Every day he would paint her. He would paint her as she sat by the window of her apartment - visible from the window of his, and she would read or drink coffee or think, while he would do the best that he could to capture her. He would position the easel so that it could absorb the narrow beam of light that found its way to the dingy square that joined her building to his, and when the natural light began to fade he would provide an imitation, achieved through a small adjustable desk lamp on the sill.
His time with her was limited. He could only paint her when he was able to see her, and he could only see her when she appeared in the window. This was usually early in the morning - when she would sit with her hands cupped around a warm drink - and in the evening, when she would read whilst watching the daylight disappear. Sometimes she stayed longer, staring into the darkness. He could not see her but he knew she was there. Did she know that he painted her? Perhaps so. It was hard to tell. Sometimes he thought that she did, and other times he was certain that she didn’t.
He had moved into the apartment after the death of his wife seven years ago, and with the death of his wife his desire to paint died also. The girl who he painted had moved in approximately half way through this time, and her arrival at the lifeless apartment building had brought some source of light to what had seemed like a continual dark spot in his life.
Despite his best efforts, he was never satisfied with his work. He felt that his timeworn paintbrush with the coarse hairs would never be able to adequately portray the way in which her delicate hands – which could have belonged to a pianist, would gently hold the smooth cut of her jaw, nor could he ever fully capture the glimmer of sadness detectable in her eyes.
He continued however, to attempt to capture her beauty despite his irrefutable belief that he never could. His existence began to revolve around her presence at the window; she was the ethereal moon, and he the naïve ocean – drawing in and out in accordance to her appearance. It went on like this for some time, and for a while, he had something to live for again.
One evening, the fading light began to cast its shadows over the apartment buildings and the sun sank into the distant hills and he saw her stir, like an apparition, in the blanket of the dark, then fade from his view. He rinsed his brushes routinely at the kitchen sink, watched them drain of their colour, then retired to bed.
When the sun cast its spell over him the following morning, he woke with little objection and took his position at the window. But when she did not appear, his heart sank at the sight of an empty space and his canvas ached white like a sheet of undisturbed snow.
His canvas remained white for six days, and on the seventh day he went to church. After the service, the parish congregated outside in its usual manner. He typically avoided socialising, but on this occasion he deemed it necessary.
“Very white skin, dark hair. Even darker eyes?” They shook their heads blankly.
On his way back to his apartment he decided to enter her building and knock at her door. He was not usually so forthright, and he rarely acted upon impulse, but he deemed this a matter of absolute urgency. A woman answered but it was not the girl who he painted. He described the girl to her and she looked at him through narrowed eyes that compared little to the girl’s.
“Never heard of her,” she said, closing the door abruptly.
He went back to his apartment with his heart dragging behind him and sat motionless in the silence. It was not a silence that soothed and lulled, but one that tormented him and penetrated his skin, resonating deep within him.
Next to the dusty piano in the corner was a bureau; he went over to it and removed from a drawer, a small black and white photograph of his wife when he had first met her. He looked at the photograph for some time, and then he looked at the paintings of the girl that were scattered all over the room, and then he looked at the photograph again.
Faith Rhiannon Clarke is currently reading a degree in Journalism and English Literature at Cardiff University, and works part-time in a vintage clothes store. She is inspired predominantly by the modern and postmodern movements and post-war American fiction. She hopes to one day write a novel.
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THE GIRL WHO HE PAINTED