Manual of painting and c.., p.22

Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, page 22

 

Manual of Painting and Calligraphy
 


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  Then there was silence. My relational diagram recovered its stability, but with some of the lines arranged differently. In the middle a spiral became displaced, turning on itself, blindly swaying from one side to the other, like a rotifer inside a drop of water. I once saw this in a painting and it startled me. The painting was abstract and it made a deep impression. I thought to myself, “A rotifer is not abstract, much as I should like to think so when I swallow one in a sip of water.” I was torn between this triviality and the attentive expression I directed at M. This is a strategy I often practice, but this time I sensed some disloyalty. The silence was beginning to seem endless and I wanted to break it, but she spoke first. “Antonio told me you’re a painter.” I told her, “He was exaggerating. It’s not enough to paint in order to become a painter. Simply by writing one doesn’t become a writer. Antonio knows perfectly well the kind of painter I am. The kind of painter I have been. I paint portraits for people who can afford to pay handsome fees. That’s not painting.” “Because they’re portraits or because they fetch a high fee?” I looked at her sternly. Now it was my turn. “Because it’s inferior.” M. looked around her. Apart from some old sketches, a few still lifes and several good-quality prints worth looking at, all I have on my walls is the portrait of the couple from Lapa and the picture copied from Vitale da Bologna. “I’m no judge or expert. Did you paint that?” (It was the couple from Lapa.) “Yes, I did.” “It strikes me as being very good.” “I would agree, but it’s unfinished. The clients didn’t want it in the end.” Suddenly I remembered the scene of my expulsion from the villa in Lapa, carrying my portrait so as not to damage it—and I burst out laughing. M. also laughed, out of sympathy. “What are you laughing at? Am I allowed to know?” Of course I was hoping she would ask. I gave her a detailed account of the episode as I remembered it, not so much based on facts as from the version I gave earlier. “They were the victims of their own greed. If only they had allowed me to finish the portrait, paid me my fee (but this is what they were anxious to avoid), and then destroyed it. As things turned out, I came off best. I finished up owning a picture I really like.” We found ourselves laughing at the sheer absurdity of the whole affair. More silence followed, but different this time. As if for the first time we seemed to discover (certainly in my case) that we were man and woman, each of us conscious of our own sex and of each other’s. Sitting up straight on the sofa (she had leaned back in the midst of our conversation), M. put down her glass and sat there staring at the ice cube melting at the bottom. “Another whisky?” I asked. She shook her head. Raising her eyes, she spoke in a slow voice. “Unless I’m mistaken, this picture is different from the others you’ve painted.” “Quite different.” “Why?” “It’s difficult to explain. These last few months have made me reflect on things. I’ve been thinking, making notes, and when this commission turned up, this was the result. They were justified in throwing me out, in my opinion.” “And now what are you going to do? Will you go back to your earlier style of painting?” I snapped back with an unseemly bluntness I could not avoid, “Most certainly not.” The white cloud against a blue background had come and gone. Calm was restored. M. said, “I think you’re right. But you have to earn a living.” “I’ve landed a job with an advertising agency. That’s fairly normal. Chico works there. Antonio may have spoken about him.” “No, I never heard him mention that name.” (Yet he had told her about me: sly Antonio.) “Right now I have no idea what I should be painting. I prefer to wait and see what happens. Here’s hoping.” “And what’s that picture over there?” “One of my little jokes, based on a painting by a fourteenth-century Italian artist. The picture on the postcard.” Once more we fell silent. Then M. rose to her feet. She got up like a tiny furry animal, a cat, a squirrel or a poodle, as if coming out of herself: this was the strange impression she made on me. Slow to react, I just sat there watching her and feeling uneasy. Was she about to leave? “Well, now that we’ve met, I must be going.” I then got up, realizing I knew nothing about her, wanting to hear more and reluctant to see her go. “Are you returning to Santarém so soon? Without finding out something more about Antonio?” “I’ll travel back to Santarém tomorrow. Tonight I’ll sleep in my brother’s apartment. He gave us a key.” “Then why leave so soon, now that we’ve gotten to know each other? It doesn’t seem right for people to go their separate ways once they’ve met and gotten to know each other. You must admit, what I’m saying makes good sense. Why don’t you have dinner with me?” The words came out before I could stop myself. Just like that. And it was not in my nature to be spontaneous. M. hesitated for a moment, or paused for breath before replying, “Why not?”

