A tale of art, ambition, love and deceit

Painting from Life - Extract

I was with my wife the first time I saw him. He was an old man, weathered in the sun and wind, and the shock hit me like a storm on the sea. It was almost like love. Although of course it couldn’t have been. Not really and not then.

Amanda and I had been walking along the beach at Poole. Hand in hand, which was something we rarely did. It was autumn and the wind pierced the layers of wool and cotton I'd wrapped around myself. The sand under my feet was white like salt and I wished I could take off my shoes and bury my toes deep in its grainy softness. But I didn't; Amanda would have thought it strange. And the last thing I wanted to do was to upset her.

Though neither of us acknowledged it at the time, we were on a mission to save our marriage. We'd been together for five years, three of those as man and wife, but somewhere along the way, in the middle of the struggle to make a living and the complications that arise from being with someone else, we'd lost the importance of it all. I'd imagined that a weekend away and time shared together in the town that Amanda had loved as a child would put us back on the road to intimacy.

Her eyes had sparkled when I'd told her my plan.

‘What about your work?’ she'd asked.

‘Forget it. You're the most important thing,’ I'd said, my lips nuzzling her neck at the curve of her shoulder, breathing in the scent of apples and heather from her skin.

It was true. At the time. A mere couple of hours later on that Friday night in September, we were grappling together on the small double bed in the Sea View Hotel, Poole. The first time we'd had sex in weeks. It had been good for both of us. So good, that afterwards—with the warm glow of mutual satisfaction still upon us—we'd decided on a stroll along the beach.

Which was when I saw him. I'd laughed at something Amanda had said, throwing my head back and letting the sound of my laughter mingle with the rhythm of the grey-blue waves caressing the shore. At the corner of my eye, something moved and I turned to see what it was. Fifty or sixty yards away, on the edge of the sand, an old man sat on a bench, gazing towards the sea. The sound we were making must have caused him to jump, the movement that startled me. Now his eyes met mine, causing a jolt of recognition, even understanding, to explode in my heart. No, somewhere deeper. In my belly, from where it surged in a torrent of blood down through my legs and feet, and up into my chest, arms, fingers and at last into my mind. I felt as if I might faint. But I didn't. Instead, I gazed at him in astonishment.

He was old, a thin wiry body wrapped in a green fisherman's jumper, faded cords protecting his legs. His hands were gnarled like the rocks, strong fingers burnt brown by the sun. But it was his face that captured me, even at such a distance, and never really let me go. His skin was wrinkled; lines etched from forehead to chin and flowing down his neck. Every mark gave a hint of the character beneath and drew my gaze to his eyes. Though I couldn't study them closely at that stage, I later came to know their deep blue richness, with the scattered flecks of grey like the sea almost as if they were my own.

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