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Easel at the Ocean's Edge

She looks still while she is sleeping, but I know better. Head nestled on a makeshift pillow improvised from a rolled-up jumper and flat, second-hand sofa cushion – even now, diagnosis confirmed, she refuses to take to her bed during the day – Joan’s breathing steadies as she slips deeper into slumber. Unconsciousness is necessary to give her body relief from the gnawing pain that I can tell, however hard she fights to disguise it, increasingly ravages her while awake. In sleep, her limbs relax. Her lips part, poised as if in the heartbeat before a kiss. And yet even supposedly motionless, I see her eyelids flicker and twitch: lashes fluttering on the unseen breeze of a landscape that, for now, only exists within her dreams.

A few minutes more, and the pace of the spasms increases. Joan’s rich brown eyes roll back to expose white slivers of crescent moon while formless words seem to ripple from her pursed, pouting mouth: unspoken sentences swept away as if by a bracing sea wind. Dreaming of heavy weather, I suppose. But still I am not tempted to wake her. Joan has never been afraid of a storm. Instead I rise, creeping across the room on the balls of my feet to look out the narrow cottage window. Palm pressed to the pane, I scan the horizon for brooding clouds approaching the shoreline. It would not be the first time that Joan prophesized a change in the elements.

‘I’m glad I fell.’ Her voice startles me, hazy and hoarse as it drifts from that strange, liminal land between wakefulness and sleep. Sickness and health. Land and sea. ‘I’m glad I fell all those years ago, Lil.’

‘Only three years,’ I remind her, perching on the edge of the couch to take her hand. It makes me smile to find flecks of paint still stuck underneath her nails. Joan nods drowsily, deferring to the dull literal accuracy of my recollections, and yet I cannot shake the sense that she is correct in her way. A mind like hers – truly, a spirit like hers – must experience the ebb and flow of time differently to the rest of us. Through Joan’s eyes, centuries can come and go without leaving a single mark on a coastline. One brushstroke may last for an eternity. Perhaps it is that perspective, wisdom hard-won from years of fearless dialogue with ocean tempests, which gives her the courage to face her condition. It feels a cruel irony to me that such a brave, beautiful heart beats within the same breast that is killing her.

Joan’s thoughts are not troubled, though. Cool, pale-nailed fingers entwined with mine, she grins up at me from the sofa. An impish glint is momentarily alight in her bloodless face, framed by strands of dark hair as perennially dishevelled as any of her wee Glasgow urchins. I know by now that these times don’t last long, mere seconds remaining before malignant exhaustion submerges her once again. But thanks to her, I’ve learned to appreciate the fleeting moments of life more, rather than less.

‘I’m glad I fell,’ Joan repeats in a murmur, eyes closing as she is drawn back into the world that only she can see. ‘I’m glad I fell for you.’

* * *

Read the rest of 'Easel at the Ocean's Edge' in All Becomes Art - the Joan Eardley Centenary Anthology, coming soon from Speculative Books (edited by Sam Small and Colin Herd).

This story was inspired by Joan Eardley: A Centenary of Life and Landscapes at Glasgow Women's Library and is available to read in the exhibition collection, alongside several brilliant books exploring Joan's art, life and legacy. You might also enjoy my Women's History Network blog post ' "See her when she is free..." Celebrating Joan Eardley for LGBT History Month'.


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