Why I Paint

All the other skiers had left for the slopes and one of the chalet girls was pouring me another cup of coffee when Sue came down.

"Not going up?" Sue wasnít a skier herself. Sheíd tagged along with her husband in the hope of getting some photography done.

"My knees have given out."

"You can come with me on an expedition," she slapped a hand on one of my knees and massaged it forcibly, "itíll loosen them up."

I left her with her croissant and went up to my room for my jacket and stuff. Soon we were out in the sun and snow, tall thin me looking down on the curly auburn mop sticking out of the top of Sueís headband.

I wrestled with the strap of her camera bag, trying to find a comfortable spot on my shoulder. It was hot under the alpine sun, and I unzipped my jacket as we started down the road.

"You be careful with that," she said as the strap slipped down to my elbow. As I struggled to get it back onto my shoulder we turned a corner and she saw down into the valley. "Oh, no."

All we could see was the pine forest and the road winding down through it into a layer of cloud, opaque as cotton wool. "We could go up instead," I suggested.

Sue examined the camera round her neck, whether it would cope in the dim light. "Iíve got enough skiing photos," she said, "like postcards."

We set off downwards. One of those alpine roads, a strip of tarmac in long zigzags down the mountainside, coaches and cars coming at you round sharp bends. It makes for a lot of walking, normally compensated for by the view. Today there was only the floor of cloud, hurting our eyes where the sunlight fell on it. The mountain on the opposite side of the valley was a grey and green wall, blocking out any view of the alps beyond.

At the first bend we came across a Lady Shrine. I knew Sue would have to take a photo of this, but I didnít think Iíd have to stand beside it.

"Iím surprised youíd want a photo of my ugly mug."

"Need someone in the photograph to establish the scale," she said.

"And hereís me thinking you only brought me to carry your bag."

So I stood with a grin beside this little shrine. All the photos Iíve seen of myself show a long miserable face at best, a twisted grin at worst. If Iíve had better moments, no camera ever caught them.

Sue didnít press the button anyway. "Could you kneel down in front of it like a peasant?"

"Do I look like a peasant?" I drew the backs of my fingers down my yellow and purple skiing jacket.

"Kneel down!"

I kneeled down, glad there was no traffic around to see how stupid I looked. Eerie, staring into the Virginís blank eyes while the camera clicked.

My knees creaked as I stood up. It was getting cold in the shade of the mountain and I was glad of the extra work generated by the weight of the camera bag.

"So what did you pray for?" she smiled.

"That my knees will hold out on the way back."

The cloud layer turned out to be an ordinary mist, not the pea-souper we had expected. But cold. I pulled my ski hat down over my ears and arranged my scarf around my neck like lagging. It was such a cold as seemed to sink right into my face and head. Sue had only her headband to keep her ears warm. I noticed she didnít have a scarf. I offered her mine but she wouldnít take it.

We went on down the road stamping our feet at times and listening out for passing vehicles. We discussed the possibility of going straight down through the pines, which stood in deep snow. Here within the cloud layer they were covered in frost like white plastic Christmas trees. The town had looked very near on the map, but this road swung back and forth so much that we began to realise it was going to take us a couple of hours to get there. We did try a brief foray into the deep snow, which convinced us that going straight down would land us in worse trouble.

There wasnít much worth photographing amongst the trees, tarmac and mist. The mountainside opposite faded to a spectral backdrop of forest and grey rock, then vanished behind a pure white wall of cloud. With half our universe blanked out, the idea that we could be sucked off the mountainside into nothingness seemed plausible.

There was a stream running down the mountain, and in the middle of each stretch of road it fed into a large drainpipe which channelled it under and out on the other side. So we kept coming across it, and I noticed that whenever it went over a drop in its descent it would be frozen on top so that there was an umbrella of ice suspended over the water, and on top of the umbrella, a layer of snow. Every time we approached the stream, I tried to keep Sue talking, to keep her from thinking of photographing it. All I wanted was to get to the town below for some coffee or hot wine. It might sound petty, but it wasnít the sort of cold anyone could stand still in for long.

