She told me her name was Anna. The big bonfire, on the lawn behind the old house, burned in her eyes. I was dazzled. She had long hennaed curls and a dress sense somewhere between hippie and goth. She didn’t like alcohol, and had only drunk a concoction made from lemonade, lime, soda water and ice – a ‘Bugger Me’, she called it. When some of the party-goers became boorishly drunk, she took my hand and led me away, over the lawn to the hedge, where we sidled through a gap into the trees beyond.
We walked through rattling darkness, her hand still in mine, her tall figure moving gracefully ahead of me. Eventually we came to a road on the other side of the spinney, which we followed until we arrived at a brick-built building, a stable block I thought. She squeezed my hand and led me up wooden steps, at the top of which was a wooden plank door that she unlocked with a key she shook from her shoulder bag.
As she went through the door, she slapped a dimmer switch on the wall. The light revealed a large, one-roomed, studio flat. Kitchen units lined the far wall. The bare floorboards were painted blue, and dotted with rugs stained with tea and paint. A bed, neatly made, was pushed against one wall. There was a small dining table, empty but for a bowl of fruit in its centre. The washing-up was done and stacked in the drainer. Chaos only began as we moved closer to the centre of the room, past an old and worn bed-settee and a walnut coffee table – stained with tea-cup rings, and oils and turps and white spirits – on which sat paints and brushes. Unemptied ashtrays spilled their grey, white and brown contents onto the table and the arm of a ripped leather armchair. At the centre of the room, beneath a skylight, stood an easel. On the floor around it bloomed the tiny flower heads of dripped paint. Finished and half-finished canvases lined one wall. On the floor, on tables, on chairs, lay pieces and pads of paper of all sizes, some containing dabs of watercolour, some pen and ink, others charcoal.
She flopped into the leather armchair and lit a cigarette. She threw the match towards an ashtray and missed. The match joined others on the floor under her chair. She crossed long legs encased in horizontally-striped black and beige tights.
I looked around the white-walled room. ‘This is…’ I began.
‘Quaint?’ Anna interrupted with a laugh. ‘Nice? Interesting?’
‘You took all the words out of my mouth.’
She looked around. ‘It will do for now,’ she said. ‘I would like better light, but I can’t afford a studio that provides it.’
I picked up a pad and flipped through the pages. The pad mostly contained pencil drawings.
‘You’re good,’ I said.
She smiled enigmatically. ‘How would you know?’
‘I’m no expert, but I know what I like.’
She laughed. ‘Do you draw or paint?’
‘No. I’m more practical. I’m an engineer. I only dabble in photography.’
‘A true novice,’ she said. ‘Let me see what you can do.’
She tossed me a pad and a pencil.
‘What shall I draw?’
I tried my best to draw her, but her essence kept slipping away. Her tartan miniskirt and a tie-dyed, strappy top that she wore over her unconstrained, small breasts I rendered almost successfully. Her pale oval face and brown eyes had escaped me entirely. I frowned at the paper.
‘Have you finished, Mr Engineer?’ Anna asked.
I said I had. She came over, took the pad and knelt on the wooden floor in front of me.
‘It looks like a child’s drawing,’ she mused. ‘More sophisticated, perhaps, than a child. But still…’ She looked up at me. ‘You don’t mind me saying this?’
I shook my head. I knew she wasn’t being unkind. Her assessment was accurate. I had never been able to draw.
‘Everything has thick black lines. You draw like a child,’ she repeated. ‘You shouldn’t rely on the lines. Here, I’ll draw you.’
She stubbed out her cigarette, and picked up a stick of charcoal and a pad. I could hear the black stick scratching on the paper. She was quiet for a few moments, occasionally smudging the charcoal with her fingers. Then, she flipped the pad around with a smile.
It was me, all right. My wide mouth, narrow eyes, sticky-out ears. Her drawing had light lines that defined the shapes, but the form was provided by her shading, by the way she had represented light and shadow.
She looked at her picture again. ‘You could learn to to do it, too,’ she said. ‘It’s just practice.’
That night we drank Earl Grey, smoked cigarettes, and talked until the morning. I fell in love with her. I hoped that, one day, she could love me too, even though I knew that, in my Levis, trainers, and Fred Perry, I was far too straight for her. We were now friends, at least, and whenever I saw her I tried to draw her. There was no doubt that, with her help, I was getting better. One day, while she was making a pot of Earl Grey for us, I stole a photo of her from a photo album so that I could practice drawing her at home.
I came to love that picture. I studied it day after day as I tried to get the shapes and shades right, cross-hatching here and there, smudging my heavy pencil lines, learning to leave spaces where light should be. In the photograph she sat in the battered leather armchair, nursing a mug that I guessed was full of her favourite Earl Grey. A smile played about her lips, a smile just in the process of forming or dying – I couldn’t work out which – and her brown eyes seemed to throw out a challenge.
I struggled with my drawing. I returned to it whenever I could, applying what I learned from her. I filled pads with attempts that weren’t quite right. Sometimes I would fill a page with only the shapes of her eyes or her lips, or the fall of her curls to her shoulders. Page after page contained my attempts at shapes and textures, light and shadow. But I was getting closer to her. With each improvement, I was shaping a whole. My drawing, when complete, would be an emblem of my love.
Finally, struggle turned to success. I could see it. The image on the page was her, I was sure of it. I was so happy to have captured her at last. I was eager for her to know that I too was now an artist. I ran up the steps to the studio on a cool, grey October afternoon filled with swirling brown leaves. She was alone, as usual. She put the kettle on the hob, laughing at my enthusiasm. Then she sat me in the leather armchair and kneeled on the floor in front of me. She took the pad, and flipped it open. In my excitement, I had torn-out out my drawing and placed it at the very front of the pad, so that she would see it sooner. She studied the drawing for some time. The kettle whistled but she made no move to get it.
Then she looked at me. ‘Is this how you see me?’
I said yes, so excited by what I had achieved that I failed to see the sadness in her eyes. But the tone of her voice I could not mistake.
‘You can go now. Please go. And take your picture away.’
The kettle continued to whistle as I left.