Lines

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t was a bright, bitter morning in January and the streets of Montmartre seemed to be singing with cold. Edgar Degas looked out from a first floor window as Jenney Musson approached the door to his building. Some boys from the neighbourhood had trapped an injured tabby cat and were cheerfully tormenting it, dragging it along the cobbles by its tail. It was the noise from the cat that had drawn him to the window. He watched as Jenney chased the boys away, scattering them to the four winds. He heard the insults they hurled at her as they fled, and smiled a little.

They called her ugly. And they were right, she was – there in the weak yellow sunlight – profoundly so. At 14, Jenney Musson was pipe cleaner thin with greasy hair, wide set eyes and an insolent, mean looking mouth that made her look like she was lying at all times, even when telling the god’s honest truth. She had a week’s worth of grime under her fingernails and a face so highly polished it could have been inlaid with mother-of-pearl. ‘A girl made of crumpled paper’, he hastily noted this down in his sketchbook.

This was the first time he’d asked Jenney to pose for him, but he knew the family well and had drawn both her sisters. The mother, Madame Musson, like all the mothers of dancing girls, was a laundress with hands as rough as wet rope. Charlotte, the middle sister, was fuller in every respect, but had an irritating habit of thieving small change from around the house. Marie, the oldest, was dead already, washed up on the banks of the river with barely a scratch or a mark on her, save for a ring on her finger and a curious grin on her face, so they said. Paris was a messy place, where messy things happened.

Jenney undressed in the centre of the room with the ease of someone who cared little for her own body, and knew nothing of its worth. She recognized that this man, who was old and bad-tempered enough to be her father, posed no real threat and besides, they needed money. For years Edgar had haunted the Paris Opera, a ghost in its halls, doggedly sketching the ballerinas and their wealthy abonnes, the men who fawned over and flirted with them. To him these girls were purely creatures of movement. He was interested in muscle and sinew, not flesh. In the stretch and flex. In line, not bulk.

Edgar began to draw. The nape of her neck. A shoulder blade. Her jutting collarbone. Jenney could hear only the noise of charcoal scratching across paper and the faint tick-tocking of the grandfather clock in the hallway outside – she was in for a long morning. In the stillness her gaze came to rest on a canvas leaning against the wall in the corner of the room. In it an acrobat hung, suspended from the rafters of a grand auditorium by her teeth, as a large unseen crowd gawped on, agog.

‘Who’s that woman?’ she asked, nodding towards the picture.
‘That is Miss La La, she’s a performer at the Cirque Fernando, in Montmartre.’
‘Do you think it hurts her to do that?’
‘I imagine it’s excruciating, yes. It’s really a wonder she has any teeth left. But you should see the next part of her act. She fires a canon suspended on chains. She holds it in her mouth whilst she dangles from the trapeze. It’s quite breathtaking.’

It looked warm in the painting, inviting and effervescent, like staring up at the world through a beer glass or an amber necklace. She could almost hear the rustle of skirts and feel the shoulders of the other audience members butting against her own. Even a fool could see that the acrobat, Miss La La, must be in tremendous pain, hanging there over the open mouths of the crowd, but in the picture she looked serene, like a moth fluttering effortlessly around a flame. There was no hint of what lay beneath; a safety net; or a pool filled with circling sharks? It was utterly impossible to say.

‘What’s it about, that painting?’
Edgar paused for a second, taken aback. Her impertinence amused him. ‘What do you think it’s about?’
‘I think she’s a lot like me’ she said.
‘Meaning?’ He tried his best to stifle a smirk.
‘The girls you draw are like spiders, spinning pretty webs.’

Edgar felt his origami heart unfurl, just a little.

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This week, we’re featuring a new collaboration between photographer Naama Sarid, whose work we’ve featured in the past. Naama has been kind enough to share her work with some of our other contributors, and they have been writing and creating based on her wonderful photography. This piece is inspired by Exposure № 068: Butterfly. See Naama Sarid’s other Snake-Oil Cure contrubutions here.

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Ursula Glitch is the awkward, geeky, bony brainchild of Freya Hardy, a freelance writer and book editor from Eastbourne, a small town on the South Coast of England, where she lives with her husband, Gaz, and her two-year-old twin daughters. She has contributed to Sleaze Nation, Bolz, Uplift, Ladyfriend Zine, Lionheart and Flamingo Magazine amongst others. Her other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

7 Things I Want For You

A letter to my girls

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o my two beautiful, scruffy, dishevelled daughters,

When I was a very little girl, a little bit older than you are now, one of my favourite fairy tales was Sleeping Beauty. The best part, for my money, is right at the very beginning, long before the spinning wheel or the handsome prince even get a look in. At the princess’s christening her fairy godmothers lavish her with gifts they think will help her in life. I think they opt for beauty, wit and musical talent, not bad choices, as it happens. I loved the idea that you might be able to get qualities, talents and virtues given to you instead of stuff, and wondered endlessly what my fairy godmothers had given me. All I ever seemed to get were book vouchers and BHS knickers. I would much rather have had beauty and wit any day. So, as we approach your second birthday, I have been thinking about what gifts I might bestow upon you if I had the choice. Here are some things I want you to have. Promise me that you won’t spend them all at once.

