She has almost expected it to end like this. Cold, tiled walls that gleamed with condensation as if in mimicry of the oily rain which coated the window, distorting her view of the slate-grey November sky that hung over London like a virulent smog. A nurse, whose face was as starched and impassive as her pinafore, occasionally swept into the room to administer some undisclosed medicine or take her pulse. The nurse’s ornately folded headdress reminded her of the origami swans that her brother Tommy used to make. She would wear them in her hair, her black curls riotously uncontrollable before she had succumbed to the harsh symmetry of the more fashionable bobbed haircut, and feel like an oriental princess amongst the gentle dilapidation of the family farm.
This recollection, as painfully bright in her mind as the bleached uniform of the nurse, made her chest throb painfully and she resisted the urge to acknowledge and expose more of the memories that suddenly besieged her as one would unravel the colourful string of a magician’s handkerchief. A magician. Yes, that was safer territory. She had once attended a party where a magician, employed no doubt to lend an air of supernatural mystique and sophistication to yet another evening of mindless debauchery amongst strangers, had produced a grey dove, as soft to the touch as the first light of morning, and handed it to her. At the time she had practically purred with pleasure, and insisting on procuring a gilded cage for the bird. How sad, she now reflected, that the only exotic avian specimen she truly wished to receive was a crumpled and rather grubby origami swan made by her brother’s slender fingers.
Oh, but the parties! An endless maelstrom of sequinned gowns, laughing faces, ornate hotel suites, champagne flutes so delicate that they seemed to be spun from sugar. The constancy of the gatherings, and the likeness of each one to the other, made it impossible to differentiate between them. Instead, the years she had spent as the ingénue of the social circuit, that dizzying carousal of new places and new faces, could be condensed into a single sensory memory. Even now, just walking past a florists at the end of the day and catching the scent of roses in bloom could trigger the memory of those balmy summer evenings when she had flitted from man to man like a hothouse butterfly.
The smell of the flowers had been so heady in the twilight of those gaudy, glittering nights, that one could almost detect the first traces of the decay which would have shrivelled the petals by morning. Sometimes she had felt like a rose herself; outwardly incandescent, heavy with the sense of her own polished sensuality, and yet perpetually on the brink of decay. She had once discovered the rotting corpse of a jackdaw in the cobbled yard of the farm, and beneath the feathers, still as soft as gossamer and pearly in the light, she had detected the writhing of maggots in the dark depths. She felt the same murmur of putrescence beneath her own glossy feathers, and shivered in the night to think of the hollow place where her heart had shrunk and withered like petals in the sun.
In her feverish dreams, memories of her childhood on the farm flickered and faded in sepia tones like a reel of an old film projected onto the back of her mind. In her weakened state she could not fight the regression into her past, and nor did she want to. There was comfort to be found in the half-forgotten images of cowsheds and silken fields of wheat. The sycamore tree in the back garden which she had climbed as a child, losing herself in a dappled world of whispering leaves. The sun breaking through the foliage would create delicate pinpricks of light, like the embroidered collar of a dress.She remembered her mother milking the cows in the barn, surrounded by the bovine warmth of the steaming, stamping creatures. The edges of the wheat field would dissolve into the dusk at twilight as if the darkness were gathering the crops for some unknown deity. Around the gaslight in the kitchen, moths would gather and collide like lost spirits.
And coffins in the rain. Not so much comfort to be found in that particular memory. Her family had been destroyed by the Influenza epidemic and, like some blessed child saint, she had survived without a blemish. She had watched as they lowered her mother and father, her brothers, into the clammy earth and she had known that her childhood had died with them. London awaited, and a bleak terraced house owned by a dour great-aunt. Not that she stayed there for long. The bright lights of the West End beckoned, and she followed them as blindly as the moths which had once haunted the gaslight in the farmhouse.
