A large puddle lay wedged between rafts of slick cobblestones reflecting the streetlight upwards like a mirror. Shapes flickered across the scene it portrayed as the colour and form of the world distilled into the meter wide stretch of shimmering water by the curb stone. Voices echoed down the street and the low hum of engines and city life bounced around the walls adding a vivid soundtrack to the pool. The thick tyre of a taxi slid and skittered its way across the stones before shuddering to a halt at the centre of the puddle, its motion casting fierce ripples far and wide causing the subtle colours and shades which had been building slowly and gracefully to bleed and merge into a swirling kaleidoscope of dampness.
Above this destruction the rear door of the vehicle swung open and a black high heel landed gently on the curb. It was followed quickly by a leg which was all but covered with a long black overcoat. A pair of hands tipped in a far from subtle red nail varnish gripped the door frame and moments later the remainder of the woman’s figure was hoisted out of the vehicle upwards into the street. She scuttled across the pavement towards a large metal door, holding her collar aloft in an attempt to shelter her from the grim northern rain. The door was embedded in the side of an old red brick warehouse and had once been covered in crisp painted writing but the course of time had worn it away leaving only grey stains on an already dirty finish. She grabbed the door handle and pushed forward, leaning all her weight on the portal causing it to creak and give way into a large room bathed in light.
Stepping cautiously across the threshold she pulled down her drenched collar revealing a thick head of dishevelled black hair which had been backcombed, waxed and tweaked until it resembled that of a 1980’s pop queen. She had a pretty face with a porcelain pale complexion and eyes that were as blue as sapphires; they seemed to pop forward from behind her cheeks as she cast an eager gaze around the room in front of her. There was a central walkway leading away from her transecting the cavernous room while large boxes of around twelve feet across lined its sides reminding her of the interior of a dolls house.
She stepped forward and peered into the first of these chambers and found the walls were lined in garish turquoise flock wallpaper. Large letters had been painted on the back of the room in a thick, dribbling blue scrawl which read ‘Have you had enough yet’. There was a fridge in the centre of the room with the door propped open and a gentle red light emitting from its core. She eyed it with a mix of surprise and disappointment before gently strolling past to the next of the large enclosures.
Strings of black plastic threaded around the walls, zigzagging up and down forming a mesh across most of the wall space like an ill-conceived spider web. Old fashioned wooden clothes pegs were jotted across these lines forming a constellation of pine with each one holding a small pink love heart of paper, punctuated with a childish scrawl. She stepped into the centre of the box and pulled the closest heart gently towards her before reading the phrase “You broke my heart” aloud gently under her breath, whispering it to the empty space around her. She let go and pulled out the next heart which read ‘I can’t believe you did that’ before moving onto a third paper cry, ‘my friend and my lover no more’. She stepped back into the hallway and turned to take in the piece in its entirety again and noticed the hearts were casually forming the shape of letters in front of her eyes. She read the phrase ‘it’s time to face facts’.
A heavy clinking sound echoed down the corridor causing her to spin on her heels and gasp. Light shone from the last box in the row casting rich shadows across the wall, vigorous with movement and energy. She began to stride towards them but stopped short as her heart beat quickened. The woman craned her hear around the edge of the enclosure and was presented with a stark white room, covered floor to ceiling in dozens of frames each containing a portrait of her. Some were in oils; some in pastels. Some were photo realistic while others merely left an impression of her form but they were all unmistakably and undeniably of her.
In the centre of the room was a tall man of around twenty years. He was wiry and thin and reminded her of a willow tree in a storm; arms flailing wildly like boughs with dramatic brush extensions splashing onto a large central canvas. It hung in the middle of the room like a body swinging steadily from a gallows. She coughed politely causing him to turn, brushes aloft and paint smears on his cheeks.
“I’m so glad you could make it,” he grinned widely. “What do you think?” The woman had stepped into the chamber and was admiring herself in a variety of different finishes as he flourished his arms around the space.
“It’s amazing. You’re amazing, really. You have such a talent in you. I’m very impressed.” She smiled at him and stepped slowly around the room, gently perusing each image before moving onto the next. “Are you happy with them?”
“Of course; I loved painting you. It was the best three months of my life, without a doubt. I think some of the best work I have ever done is in this room.” He stepped back to admire the area and its contents, especially the living breathing item it now contained. They had met in a basement bar in Camden six months ago and he had known from the first moment he saw her that he had to paint her and capture every aspect of her life and light. There was no other option. She was everything he had been looking for; his muse in fact. She turned to him and smiled broadly, blushing slightly through her foundation covered cheeks.
“I think these are masterpieces you know?”
“Well, I’ll let you into a secret. I don’t think any of these are masterpieces. Close perhaps but not quite.” He paused and looked her up and down slowly. “That said I do have one more in mind which will be. It will be the best piece I have produced to date, perhaps the best piece I will ever produce as an artist in fact. It is to be of you, if you don’t mind sitting for me one last time.”
The glow in her cheeks deepened at this suggestion and she cast her eyes to the floor. The woman had never thought of herself as much to look at before meeting the man and he had completely changed her perception of herself. He had brought out a confidence and vitality in her that she had not known had existed and would always be grateful to him for that. “Of course not, I would love to. When would you like to do it? I could come by any day next week for you if that would suit?”
“That’s what I was thinking, but I’m particularly taken with the idea if I am honest with you. This exhibition opens tomorrow and putting these pieces together has inspired me. Do you have to run off anywhere now?” He asked hopefully.
