Rose Madder and the Silken Robe
The classroom is modern and large, a rectangle of concrete and smooth featureless plaster bounded on two sides by glass windows. There is a long counter along one wall with locked storage cabinets under it, and at one end a sink that is usually splashed and stained with rose madder, Payne’s grey, burnt sienna and yellow ochre; the surprising palette that when skilfully applied to paper make up a body’s flesh and heft and shadows.
Tessa notices this only in passing, she hasn’t used the sink; hasn’t stood there rinsing out brushes or filling a container with fresh water. She only sees the vibrant daubs on the white porcelain out of the corner of her eye, as she heads for the screen at the back of the room. She sees the sink week after week and it seems that each time is noticing it for the first time. The crimson splashed on the white lip of the sink always particularly affects her and she wants to grab a cloth and scrub it clean, but knows she mustn’t.
Instead she slips behind the screen and begins undressing.
It is ten minutes to eight on a Wednesday night. Philip dropped her off outside the main gates a few minutes ago, but he can’t be there to collect her. Not tonight, as he’s going to a stag do. Justin’s stag do and tomorrow is Justin’s wedding.
Tessa puts her shoes on the floor and puts her socks in a rolled up ball in one of the shoes. Then she unzips her combat trousers, slides them from her body and folds them, before laying them over the shoes. Next she pulls off her sweater, then her t shirt and adds these to the pile. Finally she takes off her bra and knickers and slips these under the t shirt. According to her method of undressing and dressing, the bra and pants should go on top, but that seems indecent in some weird and undefined way; too exposed, too obvious. As if by concealing these last two small scraps of lace trimmed cotton, she might yet conceal her nakedness.
Beyond the screen she hears the voices of the students as they greet one another. They all seem to know each other so well, enquiring about planned trips to Monet’s garden at Giverny or to the Tate, or asking after husbands and wives or children. Chairs and stools and desks and easels are scraped over floors, the tap at the stained sink is turned on, water gushes and gurgles, the pipes rattle, then silence begins to gather It is not the silence of an empty room, but one of expectation.
‘Tessa?’ she hears Christopher say. ‘Are you ready?’
This is her cue. She takes a breath and steps from behind the cover of the screen, walks to the centre of the room. Hardly anyone looks at her. Indeed they almost strain not to look; there is always something terribly important to be found inside a pencil case, or a bulldog clip to be adjusted on a drawing board or a date to be penciled in at the top of a fresh sketch book page.
Most colleges supply a dressing gown for this transitional stage in the process; a means of covering the locomotive nude between here and there. But the last model took a fancy to the silk gown that Christopher had supplied and stole it. No one noticed it had gone until the first night Tessa worked here and she had only discovered its absence after Christopher had directed her to the screen and promised that there was a robe she could slip on back there.
‘I can’t see a robe,’ she’d said.
‘It should be there,’ Christopher had called back. ‘Maybe it’s fallen. Is it on the floor?’
When it became clear that there was no robe, she was offered Mr Logan’s mackintosh, a damp, grubby at the collar coat with a tartan lining, and there had been awkwardness and embarrassment when she’d refused it.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ she had to say loudly, seemingly addressing the entire room. ‘Honestly. It’s fine!’
She’d stopped the mutters of protest and concern and apology then, by stepping out and brazenly, if a little briskly, crossing the room to the place where a bare mattress was laid out on the floor like some inexplicable example of fly tipping.
Christopher had promised to bring in another robe, but kept forgetting. Tessa didn’t even own a dressing gown, though sometimes she’d see a fairly nice one in a charity shop, but always resented paying the three or four or five pounds they were asking. Besides which she always thought the robe was worn for the benefit of the students and the teacher, not for her, and now that they had seen her parading around naked for six weeks, it would be absurd to get all pernickety about it now.
Sometimes she thought about the robe the other model had stolen. She’d overheard two of the ladies n the class discussing it; it had been pure silk, antique, no doubt valuable, with exquisite embroidery and vibrant colours, ultramarine and magenta. Indeed the robe was so beloved that the dishonest model had been asked to pose wearing it and when Mrs Taylor exhibited her watercolours at the craft fair, it was only the two paintings of the model wearing the robe which sold, which just went to show didn’t it?
The other model’s name was Laura. Laura had longer legs, smaller breasts; her nipples were pinker than Tessa’s. Tessa knows this because Miss Finch who studied at the Slade just before the war explains aloud how she has to mix a little burnt umber with her rose madder in order to get the correct shade for Laura’s nipples.
The students love to talk about technique, to discuss the benefits of real sable as opposed to synthetic brushes, to name drop with surprising familiarity Cézanne, Picasso, Bonnard, Matisse and Degas.
Miss Finch is the best draftswoman among them and is treated with reverence and awe, but she despairs at her failing eyesight, her poor memory and the tremor that sometimes afflicts her pale bony hands.
Mr James favours the surrealists, de Chirico in particular, and despite Christopher’s protests, likes to paint imaginary streets in the background of his nudes, grey vistas with geometrically uncertain colonnades and brooding, storm-ridden skies.
Tessa stands, or sits, or reclines amongst them, the invisible focus of all their attention. Invisible because she is nude; because she is a wash of Payne’s grey shadow, a dry brush of raw sienna pubic hair, the almost perfect triangle of space between her bent arm and her back. Or she is the foreshortened example of contorted anatomy in Hans Baldung’s woodcut Bewitched Groom or so she hears Christopher inform William Burnside who has positioned himself at a low donkey easel just south of her outstretched feet. Mr Burnside claims he enjoys the challenge of the difficult angle but Tessa suspects he’s hoping for a glimpse of her cunt. She could take pity on him and let her legs drop open when she’s told it’s time for a rest, but modesty, or rather what remains of her modesty, prevents her.
