PAINTING WOMEN by ELISABETH MURRAY
THE MUGS MADE AN UNSAVOURY STILL LIFE, lipstick on the rims, brown watermarks, grit up the sides. The women looked as if they belonged so much to the scene that they had to be painted in along with the objects. It had the look of Saturday night waste but it was a Wednesday before-school staff meeting and as the women stirred it became clear that it was the pitiless light of a spring morning that made such a still life.
A lady came in with a perforated shoebox asking for silkworms for Kai Fletcher. Her hair fell golden down her back. From where the women sat on red plastic chairs, knees at their breasts and thighs distended, the lady’s beauty was unearthly. One of the women said if she left the box she would move the silkworms in today.
“Where were we.” Mrs Singleton gazed at the student teacher, Miss Archer. Mrs Singleton had sulphur-coloured hair slicked into a knob at the bottom of her neck. She wore an icing-pink shirt with the top button undone showing a nut-coloured triangle of skin. The final touch was thick black-framed glasses. She could have been a send-up of a schoolteacher.
The student glanced away under Mrs Singleton’s scrutiny but a stamp of the woman was in her head. Her square jaw, teeth like a grid of nougat. Good precise lines to cut into a canvas.
Mrs Singleton straightened her shoulders and said, “Oh, the Waddington reading tests,” and the student knew it hadn’t been a gaze or scrutiny and that she was as unseen as a drift of smoke on the sky.
“I think I’m running low on copies,” said another woman.
“Oh, the student can do that,” said Mrs Blunt, to whose class Miss Archer was assigned. “It’ll give her something to occupy herself.”
Miss Archer’s skin felt tight as she smiled. She watched how the light fell in claws on the carpet and on the women’s faces making everything look sore. It was the hardest light to get out of paint. It was supposed to be the most hopeful kind, spring morning dazzle, but it was the cruellest. They decided it was time to get going and filed out of the classroom to meet the morning which had become yellower and noisier since they had shut themselves away.
MISS ARCHER followed Mrs Blunt across the Covered Outdoor Learning Area. Mrs Blunt was wearing a black gypsy skirt that now Miss Archer came to think about it looked like the skirt she’d worn yesterday, and the day before, and maybe back through the previous term, but the student wouldn’t know because she’d arrived on Monday fresh as the children but far more naive.
There were builders sitting inside a wire barrier watching one of their crew hammer a strip of metal over two pylons. A covered walkway was being bestowed upon the school, along with a new hall and probably several other contraptions if the clutter was anything to go by. It was as if a vision to turn the school into some loftier site was being carried out slapdash.
This morning hadn’t been so bad. Newstime was the most vivid slice of the day. She knew how she’d paint it. Her sitting in the huge armchair, the child standing but their heads level. The quiet of waiting for the next sentence. She would show that as soft light in a painting. Toys of the kind she hadn’t touched in fifteen years, hard, fleecy, bright. Photos, shells, rocks. This was a life, these children had families and homes and sadnesses and futures. She was thin as clingwrap, all her texture and colour drained into the objects. And pricked by the clicking of Mrs Blunt’s laptop at the back. She looked in her loose black garb like the ogre custodian of the classroom. But a painting is selective, it could just show the children, just colour and texture thick as cake. Only now they were at Music, it was Release from Face to Face until morning tea time, she was following Mrs Blunt to the library to hunt down books about rainbow serpents or witchetty grubs or something. What would have been more useful was Release from Face to Face from the teachers.
“IF YOU INITIATE IT it’ll be a girl. Are you telling me you’ve been trying without knowing that?”
“We haven’t started trying yet. Needless to say I don’t think it’ll be a girl.”
The woman snorted. “I know, I’ve got four boys.” She ran her fingers through her hair. She wore a ring that looked inlaid with a block of ice. She started on a mini quiche from the staffroom table where leftovers from a parents’ morning tea were laid out. “But even more important, don’t forget what I said about—”
Miss Archer bit into her apple. The voices were discrete and impossible to ignore but unified in a cacophony that began to sound meaningless. It was the way converging bird calls reach a pitch of madness. The advice went on, even less inhibited.