“No,” she grinned. “I don’t have any other plans.” She had made certain of this as soon as he had invited her for the pre-exhibition viewing.
“Wonderful. Well if you don’t mind, I would love to do some sketching of you here. I can finish it off in the studio later on but I feel like now is the moment. Are you sure that’s OK?”
“Marvellous.” She slipped off her coat and placed it in a crumpled heap at the side of the room while he grabbed a small wooden seat and pulled it towards her. She placed herself gently on it and crossed her legs as he clasped her wrists and arranged her hands on her knees. She was wearing a black skirt, red cardigan and a polka dot hair clip wedged aggressively in the mass on her head. He pulled gently at her fringe and slid one shoulder of her cardigan down her arm gently causing her to sigh. He pulled an easel from the side of the room and adjusted the height up and down a number of times until he seemed comfortable with it. A thick wodge of paper was placed on it and two pencils were thrust behind his ears in preparation.
“Would you like some wine?” he asked as he grabbed a bottle and a glass which sat in the corner of his space. “It’s rather good. A buyer gave it to me last week.” She nodded and smiled at him as he poured a glass full of thick red liquid and passed it to her.
“Thank you very much.” She took a deep draught from the cup and sighed. “You’re right, that is wonderful.” He returned to the easel and began the frantic elbow movement which was usually representative of sketching being underway. “I must say, I wasn’t overly impressed with the other installations when I came through. Your work definitely stands out more.”
“Thank you,” he replied gruffly. He rarely talked much when he was working. She took the less than subtle hint and sipped her way through the remainder of the wine in silence. It was a deep, full bodied red which tinged her lips as she sipped and swirled the liquid around her mouth. She liked watching him draw, especially when she was the subject; it made her feel wanted. About three months before she met him she had been through an awful break up; the kind that results in slapping, hair pulling, name calling and general bad feeling. She had been abandoned by love and had sought solace in herself. One evening her friends had managed to convince her to leave the shrine of a bedsit she occupied almost around the clock and come to a bar with them. Some band was due to play and after much discussion and holding back she finally agreed. He had been stood at the bar with a group of slightly dishevelled artistic types and she immediately felt drawn to him, regardless of the scars she still held in her heart from her recent experiences. She had sipped her drink and half engaged in conversation with her friends, all the while trying to catch his eye.
After around an hour she gave up. Her self consciousness had grown and she excused herself and made for the toilet. As she turned out of the main room and down the corridor he appeared grinning widely from ear to ear. She was taken aback until he placed one hand gently on her hip, the other into her cropped hair and kissed her. There was no conversation, no warm up, just a level of unbridled passion she had not felt before. She went limp in his arms and followed him from the bar to his small apartment two streets away. She stayed there for three days without leaving; an ‘I’m fine’ text message to her friends was the only communication she had had with the outside world during that time. Ever since then, her heart had been his in its entirety. He could do no wrong in her eyes and she would do anything to make him happy.
She stared at him now across the art cluttered room, recalling their first meeting as his convulsing arm swirled like an out of control windmill next to the paper. She felt her cheeks blush as the room grew warmer and arched her shoulders to create some air flow by her spine. The wine was going right to her head thanks to her lack of dinner which was nothing unusual for her. She never ate before meeting him in an attempt to ensure she looked her best at all times. No one had ever had this kind of hold over her but with him she had no concerns about it, she was completely submissive to his brooding artistic persona.
Small beads of sweat began to form on her forehead and her fingers started to tingle. She began to feel uncomfortable as she realised this was not a normal post-wine feeling. She looked upwards towards the man but her vision blurred and twisted around the canvas. She tried to speak but was dumb; her jaw locked firmly in her skull with her neck solid as a supporting pillar below it. Her breathing slowed and her eyes flicked around the room, desperate for a reassurance which was not forthcoming. Fear crept into her heart but she remained as motionless as a statue.
The artist put his pencil down and smiled coldly from the woman to the blank page on the easel in front of him. He had been fascinated by her like a scientist might be fascinated by an atrocious disease when it is placed under a microscope. To him she represented everything about people that he had never understood. She was like a puppy, desperate for his affection and willing to give anything to gain it, even her dignity. He walked towards her and collected the empty wine glass, placing it on the floor, before gently crossing her hands neatly on her lap.
He thought back to the first time he had seen this startled and scared deer of a creature in that God-awful bar. He could tell she was looking for a way out of her ingrained mundanity and thought he was just the man to provide her with it. Of course, actions like that don’t come without a cost; It was a great act of kindness on his part and he felt she had a debt to him for it. He pulled a thin plastic comb from his back pocket and teased at her hair line, straightening the sweaty twists of hair from behind her ears. From his top pocket he produced a tube of bright red lipstick and applied it gently to her plump, firm lips. They looked like broken rose petals on a sea of snow. He stepped back to admire the scene before him briefly before pulling his coat up from the floor, slipping it over his shoulders and walking towards the door. This would be his final masterpiece; of that he was sure. Her debt was well and truly paid.
The following day, the exhibit doors were swung wide to the public and five hundred people came through to witness the offerings from the Royal College’s latest up and coming stars. As always, some works were more impressive than others and some left a foul taste in the viewer’s mouth, but there was one above all which stood out in post event conversation. Hidden in the corner of the gallery was an installation like no other they had ever seen. A mannequin of a woman, so lifelike they could have sworn they saw her breathing, sat primly in the centre of a space, surrounded by images of her in every conceivable medium and style. It was a tribute to her plain beauty, and to the care and love the artist obviously had for her. A small plaque below the work read Still Life After Death by Anon.
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