She sat on the bench outside. Gnarled hands resting on smooth wood, the patina worn down to an obscure colour. The corridor was dark, hushed almost, with dark oakwood doors at regular intervals down the passage, ending at a framed window at the end. The window was shut and feeble light shone in from the lead crisscross frame, the only witness to the late afternoon autumn sun.
The door to her immediate left was open. If she leaned over and peered in, she would see the length of the room. And she did. Two columns, three rows each, of neatly laid wooden chairs, separated by a central aisle. Polished oak paneling; gleaming in the muted light. The all pervasive smell of incense and lilies; complemented by softly burning candles. The lilies! They were all over the room, white with pale pink centers. Velvety and fragrant, they sat in big vases and large florist arrangements, keeping watch. She loved lilies. There was a single white rose as well, placed carefully on the bosom.
The bosom was the only thing she could see, protruding from the solid oak casket. Hands crossed on top of the bosom, covered by the pale pink watered silk dress, used sparingly, for special occasions. Yes, the bosom was all she could see but she could picture the rest in her mind. The bosom rose from a long neck, once white, gleaming, and unblemished but now, wrinkled, with brown spots. The face, now in peaceful repose, was lined as well, framed by beautifully coiffed, silver gray hair. In another life, that face was a canvas of emotions-passion, joy, grief - life's journey reflected with intensity on that face. And the hair had been dark, spilling in unruly curls, defying control, not like this, not tamed by the hand of the town’s best undertakers.
She sighed. "We really need to go now. Getting late." he said. She looked up at him. Dear George! Steadfast, solid and ever caring. How could she live without him. In all these years of marriage, they had been through so much together and he remained the loyal husband, the caring father, his unwavering faith a bit daunting at times. Yes, his infallibility had sometimes made her feel unworthy of him, even pushed her to dare. To see if he would love her still.
A strangled sob made them turn towards the room again. Peering into the dimly lighted room she could make out the shape of a woman crunched up in a chair, in the middle row to the right. Untidy hair struggling to escape from pins stuck in with apparent disregard. Well worn brogues, a slender back in a blue cashmere sweater, heaving in evident grief. Kate - sensible at most times, provocatively disobedient at others. Kate-
Searching, and yes, finding happiness in the littlest things. Sunny and vivacious. Kate- her daughter.
George patted her on the shoulder. Looking up, she found the anxiety in her eyes, met with a quiet understanding in his. She turned away to look at Kate again, and gripped the armrest hard, preparing to raise herself. To go and engulf that slender body in the warmest hug she could. But she felt George’s hand on her arm. “Don’t. She has to face this alone. You can’t lessen the pain for her. Not this time. "She gazed into his eyes in incomprehension.
"Don't worry," he said, with a wry smile, "she has my forbearance, she will be okay". She nodded. Kate did indeed have her father's forbearance. Or did she?
Memories of another afternoon flashed unbidden into her mind. Spring had come early that year. The long winter receding and prospects of warmer days ahead had cheered her, as she hurried to her art lessons. George worked in a law firm in the City and the long afternoons filled with empty hours had prompted her to revisit a favourite hobby. Sketching a tentative outline, then filling in with more definitive charcoal strokes and finally finishing with delicate shading, seemed to her, what the Creator may have used to create this Universe. Not particularly religious, this is when she felt closest to divinity.
Sketches had dominated her school years. In fact when she finished her A levels, there were talks of applying to the London School of Arts for a place. Her sketches were described as “speaking with a mind of their own” by her senior form art teacher. However, teaching was considered a more worthwhile career by the School Head Master who was also her father. So art had to take a second place and for a while got left by the wayside, as she moved on to graduate from university and begin work at a private girl’s school close to home. And then George happened, introduced by her uncle as a “jolly good chap. Works at the firm.” Marriage was absorbing and all- encompassing, a vocation almost.
Then art beckoned again, in the form of an advert, stuck carelessly, half hidden behind the one seeking dog walkers, on the notice board at the Post Office. Teacher available for art lessons. Please contact…..
