Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The Pattern

Kirsty stared at the tattoo on the naked old woman's thigh. It was faded and distorted, clearly intended for a younger leg, but it was beautiful. She wondered how the old woman had got it and why, what it meant to her.

The woman sat in a strangely proud position, almost side on to Kirsty. She was leaning forward with her bent back as straight as it would go, her head held high. Her hands were on her knees with her arms straight and her legs surprisingly far apart. Although the woman sat perfectly still in that unnatural position, her eyes were twitching from side to side, staring at everyone who was now scribbling away, examining them as much as they were examining her. Her eyes stopped on Kirsty, now the only one who didn't seem to be doing any work. They were unnervingly green. The old woman looked away and Kirsty felt relieved. She was sure that her heart had begun to beat almost audibly.

Kirsty began to sketch an outline, but she kept getting it wrong. This is stupid, she thought, I'm not meant to be a painter. And she considered giving up. It would be her third failed evening class that year, but that just seemed to be the way things were going at the moment and Kirsty had got used to it. This was the pattern of her life, how it would always be. She looked up at the old woman and saw that she was looking at her again. Kirsty began to sketch. It was still wrong, but she persevered this time. She got a vague outline and stuck with it. The old woman's back was straighter than reality. Her body was tighter, if anything she was drawing the old woman as younger than she really was. It was an unintentional mistake, caused completely by incompetence, but somehow it seemed appropriate. Kirsty continued and the old woman kept looking at her, her eyes twisted to the side, somehow the extreme position of her eyes making the stare more intense. Kirsty stopped, picked up a green crayon and coloured in the old woman's eyes.

She decided to try and draw the old woman's tattoo, but she got it wrong immediately. The pattern was right, but she made a massive error in the size, and it ended up looking like she was drawing the old woman a pair of patterned stockings to hide her dignity. Then, for some reason she still didn't give up. She let the tattoo rage out of control, continuing its scroll past the boundaries of the old woman's body and onto the white nothingness of Kirsty's pad. Then she began to bend and twisted the tattoo around the page, not caring about getting it perfect any more, concentrating only on the crisscross swirling pattern that she was half copying half creating. She went on drawing, continuing around the edges of the page again and again, slowly winding her way around to the centre, realising that the pattern was becoming simpler and simpler, easier and easier to draw.

"Given up Kirsty?" came a voice from behind and Kirsty felt as though she'd been woken up by her alarm clock.

She looked around at her teacher, Mr Bowden. He was a chubby man who wore tweed jackets and rolled up his shirt sleeves with elastic bands. "Uh... No." said Kirsty. "No. I was just trying something."

She looked back at what she'd drawn and saw it for the first time. There was something childlike about it, hard lines, with a sense of the surreal that Kirsty thought she'd lost at about five. But it was almost good. Good in the kind of way that things are only good if you don't know what the artist was trying to do in the first place.

"It's very interesting. Exuberant!" Mr Bowden exclaimed, stating the last word as though it were the only possible word appropriate.

"Thankyou." said Kirsty, now determined to finish the drawing because she was too stubborn not to.

The old woman left ten minutes before they did, and she heard Mr Bowden say, "Thankyou Ruby". The old woman nodded and walked out the door.

Kirsty walked home with her drawing pad under her arm, feeling quite pleased with it. She was tired, and she couldn't get Ruby out of her mind. She had never seen anyone like her before. She opened the door to her flat and walked along the corridor and into the living room. Paul didn't seem to be about. The room was a mess: at least five cereal bowls were scattered around the room, accompanied by numerous amounts of dirty tea mugs. A rain soaked jacket of Paul's lay on the floor in the centre of the room, as though it were there to be admired: a Paul skin rug. Kirsty let out a brief sigh. The mess exasperated her, but she was too tired and in too good a mood to do anything about it.

She walked into the bedroom where Paul's work clothes lay scattered over the bed. There was a smell of after-shave in the room. Kirsty had once loved that smell, it had been a lot to do with her initial attraction to Paul, but now she was tired of it. It had wafted past her on a number of occasions when she had walked through town and she had turned around expecting to see Paul and had instead seen a greasy mid-teenager who wore too much gel.

