Outcasts? Or outsiders? At times there seemed to be little difference. The end-result was invariably the same.

They were the type of thoughts that went through his head whenever he turned to self-reflection. Which, these days, was often.

He stared into the mirror. It was not, he would have to admit, the handsomest face you would ever see. A great dome of a forehead and that large, blunted nose. Wavy hair in no particular shade of brown, and the bushy, reddish beard which, if nothing else, at least softened the jutting jawline a little. The eyes were his most outstanding feature; perhaps the only one. Clear, blue, sensitive many people had said. And the hands, of course. An artist's hands.

He was not a vain man. The self-portrait wasn't for posterity. It was more of an exercise, the first time he had attempted to capture himself on canvas. Landscapes, figures, allegorical pieces, those were more in his line. But he thought it would be interesting to try. He wouldn't flatter himself; he would paint exactly what he saw. He had sat for Juta the previous year, who hadn't, he felt, done him justice. Made him look more like the Wild Man of Borneo, he had remarked at the time, with those penetrating eyes looking into a troubled future.

That much his fellow artist had got wrong. Worrying about the past was enough; he tried not to think about the future at all. He was still relatively young - only thirty-six - but he was not convinced he would make old bones. A sickly child who had grown up into an only slightly less sickly adult, at times he felt as if his chest and lungs would wear out from all the coughing. Asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, he had had them all. A good job he had never had to go down the pit like his father, or else he certainly wouldn't be around to tell the tale.

The weather didn't help. They had come to Sicily for the sun and - to be fair - last year had been a good one. But this had turned out to be one of the wettest Springs the island had known, and the cold and damp were now starting to get to him just as much as they had in Cornwall or Derbyshire. He was looking forward to the summer. With his wife away in Germany nursing her sick mother, he had been rattling around the villa on his own for almost a month. He had finished the travel book, thank God - not about this island but another - and now he could get back to his easel with a clear conscience. He always found painting therapeutic, relaxing. Writing often took too much out of him. He always felt he had to strip away at himself, tear the words out of his body, just to fill a blank page.

Working on a blank canvas came easier, more naturally. There were times when he thought that was what he should concentrate on. There had been artists who could combine the two of course - Blake, Morris, even that old fraud Wyndham Lewis.

But it was difficult. Florence, Rome, Venice, the Lakes - all had inspired him, made him want to paint, made him determined that people would recognise his talent, his art, in one field at least. The problem was, he doubted whether he would be able to make a living from painting alone. These days, it seemed you needed to be dead before anybody wanted to pay good money for your work. Look at Gauguin, or van Gogh, he would remind himself. They've been dead twenty-odd years, and it was only now that people were starting to recognise their talent. He'd read somewhere that the Dutchman hadn't sold a single painting whilst he was alive. He was frugal himself, but that would be taking things too far. And his wife would certainly never stand for it.

He had set up his easel in the dining room, with an old sheet spread out below him in case he made any mess. There was an attic room he had turned into a sort of studio, but it was cold up there, and being on his own, he didn't often cook, or have guests around for dinner. Besides, he liked to look out of the window, take in the view. You couldn't see much on a day like this, but normally, it was a breathtaking sight. The villa was built on a lush green slope high above the town, looking east over the blue of the Ionian, with the hills of Calabria on the left, where the straits began to close in. Like Turner, the light in Italy was unlike anything he had ever seen before, and he particularly loved the dawn; often, he would rise at five or five-thirty just to see it come up over the sea, first yellow, then pink, then smoke blue, then finally a flame of orange, the sun as warm as a first kiss.

They had been out of England for well over a year, and he doubted now whether they would ever return, at least not on a permanent basis. There seemed to be nothing there for them now, if indeed there ever had been. Prejudice, narrow-mindedness, hypocrisy. He, certainly, had had his fill, his wife even more so. As a foreigner, she had settled in admirably, got on well with everybody, become, in many ways, more English than the English. And yet still they had rejected her. That whole business with the police in Zennor was ludicrous, farcical. Did they really think she was spying for the Kaiser? After the outcry over his work, it was the final straw. They had become exiles by choice.

He sat back, rubbing his chin, looking at what he had painted so far. It wasn't bad. But there was something missing. Or perhaps it was simply the problem of trying to capture - especially in the eyes - just the one mood, the one moment. He was, he knew, a complex character. More ups and downs than a joyride at the Goose Fair, his mother had once said of him, and he had laughed. But there were the dark, misanthropic moods that he went through, contrasting all the more with the incredible highs that he often felt, when the creative juices began to flow, when he enjoyed the company of other people, when he and Frieda were making love up in the hills on their afternoon walks, the sun on their backs, or rolling, naked, in the surf on lonely, deserted beaches under the moonlight. When....

Stop, he told himself, shaking the thoughts out of his head. He hated it when she wasn't here. When he couldn't hold her, tell her he loved her. They fought sometimes. Too often, he had to concede. And there were times when he could have cheerfully killed her, when her sluttish ways nearly drove him mad with anger, frustration, jealousy, when all he wanted was for her to just get out of his sight. But then when she was gone...

He gazed out of the window. The rain had eased off to a fine drizzle. It was getting a little too dark to do any more painting for the evening. He decided he would put on his coat and stroll down to the town for a quiet drink somewhere on the Corso Umberto. He didn't drink that much, but tonight he felt he needed some company, somebody to talk to. His Italian was coming along, and, failing that, there were always likely to be some English people on the terrace of the Hotel Timeo. Closing the front door behind him, he stood on the porch, fastening his overcoat. The watery sun was just setting, painting a pale red wash over the sky, and a quarter moon played crescent to the star-shaped outline of the Isola Bella, a light shining from one of the rooms of the islet's solitary dwelling. Above him, the ruins of Castelmola clung to the side of the mountain like something out of a Gothic novel.

He wandered down the hill towards the Porta Messina and turned into the main street, the bars and restaurants now starting to buzz a little with activity as the rain abated, and the visitors unfurled themselves from the cocoons of their villas and hotels to join the locals in the evening ritual of the passeggiata.

Strolling towards him, bow-legged and be-whiskered, was the old farmer who had the patch of land just above them, scratching out a living for a wife and a small army of children. Several of the younger ones had used to come and visit them at the villa when they had first arrived, but nowadays they rarely saw anyone. He had wondered what they could possibly have done to offend Sicilian sensibilities. It couldn’t have been his books. As far as he was aware, none had been translated into Italian. Besides, he wondered how many of the locals could even read, in any language.

Smiling, he tipped his hat in the direction of the old man. "Buona sera, Signor Mellini," he said amiably. The farmer, looking up on hearing his name, thought for a moment about ignoring the greeting, but then decided that that would be the height of bad manners. Instead, he simply nodded, curtly, his face showing no expression. "Buona sera, Signor Lawrence," he mumbled, and carried on walking.

August 28, 2020 17:56

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