She reached for a quiche and considered if she was on her way to being submerged in these sawdust-coloured armchairs and partaking in such discussions. The baldness of their talk stung her. Well, wasn’t she young, supposed to be blithe, shameless? She told herself it was the age of these women, for God’s sake: it put a gruesome picture in mind. She couldn’t help feeling that it hacked all beauty off the concept. It was as concrete as the hanging wing of a swan shot down in flight, wet, red—and as abstract.
On the other side of her Mrs Blunt said, “Do you think they bonk?”
“Oh, yes! They went away together and when we asked him what they did he said they didn’t leave the hotel.”
“We tried to think what you’d do all day in a hotel and we could only think –”
“Bonking. Yes, it’s got to be bonking.” Mrs Bell looked transported.
Another teacher leaned over the back of a chair between two of the women. She looked like an acorn with hair a lighter shade of brown than her corduroy suit.
“Who are you talking about?”
The acorn woman looked over her shoulder. “So he’s divorced and this is his lady friend?”
“No,” said a woman with a doll’s mouth. She lowered her voice. “Brian’s never been married.”
At that moment the only male teacher walked in and the circle fell silent. The student stared at the man. His hair was so black and neat it might have been drawn in permanent marker. He wore narrow tan pants and a red jacket and stood before the microwave with a hand on one hip.
“My God, ladies, I knew there was a reason I shouldn’t have been arsing around all holidays. How’re the reports coming?”
“Like a wet week,” giggled the doll-mouthed teacher.
He took a plate of sweet potato from the microwave and with a wave of his fingers left the room.
The student stared at the women. They carried on speculating about the sweetheart for the rest of morning tea time, what she did for a living, why she never came to the Christmas party, saying they’d have to organise this one around her, they were burning to meet her. On the screen this would be a skit too farcical to elicit more than winces. This was a separate world where none of the rules of appearance applied. The bell rang like a swan’s cry made ugly by a bullet.
THERE WAS AN AIR of parody the way the children trilled, “I’ve been to cities that never close down.” Some shouted, some mumbled, some seemed to be using the logic of snatching off a bandaid as quick as possible. Mrs Singleton’s lipstick was as crisp as it had been before morning tea. The student hadn’t seen her in the staffroom. Mrs Singleton’s lips went over the words of their own accord, her eyes concealed behind her glasses.
They went through the song what felt like a dozen times until the jubilation of doggedly referring to Australia as home wore thin. The song may have been about the state of the sharemarket for all the sense it seemed to be making to the children and to Miss Archer for that matter. She remembered she was teaching before lunch and there came a weariness complete as fever. She didn’t know whether she would rather this singing practice run on or finish now so she could get through her plan and not have herself and the children scrambling about like residents before a river breaks its banks. What would happen if she disintegrated into tears? As the thought occurred to her a pain came to her throat and a chain of blows to her stomach. The song was a scratched record. Mrs Blunt made them repeat one line where the children couldn’t match the syllables to the melody. The highest note of the song was parroted again and again. Mrs Singleton roamed about tapping fussing children on the shoulder and at intervals her lips would stop then start like a clock once somebody happens to pass and wind it.
“Mrs Singleton, how about we get them to wear boots or Aussie flag thongs –” Mrs Blunt said.
“I have some of them,” Hayden called out.
“Or those hats, what are they called?”
Mrs Singleton tapped Kai and he stopped pulling Mikayla’s shoelace. “I don’t know,” she said.
“Sort of brown rabbity fur cowboy hats. Or the ones with the corks. You can get them in tourist shops. Or the mothers could make them.”
“Sure,” said Mrs Singleton. She folded her arms. Her shirt rose revealing only another centimetre of black trousers. She was inscrutable but Miss Archer felt as she did before a particular work in a gallery, held there while everything told her to move on or she’d be late for class or the bus or the assignment on her desk.
“Yes, and we can stick little Aussie flags in them. Wouldn’t that be sweet?”
“Very sweet,” said Mrs Singleton. She led her class through the partition to their room.
