A Work of Art
Chapter 1 (of 4)
By S. Faith, © 2010
Words: 20,595 (This chapter: 5,037)
Rating: T / PG-13
Summary: Mark rediscovers a passion from his youth.
Disclaimer: Isn't mine.
Notes: Many thanks to the most excellent plotbunny breeder on the face of the earth. Any mistakes, typos, etc are purely my own doing.
It was beautiful.
The vista was clearly of the back garden, with the multitude of trees and the brick wall; it was evidently in the late evening based on the dark orange hues in the sky; it was late autumn given the lack of foliage on the trees. She held the picture in her hands, eyes scanning over the artwork, with a sense of disbelief. Why was this painting in the attic and not hanging on a wall in the house?
In the lower right corner, she noticed a scribble, a signature. It looked like it began with an M. She smiled. She had no idea Malcolm had an artistic bent.
She decided to bring the painting downstairs to ask Elaine about it. It was supposed to be a long weekend relaxing in the country, but Malcolm had asked his son to accompany him to Kettering for an errand—code for wanting Mark to drive without admitting he shouldn't do so anymore in such appalling late winter weather—and Elaine had asked her to pop into the attic to look for an heirloom quilt, which in the end Bridget had been unable to find.
"What do you have there, Bridget?" asked Elaine as she entered the room. "Doesn't look like Grandmother Wentworth's finest achievement."
"I couldn't find it," said Bridget. "I found this instead."
As she held it up to show her mother-in-law, a broad smile spread over the woman's face. "My goodness, I haven't seen that in years. Mark did that when he was ten, I believe."
She did not know which shocked her more: that this had been painted by a ten year old, or that it'd been Mark who'd done it. "Really?"
"Oh, yes," Elaine said. "Mark was very keen with a brush until he discovered he loved studying the classics then the law more. I don't think he's painted since he was sixteen."
"Are there more up there?"
"Oh, yes," she said. "He begged us not to hang them."
In all honesty Bridget felt like she had when she'd first learned Mark voted Tory; a little winded and a lot surprised. "But this one's lovely."
"He did not like that they were not technically perfect, in his words."
That sounded like Mark. She chuckled. "I'm keeping this, if that's okay."
"You're his wife," she said. "Of course you can keep it. Well. Don't worry about the quilt. I was just hoping to save a bit of time to have you look while I finished the tarts, but I'll just go take a peek later." She touched her daughter-in-law affectionately on the arm. "Thank you for looking."
Bridget loved the Darcys' country home, but frankly, she tended to bore easily, and the temptation to return to the attic to find the other paintings was far too strong. She crept up the stairs and back to the same area in which she'd found the first, and within a few minutes she found a polythene storage bag filled with watercolour paintings. Carefully she pulled them out and looked through them, a fond smile playing across her lips. They were bright and luminous and fresh even if they weren't technically perfect compared to the source, which no one would ever have known except for him. She thought they were delightful.
"Bridget? Are you really up there?"
She chuckled. "Yes," she called back. "Come up, I want to show you something."
She saw him appear up through the floor with a confused look on his face. "What are you doing?"
"Come here," she said with a smile. "I think you'll find this very interesting."
He came the rest of the way up into the attic, then made his way across the floor carefully until he was closer. He stopped in his tracks. "What are you—"
"Your mum says they're yours. Are they?"
It had been many years since he had seen what his wife was now holding; sheaves of Arches hot-pressed watercolour paper, on which he had drawn his brush over the surface with graceful deliberation. He hadn't really given it much thought at all since he'd laid the brushes aside to pursue his academic career with full force. As his eyes swept over the assortment of paintings, their flaws seemed that much more obvious to him.
"Yes," he answered eventually, holding them in his hands.
"You sound embarrassed," she chided, looking up to him with a mixture of amusement and disbelief. "They're really nice, particularly for a boy your age."
"I wasn't that young," he said.
"Your mother said you were sixteen when you stopped," she said. "That's hardly full-blown adulthood. I'm bringing them downstairs."
He knew better than to try to talk her out of it. "If you must."
"You're too modest."
"No," he said. "I'm too much of a perfectionist and I don't care for them."
She pursed her lips. "I think you're too hard on yourself," she said, "and I'm having the best of them framed."
He vowed not to criticise them anymore, as it would likely mean she'd not only have all of them framed, but try to get a gallery to show them.
A bit more digging and they found a sheet of blank paper that looked as clean and fresh as the day it was purchased, as well as his old paint kit, which, instead of being grubby and smudged with the different paint hues as one would expect from a child's set, looked brand new; Bridget even enquired as such.
