The story spans a day in November 2010, as the final preparations of a major retrospective of an aging painter are underway at Tate Modern. The private view; a jamboree of press, critics, celebrities and sponsors (even Tony Blair, a friend of the sponsor, is expected) takes place that evening, and the painter, Mateus Stefko, whose life has been blighted by war, secretly plans to make a citizen’s arrest. He becomes attached to a young art handler, Jerome, unaware of Jerome’s past in the care system, and who was helped into art school by Martha, a charismatic art therapist who had strong unconscious feelings for him. As Stefko and Jerome check the final hang, the paintings trigger Stefko’s memories:- pre-war Krakow, POW in the Soviet Union, cosmopolitan Beirut and eventual arrival in the UK. When they reach Untitled, a portrait of a partly dressed, masked woman, Stefko reflects on the intense relationship he had with its subject – Martha – whose hour by hour agonizing about whether to accept Stefko’s invitation to the opening is spliced into the unfolding story at Tate Modern. She hasn’t seen him for thirty years. Jerome’s story meanwhile is told in flashback, with the mysterious Martha at the heart of it. Neither Stefko nor Jerome know of her existence for the other until the denouement that evening in front of Untitled. This private drama is offset by a very public one, as Stefko waits and watches for his prey.
The novella is about how making art can deliver emotional salvation, as well as the relationships between the main characters, and how war has affected their lives. Dedicated to Stanislaw Frenkiel – 1918 – 2002 www.frenkielart.com. This is a fictionalised account of his life but the paintings described in the text and reproduced here are real.
The tale will unfold week by week, through Stefko, Jerome, Martha and the paintings.
Untitled – Part 8
Martha walks along a narrow track flanked by oaks and ash. A gust of wind sends them thrashing and she looks up to watch their branches dance against a sullen sky. Dying leaves spin towards her and she tries to catch one for luck. She can’t – but it’s a decision she needs, not luck. Head down again, she strides on and turns left through an iron gate where two bikes are chained to the fence, next to a small dog in a tartan coat. It yaps and looks up at her with doleful idiocy, reminding her of the dogs of faithfulness and devotion in renaissance portraits: another meaning entirely from the cat picking its way delicately around the arrangement of chair legs and high heeled shoes in Untitled. ‘Much sexier,’ Matt had said. ‘Cats have no loyalty.’
‘Do you Matt?’
‘Yes of course.’ He meant Eva.
The dog’s disappointed gaze accompanies her down a shorter track. There’s rain in the air, but a flirting sun too as she glances at the temperature chalked on the wall of the changing hut. 12 degrees centigrade. She shivers, tasting the hard mineral smell of the water. The notice board by the door offers some respite as she dallies to read about various new therapies and North London flat shares.
‘How was it?’ She asks a woman peeling off her wetsuit.
‘I bet,’ says Martha, starting to undress. Coat, jumper, tee-shirt, vest, jeans and boots come off quickly, the remaining socks and underwear ridiculous as she rummages for her swimsuit, her skin puckering with gooseflesh. The clothes hanging on the peg, still holding her body warmth in a collapsed, inverted version of herself had never looked so inviting. Pulling off her pants, she runs a finger over the silky blue scar at the top of her groin, and thinks of Dorothy, the woman she’d met on the oncology ward thirty years ago. It was Dorothy who’d told her about this place – The Pond – her Arcadia – how it had helped her deal with the same illness. They’d both had the surgery, and radiotherapy – and the chemo’ – but the magical properties of cold natural water had strengthened their bodies cell by cell, aligning them with nature. Dorothy had managed an extra thirty years too, dying at ninety-four. The Hampstead Ladies Pond Association held a celebration last year. A group lap, then a flask of rum and hot chocolate, the steam spiraling to join the spirit of Dorothy in the early morning pond mist.
And so, off with bra and socks, on with the swimsuit and out to face the cold water. The breeze cuts as she walks out of the changing room to the iron steps disappearing into deep murky water. Right now, at least, the sun is out.
‘No wetsuit?’ States a lifeguard in a fleece and fingerless gloves wrapped around a mug of something hot. ‘Clearly not, says Martha looking down at her mauve mottling thighs.
‘Don’t stay in too long then,’ warns the guard.