Courage

Too many people shy away from life as they get older, they stop going on holiday because so-and-so told them about somebody-or-other’s daughter getting mugged in Milan, they stop swimming in the sea in case they get an ear infection. They don’t climb trees. The courage they took for granted as children withers away as adulthood sets in and doubt clouds the mind. I want you to experience everything life has to offer, and in order to do that, you must be brave.

As you get older I want you to embrace every new opportunity as if you were still children. Don’t follow the path of least resistance, don’t be sluggish, or accept other people’s opinions without question. Be brave enough to challenge those that oppose you, and big enough to realise when they are right in their opposition. Carry on climbing trees, if only to check out the view from the top.

Lightness

You have a choice. You can allow the weight of the world to bear down on your shoulders like a massive granite slab, take every depressing news story at face value, moan endlessly about the weather (whether or not it is actually miserable) read the Daily Mail and worry about your pension into the wee hours – or you can wear it lightly as if it were made of silk. Take it from someone who’s never quite mastered the art of living lightly, the latter is preferable by far. I wish I’d learned this lesson when I was still a kid. I’d have had much more fun, now I am trying to make up for it as a thirty-year-old woman. You don’t have to do it this way round. As your mother, if there was anything I could be certain to teach you, it would be this: most things come out in the wash. Anything that doesn’t most likely needs to be put back through at a higher temperature, or gracefully made-do with.

Sleep

Quality sleep is massively underrated. Learn to sleep well and you’ll begin each morning feeling refreshed and ready to cope with whatever that particular 24-hour period has to throw at you. Neglect sleep and you’ll feel pissed off, run-down and disorganised. As someone who has counted herself among the sleep-deprived for almost two years, I feel qualified to tell you this; when you can’t do it anymore you will miss it like hell. Sleep in. Create a space in your head, a private and untouchable sanctuary that only you know about. I have one. I go there when I am ready for sleep. I also go there when I am at the hairdressers, on the loo, on the bus, pretty much whenever I can actually. Sometimes it will be very easy to access, at other times you’ll struggle to get there and it will feel like a thousand-mile hike, but struggle you must. Sleep is a skill, master it.

Love

Firstly, be aware that no one, NO ONE, could ever love you as much as I do. I have no doubt many will try. Some will get close. I hope those that do are worthy of your energy. I hesitated about putting this one in because it sounds so schmaltzy, but let’s face it, what mum wouldn’t want her daughters to experience love. The best kind is the sort that thumps you in the stomach and tickles the back of your neck at the same time, and that’s the kind I want for you, the thumpy, tickly kind.

Great teeth

If you care to look, you will see that a lot of women cover their mouths when they laugh or smile. Your aunty does it, I do it too. I know I do, but I don’t know why. I suppose I don’t like people looking at my open mouth. It feels vulgar somehow, improper, as if I am leaving myself prone. I’ve never liked my teeth. If you have great teeth you never need worry about covering your mouth, you can continue to smile and laugh just like you do now, without any hint of awkwardness. I wish for you lots of lovely, straight, sparkling, milk-white teeth, so that you can laugh like a drain.

Laughter

I should probably have put this at the top of my list, because I think it’s the most important. Life without laughter is like a Sunday roast without gravy; bland, uninteresting and hardly worth the effort. Laugh at yourself at least as often as you laugh at others, preferably more, because you can bet anything you like that, if you don’t take the chance, others will. There is nothing more attractive than a woman who knows how to laugh, and laugh often, apart from one who reads, and reads well.

Books

I can’t physically give you most of the things on this list, but this last one I can. I can’t make you love reading, but I can make sure you have access to the same thing I did, a bookshelf full of all kinds of stories for you to plunder and pick-over whenever you like. I hope you’ll find something in there that grabs your imagination and shakes it by the scruff of the neck. I don’t really mind what it is. Books can transport you through time and space, and help you to see the world through somebody else’s eyes. If you can do that, you can learn any number of lessons. Wuthering Heights taught me that love can be destructive and mental and incredible all at the same time. A Picture of Dorian Grey taught me that beauty really is only skin deep and from The Little Prince I learned that sometimes the most interesting questions are often the ones left unanswered.

I still believe that the women in our lives really do give us gifts. My Aunty Grace gave me the strength to say ‘no’ once in a while without feeling guilty, although I’m still working on it. My Grandma gave me a tongue I could peel carrots with. My mum gave me loads of things, the most precious of which is the friendship we share. So here they are, my gifts to you. My dirty-faced darlings, you have so many lessons left to learn; make sure you learn them from the treetops.