"No, not new," he said. "That was mine." He indicated where he had neatly and precisely printed his name on the side of the case.
She opened it, and in fact the only evidence that the set had ever been used was that the tubes were crimped and the brushes were clean but had the faintest hint of some blue on one of the handles.
She laughed. "Mark, you really never were a child, were you?"
At one time this might have offended him, but now, he only smiled and chuckled as he held the box in his hand, looked at the small tubes of paint. That box had seemed so large when he was a child. He remembered fondly his mother telling him a very little bit of paint went a very long way…
"We could bring these too," he said. "You might like to give it a try."
"Me? Oh, heavens no," she said. "I don't have the skill or the patience."
He closed the box. "I wasn't the greatest at it, but enjoyed it very much."
Once they descended back into the house, she headed directly for their room, the stack of paintings nestled safely in the crook of her arm. She then proceeded to lay them all out onto the bed, then examined them studiously.
"Oh," she said. "I think this one is my favourite."
She pointed to one of a late summer scene, the hazy outlines of people crowded around a table. Prominent in the foreground was a child's swimming pool, and around the pool were some children. He smiled. One of the children was wearing a pale pink gingham sundress.
"Mine too." He pointed towards the sundress. "She should be familiar."
She turned quickly to look at him. "Don't tell me that's me."
He couldn't help but grin. "I got this particular paint set for my birthday."
"You painted this when you were eight?" she asked, astonished.
He chuckled. "It's not as if it is photorealistic," he said. "And it wasn't my first paint set."
"It's still lovely." She smiled tenderly. "And it's me."
"That," he said, pausing for effect, "is a redundant statement."
She blushed and playfully tapped him on the upper arm. "That's the one we're framing, Mark."
He put the closed paint kit on the bureau, then helped her to gather all of the paintings up from the bed to place back into their polythene bag for safe keeping. She made sure that the paddling pool painting was on the top of the stack. He resigned himself to the fact that the painting would soon be hanging somewhere in the house.
Not only did all of the paintings get brought home, but so did the paint kit. It sat upon the occasional table in the foyer, placed there when they'd arrived from Grafton Underwood on their way in, the sort of thing that he noticed whenever he dropped his keys in the tray in the evening or picked them up again in the morning, but never remembered to actually put away.
Thinking of Mark, of the paintings he'd done as a youth, and of the way the box of paints had not been placed into a box for storage, Bridget felt a smile creep across her face. She decided to pay a visit to an art store for some watercolour paper. She didn't know exactly why she desperately wanted to cajole Mark into taking up a brush again, but she did. Day after day, he was mired in procedure and rules. He needed an outlet for creativity, to just let his mind go free, to allow his eyes to direct his hand with little left-brain consideration.
She knew, though, that her suggesting such a thing out of the blue would never work. He could be very stubborn and set in his ways about some things, and for whatever reason, he preferred reading law journals or something equally work-related in his free time.
She would have to be subtle about it. She would have to make him think it was his own idea.
As the weather got nicer and spring approached, he thought more frequently about the paint set, but had had absolutely no time to delve back into artistic endeavours. He also had little inclination to try, because he knew that Bridget would hover over his shoulder to watch his progress, and there was little he hated more than pressure to unwillingly perform to an audience.
He arrived home shortly after Easter to find the set was finally gone from the foyer. He'd gotten so used to it sitting there that the table seemed bereft without it. He wondered if the housekeeper had simply gotten sick of seeing it sitting there, disturbing the pristine clean of the foyer, and wondered idly where she might have placed it.
He suspected Bridget was downstairs watching the telly; she liked to wait for him there. For once, though, he was not greeted by the sounds of news presenters or the canned laughter of old episodes of American sitcoms. Rather, she appeared to be playing something rather light and joyful, Four Seasons by Vivaldi.
She was sitting on the sofa with a lap desk. Before her on the coffee table was his paint set, a plastic palette, a glass of water and a towel. She was hunched over the lap desk, but kept looking up and out the row of windows that provided a view of the back garden.
"What are you doing?" he asked; even as he asked it he realised how silly it was of him to have asked, especially since his question seemed to have startled her.
"I was painting," she said, turning quickly. "I'm not having good luck, though."
"Let's see," he said, coming around to sit beside her. She had not only put the paint on too thick in an attempt to layer, but the paper had clearly not been prepared in advance, and it was wavy and rippled from the application of water.
"It's terrible, isn't it," she said glumly.
