She began with a wide sweeping declaration of brush on canvas.
“There”. She said, somehow satisfied with that bold start.
“It’s a green streak”.
I was eleven, waiting wasn’t my forte but I settled in, accepting my punishment.
She dipped, mixed, muddled watery swirls with her brush then dragged another layer, now dark grey. Her skirts swished against the floor. A shaft of sunlight threw down a blanket of gold, lighting up the fine straggles of hair that escaped her cotton cap. I wiggled in my seat.
“You like that?” She winked at me with half turned head.
“Yes”. No. The chairback was hard like Sunday pews although without the shadow of Nanny’s rigid discipline. The deep red seat, cold at first, heated with its occupant. My short- trousered legs peeled painfully from the leather when I shifted position. I wanted to go back to the kittens. This time I’d be more careful. I’d give Jemima back her ribbon. Fish her doll from the lake. Learn my spellings. Conjugate the verbs.
With a delicate tipping of brush she dabbed the canvas. It didn’t look like art. Dust spiralled in the sun stream that lit the wood around her swaying skirts.
“Miss, it’s dripping”. Black drops littered the parquet floor.
Drawn back to the canvas, watching her bend to add a wavy line of black.
“is it a river”?
She smiled in response, waggled her brush in water then ducked it into another pot. A stream of shocking red, the colour of kitten blood, hit the canvas then in a wide arch spattered Mother’s drapes and in full rotation drew a red line across my face.
“Miss”! Tears close. This was not proper behaviour from a governess.
I put a hand to my face making things worse, smearing the chair with sticky patches. I pushed back attempting invisibility. Camouflaged in red.
She plunged her brush into pots. Blue. Yellow. Green smudged the canvas. Then I saw it. A cave. I leaned forward, peering into deep black as she threw on colours.
“Watch”, now a whisper.
I watched colours congeal to a uniform sludge and barely felt her brush my skin. Blue now along my arms. Wet, cold as lake water. A yellow ribbon trailed down my leg to the floor.
Thrusting her hands into a pot, she turned with etched smile and slimed my hair, ears, neck with purple then back to the sunless canvas to compose a hand-span sky. A dark tapestry where black dots emerged as seizing Furies, their screaming breath fumed around my head as I fled toward the cave.
Inside the dark sanctuary I saw her in distant light blocking the entrance with flourishing streaks of brown. My scream choked on a spew of rainbow paint that submerged into darkness as I blacked out.
I wake long years later from dreams that tweezer my heart and coat my body in the dank membrane of panic. I know why I dream in colour.
Theresa Ryder was PA to author, J.P. Donleavy before graduating MA (Classics) and a teaching degree. She won the Molly Keane Creative Writing Award, 2015 and was selected to read at the Women X Borders Readathon, 2017 and Culture Night, Cork. She has been published in various journals and nominated for Best Short Fiction anthology 2018. She is working on a novel.
Image: Derek Robinson