THE LUNCH BELL went and on a swell of pain Miss Archer sent the children out, though the room resembled a Jackson Pollock. She went around gathering the paper cakes she’d used in the multiplication lesson. She recalled this from some university lecture or other of which she could no longer remember the purpose: was it an attempt to salivate the children into comprehending multiplication? Many had flocked to the floor and she felt ungainly as a pregnant woman and was glad she was alone in the room. Then she heard Mackenzie say at the door, “Mrs Blunt, Hunter said he didn’t want to play with my Barbie. And he said he hated them.”
“I suppose he would, being a boy. I’d be a bit worried if he didn’t hate them, wouldn’t you?”
There was a moment of silence then Mackenzie laughed. Footsteps receded across the veranda. Miss Archer stood at the opposite window. On the benches a batch of children she didn’t know sat eating lunch. The grass ran flat as a prairie until it was sliced into highway. A couple of builders sat outside the frame of the new hall in glaring vests. Apparently it was supposed to be finished months ago. She wouldn’t see it whole, she’d probably never see it again after these four weeks. But there would be other halls.
She collected the worksheets. It felt like something had been ripped from her abdomen. She knew she should have ducked into the bathroom an hour ago, that there was likely a monstrous bloom on her skirt, but if there was one thing she was digesting here it was that there was no time to duck out for anything. No time to catch your breath. No time to be still and admit the colour into your skin and the line into your blood. Even when your blood needed replenishing, when it leaked thin as cordial. She took up her bag and left the classroom.
THERE WAS NO BIN in the staff toilet. Good God, she thought. They can’t all be post-menopausal, can they? She tucked the shreds of plastic into her bra and as she returned to the staffroom and looked at the women she thought it was possible. The spite brought no satisfaction. It only made her feel more of an oddity. How stupid her idea of womanhood had been. She’d have to go home and wrench all her canvases into something truthful: dirty mugs, unsightly calculated sex, a chain of wedding rings. Or start all over again. No maestro could twist those old simulations into truth. She liked the brash scarlet of those canvases but when had reality ever been pleasing? Representing it was even worse.
She took some painkillers with her Vegemite sandwich. It was a sour concoction. When Mrs Singleton came in it was worse. The woman’s face was a sculpture. Perhaps her lips were so cold, like a statue in midwinter, that the lipstick stuck solid.
“Did you see your desk?” said the secretary.
“Oh yes, I did,” Mrs Singleton said. She was placing something in the microwave and sounded as if she was smiling but when she turned she just looked surprised.
“What is it?” said the acorn woman.
“Rob sent me flowers.”
A number of women made the sort of noises produced over a pram.
“What a catch!” said the acorn woman.
“He never does that,” said Mrs Singleton. “We had a bit of a…” She looked at the microwave which was emitting light the colour of fast food cheese. “…squabble last night. But I wasn’t that angry with him.”
“What happened?” said the secretary.
“Oh, well… It was just that once I got home from that meeting, Lynette”—she glanced at a teacher who nodded gravely—“it was almost seven and he’d been home all day—well, I found out he’d been at the pub—but he hadn’t done anything for dinner. I wasn’t even that angry.”
“Well, whatever you did, it worked,” said the secretary. She drank from her mug and the contents stayed on her lips and teeth. “They were white roses.”
Mrs Singleton sat next to the student, the only place available. Her back was rigid. She began to eat some sort of stirfry sure to strip her lipstick and catch like flesh in her teeth. Every time she raised the fork her ring flashed. It looked like three yoked together: gold, silver, bronze.
The women discussed husbands, housework, Herculean tasks. The student listened thinking that one day she’d be sitting in a replica of this room grumbling about some man or other and at last initiated.
Mrs Singleton stood up. Her pants brushed on Miss Archer’s. Under the voices the rustle was sharp. Viscose, nylon, elastane. But it was substanceless. Both of them may as well not have had any flesh underneath. She was above her now, a statue in a square. She went to the sink, rinsed her things and left.
Mrs Bell dropped into the seat. “You’re getting firmer. Well done.”
