Reclining Figure: Arch Leg by Anna Sykora

The gap between the two bronze forms in tension—their negative space—whirred in her eyes:  the moist lawn, shimmering and twinkling.   Then a pain like a scolding finger prodded at her right eye’s root; she shook her head.  Vincent had wandered off again, claiming he felt a painting coming on, inspired by this show of Henry Moore at Kew…

She clenched at a plane’s aluminum shriek.  Vincent won’t change; he’s carved in stone.  She agreed to meet him here.  What was she hoping, after thirty-four years?

A light kindled inside the arched leg:  the sun, reflected in pooled rain.  Enchanting.  But a boy—dark as bronze and buzzing like a bee—came groping into the gap between the breasted figure and its arch of leg.

“What are you doing?” she demanded as he scrambled at the smooth, long arch.  “Get off, this isn’t your playground here.”   Didn’t he understand?   Scowling like a demon in pain, she made shooing motions.  He quit buzzing, ducked under the arch and hopped away.

She looked around for Vincent, and gasped at a lurking, black-veiled figure.  Even the creature’s face was veiled, leaving a crooked slit.   Her ill-mannered boy—he wore a Teletubbies jacket—hugged her legs, and hid his face while she stroked his hair with her coppery fingers.  She wore a heavy, golden ring.   The breeze rippled in her robe, whose funereal dark seemed at war with the quivering brightness of the air, the sky’s blue tang, the bawling birds.   What was she doing in Kew Gardens?

Her rude boy jabbered, pointing at Gwen.  Gazing at her, the unreadable woman turned him to face the grey-haired stranger.

I don’t owe you a word
.  Coldly Gwen repaid her gaze.  You know better than to let him run wild.  This is not a petting zoo.

Turning her back, the woman folded in darkness glided away, pulling him along.  Gwen noticed her expensive shoes.

*

“You spoiled his bliss,” Vincent teased, his silver hair lay askew.  Frowning, Gwen checked her impulse to smooth it.

“That little vandal.”   She straightened the brand new Coach bag on her shoulder.

“He can’t hurt this hunk of bronze, basking in the sun, while we flurry and worry.”  Vincent stroked its ample breast.

“Don’t provoke me.”

“It’s an inviting form, don’t you find?”

“Two in tension.”   She retreated to its head.  “It only looks like one piece from over here.”

“From my side it looks like a woman trying to pet a headless dog.”   He patted the arch.   “Can’t you feel how a boy would want to ride this curve?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Vincent.”

“I got a good photo of you terrorizing him.”

“Whose side are you on?  What if he poked a hole in one of your paintings, just for the fun?”

“Why would anybody hurt my bountiful nudes?”

Whose side are you on?”

“You’ve been teaching for too long, Gwendolyn.  Art should delight us, even before your lecture.”

Her right eye pulsed like a warning.   “Look at my shoes, covered with mud.  I’d better stick to the path from now on.”

“Then you won’t see Moore in the round.”

“I can buy his catalogue.”  She turned away.  A few, overbold crocuses lay prostrate on the velvet lawns.  More raised their violet heads to the risk of frost.

“I’m hungry.”  He tapped her shoulder.  “Dear, can we get some food?”

“I’m not.  I’ll sit down with you, though.”

*

Stepping inside the former greenhouse, she smiled up at the sparkling panes that composed its widely arched windows.  This white-walled room felt light as a tent.  Real orange and lemon trees nested in tasteful, wooden planters.

Standing on the food line, she savored the jealous eyes of older women.   Her husband (still hers) cut a fine figure, with his ample hair, his Roman nose, his blue eyes like a cry.   She decided on rose-hip tea with lemon; he chose cappuccino and a wedge of cherry pie.  The window views were all taken; so he followed her into a corner where they sat down side by side, as usual.

“It’s been thirty-five years since I visited Kew Gardens.”  She pressed her teabag with a spoon.  “That summer I traveled all around alone, on a Britrail Pass.”

“You were adventurous in those days.”

“Oh, I was a curious girl.  Then I married an artist and learned what chaos really means.”

“I’m not chaotic,” he mumbled through his mouthful.  “It’s the world that’s a roaring mess.”

“So I had to loan you the pounds for your hotel.”

“I’ll pay you back when we fly home.”   He had a cherry crumb on his lip, which she didn’t dab away.

“What a civilized room,” she said with a hint of irony.  “A sanctuary.”

“Everybody loves a tended garden.”

“This must be a pleasant outing for the neighbors.”   Around them rose the mellow sounds of educated British, no voice over-loud or too insistent.  Her head pain had receded, for the moment.  She wouldn’t mention it.

