I’m in the changing room of a high-end boutique when Oscar calls me back.
‘What’s up?’ he says. He is at home. I can hear the whir of the washing machine behind his voice.
‘I’m trying on a dress.’ It is red with white polka dots and hangs just below my knees.
‘You never wear dresses.’
I examine myself in the mirror. There are red marks around my ankles from my socks. My stomach pushes the patterned fabric taut. I breathe in. ‘I am today.’
‘We going somewhere special?’ He sips something. It will be tea from this favourite blue mug. The one with the chip in the rim.
‘Just fancied a dress.’
‘Because of the painting?’
I unzip the dress and it slips to the floor. My underwear looks exhausted and grey.
‘It is, isn’t it.’ I hear him put his cup down. It will leave a ring on the granite work surface.
His irritation scrubs at my throat. I swallow.
‘We’ve talked about this,’ he says. ‘You can’t let a painting dictate what you do. Wish I’d never bought you those paints.’
‘I like painting.’ My reflection under the harsh changing room light is slumped and awkward. I look at the floor.
‘You’re obsessed and it’s crazy. Why did you ring before?’
‘I don’t know if this dress suits me.’
‘I can’t see the dress, Sandy. I don’t know. You look nice in anything. You decide.’
The handwritten price tag pokes up zeroes and nines from the dress pooled around my feet. ‘It’s expensive.’
‘We can’t afford expensive at the moment. Or anything else. Not while you’re… having your little break from work.’
‘I’ll send you a picture.’ I’m already pulling the dress back up from the floor and onto my shoulders. I notice a stripe of blue paint on my forearm.
‘No,’ he says. ‘Just. Look, we can’t afford it.’
I pick at the blue paint with a fingernail. It pulls at my skin.
‘By the way,’ I say, ‘I’m going to do a parachute jump.’
There is a cramped and airless silence, broken only by the clack of heels on marble from the shop beyond.
‘You’re petrified of heights.’
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘I need to do it.’ I pick the last of the blue paint from my forearm. The skin is red and irritated. I scratch it.
‘We’ll speak when you get home.’ He hangs up.
I let the dress drop to the floor in a puddle.
My painting room is perfectly square. It is Josie’s old bedroom and looks out onto the back garden. There is a big window. Curtainless for the best light possible. Oscar says the neighbours will see in and laugh and gossip. I say I couldn’t care less.
The easel Oscar bought me with the paints sits unused in the corner; I paint directly onto the walls. I have covered one wall and a half so far. The carpet is protected by a plastic sheet. Where it is ripped, paint has seeped through. I cover the stain with my painting table so Oscar won’t see.
I take my palette. The viscous blobs of paint from my work early this morning have grown a skin.
I squeeze green from a tube and squiggle my brush to mix it. I stand back and breathe my painting in through my eyes. I am proud of the work I have done these last six months. The objects that have dictated my decisions dance through the abstract brushstrokes: the Eiffel Tower that triggered my trip to Paris, the lilies that led to us installing the pond, the tall vines of tomatoes in the greenhouse, the canoe on the river, the ballet shoes, the red polka-dot dress. The red parachute descending from blue sky. They are all here.
Oscar knocks and enters without waiting for a reply. He doesn’t look at me.
‘Did you buy the dress?’ He puts a cup of tea on the table.
I dab green paint below the blue of sky, the red of parachute.
I turn as he is rubbing his hands across his face. He sighs. When did he become so wearied?
‘What about this parachute jump?’ he says. ‘Enlighten me.’
I point at the parachute floating down through the sky of my painting.
‘It doesn’t look like anything,’ he says.
I dab. ‘It’s whatever you see, whatever you need to see. Or want to.’
‘I see a mess, Sandy, a five-year-old could do better. Why can’t you just paint a bowl of fruit or something?’
He storms out. This conversation always ends like this.
I flick paint onto the empty parts of the walls. I water down blue in a pot and hurl it at a blank section. But that’s fine. My painting is a discovery. It is finding a direction.
I am not a mess.
I work transfixed into the evening. My intuition picks the colours, chooses the strokes, the daubs, the lines. It is a lullaby and I am a sleepy child at its mercy.
The sun slips out of the day. Its last low rays beam through the corner of my window, directly onto the section of wall I have been painting. I step back to see it in context.
Greens. A shiver of reds. It is the parachute again. I see it. It has descended. The air has left it, morphing its crescent shape into a spill of red running among blades of grass like blood. There are white spots around it.
‘Flowers,’ I say to myself. ‘They are flowers, daisies in the grass.’
But I do not see flowers. I see the white spots fallen from my dress as if escaped through a rip in its hem. The red pool is my dress on the ground. It is the parachute: ripped, crashed, useless. It is blood seeping closer to the white daisy-like spots. My blood. My guts.
I take my palette from the table and rub frantically across the still-wet paint on the wall. It turns to brown as I scrub out the red, the white, the blue, the green. My day’s work obliterated. Gone.
I breathe out hard and sit on the floor as the sun slowly shifts its gaze from my window. I throw the palette down and wipe my face with my hands. Cool brown paint dashes my cheek.
The wall will dry and I will paint again, paint over it.
I will jump with the parachute.
I will wear the red dress.