  We both agreed it was time we had something to eat. Within two minutes we were walking downstairs. She descended ahead of me, leaning forward slightly to see where she was treading, and as I observed the nape of her neck, so slender, delicate and smooth, my heart missed a beat. The emotions I experienced were those of a child rather than of a grown man. I descended at my leisure with surprising agility. My heels (an old obsession of mine) tapped out a regular beat, not too loud, just right. In strict tempo is how I would describe it. At the bottom of the stairs we turned a dark corner and I extended my thumb and forefinger, in the direction of the nape of her neck. I was just out of reach and did not touch her, but my fingers measured the distance between us, so little and yet so great.

  What follows is a brief summary. We dined and I accompanied her to the entrance to her brother’s apartment. But the dinner was leisurely and animated, and afterward we went for a long stroll around the city, chatting almost nonstop. I did not tell her I was doing some writing but dropped the odd hint. From her I learned that she had married early and divorced within four years. There are no children and she has been living in Santarém with her parents for the last twelve years. Her family had to move there from Lisbon because of her father’s job. Antonio is two years older than M. She never finished her degree and works in a lawyer’s office. Nowadays she rarely visits Lisbon. “My work keeps me in Santarém,” she said in a tone of voice at once vague and quite distinctive. Apart from several comments about her brother’s situation, we said nothing further about politics. She had paid her share of the bill with such nonchalance that I did not even attempt to argue. When she perceived that I was prepared to pay the bill on my own, she stared at me for two seconds (two seconds which seemed so brief yet somehow unending), and without changing her tone of voice she asked me, “Why?” As I searched for an answer (and failed) she opened her bag and put the money on the table. We said goodbye to each other at the entrance to Antonio’s apartment. I asked, “When shall I see you again?” She replied, “Next Wednesday. I’ll ring you as soon as possible.” Ignoring the customary formalities, we held hands. But gently and not for too long. “Good night,” I said. “Good luck with your work,” she replied, smiling.

  M. DID NOT ring me from Lisbon but from Santarém. And not on the Wednesday but on the Tuesday evening. I was taken by surprise, thinking it might be Chico with instructions for the following day, or Carmo having a relapse, or Sandra in one of her tantrums. Or a commission from someone living on some other planet. When I heard her voice I felt a sudden contraction (or expansion? or a simple discharge of nervous tension?) in my solar plexus, and my heartbeat rose to a hundred and ten pulsations or so. M. informed me she would be coming on Wednesday as arranged but she would not be alone. She was coming with her parents in the hope that Antonio might be allowed visitors. They wondered if I would mind driving them to Caxias (from this I gathered that M. had mentioned Antonio’s trustworthy friend to her parents), unless this would interfere with my work. She felt my presence would make all the difference to her parents, who were very worried about their son. “They’re now quite elderly and find it more difficult to cope.” I said yes to everything with a smile, although scarcely appropriate under the circumstances. We agreed on a place and time to meet. They were traveling by train. “And what about lunch?” I asked. Lunch w
as not a problem. They would eat something before setting out from Santarém. We chatted on until we had nothing more to say to each other. “I’m deeply grateful to you,” she said, her voice clear and direct. I stood there with the receiver in my hand, smiling once more, with a vague expression on my face, perhaps even happy.