"The trick to watercolours," he said, hardly believing he was saying it as he did, "is that the paper beneath needs to glow through for your light. If you want to build up colour, then acrylics or oils would be more for you. Actually, acrylics. You wouldn't have the patience for oils, I think." She scowled at him. He pointed to a muddy area. "You don't want to put white on top of green for a highlight. The paint just needs to be more dilute."
"Listen to you, like you know," she teased, clearly half-irritated at the lecture, but half-amused by the subject.
"I do know," he said. "Here, I'll show you."
Brush in hand, on an unsullied corner, he formed the shape of a circle with very dilute blue paint. Then, loading the brush with more pigment, he turned that circle into a sphere.
"See," he said. "The paper is the highlight."
She wasn't looking at the paper, but rather at him, as if he had just announced he was leaving her for a life with a travelling circus. "Maybe it's you who should be painting again, not me," she said.
Even after all of that time, the brush felt so natural in his hand; he was able to turn and manipulate it to do exactly what he wanted. "I don't know," he demurred.
"Oh, come on," she said. "What are you worried about? Obviously you haven't forgotten anything."
He laughed lightly. "Oh, I have, I'm sure," he said. He knew exactly why he was not keen to paint again, though. He did not want to try and fail when she had such high expectations. He also hated that impatient feeling when he should have been picking something up more quickly than he did.
"You're too hard on yourself," she chided. "Just do it. And if you don't want me to watch, I won't."
"Really?" he asked, extremely doubtful.
"Mark, I know how you are," she said, pursing her lips. "You get so frustrated and irritable when you don't get something right on the very first go. My watching will only increase that frustration."
He hadn't thought himself that transparent. "I don't have any paper prepared," he said. As he said it he knew he was fumbling for excuses.
"Well, you see how your paper went all wobbly. You're supposed to wet the paper then fix it to a board so that when it dries it's all stretched out."
"Mark, you're just sketching. Enjoy it and worry about stretching paper later."
She took to reading in the chair opposite him. He decided to get another little scrap of watercolour paper and began to paint; he did not look beyond the sofa, however. He painted the curves and shadows of her form as she reclined there, nothing so detailed as her features or expression, and the proportion did not seem quite right to him, but she had been right; if he thought of it as sketching, as doodling, then it didn't bother him quite so much to get it wrong.
In the end, he was so pleased with what he had done, so proud of not having thrown it all down in frustration and stomped away, that he decided to show her. Her reaction was utter surprise. "We weren't sitting there more than an hour," she said. "This is really nice."
"You flatter me."
"No, Mark, you flatter me." She smiled proudly. "This is really quite lovely."
He made a dismissive sound. "Let's make supper."
"Promise me that you'll keep it up," she said. "I think it's good for you to let go of your… logic and intellectual reasoning and just put colour on paper."
He smiled. "I promise. Though there is still some logic and reasoning involved, you know. You have to mentally calculate proportion and perspective."
At this she just laughed and gave him a hug. "You are adorable," she said into his collar. "Just do it, and enjoy it. Don't think about the process."
He was moved on several occasions in the next few weeks to try again, and she was as good as her word, not hovering over his shoulder and watching his progress. There were times when he had complete misfires—he was no prodigy with a paintbrush by any stretch of the imagination—but he did find his efforts were most successful when his lovely wife was the subject of his art.
"How do you feel about spending a couple of weeks in the country?"
The question from her husband startled Bridget from her thoughts as she looked fondly at Mark's painting from age eight, where it hung on the wall.
"My parents have decided to travel to Italy and I thought it might be nice to take some time away from the city."
It was summer now, and the thought of a summer holiday made her a little giddy. "What about work?"
"I'm due to take some time off, myself, and I find my schedule very easy to clear at present."
It amused her to think of Mark, once a borderline workaholic, say such a thing. "Why don't we go away too?"
"I don't want to go somewhere. I want to go to the country."
She burst out laughing.
"What I mean is," he said, "I don't want to have to travel or fly or deal with being surrounded by people I don't know. I just want you and me and some peace and solitude."
She mulled it over, studying his features; she too could use a break, but was not sure if her current schedule would allow her to take the time off. "When are they going?"
"They leave on Saturday," he replied. Five days from now.
"I'll have to see about work," she said. "Though I really like the idea."
He smiled. "Okay. No hurry. Well, by Saturday, obviously." He kissed her then continued on to wherever it was he was heading, probably to get ready for work.
She felt a smile creep across her face. She would arrange if not for time off then to work remotely. She would also pay a visit to the art store for more watercolour paper, and ensure that the paints and paper came with them on their holiday.
When he arrived home that evening she was able to give him the good news, that she had arrange the time off as she had hoped she could; she traded holidays with a co-worker who needed time off early in the autumn instead of now, and since Bridget had only signed up for early September out of necessity of getting it on the schedule, she was more than willing to exchange.
