3rd of July
We were driving to Reims the next day. On the way, Florence was showing to Robert the pictures of her cat that had been left in the care of her friends, who happened to live in the city of champagne. She talked about her pupil with excitement.
“He retrieves a ball, just like a dog,” she began. “I take him for walks. Apart from that, he can give the paw and sit down at call…” she continued, although Robert was shaking his head in disbelief.
Once we arrived in the city, we went straight away to Comedie de Reims. It was Florence’s paradise where her eyes always glittered.
“There must always be one light switched on,” she said when we entered the theatre’s main hall.
The seats were drowning in the darkness and we were taking cautious steps on the stairs. Silence prevailed, the hall was empty. The four of us stood on the stage, imagining crowds in the house and pretending they observed our every move and hung on to our words. For a moment, we were actors, great actors who dared say the things everyone knows but nobody can express. However, we played for ourselves, the hall was empty and the only thing filling it from wall to wall was silence. But we didn’t play in a complete darkness – one light was still on.
I heard footsteps quickly approaching the stage.
“Come!” Florence shouted in a whisper, trying to get us out of the stage. “Quick!”
We ran down from the stage, making as least noise as possible, and went to the darkest part of the house. There, we sat down with our faces hidden in the darkness. An actor came out onto the stage. He swept his eyes across the seats and started to play for himself, being absolutely convinced there was no one else. He played for us. I shivered when I felt that a new world was being created with the words he said. We were witnessing the beginning, but it was interrupted abruptly as the singing of a cicada stops without warning. The actor was confounded and ran from the stage on his fingertips, finding shelter in the dark like a frightened mouse. We turned around with uncertainty. The main door were widely opened and the light poured into the hall. People started to take the seats around us. Nobody knew about the actor, nobody even saw him. And we waited.
After a quarter or so, when all the hums and the unnecessarily spoken words disappeared, a fragile older woman came out onto the stage. She stood motionlessly while the theatre’s personnel was putting up the pictures that had been definitely painted by her. I didn’t know who the old lady was until she started to speak in a harsh but resonant voice. Then I remembered that somebody had already told me about her and decided that her story could not be forgotten.
A bench at the station
I’d like to tell you about a meeting.
I was sitting at the station on that day, looking at the trains which stopped at the platforms for a while only – the passengers changed, and then the trains rushed off as quickly as they had arrived a moment earlier. Autumn had already settled in. Overcoats and scarfs became a necessary equipment. The wind was brushing against dry leaves and old newspapers lying on the pavement. I had already been sitting there for some time, watching the trains and the people – they talked on their phones, looked at their watches, minced restlessly without moving forward, or gazed blindly at the empty space ahead of them – all those pedestrians passing my life by.
Suddenly, a red-headed girl, who seemed to be a student, sat next to me. She had an adorable hat and a long brown coat. Her noble green eyes kept jumping from one place to another like the vision of a man who gets carried away by a river and tries to find a branch which would rescue him. A black worn-out violin case was lying next to the girl. She asked me what the time was and I answered it was half past four. She must have come to the station too early since she decided to ask another question.
“Where are you going?” The words didn’t sound dry coming out of her mouth. They contained some internal energy, the light and the shadow, the vitality.
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m just sitting here,” I answered in a tired voice which could belong to a person who can’t get surprised by life anymore.
I took a closer look at the girl. She intrigued me. Was nostalgia a culprit? Or did I just discover in her the youth that I had probably lost forever?
“What do you do for a living?”
I stared at the ground, clasping my cold hands together, and I felt a growing wave of bitterness, an inexplicable sadness and a long-gone joyfulness. I experienced the need to throw the thing out of me and somehow I sensed that this unknown girl might turn out to be dearer to me than a longtime best friend. I lifted up my eyes and swept an unruly wisp of hair aside with a slightly trembling hand.
“It’s a long story,” I said and this short sentence pushed everything around us into non-existence – the trains, obligations, time limits, the weather, and all those passers-by. Words were the only thing that still existed for us.