As she poses the conversation dies away leaving only the sounds of pencil or charcoal on paper, or the vigorous splash of a fat brush head being shaken in a jam jar of water, and then Tessa begins to think of the world beyond this room.
She remembers Philip at the wheel of the car, distorting his face into a scowl at the mention of the stag do.
‘It’s just not my thing,’ he said. ‘It’ll just be a drink with the boys, that’s all. Might go for an Indian after.’
She pictured herself entering the house they shared, it interior darker than the street, the awful black silence of the hallway and the stairs reaching up into an even more impenetrable darkness.
And Philip still hadn’t got around to changing the light bulb in the hall so she’d have to grope her way to the middle room, all the way imagining terrible things laying in wait for her; the cruel and calculating predator of the movies. The fear would unsettle her for hours she knew, the mere thought of it made her shudder.
‘Are you cold, dear?’ said the red haired woman whose name she always forgets.
‘No, no. I’m fine.’
‘Oh, she’s cold.’
‘What’s that?’ Christopher asked.
‘Oh, you should have said, Tessa.’ And with that he gets an old fashioned two bar electric fire, aims it at her and plugs it in.
The heat radiates toward one flank of her body, making the other feel colder in comparison.
She could call at a friend’s; Michelle’s, or Judy’s place down by the harbour, or she could go to the pub on her own. Or the cinema, though she has no idea what is showing.
Curiously she realises that if she had been at home and Philip had gone out she wouldn’t feel afraid to be there; as if his presence carried over, extended itself, as if he had marked his space, left his scent on the house, on her, on the front path and the garden gate, and this would see off any intruders. But once the house had been left cold and empty, when the TV was off and the radio in the kitchen was silenced and there was no music, whether CD, cassette or record to be heard. When all the lights were off and the washing machine wasn’t running and the toilet wasn’t being flushed, and no one answered the phone, then his protective scent went cold.
Which was nonsense of course, she was no more vulnerable when he had been gone minutes or hours or even days. And darkness and silence were just darkness and silence. Risk was arbitrary; it was fear that was selective.
Tessa felt a fine mist of sweat developing on the side of her body which faced the fire. Being naked and being still focused the mind on the skin in a way that was unique and sometimes, as now, unpleasant.
Tessa was only mildly interested in art. She has however absorbed certain items of information about it from the conversations she finds herself overhearing. She knows that one artist, Renoir she believes, is said to have once claimed that he painted with his cock. Having a slightly literal mind, she had pictured this as a rather messy and not very accurate endeavour. Other artists were rather cruel to their models and mistresses and wives, forcing them to pose hour after hour in baths of chilly water. Giving them pneumonia. Killing them for art.
What we do for love! she thinks. But I do this for money. For this rather mild and well-heeled group of retired school teachers and secretaries and librarians, and yes, even one dentist, Mr Burnside.
And what do I do for love? For Philip? In the privacy of our own little rented terraced house? If I did it for money it would be vile, but as I said, I do it for love.
‘Okay,’ says Christopher and he claps his hands twice. ‘That’s ten minutes. We’ll have two more quick poses then tea break.’
Many in the class cluck their tongues and grumble in protest. They do not like the quick poses, but prefer the laboured long haul so that they can be fussy with shading and erasers and minutely recorded eyelashes. The others, like Miss Finch see the process as work; as exercise for the hand and eye that must be kept up, lest they; it; art withers.
Tessa manoeuvres herself into a sitting position, being careful to keep her thighs clamped shut, which has become almost second nature. She stands and stretches, pointing the fingers of both hands at the ceiling and flexing her feet so that she is balanced on tip toe.
‘Ah,’ Christopher breathes. ‘That’s beautiful! Could you hold that pose at all, Tessa?’
She stays where she is, balanced, ridiculous, but apparently beautiful.
What she does for love. In order to be told she is beautiful.
Thirty seconds and her ankles, her toes, her knees are quivering. Another thirty seconds and she’s wobbling wildly.
Actually only a fifth of the class are even attempting to draw her. Christopher has his pocket sketch book out of his pocket and is working furiously, as is Miss Finch and the red haired lady.
Tessa manages to hold it for two minutes, then Christopher puts his little black book back in the pocket of his corduroy jacket.
‘Alright, Tessa,’ he says. ‘That’s enough.’
She lowers her heels onto the comforting flatness of the floor, lets her arms slowly carve the air as they drop and relax, and rolls her head to ease the tension in her neck.
‘Oh, what’s that?’ says Miss Finch and she is pointing at Tessa’s neck.
‘Dear me,’ says the red haired lady. ‘That’s nasty. It looks like a burn.’
She comes closer to Tessa, bearing the unstoppable concern of the schoolteacher, the mother, the social worker, the nurse.
‘How on earth …’ she asks and reaches for Tessa’s neck.
Tessa ducks her head, tucks in her chin, pulls her hair down to cover the mark.
What we do for money is limited, but love, as Tessa knows, is another exchange.
‘It’s nothing,’ Tessa says. ‘It’s fine.’
Given the chance and the time the class would carefully squeeze red paint from their little metal tubes, use the tip of the finest brush, and artfully record this mark upon the model’s neck.
She is invisible until the moment they have some evidence of her suffering.
He had promised to leave no mark, but the games were getting more elaborate. More painful.
What she does for love?
In the little rented terraced house.
With Philip who says he loves her as he fetches the rope from the box in the wardrobe, who says he won’t hurt her.
She knows at this moment more than any other she should have a robe to cover herself with, and her heart burns with hatred for the thief.
Jo Mazelis’s novel Significance was published in 2014 by Seren