She rested her pad against a wall and began to pick his things up, folding them neatly and putting them away in his half of the wardrobe. She knew that she shouldn't do it for him because it made him even lazier than he already was, but she couldn't not do it either. The one constant in Kirsty's life up to that point had been her tidiness, she found it incredibly therapeutic. At the moment she was trying desperately hard not to tidy the living room, but that was proving harder as the days went on and Paul didn't even have seemed to notice the towers of bowls that were evolving. She'd try to give him another week, but somehow she doubted she would make it that long. She noticed a pair of Paul's pants strewn over the bedside lamp. She went to pick them off, but stopped herself. She had to draw the line somewhere.

Once the rest of the bedroom was tidy, she picked up her pad and settled on the bed to admire her picture once again. It looked strange now, and she felt almost embarrassed at what she had done. She felt as though she were just coming out of a spell that the old woman had put her under. What on earth had possessed her? It was meant to be a life drawing class and she had done this: swirls on a page with a woman behind who only vaguely resembled the person she was meant to be. The tattoo grew out from Ruby's body like an out of control weed.

"Strange." Kirsty said out loud. "Really strange."

She decided to try and forget about it, she felt embarrassed, not just at what she had drawn, but also at the staring match that her and the old woman had somehow got into. Kirsty was definitely attracted to her, and that in itself was odd. She felt as though a magnet was pulling her towards Ruby in a way that had only happened with a few handsome men before. But with men the attraction could be explained easily as sexual; when the magnet had pulled then she hadn't felt confused because she knew what she was meant to do when she got to them. With Ruby she knew she wanted to see her again, but she wasn't sure why. It wasn't a sexual attraction at all, but Kirsty felt mortified because that was all she could compare it to.

She put the picture face up on the floor beside the bed and switched on the television. There was nothing she wanted to watch, but she kept it on anyway, flicking between the channels, sometimes hitting teletext to see if the news had changed. Now and again her eyes drifted back to the picture, to Ruby's green eyes staring out at her again. Why couldn't she stop looking? She picked the pair of pants from the lampshade and dropped them over Ruby's face.

She was woken briefly by a hand on her breast and a kiss that smelt of beer. She grunted, and turned over on to her side. When she opened her eyes the light was off and she saw Paul in bed beside her. He was snoring now, which he always did if he came back drunk. She glanced at the fluorescent arms of the alarm clock and saw that it was three in the morning. She was still lying on top of the duvet in her clothes, except Paul had taken off her socks. She pushed herself up into a sitting position on the side of the bed and vegetated there, wallowing in her grogginess, knowing she couldn't go back to sleep until her bladder was empty and her throat didn't itch from dryness.

She eventually forced herself up: undressing, drinking a glass of water and going tot he toilet without opening her eyelids past halfway. She felt her foot on the painting as she got into bed and tried to ignore it, but her mind was immediately taken with it. She shut her eyes and tried to put it out of her thoughts, but it was too late. The tattoo sprouting from Ruby's thigh was stuck behind her eyes now. It filled her head and all she could think about was the way the pattern spread back to Ruby. The plant was rooted inside her.

Kirsty was aware of being somewhere between awake and asleep; she could feel her head on the pillow and she could still hear Paul's snoring, but she also knew that her thoughts were more vivid than normal, they were almost dreams but not quite. She imagined the tattoo plant spreading back until it attached to the trunk of an elephant that was sitting beside her bed, about the size of a dog. It was very cute, inspired by Disney cartoons and picture books. It had a pair of Paul's pants on its head.

Kirsty forced herself awake now and sat up quickly. She was overheated and could feel that her hair was wet with sweat. She got out of bed, picked up her painting and walked into the living room. Without much thought she picked up a biro from beside the telephone in the hall. She sat down on the sofa and put the painting beside her. Then she began to draw the outline of the tattoo on her thigh. Kirsty was fit and her legs didn't have any of Ruby's wobble. The pen glided easily and within a minute she had finished drawing a rough outline of the tattoo as she imagined it must have looked on Ruby when she was young.

