The two of them, sat, in chairs facing the same direction, both to the same stacked studio wall. Several feet between them, and slightly staggered. Both slouching. One in a bow chair, the swoop of the scrolling arms holding him fast as he crosses and uncrosses his legs, jeans, his smartest, run-of-the-mill trainers fumbling one over the other, flashes of blue socks, trying to settle. Behind him lengths of material – a black ground, draped, against which he is illuminated. A can of Bulmers to his side. The other before an easel, taking colours, mixing skin. Before an easel, poised. The point of a pallet knife picking paint from two piles, each a mass of colours bruised together, hardening. One at either end of the pallet. Titanium white, Yellow ochre, Cadmium Red, Burnt Umber, Viridian Green, touch. Nicks of oilpaint pushed and scraped together in the centre of the pallet, and, with the paintbrush, wet with turpentine, from between his third and fourth fingers, mixing. When I saw her, that day, her feet… The sitter, mouth open in his push to tell, keeping a grip on the arms of the chair as he leans, reaches for his can.
Could you remove your scarf, give me a bit more jaw. Watches him, unwinding the scarf, lifting his head in mock pride, Not much of a jawline to show. Runs in the family, ‘fraid. Loosening and unwinding, a striped one of wool. Observes the jawless jaw revealing, dropping into a sag of neck, the jaw taking sudden shape with speech. Her feet, the floor, this sort of mud y’know, between her toes, an’ those legs… Jaw shaping, face shifting, gesticulating as he tells.
If you’d…try and keep still. From the canvas to the faceshape, facetone. Canvas ground toned: Raw Sienna, Umber, Ochre. What is this feckin’ chair anyways, how am I to sit still in a feckin’ chair like this? Thrown to the air. The chair is made of ash, a spindled back, turned legs, antique. A smoker’s bow chair. Granma’s chair. But not looking, skintone too hot muttering, cooler, Green, Ultramarine Blue, more White to himself, or in his head. Now don’t get me wrong, I got feck all to say to your mother’s ma, reared a grand family and all. Still living? His eyes catch the portraitist’s, decipher the headshake. Nah, of course she isn’t. I just think, would you not have a, like an armchair or something, sit comfortable? The one bulb, hanging from the middle of the ceiling, persuades day.
The eyes of the portraitist reach across, they still a moment on the sitter, and recede to the canvas. This short gaze observes and measures the height of the forehead, the shape of the cheek, chin and again, cheek, the loll of the chin. With each look a muscle tenses in the sitter’s neck, aware of the eyes, and spasms up through the jaw. As if self-conscious. As the looks continue, in sharp punches, his breath shortens, sounding across the distance between them, while holding himself still. For a time.
Exhaling long, he releases the pose, turning his full face: Here let’s have a smoke, got any on you? The other, a packet of Bensons in the breast pocket, removes a cigarette and tosses him the packet. Turns from the easel and pulls the sash-window behind open. To his feet. Strikes a match. Lights two cigarettes and a stick of incense, with the one match. Pushes a twist of material under the door, an inverse draught-stopper. On the floor a plastic cup with several cigarette ends already floating in a brown inch of water. Brown, Burnt Umber. Leaning to his model with the cup, Here, prop that between your legs. An unprepared tenderness finds form in the phrase, and both start as the cup is passed from one hand to the other. He props the cup between his folded legs, draws and exhaling settles into the chair, squeezing out words like tunes of an accordion. As I was telling you – The mud between her toes, on those paths, nearly skipping, said she’d show me the garden, gorgeous weather that day, just the two of us in the garden, skipping along the mud paths, then bending down and pulling a beetroot for me, I feckin’ love beetroot. They aren’t many that do. Face flailing with the telling, eyes somewhere following a barefoot girl on garden paths. There she was, bending. Pulling beetroot, open blouse and those feckin titties… just then, I wanted to shag her. “Shag” is long – a low bellow.
Sat, the night blowing in on his back, his ear lobes, on his own neck. Taking the paintbrush to look across, with the paintbrush seeing, sketching a gabbling mouth and reddening cheeks. Could you move your head to face me the slightest bit more. The head turns, drawing the shadow off the cheek, stops, and the jaw, the whole face in reaction: Jeeesus. That you? Like a feckin’ Queen, what, wrapped in fur. Some feckin’ fantasy, eh? Propped against the wall, in the sitter’s gaze, a self-portrait. Suits you, I’d say. A profile, wrapped in fur, opulent, Italianate, impossible. A feckin’ likeness, but not you. Off-centre, a gaze. Critics call it “engaging”, “provoking”, his “forte” they say. A gaze, sirenic, lures the onlooker, operates a transferral of the fantasised, eroticised artist-model relationship… or something. They say. Really, people just love to be looked at, people love what is beautiful, the subtly sexy, all the more to possess it. He thinks.