I wasn’t able to say what I did for a living. I would just keep sitting at the station and watching the passing trains, nothing more than that. There was nothing remarkable in it. I couldn’t even say that I lived. I had lived many years before, in the time when all our dreams glittered with a promise of being realized someday. I was 21 then, and I attended the local School of Art. Nobody knew me here at that time – I had come from a remote country and the only word I knew in the local language was “an antiquarian bookshop”. My parents had stayed behind and kept sending me affectionate letters, asking about me and putting some money in envelopes to keep hunger away from me. I worked as a waitress in the restaurant, which name I already forgot, but the money from the job was insufficient to make a living. The local people were very kind, they always said “hello” and “thank you” but they never stopped for more than a couple of minutes. So, it was difficult in the beginning. That is, I was an open person bursting with energy but existing in a remote place – definitely not in that city. Here, there was no other choice for me but to start from scratch like a house blown away by a hurricane is erected once again from the ground.
My first week in the School of Art was terrible. We were looking at each other in a strange way, we didn’t know each other at all, and we were passing others by as if they had been ghosts. Some students began to make friends after a few days but I… I wasn’t ready yet. I was observing them like I observe the trains arriving at the platforms and then departing from the station. Not that I waited for anything particular… I just… oh, that language of yours! It was ghastly for me.
“How’s your first day at school?” I was asked by a cleaning lady whom I encountered in a dorm’s corridor.
“Fine, I guess,” I answered. I couldn’t find any better words.
In the second week, I started to recognize faces of my fellow students and remember their names. I met Paul who used to sit next to me during the deadly boring lectures on the history of art. He was a bit shy but I took a liking to him. He had an unusual gift – when he sang, he could correctly articulate the words whereas usually he stuttered slightly. I remember one afternoon after school when he introduced me to his friends near one of the fountains in the Freedom Square. It was one of those pleasant October days, a real rarity.
“Dave and Lilly, meet Suzanne. She came from a distant country,” Paul said melodiously.
“Are you serious about this?” asked Dave, pointing at the School of Art with a slight motion of his head.
“Sure, why not?” I answered in surprise. Shrugging the shoulders was his only reaction to my answer. He was a lawyer and Lilly worked in an agency where she telephoned thousands of people with the same insurance offer every day. They both seemed to have their lives already settled.
We had coffee and talked about the things people usually discuss over a cup of coffee. Then, each of us went back exactly where they belonged. The dorm was almost void which seemed a bit awkward to me but I decided not to attach any importance to the matter at that moment. So, I lay on my bed tired of the day – the lectures, the smiles, the hellos, the buses driving around the city, all those everyday rituals; shoot, I was even fed up with the sun hanging in the sky. My head ached from the continuous attempts to understand what people said to me in that foreign language. I directed my thoughts back to Dave and reflected on the reason for which he was doubtful about the School of Art.
Right, you may have the impression the name itself is stupid. It’s not possible to learn how to be an artist like studying the profession of law or medicine. However, the name is not crucial here. It’s about the opportunities created by this school.
I had been dreaming of becoming a painter since my childhood. Many children paint, almost all of them, don’t they? I’m sure you also did. Yes… I painted as well but I can’t remember if it was any good. Nevertheless, I can perfectly remember that it definitely was something more to me than the usual smearing the sheet of paper with colors. As if I fulfilled myself through creating pictures, as if I became myself thanks to painting. I’m not able to explain it more clearly – the student I talked to carried a violin so she probably understood my feelings. I painted almost on a daily basis. It was more important to me than eating and drinking, more important than playing outside with other kids. I subsisted on painting and I don’t regret it… at least, I think so… no, I’m sure I don’t… Anyway, I would show the finished paintings to my father who would look at them for a long time as I look at the trains now. He explained to me what he liked about them and what I should work on. Some of my paintings ended up in frames hanging on the walls which made me the happiest child in the world.
“One day, you’ll be a great painter,” my father used to say. “You just need to keep painting. Never give up. Believe me. I’ll help you.”
I entered a lot of competitions, winning various prizes. At that time, I could already imagine my paintings being admired by thousands of people in the future… Who knows, maybe it’s still to come… Sometimes, I lived on that idea more than on reality. My father promised me that, no matter what, when I grow up I would go to the School of Art. He said it was the place that opened the door to great careers. My mother, who worked as a bookkeeper, approached the idea with reserve.
