Water is the softest and most yielding substance.Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Yet nothing is better than water, for overcoming the hard and rigid, because nothing can compete with it.
It was nearly mid Winter though constant rain and grey skies made it feel more like Autumn; but not today. Today, Jude awoke to the surprise of snow falling into a white fleece that swaddled the grey, sodden landscape.
As he sat in his favourite armchair waiting for the tea on the windowsill to cool, he watched, in a daydreamy kind of way, condensation run down the glass. Snowflakes threw themselves at the other side, smiling briefly before disappearing in transparent traces distorting the dancing lights of dog collars and Xmas decorations.
He pondered how the years were overcoming the images in his memory, how they’d started to resemble an impressionist watercolour, familiar but not so personal and no longer distinct. Behind them the seasons marked time, the metronome of existence driven by the earth’s tilted, winding path around the sun. Winters were rapidly becoming more poignant: another year of fading detail, more memories in the rear view mirror than up ahead.
A drop meandering through his view attracted another, gaining momentum for its onward journey. The two became one, only to dissipate in the track they left behind. Jude’s gaze passed through them and focused to a point somewhere beyond their plane and the buildings across the road. He imagined the endless procession of water between sky, earth and oceans, and wondered if memories were similarly caught up in a cycle; if their uniqueness was lost in the flow only to resurface fresh in the minds of future generations. Like a river emptying into its delta, he imagined streams of consciousness emptying into an ocean of time, carrying with them an endless flow of souls from the heights to the depths.
Jude noticed the steam from his tea rising to join the water on the window pane and felt overwhelmed. Such thoughts weren’t a firm way to start the day. He withdrew his fingertip from the path it had unconsciously traced on the glass and lifted the mug feeling its heat before the fragrance and sweetness flooded his mouth. Sixty Christmases were more than enough for all kinds of things to pass through his mind and body, but Earl Grey had been reassuringly constant.
“Cup of tea?”
Peter’s catchphrase never failed to anchor the moment.
Their relationship went back over forty years to a time when painted canvases and the smell of turpentine mingled with Bowie posters and the perfume of patchouli and hashish.
The memory revealed an old lyric in his head
‘I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream of warm impermanence and So the days float through my eyes But still the days seem the same’
“Is water wet?” Jude replied.
From an English teacher’s lesson or ticking-off, he vaguely remembered it was either grammatically incorrect or impolite to answer a question with a question, but these days he excused himself such transgressions. Experience had taught him that humour was way more interesting than pedantry or correctness, besides there was no good reason to ever refuse the offer of a cuppa. Even if you already had one, what harm could come from letting another grow cold, wasn’t that what microwaves were for?
Thank God for tea. He’d liked it nearly as long as he’d liked Peter. But in the weeks they’d recently spent together it had been elevated beyond refreshment to become the fuel of these dark, isolated, inside days. Though they hadn’t lived together for forty years, the second lockdown had passed at a leisurely, student pace that made them feel as if nothing much had changed between them. Perhaps that was because they’d pressed older versions of themselves into service.
The tap filling the kettle connected with the water in front of his eyes making him yearn for warm soft towels. But first the shower, jeez was there no escaping the wet this morning.
“Your tea’s on the side over there.” Said Peter.
Coming out of the bathroom, Jude wrapped the towel tighter around his waist, took up the steaming mug and went over to where Peter sat staring at the inverted canvas. It looked to Jude as if someone had punched the face that stared back.
“How did he get those eyes?”
Without looking around Peter shook his head.
“I’ve been laying on the glazes to bring out the shadows and highlights, but this morning it does look as if someone’s punched him. And do you have to dress like a bloody Polynesian? It doesn’t feel like the South Pacific in here to me.”
He had a point.
The commission had come out of the blue to Peter and social distancing plus travel restrictions meant the work had to be done from photos sent by a voice over the phone looking to tick someone from its present list. The subject knew nothing of his depiction.
Peter had confided that he missed holding sittings in his studio where he was used to discovering character in person, but a remote relationship seemed a relatively small price to pay at this time of plague. The lockdown was going to make Christmas bleak in so many ways for so many people.
Looking at portraits upside down was new to Jude, but Peter was right, it made you view things differently. Tricked out of the countless facial recognition subroutines Mother Nature had evolved over millennia, the mind was able to spot where the shadows or the highlights weren’t quite right.
“Well it might explain his miserable expression, looks like he’s been fighting to come alive.” Said Jude, before another mouthful of liquid warmth. “I don’t understand, maybe the moisture in the air’s affecting the pigment or the glaze,” the back of Peter’s head started to slowly shake again, “but it means more work.”
“I’ll add more tea to the list then, we seem to be getting through it.” Jude’s words trailed off.
