A Portrait of Time
It was on my tenth visit that Arturo asked me to write my name on an apple. It was mottled with a red splodge that looked like a butterfly. He’d obviously collected it from his garden, which meant at some point he’d left the confines of the house.
I was pleased; I’d been trying to get him to exercise more, offering him helpful ideas on how to build it into his daily routine. My last suggestion had been that he move all his painting equipment, his easels and palettes, to an upstairs room so he would have to climb the stairs if he wanted to paint. But he told me he barely had the time to paint as it was.
“I’m not writing on this. Why don’t you eat it?” I asked.
Arturo sighed. This was his stock response to everything.
“I’m not ‘ungry.” He was on the sofa and I was standing over him. He held the apple up to me and insisted I take it from him by grunting and nodding his head. Eventually I relented and wrote “Cynthia” with a black felt pen. When I gave it back he leaned forward and placed it next to his laptop on the coffee table.
“What’s it for then?”
He shook his head, sighed and said: “S’for a paintin’.”
Arturo was always shortening and skipping words, despite having lived in England since World War II. Still, his English was better than my Italian.
I decided to find him a recipe on the Internet for apple crumble. It was another mission in vain, I knew, but you have to try.
“You don’t have to do anything special, Arturo. Just make sure you have a small portion. Remember it’s about balance not deprivation.” I put the computer on my lap and noticed something odd. I could see the far corner of the coffee table through the screen, as if the screen were a window. The paint brushes lying on the floor by the wall were visible too.
“What is this?”
Arturo shrugged but his eyes half-closed suspiciously. When I moved the laptop to the left, the world inside moved with it. I assumed the laptop had some sort of web camera built in on both sides and I was about to wave my hand in front of the forward-facing camera when the thumb of my left hand brushed the mouse pad. The picture vanished.
It had been a screensaver.
“That seemed rather clever,” I said.
“S’for a paintin’.”
“You know lots of people your age can’t even use the Internet, Arturo.”
Another shrug, another sigh.
The nurse previously assigned to Arturo had washed her hands of trying to advise him and only turned up to jab him full of insulin before exiting as quickly as she could. “The man is a lost cause,” she’d said to me with the blunt confidence unique to pretty girls in their early twenties. “He won’t communicate.”
The matron in me longed to crush her.
So I was delighted at the end of my first session with him, when Arturo told me that he would love to paint my portrait – if only he had the time.
“I bet you ask all the nurses that,” I’d said with an out of practice lash bat. He had shaken his head. “Anyway, what do you mean? You have all day to paint.”
“I’m not long for this world,” he’d said
“Well that’s your choice, Arturo – swap your fry ups for a bit of fruit and you’ll live a lot longer.”
Progress was sluggish after that initial breakthrough. Month by month I increasingly wondered if perhaps Arturo really was a lost cause. Every visit he appeared to have swollen slightly and he had seemingly abandoned verbal communication in favour of sighs and body shakes. Sometimes I caught him staring out of the back window of his lounge, toward the very bottom of his long garden where butterflies collected around the buddleia bushes. His sigh would be more mournful than usual and the matron in me would melt. Those times were the most frustrating because the less professional my desire to help him became, the less interested he seemed.
But then that apple had made me hopeful; he wanted to involve me in his painting again.
On my next visit I waited for him to answer a call of nature and then sneaked a look at the canvases he had placed face first against the walls of the lounge.
There wasn’t a painting of an apple in the bunch.
He was very talented. I’m not a critic or anything but I did take some classes once. They were too dark for my tastes though. People cooking meals, getting married and the like, while giant televisions, telephones and computers stood over them. All of them featured an appearance by a cowled, death-like figure with a clock’s face beneath the hood. Given his weight was closing in on thirty stone, it wasn’t too hard to work out the subtext.
If I was being very picky there was a slovenliness, a lack of attention to detail, that made his work fall short of being professional standard. That quality was evident in many other aspects of his life.
“Which d’ya like, Cynthia?” Arturo’s breathy mumble startled me and I squeaked. Honestly, like a rodent.
“Sorry Arturo. I shouldn’t be so nosy.”
He waved a hand and made a pfft sound as he wobbled back toward his seat. I felt blood rushing to my cheeks and suddenly became very conscious of my hands. I felt myself over for a place to hide them but my uniform had no pockets. “So… did you ever make that apple crumble?”
Arturo stopped and held up a staying finger. He turned and then disappeared into the depths of his filthy kitchen. I noticed that his dressing gown had got caught in his underpants but I said nothing.
Feeling guilty, I decided I would do a little tidying up for him.
He returned a good five minutes later with something hidden in his right hand. He thrust the object toward me with an eager nod. I looked down and saw an apple. It had my name written on it in black ink.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Is this the same apple?”
“Same one, yeah.”
It couldn’t be though. This apple looked as if it had fallen from the tree that morning. Its skin still shone and there was no give when I pushed my thumb into it.