Like a clearing, or the weather lifting, the sitter’s own gaze stirs, starts to stumble over the room. A new curiosity tumbling over canvases, starting, catching at edges, snagging on corners. Keen on one, keeps returning to it. Where’d you find that one? Not round here, I’d say. You know what they say about those foreign ladies… She was a Caribbean girl, barely a word of English, womanly, everything in Spanish, “bien, tranquila”, but slim, met her in the café downstairs, too delighted, naïve sort, smiling and baring her shoulders, “sí, sí, bien”.
And there, Charlotte last year, and still sitting not quite over in the studio. You moved on in the world, have you? She’s a bit of alright –eh? Wouldn’t mind doing that one myself. That old charm. Charlotte, all “mwah” and “darling”, and then saying she had started to charge. Whence the privilege, the simple glory, of being the muse? Charlotte in wide-brimmed hat and floral dress, greedily splay-legged, sneering, begging to tell about her lover and his barren wife. Wanting to charge. Still sitting, Charlotte, not quite over in the studio.
Then too, the gays, seemed to pick them up all round, “do me, do my boyfriend,” never a sale, relationships always ended before the portrait, never a pound his way, but plenty of posing. Robert, and Rowan, the pink boy blush to their faces, Rowan’s slim nose, nostrils, Robert on his knees. Robert, always on his knees. The beauty of the two, Robert.
All pretty boys and princess girls. What’d you pick me for?
I like the way you look, had enough of prettiness. I’m looking for character, how can I put it: “life”? Glad to have you here. Why? “Coz, I love ya Dad.” Like on the telly. Or? What’d he tell the critics? The canvas is a space for exploring, exploiting the self, for exploring, or exploiting, desire. Were those his words? Every time I paint you I am painting me. Will you have a whisky?
I will. Now, life, I have known a bit of that. You lad, may have travelled, you may have travelled the world over. I, from Dublin, I have not put a step the far side of Birmingham. Physically, like. But, I have been places you haven’t ever been. All kinds of places, you know? In the mind, like. Travelled far in the mind. A bottle, Jameson, a couple of glasses, pushing them onto the table, pushing them into a mass of receipts, of squashed cans, cigarette packets, CD covers, scrapped sketches and crumbled charcoal massing on the table, tubes of paint squeezed dry, Ribena cartons. On the table crumpling together daily habits, piling them into a still-life. Pushing the glasses onto the table, filling them, thinking here’s to the portrait, here’s to you. Yes, your mother too. Those days. Your generation’s “worldy” thinking has nothing on those nights we spent, the places we went. With the drink y’know, the drink and the talk and the grass. And the other stuff, yes. But then, haven’t ever felt like that before. That beetroot was big, real big, purple and dropping earth. Feckin’ told her that: “I want to shag you, I never felt like this” I told her.
Passing him the glass, raising his own, Glad to have you here. I am. Here’s to that. Retreating to his seat before the canvas. Let’s get on. Let’s see your chin, bring your face to face me a touch more, ok. He’s swallowed the glass, set it down on the floor beside the can, and is sat, his gaze towards the artist, his eyes missing him. They sit. The night is cold through the open window. On his neck the cold of an uncovered night. Cold, in the warm smell of Turpentine. Incense disguising the cigarettes. Though absorbed in the sketching, at one moment he rises to pull the window closed. He shifts the canvas closer under the light, while keeping it at a same angle, pours them each another glass, shifts his chair, stoops to sit. He looks again to the canvas.
Before him, a face. Sunken, fallen into itself. Aged. Lined with long years of rage, with alcohol sunken, greyed. The eyes splintered with agelines. But the eyes. The gaze, or the snarl at the mouth, or. The jawless jawline. Resemble. A face so familiar, so long observed it takes him a moment to recognise the face thrown back by the mirror too many times. Before him, the same. The same, but wearied, dragged out of shape, ugly.
And now, across his own face, unbeckoned, a smile. His mouth opening in a smile, a grin. Now, from somewhere within, from his stomach, scuttling up from his stomach to his chest, up out of his throat:
A skittish boy laugh. Scuttering up through him, laughter, yelping and high-pitched. Boyish. In his throat, his chin, his cheeks. Stretching, splitting his jaw.