She stared at it for a minute and then felt embarrassed again, suddenly feeling ridiculous at what she was doing and aware that the more she analysed it, told herself she was being stupid, the more it was playing on her mind. She licked her fingers and rubbed the ink off. She took a few deep breaths and stood up, walking back to the bedroom. The light was on and Paul was awake. He was sitting up and reading a science fiction novel.

He was a pleasant looking boy, too skinny to be called a man yet. At the moment he had hair that stuck up wildly and for the last two weeks she had been bugging him to get a hair cut.

"Hello boobs." he said, smiling cheekily, trying to be ironically laddish charming, which he sometimes was, but in the strange mental state that Kirsty was in only coming across as irritating, making her feel uncomfortable that she was walking around in only her knickers. "Can't sleep?"

Kirsty shook her head. "Don't know what's wrong with me."

"I wasn't snoring was I? I was pretty pissed for a while there."

"I know. You tried to cop off with me when I was asleep."

Paul smirked. "Sorry about that. What can I say? I was drunk! You know I wouldn't normally... Well, I might, but I'd probably be more subtle."

Kirsty knew she was being hard on him, but for some reason she couldn't really stop herself. "You seem to be drunk most nights these days."

Paul was silent for a moment, knowing he was about to say something that would irritate Kirsty, but annoyed at her aside and unable to stop himself. "Oh." he said. "You're grumpy."

Kirsty let out a sigh. "No I'm not."

"Well don't snap at me then." Paul was trying to sound calm, failing.

"I wasn't snapping!" Kirsty shouted

"You're snapping now." Paul was getting self-righteous, believing he was in the right because he hadn't raised his voice.

"Well, of course I'm snapping now. You always accuse me of snapping when I'm not. I don't have to take it."

Paul looked at her and then picked up his book. He pretended to read, but he was really just staring. He waited for Kirsty to return to bed, which she did eventually, after going around and furiously tidying the tiniest little things around the room. It irritated Paul because he knew she was trying to make him feel guilty, which perhaps he should, but there was no need to go around picking up underwear at four in the morning. When Kirsty did get into bed she refused to get under the covers with him and lay on top of the duvet, staring at the ceiling.

Paul sighed and rolled over on to his side, resting his hand on his head to support himself. He waited to check Kirsty wasn't going to say anything although he knew that she wouldn't. "I'm sorry." he said, knowing he wasn't sure what for, but aware that he had a lot of reasons for Kirsty to be irritated with him.

"That's alright." said Kirsty, still not looking at him.

The room was stuffy and Paul felt hot under the duvet. He heaved himself out of it and lay on top, still lying on his side. He put his hand on Kirsty's stomach and spread his palm flat against it. Kirsty's eyes were still wide open and he could see that she was far from relaxed. He pulled himself closer to her, extending his arm and sliding it underneath her neck, then rolling on to his back. Kirsty instinctively rolled over to put her heads on his chest. They were in their position now and Paul knew things were okay between them. Kirsty raised a leg and placed it over him. He kissed the top of her head.

"Your hair smells nice." he said, but Kirsty didn't reply. He wondered if she were asleep. He place his hand gently on the leg that was resting on his. He stroked it gently and was surprised when he heard Kirsty start to cry.

"Shhh." he said quietly, trying to be soothing. "It's okay." He wasn't sure how he had managed to upset Kirsty so much, but he knew better than to ask at the moment. "I'm sorry." he said again. Kirsty held him tightly across his stomach.

"It's not you." Kirsty said, lifting her head and kissing him. Her eyes were bleary. "Its... Its lots of stuff. I'm just so tired."

"Okay." said Paul. He held Kirsty for a minute or so more and then she rolled over on to her front.

"Goodnight" she said.

"Goodnight." said Paul. He saw the raised red pattern on her thigh and was intrigued. He had often considered that Kirsty might be enchanted, and here was more proof: her body summoned strange blood patterns on her skin when her mood was strong. He watched the pattern as it faded slowly, until he wasn't sure if he had just imagined it. Kirsty was sleeping deeply now. He rolled over and turned off the bedside lamp.

John Griffiths, 2001