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Life Class by Claire Whatley

© Claire Whatley

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Life Class

© Claire Whatley

A SHORT STORY


Ridiculous really, but I always wear something a bit arty on a Thursday night. No-one else does, as it happens. But what else would I wear? Not my work clothes, certainly. I may be a spinster librarian, aged forty-eight and three-quarters, but I don’t have to look like one. I like the word spinster. It’s unequivocal. I can’t bear euphemisms, and besides, I wouldn’t want to harbour any delusions about myself.

Just before I enter the hall, I tuck my A2 fine grain heavyweight sketch papers under my arm, hoist my artist’s satchel back onto my shoulder and make sure my linen smock isn’t too rumpled. I wish I could look in a mirror to ensure my hair hasn’t waved itself into some risible 1940s curls during the brief but windy hiatus between car and hall. With my free hand I touch the soft strands around my shoulders – I think they’re alright.

The door to the hall has no handle. It just opens with a Yale key and the tutor, Ian, leaves it ajar for us. As I push the door open, I feel that happy Thursday glow welling up. It begins as some tectonic shift around my heart, liable, if I drop my guard, to erupt into an unbecoming, ear-to-ear grin. It’s threatening to spread across my face right now. I take a breath and tamp the smile down, but I know it’s still hovering around my eyes.

I inhale the scents of damp clothes, stale cake and bleach that permeate the air of the lobby. Beyond, I can hear Ian’s voice – it has a grating pitch, but he can’t help it – and about three others. My hand is smoothing my smock again and as I look down, I catch sight of my sandaled feet and I wish I’d trimmed my toe-nails. Their tendency, when long, towards a concave curve is not attractive. Ten tiny pink shovels, ridged and cracked.

I open the door to the hall’s main room: a room that accommodates bouncy castle parties, Bible meetings, Brownies and beer festivals. And on a Thursday night, the life class.

The conversation doesn’t falter as I walk in. In recent years, a cloak of invisibility has woven itself around me and nowadays I’m quite used to failing to make the traffic stop. But he’s here and at the first available pause in their small talk, he turns and smiles as though seeing me has made his day.

“Jude! How are you?”

It makes me want to laugh with delight that he insists on Jude instead of Judy. It’s his own little touch of intimacy.

My smile knows no bounds.

“Hi Sam. I’m fine, thanks.” I follow this up with a more general ‘Hi’, looking at Ian first of course, as a mark of respect for the tutor, and then a nod to Thelma and Brian. Thelma, powdery-faced and cornflower-eyed, is one half of Thelma and Paish (short for Patience) who always work together with incessant whispered chat. They’re ladies who are beyond the reach of women’s troubles. They wear comfy trainers with their polyester trousers and bold tops from exclusive catalogues in which women still wear headscarves. Brian, who never remembers my name, has the jaunty air of a vastly pensioned, retired somebody important and is the best artist here, apart from Ian. And then, Sam.

I remember those endlessly fascinating conversations about boys in the Fourth Form at school. What would it be called now? Year Ten? Which bit of a boy do you like best? Bum? Six-pack? Legs? Chest? Shoulders? Face? Hair? How could any woman look into Sam’s eyes and not know the answer. The irises are like expensive chocolate, so brown the pupils are almost invisible. Full of humour and intelligence. The type the self-help books call emotional intelligence. And so kind.

I walk over to establish my evening’s ownership of the easel next to Sam’s. I fiddle about, pulling my case of charcoals from my satchel and then pinning a new paper to the easel. Sam is doing the same. I’m aware of his every move.

“Love the smock. You look like Monet!” Sam jokes.

“Without the beard, I hope!”

We laugh. The evening’s going well.

Paish arrives with Lee, his nervous cough preceding him. Lee is the youngest here. About twenty-five, I’d say. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him speak but his work is strong and confident and I often wonder about his life. Paish strides across to Thelma and they’re jolly-hockey-sticking together, sharing some hilarity over a recent dinner party. Lee quietly sets himself up on the other side of Sam. I saw him nod to Sam’s ‘Hey’.

Ian’s looking at his watch and he’s about to ask if anyone’s heard from Eric, but we hear the outer door squeak and Eric bustles in and performs his regular little stand-up routine. He stops abruptly as though surprised to see us, staggers back a step or two, bends his knees and chants his unfailing, “Evenin’ all” greeting. I have no idea whether he is in fact a retired policeman, but I forgive his infuriating Dixon of Dock Green act because he is very old. He peers around the room, checking the availability of his favourite easel, positioned where he considers the light and angle are most favourable. We all know which one this is and we always leave it for him.

Anxious to make a start, Ian launches into his spiel.

“Good evening, everyone. I hope you’ve all had a good week and had plenty of time to practise. Nothing wrong with drawing clothed models if you don’t have any nudes available! Capture your nearest and dearest while they’re watching telly or surfing the net! Or eating breakfast! Just keep drawing.”

