The Hue of Yellow

A painter struggles to finish a portrait. Contains content which may be upsetting.

Image Credit: 
Public Domain

Shards of sunlight pierced through wooden shutters of Mark’s attic studio, reflecting on the gold of scattered Renaissance and icon style paintings. Being a converted chapel, it was so cold Mark lit a potbellied stove, adding dried rosemary to the embers and filling the room with the smell of aromatic wood smoke mingled with the prickly scent of turpentine. He tidied some of the jars of vibrant coloured pigment which lined his shelves before seating himself at his paint-splattered work table.

Once settled he picked up a fresh egg from a wicker basket and held it in his hand to warm it before cracking it open. Discarding the egg white into an empty blue and white china bowl, he rolled the moist yolk from palm to palm, letting it leave its sticky outer membrane in his hands. It had a soft reassuring feel. He was always amazed at how well the liquid stayed within its sac. Like a worshipper fingering a favourite rosary, he rolled it across his palms again. Pinching a corner of the yolk between his forefinger and thumb, he lifted it out of his palm. The sac drooped like a fat teardrop. He pierced the bottom end with his fingernail, which enabled the oily golden fluid to flow into a clean bowl underneath. Plop.

He needed a clear mind to paint an icon, and this was the traditional way he slowed his thoughts and prepared himself to contact his muse. Opening a new packet of pigment, he scooped a few ounces of cadmium onto a blade and bridled at the acid yellow hue. Staring at it uncomfortably, his composure lost, he remembered—

—the day of the outing with the yellow tablecloth when teenagers were kissing on the grass nearby and his mother was becoming more and more agitated. His father sat dead still, holding onto his braces, remaining as patient as he could be, waiting for his food, waiting for everything to be deemed perfect. He’d driven such a long way, and on the new motorway too, to be beside the river on the grass for a picnic. But on his special day off, his head began to hang low.

“The sun is getting in my eyes,” Mother said. So they turned the gingham tablecloth this way and that, and shuffled round themselves so the sun wouldn’t hurt her eyes.

Mark had to strain to see what the teenage boy was doing with his tongue. Father was salivating over a sausage roll, but he waited until everything was set just right so that Mother would be pleased.

“Behaving like dogs,” Mother said as she patted and straightened the tablecloth all over again. But Mark couldn’t see any dogs and was taking a dislike to the yellow in the wax cloth he was staring at, and now his tummy was rumbling as well.

“It doesn’t have to spoil our day,” Father said. He opened his napkin, then folded it up again to try and forget his hunger.

“Oh look, there’s a boat,” Mother said.

Mark became fascinated by the length of the boy’s tongue. He didn’t understand why he put it in the girl’s ear, and why she didn’t mind.

“Where’s Lisa?” his mother suddenly cried out.

Mark looked around but couldn’t see his sister. She’d disappeared again. She hated rows and never really liked to eat out in the open.

“She always disappears when food is ready.” Mother’s voice was high pitched, kind of strangulated.

“I’ll go look for her,” Mark said, knowing it was an offer his mother couldn’t object to.

He got up and started vaguely looking. Once out of sight, he slipped off his socks and then let the grass tickle his toes through his sandals. He wandered, enjoying the freedom—glad to get away from the tension of the picnic and his mother’s white gloves and her smoothing out the cloth and dusting off invisible insects.

Passing other families laughing, he noticed some children had jam on their faces but it didn’t seem to matter. Their mother wasn’t angry. They could still sit there and eat and talk and play. He took time looking at the families who were enjoying the sunny day. He paused and watched the sky, the high drifting clouds, and listened secretly to the squeals of children playing around him. There was no need to find his sister straight away as then he’d have to go back and sit quietly beside the tablecloth and eat cold food and endure the fuss, and his sister would be unhappy too.

People started shouting, not the children, but the sound of adults all jumbled together. A man was running to the riverside. A woman whose arms had got caught up in her pinafore was trying to point to the water, was screaming. Others came to join her. There was a lot of noise and confusion. Mark walked toward them in his dreamy, summer’s day mood.

