Here’s the first chapter of my novel Cheats and Liars:
“Are you ready?”
I’m in the kitchen snaffling a crumpet dripping with raspberry jam. Of course I’m not ready. I’m never ready. I am a work in progress.
“Come on. You don’t want to be late for your own exhibition.”
I gulp. A crumb of crumpet sticks in my throat. I cough and the crumb dislodges. Jam stained spittle dribbles over my lip.
“Look at you.”
She tuts and picks up a damp dishcloth.
After she rubs the goo from my mouth and from the lapel of the blue linen jacket I grab the car keys.
“I’m driving,” she says, taking the keys from my hand. “You can drink. You always do. Just try not to offend too many people.”
“What’s it matter? They stick like dry shit whatever I say.”
“Brian! You may be known as the Greatest Living Artist in Wales but nobody likes an arsehole.”
“Like? What’s like got to do with it? They don’t care and I don’t give a toss. It’s not real Lizi; it’s a performance.”
“Then perform, pretend.”
She’s right, and I’ll need to drink so that I can stomach the unspeakable pricks. Every year I bare my arse and they come like slime to a stagnant pond, for I have no talent and they have no taste. This isn’t my life. This is some jerk spewing on cotton canvas and picking the overfull pockets of the privileged and the gullible. The gentle boy in me is lost; he’d feel sad to look through these eyes now, to see my betrayal with its parade of pseudosmilers and its fake humility. I am a hollow husk, devoid of depth. I am dead.
I strut into the exhibition hall, late, of course. Lizi’s at my side, as always.
“Fuck,” I say.
“Ssh! You don’t have to do this,” she whispers.
“Huh! What would these maggots feed on then?”
“Shut up Brian. Behave.”
But I’m right, it’s always the same. The blood-sucking creatures are here like tics on a donkey, creepily reverent expressions turned towards me.
I perform for a while, nodding at the enemy, parrying with my glass. There’s always a sexual tension present on these occasions, and as the artist I’m at the centre of it. It used to excite me, but now I’m tired of it. There’s a woman here; she’s someone I’ve noticed in gatherings like this for years, someone I filed away as a possibility. What’s her name now?
She’s standing on her own, a tall glass of white perched daintily in her hand. She’s politely examining a self-portrait, an almost greyed out silhouette, the product of a dark midwinter weekend and a darker mood.
I stand next to her. She’s petite and blonde with a sharp nose and a delicate femininity. Last year I might have loved her for a season. We’d have fucked in the orange light of autumn afternoons, sprawled on the bed in my studio, the smell of oil paints and fresh sweat sucking the passion from us. She has a presence, a light that has potential. Perhaps I can tease that beauty out of her and onto a canvas.
The name comes and with it a stirring.
“What do you think Kate?”
She smiles and her face reddens.
Another siren calls.
“You’re very beautiful. I’d like to paint you.”
My paintings are on the walls all around. She doesn’t look at me, her gaze hops and rests for a second on each one.
A quiet voice says, “thank you.”
“I do pay.”
She glares at me with sharp cobalt eyes and cheeks still blushed with pink. Yes, she would make a good subject. I would make a show of the painting process and blur her beauty into a mess of colour and form, and the painting would sell, because somewhere in that mess would be a hint of her, and that would be enough. I don’t know if I am an artist, but the world thinks so.
“I always pay my posers.” I smile. “It’s a serious offer. It is my job.”
“I do like your work,” she says.
What else can she say?
My darling Lizi comes to me. I see the sigh in her eyes, the disapproval, and for the first time, I notice a sadness too. I’m not sure whether the sadness is directly related to the sigh, or whether it’s an entity in its own right. Can sadness be an entity?
“Come on,” she says.
I follow. Tony is standing on a chair behind the drinks table. He taps a bottle on a plate to attract the attention of the chatterers.
“Simmer down cowpokes.”
He’s wearing a bloody hat too, a puerile nod to the centrepiece painting that’s given its name to the exhibition – Arizona. Arizona my arse. I was trying to paint a pair of breast-like hills from a too-dark photograph that I took in North Wales with Lizi’s phone. I blew it up on my laptop and reverse printed it out in pieces on A4 paper; then I sellotaped the pieces together.
The result was a pixellated blur of a dark landscape. I traced the major contours with a small brush loaded with a thick line of ochre and squashed the paper against the canvas so that it left an outline. I spent a couple of days titivating it, and over that time it lightened progressively, and the mounds became more angular. I stepped back to examine it and the thought Arizona Hills came to me. I’ve never been to Arizona, and had no intention of making it look like Arizona, but the name stuck.
I left it for a couple of days and then added a few lamp-black lines to give it some definition. Is that an artistic process? Does that make me an artist? I don’t know.
“Fucking pratt,” I mumble.
Lizi nudges me. “Shut up. Without Tony you would never sell any paintings, no matter how good you are.”
