Category C: Highly Commended (2021) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: Ash Oldfield
Title: Art class
Tracey craned her neck to look over Jessie Tyler's shoulder. She couldn’t quite see what the teacher was doing. How had he made the brush stroke curve like that?
'How-' the whole class turned to look at her. She gulped. The teacher raised an eyebrow.
'How did you do that squiggle? I couldn't see -'
'You certainly paint like you can't see.'
Tracey would recognize Josh Harper’s voice anywhere, but it was the teacher's bark of laughter that stamped out Tracey's enthusiasm like a cockroach crushed under a Blundstone boot. She hunched into her over-sized jumper, wishing she could turn invisible.
Tracey shook her head to rid herself of the memory, but it clung to her like spiders' webs.
'This is not the same,' she murmured to herself. 'No one knows me here.'
Tracey stood outside the community centre's art room. She was early. She was always early when she went somewhere new. But the teacher was already there, setting up his easel and paints. He looked up and saw her, smiled, gestured for her to come into the room. Her feet clattered on the linoleum floor, and it felt as if a spotlight was trained upon her. The smell of high school assaulted her – that cloying mix of paint and Spray and Wipe. It took all her resolve to take those final steps to the smiling teacher.
Tracey gaped stupidly at him.
He smiled reassuringly. 'So I can mark you off from the list Bethany gave me.'
'Oh. It's Tracey, Tracey Fensham.'
Her face felt hot and her eyes prickled. 'Where do I sit?'
He gestured gracefully with one hand to the table laid out before them. Easels were set up two metres apart from each other. 'Wherever you like. There's a seat here for everyone.'
He watched her set up and she felt self-conscious as she pulled out the box of paints her husband had bought for her, the canvas pad and brushes.
'You're organised,' he noted, and she blushed an even deeper shade of red. She wondered hysterically if one of the paints in her box would be vibrant enough to match the colour.
'Why did you decide to join this class?' he asked, his tone conversational. Tracey felt sure he could smell a fraud.
'My husband says I need to get out more, meet new people since we had our baby. He says I always talk about wanting to paint but I never do.'
The teacher nodded understandingly as if he heard this all the time. Bored housewife, the nod seemed to say. Teach her to paint a vase of flowers and she'll think she's Van Gogh.
'In the ad I asked each student to bring something to paint. Did you bring anything? If not, I brought props.' He held up a shopping bag of bruised fruit with a grin.
'Oh, no thank you, I brought this photo.'
Another woman entered the room, and the teacher became distracted.
‘Get painting and I'll come over and assess your level once I’ve got everyone else started,' he said, no longer looking at her.
He went to greet the newcomer and Tracey stood fixed in front of her canvas pad. Her husband had shown her how to tape the edges of the canvas, so she started with that, even though she was not completely sure why. She put blobs of blue paint on the torn off piece of baking paper he had packed for her. She examined the photo of an ocean scene she had brought with her.
Tracey took a deep breath, willing her hand to stop shaking. She dipped her brush in the paint, sloshed it over the page.
'Ah.' The teacher had returned. 'Hmm, I see.' He took the brush from her and blended the colours. 'See what I did there.' It was a statement, as if what he did was so easy that even a child could see what he had done.
Tracey's throat closed up. Memories of school came flooding back. This was the point he realised how useless she truly was.
'I-I can't see it,' she whispered.
He had already turned away, but he turned back at her words. 'Sorry?'
'I-I can't see what you did. I have a type of colour blindness, the optometrist says. Colours that are similar to each other blur together in my brain.'
An elderly man entered the room, a canvas pad under one arm, and looked around expectantly for the teacher. The teacher shot her a perplexed look and gave a slight shake of his head before walking over to greet his next student. Tracey sunk down into her seat and haphazardly dabbed at the canvas with her brush, willing the two hours to pass quickly. The teacher, blessedly, left her alone.
'I'm not going back,' Tracey told her husband the moment she walked through the front door. 'I was the worst one there, I'm sure of it.'
Her husband looked up from their baby son he dandled on his knee. He hid his disappointment well.
'What about the other students. Were they nice?'
'There was one lady-'
Her husband beamed at her and let her take their son for a cuddle. 'Good. When you go back next week you can get to know her better.'
Tracey made sure she was the last to arrive, sneaking in when the teacher wasn't looking. She eased her box of paints out of her bag, but in her hurry at home she hadn't clasped it properly and it sprang open. Paints and brushes clattered to the linoleum floor. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared at her. She looked up to apologize, but to her surprise the teacher was beaming at her.
'I've been googling for you.'
She stared at him as if he had gone mad.
His smile faltered slightly but he continued. 'About your difficulties with colour.' He brought his tablet computer over to her and held it up in front of her face. A video of a man sitting in front of a fantastical painting talked earnestly into the camera.
'This artist creates some of the most unique paintings of this generation. I've honestly never seen anything like them.' He couldn't take his eyes off the screen. 'He credits his incredible style to his colour blindness.' She looked at the teacher. Instead of the disgust she had been anticipating, his face shone with excitement. 'I've been thinking about it all week. We need to get you a bigger canvas - the bigger the better. And we really need to play around with colour. Last week I wanted you to paint what I saw. That was wrong.’ He winced at her in apology before being drawn back to the screen.
‘You need to paint what you see,’ he continued. ‘Those bands of colour you painted last week? That's how you see, and we can work with that. You're going to have an entirely unique painting style, and I'm going to help you find it.'
'You-you don't just think I'm being stupid on purpose?'
The other students, who had been looking on, gasped.
'Tracey, whoever said that to you is an idiot,' the teacher said in a low voice. 'Their words are holding you back. I'm sure their paintings were boring. Ordinary. Your paintings will go beyond that.'
Tracey looked into his eyes and could see he meant every word. The young woman sitting opposite her smiled at her encouragingly.
Tracey picked up her paint brush and returned the woman’s smile with a wobbly one of her own.
'Okay, I'll try,' she said.
She picked up her brush and, this time, her hand wasn’t shaking.
The two hours sped by as Tracey played around with colour and tried to translate what she saw onto the canvas. At the end of the lesson the teacher helped her select a new image for next week. He told her of his plans to have it printed up as big as he could to help her see the finer details, and he gave her directions to the nearest art store for a new canvas. As she drove home something settled inside her, as if the jagged edges of her shattered confidence had been smoothed a little, just enough that they did not hurt as much; just enough that she could at least try. She could relax and enjoy the learning process.
Perhaps her paintings would never be good, but at least they would never be ordinary.