown fingers through is hair, grey wasps threaded between his thumb and fore finger. He looked at his watch and paced to the wardrobe, taking out his crisp navy suit. To define Mr Wallace’s appearance is to answer a paradox; too beautifully abstract to venture too far into. Yes, his arms were always a little dusted with paint and yes, he would also wear a near-perfect suit when the hour required. Reaching up above his wooden desk, he fumbled over his bottles of cobalt blue, salmon pink and olive green to a wooden brush and tin of polish. He opened the polish and began shining his worn leather boots. He worked on them for 20 minutes or more, his muscle memory relaxing into the forwards and backwards motion. He held them at a distance, a smile flitted across his sunken, drooping lips.

Then he sighed and lifted his eyes to the corner of the room, focusing on the canvas propped against the mantle. He’d turned the painting on it towards the wall a long time ago yet it had still occupied a dusty crevice in his memory. But now he’d chosen to move on and away from the face that adorned the front of it. The gaping grin and golden-flecked eyes that looked coyly to the side, the wisps of hair that had tickled her face. He allowed himself a glance, a fumble of his finger across the bridge of her nose to her cupid’s bow. Now that was all. He opened a zipped black duffle bag and slide the canvas in. Her sculpted cheekbones and effortless smile had always belonged to the summer of 1944, to the hours she’d spent nursing him after he’d come back from the front lines.

He stepped out of his smart red door, closed it promptly, and strode down his street, the autumn leaves tumbling over his shoulders as he watched them spiral on to the pavement. He turned the corner onto Pecan Avenue, walked past the post office and trundled up the hill.

This was the last visit he was going to make to the F.P Art Gallery, they’d had the lot, every piece he’d done since ’44. He glanced at his bag, she- on the canvas in the bag, was the first piece he ever painted. He thought it ironic that she would be the last he sold.  Then he remembered how he’d painted her. Very reluctantly, at first, crouched on a creaky red bench at the hospital after they’d suggested something about art therapy.

‘Makes them think of something other than the bombs.’

No-one in his family was a painter and he had thought the whole thing quite stupid, as he recalled. Until they asked him what he wanted to paint and his beautiful nurse volunteered.

He smiled and as he looked up a breeze passed over his face. As he pushed the door of the gallery open, the bell on top tinkled announcing his arrival. “Mr Wallace!” hailed the gallery collector from the counter, noticing the bag tucked under Mr Wallace’s elbow. “Have you brought her?” he looked eagerly. Mr Wallace walked forward in affirmation, laying the bag on the counter top and pulled out the canvas. The collector looked down, he started, drew a short, sharp breath and then looked up at Mr Wallace. “It was her?!” he asked, ending the question on a breathless high pitch. Mr Wallace, naturally confused, looked up only to see the collector swiftly leave the counter and walking into the back room.

After several minutes, he returned with a large cardboard box stuffed full of photos and what appeared to be small sketches and paintings of a face similar to his own ladys’ face. “Mr Wallace, you have the crown jewel, the piece de resistance to my collection! Ah if I had known this nurse you’d told me about was the woman herself, ah!”

Mr Wallace was truly baffled. The collector in response explained apologetically yet persistently; “ This woman you have depicted is Julia Taylor. As she nursed you she did many other soldiers at the Surrey hospital and many of them seem to have chosen to draw her as the subject of their art rehabilitation, way back just after the war.” He thumbed through the sketches in the box and pulled out a few and the similarity was uncanny.

“She must have been some kind of saviour to them.” The smile in response that flitted across Mr Wallace’s face was one that simply spoke of truth.

Image: R Miller via Flickr

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