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Who's afraid of Rupert Bunny?

Although she had a fertile imagination, he doubted she would have invented that Rupert Bunny had painted her. He had been surprised that she had even heard of Bunny.

He was somewhat disappointed by the Rupert Bunny exhibition but admired the self-portrait mistakenly described, in a note beside it, as one in which the artist's hand masked his face. People writing on painting, he thought, rarely see what is before their eyes; Bunny was not hiding his face at all, his fingers were merely holding a cigarette while he observed coolly. The visitor, who so far had spent 30 years in Italy, asked how Bunny had sized up Melbourne on his return in 1932 after 46 years in Europe.

And he asked also whether Bunny had sized up his mother. Years before she had claimed more than once that Bunny had painted her when she was a young woman, adding that he had been struck by her beautiful blue eyes. His mother had often reported that people expressed admiration for her beauty but he had suspected these reports may simply have illustrated her dictum: praise yourself if nobody else does.

Crosshatched creases marked all her face except her nose. But even now, in an old people's home, she would hitch up her skirt to seek confirmation from him that she had shapely legs. Moreover she said that the visiting doctor had told her he had never seen such clear eyes as hers. Exceptionally clear, she added, which was all the more defiant because, as a result of a botched cataract operation, one pupil was enlarged and askew.

Although she had a fertile imagination, he doubted she would have invented that Rupert Bunny had painted her. He had been surprised that she had even heard of Bunny.

During his fortnight in Melbourne, which included a daily visit to his mother, he wanted to clear up the mystery. She would introduce him to other inmates at lunch or in the television room and lament, in the privacy of her bedroom, that they were not lively enough. Although she had made friends with several, she had a keen eye for the foibles of all. She complained that nurses stole clothes from her wardrobe; however, his brother said nothing had disappeared, indeed that she had somehow obtained a nurse's brooch. Her face had changed: formerly heartshaped, it was leaner, which made her nose seem longer. Her hair, only now graying, which used to be permanently waved was a side-parted helmet. He was reminded of a Plantagenet royal in the silk cigarette cards he had played with as a child. She was grieving for the loss of her husband but also of their East Malvern home where, after his death, it had become too dangerous for her to continue living alone.

"Well-furnished and comfortable," she said as if to herself. "Go and take a look--I'm told they've added two rooms at the back. See if the garage door is still blue--remember I wanted it the same color as the lounge ceiling."

Like other inmates, she was wearied by the bleak wait for her own death. At times this ultimate destination was forgotten but occasional deaths of inmates were chilling reminders in case anyone felt comfortable. There were gradations among the inmates: some slept as they sat before the television screen in the common room, some watched it without understanding, but others had opinions about the programs.

His mother's bones seemed chicken-thin when he took her arm and he was afraid she would fall while scuttling along because she talked over her shoulder to passersby. But she was better off than those who had to work their way forward using walking frames.

She had always loved being taken to restaurants but now was not confident enough to accept his invitation. At times she confused which day was which or relatives' ages and complained that her mind was "all a fuddle." He encouraged her to obtain window plants in order to see things grow and have a sense of the future, but she was not interested; he was discouraged and it seemed a weak idea even to him. He asked about the priest who visited her.

"A nice man says God's not ready for me yet. I'm ready though: I'd like to die and be done with it, go to sleep and not wake up. But I don't want this tired old body at the Resurrection."

She sought reassurance about her husband: "He loved me, don't you think?" One thing she was sure of: he had a terrific will.

It the end of one visit, she said: "It's a pity you were so clever, otherwise you mightn't have gone away. The family broke up after that." She was dispassionate but her words thudded home. She added--not for the first time--"Couldn't you take me back to Rome in your luggage?"

After a pause, she said, "When you're useless nobody wants you--not even the police." She reached out, a wafer-ish hand corded with veins, to caress his fingers.

"Your nails are like mine, well curved. They're called Filbert nails, like Filbert the Gilbert, the colonel of the Nuts. Remember?

"Do you take any notice of the twaddle about the royal family? They're just German upstarts really--that's what Dad used to say and add, `Let's not be beastly to the Germans.'