“Did you copy my handwriting?” It was possible; he was an artist. But the familiar red pattern that had reminded me of a butterfly made me want to believe him. “Did you freeze it?”
Arturo’s grin was as oversized as he was and he shook his head with playful relish at each of my guesses. Eventually, he said: “It’s magic.” I could see he was struggling with all the movement so I put my arm around him to encourage him back to the sofa. As I did I felt his hand against my bum, followed by a predictable squeeze. With a gentle tug and a disapproving sigh, I shifted his hand to my waist and sat him down.
He gave his own weary sigh then. I knew what was coming: “I’m not long for this world.”
“I liked the one with the television and the picnic,” I said in answer to his earlier question. I had seen this one leaning up next to his television.
“It’s not finished.”
“You are talented. I wish I could paint like you.”
“Everyone can paint. You just gotta try.”
“I did try. I was rubbish.”
“You try again.”
“Oh I just don’t have the time Arturo. I have kids to feed and a mortga—”
“You come see me. I teach you.”
I hadn’t seen him this animated before. His arms were dancing along with his voice.
“Arturo, enough about me. Are you going to finish it? Your painting?”
“I dunno. There’s no bloody time.”
We both laughed.
As well as my diabetes work, I’m contracted ten hours a month to do triage for the out of hours clinic based up at Marlstone hospital. It pays double and it’s so quiet I spend most of my time talking to the blood carriers and the ambulance drivers. Frank is a lovely duck, even if some of his views about the “darkies” are a bit old fashioned. He’s worked on the ambulances long enough for those views to have been in fashion when he started.
We were all having a good laugh about on-the-job sexual assaults we had endured when I mentioned Arturo.
“I know the bloke,” Frank said. “Big old Italian guy? Painter?”
“Yeah. Lives in a house on Back Lane miles from anywhere? We went up just the other week. Had another hypo. I tell you, he misses a lot of meals for a fatty. Likes a good feel up then, does he?”
“Oh, he’s lovely really.”
“Do you know he was famous?”
“No. For what, his painting?”
“Apparently he used to be mates with Dalí.”
“Oh yeah. Someone found him on the web. Bugger knows how he ended up in Meriden though.”
“Does he have any children?” I asked.
“You tell me.”
I had never seen any pictures in the house, but then again anything could have been hidden amongst his mess.
When I was next with him, I asked about his family.
“I got a one son,” he said and punctuated it with a mournful breath. “He don’t care about me though.”
“Where does he live, Italy?”
Arturo shook his head. “Spain.” He pronounced it spine.
“Do you have a photograph?”
He was quiet for a long time. I started to scratch around my head for another topic when he got up and went to the kitchen. The tatty photograph he returned with was of a toddler kicking a football. The fade and the fashions made it look ancient.
“When was this taken?”
“So he’s what… 40 now?”
He nodded. “42. It goes very fast.”
I put down the photograph on the coffee table. He sat down and I sat next to him. The laptop was in front of us on the table and through the strange screensaver I could see the photograph just behind it. I bent forward and waved my hand in front of the screen.
From this new angle, I saw the apple.
According to the screensaver it was sitting in the middle of the table just behind the photograph, as crisp as it had been three months ago. I moved my head to peer around the laptop. The photograph was there but the apple wasn’t.
Arturo started to clap and laugh. I didn’t understand. Everything but the apple was the same both on and off the screen. “Explain it to me, Arturo.”
“The apple. Explain the apple. That’s the same one, isn’t it?”
Arturo’s beam was new to me. It was as if the boy from the photograph had risen up through the folds of his face.
“Magic,” he said and smacked his palms together again.
“Seriously Arturo, how does it work? I asked my son Daniel, and he said it was a camera. Is it like a special effects programme?”
“You no believe in magic?”
“Stop being silly.”
“Touch it. Put your hand in.” He mimed what he wanted me to do by extending his right arm and grabbing an imaginary apple.
“You will see. It’s magic.” The humour in his tone was fraying; I felt a sulk brewing. So I got on my knees and bent forward with my arms outstretched toward the apple on the screen. It occurred to me that I must look rather silly bent over like that, but I humoured him. As my hand got within inches of the screen I started to imagine that my hand might actually keep going. That it might penetrate the screen as if it were liquid and wrap itself around my—
I felt his hand on my arse.
I swivelled as quickly as I could and went to slap Arturo’s wrist. When I saw how fast his hand was retreating and the way he was trying to avoid my eyes like it might make him vanish, a child playing peek-a-boo, my anger seemed disproportionate. Pity was more appropriate.
“I’m so sorry,” he said.
I gave him his injection and then packed away. We didn’t talk.
“Goodbye, see you soon.” I was in the doorway.
“Can I teach you painting?”
“I don’t think that would be appropriate.”
“You say you no have time. I can make the time for you.”
