Extra Sketcher

For the duration of the lockdown (until December here in Ireland) I am going to post weekly from the archive. However to start this is a post from some years back which I never published…

The sunlight falls through the wicker awnings on the jumble of earthenware jugs that hang there, casting striped shadows on the rough plaster wall, on the platters of cabbage and turnip and beet and the rough yarn, bright against the turquoise lap of my roughly woven gown. The man the next stall over fusses with some logs and then stands and hitches up the leather belt that holds his tunic together, pushing his greasy hair out of his eyes getting  ready to lift the wooden barrel at his side. Somewhere a goat bleats and hens cluck fussily from a wicker cage as people cross the market, chatting and laughing, their faces like small suns with happiness after a long winter.

The air is pungent with the smell of horse manure and thick with smoke from the braziers of the various stalls for it is still early spring and there’s a nip in the air. For all that, the faces of the soldiers above their dully glinting plated jerkins are shiny and streaked with sweat. It runs from under their helmets as they man the walls, gazes directed toward the rutted track curling around the side of the hill and the still skeletal horse chestnut tree on its brow.

Soon the thunder of hooves and the jingling of harness catches my ear and we are all gazing towards the skyline, at the nobles galloping down the track, embroidered banners flapping furiously. As they ride in, everyone rushes out of their path, nodding and curtseying clumsily, turning, robes swirling in the dust. I stand and bow, my wool tumbling to the ground as I catch my foot on my gown and nearly get tangled in my cloak. After the fuss has died down, we return to our places as the horses wheel back up the track while men and women necklaced with headphones and wearing cargo shorts and hoodies re-assemble the scene and rearrange the gear. It was my first day on the set.

I was an extra once before on the movie Circle of Friends and enjoyed it immensely. A chance to sit and do nothing without guilt, to observe, to talk to people one wouldn’t usually meet. Its an interesting way to loosen the bonds of my own self-imposed fetters. As a gloomy, wearer of black I was appalled to find myself on the Circle of Friends set dressed in a yellow blouse, a pink cardigan, a green corduroy jacket and a long brown crimplene skirt with brown tights and flat black shoes. My hair was tied up on my head with a yellow ribbon. I looked dreadful. And hilarious. And it didn’t matter.

When I went for the fitting this time I sincerely hoped I would be a heroic warrior type or soldier. I had tried to make myself look as fierce as possible for the audition photo. As I waited for my costume I looked at the bejewelled and veiled ladies about me and thought it might not be so bad to be a princess. Then the wardrobe girl presented me with a large shapeless brown woolly dress, a brown throw that would have not looked out of place on the sofa of a student bedsit after a three-day drinking marathon and a pair of volumnous leather boots. A princess I was not.

I walked across the car park to the hair and make-up sheds looking probably like a large brown moth with hippy leanings. In the first shed the hair-dresser looked at my long, unkempt locks parted in the middle and asked how I usually wore my hair.

“Like this,” I said.

“Hmm,” she said in a tone laced with well-meant pity. She told me not to do anything with it. Similarly in the make-up shed the girl told me not to put any make up on on the day of the shoot.

“I don’t usually wear any,” I said.

“Hmmm,” she said in a tone not dissimilar to her hairdressing counterpart and patted me sadly on the arm.

It was only as I walked glumly back across the car park that I noticed the oversized luggage tag attached to my costume as it fluttered in the breeze. ‘Lower Class’ it read in large capital letters, in case, I suppose, anyone mistook me for anything else. Still, I couldn’t help but be excited about my first day on set. I was planning on bringing my sketch pad…

Garden in Waiting.

NsGARLICA while ago I visited an old colleague. Before I left he invited me into his garden. The patio area was swept and clean, the grass was mown and all the plants well tended. In a brick planter he had some garlic growing, their stalks reaching up to the sky in regular rows. Would that I could keep my few unruly pots so tidy! He pulled a bulb from the earth for me, carefully winding a plastic bag around it so that I wouldn’t get soil in my car.

It sat in my fridge for a few weeks. When I finally took it out, still mosaiced with earth, one of the cloves – streaked magenta under the clinging scabs of soil – had pushed out a pale green sprout and the stalks were yellow green, crinkled and crisp. I was reluctant to break it not just because of my fondness for the giver but because of its richness and the character and life that seemed to burst from it. I decided to plant the cloves and grow my own neat (unruly) rows of garlic. But first I drew it, its earthy fecundity and tangled stalkiness putting its anaemic, clipped supermarket cousins to shame.

I thought of him while I sketched. We had planned a coffee with him, another colleague and myself, and as I drew the garlic clove, I thought of telling him about my new, tiny, neat (unruly) garden in waiting. I would organise it soon, that coffee. Maybe tomorrow…

But tomorrow never came. Only days later the news arrived and I knew that whoever would be easing the remaining bulbs of garlic from their earthy bed, it would not be him. And the garden remains in waiting. Rest well Nigel. You were more precious than I knew.