OFFICIAL PORTRAIT DAY by EW Farnsworth
White snowdrop blossoms were piercing the greensward of the park as workers with billhooks trimmed odd errant sprigs along tree trunks. Along Picklock Lane, a festive mood prevailed as winter stood back and spring leaped forward.
To Sheriff Fatty Millstone’s dismay, this was marked out as Official Portrait Day. His schedule, like that of many other elected notables, was aligned to accommodate the best possible pictorial outcome while the ever present press ogled and spied to record anything newsworthy.
Keeping the sheriff’s movements on track was the buoyant and buxom Cecily Goodwoman, Matron of Health, whose latest frustration was being barred from accompanying her charge to the Roman Baths where he was due for a Swedish massage and sauna.
“Don’t be dispirited, Miss Goodwoman. I will be in good hands at the Baths, and we will make the press briefing in plenty of time for our luncheon at the Cracked Bell.”
The moon faced sheriff did not look as confident as his words implied. Yet around the filed separation wall expectations evaporated as the temperature rose and steam filled the air so no patron could see much of any others. Only when a tentacle wrapped itself along his arm did Fatty feel welcome, for in this place the signs of alien origins were celebrated.
The masseuse led the sheriff into a curtained vestibule where she wrapped her customer in an enormous white towel and helped him lie on a stone surface while her tentacles worked their magic. With approval, Fatty noticed Helga’s face was the image of Cthulhu. She waved her head back and forth looking shyly out of the mop of appendages. The sheriff relaxed as she took control of the moment.
“Sheriff, do you have any special requirements this day?”
“Helga, you have complete discretion for your thirty minutes. Then I have a sauna scheduled and a needle cold shower. The matron is pacing the pavement in the meantime.”
Helga had unfurled Fatty’s tentacle so she could oil it and its chest compartment. “Sheriff, I can tell you have been stressed lately. I will work out your kinks, but you should consider taking a daily regimen of hot sea salt baths. I do that, and look at me!”
The large moon shaped face gazed at the woman and smiled. “Do you think I could win the next election looking as beautiful as you?”
Helga blushed and packed the tentacle into his chest cavity before she rolled him over to get at his back. Now she used her tentacles’ suckers, which gave out a popping sound as she removed and replaced them all over. Her octopus’s sensitivity allowed her to pinpoint his pressure points. Deftly, she smoothed all the places where his body had focused his stress.
As the therapy continued, Millstone relived the anxieties of the week since he had last treated himself to Helga’s capable handling, as if specific external events had knotted his muscles in a regular way so relieving a knot triggered the thought that had caused it.
By the end of his session, the sheriff felt like a limp, wet dishrag. Helga helped him walk to the sauna, which was a steamy mist. She pressed a buzzer into his hand with the words, “I’ll return to collect you when the buzzer goes off. Then we’ll see to that needle cold shower.” As she left he compartment, she threw three full scuppers of water on the artificial coals. The steam thickened, and sweat sprang from every pore in Fatty’s body.
“If that was Helga, Fatty must have arrived. Huzza!”
“It was inevitable other notables should be striving to look their best on Portrait Day. How are you, Sir Hudibras? And how is your Dame?”
“We are well, good sheriff. In another hour, we shall be standing for our portrait. Do you feel like having a wee nip while you enjoy your sauna? I have a flask with single malt scotch.”
Fatty felt the cool metal of the flask at the end of the tentacle lying along his back. He took the flask and swigged from it before he placed it back in the knight’s grasp.
“Delicious. Thank you!”
“Don’t mention it. What lies are you preparing to tell the press today?”
Fatty mulled over the question. Then he said, “It hardly matters. Whatever I say will be treated like lies of the foulest kind. If I say something is, ‘God’s own truth,’ it will be infinitely parsed before and after it is misquoted. I have no doubt our newshounds could turn the Sermon on the Mount into a terrorist manifesto. What can you do to deter the inevitable transformation?”
“Absolutely nothing. That’s why I carry my flask.”
As the two dignitaries discussed the relative merits of vacationing in Gibraltar and Malta, they passed the flask back and forth like a squash ball without missing a drop of the liquor. Time passed quickly, and soon two buzzers went off simultaneously. Helga and Olga (the knight’s masseuse) came for their respective customers.
The gentlemen found themselves under adjacent needle cold showers, which closed their pores and raised goose bumps. Their teeth chattered as they were wrapped in fluffy new towels.
“Sheriff, I’ll see you at the press conference. If I get stuck, I will wink so you can bail me out.”
Millstone was dried and powdered before he dressed. He was ten seconds early meeting his matron, who raced him to the outdoor pavilion where the press corps had assembled. Sir Hudibras was already holding forth, laughing and joking as if he were enjoying the company of the mouthpieces of the people. Fatty noticed that the hubbub subsided as he made his way to the chair to the right of his friend the MP.
“I must say I am delighted to be seated next to Sheriff Fatty Millstone today. He will save me from as many major gaffs as you reporters will stuff into your stories. The world therefore remains in balance though we verge on the abyss.”
A young red haired reporter asked, “Sir Hudibras, tell us why we still have Portrait Day?”
Hudibras winked at Millstone, who thought fast.
“Young man, your question has at root the suggestion that the newspapers and other media have numerous representations of politicians in every mode of expression. You are asking why make a show of portraying formally what is already visible on a daily basis.”
The eager reporter nodded his head vigorously.
“Have you thought how public figures are caught hundreds of times between thoughts or as thoughts are generated, but never in that process presented when they have composed and collected themselves as a genuine persona?”
