working from the life

There’s a pause between Helena hearing the question and answering, as if she’s processing the request in a mechanical way, like one of those seaside fortune tellers, a mannequin in a glass booth whose jaw works up and down for a moment before the eyes illuminate and a printed card gets dispensed.
I’m fine, really. There’s nothing the matter. A little bored, perhaps.
She’s as comfortable as you could expect, for someone of such advanced age. The care home is small and personable; her room has windows on two sides, overlooking the garden; she has everything to hand, her fortifying drinks, her remote control, her copy of The Radio Times, a book or two, and around her armchair on the wall, a selection of watercolour sketches she’s painted over the years. The sketches are beautifully observed. A busy French marketplace. A dilapidated barn with overgrown machinery. A fallen tree.
I ask her if she still paints.
I sketch a little she says. Every once in a while they hold an art class downstairs. I didn’t much like it. They’re just copying, really. I need to get out on my own. I need to be there, working from the life, and that’s a little difficult these days, as you can see.
She tells me a little about her life. How she worked as a code-breaker during the war. How she tried to earn a living as an artist but was forced to work in the Civil Service to supplement her income. And when after many happy years together her husband died, she had to move because the house was too big and she felt lonely.
My niece found this place for me she says. It’s perfectly nice. It’s just I feel rather tired and at the end of everything.
I finish the examination, take blood as requested, write out the ticket.
‘I can imagine you as a code-breaker,’ I tell her, packing away. ‘I mean – looking at your paintings. You’ve obviously got such a strong feeling for pattern and design. That marketplace. I mean – everything just hangs together so beautifully. I bet you’re good at crosswords, too.’
Yes she says, after a long pause. The easy ones.

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