  I have not written anything for the last few days because I am anxious not to turn these pages into a diary. If they had been meant for a diary I should have jotted down that I spent every waking hour thinking about my meeting with M. and rereading what I wrote about that meeting. Obviously I am exaggerating, but looking back, I can think of no other mental activity which has occupied me more. I thought of developing what is merely a summary of our meeting, but it would be my first attempt at anything like this since I first began writing. I preferred not to alter a single line. But what I can say is that I am interested in M. What does a man mean when he says he is interested in a woman? As a rule, that he is interested in going to bed with her. But what do I mean? I shall be frank. I really would like to go to bed with M. Just because I am a man and she is a woman? No. Sandra is all woman, yet I have never felt physically attracted to her in the slightest. M. interests me because I spent six hours conversing with her without ever feeling tired or praying for silence. M. interests me because she has a forthright way of addressing people, a manner of speaking which cuts no corners, penetrates walls, cuts through all physical and mental reservations. M. interests me because she is a beautiful woman and because she is intelligent or vice versa. In a word, I am interested in M. Twenty years ago I would have written the word “love” without a moment’s hesitation, whereas I now speak of interest. With age and experience we learn to use words with caution. We misuse them, put them back to front without noticing, until one day we discover they are as threadbare as old clothes, we feel ashamed of them, just as I can recall being ashamed of trousers I once wore with frayed bottoms which were meticulously trimmed every week to disguise the constant repairs. I believe that in writing these pages I have shown some concern for words and the way they are used. Before, I hardly ever used the word “love,” and when I did, the word did not refer to me, or only to part of me. Now that it really concerns me, why should I not be cautious? I would even go so far as to mask the word if necessary, use other words, as in those anagrams we composed in primary school to act as props so that the real word might emerge and flourish. However, having given this some thought, I prefer to invoke the word “love” loud and clear and see what happens.

  At the appointed hour I was waiting in front of Santa Apolónia Station. I waited almost twenty minutes (the train was late) and finally saw M. arriving with her parents. I doubt if people are really capable of controlling their emotions, as the saying aptly goes. Having been anxious to meet M.’s parents, I only noticed them when parents and daughter were standing before me, or I before them if I made the first move. M. introduced me as so-and-so, Antonio’s friend. I shook their wrinkled hands, then looked at those two weary faces (solemn rather than sad) and allowed my eyes to follow their natural inclination. M. was standing beside me, her eyes bright in the harsh afternoon light, her lips trembling. I felt another jolt in my solar plexus. Naturally, we spoke. We all spoke, about Antonio, prison, the regime, the situation in the country (remarkable how both parents spoke with assurance and judgment), we chatted as I drove the car through the Baixa, along the Avenida da Liberdade, M. at my side, sitting back calmly in her seat and turning her head from time to time to address her parents. One couple in front, another behind. I took a deep breath, feeling an upsurge of strength in my arms and shoulders and a tension in my lower abdomen. I did not reproach myself, refused to be hypocritical and feel guilty because sitting behind me were two elderly people who were worried about their son. They were composed, just as their daughter was composed. At a red light, I looked back and listened more attentively to what the mother was saying, and found myself confronting the couple from Santarém, and by comparison the couple from Lapa were mere caricatures (I am referring to the real couple from Lapa, made of flesh and blood, for the couple in the portrait are already a caricature of the caricature itself). We got on the highway and I increased my speed. We did not want to arrive late and give the guards at Caxias an excuse for refusing us admittance. We turned off in the direction of the prison, beneath the eucalyptus trees. Through the open window of the car came the warm scent of the trees, that musky scent of cinnamon and pepper which opens the lungs and makes one feel dizzy. I began climbing the ramp and heard M.’s father saying behind me, “Nothing has changed.” I asked, “Have you also been detained here?” “No, but we came to visit our daughter.” I glanced sideways at M. She was blushing. That girlish blush was all I needed. How I adored her at that moment.

  We entered the forecourt facing the entrance. I parked the car and opened the doors. The mother asked, “Can you wait for us? We don’t want to take too much of your time.” “I’ll wait for as long as is necessary. I’m only sorry not to be able to do more.” They went off in the direction of the main gate, side by side, the mother in the middle. The Republican guard in the sentry box questioned them and M. replied. I could not hear what they were saying. They stood there waiting. At one point M. turned in my direction and smiled. I waved, not to say goodbye but as if promising to join them. A few moments later the gate was opened and they disappeared inside. As I waited (forty minutes precisely by my watch) other people arrived. The same exchanges through the porthole of the sentry box, the same waiting and then admittance through the gate, which opened reluctantly, barely enough for visitors to squeeze through. I strolled around the car, sat on the brick border of a flowerbed full of withered geraniums. A few minutes later I got up and went up to the sentry box: the Republican guard was on the telephone, he would listen, then reply. He peered at me from out of the shadows, then came to the porthole. “Do you want something?” “No, I’m waiting for some people who’ve gone inside.” “You’re not allowed to loiter at the gate. Move away.” I turned on my heel without as much as replying. Son of a bitch.