“No, Arturo. I’m sorry.”
I wasn’t really concerned about Arturo’s wandering hands. But I requested a move. You develop an instinct for trouble when you’re out and about – testament to endless mandatory training sessions on safeguarding the vulnerable, I’m sure.
Keep your eye out for bruises in strange places like beneath the hairline.
But I was the one that felt vulnerable. I didn’t like going inside that house. If there was any magic afoot there it was more Dalí’s elephants with spider’s legs than his melting comic-book clocks.
My request was denied; the two nurses on my patch got pregnant and poorly.
The next time I went to see him there were remnants of cardboard strewn across the lounge. He had bought a special cable to connect the laptop to his giant old television. It now displayed his clever screensaver in quadruple the size. I could see the virtual apple on the virtual table even though the real table had no apple on it.
“You look like you’ve lost weight. Well done,” I said.
What I meant was he looked awful. His very slight shrinkage looked starvation induced.
In the kitchen I made us both a cup of tea. It was messier than usual. On the work surface was a long baguette. One end of it was looked as if it had just left the oven; the other was so stale that there were clumps of blue mould growing on its shrivelled surface. I picked it up to make sure it was real and it broke in two. The fresh end was in my hand and where it had come away from its rotten counterpart the cut was so seamless it could have been severed by a laser.
Arturo was clutching something tight to his chest. When I sat next to him I saw it was another photograph. It was of three men standing in front of a cornfield. One of them was Dalí.
“Is that you?” I pointed to the slim man on the right. Arturo nodded. “You were very dashing.”
“All the girls, they like Sal.”
“Well, if I had met you then, I would have preferred you.”
I gave him his injection and then did a cursory tidy up. When I was done he thanked me and handed me the photo. “You have this. I’m not long for this world. I got no bloody use for it.”
“I can’t, Arturo.” But I took it anyway.
“If I met you then I would’ve married you.”
“Oh bless you. I’m afraid one marriage was enough for me.”
“If I had you I wouldn’t let you go.” His voice was minuscule, his eyes made the briefest contact with mine.
Not sure what to say I smiled and slipped my coat on over my uniform. I considered telling him that it might be my last visit as he leaned forward toward his laptop.
“I might see you next month.”
I turned to see that he had tilted the laptop screen down so that it was nearly closed. He pointed to the television screen. It showed the ceiling and the light fitting, only unlike the real ceiling there were butterflies. Some of them were in flight, others perched on the lampshade moving their wings with gentle half beats.
“Arturo, I don’t understand.”
“They don’t die in there.” With great effort, he stood and walked over to the giant television. He pushed his hand out toward the screen but I didn’t watch what happened next. “You come with me. I’ll teach you to paint.” By then I was out of the lounge and opening the front door.
It turned out that he was right; he wasn’t long for this world.
I wish I had gone back for my final appointment instead of feigning illness. I visit that regret most, often after dark.
If they had found things a bit earlier then Fred wouldn’t have made quite such a grisly discovery.
They think he was there for a month and a half. By chance the postman had looked through the window and seen Arturo lying on the floor. He called the ambulance and the police. By the time Fred arrived they had already pulled his head and shoulders out of the giant television.
“I’ve not seen anything like it,” he told me one night in the out of hour’s clinic. “His legs were a mess. They’d started… you know. You could smell it from outside. But his top half… His top half must have been must have been protected by the inside of the telly because it was intact. It was like he’d been filleted.”
I thought about the baguette on the work surface.
“Do they know how it happened?”
“They reckon he was trying to move it. Picked it up and dropped it on himself. Apparently there was blood all over the place so they reckon he walked around with it stuck on him until he ran out of puff…”
Fred actually laughed; I made my excuses and went home.
The image wouldn’t leave me: Arturo disappearing into that screen, the glass parting like water for his arms, and then his head, and then his shoulders, and then…
It had been a big television.
But like his paintings, perhaps he didn’t pay attention to the details.
I took a week off work, this time I really was sick.
At the funeral there were a handful of health professionals and some locals that knew Arturo in his pre-twenty stone years.
Afterwards a man with thick black hair and thick black eyebrows introduce himself as Arturo’s son. His English wasn’t very good, but it was better than my Spanish.
He told me that Arturo has left me something. I told him I didn’t want to go back to the house but I would be very grateful if he could have it sent to me.
I wasn’t surprised when the package came and I pulled off the brown paper to find a portrait. It was the one of his I had liked the most, now complete. It was of a giant television watching over a couple eating a picnic. I tried to ignore the similarities the couple bore to myself and Arturo’s younger self and focussed my attention on the television. Inside was an apple surrounded by hundreds of butterflies.
There was one thing that did surprise me. My son found it days later. A memory stick had been sellotaped to the back of the canvas. When I put it in my computer I found a document and a programme called Easel.
I opened the document:
There is time here. Meet me.