“You should have a decent and useful profession that will earn you money. Life is different than you imagine it,” she tried to persuade me.
I loved my mother but her interpretation of life wasn’t attractive to me. I preferred to play pirates with my father, running around the house and shouting happily. You know, we the artists always want to make the rainbow as colorful as possible.
After two weeks, the School of Art turned out to be the best place I had ever set my foot in. Each day, I gave myself away to art, both physically and mentally, deeply believing in its ultimate victory over the drabness of life. Others did alike – we supported each other because we believed we were taking part in a great thing, greater than ourselves, so we had to take action and keep moving forward, plucking off fragments of our souls and turning them into pictures, into gifts for other people. Teachers tortured us and made us sweat blood but we perceived it as an offering made for a special purpose. Well, maybe it wasn’t a sacrifice after all. I remember the first year as playing with art and the time when everything was possible, and the time when we didn’t even have time to think about the future. Obviously, people like Dave or Lilly didn’t understand us since our joys were obscure and short-lived but they made us happy at that moment. It mattered to us, nothing else.
Sometimes, I had a difficult time with some of the teachers, particularly Mrs. Collins. She taught fine arts. Once, she summoned me after the class so there was nobody except us in the room.
“As far as I remember, you didn’t do your homework last week,” she said in a stern and harsh voice which didn’t match her plumpness.
“But it was last week…”
“It doesn’t matter. Tomorrow, I want to hear your presentation about the medieval painting. You can go now.” I turned around in frustration and headed for the door but the voice of Mrs. Collins brought me to a halt before I reached the threshold. “Do you really want to be a painter, Suzanne?”
“Yes,” I answered without hesitation.
“Please, take my condolences.”
I looked closely at her face and the instant I did that, I saw a person who had already been lost to the world. She must have lost at some point in order to become such a teacher. Others were completely different – nice, bursting with life, always occupied with something, fascinated with art, running from one exhibition to another. During classes in the School of Art, we didn’t only learn how to paint but also how look at the world. We were taught how to enjoy life. The only black sheep was Mrs. Collins and I really didn’t know the reason for which they still kept her.
The first year passed by like a speeding train and so did the summer. In the meantime, I managed to learn the language and find a whole bunch of new friends. I lived my life to the fullest. I would get up early in the morning and return to bed at late hours. I felt as comfortable as at home, and I wouldn’t have changed the School of Art for anything else in the world. I wanted those days to last as long as possible.
Once the summer break was over, I met a girl whom I had known from the classes on fine arts while I was standing on a bus stop. It turned out we both had just returned from Barcelona so I started to describe excitedly what I liked and what I had seen while she kept nodding and smiling, as if she understood my feelings, but when a quarter later I finally asked her own experience of the city, she only said:
“It was fine.”
I would never again have the opportunity to talk to her. That day, I realized that not all of us were genuine artists, although most of us were. We all devised great plans for the future, being inspired by the biographies of famous painters.
“One day, I’ll become a professional illustrator,” Alex would say, having already made her own illustrations to the both parts of Alice in Wonderland.
“Well, I prefer comic strips,” Bob bantered with her.
“My portraits are going to be famous any day,” announced Kenna.
“But what if it doesn’t work out? What if a war breaks out?”
We all had our hopes. Some were vague, others very clear. Although sometimes we didn’t know how to make them come true, we never abandoned them, ignoring the grumbling of Mrs. Collins and the likes. And so our lives kept rolling.
In the first days of October, I received a call from my friend Angie who had already graduated from the School of Art and departed for the bright future. Her words disturbed me.
“This world is not for us, Suzanne. I don’t know what I should do. If there’s anything I could do, it certainly doesn’t exist here, maybe in another life, in a different universe.” She almost cried to the phone’s receiver.