It was what she’d written on the feedback sheets in various guises since the first lesson yet the student was sure she’d write up a bad report. There was more to teaching than being with children and implementing lessons. Somehow she’d been too dense to notice this in three years of university and on other placements. She was to be exuberant as a puppy, avant-garde no matter how dyed-in-the-wool everybody else was. You had to be original but respect every hangover from the last century, calling Australia home, using dust-moist books on the rainbow serpent, witchetty grubs. When she got home she didn’t care how many lessons she had to plan she was going to pull out the vermillion and run it everywhere, violent as a murder message. Matisse’s Harmony in Red. If only she had a print of it now, she could slug it down until she felt life in her chest. The walls here were the mint of a dentist’s office, the armchairs oatmeal, the carpet curdled milk, mugs stained with sludge. The Matisse was scarlet enfolding something that was previously blue that was previously green. And the blue and green still detectable, shards of china in a swamp of blood.
The telephone broke out and the student thought it was the bell and was at first relieved and then aghast because she hadn’t set up the painting lesson. Mrs Blunt answered it and at the end of the call she let out a screech like a Valkyrie swooping over a landscape of slaughter.
“They’ve accepted the offer,” she said, breathless.
The staffroom was frozen, every eye trained on her. The student thought, The offer, the offer… for what?
“It’s more than we decided on at first, but it worked out!”
“Congratulations!” said the acorn woman. “Whereabouts again?”
“Oh, Fairview, same as we are now, but it’s like starting all over again.”
She jumped and the microwave shook. She sat down, let out a volley of applause, squealed like a balloon.
Miss Archer went to the classroom. When she’d covered the tables with the plastic sheets she realised they had wet patches on them and there was brown acrylic on her shirt. By the time she’d rinsed it out the bell had sounded and the painkillers hadn’t accomplished anything and she had a dark mark on her shirt. The children were mustering around the step. Mrs Blunt didn’t notice the tables weren’t ready. She sat at her desk and pushed buttons on her phone. Miss Archer began the discussion about witchetty grubs.
“That’s disgusting!” said Monique.
“They look like my silkworms,” said Hunter. “Can you eat those too?”
She was at the stage where pain exhausted you worse than a sleepless night. She didn’t know what witchetty grubs were and how could she expect the kids to? These kids whose worlds were parks and two storey houses and neat grey roads? She showed a clip of a British man in khaki eating a witchetty grub. They were enlivened by this, but when had an artist ever painted something she found merely intriguing, that may as well have been hypothetical? When she’d asked Mrs Blunt what she meant by Aboriginal Studies she’d handed her a set of blackline masters that included an outline of a man standing on one foot holding a spear and directions to “Paint Aborigine brown.” Then she’d pulled out a craft book that looked twice as old as Miss Archer and jabbed at this witchetty grub activity. Miss Archer didn’t know how her lecturers had come by their delusions. But it was easier this way.
She set them up with smocks and paper and as they were writing their names she went across the veranda to the storeroom. She looked through the glass pane in the door of Mrs Singleton’s room. Children were cutting and sticking and rolling newspaper into God knew what. Mrs Singleton was crouched on the floor, her waistband free from the small of her back, a stripe of alabaster. Miss Archer was in the storeroom, it was gone in an instant. It was no still life. When she passed with the paint Mrs Singleton had bent over another group. She went back for the brushes and then for the water and Mrs Singleton had gone to her desk and fixed an artwork to the window and finally disappeared beyond the frame.
The children mashed their brushes on the paper and flicked paint off them to make the texture of soil. It was like stepping outside on the first warm morning of spring to see this kind of joy in flicking paint on paper. Mrs Blunt was on the veranda twittering into her phone. Miss Archer sat on the corner of the teacher’s desk and scanned the room. So this was what it would be like. She supposed she’d tire of the children, they’d no longer seem cute, she wouldn’t feel any warm revival.
“Mrs Archer!” It was a high cry. She leapt off the desk, her heart in her throat.
“My tooth!” Hunter gagged. “My tooth came out!” A number of children wandered over in dappled smocks, brushes hanging at their sides.
“OK, OK!” called Miss Archer. “Everybody back to your seats. Go on with your painting, please.”
“My tooth came out!” said Hunter. It was tiny in his palm, craggy and red at the bottom. He poked his fingers into the hole in his gum. Miss Archer shivered.
“Go wash your hands, Hunter.”
He stood up and pressed his fingers on his painting to rid them of saliva and blood. A drop blotted the paper.
