I cannot recall who saw the artist first. Maybe I followed a sudden widening of Lizzie’s eyes just after we emerged from our main passage beside the burn at the spot where it was deep enough to bathe. She looked right into my eyes but carried on painting as if nothing had happened.
‘Stay put’, I told Lizzie. We were both already stark and I swam the burn to the flat bank opposite, where the artist stood by an easel taller than herself. I had seen her before in the shop and the post-office and I knew from those few sightings that she was the only person in the village truly worth impressing. As I crawl-stroked a voice in my head whispered that the Passages were a rude and dirty project next to elegant painting on a canvas. Approaching the artist I knitted my brow and summoned to mind all the library books and radio programs I had absorbed in my life.
‘I have located a feral child. I believe she has been raised by dogs… or perhaps foxes. It appears she has made a system of pa – of tunnels, in the long grass.’
The artist put down her brush, I thought in response to me but then larger drops began falling from a sky that had turned dark and glowery without my notice. She had been painting merely the field and there was no sign of us on her canvas.
‘You had better get your dress on,’ she said, ‘and then you can tell me about your discoveries. And why not bring the feral child over too?’
I recrossed the burn to Lizzie who was still gawking, silent in the face of strangers, as it came naturally to her to behave. I stuffed her dress away among the stalks and we swam back, me holding my own garment out the water. The artist draped her shawl over Lizzie’s blotchy flesh while I borrowed her painty rag to dry myself.
‘It’s a short walk to my cottage. Would you like to come?’
As we walked I deplored aloud the society that had permitted Lizzie’s state to go unnoticed for so long. I described her diet of field mice and raw barley seeds, her total absence of shame, and the pitiful limitation of her language to grunts and snufflings.
‘I’m surprised she can walk on two legs,’ the artist commented.
When we arrived at the tiny cottage the rain was drumming down in jets, but we were sat on a magnificent sofa, dried again by a gas heater, and given hot milk and biscuits. The cottage was a single room heaving with paintings of familiar places, though none I saw revealed the truth about the Passages.
‘These are very good’, I said, at which the artist thanked me, but her next words piqued me a great deal. She said she drew more pleasure from the evident admiration of the feral child, ‘because that one is closer to nature, and so the better critic.’
It was teatime when a phonecall – I never knew who from – brought Ma to the door, at which point Lizzie regained the power of speech while I avoided the eye of the artist, and Ma delivered thanks through gritted teeth. When we got home I took a sound spanking for disgracing the family, and the following words were drilled into me:
‘It’s all very well tae prance like a savage when no one’s watching, bit do it before a painter and you can be fixed that way for life.’
And that was when I decided to become an artist myself.