On one pass of the stream I suggested we just go back up to the chalet, but she wasnít about to abandon the expedition with just one photograph. On the next pass I said, "Thatís going to be a stupid photo, me at that shrine."

"Iíll get it enlarged and paint over it," she said, "make you some pilgrim."

I had to think about this for a minute. "Isnít that cheating?"

"Yes, if youíve got rules." I wasnít sure if she was serious, but the stream was behind us and I didnít say any more. The air was so cold my throat felt raw from talking, and I had to swallow sometimes to try and keep it warm.

A phenomenon arose at the roadside that Sue just had to stop and photograph: tiny flowers of ice and frost were growing on the rocks, on the blades of frozen grass, on the bark of the trees, but she couldnít find anything to show the scale, the intricacy of the tiny white flowers. She gets the camera bag off my shoulder and tries different lenses, she takes off a glove and fetches a five centime piece from her pocket, but sheís not taking photographs for a catalogue. "Thereís never a beetle when you need one!"

"Not in this weather," I said.

She had to admit defeat. When we finally emerged below the cloud layer it seemed almost warm. There was the town, or you might have called it a large village, just a few hundred yards below, and a grey sky above. We had walked down through that townís sky.

The houses werenít arranged regularly like in a modern town, but whatever interest might have been found in variations of size, shape and positioning, was lost in the uniformity of colour. The walls and shutters were all done over in yellow and green pastel, dirty and faded.

Many of the shutters were closed, although some windows, presumably kitchen windows, were open. There was hardly anyone about in the streets, and when we looked at our watches it was ten past eleven. We had arrived at the start of the long French lunch.

We exchanged bonjours with two men who came by, and asked them when we could get a bus back up. In two hours, they said.

There seemed to be no cafťs or restaurants. The only place we could find with food was a small supermarket, closed.

Sue groaned. "When will they be open again?"

"Itís usually three oíclock." I started to get a headache as I contemplated the road we had come. This time we would be colder, hungrier, and walking uphill. A light drizzle started to fall.

"Well, things certainly canít get any worse," said Sue. A smell of onion soup and cheese began to reach us from the windows.

We found a haberdashery that was open, the only staff in attendance being a slim woman in her fifties who must have realised that we had only gone in for the warmth. Instead of trying to sell Sue something warm and woolly in the way of scarves or hats, she suggested she try some of the ladies millinery, offering her a blue silk scarf. Sue put her camera down on the counter and wrapped the scarf round her neck, looking at herself in the mirror without much interest.

The woman raised an index finger as if to say, "I have just the thing to go with that," and brought out a large dark blue hat which took up most of the counter space. She was probably bored but we were happy to humour her as long as we could stay in the warm until the bus came.

"I donít look good in hats," said Sue, but we talked her into trying it. She stretched her arms wide to pick up the hat by opposite sides of the rim and carefully lowered it onto her head, examining herself in the mirror. Her curls formed a ring against the dark blue, a copper-leaf nimbus. I reached for the camera when she started to turn towards me. She whisked the hat off as soon as she realised, but not soon enough.

A few weeks later she sent me the photograph with a note, Told you I didn't look good in hats!

The camera with its face-on flash certainly hadn't paid her any complements. The flesh was pale, the hair garish, and the rim of the hat had been missed, beyond the edge of the frame. The surprised look in her eyes had unfortunately been perfectly captured. It was a hurried, stolen photograph, so what could I expect? But the stolen moments are the ones you want to keep.

Over the past year Iíve had to go to a drawing class to learn to draw faces, and a painting class to learn about flesh tones. I can do a good face now, though not always a good likeness. I thought painting the hat as a dark blue disk would be easy after that, but I had to experiment a lot to get a texture that was dark without looking funereal.

Iíve got that and now Iím on the hair. Thick orange brush strokes, but each one has to be just right.

When Iím finished, Iíll start on something else. People on a mountainside with half their universe blotted out. A drab town with interesting things going on in the kitchens. A stream with an umbrella of ice and snow. Perhaps all in one picture, my masterpiece, but thatís looking ahead. Right now Iím learning to do a woman in a hat.

© Sandy Fleemin 2003. First published in Takahe 31 (ISSN 0114-4138).