That Little Dark Room [Kompa] by Sigrún Pálsdóttir
Trans. Lytton Smith ([email protected])
S.B., Diary for 1642/1643.
Bod. MS. 3971
This day, after I was redie, I did eate my breakfast.
Day 201. And with these words, I had written this sentence out two hundred and one times. And, following on from it, the paragraph comprising each journal entry. The task had already taken me about six months: despite the incessant repetition, the linguistic nuances in this crowded ancient manuscript were usually significant enough to cause me considerable labor. Yet the result was always the same: there was nothing of note. Nothing but a kind of rigid and rather uninspiring testimony to a humble existence, one to which it was practically impossible to accord any great meaning, even though it was 365 years old. But I was going to finish, to continue following the thread. To continue scrutinizing nothing. And so I did until it hit me. Much longer than all the other entries, a piece that opened with one, and only one, heading:
The day 203
That was around noon, but by the time I had made my way through both pages, it was closing time at the library. I looked at my transcription. It took me a little while to realize what I’d discovered:
This day, after I was redie, I did eate my breakfast. Went down finding my father gone to London. After I finished the picture of Lady Cowley in little I Painted over ye 3d Time a side face of Mrs Meriton. Lady Bucks picture done over with white poppy oil as thin done over as I could.
That done Mr. Jones, who stayes at My Lords house, came hither to the Paynting roome for his final sitting of his picture done upon 3 qtr Sacking. Mr Jones sat with admirable and unvariable patience. Hee is a very excellent young man & by whose conversacon I learn to observe the very glancing of his eyes. Every lowly grace of his face. He sat for 4 hourse tell I had pfectly finisht ye face to my owne satisfaction. He thought his picture mighty like him and colored exceedingly rarely but the colouring of the face to be a little forced.
Mr Jones being out of doors I did some thing about the house tell my father was back from his journey with a pacell of Pink made by Mr Petty and another of blew black and primed paper for study. After we supped on pease porridge and bread I went to Ye Chamber. After reading of the Humanitie I was busie fouldinge some linan and airinge clothes tell all most night. So to bed wher many sundrie distractions withdrew my mind so I was weak and had paine in my head.
The custodian of the manuscript library, a young, athletic man, put his hand lightly and only for a moment on my shoulder. Then he tapped the index finger of the same hand against his delicate watch. I closed the book at once, returned it to its box and gave it to him. Then I got my things together, rose from the table, walked out of the room, slowly passed along the long hallway, all the way trying to hold back the smile that played on my lips: the creator of that famous portrait of Viscount Tom Jones was undoubtedly my diary writer, S.B. But could it be that S. B. was a woman, busie fouldinge some linan and airinge clothes? A pioneer? Had I just found a new beginning in the history of Western art? Frenzied jubilation thrilled through my body, words burst with awful power, and inside my head sentences and then pages formed one after the other so that by the time I stepped out of the building into the outside courtyard, my introduction was well underway.
Out on the street, nothing was the same. I was not the same, I could sense it in the slightest gesture, the way my hands swung back and forth, my hips moving rhythmically side to side, my hair billowing in the warm spring breeze—and by the time I had turned onto the path that leads to the old church and gone past a young man with a guitar, at which point I entirely surprised myself by letting a ten pound note float down into his case, my thesis was fast taking shape. It was practically fully formed by the time I left the city center, this beautiful environment to which I belonged during the day and which made worthwhile all my miniscule and dispensable thoughts about life in centuries past. Reflections which hitherto had in some way lost their meaning when I, at the end of the working day, left the ancient buildings and headed home to the grim existence that was inescapable in my part of the city. Low-rise precast concrete houses. Grouped in long rows. Pre-painted in a monotone overcoat the color of cream. ’70s residences that seemed about to collapse under the conflicts that took place within them.
My neighbor slammed the front door behind her and strode rapidly away from the house while the shouting fell silent inside her apartment. I do not remember how she responded to my greeting as we passed; I barely remember whether I said hello to her, so deep in thought was I over the day’s discovery. By now, I had completed my introduction. Time for the preface. I would, naturally, express gratitude to Professor Lucy for having entrusted this large project to me, Dr. Caplan and his colleagues for their advice and for something I could maybe call inspiration. Mrs. Mary Howard for teaching me to read the obscure hand. And perhaps it would be right to mention all the help from people at the museum. The young custodian in the manuscript library? Presumably he would be helping me more in the foreseeable future. Was it going to be five years? For a moment, it even dawned on me to thank the professors at the Royal College of Art for their ruthless rejection, which had indirectly pushed me towards this international discipline in which I was now bound to play a major role. No, the idea was just a bit of fun; better to nourish the joy that now stirred inside me after the difficulties and disappointments of the past years. But next I would absolutely thank Dad and my friend Sigga. Possibly Bonny and Tina too, for being such a source of amusement and encouragement. And Hans, of course. Maybe for having made a decision about completing his own studies here, which meant I ended up in exactly this place and not somewhere else. No, surely I could find something else to say about Hans. There was enough time for that. But Mom? How to thank her? The answer was obvious to me by the time I was inserting my key in the lock on the flame red front door: the thesis would be dedicated to my mother, of course!
I closed the door behind me. Hans was not home. I stood in the middle of the living room floor, looked down at the beige carpet and saw the letters before me, those words on a white page immediately following the flyleaf: To my mother. Suddenly I heard a heavy thud from the other side of the thin partition wall, as though someone had kicked it: “Bugger!” My neighbor, getting ready for the evening. I lay on the couch and put my hands under my neck. I looked at the card panels, how they were trying to free themselves from the ceiling above me, and I thought that it would perhaps be more beautiful this way: For my mother.