I wasn’t able to find the words that would cheer her up. I felt honest compassion for her; I didn’t have an idea how it could happen. I always thought Angie had a real talent. In her time, she was very active, engaged in a variety of circles, and managed to put her paintings on quite a lot of exhibitions. Had she made a mistake somewhere or had fate played a cruel trick on her? I really didn’t know. In the School of Art, there were people who succeeded… We all wanted to be successful but it had always been natural that someone loses to enable others to win – I still don’t know the mechanism of this interrelation.
At that time, I started to gain an awkward confidence that my paintings are good. I didn’t like this feeling but I had to bear with it. Anyway, we all lived in a rush. Classes, dorm, dinner, going out, painting, and then some more painting until late-night hours. Lather, rinse, repeat. When possible, we would enjoy simple pleasures, such as having a cup of coffee and some ice cream or lounging in bed. Sometimes, I went to a club with Paul to have a fling and set the everyday humdrum by in the fever of Saturday night. I perfectly remember one of those nights.
Music was rumbling loudly and colorful lights were jumping on the walls. We went to some quite nook to meet with Dave and Lilly. I greeted them with a forced smile and we sat down. They both seemed to be already a bit loaded. Lilly started to unveil her foolish fascination with the people she called at work to offer insurance, and I became fed up with her at some point. This sort of people, and their empty words especially, sometimes just got on my nerves too much.
“Lilly, do you know you’ll die someday?”
She looked at me as if I had just spoken to her in a foreign language. She smiled insincerely.
“Yeah, so what?”
“You’ll be dead.”
Maybe I was too impulsive. Paul noticed I was sick and tired of those two so we excused ourselves politely after a couple of minutes. We entered the dancefloor in the middle of a song. As if specially ordered, the music slowed down and the light became slightly dimmed. Paul snuggled me up tightly and so we swayed like a pair of castaways in a vast sea.
“I love you,” he singed to my ear and I knew it was just a momentary declaration bound to quickly disappear. Despite being aware of that, I completely succumbed to its magic and answered him, using the same words.
I remember that after the dance we left the club. In the street, an old man with a stump of what used to be his leg shouted “Quo vadis, quo vadis!” from his wheelchair. We passed him by, heading towards a distant place in another world, to wander endlessly along the dark streets of the city where Chinese lanterns soared into the air. A river of infinity flowed next to us and the stars shining above us became guardians of our feelings. I remember it was the most beautiful evening in my life.
Two weeks later, Paul had to leave because his father forced him to enlist in the army. He promised me he would be back but he never returned. Thus, the verb “to miss” in your language became carved so vividly in my memory.
I didn’t even have enough time to get over his departure since life quickly brought me down to earth again. I received a long letter from my parents from which I learnt that my father had lost his job and they wouldn’t be able to send me money anymore. “Keep awaiting because if you don’t await, nothing will come,” wrote my father in an attempt to lift my spirits. I didn’t feel anything at first, like a dissected body doesn’t bleed for a few seconds. It wasn’t until the next day that I became aware of the fact that I had to start living on my own.
Due to the classes in the School of Art, I wasn’t able to take up a full-time job so I decided to start selling my paintings and finally make a living as an artist. I organized exhibitions and participated in various craft fairs – hidden behind my canvases, I observed the people passing by without even pretending to be interested in my paintings. It seemed as if they didn’t have the faintest idea about the purpose of paintings in general and if they did like some of them, they concerned themselves about the old ones that they had already known. Of course, there were also those who stopped to take a look and some of them even decided to make purchase but they didn’t represent a large group, rather a very small one. I was starting to grasp the message sent by Angie. Different world, another life… My friends kept telling me I was talented and I was undoubtedly going to be successful but what could I do with a talent I wasn’t able to survive on? Cheerful painting was gone, becoming replaced with a bland process of meeting the expectations, and art was slowly losing its glitter in my eyes and becoming more and more pointless.
