The Girl in the Picture

Short-listed Entry: Fiction Category

By: Eva Bell

Clive Peters was in one of those episodic interludes, when inspiration ran dry and creativity was at a standstill.  At such times, he stood at his window and gazed down at the multitudes that scurried back and forth, busy with the job of living.  This is what revived him – the noise, the smell, the colors, and the vibrant people. This is what he wanted to capture on canvas – a smiling young woman, a laughing child, a saintly grandfather.

Clive was a student at the Bombay School of Art.  In his spare time, he did some free-lancing, and it was his greatest joy to depict scenes from contemporary life, or sometimes, sketch a portrait.

His eyes fell on a young woman.  She seemed to be in a state of agitation, uncertain about the next move.  She moved from pavement to road several times, then hurriedly stepped back again.

“Could she be contemplating suicide? Clive wondered.

Grabbing his coat, he ran downstairs.  He had almost reached her, when she attempted to dart across in front of a speeding vehicle.  Clive grabbed her skirt in the nick of time, and dragged her back.

“What on earth are you doing, you silly girl?” he asked in a voice choking with anger.

“You could have been run over.”

Tears were streaming down her face.

“Why did you stop me?  And who are you to ask?” she said petulantly.  “I don’t want to live anymore.”

“Neither do you want to die, young lady.  I’ve been watching you for more than an hour.  I can see that you haven’t got enough courage to do what you say you want to do.”

He led her to a small wayside café, and ordered two cups of tea.

“Drink up,” he coaxed, “It will revive you.  Have you eaten anything since morning?”

She shook her head.  He ordered a couple of sugar buns.

He watched her as she hungrily devoured them.  She had beautiful eyes, but in those liquid depths, there was sadness.  However, it was her nose that gave character to her face. She could not have been more than twenty three years old.

“Are you strong enough to tell me what’s bothering you?”

“Yes, it’s my fate.  I have an invalid husband to care for, and no means of livelihood.”

Jenny’s husband was dying.  He had been in bed for over a year.  The doctors said that his lungs were badly damaged due to some chemical pollutant where he worked.  The medication that had been prescribed by the family doctor had merely aggravated his breathing problems.  He had received a pittance from his employers as compensation, and they had run through it all.

Jenny was just a housewife.  She had no special qualifications for a job.  But she was without work, not for want of trying.

“I had even decided to take up a job as domestic servant.  This morning I was so happy that I had finally been employed.  But within an hour of my arrival, the man started getting fresh.  People have this idea that all poor women are easy targets for their base desires.  This was really the last straw.”

Clive remained silent for a long time.  Then an idea flashed through his mind.  But he had to tread carefully as the girl was wary after her recent experience.

“I’m a student.  There’s not much I can do to help you.  But to tide over your immediate needs, I could give you a hundred rupees.”

“For free?  And not want anything in return?  If you’re giving it as a loan, I’ll never be able to repay you.”

“Not for free,” he said, “I want you to pose for me, for just an hour or two.  You’ve got such beautiful features.”

“No hanky-panky?”

“I promise.”

It was a small room, a typical bachelor’s den cluttered with books, paints, brushes and clothes.  Everything was in careless disarray.  Clive emptied a chair of its contents and told her to sit down.  She rummaged around for a comb, and ran it through her hair.  She even daubed some of his talcum powder on her shiny nose.     They sat in silence for almost two hours, he intent on the portrait and she, lost in her own sad thoughts.  At the end of two hours, he had captured the essential features.  He gave her the money and saw her eyes light up.

“Come back tomorrow,” he said, “I’ll see what I can do to help you.”

He stood at his easel long after she had gone, using the effects of light and color, until he was satisfied that he had captured the expression of inner sadness mirrored in her eyes.  He titled the portrait “Desolation.”

Clive waited anxiously the next day.  He was not sure at all that she would come.  Perhaps the money would buy her food for a few days, and drive away all thoughts of her promise to come back.

Then he heard a tap on the door.  This time, Jenny came better prepared for the session.  Clad in a lilac dress that had seen better days, her hair brushed back and held in a clasp, her large eyes accentuated by a line of mascara, she looked livelier and more cheerful than the day before.

‘A little food makes all the difference,’ thought Clive.

He made her remove the clasp, and her hair cascaded down to her shoulders.  She looked very young and vulnerable.

“Could you smile a little?” he asked.  “Think of something happy, some incident in your life which brought you joy.”