"Wonderful," he said with a broad grin. "It'll be nice to have time, just you and me."
"And the housekeeper, and the gardener," she quipped.
This made him chuckle. "The thing I like best about the two of them," said Mark, "is that they're so good at their jobs that I hardly notice they're there."
When it came time to leave on Friday, Mark took one look at the suitcases she'd packed and started to laugh.
"What's so funny?"
"For what you're bringing," he said, "we could live there for a month. You do know they have a washing machine, don't you?"
"Am leaving my options open," she said with a defensive raise of her chin.
"Bridget, the pinnacle of our social appearance while in Grafton Underwood would probably be attending a picnic at the Alconburys'."
"Still," she said. "I just know the one thing I leave behind is the one thing I'll most want."
He offered no further argument, since he full well knew a drive back to London for the abandoned item would fall to him. The benefit too of having so much luggage was that she was easily able to stash the paint kit as well as the watercolour paper block she'd purchased, which would offer the convenience of loose paper with the best qualities of stretched paper without having to worry about the time-consuming and somewhat inconvenient process of stretching paper itself.
Dinner with Mark's parents was pleasant as always. His father told them he'd be driving Elaine and himself to Heathrow and parking the car in long term lot, but Mark would have none of it. "I'll drive you down," he said. "No sense in paying for parking for two weeks. When does your flight leave?"
"One in the afternoon."
With the drive to the airport, and the need to be there well in advance for an international flight, it meant that Mark would need to leave early in the morning, earlier than Bridget was likely to want to rise. He did not ask her to accompany him.
She smiled knowingly. It would give her time to unpack her surprise for him, and bring another item down from the attic that she'd recalled seeing there.
The drive to and from Heathrow was uneventful by London standards for which Mark was grateful, because he hated to think how much more run down he'd have felt if traffic had been busier. He went into the house, looking forward to a tall glass of lemonade or iced tea and perhaps a book in the lounge. "Bridget?" he called upon entering the house. He got no response. He called her name again. Still nothing.
He wandered to the lounge, which was where he figured Bridget might have settled in with a book of her own, and subsequently had gotten so engrossed she didn't hear him. When he crossed the threshold into the room, though, he stopped dead in his tracks.
There, set up by the window, was the old wooden easel he remembered using when he was a young man. To the side was the paint kit and his array of brushes, and on the easel proper was what appeared to be a stretched canvas, but on closer inspection it was revealed to be watercolour paper with glue around all edges except for a very small section at the top.
He turned around to see his wife beaming at him from behind.
"I brought your paints," she said, "found this easel up in the attic, and bought you what the art supply store called a watercolour paper block."
He was not sure what to say. Although he appreciated the gesture, he hoped she did not expect him to carry on full tilt with it at that very moment like a performing monkey.
"You're welcome," she said, pursing her lips.
"Sorry, sorry," he said belatedly, going to her and taking her in his arms. "Thank you. It was very thoughtful of you, but I'm not in the mood at the moment."
"It's okay," she said. "When you are in the mood, it's there waiting for you."
He nodded then smiled, kissing her cheek.
He took to reading, his back against one arm of the sofa while she sat against the other, but time and again he found his gaze drawn to the easel. When he noticed she had rested her head against the back of the sofa, had drifted to sleep with a book on her lap in the indirect late afternoon summer sun, he decided to slip from the sofa, fill the reservoir with water, then began to lay down broad strokes of diluted colour to capture her form. As the paint dried he laid down slightly darker hues over the washes, and within a very short period of time he had something that was very recognisable as Bridget, even if it was just a rippled, impressionistic version of her.
She continued napping and even after she shifted in position, he dotted in some hints of details until he had what he thought was a pretty nice little study of his sleeping wife. With a smile, he took the brushes and the reservoir to the kitchen to clean them up, then returned them to their place. With a small amount of amusement he thought that with the painting implements where they were to start with, it almost looked as if the painting had manifested on its own.
He decided not to mention his endeavour to Bridget. He just knelt beside where she was sleeping on the sofa, and pressed a kiss to her lips. This woke her with a smile and she responded by putting her arms around his neck and kissing him back. This almost caused him to lose his balance, which made both of them laugh.
"I'm starving," she said. "What's on the menu for supper?"
"Hm," he said, helping her to stand. "What do you feel like having?"
She smiled. "I suppose pizza delivery is out of the question."
He burst out with a laugh. "We could barbecue some pork chops. My father just bought a brand new grill…"
"Oh, yum," she said. "Sounds excellent."
