Philip Wilson Steer, A Summer's Evening

Philip Wilson Steer, A Summer’s Evening

Stephen watches her slip a cube of ice onto the smooth V of Adrian’s chest above his half-open shirt. She clamps her hand over him and Adrian flinches.

‘Remember Richard Johnson?’ Mike says, then sips from his glass of white wine. ‘I heard he got involved in some juicy scandal recently. Teenage prostitutes, drugs, the usual stuff. You hear that?’

Stephen recalls the tall, good-looking boy; rather sincere, even earnest.

‘Who would have thought it?’ he says.

‘Lucky bastard,’ says Adrian, and Stephen watches her reach into his shirt, rubbing the ice down his chest onto his stomach. Watches him wriggle on the blanket, with its broad stripes of beige and blue.

‘Yeah, my friend Janey told me about it,’ says Pippa, who nudges Mike and nods at Adrian and the girl. ‘Apparently, he was caught with three little tarts and a big bag of cocaine in a loft in Manchester.’

Stephen hears Adrian laugh, sees him grab her neck and pull her head down to his face.

Stephen loosens his shirt, wafting some warm air up his sticky back. He looks down at the reeds by the indolent, brown water of the river, at the busy clouds of midges.

‘Making up for lost time,’ says Mike, and reaches across the rug to take a sandwich from the wicker basket.

‘Well, I always thought he was a creep.’ Pippa tips the last of a bottle of wine into her glass, shaking out the drops. ‘Any more wine, Stephen darling?’

‘In the cool bag; a choice of French austerity and Antipodean exuberance.’

A shadow follow-spots a path across the flat green stage of the field. The cloud passes over the picnickers and they all look up at the vivid yellow halo of its frail and disintegrating outline.

‘I’ll go for French austerity.’ Pippa pulls a bottle of Chablis from the red cool bag.

Stephen glances across to Adrian, to see her pull her hand from his. She sits up on her knees, looking down to the water. Her movements are stealthy, as if the languor were exaggerated, masking an inert, unexpressed vigour. When Adrian introduced her to him that morning, she extended her right hand as a cool, limp, offering. Stephen held it in his warm fingers, and she looked right past him as he said her name.

She rises to her feet, and brushes down her baggy shorts; she wanders down to the river, swishing away the flies like a bored pony.

‘Pass the wine, Pippa darling,’ Adrian says, scooping a finger of humus from her plate. He fills his glass, and drinks two greedy throatfulls. He splashes in more wine and lies back, gazing up at the sky.

Stephen watches her bend to pick something from amongst the reeds, and hold the arc of her body for a few seconds before lifting a small flower to examine in her palm. 

‘How long’s Jane in Singapore, Stevie,’ Pippa asks, arranging some salad on her plate.

‘A month or so, this time. Some project linked to Indo-China. Apparently.’

She steps out of her blue pumps.

‘While the pussy’s away, eh, Stephen lad?’ Stephen glances at Adrian, who is balancing his glass on his chest, his eyes closed.

‘I guess. Except it will be my usual love affair with pictures. I’ve been teaching the English Impressionists this term. Quite interesting, actually,’ says Stephen. She walks down into the river with care. Stephen imagines how, close up, the brown water will appear clearer, revealing the slimy stones on the shallow bed. And cool as she stands there,  looking across to the overhanging trees on the far bank.

‘Don’t judge others by your own low standards,’ Pippa tosses a small piece of bread at Adrian. It hits him on the right arm, and he makes no movement.

‘Sticks and stones, you know,’ Adrian yawns, ‘but bread … ‘

The water reaches her knees. She leans to the left to trail her fingers in the current. Stephen envies her the cool water against her skin. He sips his wine, but it has quickly warmed, and now tastes sweeter, cloying.

‘Nice wine, Stephen,‘ Mike says, ‘Very austere.’

She takes another step into the river to poise across the two depths a moment, then brings her right leg into the deeper water. Now she can touch the water without bending, and the hem of her baggy shorts absorbs the splashes like blotting paper.

‘Glad you like it,’ says Stephen, pouring himself another glass. ‘So what happened to Richard, then? I take it the sparkling lights of his glittering career have been dimmed somewhat?’

‘Going out in a blaze of glory, though.’ Adrian turns onto his side, tucking up his legs like a child bored by a bedtime story.

‘Can’t be much hotter than this in Singapore.’ Mike lifts his flop of black hair from his damp forehead. Pippa notices this, and dabs a cotton napkin. The gesture irritates him, and he swats her away.

‘I guess we shouldn’t complain. Sometimes I feel as if we store up the warmth of the sun at times like this, to keep us going in the winter. When you don’t see the sun for weeks on end.’ Stephen sees her stretch out her arms and arch her back in a huge yawn.

‘Like a bloody squirrel? Speak for yourself, squirrel boy.’ Adrian is not yet asleep.

Pippa follows Stephen’s gaze. ‘What’s your young girlie up to in the river, then, Ado?’

‘Chilling.’

‘Uh-huh.’ Pippa watches her swirl her hands through the water, as innocent as a child. She thinks back to her own childhood, to seaside trips with her sister and her mother and father. How the two girls would lie in the shallows for hours, inventing fantasy worlds of royalty or adventure, of fabulous wealth or fantastic glamour. While her father dozed under his white floppy hat, and her mother scrawled hopeful words in the margin to the side of the crossword.