At that time, I met Patrick. I knew he had left the School of Art for a girl and became a truck driver, transporting furniture from France to Germany. When their daughter had been two years old, his wife had left him for one of his buddies and he had succumbed to depression. He had remained in a complete emptiness until the music had pulled him out. That’s how I met him – he was playing in La Cigale, a café on the corner, and his face was covered in the cigarette smoke. There were some people at the bar, as usually in places like that, but the rest of the customers gathered around the stage to absorb the clear angelic voice of Patrick, who was singing his own songs accompanied by a guitar. Tousled dark hair and a stubble. A flannel checkered shirt and worn-out jeans. I remember him so clearly. He had a thing that made me perceive him as the only living organism among the dark shadows. I envied him but not for his ability to sing or play a guitar. I envied him because when I first saw him on the stage in La Cigale, among the crowd of listeners and wreathed in cigarette smoke, he looked as if he stood on the top of a high mountain, looking down on the entire world – he looked like a winner.
I wasn’t only fascinated with him, I became obsessive about him. Not that I fell in love with the man. No, it was different. I just wanted to be close to him, to be a part of him and his life, like a daughter. Exactly, I envied his daughter because her world must have been completely different from mine, which was slowly falling into disrepair. She had hope and that hope was strong while I was starting to go nuts – I didn’t get enough sleep, I suffered occasional hallucinations, and I saw the things in places where they weren’t supposed to be. I was losing my friends as well. When I told them about Patrick, they rolled their eyes.
“You must be crazy,” they said.
“Even if I am, what’s wrong with that?”
I preferred not to think about the future that didn’t exist for me. I couldn’t stand the fact I was drowning in my own quagmire while some no-hopers who just came to the School of Art became noticed with their bloody, pardon the expression, scrawls. I was sick and tired of everything and only Patrick’s singing somehow kept me alive. I remember that at the beginning of my third year I approached a group of first-graders standing on a bus stop.
“Are you serious about it?” I asked.
“Sure,” one of the boys answered and I only shrugged my arms. I worked as a waitress and I also had to take up a job similar to Lilly’s. Did I miss my chance like a traveler misses his train? Maybe I shouldn’t sit idly at the station and rather get on one of the trains myself? I didn’t have the faintest idea. The world I pursued at that moment was Patrick’s world.
My last painting was a self-portrait, but I kept thinking about Patrick so much when I was painting it that I ended up giving myself the features of his daughter’s face. I didn’t notice it until I finished, and I decided to give them the picture despite the fact I had never exchanged a single word with Patrick or his daughter. Maybe they would understand, I thought. I went to the café on that evening and, without breathing a word, I gave Patrick my self-portrait which actually pictured his daughter. Then, he dedicated a song to me, giving me the last moment of happiness before they disappeared the next day like a mist or dew in the morning. However, I was still with him in my imagination – I was the girl in the painting I gave him.
“Only you can save me…” I used to whisper when falling asleep and I almost always wept, being aware that the fire of my hope, although so bright, would go out in a moment because there was no future ahead of it.
Before I graduated from the School of Art, I married Dave – yes, I know you’re surprised but I just felt he was the right man. He had just broken up with Lilly and we both found solace in our arms, promising ourselves we would support each other for the rest of our lives. It still hasn’t changed. We live together and we keep doing the best we can. Dave’s a lawyer and I work as a waitress who paints from time to time to adorn the walls in the house. In a naïve and selfish way, it makes me happy to some degree.
The station became deserted. I shifted my eyes from the railroad tracks to my interlocutor’s face. We looked at each other for a longer while – I saw my reflection in her eyes and so did she in mine.
“What’s your full name, Suzanne?” the student asked.
“Suzanne Greenwood,” I answered in a slight surprise.
“So, thank you, Suzanne Greenwood. Thank you very much.” She got up from the bench and crossed the pavement that run along the tracks. The wind blew in even more leaves and scraps of old newspapers. It was getting dark and the lamps illuminated the station. The temperature dropped.
When I was still pondering upon the things I said to the unknown girl, I saw her waving to me while she was getting on the train which had just arrived. It seemed unbelievable but I felt as if I had met her before.
The next day, I picked up the ringing phone and I recognized the voice of the student I had met at the station. She introduced herself as Patrick’s daughter and told me that our self-portrait still hung on the wall in her bedroom. She wanted to organize an exhibition of my paintings, the one I’m attending right now, telling you the story of the meeting that took place at the railway station not that long ago while I was staring at the trains arriving and setting off as quick as life comes and goes.
To be continued