The Art Of Living
Sally stood outside the classroom, trying to steady the fluttering butterflies in her stomach. She thought this would be easy, but now she was here she was starting to wonder if she’d made a terrible mistake. It had been so many years since she’d been in a school or college and the familiar smells of those long ago school days weren’t helping to settle her nerves.
She peered through the window in the classroom door, taking in the dozen people sitting before their easels and sketchpads. They all looked so confident and at ease, a million miles away from how she was feeling.
Sally took a deep breath. She remembered the conversation she’d had with her sister, the words of encouragement still ringing in her ears. Sally loved art and had always enjoyed sketching. She knew that she wasn’t the greatest artist, but she had enough skill to be able to put what she saw down onto paper. Spending hours with her sketchpad had always given her a great sense of satisfaction and it had meant so much to her.
Of course, that had all changed when she married Edward. He’d been so dismissive of her art, dismissing it as mere doodling and sneering at and mocking her attempts. She’d persevered as long as she could, but his cruel barbs hit home and so she’d put the charcoals away and folded up her drawings.
A peal of laughter rang out from the classroom and Sally looked anxiously through the window once again, eyeing a confident looking woman in her forties, the same age as Sally, sitting at the front of the class. The woman seemed so utterly sure of herself as she chatted easily with her neighbour, casually jiggling her foot up and down as she giggled and talked. A combination of envy and admiration soared in Sally. If only I could be like that, Sally thought to herself.
The butterflies in her stomach started moving in earnest and she began gnawing at her lip, tasting the lip balm she’d applied before she left the house. She muttered under her breath and tutted as she felt the gooey substance on her teeth. I bet she wouldn’t do something so stupid, she thought, glancing back to the vibrant woman in the room.
It had been a year since the divorce and she was slowly getting to know herself again. Making her own decisions about what she did and where she went had been strange at first. Edward had always taken charge, choosing their holiday destinations, what food they would eat, what clothes she would wear.
She’d never been a confident person, had always been too ready to doubt herself, but she’d been relatively happy in her own way. Edward had taken that away from her, chipping away at what little positivity she had until she was nothing but a shadow trailing after her husband, desperate for any crumbs of attention and affection he might throw in her path. Of course, she knew now, with the wonderful benefit of hindsight, that it was her timidity that Edward had been attracted to.
The turning point came when she’d discovered Edward’s affair. She’d been suspicious for a while, noticing changes in his behaviour, but only put two and two together when she found a receipt from a hotel. It was such a ridiculous cliché that she couldn’t believe it at first, but she’d played detective and her suspicions were confirmed. She’d expected to feel distraught, but she had only felt a peculiar sense of relief. She’d dug deep within herself to find the well of strength she knew was there somewhere and had wasted no time in filing for a divorce.
And now here she was, eating the food she liked, reading the books she enjoyed, wearing the clothes she was comfortable in, and being kind to herself.
Her sister Angela had suggested evening classes as a way to get back out in the world and put everything behind her. They’d gone to a few pilates classes together and joined a reading group, and little by little, Sally had started to believe in herself. But she knew that she couldn’t rely on other people anymore. Edward had never allowed her to have an opinion or make a choice. Sally was more than aware that she needed to do things on her own and that was where the art class came in.
She’d seen the advertisement in the local paper and a little charge of electricity had surged through her veins. She’d missed drawing so very much and had signed up for the class immediately. Sally had spent a happy afternoon imagining sitting in a room full of like-minded people, discussing art and new techniques, and enjoyed a thrill of anticipation at doing something she loved. Angela had volunteered to go with her, but Sally declined the offer. She had to do this on her own; she had to take charge of her own life.
However, standing here now, all alone and listening to the excited chatter of the students in the art class made her wish Angela was with her after all. Angela had called her that afternoon, giving her a pep talk. Sally had felt buoyed up when she left the house, excited at her own little adventure. But that was all crumbling now and the little wall of confidence she’d built up was about to collapse.
The thought of home seemed so appealing. She pictured her cosy living room, newly decorated to remove all traces of Edward and his austere ideas of home life. Warm colours replaced the cold colours he preferred. She’d filled the room with glorious paintings and sketches, bringing the space to life and creating a haven. She could see the latest novel she was reading waiting for her on the coffee table and felt a longing to go home.
She gazed through the window for a third time, taking in all of the chic and smart people in the room. Who am I kidding? she asked herself. She didn’t belong here with these glamorous types. And anyway, she thought, I can always draw at home. Resolving to abandon the idea of the art class, she was about to leave when a strident voice echoed down the corridor.