“Are we the people supposed to think of Portrait Day as the time when politicians’ posing and posturing reigns supreme?”
“That’s the shallow view. I ask you, though, to examine how you would wish to be remembered. In an age of instantaneous celebrity, when else can a representation catch the integrated person?”
The assemblage were now ready for philosophy, so Sir Hudibras stepped back into the fray. “My good friend the sheriff has made excellent points. Perhaps the best approach would be to analyse the results of our efforts on this day. How much—or how little—do we officials measure up to our portraits’ images?”
The red haired man still had an arrow in his quiver: “Sheriff, promise you will this year reveal in your picture the secret of your enduring success. Will you do that?”
Millstone shook his head. “Portraiture is not an exercise in fickle fame. And often success is transitory. Would you have me drawn in a suit hung with a thousand wagging tongues?”
The press corps burst into uproarious laughter. Then Sir Hudibras brought the meeting to order, and the general run of questions began. Forty minutes later, all current issues had been addressed at least once, and the time for luncheon was fast approaching. The photographers had their mini field day, and everyone adjourned to his favourite pub for a repast.
At the back of the Cracked Bell Pub Sir Hudibras and his Dame, the sheriff and his matron and the stalwart newshounds of the yellow press, tucked into a feast fit for royalty—and pints with bitters on the house.
The politicians knew the power of food to stay if not scotch the reporters’ frenzy. Still, the newshounds had to have their stories. And free flowing liquor lubricated tongues.
“Sir Hudibras, strictly off the record, what do you think about the rising tide of protests rocking this country?”
“Mr. Hashtag of the Mail, is it? Righto, then. First, I think nothing is strictly off the record. Second, to your question: I embrace the people’s right to express themselves, but I deplore the increasing violence of demonstrations. The press should take counsel on the events of 1816.”
The red haired man raised his hand and waved it in the air. The sheriff pointed to the man and said, “Young man, I hope your question for us in this dark cavern is as enlightened as the ones you voiced in the open air before we began our formal exchange.”
“My question involves the implicit persecution of aliens of all kinds in this country. Specifically, what do you think is the media’s role in resolving inherent differences of our people?”
Millstone glanced toward Sir Hudibras, who winked and sipped his pint.
“I am glad you asked that question as I have been asking it frequently. In practice, of course, equality, dignity and freedom are supreme. The role of the press, no less than our people’s personal role, is not just to espouse platitudes but to actively compose lives to serve as examples for others. Where are the stories showing the heroism of decency and goodness?”
“Touché, Sheriff. But can you give us an example?”
Millstone looked around to see an audience ready to receive in earnest. “Of many, I have a recent but telling example. In the ox bow bend in the river that runs through the park, an octopus was demonstrating its frustration to passers-by. It would change colour from blue to orange and gather all its tentacles before it lunged forward with its two leading tentacles reaching out of the water towards the nearest person. A hubbub arose, and I was called to do something about the situation before harm occurred.”
“I understand the situation. So what did you do?”
“First, I observed what was happening. I did not draw my weapon to kill the creature. Instead, I went to the water’s edge and plunged my hand into the gelid water. The octopus was curious about my gesture and stroked my hand. I stroked it in return to show I meant it no harm. Apparently satisfied, the creature retreated to its castle and fetched a blue ball. It raised the ball above the water level and threw it to me. I caught it and returned it. The octopus and I played catch for around ten minutes before it tired of the game and took the ball back to its castle where it became blue again and took a nap.”
“So what is the moral to this story, Sheriff?”
“The moral? In this case, the animal’s sign of aggression was an expression of extreme loneliness. Approached with understanding—and a willingness to elicit true feelings—the real nature of the creature’s demonstration became apparent, at least to me. Since that time, we have had no further reports of that cephalopod’s aggression.”
Sir Hudibras nodded quietly. Dame Hudibras said, “Such sensitivity will resolve most human difficulties, I think.” The Sheriff noticed that his matron’s eyes were full of tears. He handed her some tissues.
After luncheon, the officials proceeded to the portrait studio where they posed for photographs and artists’ sketches. Millstone insisted his matron be included in his portrait—the first time a non-family member was so honoured. Among the “artists” who made representations was the red haired man, who had once served as a courtroom artist. His study contained a man and an octopus playing catch with a blue ball at the ox bow of the river in the park.
The sheriff was so taken by the red haired man’s rendering he demanded it be incorporated in his official portrait. Further, he insisted that the young red haired man do a few sketches of Helga giving him her Swedish massage. The resulting collage was a first departure from convention. The portrait of Fatty Millstone became the centre of journalistic discussions about the tradition of Portrait Day.
The red haired man was so delighted by the notoriety of his stories about the sheriff’s views, he asked to be introduced to the octopus in the castle in the park. So it was the introduction led to a friendship hitherto thought to be unthinkable. Colin Trueheart (for such was his full name) and the octopus played catch with the blue ball at least once a week, after each of which Colin met Millstone at the Cracked Bell Pub for a pint.
At the sheriff’s insistence, Colin wrote and illustrated a children’s book about the friendship of a young man and an octopus. Thousands of copies were ordered by Sir Hudibras’s campaign to be distributed as gifts for donors to the party’s special causes.
That might have been the end of the story, but Cecily Goodwoman, Matron of Health, began accompanying Colin Trueheart on his book signing adventures. Not long afterward, they announced their nuptials.
Over pints at the Cracked Bell, the sheriff toasted the betrothed couple, wishing them the best of everything, however they decided to spend the rest of their lives.