Shannon Hebbe: “Posing for a Client”

I closed my eyes in exasperation wondering how much longer this sitting would take. Granted, that position wasn’t quite as uncomfortable as others he had set me in, but it is quite hard to keep one’s arms above one’s head for more than ten minutes, let alone hours. Every time I shifted, a glare of malice and the promise of death shot my way through the corner of his eye. How I loathe that look. When my eyes re-opened, there it was, piercing my very soul and filling me to the brim with hatred.

“If you don’t keep still, Evie,” he growled dangerously low in his gritty voice, “the painting will not turn out as it should. I can’t even begin to explain the consequences if that should happen.”

“Forgive me, John,” I said in my most sickly sweet voice, “it must have slipped my mind. Do, please, continue.”

Just as always, he sent me that disgusting, toothy grin and god-forsaken wink. How the sight of that putrid face made my stomach churn. Of all the abhorred faces he made, of all the gruesome words he whispered to me, of all the nauseating times he has touched my skin, I held the most contempt for that face. The dingy, plaque-covered, toothy grin with a lazy, dark lidded wink. How had I come this far to resort to this man? Of course, I really shouldn’t be overly surprised I found myself in this situation. Though ‘found’ could not describe the situation. I knew perfectly well I maneuvered myself into this chair with my arms raised above my head as he painted me into his medievalizing portrait of the Lady of Shalott.

Oh yes, he had discussed exactly what he intended to do with me. It was his habit of telling me his every intention which had set him apart from the others I have modeled for. In the beginning, it was a comfort, even if miniscule, knowing he did exactly what he meant to, that I would have forewarning of his intentions. It set my mind at ease most nights after I left him in the studio to bask in his masculine glory. However, after the first couple weeks, that comfort shifted to unease, eventually to fear, and finally, it had only added yet another reason to hate the swine. Although, knowing in advance I would need the next day to recuperate from his ‘attentions’ did not enrage me enough to leave him, to finally pitch a fit and completely trash this studio, hopefully knocking a few panes from the window in my rage. Strange really, but I couldn’t hold it against him. What right had I to get upset if he had already fore-warned me? And yet, it seemed as though his effort to comfort me with foreknowledge was counterproductive, at least for me, as it left me far more irritable with him but more importantly with myself.

If only Mother could see me now. She always did have ambitions for me. Said with my pretty face, I could find a way out of the gutter and into the pocket of a well-to-do gentleman with a key to a house in Kent. I would be able to raise her many grandchildren with the knowledge they would have three meals a day, starch white trousers and bonnets for church, and a warm bed to turn down every night.

“They will prance around in Hyde Park, the boys with their makeshift kites and the girls with their ribbons.”

“That’s all very well Mum, but I don’t want to marry just for the money. Shouldn’t marriage mean more than advancement in society?”

She shook her head. “It is about time you gave up such romantic fancies, Evangeline. You will learn sooner or later that these silly dreams will only give you a life in the dark, forever scrapping, barely fit to be the scum under a gent’s shoes.”

I never did heed Mother’s words. Even now she’s gone, I still don’t. I guess I was too proud and wanted to prove to her that I would marry for something more, for love actually. I did, in a way. I found Edmond. He was a gorgeous man, sturdy and firm with the finest hair you could imagine, always perfectly kept except for the few clumps which fell in his face. There really was nothing soft about him:  calloused hands, grimy fingernails, square jaw, steely eyes, and the worst breath of all the chums on the harbor. He grunted mostly, barely forming words and when he did, they would make Queen Victoria herself faint at his atrocious grammar.

Shipbuilding was his profession. He and his mates would arrive down at port before dawn to begin their day’s work, never let up until noon hour, and finish hours later just before dusk. I used to pop down there at noon hour to grab a bite to eat or the occasional pint with them. It was an extraordinary assault on the senses. The mixed scent of the Thames, steel, beer, burning coal and sweat was simply intoxicating. The sweltering heat of the coals, the cooling drops of rain, or the gentle drip of a bead of sweat down my neck still sends shivers through me. After they’d finished work, we’d all drop by the pub for a bit of supper and another pint. They could get exceptionally rowdy sometimes. I can still clearly remember when Edmond dragged me up top the table and did the most ghastly Irish jig I’d ever seen. He then proceeded to trip over his own feet and fall to the floor, all the while roaring with laughter as we helped him up.

