“What the hell is that?” She said pointing into the corner of the room.
“What?” he replied bemused.
“That – THING – over there in the corner!” Just home from a particularly difficult shift at Accident and Emergency, she was frazzled and in no mood for frivolity.
He glanced over the top of the newspaper he was reading, “Oh that, something I picked up at a car boot sale. I thought it would look good somewhere.” He shrugged, “Don’t know where yet.” And went back to reading his paper.
She loudly groaned her frustration into his unheeding ears and stomped off to the kitchen.
Early in their relationship, as they were getting to know each other, she had found his magpie instincts amusing, even endearing. He would turn up at dates with small curios to give her, tiny trinkets, funny watches, strangely misshapen ornaments and fading water colours of mysterious landscapes. They were usually valueless, a few pennies at most, but they were from him and she was falling in love so her cache of small things grew with the passing months.
She hadn’t kept many of the trinkets except a few favourites and she fiddled with one now in the pocket of nurse’s uniform, a little lead figurine of a nurse that he had given her when she finished her training. It was well worn by her rubbing, but she kept it with her at all times; it was her good luck charm.
She looked round the small kitchen for any evidence of food being prepared when he appeared at the door. “Food’s on the way.” he said, “Dinner for two from the Indian round the corner, the one you like. And there’s a nice Chablis cooling in the fridge.”
Saturday night and a takeaway, probably to be followed by DVD of an obscure French art movie with subtitles he had picked up at the same car boot sale. This wasn’t what she had signed up for when she moved in. Where had all the fun gone, all the laughter and secret smiles of their early romance?
She slipped her arms around his waist and looked up at him, “C’mon let’s go out for a change, it’s not like the old days, we can afford it. I’ll even treat you.”
He placed his long hands on her shoulders and gently nudged her away. “But the food will be arriving soon. They’ll have cooked it already.”
She was too tired to argue, too fed up with always being the one to try and lift them out of their rut. She dropped her arms to her sides and squeezed past him. “I’m going for a shower.”
“Better be quick dinner will be here soon.”
She stood under the shower, letting the hot jets of water pummel some of the tiredness from her muscles and ease the tension in her neck. Not so long ago he would have joined her, his tall gangly frame close behind in the small cubicle, his long fine fingered hands kneading away the day’s stress from her shoulders and back. He would wrap her in a warm towel and carry to the bed where they would make love, slowly, languorously until the day ended.
Now all she had to look forward to was a greasy carryout, a lousy movie and a new purchase in the corner of the living room. Why would anyone want such a thing in the first place, what use was it? It was probably smelly and diseased, a fetid reminder of past colonial glories. She knew well enough about the real elephant in the room, real but not talked about, his lack of success as an artist. Perhaps this evening but they would discuss it but, somehow, she doubted it.
She was still in the shower when the dinner arrived, she heard the buzzer and the muffled conversation. Someone laughed, she wasn’t sure if it was the delivery driver or her partner, she didn’t care.
He knocked on the bathroom door, “Food’s up! be quick or it’ll get cold.” In the early days, he wouldn’t have bothered if the meal got cold, he would be in beside her and inside her. Let it get cold, she thought, I don’t care.
With a towel wrapped around her head she ate the curry and rice, barely tasting it. They had a desultory conversation, she described her day and he moaned about the galleries indifference to his latest work. One even told him that while some of his early work as a student had showed promise, his most recent attempts were dull and derivative. All the while the foot niggled at the edge of her vision.
“How much was the foot?” she asked.
“Three quid. The guy that was selling said it was better than a rabbit’s foot, bigger chance of good luck.” He chortled, “I just thought it was a bit of fun, that’s all.”
It was the first time she had seen him smile in a long time. Out of the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of the foot, was that an echo of his smile in the folds of skin?
They had sex that night, the first time in months, and in the morning, he prepared breakfast for them both. In the afternoon, he returned to his work with renewed vigour, he was like a man possessed.
