What is true friendship? Is it the enduring sympathy of two minds though distance and circumstance for years divide them? Is it agreeing to help bury a lumpy sack in the dead of night without stopping to ask what’s inside? Or is true friendship the giving of an unconditional consensual answer to the following late night, desperate text message:
“If I can find the necessary equipment by Friday, how would you feel about letting me paint your face?”
It was desperate, a request prompted by the stirrings of a sensation felt all too often this year: that of peeking over the brink of a fresh week without a clue of what new thing I was to accomplish by its end. Except on this occasion, worry conduced inspiration. Earlier this year, I went to a life-drawing class with results that only the charitable called “not really that bad” and only the blind would encourage me to develop further. Drawing people was evidently not my forte; but is it not possible, I now thought, that my inner artistic fairy might be awoken if I attempted instead to draw on people?
The hardest part in testing such a theory would, one might expect, be acquiring one’s canvas. But thankfully, I am blessed with a friend who was all too happy to sacrifice her face on the altar of my artistic education, a friend who is mature enough to regard an evening’s indulgence in childlike pursuits not as a reflection on their maturity, but as what it is: jolly good fun for a Friday night. Indeed, far from expressing reluctance when I called an end to our chit-chat and declared it was time to get down to business, my Canvas threw herself into the role of child party-goer with admirable enthusiasm and borderline vexatious accuracy.
Before we started, I gave my Canvas a catalogue of painted children’s faces to peruse. Initially she inclined towards something delicately “pretty”, like an angel or a butterfly, but perhaps realising the aesthetic was a bridge too far at this early stage, she finally settled on a simple “wicked witch”. It was an unfortunate choice; so much so that had it been made by an actual child I would have considered it calculated. For the design required four colours, of which we only had one: black. The others (turquoise, lilac and silver glitter) were not on my palette, nor could all our efforts to recall school lessons on primary and secondary colours solve the riddle of how to contrive them from the colours we did have. Yet in spite of what most people would consider the insurmountable obstacle of lacking 75% of the necessary ingredients, my Canvas would not be dissuaded from her decision and insisted on being transformed into the wicked witch.
Dutifully, I therefore began mixing dark blue and white in the hope of a shade vaguely approximating turquoise. It was only after I’d transferred a considerable quantity of both colours from palette to bowl and begun mixing them together that my Canvas piped up with the observation “I thought we decided on green?”
We had not decided on green. But, it is unprofessional in a face painter to disagree with a child, and so I gritted my teeth and began all over again mixing green and white.
Finally, I had enough mixture to get started, so grasping a sponge in one hand, my Canvas’s head in the other, and praying inwardly that when it came to faces I would prove to be more Goya than Picasso, I set to work.
Second, blue horn-like patches around the eyes. As these were meant to be a soft lilac rather than a bold blue, the effect was less ethereal witch than bargain-basement superhero. Or at best, the wicked witch’s love child from an ill-advised liaison with a smurf.
Third, black lining around the blue patches, which I flattered myself gave the whole work a pleasing hint of pre-considered purpose.
Finally, the instructions advised doodling the unmistakable witchy trademarks of a moon and a cat on either cheek. The cat I thought rather a good idea, the moon a little unremarkable. My Canvas though disagreed. She thought the moon good and the cat bad. In fact she went further, she refused to have a cat on her face and proposed instead I paint a flower on her cheek. A flower, I contended, was not in the least bit witchy and furthermore would not suit the painted face which of the two of us only I had seen. Revelling in her role of obstinate child party-goer, my Canvas would not relent. She now proposed not one but several flowers to protrude in a row from her blue eye-patches. This I thought a stupid idea, and responded, when pressed repeatedly for what suggestions I had instead, only ever with the word “cat”.
Eventually, I won. It was the only possible result: I after all held the paint brush. A cat was duly planted on my Canvas’s cheek after which she was at last permitted to examine her new face in the mirror. Thankfully, she declared the results better than expected and was delighted with the cat in particular.
So pleased was she indeed that she requested I sign my artwork. Doubting, however, whether it was really wise to cast my friend out into my small town with my name blazed across her face, I suggested that if I signed my Canvas, I should do so with a nom-de-plume.
“Alright” my Canvas agreed. “Snugabottom!”
“Yes, Ms Snugabottom.”
“You want me to write ‘Ms Snugabottom’ on your face?”
She did, and so I did, and out into the night with ‘Snugabottom’ on a head held high she went.
What, therefore, is true friendship? It is when you help out a friend by agreeing to a ridiculous request; and astonish them by requesting something even more ridiculous in your turn.