I do find his hectoring tone annoying, particularly his assumptions about “nearest and dearest”, but nevertheless, he’s a good teacher. Anyway, I’d keep coming to this class now even if he were the worst teacher in the world.

He continues, “Our model tonight is Helen. And as usual I hope you’ll have time to capture at least three poses.”

On cue, the divine Helen appears from the little room adjacent to this one. She wears the same eau-de-nil silk dressing gown that every Thursday night model wears. I feel a niggling concern about this. Does Ian take the dressing gown home every week and wash it? Is the model expected to wash it afterwards? Or is it never washed?

There is a low, cloth-covered box on a dais before us, and Helen allows the dressing gown to fall to the floor as she awaits Ian’s instruction about the required pose. She’s the only model we have with a perfect body. Well, it’s perfect in my opinion: each to their own. We have fat ones, old and wrinkly ones and sometimes even men. I’m not so keen on that, though. Generally speaking, men’s bodies are functional but not beautiful. Not since Michelangelo’s David, anyway.

I look around at my fellow artists. We always fall silent when the model appears as though she’s an avatar or some beatific vision. Every face is serious, bearing a mask of professional detachment. Even Thelma and Paish stop their St Trinian’s giggling before the lovely Helen. Of course, I can’t see Sam’s face, but his presence next to me is so pervasive that I know exactly how he is looking at this moment. There is always some amusement about his face as though he’s thinking of a private joke. I think he’s just happy.

Ian again. “Now before you pick up your charcoal…” I replace mine on the easel at once – ever the good girl, “…I want you to look for the geometric shapes. Now, with her knee elevated like this,” he points as though she’s an inanimate object, “you’ve got a gorgeous triangle here, and then leaning on her elbow, you’ve got another one here. Get your geometry right before you start. Use your eyes.”

Helen’s own eyes glaze over as though she’s having a glorious dream. As though she relishes this time to be herself and be adored, and that our eyes, lasering into every centimetre of her creamy flesh, send her into a state of peacefulness, like meditation.

I speculate every week about what the men really think. Is it a master class in concealment of lechery, and are the women only allowed in as an alibi? Don’t men think about sex every ten seconds? Or was that just a Fourth Form rumour, spread to excite and terrify pubescent girls? Sam is the most inscrutable one of all, but I can’t imagine him leering. It’s not his style.

I apply myself to the study of Helen’s triangles. She’s at that peak of beauty – what? Thirty-one, thirty-two? It’s the moment before that slow fade when gravity, free radicals and genetic misfortunes begin to take hold. Regarding her smooth, taut abdomen and thighs, I’d guess she’s childless. That didn’t stop the slow attrition of cellulite in my case, sadly. Still, on the bright side, there’s no-one to see it. I wonder what Helen does when she’s not recumbent before a group of feverishly scribbling amateurs. Does she live alone? I wonder whether Thursday nights add a thrill to an otherwise mundane existence. Her face suggests the opposite: that this is a dull interlude in an otherwise thrilling life.

Sam is standing back inspecting his sketch so far. He always dresses plainly: T-shirt and jeans. I like that. And I think he’s had a hair-cut. His soft dark brown hair is so short that his sweet incipient pate shines pinkly. I realise I’m falling behind in my work. I focus once again at the central triangle, roughly equilateral, formed by Helen’s raised leg and apply charcoal to paper. There is a poorly suppressed hooting laugh from Paish as she looks at Thelma’s work and Ian gives her a small frown. He stops his own drawing to begin his instructional round.

I like to think I compensate for a few errors of scale by my attention to chiaroscuro. Is there a more delicious word in the dictionary? Seventeenth century, Italian. Even to think it is to have an overwhelming urge to say it, in a sultry Latin whisper. I’m chiaroscuroing under Helen’s right breast as Ian approaches Sam’s easel.

“Nice work. Good clean lines. Watch out for that foot – it’s slightly out of proportion and the angle’s not quite there.” He picks up a piece of charcoal and corrects the error in a few relaxed sweeps of his wrist. “Look, can you see you need to form another triangle just here, and slim down that ankle. Otherwise, good. Well done. We’re nearly ready for the next pose.” He turns to me.

“How’re you getting on, Judy? Yes. Yes. I can see what you’re aiming for, but you don’t want all those fussy lines here.” He points to my heavy shading under the breast. “Keep it simple. You need to be bolder.”

He moves on to inspect Eric’s efforts. I need to be bolder.

I turn to Sam. “You’ve had a hair-cut. It looks nice.”

He beams in surprise, and I wonder if he’s laughing at me. “Yeah. Cheers. Just the usual number four. Have to watch out for sunburn for a few days, though!”