Across the room, a woman in a black burka sat down with a heavy tray.  Two children quickly joined her—one, the little boy who’d climbed on the sculpture.  Another veiled woman came pushing a stroller, followed by an elderly, tweed-suited man with an overloaded tray.  His women arranged plates, cups and silverware, and then sorted the children into chairs.

“Polygamy in public,” Gwen said tartly.

“How do you know, my dear?  That could be a man with his sisters, or a grandpa with his whole menagerie.”

“You’re generous as the prodigal son.”  She drained her last, sour tea.

“I try to be tolerant.  You never know; you might need their goodwill soon.”

“Hope I never do.”  The women ate by raising their veils, inserting forkfuls underneath.  “Look at that.”

“The grace of Rococo nymphs,” he teased.

“I hope they can’t hear you,” she retorted.  “They probably hate Americans; most Muslims do these days.”  An Asian-featured woman nibbling a sandwich shot her a curious look.   Gwen blushed, and studied a planter’s green lemon:  “You know, Kew is a seed bank too.  It has a collection of live and dried plants, in case we manage to wipe out—”

“Gwennie, I want to come home.”  Vincent took her hand.  She let him hold it, on top of the table.

“We can’t talk about that,” she warned.  How warm his fingers felt.

“Why not?  People are all busy with their own affairs.”

“Indeed.”  Her thin lips twitched.

“An unfortunate choice of phrase.  I’m sorry.”

“Don’t you know how you humiliated me?  Everybody knows at school.  It’s all they’ve talked about all semester.”

“I’m sorry I was so selfish, dear.   If it’s any consolation, Brian threw me out; he’s moving to Minorca.”

“You expect me to feel sorry for you?”

“You should.  I made a horrible mistake; I wasn’t even in love with him.  He was just so—very beautiful.”  With his free hand, Vincent pushed aside his empty plate.

“So this was like a fling with a female student?”

“None of it means anything,” he said lamely.

“Vincent, you’re having your midlife crisis.  At fifty-three, you’re overdue.  You should live by yourself for a while.  I’ve managed for six months and I’m liking it.”  Lifting her chin, she braced his shocked gaze.  Who needed the man’s perpetual chaos?  Without him, their house in Bayberry felt neat and quiet, even dull.

His fleshy hand closed around her well-dieted one.  “But I don’t want to stay in London, dear.”

“What are you bringing to the table?”  She pushed away her own cup and saucer.

“I won’t wander anymore.”

“Old goats can’t,” she warned, and he chuckled.  “What else?”

“I’ll go on a diet.  I’ll lift weights, and use the Nordic Track machine again.  I’ll wear a T-Shirt around Bayberry:  ‘From the goodness of her art, she took me back.’”

“That won’t be necessary.”   She hid a smile.

“What else can I do?”  His blue eyes glowed. “I know, I’ll marry you again.   We’ll rent the Biddy Mansion in Pawtucket, and re-enact our vows by the lake, in the fall when the foliage looks like a golden crown.  We can invite the whole School of Art and Design.”

She considered his cherry stains on the table, and then braved his blue-sky eyes:  “Before Brian, this might have comforted me.”

“If it’s really too late, Gwennie, why did you meet me in London?  Your idea.”

Were those tears in his eyes?  “I don’t know,” she said, stiff as starch.  “I thought you’d like to see this exhibit.  You’ve always loved Moore’s biomorphic forms.”

Clutching her hand, he quoted the sculptor: “If a work has its own life and form, it will be alive and expansive…”

She tried to pull her hand out, but gave up.  No, she wouldn’t let Vincent make a scene.  Her eye throbbed again.  She’d go to the ladies’ room, take some aspirin.

“Gwendolyn—seriously—I find I cannot live without you.  Nothing makes sense anymore.  I find, I need your—”

“Administration,” she hissed.  “Vincent, I am not your bicycle lock.”

“I need your—presence, your knowing what to do.  You’ve always filed our tax returns.  Without you, I’m just a headless dog.”

She whooped dry laughter.  Everybody stared.  The Muslim family gazed at her as if she’d stripped off her skirt and climbed on the table.

“What can I do?” Vincent cried.   “I mean, to win you back?”

Freeing her hand, she folded both in her lap.  She felt her heart bumping—was she so moved?—and the pulse in her eye:  that familiar pain, like a scolding, “Here we go again.”

“I’ll be sixty-two on Tuesday,” she declared. “So this is the last of your last chances.”

