Red Letter Day

Red Letter Day

Each morning she lined up her little bottles of ink on the table between us. A border. My side monochrome academia. Words. Hers Technicolor fantasy. Pictures.

She had broad sheets of paper – blotters and cloths for wiping the silver nibs that slotted into her dipping pens. I had my laptop – hooked up to the bulging cloud in cyberspace.

I was surprised to find an artist working alongside me in the public library – her inky bottles of potential disaster so close to the books. But libraries these days are very relaxed – it’s all flat whites and people dropping croissant. And, anyway, the staff liked her. She greeted them by name as they passed by with trolleys. Sometimes they’d comment on what was taking shape – a plump, grey hippo or a pond with a luminous frog. I listened to her words – lilac, I thought. Her words were mostly shades of lilac.

Her inks reminded me of the colours my mum kept for birthday icing. Concentrated joy. They were labelled in French but I Googled them – buttercup yellow, sapphire blue, blackcurrant tears, tender pink. I watched her steady hands from behind my screen. If there was a moment when I realised my goal had changed – that I was no longer in pursuit of a distinction for this dissertation, well I don’t remember it. It wasn’t important. What mattered was that she was there – making a picture book world on our shared desk. If I wrote a hundred words it was good going. My progress became the movement of her line across the paper. I was lost.

But it was suddenly September – drizzle on the windows and a new bottle on the desk between us. Rouge caroubier – ruby red. And, rather than the rose petals or dragons I was imagining, she was inking a letter. I watched her forming its straight back. F. It was blocky and satisfying. A large red letter. And then she switched nibs for something angular and italic and words flowed onto the page. Fuck you, you lying bastard. All that day there were black words of fury and no pretty pictures at all. When I left she was shouting into her phone in the lobby.