The Perfect Painting
Yellow was always important to me. Yellow was the colour Madeleine wore when I first kissed her and yellow was the colour of Dan’s favourite T-shirt. I’ve always painted. When I began my paintings were full of red. Very red and very angry. I was always angry about something. After I met Madeleine and Dan, I turned around. My paintings started to have a lot more yellow after that.
When I look at a painting, especially one I’d worked on for months, I always noticed something different in it, each time I looked. Dan’s face is like a painting; his face shifts from one tone to another so easily. He’s usually clowning and laughing, but sometimes when he looked at my paintings, his whole face tightens, really concentrating on the colours.
I remember one time, I caught him looking at a piece and his eyes were so focused, I hardly recognised them. He always thought if he stopped messing around people would leave him. So he never stopped. Bit I appreciated him most when he was just being himself; his hazel eyes caught up in the picture, the colours animating his looks, with a thin smile of satisfaction at the brush work and the composition. I could tell the quality of a painting by how it moulded his face. When he caught me staring he just threw his head up, a smile flickering over his mouth and he would just say, “Hanging’s too good for it.” That always made me laugh. He could make me laugh at just about anything. It was only after he left I found the picture was one I sketched of Madeleine.
The three of us would often go out, with one of Dan’s many girlfriends and we would laugh so much, Dan always being the centre of attention; but once in a while I’d see him watching Madeleine and I knew. I knew he loved her almost as much as I did and sometimes, as much as I loved Madeleine, I wished Dan could be with her and love her.
One time we had a portrait of the three of us. It caught Madeleine so perfectly, with the hair just past the shoulders, those clear green eyes perfectly. I often looked into her eyes for hours at a time and I’d always find something new in them, every time.
The colour of a painting is important to me. Sometimes Dan would look like a painting, a human painting; I could always find a new aspect to him, behind that big brash yellow shirt, noticing those big, thoughtful, sad eyes, I used to wonder how he would turn out.
I was adding red to my latest when the letter came though. I hated that letter; I hated it because as much as I’d refuse, Dan would accept. I was scared of being forced to go and kill and be killed, but I was scared more for my friend who would willingly face it all.
He came round. There was no real point in me arguing with him. We just accepted it. He looked up from the painting and said, “How could you agree with it? You’re a painter.”
I laughed out loud when he said it, but I quickly subdued it. I could feel my eyes sting as we smiled. There was silence as I whispered it;
“Don’t.” Even then he smiled.
“Sorry. I have to.”
“You don’t have to do anything.”
I stopped talking after that and just looked over to him. Through all the red I saw, Dan stood out in-front of it all.
The following week we destroyed almost a whole city saying good-bye. One night Dan hit someone, about the war. I felt it was wrong. I didn’t like him when he was like violent. He was going to have to be like that a lot when he was out there.
As we said goodbye, Dan looked back at the two of us and we both knew that if he left now he would lose Madeleine to me to me forever and he still left, glancing back just that one time. It was the saddest moment of my whole damn life. Dan was now a soldier. I was a draft dodger. Dan would have landed at almost the same time as I crossed the border.
I hoped he had survived out there. I hoped h would come back and settle down. I hoped all these things. I prayed every night that he would live. My paintings became black and incomprehensible to everyone but me, because I knew how it was to leave a best friend behind.
As his letters arrived my guilt increased, as he told me he sat in the mud with a loaded weapon hoping to die and not have to kill. I stood for hours on the mountains, staring out to the forest, clutching the letters he had written.
The words were so cold and so terrible it felt like it wasn’t him. War had changed him. I longed for the letters to arrive and I hoped to god they would stop. I hated myself. I hated Dan for suffering and I hated the war and I hated Madeleine for loving me when I was so full of shame. The images I painted were sharp and full of black and red. So much red.
Still the letters came, and still the pain. The blood and suffering continued. It was constant. Then one day a different letter came, telling me Daniel Gallagher was arriving in my home town, in two weeks’ time. I didn’t even wonder why. I was so happy. It was only as the page unfolded that I read Dan had lost both his legs in a mine explosion. It was only then that I started to cry.
As I drove to the hospital, I began to hate him for what had occurred. I started to hate myself for letting it happen. As I moved up the corridor, my palms itched, sweat forming on my forehead. As I reached the door I faltered, breathed deeply and opened the door.
Everything was so white and cold. I saw my best friend stretched out over the cold, white sheets. His face had changed. It had changed so much. His eyes, when they opened, were vague and distant. I whispered his name. I don’t remember moving closer to him, but I started to put my arms around him and I screamed.
I never asked. I could never comprehend how much he had suffered and he never asked me to. I had seen him suffer pain that I could not and would not endure.
Dan became more mobile over the following months. He started socialising with friends, going to parties and exhibitions. We always had some time alone just to talk. One day we went to a forest. It was beautiful. All the flowers, the grass, the whole scene was so tranquil. A deer moved out in front of us. Dan was shaking and I put his hand on his shoulder. He reached out and put his hand in mine. It was then I realised how scared he was.
“My body’s broken. I know that. But that’s not what keeps me awake. Can’t escape memories.”
“Do you think I haven’t hated you? I swear to Christ I have. I would have prayed to Jesus to turn us around. You have everything and I have nothing.” His voice was low pitched, as distant as he was angry. His eyes turned red, teeth gritted, spittle shooting out, his veins throbbing. His face was pulsing.
The deer moved on into the woods. I looked over and saw his arms over his face. It was such a beautiful day. He kept crying as the sun broke through and wrapped us in a blinding, burning light.
It was some time before I spoke to him again. I wanted to speak to him so many times but I just couldn’t find the words. A year past. When he turned up on my doorstep I nearly fell backwards in shock.
His face hadn’t changed noticeably, except for his hair had grown, he wore a beard. But his eyes had turned back to the hazel I remembered. I didn’t really notice what he was holding until he handed it to me. I didn’t hear his words or my reply, I simply tugged at the paper ad stared, I couldn’t describe what it depicted, what the images were. But the colours, the vivid, lucid colours, were so powerful, the scene so beautiful, so still and peaceful. I noticed how well the red and yellow went together. It was the best painting I had seen in a long time. I nearly forgot to look back to Dan, but when I did peer over the top of the frame, I saw his face and I saw his smile. I was going to say something, to tell him how I felt, but instead I laughed so much I nearly cried.
After that day we saw each to her regularly. We didn’t pretend that things hadn’t changed but we both accepted it and moved on. We spent the time we had talking and laughing all over again.
I encouraged him to paint, to get about more, while he simply told me things which put my life in perspective. He provided me with ideas for paintings, some funny, some sad, but always interesting. Like Daniel Gallagher.
This brings me to where I am now. Standing nervously by his side. I had remembered all this while waiting to act out my part; waiting for the sun to come through. Spring is here and the daffodils are out. Then, with almost perfect timing as I step over to him, to hand him the ring, the sun beams down on us all. Dan flashes another smile to me and I return it. As always. As he sips the ring on her finger, Daniel Gallagher, without realising it, has just, again, provided me with the inspiration for my next work. My perfect painting.