“I’d like to paint you.” he said. It was the first time ever he had asked her to pose for him. She quickly acquiesced. He set her up, naked on a dining chair, side on to him, her head turned to look above him. He took several photos from differing angles and variations of the pose. He then grabbed a sketch pad and pencils and rapidly sketched out roughs of the poses and pictures. She remained still as possible in the various postures he proposed. He kept up a constant stream of animated descriptions of what he was trying to achieve. She put up with the stiffness and cramping of her muscles, just happy to be the centre of his attention after so long on the side lines.
For the next two weeks, he was glued to his easel, only leaving the house when he needed more paint, brushes, turps etcetera, more recently she had performed this task while he painted. He ate standing up and took cat naps rather than sleep. Canvasses piled up in the spare room. They were mostly of her, the early sketches were stretched and pulled some becoming grotesque caricatures, others expressed such love as to be heart breaking to look at. She even turned up perched on the outline of a tiger as the Hindu God Parvati, complete with four arms and lotus flower.
This period of feverish activity reached a crisis point. He was exhausted, he could barely stand, his bloodshot eyes encircled by darkness, but it wasn’t until his hands started to shake that he stopped. He wept as she guided him to bed she could feel his rib cage heaving as he strained to breath. He had lost a lot of weight and was limping badly. He instantly fell into a deep sleep.
He didn’t react as she stripped off his filthy paint stained clothes. It was when she pulled off his trainers and socks she saw and smelt why he was limping; his right foot was black, swollen and reeked of rotting flesh. She went in the ambulance with him to the hospital and sat fretting for hours in the waiting room. The fact that she was a nurse at this hospital gave her no privileges, she would have to wait for news like all the rest.
The attending surgeon stripped off his surgical gloves as he approached her. He glanced at the clip board. She searched his face for a clue to the outcome. “Well” he said, “he’ll live, but I’m afraid we couldn’t save the foot. It was too far gone.”
She could almost hear the accusation, you’re a nurse how come you didn’t notice?
“Can I see him?”
“He’ll be out for several hours yet. If I were you I’d go home and get some sleep. You can see him in the morning.”
She went back to their flat, but she couldn’t sleep, she rang one of his friends from the gallery who came over to keep her company.
They looked through the paintings, “These are astonishing!” They flicked through more of them, between gasps of wonder words like, “Magnificent, stupendous, glorious” and “ground breaking” poured from the lips of the gallery owner as she lifted each canvas.
“I want them all.” she said, “A full gallery exclusive exhibition as soon as possible!” She was on her mobile to her staff, even though it was the middle of the night.
The exhibition was a huge success, the paintings were sold at hugely inflated prices. The sight of the artist in a wheelchair before he was fitted with an artificial foot just added to the poignancy of the moment. A few critics mentioned the small object in the bottom left of each canvas, just under his signature. Most were unsure what it was or even if it had any significance, but it was common to each painting. The artist was happy to be obscure about the origin or implication of what became known as the elephant in the corner, the intrigue and controversy merely added to the work’s allure. In fact, he confided in his partner that he couldn’t remember what it was or even painting it.
A few weeks later she was helping him to get used to his new prosthetic; he leaned on her shoulder and limped around the room. The buzzer sounded, she lowered him back into the wheelchair and opened the flat door.
The man revealed took her breath away, tall and beautifully proportioned dressed in an elaborate dhoti kurta he briefly bowed his head, “Good evening” he said. The voice was like being dressed in the finest silk and gently stroked by a feather, pleasure sang along her nerves.
“C-Can I help you?” she stammered, hoping that the answer was yes.
“Who is it?” the artist’s noise was like nails being dragged down a blackboard. She didn’t respond.
“I have come for the foot; it belongs to my family and I would like it back. I think you would call it a family heirloom. It is important to us.”
He drifted past her without apparently taking a step, it was than she noticed that he was missing a foot. Before she could react, he returned with the elephant’s foot in his arms. He smiled at her and she almost cried out such was the force of his look.
At the door he stopped and said, “He was given a gift for a time, but no gifts are truly free of cost. Beauty such as he has created has its price.” She followed his look down, the visitor now had two feet, then he was gone.
The painter never painted again.