In the end, it had not been so difficult to throw away her past and begin anew. The transition from chorus girl to leading lady had been a remarkably swift one, aided no doubt by her formidable beauty and willingness to share it with the many men that she encountered in her lonely rise to notoriety.It wasn’t long before the seedy backstage existence of the theatre was replaced by an altogether more enticingprospect. As the mistress of the rich she could play with those bright young things in the decadent apartments of Mayfair and Chelsea where, like a house of mirrors, each room led to another of equal beauty. And if she had to get her hands dirty to join in with the fun, it seemed a small price to pay. Where else could she go now? Back to her childhood on the farm, with dirt beneath her fingernails and flowers in her hair?
She had carefully constructed an image of herself based primarily on the film starlets in the magazines that she and her flatmate Margot would devour in the dingy bedroom they had shared whilst dancing in the chorus. Gold-tipped cigarettes, a laugh like the wind in a crystal chandelier, a coltish elegance and an air of impenetrable mystery were the key components in the new identity that she unleashed upon the world. She had practiced talking in a cut-glass accent for hours on end, until the gentle burr of her rural patois disappeared as surely as a bruise fades from the skin. Well, one must always keep one’s cards close to one’s chest after all. The act was so convincing she almost believed it herself, but then she always had been a consummate performer.
And now she was a model. No, more than a model. A muse. The word had such exotic connotations. It made her think of odalisques reclining on velvet divans, of the goddesses, swathed in Grecian robes, that she had once seen engraved on the side of an ancient vase. The reality, of course, was rather different. Hours were spent arranging her position on the window seat so that just the right degree of wistful nonchalance could be achieved. The rose that seemed to dangle with such delicacy from her slender fingers was artfully positioned by her lover, the artist. When he painted her, time seemed to bend and warp, like old wood left out in the rain, so that sometimes an hour seemed to pass in the blink of an eye and sometimes a minute passed as slowly as a fly drowning in molasses. She felt as if she herself were drowning in the suffocating silence of his studio.
When posing, her muscles would be strung as tight and tense as the strings of a violin. Tongues of flame ran up her arched back. The cold which stole in from the street through the draughty window crept into her bones and froze her blood. It was as if he believed that she was carved out of marble, or some other precious stone. A living monument who responded to his demands without resistance or complaint.Even when he took her to his bed, he would examineher body with the same clinical detachment with which he studied her profile whilst sketching. Sometimes she felt like a butterfly mounted in a glass case. She was a specimen to him, something to be preserved and displayed. But not loved. No, never loved.
It struck her as deliciously ironic that, whilst her name would undoubtedly be forgotten by those who would live long after she was dead, her profile had become immortalised in the artist’s celebrated portrait of her. Girl at the Window was regarded by many as his finest work, his masterpiece.
When she felt her slim waist thicken and the first stirrings of life within her belly, it failed to surprise her when he responded to the news with mute passivity, and perhaps the smallest flicker of repulsion. After all, now she no longer belonged wholly to him. What surprised her more was the strange woman who appeared in the apartment that same afternoon bearing an odd apparatus of tubing and syringes. Everything had been arranged. She was told it wouldn’t hurt.
Now the taciturn nurse was taking her temperature, deliberately avoiding her gaze and touching her skin only when necessary, as if moral depravity were contagious. It was as if she had ceased to exist, which in her delirium struck her as a rather comforting thought.She drifted in and out of consciousness, and the words of the doctor reached her as if from a great distance away, like voices caught in the wind. She heard in snatches the diagnosis which would render her obsolete in the eyes of society, that she had suffered ‘permanent damage’ and that ‘children were animpossibility’.
So it was finally confirmed, by a medical professional no less,that she had a gaping emptiness inside her, that she was incomplete and damaged. As if she hadn’t known that all her life. The doctor, failing to understand her bitter smile, ordered the nurse to administer sedatives twice every three hours and swept out the room. She was left alone once more with her restless thoughts, which collided in her mind to form a mosaic of memories.
The dusty wind that blew over the fields in the summer, perfumed with the wild flowers that grew amongst the corn. A flock of starlings outlined against the pale October sky. A bed sheet on the washing line outside her window, snapping in the breeze like the sail of a ship. And a paper bird hidden in her hair.
Artwork by Anthony Morris.