Like a teacher listening to a pupil’s implausible excuse, neither of them were entirely convinced that the weather or bad glaze explained the bloodshot eyes facing them.
The rest of the morning followed a familiar pattern. Halfway through Jude swapped his towel for cheap jeans and expensive T-shirt, whilst Peter stroked the surface of the canvass with long thin brushes. Around lunchtime the snow began to thaw and Jude returned from shopping. As he sat down to light a pair of candles he looked through the shimmering flames to the dissolving landscape outside and wondered what it would be like next year, whether it would snow again.
The following day the first thing Jude did after washing up on the shores of consciousness, was push himself up the pillows to look out of the window. The snow had gone, leaving nothing to suggest it had ever been. He questioned the memory as we do when things are unexpected.
Donning his favourite towel he moved to the kitchen where Peter was already sitting at the table.
“How’s it going early bird? Tea?” Jude addressed the back of Peter’s head. The greeting and offer both went unanswered. Peter didn’t move.
Jude tried again,
“Too early for terps. More tea vicar?”
Again Peter didn’t move, so Jude walked round to meet his gaze. Jolted out of his thoughts by the half naked, half skirted figure before him, Peter looked up.
“The eyes what? The Ayes’ have it?”
“No the bloody eyes! LOOK!”
He pointed towards the canvas in the corner of the room. Jude walked over to the portrait of the young man, and stopped dead when he was close enough to see the face – blood drained as water flowed.
He turned back to Peter,
“What have you done? Where are his eyes?”
Peter sat mute, staring back at Jude who turned to walk over to the painting for a closer look. Where there had been an expression there was now mutilation, the eyes replaced by dark crimson stains. The effect was chilling. Without the windows of the soul a face becomes a mask of mortality.
Jude recalled a school trip to the charnel catacombs beneath Paris. How the endless, empty skulls that lined the galleries stared down, inviting him to share in their eternity. He felt the same emptiness now as he stared into a face that returned only darkness. Why would Peter do this?
“What the hell have you done to him?”
“ME?” Peter shot back. “You did this!”
The repercussions of the exchange reverberated between them more loudly than the silence that followed.
Jude felt disorientated, unable to focus or think. He rewound the memories in his head, searching for a point where the past could restart, and found the image of a snowflake the moment it dissolved into the earthly leg of its endless journey. Yesterday the eyes had appeared bloodshot, now they were gone. Why would Peter do such a thing? The portrait needed to be finished before the solstice, sabotaging it made no sense.
Uncertainty and fear led to suspicion.
“So why are you bloody smirking?” Jude’s tone was accusatory.
“I just can’t believe how things always fuck up. This was the first commission for months and it was going so well. The likeness. Working here. I can’t believe you’d do this, why Jude? Is it meant to be funny?”
Jude was again stunned into silence, the certainty he’d thought he’d found melted and trickled away.
“Mate you can’t be serious, I’d never do that.” he gestured impotently toward the disfigured portrait. “I didn’t touch it. I don’t know what happened, but I had nothing to do with it.”
‘I, I, I’, Peter thought way too many I’s for his liking. He shook his head and looked at the hands on the table before him. He was tired, too tired to argue over what had happened or must now happen. He only knew that all his skills would soon be required. His tone softened.
“Ah don’t worry I shouldn’t have used the old glaze, it was out of date and didn’t look right when it went on. It’s probably gone off or reacted with the moisture in the air. Don’t worry I’ll scrape it back and start again tomorrow, I brought a new bottle with me.”
Jude looked at Peter incredulously, confused by his change of attitude, but relieved at such a simple explanation and straightforward solution.
Things had settled back into the familiar routine that had begun forty years earlier: tea, work, the occasional walk, always a hearty supper, beer and boxset. Well if it ain’t broke…
They both slipped comfortably back into what they remembered of their former selves.
Until the following morning when Peter sat before his painting waiting for the wintry sun’s weak light. A scalpel and flakes of dark red pigment lay beside brushes and an unopened jar of thick, sticky varnish. As the morning wore on the silence was only broken by the sound of constant rainfall and the occasional scraping of Peter’s pallet knife.
“There – finally.”
He sat back, a half smile of satisfaction creasing his stubble.
“Must show him” he said more to himself than to anyone who might’ve been listening.
Picking up the painting, he walked to the back of the flat and without knocking, opened the door of Jude’s bedroom.
“Look Jude I think it turned out fine after all.” he said, offering up the portrait, its eyes renewed.
But Jude didn’t stir. Lying motionless on the bloody bed he stared at the ceiling, blind to the eyes looking out from the canvas that had once been his.
Yo, Ho, Ho