A SHORT STORY BY PENELOPE JOYCE
Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. Painting by David Hockney
When I was in ninth or tenth grade, the textbook for my English class had a reproduction of a painting on the cover. The picture showed a man and a woman facing the viewer, a window between them. On the man’s lap, a milk-white cat, looking out the window. In the foreground, a vase of lilies, white as the cat, their petal tips luminous in the light coming through the window. Though nothing in the painting looked like my teenage life, I instantly felt like I recognized the scene. Maybe it was that it captured the way light hits a room sometimes, not as bright stripes of sun and shadow, but as a gleam on the edges of things. In the painting, the arm of a chair, the side of the woman’s face, and the tops of the man’s hands all have this gleam. The figures seemed made of light, almost, except for one solidly tactile thing: the man’s bare feet nestled luxuriously into a thick, tousled carpet.
Over the course of that year, as I carried that book to and from school, its sharp corners turned dull and its laminated cover, now covered in scratches, began to peel. But the painting remained, for me, luminous. Its fascination never dimmed. Every time I looked at it, it set my brain in motion; it made me feel restless and uncertain in ways I did not know how to name. I wanted to solve it, the way I could ‘solve’ the poems in that same book, dutifully noting metaphors and similes, counting up syllables, and finding meaning in rhyme. The copyright page told me that the cover image had a name, Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, and an artist: David Hockney. But this information didn’t resolve the yearning feeling the painting gave me.
Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy is all about light; it’s also all about stillness. Mr. Clark lounges in his chair that seems to float above the floor. Mrs. Clark, upright as a column with her hand on her hip, looks like what she is: a woman posing for a painter. Even Percy is motionless, his attention arrested by the world outside the window. The trio’s immobility is echoed in various objects that surround them: the vase of lilies, casting a soft shadow across a yellow book. A telephone, sitting on the floor beside a lamp. A painting whose gold frame shines ever-so-slightly. Window shades, their slats lit up with little dashes of the sun. All this stillness, but the painting always made me want to move: to pad across the floor, to rearrange the lilies, to lean against the just-visible balcony railing and peer down into the street below. I wanted to get inside world of that painting and touch every piece of it. I wanted, above all, to be like Mr. Clark and plunge my bare feet into that astonishing carpet.
I did not lack access to paintings; my mother painted, and though we lived in a very rural area there were periodic trips to cities, to museums. Why did this image, on the increasingly dingy cover of a school textbook, pull me up short? I don’t know. Part of it has to have been pure fantasy: I was fourteen, maybe fifteen, and Mr. and Mrs. Clark were impossibly sophisticated grown-ups. They dressed very beautifully but they had very little furniture. They kept their telephone on the floor, which seemed almost impossibly bohemian. They had a white cat, the supermodel of the cat world, the kind of cat you might see on the packaging of upscale cat food or in a glossy brochure at the vet’s office, but not in just anybody’s house. They had time on their hands; they were unhurried; they paused in this moment of afternoon light and their pause lasted forever. The shadow on the book, the light in the lily-petals: these things had been rendered unchanging by the painter’s art, but it seemed to me that they were also stilled by the sheer glorious leisureliness of that central pair. Then again, I got the sense, too, that maybe their life beyond this frozen-in-time moment might be troubled. They look at the painter, the viewer, calmly but also a little defiantly, as if they expect some sort of fault-finding in the outside gaze. No! I wanted to say. You’re perfect. Let me in.
BUT THAT PEACE, THAT LIGHT AND STILLNESS, REMAINED MORE POWERFUL THAN ANY HINTS OF TROUBLE. THE PAINTING STILL FILLED ME WITH A VERY GENTLE KIND OF LONGING.
Years later, when I was in graduate school studying English literature, I came face-to-face with Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy again. Another reproduction, this one a large framed poster, hung in the seminar room where most of my classes met. Once again I was riveted. In countless classes, over two years of coursework, I sat on the side of the table that faced the poster and let myself get lost in the painting, my reveries intertwining with discussions of poetry, novels, plays. I traced every white thing with my eyes (flowers, balcony, cat, telephone), then every pop of color (yellow book, pink sleeve, green trousers), then let my attention melt into the warm beige of the room itself. I was older by this point. Now, when I looked at the couple at the painting’s center, I knew (or felt I knew) that Mr. and Mrs. Clark would not stay still for long. This moment of peace in this part-shadowy, part-gleaming room would be shattered by whatever defiance, whatever hurt, lurked in their faces. But that peace, that light and stillness, remained more powerful than any hints of trouble. The painting still filled me with very gentle kind of longing. Looking at it still gave me the slightly dizzy sense that I was just about to pass through frame, where I would finally feel the carpet, smell the lilies, open—just for a moment, just to see inside—the yellow book.
Since then I have seen the painting in person, twice. I have jostled with other museum-goers who wanted, like me, to stare and stare at the bright parts and the white parts and the rug. One afternoon early in the pandemic, still trying to solve the mystery of the painting’s power over me, I read everything I could find about it. I know that Mr. and Mrs. Clark divorced. I know that the cat was not named Percy. Worst of all, I know what my high school self did not: that it is an extremely famous painting that other people find arresting, beautiful, troubling, sad. It is not, as I felt for a long time, my secret. But it is still my dream room. By now, I have left so many rooms of my own behind. The one in the painting has is in a way more real and more lasting than any number of places I’ve lived and left behind. It’s a room I can go back to, and wander around, and almost touch.