“I promise you—”

“Be quiet.  If you want to come home, then I want you to woo me again.  Like a lover.”

Instantly, he kissed her hand, and a puckered woman in a feathered hat poked her bald companion’s shoulder.  Both beamed upon Gwen as if she’d won a contest.

“Excuse me, please.”   She got up.  “I find that I need to regroup.”  Leaving Vincent with the dirty dishes she sailed off to the ladies’ room.  As she stepped past the Muslim family, she saw the wild boy asleep in his mother’s lap.  They made a mysterious Madonna and child.  The woman nodded at her and she blinked.

*

While Gwen tried to strip the mud from her Hush Puppies, two dowagers drying their hands watched with horrified fascination.  Using up the last of the paper towels, Gwen carefully wiped up the mud she’d dropped.

“She can’t help it,” murmured the better-dressed of the elderly woman.  “She’s American.”  Smiling desperately, Gwen fled into the chilly, bright air.

Should she take the train straight back to South Kensington?   Vincent was not her problem anymore.  The man must have one friend left in London.

With her back to the Orangery, she watched airplanes mark the sky.  Every few minutes another came roaring in, to land at Heathrow’s designer madhouse.   How could the locals bear this din?   The right side of her head felt wracked.  She’d forgotten to take her aspirin.

Suddenly she felt hungry enough to gratefully gnaw on a dry stick.  So she took refuge in the Orangery, where her husband of thirty-four years waved.  He’d cleared the table and brought another wedge of cherry pie, with two forks.

“I knew you’d come back,” he said happily, pulling out her chair.

“I’ve got a migraine.”  She sat down.

“Poor baby.”  He stroked her thinning hair, and then took another bite of pie.    “Moore said, ‘Sculpture’s like a journey—’”

“Oh, Vincent, eat your pie.”

*

Her glasses fogging, she lurched to a stop beside him, just inside the Palm House door.  The air from the gratings caressed her legs.

“Can’t you see?” he asked with concern.  She rubbed her glasses with a tissue, but they fogged right up again.  “I’ll guide you, dear.”   He steered her into a fronded corner, where he hugged her close and began slow dancing.

“What are we doing?”  Blinking, she only saw green fuzz.  The reek of the plantings stung her nose.  Water was dripping everywhere; they needed humidifiers for these palms.

“You wanted me to woo you, Gwennie.  Remember our honeymoon, in Waikiki?  You got claustrophobic in that moldy motel, so we ran onto the beach—and that funny boy found us.”

“And the sand got up my….”  They broke apart as the boy in the Teletubbies jacket trotted past.

“Life keeps repeating till we get it right.”  Vincent embraced her again.  Giggling, she closed her eyes; and he dipped her backwards over his arm, as if they were dancing the tango.   She gave a little shriek, and he kissed her nose:  “We need a second honeymoon; we’re overdue.”

“Can’t we get through one week in London, please?”  She polished her glasses—now she could see—and straightened her gray wool coat.  Then she led him on a tour of the towering palms, letting him hold her elbow.  They paused at the spiral iron stairs leading up to the walkway their knees would not allow.

“You know,” she offered, “they had to rebuild the Palm House from scratch.  It had gotten into what our British friends call, ‘an advanced state of disrepair.’”

“So there’s hope,” he said tenderly, patting her hip.

*

When they emerged, Gwen squinted at the sky.  Her headache was gone.   Maybe the humidity.   Another plane slanted in for a landing, so low she guessed its livery:  BA.

“I want a photo of you,” Vincent said.  “This light is perfect on your hair.”

“Over there, near the water.   We need a few more portraits with the ducks.”

A small girl and the boy in the Teletubbies jacket were scattering bread from a bag.  Quacking ducks converged from all sides of the basin.

“Looks like Dunkirk,” said Gwen tartly, and a veiled woman asked:

“Shall I take your picture together?”

Gwen studied the golden ring on the hand of this stranger, who spoke educated British.   “If it’s not too much trouble.”

“Not at all.  It’s a pretty spot.  We come here often with the children.”

Smiling, Vincent handed over the camera, and showed her how to make it work.  Awkwardly, Gwen posed beside him, while the ducks chortled raucously.  A gentle breeze wafted their silver hair.  When the helpful woman motioned them closer, Vincent swept his arm around his wife, and Gwen felt every seed in the softening ground.

Anna Sykora has been an attorney in New York and teacher of English in Germany, where she resides with her patient husband and three enormous Norwegian Forest Cats.  To date she has placed 64 tales and 119 poems in the small press or on the web.  Writing is her joy.



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