( Last week at Phoenix Writers Horwich Bolton, , we selected postcards of paintings to ‘enter’ and Barbara’s range included the painting above. We were not allowed to turn the postcard over until we had created a story from our reactions to the painting. So I picked Burne-Jones’ The Ascension because I thought it was beautiful and immediately imagined being the chap on the far left, late as ‘always’ delivering a monologue about the creation of the painted window one winter in the past. . Great fun! )
As always in my life, I arrived both shivering and late. But if the poet was right and the end is where we start from, little wonder that so much that has endured in my life, began from that special time.
We called it the winter of the painted window. A group of us volunteered to assist the artist who wanted local models for the new chancel window. By the time I arrived, the others had claimed the best places next to Joshua, so I was stuck out on the margins getting a stiff neck. The chapel studio was cramped and the heating meagre. But there was something there from the beginning and it held me. I couldn’t hide from it and I’ve never forgotten it. For whatever it might have been, it was beyond the merely living.
Most mornings, a trainee priest would admonish us on his way to communion. We listened to his short sermons and practised looking as inspired as we could on our empty stomachs.
On the second or third day, my nearest neighbour told me what beatific meant and that night I felt my grandma’s hand in my hair. I spoke her name. I imagined her standing by my side smelling of cinnamon. I still do sometimes, especially before I fall asleep. One never knows at my age now, what these dark nights might bring.
I am not afraid of death. Arriving and departing appear so much the same to me. Joshua taught me that. Life is just a turning up and then a turning away. A slight change of direction, that is all.
Early or late. I shall wave.
The artist told us his doubts had once led him astray, so the picture would serve as his penance for being a reluctant believer. “I came to God late” he said. He had rechristened himself Tomas and rejoiced in his second life. Apparently he needed his new name to act as a reminder to keep him steady. Sadly, he had been lost once and now, thankfully, he felt God’s eye ever upon him.
Poor God I thought. Tomas imagined him a stern schoolmaster punishing the tardy, keeping notes. My God, when he appeared, seemed more like a desert wind whirling me around, making me blink; sometimes teasing, sometimes slamming me into my fate.
I learned things from those wintry months standing in the studio pretending to pray to Tomas’ harsh God, whilst secretly imagining my own.
Like when Tomas sighed as we bit into our nails and clenched our hands. “You look too much like some local labourers have strayed into my studio by accident. I have given you work all through this winter and look how you punish me.!. Elevate your minds please.”
Of course we were just village craftsmen and farmers; but we were hungry and curious, so to humour him and because we had nothing else to replace him with , we succumbed to his vision. Most mornings, we practised gentle palm touching; we greeted each other more kindly and we even cleaned our broken nails.
Our hands would often retaliate by going numb by the evening, but Tomas promised this made the painting even more real. “Look, your hands are apprehending the divine.” He told us. Faith finds its own heart’s knowledge”
We all nodded unsure of his words, but glad of our day’s meal. I liked the idea of my hands showing my heart; and so I thought did Joshua, though he was always placed away from me, in the middle of us all.
Our window painting took all that winter to complete. We were fed on simple soup and bread. We drank rough wine when Tomas was pleased with us. I counted each day with pebbles in my garden. Their grey shapes stained the plot of earth beneath my kitchen sill and when the snow came I stopped counting them outside and brought my pebbles indoors to keep them warm. I began my own mosaic with the pebbles and arranged the outline of a face in shadows of my kitchen.
Sometimes I even thought the pebbles became less grey and lit up as our winter went on, but this could have been one of my mind’s lonely tricks. We had been starved of colour here for so long that I confess I began to hope again.
But I am departing from my purpose. You want to see the window clearly and so do l.
So Imagine us all, huddled together spending three and a half months straining to think only pure thoughts, so our faces would shine.
“Your expressions are your souls’ testimony” said Tomas. “They must never mislead. Consider your duty to a lonely child gazing upon your faces years from this moment. What will your eyes have to tell them? How will you direct their souls? “
I commanded my eyes to shroud nothing of myself for i doubted Tomas’ restrictions, his fierce austerity. I feared his cold blue eyes. So I widened my eyes and boldly looked out. Openness seemed stronger than armour.
Yet we let Tomas rule us easily most days because we felt the power of his certainty and we were hungry and young enough to compromise. Sometimes we prayed secretly for the return of his doubt. But we liked our bread and Tomas could be kind when he forgot to brandish his certainty.
And we joked around too …Our favourite joke was about the crowd of apparently adoring disciples at the bottom of the window. Have you noticed how they all have a certain look about them?
God must know where Tomas found this adoring crowd. We rarely got to see them. Tomas kept them all to himself. Once after wine, someone suggested they were Tomas’ secret family. “Maybe he was really less pure than he pretended.” If you look closely they all have a similarity about the mouth don’t they?.
Despite this, Tomas captured something about me I really didn’t recognise at the time. Something less mean perhaps. Less tormented by life’s games.
Of course the star is still Joshua. How Tomas captured that searing glance I do not know. There was something special amongst us those months. Joshua stood so still. He accepted what was there. It felt like he began to live the part. You know he even gave up his shoes in December’s snow.
When the painting was done Joshua simply went away. No goodbyes. He vanished. Never even came to the party. Strange that. We all missed him. Even Tomas.
Perhaps one day he’ll come back.
I listen for his knock.
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