They made supper together out in the back garden with not only grilled pork chops, but grilled bell peppers and Portobello mushrooms, which they had with a delicious Sauvignon Blanc. As the sun drifted down towards the horizon, they reclined in drowsy contentment, sipping at their wine until the stars were plain against the velvet of night.
"I'm getting a bit chilled," she said quietly. "What do you say we head inside?"
He tightened his arm around her shoulders, pressed a kiss into her temple. "I say let's head inside." He heard her chuckle softly before she rose to her feet, took his hand and led him into the house and upstairs to their room.
After tender, reverent lovemaking, as they fell to sleep nestled together, Mark could only think what a wonderful idea it had been to take such a holiday.
Morning seemed to announce itself in a much bolder fashion in the country. How Bridget had ever lived as long as she had in Grafton Underwood and ever got a decent night's sleep was a mystery to her even to this day. She would swear, if so asked, that the beam of sunlight targeted her square in the eye that morning. Once awake she could not fall back to sleep.
With a heavy sigh, she rose and went downstairs to make some coffee. As she passed by the sitting room, her eye was caught by the easel; specifically by the paper block, which was no longer pristine white and which was best seen from the hallway. Stunned, she stopped dead in her tracks and went into the room, then lifted the paper block up for a closer view.
She could only think he must have painted it while she had been napping the previous afternoon. As her gaze flitted over the surface, she felt emotion welling in her throat. While it was not photographic in nature and was more of a study than a finished painting, it perfectly captured the atmosphere of the room, the soft light of the late afternoon summer sun, the contentment of her slumber.
"Don't know what he's thinking, being so shy about this," she murmured to herself, placing the paper block back on the easel. Even as she said it, she realised she did know; it was so typically like him to be self-effacing.
She carried on to the kitchen and got the coffee in the French press to brewing, then popped some bread in to make toast when it was closer to finishing. To help pass the time a little, she decided that she'd sneak a cigarette while Mark was still asleep. She pushed open the window, reached for the cigarettes she'd hidden in the cupboard, pulled one out and lit it, inhaling deeply. It gave her time to think about their little holiday, how much she was enjoying it after only a day, and how thrilled she was to see Mark pursuing such a creative hobby. When the timer rang for the coffee she stubbed the ciggie out, ran the butt under the water before throwing it in the bin; she had learned her lesson in that regard after setting her trash bin on fire on more than one occasion.
She set the toaster on, then dug out a couple of mugs and poured coffee for herself and for Mark. As she topped up her coffee with milk, the acrid smell of burning bread hit her nose. She quickly went over and switched off the toaster, which spit forth the bread with an unpleasantly charred lower corner.
She frowned, irritated with herself. Toast was not something that was considered challenging to make. However, she decided it wasn't bad enough to warrant throwing the toast away, so she put some butter and strawberry jam on each of the slices and, along with the coffees, carried the tray upstairs.
Mark was still fast asleep when she entered the room. She paused just inside the door and smiled affectionately as she gazed upon his slumbering form. As she stood there, the scent of the strong coffee spread throughout the room; as it reached him he stirred then opened his eyes. When they fixed on her, he smiled sleepily.
"Morning," he said. "Waking me with thought vibes has proved ineffective, so you resort to coffee."
"I wouldn't say completely ineffective," she retorted, then grinned, taking the tray over to the bed as he pushed himself upright to take his cup.
"Ah," he said, observing the toast on the tray she'd set between them. "You've made breakfast."
She pursed her lips. "Yes."
"Don't need to look that way," he said. "I happen to love your toast." He picked up a piece and took a large bite. "I believe it's referred to in America as 'Cajun-style'."
Feigning offence, she reached over to playfully tap him.
"Stop it," he said, backing away. "You'll spill the coffee."
She sat back against the headboard, took her own coffee, and chose a slice for herself. "So why didn't you tell me about the picture?"
"Hm?" he asked, chewing a second bite.
"The painting." She bit into her own piece.
"Ah," he said. "You've seen it."
"It's lovely," she said.
"You're biased," he replied.
"And you're being overly modest," she said. "You've developed a good eye and a really nice technique, Mark. There's nothing wrong with appreciating a compliment on it."
He gave her a sidelong glance, but said quietly, "Thank you, Bridget."
"That's better," she said smugly, sipping her coffee then smiling at him again. "Yesterday was a really good day," she said.
"It was," he agreed, "and we've only just begun our little holiday." He laughed a little.
"What's so funny?"
"Just wondering how long it will take for you to get completely bored."
"Chuh," she said dismissively, sipping her coffee.