What? What the feck are you making that sound for, what the feck are you laughing at? Angry. That old anger. Catching the laughter, halting it, jarring it in his throat. Shaking, a boy.
Slow. Slow, with difficulty he raises his eyes to meet his father. Slow, he meets that anger with his eyes. Slowly, he smiles. Nothing. Smiling and now tasting the childword long unused, tapping it out against the roof of his mouth.
Nothing Dad… just… glad to have you here. I am.
He sits then. Sits and takes up his palette and takes his brush and continues to paint, to define the furrowing shape of the face before him. Both are silent. The sitter smoking. Silent. Held each in their monologue the night edges on, unspoken. The bulb hanging its glare between them provides light enough for the painting to continue. The sitter barely shifts, except to tap his cigarette into the plastic cup, to light another.
Ever do nudes? Striking through the silence, and his eyes to the artists’. The odd one. Eyes away again. I’d say flesh is your thing – know that man – Freud he’s called, like the other fellow. I would have no doubt they’re family. Saw a painting of his once, big fucker, fat as anything, stood there, cock and all, on a plinth. Never forgot that painting. A bathroom in a posh hotel. Almost ugly. But this face. Pausing, pulling another cigarette from the packet and looking for a lighter. Across his own face, an expression. Between awe and disgust.
Like real, near life-size. Look in the mirror nowadays and watch it happening to me. Don’t know if that’s Art? With matches from the table, with shaky hands, strikes several times, eventually lighting the cigarette. I mean that’s what you do isn’t it. They say you’re like they used to be, artists, paint the real thing, none of this abstract crap. I read that, I saw the thing in the paper. I read the article, son. All the articles. Went to the exhibitions too. Saw you at one, an opening night, all champagne and… stuff. I pushed in after you, heavy under drink I was…
The faltering words sit soft in the lull of rising cigarette smoke and incense, they hang below the bulb, sit soft in the warm interior air breathing turps and whisky. Then: Tell ya what, I’ll give you a bit of flesh. Always thought I’d like to bare a bit. A blush? Cadmium red? For Art like. Gurgling on the R. Arrrt.
Hadn’t really let his gaze explore the middle of the body, the body between the neck and the knees. The neck is contained in a yellow chequered shirt and the standing collar of a denim jacket, the belly buttoned in by the jacket, rounded. Hadn’t taken in the body, just sketching the face with paint, sketching the voice and expressions, the cursing, splaying over the face. He looks now to the canvas, on it something strange, foreign even, somewhat distorted, more Bacon than Rembrandt.
I mean right here, Ill just do it like, sure, wouldn’t want your dad to die never been painted nude. Knocks back a whisky, and another.
Reaching for another canvas, he sets it, removing the first, turning it away to the wall. Takes a whisky himself. Turns his back, his gaze away. Behind him the sounds of the other undressing, folding his clothes and placing them on the floor to the side of the chair. Pulls the window briefly open, struggling to push back the black fabric taped to the windowframe to lean out. Leans out, looking to the Green, three floors below, the night is dark, the streets empty. A jar of cigarette butts, now full of rainwater, is sitting, still on the window ledge. He doesn’t hesitate before knocking it off.
Got somewhere I can stand, got a feckin’ plinth for me to stand on, have you lad?
You can stand on the chair.
Climbing up onto the chair, it shudders, one of the stretchers loose from its fitting.
Himself, he cannot look, the body, the neck resisting. Held in place against the windowsill, leaning. Held there, in the night air shivering.
He pushes himself around.
In front of him, rising from the chair, from two large flat feet, in a skewy ballet pose, the toes pointing outward, toenails scuppered, small veined calves, knees bulky, bruised, from the chair rising to a draping belly, hanging buttocks pinching white where they meet the thighs, hairless, on the right hip, where the hipbone curves around to become rump, a thick hand, Rose Madder, stuck, the other stretching from the arm, out from the hairless chest to steady itself on a teetering easel. In the false daylight across the body blues and greens, purples flash. A frail body, overweight, used, once strong, smaller now, undressed. Old I realised. O-L-D. That’s what it is. Wanted to shag her and I’m jes’ too bloody Old. At the floor to the side of the chair, a yellow chequered shirt, neatly folded, two blue socks, jeans, pants, and, hanging from the corner of a self portrait, a denim jacket.
Photograph by Luis lrargerich via Creative Commons.
Olivia Heal has had fiction published in The White Review and translations in Chroma Journal. She reviews for the Times Literary Supplement.