Here I am, me and four other women all huddled together in an attic. How, why or where I have no idea; neither have I any recollection of events leading up to this incarceration. My last memory is of being in my studio trying to do creative things with coloured tissue paper and inks and recalling a sense of frustration that nothing was going right and I was sinking into a hole in the floor and of being submerged beneath the growing pile of discarded tissue paper.
Who are these other women, do I know them and why are we here together? They all seem to be wearing clothes from different eras. Two of them have long Victorian-style dresses and there is a blonde woman looking as though she has stepped out of a late 50s film set with her Marilyn Monroe hairstyle and bright red lipstick. She alone sits perfectly still staring into space, her face devoid of expression. I can't really tell what the dark woman in the corner with the long face and aquiline features is wearing, possibly something tweedy, but she has found some writing paper and a pen from somewhere (maybe one of the boxes of clutter that surrounds us in this confined space) and she writes feverishly, discarding sheet after sheet in rapid succession. One of the women in the long skirts has a wild, dishevelled look about her. She has matted hair and her clothes are dirty and torn in several places. It is discomforting to watch her constantly fidgeting, clasping and unclasping her hands and muttering to herself. The other long-skirted girl is crying quietly, sitting with her knees drawn up and her head resting on them so I can't really see her face.
I need to draw, I think. Suddenly it's imperative that I draw. I have to capture the moment, the place and the four nameless women, though right now I'm not even sure of my own name. I clear my throat and ask the woman who is writing if she has any spare paper but she ignores me. I realise I am invisible. I get up, begin rummaging in one of the boxes but a cloud of dust blinds my vision and I start to cough. The other women all remain exactly as they were. There's an old piece of card on the floor and I remember the ubiquitous pencil I always carry in my pocket. I sit back down on the dusty floorboards and begin drawing. I notice for the first time that the blonde girl is holding what looks like a book of poetry in her hands. I twist my head trying to read the title and my stomach lurches. I think I know who she is. The wild woman appears even more agitated and the crying one is talking to herself in French in between sobs. And still the dark one continues to write, covering sheet after sheet with bold black handwriting. At last she pauses, raises her head, looks through me and I instantly recognise her.
The distressed French girl has a strange almost transparent look and at first I can't quite figure out why I'm unable to capture the essence of her. Then suddenly I get it - she may be real to me but she has stepped right out of a work of fiction. I rack my brains trying to remember heroines of classic French literature. Madame something........ I practice a few names in my head starting with A and as soon as I get to B I have it, although it takes a little longer to recall her first name. That only leaves the wild woman who in that instant is unexpectedly on her feet and coming at me with both arms raised, snarling like an animal. Instinctively I cover my face with the drawing and turn my head away to avoid the onslaught. I hear her screams, feel a rush of cold air and catch a whiff of smoke but when I open my eyes she's not there any more although the smoky, burning smell still lingers. No smoke without fire, so the saying goes. Fire? She reminds me of a patient I met when working in a hospital a long time ago but I also know her to be another one spawned from her creator's imagination as a major character in my favourite Bronte novel. Someone who is neither the heroine nor the villain of the piece.
I am beginning to see the way in which these women relate to me and how we all came to be in the same place at the same time. Or is this simply another of those bizarre nightmare-ish dreams that plague insomniacs like me? Is the reality of the creative soul so very different to that of the ordinary mortal? In the mysterious world of the artist, boundaries are blurred. We live on the edge of insanity; it is a prerequisite of our craft. Am I the archetypal madwoman in the attic? If so, then Sylvia and Virginia are my soulmates - as are Bertha and Emma and of course their creators.
But right now I need a break as I’m feeling a bit claustrophobic and my head hurts so I shall leave them all pretty much as I found them though I have a feeling one lady has already absented herself, if only temporarily. Somehow I suspect she will be back again as I can tell she is one of those who never quite knows whether she’s coming or going.
Surprisingly, finding my way out is easier than than I think. I had expected that to be the hard bit - if this was a dream then it would be, wouldn’t it?
"Goodbye ladies," I say, although I doubt they'll hear me if they can't see me. "I'll be back again soon." And I'm pretty sure I will. I wonder whether the same women will be there the next time or if there may be others. You never know.
Later I look at the drawing; it's only a rough sketch but it's not bad. The funny thing is, I've managed to put myself in it. It's definitely me even if I do look a bit mad around the eyes. That's okay though, when I've touched it up a bit I'll call it "Madwomen in an Attic". I can't wait to get on with that now once I've cleared up the tissue paper in my studio.
Did I ever mention I have an attic studio in London's docklands?