“Hello there! Are you alright?”
Sally turned around to see the owner of the voice, a tall woman in her seventies with wild hair sticking out at all angles, a shocking gash of devilishly red lipstick on her smiling lips. She wore a startlingly colourful pair of yoga pants which clashed dreadfully with her garish sweatshirt. Yet the whole look seemed to work perfectly and Sally felt her mouth twitch into a shy smile. The woman strode towards Sally, hand outstretched in greeting.
“Are you here for the art class?” the woman asked, taking Sally’s hand in a firm handshake.
Sally nodded and cleared her throat. “Yes, it’s my first time here.”
“Ah, a newbie, marvellous. Well, don’t worry, they’re a friendly bunch. I’ve only done a couple of classes myself, but it’s great fun. There’s nothing to be nervous about.”
The woman reached for the door before turning.
“Where are my manners? Harriet King, pleasure to meet you,” she said, her sparkling green eyes crinkled in good humour.
“Sally Harper, pleased to meet you too.”
“Come on, then, we don’t want to be late. Let’s get on with it,” Harriet said, holding the door open for Sally to enter.
Sally swallowed hard and painted a smile on her face. Her collection of nervous butterflies had settled a little bit, but she still felt slightly anxious. She looked at Harriet’s beaming, friendly face and took comfort from it. She entered the room, head held high as she made her way to a vacant space. Several faces turned towards her, greeting her warmly. She began to unpack her charcoals from her bag, losing herself in the soothing task of arranging her materials. When she was ready, she looked around the room to find Harriet, but couldn’t see her. She was about to pluck up the courage to ask the man sitting next to her if he knew Harriet, but stopped when the art tutor walked in and the class began.
“Good evening. I see we have one or two new faces amongst us today which is absolutely wonderful. Welcome to you all. Now, we have a bit of a treat tonight. Last week’s life class proved such a hit that we’ve asked our wonderful model to come back tonight.”
A ripple of applause moved through the room. Sally felt a niggle of concern as she’d never drawn a life model before. She mentally berated herself for being so silly and waited for the model to arrive.
Sally was aware of someone moving from the rear of the room up to the chaise longue that stood before them at the front of the room. She kept her eyes down until the model was seated. When she looked up, she couldn’t help the gasp of surprise that escaped her lips.
“Are you ready, Harriet?” the tutor asked.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” she replied, catching Sally’s eye and winking mischievously.
Sally sat open-mouthed for a few minutes until she became aware that everyone else had started drawing. She picked up her charcoal and began to draw. Within minutes, she was absorbed in her work, relishing the way the pencil flowed over the paper. When the class was finished, she was delighted when the tutor praised her work, admiring the way she’d captured the essence of Harriet’s personality.
Sally packed up her materials and filed out of the classroom, exchanging a few words with the man who had sat beside her.
Sally turned to see Harriet standing behind her, dressed once again in her colourful outfit.
“Bit of a surprise, hey?” Harriet said, a smile playing on her lips.
“You could say that,” Sally laughed.
“Fancy a cuppa? The canteen is still open.”
Sally agreed and they made their way to the quiet cafeteria, buying two teas and a slice of cake to share. After general chit-chat, Sally asked the question she’d been dying to ask.
“How long have you been a life model?”
Harriet grinned. “Not quite the thing us old grannies are supposed to do, eh? I turned seventy a couple of years ago. My son had been making not-so subtle hints about me selling up the family home, telling me it was far too big for just me. He wanted me to move into a pokey little flat he’d found, said it was just the thing for a woman of my age. What a cheek! And it got me thinking.
“Why shouldn’t I have some fun? Why should I do what people think I should do just because I’m a certain age? So, I decided to be brave. Get out there and live, make new friends and have adventures. I joined an art class to draw and then one day we had a life model. He seemed so at ease, so utterly in charge of himself and I thought to myself, why don’t I do that? And so here we are. Of course, it had the added bonus of annoying my son!”
“I could never imagine myself doing something like that,” Sally said. “My ex-husband always used to tell me I wouldn’t have the nerve to do anything different or interesting.”
“Nonsense! You can do and be anything you want if you put your mind to it,” Harriet said, leaning over the table conspiratorially. “If you don’t mind me saying, your ex-husband sounds like a bit of a fool.”
Sally laughed. “Oh, he certainly was.”
Harriet glanced at her watch. “ I’d better get going I’m afraid. I’ve got a star- gazing class to get to in an hour. Fancy coming along?”
Sally thought for a moment.
“I’d love to,” she smiled.
Harriet was right. There was nothing to be afraid of and nothing to stop her.