6th May 2011 in Thievery
Thievery is a series of blog posts about my story inspirations.
She found me with my hands around chickens, fingers stretched wide, thumbs over beaks. My skirt, mud-weighed, tugged at my ankles as I dipped low. Silly to curtsey while armed with birds, I knew, but it had to be done. If I’d let go they’d’ve flown at her, chuttering through her red hair. And what a sight that would’ve been! The lady, still horsed, with her legs one on either side and her skirt hitching up to show a handspan of stocking. And her horse as white as cuckoo-flowers, with its little red haunch-spot not quite hidden by the bridle. I kept my thumbs tight over those dangerous beaks.
In March 2010 I went to Amsterdam with my girlfriend Susie. This is us, looking like the professional creative people we are:
We went to the Van Gogh Museum and it was incredible and inspiring and enlightening and all that other good stuff, and I went on to read The Yellow House by Martin Gayford (which I highly recommend). But then, at the end of the museum, there was an exhibition of paintings by Van Gogh’s contemporaries. And that’s where I saw this painting, ‘Portrait of Guus Preitinger’ by Kees van Dongen:
And my brain said DING DING DING in the manner of a winning slot machine. Well, okay, it wasn’t that dramatic. It was more like ‘she looks interesting, I would enjoy writing a story about her’.
When I got home, I flipped through my writing notebook and found a note I’d written to myself months ago – lady lifts servants’ skirts. I have no idea what I meant, but I thought it fit nicely with the painting.
But a story can’t be about one character – what the lady needed was a love interest. I searched through online archives of paintings and found this one of a farmer-girl gazing dreamily into the distance. Aha!, I thought, this is the sort of girl who would run away on adventures.
So I wrote a story about a lady who lifts her servants’ skirts, and about the sorts of girl who ran away on adventures. The ending, you might notice, comes back again to my fascination with anchoresses, because as much as I wanted the lady to have a happy ending I knew that she could not.
(Note: My first thought on seeing ‘Portrait of Guus Preitinger’ was ‘hey, she reminds me of PJ Harvey.’ And when I went down to Bridport to collect my prize, who was there at the ceremony but… PJ Harvey.)