art

The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba

Claude Lorrain, The Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, 1648

 

A distant sea bird calls in the gallery.  Yet, I cannot see one.  The visitors mull around in corduroy, folded-arm consternation, with audio guides and little plaques to lead them through a maze of Turner and the Masters.

Something shifts in the corner of my eye.  I turn back to the painting.  The men carrying the trunk are wobbling and sweating feverishly as they lower precious cargo onto the boat.

The idle bystanders are laughing.  The rowers are rowing.  The Queen’s blue cloak ripples in a Red Sea breeze.

I step into the painting.  I swallow hard and blink and stamp my feet in the dirt.  Nobody sees.

I do not believe I was in the painting.  I have an unsettling imagination that leaves me thirsting for reality.  Yet I can taste Arabian salt on my lips.

I go home.  I kick off my shoes.  I roll damp socks into a ball and throw them down the hall.  I watch the cat flick the sock toy in the air and pounce.  Liberated feet breathe in airy relief and siliceous grains glisten between my toes.

 

 

Image source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Embarkation_of_the_Queen_of_Sheba

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Boy with Balloons

Boy with Balloons, Mrs Mook’s Mantlepiece

When I was a girl, about four or five years old, my parents would leave me with a lady called Mrs Mook. She was a big lady; strong as an ox. She had great, wide hips and salt and pepper hair that had been set in pink, heated rollers. She wore slippers for wide feet and paisley, patterned polyester dresses. I liked it when Mum and Dad couldn’t pick me up before tea time. I liked sitting at her Formica table and eating beef in little squares with sweet, tinned peas and grey-vy.

Mrs Mook had the most extensive collection of porcelain I have ever seen. As we had a cuppa in the living room, Mother would raise her cup to her lips, believing it to be a greater shield than it truly was, and utter in harsh, hushed tones ‘Don’t touch,’ before measuredly sipping her tea and eliciting a demure smile as she lowered her cup.

The boy with balloons was my favourite ornament. He stood nearest to me on the left of the dark wood mantelpiece. The balloons were so appealingly edible and fruit-like with their shiny, glazed spheres. I just wanted to pick one and eat it and feel it crunch in my molars like a pear drop. But I did not. I was keenly observed.

I was excruciatingly restrained, sitting on my hands lest they lose control and propel my child’s body up from my chair. They might fling me into the glass cabinet sending plates and coveted tea sets crashing to the floor, before dragging me across to the fireplace. My wayward left hand might lift my arm and force it in one neat line all the way down the mantelpiece decapitating the blue and white bonneted shepherdess with the upturned fingers, massacring the promenading Victorian couple, slaughtering the proud Dalmatian dog and finally murdering the boy with the balloons in one foul swoop with a crash and a smash into smithereens.

The shepherdess’s head would roll casually along the floor till it reached Mrs Mook’s slippered toe where it would rock gently and come to rest with a delicate nose, pressed between a rubber sole and worn carpet. The pink balloon would break free from the others and rather than float away to the boundless sky, it would land with a sure thud and nestle by my chair leg. My unruly hand might take the charlatan strawberry sherbet and conspire with my guileless mouth which, overcome by temptation and fateful opportunity, will weaken and allow wicked, tiny fingers to prise its lips apart just enough to gleefully pop the pink balloon onto my insatiable tongue.

I must sit on my hands.

I wonder where the porcelain boy is now and whether his knuckles are still white because he has been clutching china balloons for his entire life.

A humble winter tree

Winter Tree

On a winter’s night, under an indigo-black sky a tree stands alone next to a yellow light on the corner of a city pavement. It is bold, youthful and strong yet quite ordinary.  An intricate spiral pattern emerges from light-reflecting, icy moisture on smooth, bare branches. Nature shows a face, an invisible web connecting each twig and sleeping bud with light and molecules and atoms, energy, cold and magnetism. Cars rush by.  A man walks his dog.  A couple argue on their way home from the pub.  Yet no one sees the trees incandescent display.  The secret remains within the humble roadside, ice-lit winter tree which, on occasion, reveals the hidden code of everything.

 

Flood

Swimming in my dressing gown

I walk to a place of three hills.  My hill is lower than the other two.  Sun battles cloud.  All the land fills with water.  As the ocean rises I look with envy upon a family standing on the very top of the highest hill in the valley. They are close and safe and dry. The High Hills stand with arms folded. I hear them chunter with ambivalent curiosity, mulling over what the Low Hills will do.  My sisters and I embrace the coming of the seas. ‘Shall we swim?’ says the middle one.  I wade out into water.  I am wearing an old towelling dressing gown and carrying a cup of tea. The gown becomes sodden and heavy.  I panic.  Then I tread water and sip tea.  My sisters distant banter drifts into my ears on a maritime breeze.  The ends of my hair are wet.  Calming waves lap fondly at my shoulders.  Sunlight reaches across the water.  I feel its warmth upon my face. Everything will be fine.

Storytelling

Once upon a time (English)

A long, long time ago it was – Fadó, fadó, fadó a bhí ann (Irish)

It’s an old story – बहुत पुरानी बात है – Bahuta purānī bāta hai (Hindi)

There was once – Der var engang (Danish)

My mother would read fairy tales from a large, grey book.

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The Storyteller, Franz von Defregger, 1871

I was fond of Tommalise by Hans Christian Andersen

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Tommalise by Vilhelm Pedersen

There was once a woman who wished very much to have a little child, but she could not obtain her wish. At last she went to a fairy, and said, “I should so very much like to have a little child; can you tell me where I can find one?”  “Oh, that can be easily managed,” said the fairy. “Here is a barleycorn of a different kind to those which grow in the farmer’s fields…”

And I sank into wonderment.

Image 1 source: http://robvanderwildttellerstalespictured.wordpress.com/

Image 2 source: https://topillustrations.wordpress.com/2012/11/23/vilhelm-pedersen/thumbelina-3/

Dream of flying away

I live in the 19th century in Victorian London.  The drawing room is crowded with men in top hats and coat tails.  There is a thick, smoky fug.  I am stifled.  I want to escape.  I sneak out of the back door and walk to the end of a long, thin, untidy garden.  I lift my layers of skirts and scale a metal fence; the like of which I have never seen before.  I jump from a height into a busy road. Every which way I turn there are motorised vehicles so I run.  I run and run down the road till air fills my mourning dress and lifts my feet and I am flying.  My flight is jerky and uncertain.  I’m worried my petticoats will get caught beneath angry wheels.  I try flying with one arm outstretched but two arms thrust forward gives me more power.  Yet I cannot gain enough height to stay above the bustle.

 

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Fleeing the past

 

 

Mount Etna erupts during fish head stew

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In a bit of a stew

 

It was summer 1999.  I ventured out from the grotty pensione for my first evening ‘solo‘.  A surly, paunchy waiter with impressive sweat patches under his arms slammed a clay pot down on the wobbly table and barked ‘caldo’ at me with paternal gruffness.  The fish looked aghast at their predicament.  I stirred my spoon through abundant heads that bobbed around helplessly in sea-laced pomodoro.  I took another generous sip of red wine while summoning the courage to swallow something that would ordinarily beat me in a staring competition, when poised with glassy-eyed head on fork, I noticed a faint glow in the night sky.  On this hot Sicilian September night Mount Etna erupted and emblazoned on my memory its magnificent, molten sight.