The transformation was stunning.

Clive got to work again, oblivious to every thing but the job in hand.  No one could hope for a more cooperative model.  He had to get the change of expression just right.  At the end of the session, he once again handed her a hundred rupee note, which she almost grabbed from his hand.

“Look Jenny,” he said, “I’ve made a few inquiries at my college.  They need models for the anatomy classes.  You will get a good fee for each sitting.  You need not fear that you’ll be abused by the students.  The only hitch is that you’ll sometimes have to pose in the nude.”

“Another form of exploitation?  Bartering the human body for a bowl of soup!  If I wanted that kind of money, I could have taken to the streets and made a fortune,” she said sadly.

“Don’t jump to such conclusions.  I better make myself clear.  Students of Art have to study the form and structure of the human body just like doctors do.  But while they practice on cadavers, we need living models.  The exposed body is something we must be familiar with if we are to make sensitive artists.  You need have no fear that someone will follow you home.”

“And what will my husband say?”

“He need never know.  The college is a long distance away, and I’m sure people living in this area are least concerned about what happens in the city.  Bombay is one place where you can disappear into the crowds.”

Clive didn’t see Jenny again.  But from the juniors he knew that she had a regular job at the college, as a model.  The salary was modest, but enough to keep the wolves at bay.

Clive graduated, and moved back to his hometown.  From time to time, he sold a few paintings or had an exhibition at some small gallery which promoted the work of lesser known artists.  But he never exhibited the portraits of Jenny.  They were his precious possessions.  He called them “Desolation” and “Hope,” and just looking at them brought him hours of happiness.

Like all young artists with ambition, Clive’s only desire was to visit Paris, where he hoped to get proper exposure to the various styles of painting.  A relative who lived there, helped him immigrate.

Paris was the world’s most romantic capital.  There was excitement day and night.  Clive met many aspiring painters from different nationalities.  They were easily recognizable by their informal clothing and erratic life styles.  At Montmarte alone, he saw several of them sitting at outdoor cafes, or desperately trying to hawk their paintings to American or Japanese tourists.

Clive hitchhiked all over the country, stopping to paint whenever something special caught his eye. He was prepared for a difficult life, but not even in his wildest dreams had he envisaged the horrors that were in store for him.  Poverty and illness became his constant companions.  But he still refused to return to India, hoping that someday, someone would recognize his talent and let him exhibit his paintings in one of the galleries.  Even in desperation, he refused to part with the portraits of Jenny.

One summer, Clive was down at St. Tropez.  The fine weather revived his spirits.  He was eager to paint scenes from that pretty town.  Tourists always wanted to carry home such souvenirs.

They stopped by to watch him paint.  Some even booked a painting in advance, and stood around to watch it take shape and color under his brush.  These were only the flotsam and jetsam of the tourist crowds.  The wealthy and glamorous who lived in villas or languished on yachts had no time for the likes of him.

One sunny morning, someone touched him on his shoulder.  Clive jumped back with a start.

“Sorry I frightened you, young man.  I’m Tom Cross, agent for an Art gallery in New York.  I’ve been peeping over your shoulder for nearly a week.  I like your vibrant colours.  I find that Asians are more inclined to dabble in such bright hues.  Have you exhibited in France?”

Clive laughed.  “Only on the pavements”

“Then perhaps it’s time you displayed them in a gallery.  I know people in the Art world, and I could sponsor your exhibition at a fairly well-known gallery in Paris.”

Clive could hardly believe his ears.  His face lit up with a wide grin.

“Thank you, Mr. Cross.  It’s my lucky day at last.  I never though I’d get such a break.”

“But first, I must see your collection.  Where do you live?  I’ll drop in this evening.”

Clive gave him a cheap address in St. Tropez.

“Desolation” and “Hope” were the two paintings that adorned his walls.  These were not for exhibition or sale.  He had poured something of himself into those paintings.  To part with them would be as painful as amputating his hands.

Tom Cross looked through Clive’s collections.  There were paintings of fishing boats and anchored yachts, mountain streams cascading from rocks, wayside cafes, and the Moulin Rouge by night.  He was happy with the lot.  Then he looked up at the portraits.

“Are you exhibiting those?”

“No. They are my personal possessions.”

“Nonsense.  Those will not only attract buyers but will fetch you a fortune.  You must exhibit them.”

