Wednesday, April 11, 2012

THE PERFECT PLUM

“If you had the perfect plum, what would you do with it?” Charlotte leaned across the back of the sofa and grabbed at the bowl of fruit on the dining table. Her younger sister ignored the question. Her mind was on a painting she wanted to finish.

“Are you listening to me, Eleanor Czsinsky?”

"No. Can you hurry up and pick your fruit and go? I want to work."

Eleanor, the quiet one, was impatient today. Something in the air told her she’d resolve the problem that had eluded her ever since she had begun working on the canvas tacked up in her studio. It was her first time making a painting this large; that was part of the problem. The sheer scale of it was daunting and exhilarating at the same time. Charlotte had come round to tell her the New York lottery was now worth seven hundred and twenty-four million (as if she didn’t know).

"Ellie, seven twenty-four is your birthday. You have to enter. It's a sign."

Eleanor rolled her eyes. Her sister continued to chatter away like a canary. The only thing that will stop her, Eleanor thought, is if all the oxygen disappears from the room; standard cause of death for birds in a mine shaft when the air gives out. Eleanor was not unkind by nature but sometimes her sister drove her mind to extreme thoughts. Still, she couldn't complain. Charl’s incessant babbling, like a brook oblivious to the fact that it was deafening the trees nearby, was also a source of inspiration. How was it possible that she and her sister were related and yet so different? This was a question in her art she never tired of exploring: how things apparently related could be so diametrically opposed.

“I’m serious, Charl. You have to go. I have to work.”

“You’re just like Mom. Work. That’s all she ever cared about. Everyone says you’re just like she was at our age. All she ever thought about was art. That’s why—”

“Dad named me, Eleanor. I know.”

“I didn’t mean—. I meant—.”

“It’s all right, Charl. I don’t mind talking about Mom, honestly, I don’t. But not today. I really do need to get on with my work. Talk later, okay?”

* * * * * * * * * *

“Not crowded, then, Hari?” Eleanor smiled at the young man in the newsagent on the corner of her street. “I thought it’d be packed.”

“Comes and goes, Ellie. The big rush’ll be right before we close at ten forty-five. We’re staying open late, special like.”

Hari’s parents had moved to New York in the nineties, in search of a better life than Mother India had provided. And a better education for their son.

Eleanor took the pencil Hari offered and began to black out the numbers. Thirty-eight, three, and eighteen, for her mother. Twenty-one, for the boy whose kiss had moved the earth under her feet…the song buzzed in her head. Twenty-two, for the tree of life she’d learned about in a comparative religion class. And, then, her birthday. “Seven twenty-four. It’s a sign,” Charl had said. Eleanor didn’t believe in signs, but perhaps, just this once, she should.

“You pick a winner, then, Ellie?” Hari joked as he slid the card through the lotto machine. Eleanor crossed her fingers and smiled.

Beautiful girl, Hari thought, as Eleanor left the store, surprised by the sudden rush of blood that spiked in his head.

* * * * * * * * * * *

There’s no such thing as the perfect plum, Eleanor reflected, sucking on a plum stone before spitting it into her hand. There’s only the exact moment of ripeness, and the way the sweetness seeps into your tongue and slides down your throat. The way an idea appears and, unfailingly, you know it's exactly how the big bang felt the instant nothing became everything.

She looked at the clock. Three in the morning. Perhaps Charl was right. The money could bring to fruition all kinds of things she had never imagined. It didn’t have to alter her belief in the importance of earning a living on the strength of her art. Perhaps she’d have to change her name: she knew from the rules her name would be plastered all over the news the minute she cashed in the ticket. But what was in a name?

Hadn’t Shakespeare said a plum by any other name would taste as sweet.

I contemplated the idea that became this piece, the night of the mega New York lottery at the end of March. I wondered whether a writer or an artist in any discipline would stop wanting to earn money on the strength of their work if they won the lottery. I came to the conclusion that I would not and Eleanor took on my view.

Friday, March 23, 2012

THE GARDEN PARTY

 A few days ago, a writer friend, Lia Keyes, posted an article in the New York Times about a Monet painting whose ownership is in dispute. At the time, she said she'd love it if someone wrote the story. I printed the article after reading it and promptly forgot about it. Last night, I read Katherine Mansfield's short story, The Garden Party, in bed. As soon as I turned off the light I thought, I should add "The Garden Party" to my list of nouns (possible titles) for short story ideas. Then I attempted to fall asleep. But it was not to be. Claude Monet appeared in a garden in Giverny, talking with a young girl in hat of straw dyed black. (In Katherine Mansfield's story, much is made of a hat with black velvet ribbons.) After the light was turned on several times, to scribble sentences on a post-it pad, I realized I should get up and write the story otherwise I would forget by the time morning rolled around. The upshot was a short, short story, flash fiction, really, under 500 words, of how Claude Monet came to paint his famous water lilies. This morning, clearing the table of printed papers before breakfast, I came across the article about the disputed Monet painting and realized this was the reason Claude Monet visited  my imagination last night.

 It was at a garden party in Giverny that Claude Monet caught sight of the girl. She was wearing a straw hat, dyed black, which was out of keeping her with dress. Though it was lovely in itself. There was something familiar about her Monet thought, though he was sure they had never met.

Mademoiselle, wait up a moment. Please. He called out as she walked ahead.

She turned, and he saw her eyes were the colour of sky, her lashes the darkness of sea. Her skin was the delicate cream of water lilies in bud.

Why do I know you Mademoiselle when we have never met?

The girl smiled, and her hat was carried away on a nearby cloud.

Now her hair was unadorned except for stray lights of gold and silver that wove a diadem of sunlight over her brow. Her dress was a river of flowers on leaf green boats.

Come, Monsieur, I will show you. Take my hand and you will see how you and I first met.

In the garden ladies strolled talking of Michelangelo. The tinkle of tea cups and laughter in the summer air mingled with the fragrance of lavender and rosemary, honeysuckle and sweet pea. But none of these things that normally were of great interest to Monsieur Monet could pull him away from the girl with the outstretched hand. He took it, not caring who saw. He wanted to paint the beauty he felt because of her. And yet it was not her beauty he wanted to capture, it was something else. Something he could not yet grasp. But he knew she would show him, and it would be stupendous.

Her hand was surprisingly cool. She led him to the great pond beyond the marquee where later a band would play, and couples would dance in the luminous night.

The pond was as still as silver-lined glass. It reflected his image and he understood. The girl by his side was a water nymph. The pond was her home. The lilies were hers. Her dress would be one with the pond as soon as she stepped into water. It was made of the same magic that reverted to stars Cinderella’s ball gown at midnight.

So it was, Claude Monet painted his water lilies—her water lilies—and in years to come people marvelled at his ability to capture the tranquility of the pond, the incandescence of the blooms, the translucence of sky and cream colour clouds. But they never caught sight of the nymph with a diadem on her brow. Or a black straw hat on a distant nearby cloud.