“Go and wrap your tooth in a paper towel so you can get some money tonight.”
He jogged off with the tooth like an overdue ring bearer. Mrs Blunt came inside and installed herself behind her laptop. Hunter returned conveying the tooth on a paper towel and didn’t take his eyes from it. The children stopped to watch. She saw the frame around the moment. She felt the luminosity that comes with an artwork discovered raw. Made of flesh and air and plastic. Luminosity not just of sight but of all the senses. Not just blundered upon but offered, as Hunter was offering her this calcium and phosphorous and enamel. But she saw he was headed for Mrs Blunt. The student saw not his gaze but his profile. Mrs Blunt put one hand under his and wrapped the tooth in the towel. She stood up and led him to the veranda. She gave Miss Archer a look that said, “Well, get on with it.”
Had she forgotten that the artist is never part of the raw tableaux that come up out of the world, that she constructs always from outside the frame? But she was no longer sure that was true. Miss Archer deposited a few paintings on the drying rack and repeated the directions about making witchetty grubs and eggs from corrugated cardboard. The clock ticked on. Mrs Blunt’s laptop clicked. A drill outside. A hammer. The pain in her abdomen.
“Time to tidy up.” Mrs Blunt’s voice was as sharp as the ache. There was another stained mug beside her, some kind of empty motif. Miss Archer was asking two girls to wash out the paint containers when Mrs Blunt called:
“No, we just bin those.”
“These?” The student held one up. The unending trio of little arrows, the recycle symbol, was swathed in red paint like an exhortation.
“Yes, these.” Mrs Blunt got up and swung out the bin and went through the room pitching the containers in. The student opened her mouth. Then she turned to remove the plastic sheets.
Finally all that was left was a carpet of multicoloured cardboard eggs made with a hole punch. It was like confetti, the giveaway the next morning when everything was silenced, respectable. Maybe they had little timers in them clicking away to one day hatch and die. She was slipping in the vast armchair holding The Twits.
“Wish I was a boy,” said Mackenzie. Miss Archer looked at Mackenzie with her head turned away. She was part of the sawdust-coloured upholstery to Mackenzie.
“Why?” said Alyssa.
“Because girls have to have babies,” said Mackenzie. “And it really hurts. It comes out of here.” She rubbed her stomach like a gesture of hunger.
“You only have to have a baby if you marry a boy. Just marry a girl and then you won’t have a baby.”
“That exists you know,” said Monique.
“Just marry a girl.”
“It comes out of here.” Mackenzie gestured vaguely.
Miss Archer started. The class was before her. Mrs Blunt caught her eye and said, “Better stop that in its tracks!” She thought she was speaking on a frequency the children couldn’t hear. There was another frequency too: mockery? Of her? Pain must come hand in hand with paranoia. She flicked through the book and began reading without calling for quiet. She would rather sit here and let the pain course through her while the children talked, currents that cooled her skin. But all was quiet and her voice was like a bad actor’s, shrill, threadbare. The bell broke her off. The children chanted: “Good afternoon Mrs Archer, good afternoon Mrs Blunt.”
Mothers mustered below, gripping prams, holding babies and the hands of toddlers. On every woman’s hand those compounds of gold, silver, bronze. The builders sat by the wall watching the sooner-or-later-to-be-covered walkway glitter in the sun. Mrs Blunt was deep in conversation with a woman in exercise garb and an iPod on her bicep. The student went back inside and collected some of the cardboard eggs in a container. When she looked at the carpet it was as though she hadn’t taken any away. They lay there ticking.
When Mrs Blunt got back inside her phone sounded. She turned to the window and talked to her husband about the house. She turned to the student and put up a hand like a police officer. When she put the phone away she said with a gravity that didn’t conceal her enthusiasm, “Don’t ever buy a house, it’s a fucking nightmare.”
“I won’t be,” said the student.
Mrs Blunt stared. “Of course you will. Who doesn’t buy a house?”
“Not for a long time then,” said the student.
Mrs Blunt gazed at her. She gave a shake of her head. “You got them doing some good craft, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“And getting firmer.” She handed over a sheet with remarks to that effect. “You can go now.”