‘Been in yourself – have you?’
Perched on the top step, hands on the railings, Martha stares at water ruched by the breeze, leaves and twigs bobbing on the surface. A couple of curranty-eyed mallards glide past and she turns to the lifeguard. ‘Have you ever cooked a goose or a duck? You need a tray in the oven to collect all that insulating fat, its, so…’
‘… In. You all hang about, even the wetsuits.’
‘And not too far, I don’t want to have to come and get you.’
Martha turns, her backside facing the pond in defiance as she works her hands down the railings, feeding her legs inch by inch into water so cold that it scalds. The only way she’d ever managed to get her shoulders under, even in summer, was to think of someone she loved – liking wasn’t enough – and pretend that harm would come to them if she didn’t throw herself in. NOW.
‘Jerome,’ she shouts, letting go of the railings, twisting her body into the water. Gasping in shock, she stretches into a side crawl, her limbs driven by a heart desperate to shore itself against the cold, her frantic gulps feeling as if they might crack her ribcage open. The pain to starts. It’s like being in a bonfire. She wants to turn and get out, but knows what will happen soon. As she approaches the first lifebuoy, warm blood sent by her heart to protect the organs forms a cushion under her skin. But she knows this doesn’t last long. Twenty minutes? Plenty of time to get round. After that it’s dangerous, with hyperthermia setting in when the cold works through the cushion, reaching the vital organs.
As she approaches the second buoy, she converts to breaststroke, feeling the happiness of swimming in cold, natural water. Water that parts like silk in her hands. Tiny wavelets break on her nose, her senses receive everything; the mineral smell, the gentle touch of leaves against her cheek, the grey green trees whispering against the distant hum of London traffic. She glides on towards the third buoy on which a moorhen is building a bizarrely high nest. After ten minutes she looks behind her, the water burning the uninitiated back of her neck. The lifeguard is a distant figure, like a tramp at the water’s edge. Would she hear her if she was in trouble? She expects she would, they are trained after all.
Martha swims towards the fourth buoy where a slimy green rope separates the deep water from the complications of fallen branches and a mud bank – a terrifying area. She swims along the length of the rope, then turns to swim back. The sun dips behind a cloud and she shivers from a different part of herself, her imagination conjuring up the rumoured pike, and wasn’t there something about giant catfish starting to breed at the edge? Thrashing her legs in panic, she swims away from the shadow of the trees, towards the dull silver centre. But she’s alone on the surface of a deep pond, no-one else’s flesh here to be nibbled at or dragged under. She lengthens her stroke, remembering Matt telling her of the blind, lumpen sea creatures with their own lights evolving at such depths, such densities, that if brought to the surface they’d explode. A stray twig floats by, brushing her cheek, and the breaststroke turns to a desperate side crawl towards safety. Before the monsters emerge. Before the cold disables her.
The lifeguard gets gradually bigger. The lifebuoys pass her, three – the moorhen’s nest a twig or two higher – two, the cold feeling dangerously close to the centre of her, and now, just a few yards to the first she knows she’ll make it. Clutching at the mossy iron steps, all monsters cleared from her mind, she pulls herself out. The breeze cutting at her back feels viciously cold. She dunks back into the water, which is comparatively warm. It feels like the receiving arms of a dangerous friend. Another pull and she’s out, a dripping animal, bits of twig stuck in her swimsuit.
‘Enjoy that?’ asks the guard, still cradling the mug.
Martha, nods, aglow with life, health – and a decision.
‘Good,’ says the guard, watching another woman feed her body into freezing water.
As Martha sluices off pond water in the warm shower she smiles at her scar, now as purple as a slick of litmus paper. After toweling her body dry, rubbing some warmth back into it, she pulls on her clothes and doubles her coat around her. Then sits on the wooden bench facing the pond. She unscrews a flask. The hot tea caresses her guts, and she fancies, the part that was ill.
‘Of course I’m going tonight,’ she tells the pond, now seductively silver in the weak sunlight. She’ll RSVP when she gets home. She’ll write him a letter. Start it something like …
You once told me that if you didn’t paint you’d be ill, that you’d seen too much of what humanity could do, to settle in a world without a parallel existence in paint…
Untitled: a novella is being serialised each week on International Times