The Artist’s Last Model by Julie Evans


The Artist’s Last Model

 

Monsieur is in great pain when he paints, and when he gets up, he can walk only a little, with his sticks. He says the blood does not move around his body as it should, that the problem is from his heart, but I have seen it before, this kind of lameness. It will end badly for him.

Once, he was a regular at the Folies. Marine says in his youth he was very handsome, all swagger in his lemon kid gloves. She says everyone stared when he came into the room, men and women alike. Looking at him now, I can see remnants of that beauty beneath the wiry beard and the deep lines around his eyes.

At first, he made some pencil sketches of me at the Folies. I did not know how to be, with an old man looking so intently at me like that. I am used to stares, of course –  lewd, suggestive ones or brief acknowledgements of my uniform, followed by a barked demand. But Monsieur was kind. ‘Will you come to my studio?’ he said. He asked. He didn’t order.

‘He pays well, I hear, now that he is famous,’ said Marine, who once, in his less successful days, was briefly his model.

So, I came to the Rue d’Amsterdam and I have propped my wrists on this makeshift counter in the afternoons, ever since. The sessions are not long. I think he is too unwell. I am glad of it, for I grow stiff and bored with the stillness and the stink of the turpentine catches in my throat.

Behind me is a huge mirror. On the canvas, the mirror reflects a scene at the Folies, the crowds in the balcony, the glittering chandeliers, even the green bootees of the trapeze artiste dangling from the ceiling, but in truth Monsieur paints it all from memory. What he sees in the mirror is only himself, at his easel, and the vast studio behind, illuminated by three tall windows. The low sun lights and heats the room by day, but by now it starts to dwindle, the air is chill and the fireplace too far from my position behind the ‘bar’ to warm me. He wraps a blanket around his own shoulders, but I must stand here just the same, in my uniform. The goose prickles rise above my bodice, above the flowers he has fixed to hide my bosom. He wants me more modest than my uniform allows.

Painting my eyes today, he said, ‘Think of home, where you came from. I want a look of longing.’

‘I came from here, Sir. Paris.’

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘You surprise me. You look too naive to be a Parisienne. Then, think of something you regret.’

That was easy. I thought of Paul. I imagined him bare-armed in the workshop, planing the coffin lids. Carpentry is a dull profession for a boy like Paul, who likes to fill his lungs and whoop and run. Too much dead dust in the air. Too much time with his Papa.

Paul wanted me for a wife, but I was not good enough for the Jacquets. And I would rather flatter the egos of the gentlemen at the Folies than marry old Trottier. I know that bar work is not respectable, but at least it is not street work. Sometimes, at quiet moments, I watch the crowds and wonder how it must feel to be one of them, promenading in silk dresses, laughing, drinking with no call on time, no limit on expense. There are men there who would take me to the other side of the bar and dress me well in return for special services, and sometimes, yes, I am tempted.

‘Perhaps, Suzon, you will be famous one day. This will be my last great painting. My swan song.’ Monsieur’s deep voice takes me out of my reverie.

‘Yes, Sir.’

‘And everyone will say how beautiful you are, and how enigmatic your expression. What were you thinking of just now?’

‘Private thoughts, Sir.’

He laughs, and the laugh makes him cough hard. His chest rattles the way Mama’s did before she spat the blood. When he has recovered himself, he says, ‘Private. And why not? We all have that right – to keep our thoughts to ourselves.’ And he seems to retreat, back into the painting.

Perhaps the picture will be famous. No-one will know my name, but my face will live on after I am dead and gone. Monsieur’s paintings grace the walls of important men, museums and galleries too, and not just in Paris. People will admire his brushwork, the way he has captured the light and the atmosphere of the Folies, but it is me – petite Suzon – who stares out from the centre of the canvas, capturing this moment in time. Will they want to know about my life, my thoughts, my feelings? No. They will say, ‘There it is – the last great Manet.’ It – not me – his creation.

My wrists are beginning to ache. I have pressed them too hard onto the edge of the counter, supporting my weight, for standing without moving is tiring. And I am so thirsty. I can smell the sweetness of the clementines in the glass bowl in front of me. I would so like to eat one, suck the tangy juices down. They arrived yesterday in a box, a gift from a friend in the South, he said, a woman friend who wished him better health, who believed the fruit would revive him. But he didn’t eat any. He arranged them perfectly in the bowl and declared that the bright orange was exactly what the painting needed. I have never tasted a clementine in my life.

Before my shift, I’ll repair to my rooms for an hour to let out my stays. Monsieur likes my coat so very tight to show off my narrow waist. I feel my ribs compress against my organs. But to compensate, he has given me, as a keepsake, a black velvet choker, with a gold ornament attached. ‘To set off your neck,’ he said. ‘Your skin is the colour of Normandy cream.’

The afternoon sun is too low now through the window. I am looking straight at it as it dips, gold between the rooftops. ‘Don’t squint!’ he says. ‘Walk to the window and look full into the light, then return to your place and it will seem less.’ I walk across the studio and he watches me, the way I move. The painting is so still, but I think he wants to capture something more of me than just my standing figure. I stay for a moment at the window and watch the carriages and omnibuses crossing paths in front of the Palais Garnier.

Sometimes, at the Folies, the light is so bright that it hurts my eyes and makes my head ache, so that I have to dip a cloth in the ice bucket to cool my brow and dab at my itching sockets. On every column of the building are circles of electric light and there are a thousand twinkling crystals in each chandelier. Candles are everywhere, and mirrors, glass, reflections. I could never have imagined such light when I was young. The back streets of Pigalle are dark and murky places, and we lived like moles in a basement.

Tonight, is the best night – Thursday – for it is the night that my favourite artist, Edouard Laurent, performs. He plays quiet songs on an old mandore, songs from the south, from Marseilles, from Algiers, songs that ought to be performed around a fire at dusk, in half-light, so that they seem out of place in the glare. It is meant as an interval between the acts. When Edouard plays, Monsieur Menard asks me to sit on his knee while he listens. The music reminds him of his childhood and his eyes mist with sentimental tears. I cannot say no to Monsieur Menard, for if I do he will make me clear the tables or sweep up dung from the animal acts, so I must sit. Sometimes, the music takes me to places where I have never been, far away from Paris, and makes me forget that I am perched on the sweat of a fat man’s thigh.

‘I think we must end there, for today, Suzon,’ Monsieur says. He releases his palette as though it is a great weight in his hand.

The light is fading. He is fading. Rain starts again, pinpricks of sound on the windows of the studio.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © Short Story Competition 2014