The Artist of Swanage Downs
Audio version at: https://soundcloud.com/user-62051685/the-artist-of-swanage-downs-audio
The Artist of Swanage Downs
Torchlight flashes across dark sand, waves make raucous night sounds. Moonlight hides behind cloud cover before revealing itself intermittently. They make their way across the beach, unseen footprints leaving a path. Rocks to the right fashion haphazard hiding places. Cliffs form a towering backdrop. It won’t be long before they find what they are searching for…
Wild winds whipped in a storm-tossed sky, black clouds rolling across a bleak horizon. Dusk marked the transforming of day to night as diurnal rhythms gave way to twilight. The light was drawing in. I looked up and, just for a few seconds, pondered the sanity of being out in this. I forced my way across the Downs, headfirst, leaning forwards, pushing myself on as the tempest gathered momentum. Detritus filled the air, rubbish swirling, caught in eddies. I struggled on towards the cliff-edge. I could just make out a blurred shape in the distance. As I left the white, gravel pathway, the object became clearer. It was an easel with a painting perched on it. In front, I could see a small stool, conspicuous from its lack of occupant. I was surprised that the whole thing was still standing given the conditions. I had been here before, of course. More than once. I remembered.
It was on a sunny day in July that I first saw her. The sun sat high in the sky, perched on its throne of phosphorous. Swanage Bay looked every bit as picture book as it could be. Limestone cliffs swept around the coast, azure waters demarcating land from sea. The Downs, verdant green, ran to trees and bushes seemingly posted as sentries to overlook the bay. If you closed your eyes, you could imagine ghost ships sailing into battle in the distance, King Alfred defeating a Danish fleet in 878. It was across the grass that I found myself meandering, surrounded by the beauty of summer.
I was the ripe old age of sixteen. The years had not been kind to me. My father was grotesque in his violent ways; my mother as limp as a lettuce in dealing with him or any form of conflict. On this day I had decided to run away from nearby Poole and try my luck in Swanage. I had no plan but to flee. And fate, it seems, had led me here. I must have looked like a street urchin to anyone that crossed my path. Shoulder-strapped backpack, faded tee shirt and jeans ripped at the knees made me appear every bit the teenage down-and-out.
And there she was, on the edge of the Downs, just a few feet from the edge of the cliffs. From here, there was a panoramic view of the town over the tops of bushes. Seagulls circled high above, screeching their ravenous songs. Misplace a step too close to the precipice and it was easy to tumble down the steep slopes. Many a dog had inadvertently suffered this fate. People had misjudged the firmness under foot too.
She was sat on a tiny stool in front of an easel. Her brush strokes were poetry, gliding across canvas, painting pictures that drew your breath away. In a rare moment, bravery got the better of me. I crossed to where the artist was working and stood examining her latest picture. A man in shorts wearing a white shirt and holding a small boy’s hand passed behind me looking across, curious as to what I was doing.
She was diminutive, sat with a thin, paint brush in one hand. Her wooden pallet was to her left, a riot of colour. She was wearing a pretty blue patterned dress that looked as though it was made from gossamer. It rippled in the breeze. Her hair was blonde, falling into ringlets on both sides. Her facial features were elfin-like, small nose, blue, piercing eyes and voluptuous lips. She was a china doll. As she beavered on, painting with an intensity that bordered on obsession, I went unnoticed albeit she had a companion sat on the grass to her side who was staring at me. I imagine she was wondering who this interloper was.
At this age, my manners were undeveloped. I glared back at the woman on the grass. She was older than the artist. Maybe in her thirties. She had her hair tied in a bun on top and wore a matronly, pinafore dress. She looked Victorian. Her face wore a harsh expression, cheeks pinched, eyes as hazel as tree bark. She rose and stood in front of the girl painting, blocking my path. After initial hesitation, I finally mumbled my name and how I just wanted to look at the work-in-progress. The companion was assured by my explanation allowing me to peer closer at the painting. She declared her charge as “Claudia” and herself as Mrs Haversham. Both names rang bells I couldn’t place.
The painting was of the bay, cliffs encircling the town, birds flying on the horizon. The image was utterly beguiling. As I examined it more closely, I swear egrets were actually airborne and quite alive rather than simply being a creation on canvas. Their wings flapped gracefully as they glided through the air; beady, black eyes scanning the vista for opportunities to feed. The sea glistened in the sun, waves rising and falling. I blinked and looked again. The picture was, once again, two-dimensional. I put it down to a trick of the light, however fleeting.
Throughout, the painter said nothing. There was good reason. Her companion explained that Claudia had been born deaf and dumb and was often oblivious to everything around her. She had been discovered a prodigy when she was very young and was now a renowned artist in the local area.
