Starfish

THERE are thirty faces and all but one turn to look at the figure through the frosted glass. The teacher admits an old man wearing a flat cap and carrying a large black folder. Some of the children fidget excitedly. He was a renowned local artist and he’d come to their school to draw one of them, a portrait for his latest exhibition at the town’s gallery.

The teacher hands him a plastic container holding little pieces of paper. “Would you like to draw a name?”

“Of course!” he says with a smile, and stirs his fingers through the paper. Then he stops, and frowns. He withdraws his hand and rubs his chin. With the folder open to a blank sheet of paper, he walks slowly and quietly to the back of the classroom, crouches before the girl in the corner and begins to sketch.

Starfish!” another girl mutters. “Oh. My. God.”

The air is filled with the sound of charcoal scratching on paper; the other children look on in stunned silence and the teacher cups her hands over her mouth to catch her own breath. The artist’s hand moves quickly and skilfully across the page. Outlines form into detail and smudges become light and shadow. The girl is still and expressionless, her head turned to the wall despite the close attention of the artist. Never the slightest hint of a sniff, a twitch, a smile.

Barely a few moments seem to pass before the artist stops, stows the charcoal in a breast pocket, and stands. Carefully hiding the paper in his folder, he gazes down and says to the girl, “You’re the most beautiful subject, my dear. Certainly the most obliging! Thank you.”

Somebody shouts, “Let’s see Starfish!” and a few others cackle and squawk before the teacher silences them.

The artist places the drawing on the whiteboard. “Please call me when I can collect it,” he says, and steps away to reveal his work. The teacher draws a startled breath and there’s a collective gasp from his audience.

There are thirty faces and all but one is frozen, staring open-mouthed at the drawing. The girl in the corner instead watches the artist walk to the door, sees him glance at her, smile and doff his cap. She turns her head to watch him leave, and a florescent light catches her pale face, her tired eyes, the thin white lip of a scar and the five long fingers of a birthmark stretched across her cheek.

Today a charcoal drawing stands out in a celebrated collection of the artist’s work. It’s the only portrait among a rogue’s gallery of moody faces and twisted postures that offers the observer relief: a beautiful face, a doll’s face, a young girl whose eyes sparkle with hope. There is a smile. A twitch. A sniff. A schoolgirl full of life, and with all of life ahead. Everyone who sees it feels compelled to read the description alongside, and they all know her name.

  • Copyright Phil Thomas, all rights reserved

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