“Oh don’t worry – I think the forecast is for rain.”

“Oh, that’s alright, then,” he says with a sidelong glance and I feel sure he’s laughing at me, but he does look nice – he looks adorable – and I’m glad I said it.

Ian requires a new pose from Helen, leaning with her back to most of us, supporting herself with her straight arms. Looks tiring. I feel emboldened by my compliment to Sam and I’m working well. It’s not a difficult pose – no breasts to worry about although as a rule, I do like to do the face. What does my face give away about me? No-one knows how I earn my living. I hate the corny preconceptions about my profession. I won’t allow myself to be classified and catalogued by it like some dusty work of non-fiction. And then, there’s my marital status, or lack of it. I may be a spinster but I’m not at all virginal or uninteresting. I had my riotous moments at university. I’ve travelled; had relationships…not recently admittedly. I was even engaged once. At what point in my life did I become so strait-jacketed by my own reserve that even a weekly art class could seem like An Awfully Big Adventure? We don’t talk about our jobs or home-life in this class. We’re just all artists together.

I’m taken by surprise as Sam leans across to me.

“That’s great – really three dimensional. The curves on the shoulders are just right,” he whispers, giving me full eye contact and smiling.

“D’you think so?” Standing back from my easel, I assume a modest pose as though it’s beyond human imagination that my work could be worthy of praise. In a delayed reaction I blush. But only a little. To give myself time to recover my pallor, I study Sam’s work.

“Oh, yours is really good! The proportions are perfect!” I murmur and – in a reckless moment – I look him in the eye again. I wonder how old he is. Thirty-two? Probably a little older. Surely older. I hope my hair’s still OK.

His gaze returns to his work but I can tell our friendship has moved up to a new level. “Well, I think this one’s a bit better than the last. Hair’s not right, though.”

We resume our work.

The rest of the class passes in a blur of joy. I hardly know what I draw, but Ian gives me fulsome praise. By the time Helen slides the dressing gown on once again I’ve made a decision.

We all walk out into the breezy summer night, shuffling papers, rummaging for keys, exchanging pleasantries. I’m behind Thelma and Paish and I notice Paish’s left trouser tucked into a racy purple sock. Eric is trundling along next to me, blowing his nose with gusto and talking about the forthcoming exhibition. I can respond appropriately without fully registering what he is saying: I don’t want any idle chat to mar my serenity or weaken my resolve.

Without looking I know that Sam is the last to leave. He is speaking to Ian. I talk to Eric for longer than I want or need because I have to wait for Sam.

I approach my car and I hear Ian behind us locking up. Sam walks home on Thursdays, I know. I fiddle and faff, pretending to look for my keys, than spend some time arranging my art on the back seat with what must appear to be OCD precision. Sam calls to me, “Bye, Jude, see ya next week!”

“Oh, bye Sam!” I call, looking round for just a moment with an absent look, suggesting I’d already forgotten his existence.

Those who drove here are leaving the car-park now. Lee, papers neatly rolled, walks home, and is going in the opposite direction from Sam. When I’m confident they’re both out of earshot I click to lock my car, replace the keys in my bag and follow the route taken by Sam.

It’s harmless enough, just wanting to know where he lives. To imagine his life. And to imagine…whatever else I please. He has an easy, fluid walk lacking the arrogant swagger of more insecure young men. I keep a good distance. Quite the private detective. We take a left into a sedate and silent street I’ve never been in before, full of neat Victorian terraces with cellars and loft conversions. I hover at the corner. A man is approaching from the opposite direction. Even from here, I can see that he’s a man who works out. He’s tall and he’s broad and he’s walking purposefully. I hang back, away from the street-light. He’s walking directly towards Sam. My breath’s coming too fast. I stand close to the wall, hoping my invisibility holds good here. Sam is slowing. I want him to run.

Under the next street-light I see the man’s face. He’s smiling with recognition, and something else I don’t want to understand. They are face to face. The larger man gently takes Sam’s artwork from him and holds it in one hand and I realise what I should have realised long ago. They step away from the light. He embraces Sam and they are kissing. The paper falls to the ground and the man pushes Sam easily against the wall. It’s loving and it’s passionate and I can’t move. I’m ashamed to be me and ashamed to be here and I can’t stop watching. I want to be that man. Doing that. Like that. With Sam. I’ve seen gay people kissing before. Of course I have. But not like this.

My breath is at one remove from hyperventilation. I must get away. Voices in party spirit are waxing from the other end of the street. Sam and his partner pull away from each other. They pick up Sam’s sketches – it hasn’t rained for so long, they’re fine. His lover is looking at the work as they stroll away from me. They’re sharing a joke.

I watch them talk and laugh, so close together as they stroll, perfectly in step.

I turn back and, keeping to the shadows, I walk away.























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