On the weekends though, he would sometimes take me to the park. He would paint me. He wasn’t exceptionally good at it; I never could see my face in the hodgepodge of colors. But he loved to watch me. Said he would always find himself watching me and that one day, he’d be able to watch me as his wife. Edmond did eventually get around to proposing; I had even brought him to meet Mother after we were engaged. I remember admitting to her that we could never afford a house in Kent, but our children wouldn’t have to worry about empty stomachs.

We were married two week later. His reasoning always came in the question of why should we wait? It wasn’t likely he would come into a lot of money any time soon and we couldn’t afford to have a long engagement. I remember it wasn’t a big ceremony, and we all just went to the pub afterwards. We didn’t do much else that night, not having much money for leisure, although he did take me down by the Tower along the bankside where we threw some pebbles into the river as we sat on the new bridge.  The sun had gone down long before now as we sat there with our legs dangling over the edge, so we watched the reflection of the moon in the ripples of the Thames.

“I’ve been meaning to thank yer, Evie.”

“What for?”

“Well, fer puttin’ up wit me. Not many’s a lady who’d pluck up ‘nuff courage and marry me.”

“Eddie, there aren’t many as in love with you as I.”

“Well, I still thank ya.”

“As I thank you.”

            He looked at the moon’s reflection.

“Ever notice ‘ow no one much cares for the moon?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, fer starters, no one see’s the moon. I mean, they see it, but then they’s some nights when it ain’t there. And them nights always seem to come after a right sunny day. And then other nights, there’s always a shadow ‘cross it, ain’t there? I reckon some ways, the moon’s in the sun’s shadow. I know it ain’t really possible, but that’s what I fink.”

“I see what you mean.”

“I like the moon best though.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. I mean, yeh can look at it an’ not ‘urt yer eyes for example.

“Yes! I hadn’t thought about it that way.”

“Plus, they’s some nights it helps light the way. A bit weird, ain’t it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the moon’s always in the sun’s shadow, and it can still light up the darkness and all.”

“I see.”

“Ya remind me of the moon, Evie.”

Then, sometime later, Edmond disappeared, vanished without cause, without reason, without trace. A few days after, one of our chums fished him out of the river. His eyes were staring out without any sparkle of life in them, his lips tinted an eerie periwinkle blue. Stupid bugger never learned how to swim. Ironic, really.

So I had to start making a living for myself. Modeling was the easiest. Only thing I’d ever really done before I married Edmond. I’ve been doing it ever since. I only started with one artist weekly, but I eventually worked my way up to managing three different artists multiple times during the week. They were nice blokes and always paid extra for my special attention, though I did get the odd one who would like to rough me up a bit. I never stayed long with those; they’d beat me blue so I couldn’t model for my other artists. Some nights I would imagine my faceless gent up in Kent with a boy on his shoulders and a girl clinging to his trousers. I suppose it isn’t too late. I may not be as young as I once was, but I can’t say I’m quite over the hill just yet.

“That’s you done for the day,” John mumbled with a brush clenched between his dingy teeth. “I think I’ll touch up these last bits later tonight.”

It took me a while to snap back to the present. Another one of my artist’s tasteless habits: interrupting my thoughts with his painting.

“Oh, can I see it John?” I inquired giving him my best pouting face with the large eyes and slightly curved lips.

He nodded his head. That mop on top of his head was rather disgusting as well. Whenever I looked at it, I could see dried clumps of paint plastered in some areas. It always made me wonder if he went out of the studio like that. I’ve never found out though. I made it a rule never to look for my artists outside the studio. Bad business and always caused more trouble than it’s worth.

So, I popped down off the stool and raced around his easel. I was careful not to touch the canvas, something I learned from one of my other artists. I’m sure John wouldn’t hurt me if I had managed to mess it up, but that other bloke tended to finish off a few pints while he painted. It was a rather nice painting. He even managed to show my reverie in her face, as if she weren’t really seeing the loom in front of her. He changed the furniture, my clothing, obviously, and I was not sitting behind a loom here in the studio so that was another addition. The mirror in the back was something new though. I couldn’t quite make out what was reflecting in the mirror, however, and curiosity made me ask:

“What’s in the mirror there?” I pointed at the painting, careful not to put my finger close to the canvas.

“It will be Camelot, my dear.” I just about gagged at his endearment. “You do know the story of the Lady of Shalott, don’t you?” By this point, he had slunk behind me, wrapping his arms around my midsection tightly. He swayed a bit as he placed his chin in the hollow area near my shoulder.

“Mmm,” I placed my hands over his in an effort to stop his ridiculous swaying, though it didn’t work. “I can’t say I remember it well enough from my schooling.”