She dallied across the veranda. No sound from Mrs Singleton’s room. What the hell was she listening for? She went down the stairs with a dull nausea. She would see her tomorrow, for however many days were left—she calculated: seventeen—and then she’d never see her again. The same with all the teachers and all the children. But one day—God, in a little over a year—she would return each morning to the same place and the same people. Batter out something solid for herself. Mrs Blunt said she was getting firmer. Growing a backbone perhaps. An outline. But she still didn’t know what she was doing here.
The builders had gone home. Blocks of metal stood as if placed at random. The oval was empty and dry as a worn blanket. There were children in the sandpit at after school care and by the gate while their mothers conversed. The afternoon sensation of snacks and TV and homework. Something of how she’d felt as a child came to her but now she saw it was no end, it would be here tomorrow, for too long to bear thinking about. Soon she could take more painkillers and maybe they would work. So she could spend the evening planning lessons. She took a lungful of air. The nausea remained. Was her body was too immature to deal with a simple expelling of blood?
The highway was jammed like a car park. She was walking breathing the smog when she saw down a side street a blonde figure on the bonnet of a car. It had its back to the highway, apparently contemplating the white houses and bottlebrush. The student stood for a moment thinking, Grey, black (bitter, boot-polish black), green, white, yellow. No, platinum. Sulphur? Lemon tart? She left the highway.
The woman was dragging on a cigarette. The car was slick as oil. The student watched the back of her head. She took a step closer and perceived as if she’d crossed a threshold of vision or sensation that the woman was crying. Then Mrs Singleton turned and the student found she was much closer than she’d thought and her eyes were cocktail-green behind her glasses. The student went around the car which gave off heat like a mass of coal. The buttons shone in a crooked line down her body. One hand rested on the bonnet, the nails lacquered like coconut ice, a trail diverging from the buttons. Another step and the woman’s eyes were wet. She put out her tongue to catch a tear. The student climbed onto the bonnet beside her. The lipstick was disintegrating. She held out the cigarette and the student took it as in a dream. The woman’s nails were cumbersome and the cigarette burned the student. She breathed it in once and handed it back. Now Mrs Singleton’s face was textured like clay to which too much water has been added. She dropped the cigarette and pressed it with her heel. She glanced past Miss Archer, in the direction of the school, then she looked straight at her so that Miss Archer thought she had never been looked at properly before. She flushed. Like a sketch filled in, coloured.
Mrs Singleton’s mouth turned up at one corner. She nodded at the student as though they had settled a business deal. The student got down onto the footpath and the woman opened the door of the car. In the shine off the roof Mrs Singleton’s face was glazed but Miss Archer saw now the briefness of this kiln. The student watched the car swing around and wait to turn across the highway. The indicator was dim, without rhythm. The car sheered onto the road narrowly missing an oncoming truck.
The student went down the street and turned the same way and waited at the lights. The traffic had cleared and there was no sign of the car. Children accompanied by mothers with schoolbags over one shoulder were coming along smiling and comfortable. She suddenly felt the burn from the cigarette like a tooth driven into her palm. The smoke had infiltrated her mouth, bit into her gums and teeth. She pushed her tongue around. She was tasting what Mrs Singleton was tasting right now.
A horn blared. A fox-faced man was hanging out the window of a truck like something in the sky. He shouted some kind of witticism. She made a face and waited for the light. She could have made something out of those plastic containers smeared with colours of the earth. She looked down the highway the way the car had gone. Cars were coasting past one after the other and the things in her were going the same way. When the walk light came on everything stopped for her and she was going crosswise feeling the pain as a blooming and the colours in the early afternoon were bright. As if the world was young.
© 2013 Elisabeth Murray
from Contrappasso Magazine #4, December 2013
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ELISABETH MURRAY is a student at the University of Sydney, studying for a Bachelor of Arts and majoring in English. She is interested in representations of interiority and everyday reality, writing the natural world and spaces of intimacy outside conventional power structures. Her academic and creative interests include US literature, modernism, nature writing and feminist and queer theory. Her fiction and poetry have been published in Voiceworks, dotdotdash magazine, and the University of Sydney anthologies Margins, Sandstone, Sparks and Perspectives. Her novella, The Loud Earth, will be published in 2014.