"I'm not for a Republic," she croaked, then waited as if for effect. "Instead, I want an Irish Queen and an Irish Pope."

Her smile showed that she was striving for the outrageous. He savored in anticipation the laugh this would bring from his brother when he recounted the episode. Her lifelong lesson was that it was worth doing anything to get a laugh.

Protesting that she could not remember, she supplied sparse information about Bunny, saying only that she had met him while living in Middle Park and that Bunny had asked to paint her. His persistent questions irritated her and even more now that she was frustrated by an unsatisfactory hearing aid.

Her claim became more probable once he looked into Bunny's life. Bunny had worked in the Middle Park area and drew many attractive women, not only society dames but anyone who interested him. But if Bunny had met his mother in Middle Park, where was the portrait now?

On his last day in Melbourne he lunched with his mother who was amusing, but also true to form: capricious about the food.

"That's a stringy old fowl," she commented after polishing off a chicken. "Of course, if they bought decent food, they'd make less of a profit out of us. Next time you come--if there's ever a next time--bring me a lobster. These days I find oysters too salty."

One nurse had said of her, "She's spoilt rotten--she demands it." And a Filipino girl, Cecilia, waiting on the table was upset by the comments about the chicken.

"It's really beautiful material, dear," his mother mollified Cecilia by fingering the girl's lilac blouse and bringing her cataract-afflicted eyes close to it.

"Why don't you get it made up into a blouse?"

She laughed at what she knew was a corny line. "Don't take any notice of me." She added, "It's beautifully cut."

Afterwards, while he napped in her room, she went to the weekly sing-a-long in the lounge, which consisted of a visiting pianist playing through a medley of old favourites. Thinking unhappily of leaving his mother again for at least a year and perhaps for ever, he heard, My father was born in Dublin, my mother was born in Cork and I've been taught to love the Irish ever since I could walk; "Try a Little Tenderness"; "It's Easy to Remember"; "Just One More Chance"; "Oh No, It Isn't a Dream"; "Tea for Two"; "Is It True What They Say About Dixie?"; "I Don't Want To Live Without You . . . "

"Gawd," said his mother on her return, "The old folks at home again! Doesn't he know any other tunes? You can smell the mothballs. I told him to play something that's not out of the Ark."

Perhaps she had. She talked about items from the newspapers, which she still read avidly with her eyes pushed against the print, and about his brother in whose house she spent a day each week. But mostly, in this his last conversation, she talked about his friends: she had always lived partly through them and recalled arcane details of their lives. But now when she managed to hear a detail, such as that one of his friend's sons was ill, she added others.

It was too difficult to correct all these surmises, and she added still others confidently. As she raced from surmise to surmise he reflected that it was rather like journalism: precise details but the overall picture could be distorted. The world beyond the old people's home was becoming a fable. He did not tell her that he had lost touch with many friends she had known. Some of the ties with his mother were becoming tenuous.

Even though he feared it might anger her, before leaving he made a last attempt to find the truth about Bunny. She hung her head, not willing to answer, and he thought she would take refuge in deafness. Finally he coaxed her, delivering the message directly into her left, still partially functioning ear.

"Come on, at least you must remember what he was like." After long seconds, as if giving a considered judgment, she said, "A bit rough." Then, as if sensing his disbelief, she doubled the dose. "Yes, likeable but a bit of a roughneck."

It seemed wholly unlikely that those elegant fingers, the handsome face with its fine features and observant eyes, could be those of a roughneck from Paris.

When he stopped over in Sydney on his way back to Italy, he mentioned the Rupert Bunny exhibition to a friend from his school days whose mother was a crony of his mother. The friend said that one of his eventual assets would be a Rupert Bunny portrait of his mother.

"A Rupert Bunny portrait? Are you sure of that?" he asked.

"Yes," the friend replied. "It hangs above her bed, it's signed and mentioned in books on Bunny."

It was more than a hint of an explanation. A bit of a liar inventing a bit of roughneck. If it had been otherwise, he would not have written this story or, perhaps, others.

By Desmond O'Grady, a freelance writer living in Rome. His book on Christianity in Central Europe will be released by Loyola Press this spring.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Claretian Publications
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:O'Grady, Desmond
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:May 1, 1997
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