“A girl,” he heard them say.

He thought someone might be swimming, but he knew it couldn’t be Lisa, as she couldn’t swim.

A man took off his jacket and trousers and jumped into the water, swimming so strongly about ten feet out. His Labrador barked at the riverbank. The man dived under the water and it seemed he wasn’t going to come up—just his hat, which he’d forgotten to take off, floated around lost on the surface, driving his dog wild. Eventually, the dog jumped in too and swam toward the hat. Everyone moved closer to the river’s edge, suddenly quiet. Then the man surfaced with a body in his arms. A girl.

Mark could see her hair and it reminded him of Lisa. And everyone started to look around, in his direction. He froze, found he couldn’t move. It was as if his feet were nailed to the ground and he had to stand there, witnessing the events that were happening: the man bringing the girl out of the water, water pouring from them, the women crying, the wet dog with a hat in its jaw. The next thing he remembered—he was hit on the head and seemed to sway a little bit. His mother and father went by. His mother had hit him. His father was out of breath with sweat beads at his temples. He watched as his mum and dad ran up to the people with the girl’s body and started crying. Mother even let her white cotton gloves get wet as she stroked the girl’s hair.

Kneeling on the ground with the girl, they leaned over her and touched her and Mark watched how affectionate they were with her. And he wanted to be there with them too, but was so puzzled why he couldn’t move. He tried to lift his feet but they wouldn’t budge and his jaw became fixed in his face. Everything was moving in slow motion, if only he could get things to run backwards.

A screaming ambulance arrived and several men opened the back. After a while, one of the men in uniform came over and stood beside Mark. He was glad he hadn’t been hit again.

“Your sister has drowned,” the officer said, leaning down to him, placing a hand on his shoulder. His hand helped Mark to move, and he nodded, still unable to speak. They walked to the ambulance together. Once inside, his mother stared, his father stared too, but they didn’t speak. The way they looked at Mark, it seemed they thought it was all his fault. Perhaps it was. He sat down on the hard seat in the ambulance and allowed himself to realise the dreadful truth: if he’d got there sooner, perhaps he might’ve been able to save her. But he had just been wandering, enjoying the summer’s day, and couldn’t have known she was going swimming and getting into trouble. He hid his face and looked down at his lap, picked away at the threads of his socks until his father stopped him.

Back home in his bedroom he ran over everything again in his mind. He would’ve done everything for his sister if he’d known, would’ve drowned instead of her if he could. He shook with the memories and started feeling ice cold. After getting warm in his bed he hid his head underneath the pillow and felt something there, some paper. It was a note folded over. It seemed to be in his sister’s handwriting. He switched on the side light, unfurled the note, and read:

I can’t take it anymore. The bullies have won and Mum and Dad won’t listen. I can’t tell them about the things that are happening and I feel I am letting them down so this is best. I love two things—Tugs and you, my dear soppy brother. I can’t carry on. I want to join the Angels.

Love, Lisa.

He never read the note to them. Perhaps it was best they thought about her the way they did. He assumed the guilt for his sister’s death, and over time he almost believed it. They buried the memory of her that day and she was hardly mentioned again as the grief and the sadness was too much to bear—

—Mark looked at the paint he had mixed. The colour was softer now, and the yellow had lost its acid hue. He’d often wondered why he had such a negative reaction to some yellows. He flipped open a leather folder containing sheets of gold leaf and pulled out the old faded letter from all those years ago.

Peace washed over him, and he crumpled the letter. Then, with a clear mind, he loaded his paintbrush with glistening tempera and blessed his sister as he applied a confident stroke to his board: a nearly finished portrait of Lisa, painted with a golden aura.

Denise loves writing for pleasure, sometimes for pay and occasionally for awards. She tempted by shorts, novels, plays, TV and screenplays.

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