I never thought about that chance encounter again for another thirty years. Until I found myself on holiday in Swanage once more. Since the first meeting, a lot of water had flowed under a metaphorical bridge. In my forties, I was now married with two children. In keeping with the rest of my life, this had turned into a nightmare. Whilst we had been happy once, neither myself nor my wife had dealt very well with being parents. My way of dealing with the pressure of a career in banking and as carer for my children was to reach for a bottle of vodka most nights. This simply fanned the flames of conflict as we drifted further and further apart.
I often thought about the possible reasons why things hadn’t worked out for me. I guess the instability of my upbringing may have been a factor. I was volatile at the best of times. When I considered this in more detail, I realised that I legitimately had the best of intentions. It’s just that my moral compass was invariably fucked up. Just when I thought I was settled emotionally, I would explode again in a grenade of self-doubt. My wife would accuse me of pushing her away when she got to close. Maybe there was truth in this. I don’t know. All I do know is that I needed people around me whilst, at the same time, craved solitude. It rarely made sense. Life doesn’t always.
We had decided to try and isolate some quality time away as a family. When pondering a destination, I recalled an affinity with the south coast of England; with Swanage specifically. A cottage in Seymer Road was booked and the pleasures of self-accommodation beckoned. This trip was a chance for us to unite as a family. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before that desire to be on my own swept over me. Once again, I found myself roaming the Downs, the walk an excuse to escape from my loved ones for an hour or so.
On a glorious day where sunlight glinted from the waves in the Bay, white horses roaming rising crests, I saw her once more. Stationed in a similar spot, the tiny artist was applying oil to canvas with her own brand of magic. Her companion was with her again. Both had physically aged since that original meeting, of course. I strode across the tidy grass to where she was working. For the second time, the woman sitting to the side looked me up and down. This time I was more confident and explained how we had met all those years ago. She couldn’t recall but she did accept that I was only wanting to examine her charge’s work.
I crept closer to the now middle-aged woman, looking over her shoulder. I noted how time had been kind to her. She still looked like a child despite decades passing. This time the canvas paraded the Bay at Buck Moon. On the horizon, a large, amber ball of lunar rock caressed the centre of the image. Below it, cliffs and sand formed a crescent of their own, the tiniest details captured by her brush. I found myself peering at the celestial sphere, drawn by the enchanting colour. It seemed to glow. It was alive. Once more, I was totally entranced. I wanted to climb inside the moon, it seemed so real. Those seconds felt like hours. Time stopped.
I finally gathered my senses as Mrs Haversham tapped me on the arm. She could see that I was lost in the painting. She smiled at me and I looked away. Gathering my thoughts, I left not knowing where I was headed other than away.
And now here I am again. On this storm-swept evening, I find myself bereft of immediate family. My wife left me years ago and both my son and daughter grew up and left home as soon as they could. I have been in the wilderness for a long time. One night, staring at the bottom of a glass, I remembered the artist from Swanage Downs. I decided I wanted to see her one more time. She would be old like me. This would be our final encounter.
Nature has caught up with me and my body is on the down slope. I have pills for many things and a walking stick to help me get about. I make the best of it, trying not to draw attention to my frailty. Standing in front of the abandoned easel, I wonder where the artist is. I ponder the fate of both her and her companion as I stare in the gloom at the canvas perched on the frame. From a distance, it looked blank but now I am closer, I can see rocks in the sea, water crashing against their base throwing spume into the air. All around are trees and bushes at the edge of the cliffs. I look closer still and see the artist sitting at her stool in a small clearing. She is painting, wordlessly. She only has eyes for her latest creation.
I can see her clearly now. I can see the stoic expression on her face. I can hear bees buzzing and birds singing. Butterflies float effortlessly on the breeze. This feels like Nirvana. Heat makes objects shimmer. And then I am there. We are both inside the painting. I am standing in front of her once again. It seems as though I have known her all my life. In some ways, I have. Everything else just slips away like sand in an hour-glass. I feel at peace. At last.
…beams of torchlight interrogate nooks and crannies. The searchers now immersed in darkness. The storm still sweeping across the bay, squalls of wind occasionally knocking them off balance. A cry goes up and one of the party holds his arm aloft, silhouetted against a moonlit sky. Others jog over to him to see the discovery. They surround a man lying prostate on the sand. A few feet away a wooden stick lies prone. They speculate about whether he has fallen or jumped from above. This is a popular spot for jumpers. If it is the latter, they can’t understand the smile on his face. A look of serenity.
Image free to use at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Swanage_Panorama_Crop.jpg