“They are my treasures.  They inspire me with hope.  I can’t bear to part with them,“ he pleaded.

“Don’t be so sentimental.  They could just be the pictures that will launch you into fame.”

Clive reluctantly gave in.

Tom Cross’ sponsorship enabled Clive to exhibit at a small but popular gallery on the Champs- Elysees.  Clive wept when a buyer offered $ 5000 per portrait of Jenny.  Many of his other paintings were also sold, and what remained, was bought by Tom.

Clive returned to India with only one purpose in mind. Decency demanded that the poor girl should get her share. He thought he could trace her easily.

“A model called Jenny?  I’ve been here for over three years, but I don’t remember anyone by that name,” said the office manager of Bombay’s Art School.  He was the man who hired the models.

Wherever Clive enquired, the answer was the same.  He was growing more dejected as days sped by.

One day, walking down the road where he had first met Jenny, he thought,

“I can’t hang around indefinitely.  I’ll have to leave soon.”

He looked up at the row of buildings on either side of the street.  They were grimier and uglier than before.  There among the many boards that were displayed, he saw one that read “Jennifer’s Modelling Agency.”

On an impulse, he climbed the steps to the office.

“Let me just enquire,” he thought, “Perhaps Jenny has moved on to greater things.”

The interior of the room was simple but tastefully done up.  No one was in the waiting room.  Suddenly a dark thought crossed his mind.

“Could this be a front for a call-girl service?”

From somewhere inside, a lady’s voice said, “I’ll be with you in a moment, Sir.  Please take a seat.”

The meeting was so unexpected, that both were struck dumb for a moment.

“Clive, how nice to see you!”

She looked smart in a fawn colored business suit.  “Trendy!” was the word that came to his mind.  Only that indescribable sadness in her eyes was still there.  He wished with all his heart, that he could put a sparkle into them.

“Jenny, I’ve been scouring the city trying to find you.  I’m glad that you’ve come up in life.  Are you the owner of this Agency?”

She nodded.

“And your husband?”

“It’s quite a while since he died.”

“Look, I’ve come all this way just to bring you what is rightfully yours.  Remember those two portraits which I painted of you?”

“I never really looked at them.  I only wanted my wages.”

“Right now, they might be adorning somebody’s mansion in France.  I came to share my bounty with you.”

“I don’t want it anymore,” she said, “Can’t you see I’m doing well myself?”

He looked at her sadly.

“I’m sorry this has come too late.  You see, I held on to the portraits for too long.

I couldn’t bear to part with them until I had no other option.  Then I better run along.  This must be Good bye.”

He felt something heavy settle on his heart.  He was convinced that she was up to no good.

‘If only I had been unselfish and sold the paintings earlier, she wouldn’t have had to resort to this lifestyle,’ he thought.

Jenny watched the display of emotions on his face.

‘He thinks the worst of me.  Let him.  I couldn’t care less.  He is convinced that nothing good can come out of a ‘nobody’ like me.  But why doesn’t he ask about the nature of my job?’

“You see, I’m leaving for the USA in a few days. My good friend Tom Cross thinks I can improve my art through new techniques like computergraphy and laser.”

“Nonsense,” she said, the color rising to her cheeks. “He couldn’t be your friend if he’s influencing you to commercialize your art.”

She grabbed his arm,

“Come into my office.  We have some serious talking to do.”

The phone rang just as they sat down.  It was a model asking whether Jenny had negotiated the rates, before she could sign a contract with an advertising firm.

The phone didn’t stop ringing for a good half hour after that.  He watched her answer questions about fashions, costumes, make up, diet, modelling etc.  She dealt with each query professionally.  Clive was ashamed that he had jumped to the wrong conclusion.

At last, Jenny took the phone off the hook.

“Years ago, you did me a favor.  Now it’s my turn to do you one.  You said that you have money for me.”

“A cheque for $ 5000.  Certainly not a mean amount.”

“Then listen to me.  I’m going to invest that money on you.  Get yourself a studio and start painting like you’ve never done before.  The trip to USA is off.  I will not allow you to prostitute your talent for money.”

Clive felt too intimidated to respond.  The girl was determined to have her way, and it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.  Then she smiled, and her eyes twinkled like brilliant stars.  In that instant he realized that the sadness in them had vanished.

“Some day soon, I’ll do another portrait of Jenny,” he thought, “This time I’ll call it “Joy.”

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