  When M. and her parents emerged I was sitting in the car listening to the radio. I went to meet them. The mother’s eyes were red and tearful but she had only just started weeping, perhaps only after coming through the gate. The father’s expression was grim. M. looked pale. “Well?” I asked. The question was pointless, but what else could I say? We got into the car. “Shall we go?” M. asked in a low voice. I slowly started up the engine, skirted the wall and began descending the path full of potholes (deliberately left there, no doubt, to prevent any vehicle from making a quick getaway before the sentries had time to open fire) with which I was becoming familiar. “He’s been beaten up,” said M. “He indicated he’d been beaten up but not to say anything.” “My poor son,” sighed the mother. “Tell me more. How did you find him? Did he have any message for his friends?” I caught the flicker of a smile in the corner of M.’s eye. “Messages for friends, no. But he told me not to forget to get the painter to whitewash the chicken coop. I told him I’d already sent for him and not to worry. The one person who did not appreciate the conversation was the guard. He obviously thought we were speaking in code.” This caused general amusement. “Trust Antonio,” I muttered to myself. Don’t forget to get the painter to come and whitewash the chicken coop. Could he have been thinking about me when he made that request? Was I the painter he had in mind, the one who had covered over a picture with black paint and who had long since been chosen for this moment should it ever arrive?

  M. told me someone would call at my apartment the following evening, a railway worker with a parcel of clothes and personal belongings, in addition to some books Antonio was allowed to receive. She asked me if I would take them to Caxias the next day and hand them in at the gate. This time she did not ask me if it would be any trouble. It was an order rather than a request. I preferred it so. When we reached the Baixa I made a suggestion: “Wouldn’t you all like to rest a little at my place?” M. looked
at her watch. “I don’t think there’s enough time.” She smiled. “By the time we climb those four flights of stairs . . .” Her parents obviously knew she had been to see me. This transparent relationship caused me some embarrassment. As a rule people keep quiet even about things they should confide, and between parents and children, as I recall, this secrecy is the accepted thing, disguised with a greater or lesser show of affection, destined to play a role I am almost tempted to describe as theatrical. Within this short period of time I became aware on a number of occasions, from what was said or implied, of this special relationship between M. and her parents: a detachment which might be seen as the final stage in the most intimate of relationships, a kind of freedom notwithstanding extreme dependency, a tree born on the outer edge of the forest. I parked the car near the station and accompanied them to the entrance. I have always been struck by the absurdity of farewells on station platforms. Everything has already been said and there is no time to start all over again, no sign of the train leaving as the clock ticks out those last few seconds—then at last sheer relief as it makes its departure, even though there may be tears and remorse after the last car has disappeared from sight. The father thanked me for my help and said, “We’ll make our own way to the platform. No need for you to wait.” M. and I withdrew to a corner of the entrance hall to avoid the crowd. “I’ve enjoyed your company,” I said, looking into her eyes. “And I’ve certainly enjoyed meeting you,” she replied. And with a serene but at the same time pensive expression she raised her head, stood on tiptoe and kissed me on the cheek. And without another word, a traveler who had made her farewell and was setting off on her journey, she crossed the concourse and went through the barrier without looking back. I returned slowly to the car and got in. There are such moments in life: one unexpectedly discovers that perfection exists, that it, too, is a tiny sphere traveling in time, empty, transparent, luminous, and which sometimes (rarely) comes in our direction and encircles us for a few brief moments before traveling on to other parts and other people. Yet I had the feeling that this sphere had not disengaged itself and that I was traveling inside. The hour of fear is nigh, I whispered to myself. New faces are appearing on the horizon of my desert. Who is this elderly couple, what is this composure they possess? And Antonio, now in prison, what freedom has he taken with him into his cell? And M., who smiles at me from afar, treading the sand with feet of wind, who uses words as if they were glass splinters and who suddenly approaches and kisses me? I repeat: the hour of fear is nigh. Perfection fleetingly exists. Not meant to linger. Much less stay. “I’ve certainly enjoyed meeting you,” she said. Taking the utmost care with my lettering, I write these words over and over again. I travel slowly. Time is this paper on which I write.

 
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