Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Painted Lady

What I can really remember first is our clambering through a mountain landscape thickly covered by dunes of thick snow, the level of this snow seemingly becoming even thicker the further we proceeded towards the horizon. I wondered if even our furry thigh-boots would be sufficient by the time we reached the tree line, still quite a long distance away. It was extremely cold and my clothes seemed insufficient to prevent the stabs of painful wind from penetrating them. I do not know whether the others felt the same. In fact I didn't seem to know who the others actually were, their large goggles hiding their features, just as my own goggles must have hidden my own features. And voices were muffled, or a better word would be 'dead', as if I had been almost completely deaf since birth. Dead voices, deaf ears. Not a good combination, but I'm sure it was the scarves that covered our heads and mouths. Luckily, it hadn't actually been snowing fresh snow for some hours.

We eventually reached the trees, except it wasn't exactly a straight line of trees, but more groupings of them that gradually depleted the further we trudged through them towards what I gradually discerned as lights .... and imagine my astonishment as we reached what appeared to be a street at the edge of a town. Astonishment because I had assumed that we had been getting further and further away from civilisation not nearer and nearer. Not only that, but the street itself seemed to have been cleared of snow, if it had settled here at all, not because it was warmer, as I felt the cold stabs of wind even more as we stepped from the extremely thick snow of the wood on to the hard smooth cobbles of the street.

It was a relief not to need to wade through unforgiving swathes of wintry precipitation that we had been doing for hours - but now allowed to walk quite freely, but still clumsily enough in our large boots, and swaddled like huge bears. I took the scarf away from my mouth and nose and felt the cold cut of the air searing into my cheeks, but I could now smell something chemical. I'm still not sure what it was but I assumed that it was some form of treatment mixed with the grit that they had used to clear the street of snow. I quickly replaced the scarves.

I now noticed that the roofs of the houses, in the half dusk, weren't covered with snow either. Was this the edge of a town? Or just a chance community of a few houses? Yet, how could it not be a town, having street lights as it did. They had just been turned on, from some central source presumably, shining on all our goggles - and I guessed I heard muffled laughter from the glinting firefly faces as they all tried to speak at once.

Passing lumpily, despite the now smooth cobbled surface underfoot, along this strange street, one of us soon extended a blunt hand to indicate a pub called the Painted Lady. Surely, I thought, we had not travelled such a great distance through a snowy mountain pass just to go for an evening-out at a pub. But, now we were here, I could think of nothing better than a warm saloon or public bar and tankards of hoppy foam to wet the whistle, allowing us all to divest of our lumpiness and our goggles and scarves... All the better to see each other and toast the journey. The Painted Lady looked a bit down market, though, with milky privacy-windows vaguely lit from within; we beggars couldn't be choosers, I guessed. The slow-moving silhouettes of the local drinkers within at least promised life if not liveliness.

I took one last look at the dunes of darkening snow beyond the tree line now behind us, away from the town, a landscape which we had just crossed. And I felt, even through the swaddlings of outdoor clothes, the welcome heat as if a from a boiler room that was the open pub door, a burning rush of air when compared to the iciness we had just experienced. A sadness, too. An unaccountable sadness that we were not still crossing those frigid wastes but were now entering the warm hubbub of the pub.

I felt like being perceived as a stranger in my lumpy shape. I guess my companions must have felt this also, as rather lukewarm greetings met us from those already squatting on high stools by the bar. We tried to be jolly in return but many of us had not yet unwrapped our scarves - and our voices must have come out as dead as the eyes behind our goggles. I looked beyond the still opening door through which more of my companions were still arriving and I saw that it had started snowing again. The street outside would soon be covered, I assumed, whatever chemicals they had treated it with. Signs of a blizzard starting and we wondered if we had left it a little later whether we would have reached here at all.

Eventually, the pub door was shut and we all began working ourselves loose from our outdoor wear. I managed to remove my goggles backward over my head before removing my headscarf that I had forgotten was back in place. The snow hiker next to me - someone I sensed had been beside me most of the way - started removing all her paraphernalia, too. I was surprised it was a woman. I don't know why. I looked away from her, feeling bashful as I did. I suddenly saw a painting on the Painted Lady walls. A bit crusted over with the passing trade - as if it must have been there many years, but I could just make out through the bulging grime a pretty face, itself painted upon painted flesh. A made up face, and then made up again. Nobody that ever existed; painted from imagination rather than from a life model. Once alive, now as still as death, but painted full of life to last, to outlast even the grime of centuries.

I walked to the bar where one of us was already taking orders for a round of drinks. Not that he was paying. We always worked a kitty, I now recalled. The local drinkers had left a gap for him to reach in and catch the eye of whoever worked behind with the pumps and the optics and the dusty wine bottles and the rare vintage port that nobody would ever be able to afford. Well, certainly none of us snow hikers.

I can't remember who first mentioned the fact that one of us was missing. How we had not noticed this fact is now beyond me. Nobody could remember this happening before. But most of us had stopped caring about anything by that time, soon being out of it, what with the drink ... and the woman who had travelled by my side brought her face close to mine. It was immaculately made up, despite the scarves and goggles that she had earlier worn for hours on end rubbing against her skin. And, after all that care and attention to the maintenance of her facial looks, I sacrilegiously managed to smudge her lipstick by bringing my face even closer to hers than she had brought hers to mine...with a tantalising brush of a kiss, faintly tinged with chemical.

It did not seem to matter that her body was as lumpy as the outdoor clothes she had worn over it. A body made for two. I was out of it or never there at all.

I sometimes think she must have been painted centuries ago by Lucian Freud. At least his studio had been warm all those interminable hours she had needed to pose, stock still. Frozen like death warmed up.

When we returned through the mountains, we failed to notice that the sun was already rising over the snow plains. Deaf ears, dead eyes. We had lost count how many times we had lost count.

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