“Why, the principal part of painting or drawing from life consists in the truth of the line,” she says, in the garden. “Hold still, the pair of you.”
The set rises up behind the hedges, pasteboard and pine struts; she points her brush with her lips. It is a sweet sweet summer evening, and the grass is cut crisp and level. The air is glassy over the lawns, whorled with heat in the high blue sky.
“Hold still,” she says. “I can’t fit the both of you onto one page.”
You are pinning him for a rehearsal, a dress rehearsal, spit and polish, just so, exactly. You do not know it yet, but it will be a Just So story for the both of you. In ten years time the school will arrange for girls to come in and play the female roles. They will get the old clock in the tower working again, and move the statue of the lady in the lake. Now you are pinning up his skirts, over his red buskins. Buskins, a silly word. Buss, a kiss.
He is an Amazon: later he will kill a lion (offstage). She will, that is. Skirts and all.
“They used to grind their paints with sugar, you know, boys,” she says. She points her brush. “In the olden days.”
Her paints lie open on the lawn beside her. Red Lake, Scarlet, Vermilion.
“Did they really, Mrs G,” he says. He lifts his foot, for the buskin. Crimson, crimson velvet. “Did they really.”
She smiles and shakes her head, props her sketch pad face down against the clipped box. She says that the others are late, that lessons finished half an hour ago.
“No fooling around,” she says. “I’ve got my eye on you.” She rustles off, long skirts over the short grass.
You smile, around the pins between your lips. Mrs G is easy enough to manage. And in any case, this is your last summer. Soon you will pack up your trunks and be driven back through the green lanes, between the low hills that are sticky with May blossom in spring and sharp with white hoarfrost in winter.
The last of the pins go in, little silver fish slivers through the sky-coloured satin.
“I still think this is silly, oh Cleophila,” you say. Ribbons curl around you in the grass, crisping and winding through the green. The little scissors glitter; somewhere there is a scatter of applause. Cricket, around past the old stables.
You can tell he is rolling his eyes. “You have to admit,” he says, “it’s an important part. Youngest is always best in stories like this.”
“Oh,” you say. “Really.” (More pins).
He smiles on the playing field, in the hazy air of the classroom, in his prefect’s tie. In the air above you, she smiles in her breastplate and her regulation haircut, short back and sides, no fancy oils allowed.
You cinch the girdle tight around his waist. Girls will be coming, people’s sisters and cousins, watching the play in the long summer evenings. They will eat cream and white cakes under the beech trees, and point up at the stone of the school buildings, crumbling and yellow as fudge. There isn’t much of a plot, but there are quite enough song and dance numbers. Silly peasants in ribbons.
He breathes in, under your hands, and laughs. The cloth slips over his skin like clear water, slowly sliding under the tall trees, the smooth beech leaves. Umber, sienna, vermilion. The sweet rocks, the fresh water. His white skin, summer swimming, his fair hair staining out through the dark stream. Chemistry lab colours, sharp as the spike of a Bunsen burner’s flame. People carve names into the desks with a compass, silver arms flashing. Nicknames, pen names (his name).
He shifts and rolls his shoulders under his gold-painted armour, a little tacky with varnish and heavy enough to turn a wooden sword, a vice’s dagger. When you are both in the diplomatic service or travelling the world as gentlemen adventurers, cigars after supper and Turkish coffee in little white cups, you will travel together through Asia, carpets and scimitars, double-dealing in narrow streets, ladies and gauze in bright colours. You promised each other, after lights out, long ago. Fountains in hot courtyards, secret plots. Childish things, of course. You put more pins to his neckline.
“All Amazons,” she says, “must have truly extravagant hair.”
“Of course, oh Zelmane.”
“Cleophila, of course.”
Her hair crackles under your fingers like golden wire. Lightning and daring thieves, rooftop escapes. Gil Blas and Harrison Ainsworth, knights and swords in colour plates, smooth as warm glass, as soft syrup. Reading at night under the covers. Arabian nights, clever daughters and sisters. Clockwork horses. Precious jewels like clear water, like long strings of bright bubbles. Rich robes and old parchments, ink flaking and scaling. Diamonds in rotten boxes. Yes, you will both sit at cafe tables in Alexandria and tap on the table for another glass of whiskey, and the light will fall through the awning onto his face, blonde curls all around it now, stuck with small pearls. It is a silly costume, of course.
Crisp gold curls against his jawline and a song through the box hedges, through the small dark leaves, from far away, echoing a little from the sun-sodden stone. Applause. Clever sisters and draughters will see the play, and artistic Mrs G will draw the programme; the headmaster’s wife, such a talented woman. They will sit on the grass in white painted chairs and clap; they will drink straw-coloured wine under the chestnut trees.
But now she steps out and twirls, gold hair and gold breastplate. She purses her lips and she raises an eyebrow. The red paint is warm from the sun. You point the brush between your lips.
The sketchbook stands against the box hedge, thick cartridge paper; red lake and Indian ink.
“I wonder what Mrs G made of us,” you say.
“We could look at the picture.”
The air holds you still in the long summer evening. It will be a good play, with swords and princesses, a wild man of the woods and a kiss at the ending.
“I’d rather look at you, Cleophila.”
In the olden days they mixed sugar with their paints, and his lips are soft crimson. And so unashamed (as having never done so much before in your life) --