“Well,” he shifted closer behind me, “the poem is about a lady who spends her time in a tower. She is cursed, though she knows not what the curse is and therefore sits in her tower weaving, never looking out her tower window nor at outside life for fear of invoking the curse. One day, she sees a man in her mirror, Lancelot to be exact. Completely taken by the rider, she rushes to the window to gaze at him. It is then the mirror cracks and the curse crashes down upon her. She realizes her mistake and takes a boat down the river into Camelot where she dies.”

“What a terribly sad story.”

He nodded on my shoulder, digging his chin in very painfully. “Yes, well, aren’t artists attracted to the morbid?”

“I shouldn’t think so.” We both gazed at the painting then.

I had talked to an American once. He was touring here in London for summer holiday. Said his parents wanted him to be more worldly, so he chose London. “The most worldly city there is,” he said. He hadn’t known anything about London, or even England for that matter, before he traveled here. Though he did know the story of King Arthur. “Studied it in school,” he said, “and always thought of England in that manner.” I should think that’s how many people would view England, perhaps even London, today. The state of chivalry and decorum. The chap said that he thought of London as the Camelot of modern England. The one city in all the realm where everyone wanted to go, the pinnacle of human society, the zenith of modern standards. He took me to dinner that night and gave me the most pleasant smile as he left after morning tea and toast. A pleasant chap he was.

“I see a lot of you in that painting, my dear,” John said, snapping me out of my reverie yet again. I realized sometime during my musing he must have gone to clean some of his brushes. He was now trying to peel off some dried paint from his hands and fingernails.

“Well, I should hope so since I’ve been posing for you for ages now.”

“No, no. I mean you as the Lady of Shalott.”

I turned around to face him while he still struggled to chip away at the paint on his skin. “I don’t follow.”

“Well, you and she are much alike. An innocent woman trapped in a protective cocoon of ignorance. You both are so out of touch with reality. You for your fanciful, romantic ideals; she for seeing the world through the distorted lens of a mirror. You have the ability to see the world around you with rays of sunshine beaming from behind allowing a magnificent glow around everything you see. And just like the Lady of Shalott, you were cursed.”

I raised my eyebrows at him. How much about me did he really know?

“Oh, not in the witchcraft sense of the word.” He obviously misinterpreted the quirk of my brow. “But your innocence cursed you with an incredibly heavy fall. Reality came crashing down on both of you. The Lady of Shalott saw the outside world for the first time not through a distorted reality. You had something terrible happen to you, I can tell. I’m not sure what, but for as long as I’ve been painting you, there’s never been a spark in your eyes. They’re always dull and colorless.”

“Are you saying you’d fancy a little blonde with twinkling blue eyes rather than my colorless gray ones?”

“Oh, no. Not at all, my dear,” he chuckled at me. Another disgusting bodily function of his, all gurglely and phlegmy. “But something has made them dull. What I’m trying to say is you both lost your golden backdrop to life. Nothing glows for either of you anymore.”

“I see.” I didn’t really, but I turned away so he couldn’t see the skepticism in my face. I could feel his eyes boring into the back of my head.

“Do you realize how incredibly enchanting you are, Evie?”

I pretended to not hear him, though I could make out the shuffle of his feet.

“I’ve finally decided upon a title,” John said as he snuck up behind me again, kneading my breasts as his putrid breath misted across my neck.

“Oh?” I breathed out and closed my eyes, feigning excitement.

“Mmm,” he nodded against the crook of my neck, nipping the tendon before answering, “I’ve decided on ‘I am Half Sick of Shadows’ said the Lady of Shalott.

My eyes snapped open at his answer. Half sick of shadows. It took great effort to contain the snort of laughter that bubbled up in my throat. How fitting a title.

SOURCES

Waterhouse, John William. I am Half Sick of Shaows, Said the Lady of Shalott. 2002. John William Waterhouse: The Complete WorksWeb. 20 Dec 2012. <http://www.johnwilliamwaterhouse.net/I-am-Half-Sick-of-Shadows,-Said-the-Lady-of-Shalott–c.1916.html&gt;.

Tennyson, Lord Alfred. “Lord Alfred Tennyson Poems.” Famous Poets and Poems.com. FamousPoetsandPoems.com, n.d. Web. 20 Dec 2012. http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/lord_alfred_tennyson/poems/11506

DISCLAIMER: This story is a pure work of fiction. It does not accurately reflect the character of John William Waterhouse or his painting. Any similarities to real life events or people are unintentional. The poem referred to is written by Lord Alfred Tennyson and not the work of the author of the story. 

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