In the Morning, After the War
He doesn’t like to talk about it now that he’s home.
He has changed. She stares at his shaking hands. His face seems different somehow, wild. There is something untamed in his eyes. They only focus on things far away, very far away.
She finds him in the studio, finishing a new one. It contrasts with his old style. There are no more smooth, curved shapes, only jagged, broken lines. She picks up a tube of Light French Ultramarine and he looks up at her. He is a lost child waiting for his mother. She feels sick to her stomach.
He gets a military concession on his train fare into the city. This makes him laugh, but in a cruel, mocking tone. She stares out the window as they are pulled backwards through the suburbs and she watches his reflection on the glass. He wears his hair messy now and leaves his face unshaven for days. His shoulders hunch forward. He’s barely recognisable, but she knows him, and knows what he has been, or what he was before.
“I like your hair red, don’t dye it,” he says in Woolworths as she bends over Champagne Blonde. He is staring down the aisle.
“You’ve never liked my red hair,” she says, and she scans the back of Honey Ash, then Golden Butterscotch.
“I couldn’t remember your face when I was away,” he says casually, as casually as he’d ask about dinner. He glances over his shoulder. “Only your hair.” He looks down at her. “It’s Indian Red.”
She puts the dye back.
He makes love so hard, so quickly now, his eyes shut tight, his face buried in her hair. He spends his days in his studio with the windows closed. The smell of turpentine floods the flat.
She wakes in the middle of the night. He is sitting beside her on the bed, weeping. He flinches at her touch, then relaxes back into her body.
“It’s okay,” she says, her fingers in his hair.
“It’s not okay,” he says.
He sits at the window and peers out behind the curtain, bringing light to the dim room each time he pulls the fabric away. He whispers things she does not hear, picking at Burnt Umber stuck under his fingernails.
Side by side they lie on the ground, silence covering them both. The map of his body has changed; she no longer recognises the curve in his spine. The compass spins. His ribs stick out from under his skin, abandoning their duty of protecting his heart. Their shoulder blades dig into the rug beneath them. He feels safer this way. He murmurs stories into the dark space of the things he has seen, and the things he still sees when he closes his eyes.
She is startled awake by a touch on her lips, the sickly smell of linseed oil. He is leaning over her, his fingers wet and sticky, tracing a shape onto her face in Cadmium Red. She stands, turns, looks in the mirror. A line down her nose, lines over her cheeks, her lips. A circle with three lines dissects her features. A sign of peace stares back at her.