And she signed up. There were usually two or three of them. Classes were conducted in a large room opening on to a small terrace. The terrace led to an overgrown garden, redolent with the fragrance of lilies in spring. The room occupied the entire front of an 18th century cottage. The place reeked of atmosphere, the windows casting an interesting play of light and shadow. It brought out the best in the aspiring artists, or so she believed. There was the other draw, of course.
Opening the rickety gate she almost skipped across the garden, in eager anticipation of another afternoon. She pushed open the door and hanging her coat on the hooks beside the door, walked hurriedly to where her unfinished sketch lay on its easel. She was late today! Picking up the piece of charcoal, she suddenly looked around, expecting to see her fellow students hard at work. But there was no one there. Easels with works in progress stood standing, awaiting their creators. Puzzled she turned around and saw him lounging in the doorway. Brown flecked green eyes pierced her to the inside, bringing unfathomable emotions to the top.
“They canceled. There’s no one here today but you.”
“Do you want to reschedule the class?”, she asked, hoping that he didn’t. The sketch was at a crucial stage. And there were the eyes too, their intensity drawing her close.
“No, not at all. Would you like a cup of tea before we start?”
“Sure.” And they walked towards the tiny kitchen at the back of the house.
With tea mugs in their hands, they came back to her easel.
“Aspirations.” She said with a smile, then shaking her head, “No, not strictly true. Dance is not something I have aspired to. It is the freedom that allures me. Freedom to soar, to touch limitless horizons.”
“Hmmm. What after?”
“I would probably return, like a homing pigeon” she smiled.
“I have something to show you.” Holding her hand, he took her up the stairs. Opening a door on the landing, he led her into a bedroom.
She stepped in, and stopped.
Facing her on the wall was the most stunning painting she had seen. Done primarily in bold strokes of charcoal, it had splashes of red and ochre. A vortex that began from a dark centre and flew away almost leaving the boundaries of the canvas to streak the wall behind. The vortex spun and whorled, the colours weaving in and out. She walked to the side of the bed. The vortex followed her. She felt swept up, twirled and set down. Breathless, she looked at him with a slowly growing recognition. He moved towards her.
She forever remembered that afternoon with poignancy. The warmth of the bed, the heat of lovemaking, the fragrance of lilies wafting from the open window, and the swirls of black, red and ochre, all came together create a memory of unfettered passions and unspoken words, tinged with guilt and regret after.
She never went back. The painting of the ballerina, which she took with her, remained unfinished, relegated to the attic amongst a jumble of other unneeded things. She had no time as well. Kate born that year demanded all that she was capable of giving.
The child was such a joy. George and she doted on Kate. They embraced parenthood, and with care and love, each steered Kate gently to be what they couldn’t. Kate learnt to play the piano, something that George always wanted to do, and take French lessons, a long time wish of her mum. Kate did not learn art. But she doodled her way to becoming the Artist of the Year at school, winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art. Some things have a way of going around.
Kate suddenly stood up. Straightening her narrow shoulders, she walked steadily towards the casket. She held something in her hand.
Watching Kate walk up the aisle, she knew that it had to be done. It was the only way to be free, to fly. Turning towards George, she held his frail hands in hers. She said, “Kate is not yours. You know that, don’t you?”
George smiled. An unwavering smile of honest complicity. And then he winked, “Always knew that. No daughter of mine would have worn a pink scarf to a funeral home. She was always yours. But we loved each other, my little Kate and I.”
She smiled. In his inimitable style, George let the unspoken be. George had set her free.
“I am ready now.” She said, rising from the bench. Hand in hand, they left.
The pink scarf trailed on the aisle. Kate held the heavy canvas close to her for a second and then handed it over to the funeral home director. “This was a painting that my mother started, but did not finish. I found it in the attic after my dad passed away last year. In many ways, the ballerina embodies what my mother wanted to be. I want it placed next to her casket, at the funeral tomorrow.”
The lilies nodded, in agreement.