We both stood at the basin. I watched on while she washed her hands. They caressed one another, touching, departing, and touching again. Water trickled through her fingers. She looked mesmerised by the sensation of running water, touching her, cleansing her.
When we sat down, she told me hand washing reminds her of art school. In the 1950s she was a student at the National Art School in Darlinghurst, Sydney. After every class there was the slow methodical process of removing paint. She enjoyed the physical sensation of water running through her fingers. It was calming, a soothing sedative. Caught up in the moment with her hand washing she became transfixed. Her thoughts remained with the unfolding expression left behind on the canvas.
Young, light footed and carefree she caught the train from North Ryde to Hyde Park Station. Without any effort she walked up Oxford Street to the school. Yet today she had difficulty taking the short walk to the bathroom.
‘It was such a beautiful time of my life at art school’ she reminisced out aloud.
‘Renaissance art was my obsession. The light, the anatomy, the realism, the figure composition. The fresco paintings of Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni captivated me.’
His name rolled off her tongue as though she was speaking another language. As she spoke her face lit up and a smile appeared. Her thoughts took her to another place. She was no longer in the present moment. I touched her gently on the shoulder to waken her from her trance.
‘Is that the same Michelangelo who painted the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel?’
‘Yes, that’s him. I would spend hours and hours studying his work. I was immersed in the intricacies of his paintings, the ones he did in the Sistine Chapel. My life took on new meaning as I was camouflaged amongst the splendour of colour and grace.’
‘What was it that attracted you to his work?’
‘I saw his paintings as untouched beauty. Their beauty remained unchanged over the centuries. No one could touch, could interfere with the frescos, they were sacrosanct.’
She told me other stories about Michelangelo’s artwork. They were so compelling I thought she must have travelled to Italy and spent time in the Sistine Chapel. But it was me she took on a journey, as she gave me a glimpse into her life and her love of Michelangelo’s work. The beauty of his artwork was a place of comfort for her. When absorbed in his frescos she was at peace. She spoke breathlessly, unable to hold back. Her story, her love affair with Michelangelo, was being told. But he was not a lover. He was a mentor, a father figure, someone she admired, looked up to.
‘His work The Creation of Adam, enthralled me. The fresco illustrated the creation story from the Bible. It told the story about God giving life to Adam. He was without sin. God reaches out to Adam, but their fingers never touched. It symbolised the gap that existed between them.’ She paused and then said,
‘Do you think there should be a gap between a father and his daughter?’
‘What do you mean by gap, I asked.’
‘There is an age gap. Then there is a gap between the roles and responsibilities of a parent and child. A difference of intellectual and emotional maturity. Shouldn’t there be such a gap between a father and daughter, without there being distance? There are places a father should not touch a child.’
I began to understand what she was saying. But why is she telling me her story. Is it because she is closer to death and wants to get her secret out into the open? Or is it because she trusts me? I have been her carer for three years. I am studying social work and she is the perfect sounding board, so many life experiences, so much wisdom. We have talked about many things, but this is such a private matter. For a moment I am startled by my thoughts.
‘Emily, are you telling me your father touched you, he sexually abused you?’
‘At first I did not think it was abuse or causing me any harm. The realisation only came when I was 15 years old, that it was not right. Then I became angry. I felt used and dirty. This is when I began taking long showers. The water soothed my body. I tried to wash away the shame. My cleansing ritual helped. But it only gave me temporary release from my suffering. I could not escape the realisation that my father whom I loved, should have protected me, not betrayed me.’
She took a deep breath.
‘In those days, things were different. There were secrets, hidden away in the shadows. Just like Michelangelo illustrated in his paintings. Art connoisseurs spend decades of their life, their entire life, studying his works. It takes time to understand the secrets concealed within his artwork. Yet, within that time, when I studied Michelangelo’s work, he became much more to me than a mentor, he was my saviour. His hand reached out towards me and I went with him on my journey of healing.’
She kept talking.
‘It took a while. But as I studied the stories behind the images, God became more real to me. I then found a safe haven by knowing that there was judgment for sin.’
She paused for a long time and said,
‘Don’t you think there should be judgement for sin? Shouldn’t people pay a penalty? More so for a sin, a crime, committed against a child, against me?’
She did not wait for my answer.
‘It happened over many years. I thought this was the way a father showed love for his child, for me. Before he left our fingers touched as he pressed a silver florin into my hand. It was our secret. I took my precious possession to its hiding place, always believing I was the favoured child.’
My heart was breaking hearing her story. Not that she had to confess to me, nor tell me what had happened. She had done nothing wrong. Yet there was an urgency in her voice. She continued.
‘I was studying Michelangelo’s fresco The Last Judgment about the Second Coming of Christ. It covers the entire altar wall. It is God’s final judgment on humanity. The image of Saint Bartholomew shows him being pulled down towards hell. But it was not the face of Saint Bartholomew, it was a self-portrait of Michelangelo. It was a twisted image of himself holding flogged and bloody skin. Did you know Saint Bartholomew was martyred, skinned alive?’ She did not wait for my answer.
‘I saw the flesh as my own, like I had been skinned alive. Tormented by an uncaring father. He was only interested in his own sexual pleasure. My healing was slow, but never complete. How could it be?’
She indicated it was time for another trip to the bathroom. I took her hand. I stood beside her while the water trickled over her hands. She was not in a hurry. The metaphysical power of water had taken over and was now soothing her mind and her invisible scars. The ones caused by the touch.
Note: If this short story causes you, the reader, any concern, or you have been sexually assaulted you can get support from the following organisations.
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