‘Pass me an apple, my sweet,’ Mike asks her, and Pippa rolls the fruit across her cheek before handing it to him. Mike crawls across the rug towards her. He takes the apple and bites into it, gripping it with his teeth, and holding it up for her. Juice dribbles quickly down his chin as she pulls his head towards her to bite into the other side of the apple.

Stephen sees that Adrian has closed his eyes, his head fallen away from the sun’s glare. He watches her splash out of the river and set off along the path away from the picnic, a long piece of reed trailing from her left hand. He drinks back his glass of warm wine and gets up, brushing the crumbs from his T-shirt and chinos. He walks down to the river, trying to slow his movements, to imitate her languor. Glancing back, he sees Pippa and Mike lying close, each with an arm draped across the other in a loose knot.

Stephen strolls along the path and she looks back to notice him. Her eyes are blank, indifferent, void, and she turns again to resume her walk. He jogs up to her and for a few seconds they say nothing. On the far side of the field, a woman throws a stick into the river for a dog. ‘I often come here in the summer. Do you like it?’ he says.

She tosses her reed into the air and it twirls to the flattened grass of the path. She ignores it and looks wearily at the water.

‘I suppose so.’

She walks on. He picks up the reed and follows her.

‘I don’t remember it ever being this hot, do you? I mean, day after day. It saps the energy, doesn’t it?’

He thinks he sees her incline her pale chin. Her face is small with narrow, dark eyes. That looked past him as he held her soft, withholding hand this morning.

‘Sometimes I come here after working all day. To clear my head, to let the ideas settle, and assume some kind of order.’ He laughs, shaking his head as if disowning his words. ‘I’m not sure if you see what I’m getting at. Perhaps you have somewhere like this to go.’ He conducts the hot air with his reed.

She turns her head towards him, slowly as if with reluctance, and lowers her eyelids. She shrugs and a strap from her loose top slips from her shoulder. She eases it back, and they stroll on. He wonders if he has ever walked so slowly.

Ahead of them, the dog is barking at the stick in the water. The woman walks towards them. She is wearing white shorts and a yellow T-shirt, and holds a lead in her right hand as if it were a gun.

‘Did you enjoy the picnic? I wasn’t sure if…?’ He strains to keep his words relaxed and light. They seem to press in on him and sound rushed, harassed.

‘Thank you. Yes, thank you. And this … ‘ She turns up a hand to encompass the field, the river, the shadowing trees on the far bank, the grassy path and the woman and her barking dog. ‘This, it’s lovely here.’

‘I’m pleased you like it. It’s a pleasure to have your company.’

The woman approaches them quickly. He can see she is short and quite slim, maybe in her forties. That her hair is brown, and the dog is a black and white mongrel.

They walk into the shade cast by tall, dark beech trees on the far bank of the bending river. The woman nears them, drops to her haunches to slip the lead onto her dog, patting its rump as it trots ahead and pulls on the leash, panting noisily. She says hello, looking past them to the picnic where their friends lie in the hot sunshine on the beige and blue rug.

‘It’s nice in the shade, isn’t it?’ he says, and she steps away from the path and drops into some long grass. He stands there and looks down at her, at her pale legs and the soft down on her stomach where her top has ridden up as she lay down. He thinks of his wife in Singapore, chairing a meeting in an air-conditioned office. Wearing a stiffly ironed white blouse and black skirt. Saying something like ‘what’s your gut feeling about this, Chris?’ Calling over a waiter to order another bottle of mineral water during her working lunch. Wanting to call her husband at the end of her day to discuss her achievements.

He looks at the curve of her cheek below a narrow, closed eye and knows exactly how soft will be the surface of that skin, how her breaths will be leisurely and warm, how slow and reluctant each movement.

He stands there and closes his eyes, too, and feels his weight on his feet, pushing the soles into the uneven surface of the grassy path. The earth holds him, still, in its spin, and draws down from him all his warmth so that he shivers and then is able to lift his left foot. He lets the reed tumble to the ground. 

When he opens his eyes, she is watching him, her hands cushioning her head in the crushed grass. He wonders whether he sees a tremor in the corners of her mouth, like the launch of a smile, or a word in formation.

And his wife will think about what would be the best time for them to have their first child, and how maybe Stephen could organise his teaching so that he could handle the bulk of the child care when she returned to work.

She closes her eyes again and he feels free to gaze at her, as if before a beautiful, rare picture in a foreign, faraway gallery, to store as completely as possible in the archive of his memory. First, colours, form, technique, iconography, meaning, but then the object itself, those little curls and waves of oil he makes out when he leans forward and so near to the surface of the work he fancies he can even smell the paint, a seeing as close as touch. So she lets him hold her and he does so greedily, standing above her in the shadow of the beech trees on the far side of the river, the hot, burning sun held back for them, the earth releasing them for these long moments; far from Adrian, heavy with sleep and wine on the beige and blue rug, and from Pippa and Mike with one arm draped around the other in a loose knot.

‘Hot day,’ Stephen says, to no one in particular.

David Quick

Philip Wilson Steer, The Embarcation, painted at Knaresborough, Yorkshire

Philip Wilson Steer, The Embarcation, painted at Knaresborough, Yorkshire

Advertisements