“That’s the bloody problem . . .”
“Ssh! People are listening.”
“Can’t you see? It’s his fault,” I whisper.
Lizi shakes her head. “Shut up,” she says again, with a staged laugh for the audience. She looks tired.
I distract myself by reading the exhibition brochure for the first time. It’s a glossy booklet, the front cover adorned with that silly painting. Inside it says:
Arizona Hills, the title painting of this unique exhibition, is an imagined landscape that represents the teeth of the American character in the mind of a young Welsh boy growing up in the shadow of the steelworks on a council estate in Llanelli.
Brian Llewelyn explores the connection between here and there, between now and then, between north and south, east and west, male and female. In fact the exhibition explores the connection between any one thing and any other thing.
I chuckle. I didn’t think that bit of crap about the ‘teeth of the American character’ would make the final cut.
Tony’s speech finishes. He’s still a pratt, but he is a player. Without him, I suppose, I would still be a moderately successful artist, selling the odd canvas, existing on handouts from the Arts Council, lecturing batch after batch of fresh deluded bastards in art schools – like buns they come, pimpled with currants and full of stodgy crap. It’s simple you clods, if you want to be an artist then do some fucking art. Paint, draw, sculpt, assemble your mundane mixed-media collages, or whatever pickles your gherkin. You do not need a B fucking A to do art, just do it.
I wander around the gallery, glugging fancily-labelled cheap wine until my consciousness descends to a state of merry apathy. Maybe now that I’ve given myself a temporary lobotomy I can communicate with the monkeys at their own level. What a terrible mixture of sharp pain and muzzy pleasure this human physiology is. Why should I care? This is me. This is what I’ve become.
A long-legged, dark-haired beauty accosts me with a shy nervous smile. I wonder if she’s rich enough to invest in a rectangle of my daubs.
I smile back at her and make a wobbly approach.
“Hello,” I say.
“They are nice,” she mumbles with a blush.
Nice? What sort of a word is nice? A cup of tea after a walk in the park is nice; a quiet half-hour on a verdant riverbank in summer is nice. My paintings are not nice, they are works of art that penetrate the soul. Is that nice?
“Nice?” I say.
“Well, I mean, um . . . striking, colourful, the composition is endless, if you see what I mean.”
Yes! I do see what she means. Now I am interested. This is one of the qualities I see in my best work. I strive for it when I remember to. I want the eye to flow around the painting, resting here on a cadmium tone, there on a splash of flat zinc white, then to recognise a momentary pattern that dissolves when it’s approached. I want that eye to dance over the surface of the painting, drop into contours of viridian and russet, bounce to the emerald peaks. I want it to devour the endless motion, the energy that floods from the heart of the universe.
I nod and smile. She shuffles closer and we stand and stare at what would be described by some, including a certain ignorant art critic, as an orange mess. This one has that endless motion. When it was finished I sat mesmerized as I explored its glowing composition. I scrutinised it for hours without finding any way to improve it.
“There,” she points at the bottom right of the canvas with a long finger that would be delicate if the nail wasn’t chewed to the quick. She’s a lovely feminine specimen, maybe a few years ago . . .
“The tail of that white oval curves up towards that white splash.” She moves her finger to point at the top left. “And then, that splash itself leads to another patch of white in the centre . . . sorry, I’m babbling.”
I laugh. “No, you’re making sense. What do you do?”
“Nothing special,” she says, “just work behind the bar at the Chapter Arts Centre. Do you know it?”
“Yes. I do,” I nod, already losing interest. “You’re very perceptive.”
She blushes again.
“I do other things as well, some counselling, I help people with their lives.”
“Oh yes,” I say, drunk enough to remain polite, noticing she has kind sexy eyes.
I am saved from my middle-aged folly by Tony and Lizi, who both appear at once. Lizi tugs my sleeve and glares at the woman.
“Come on Brian, you old bugger,” Tony beckons. “Sorry,” he says to the barmaid-cum-counsellor.
He grabs my arm. “Come and meet Richard Large.”
The woman touches me on the other arm and slips her card into my hand. I nod acknowledgement and follow Tony.
“Who the fuck is Richard Large?” I whisper.
“The Large Company, you know. Even you must have heard of them.”
Richard Large is a plump forty something in a black blazer and an open-necked red shirt. He grabs my hand and squeezes it harder than is respectful.
“You can call me Rich,” he laughs. “I’m Rich – ha ha!”
I’m already suspicious of the prick. I take a breath and force a smile.
“Rich,” says Tony, “is setting up a new factory, along with his corporate headquarters, here in Cardiff. It’s a big project, a public-private partnership.”
“Yes,” says the prick, “we need stuff on the walls, that’s what you do isn’t it? And you do it well according to my sources. You are the maker of stuff to put on walls.” He laughs again.
I keep the forced smile and nod. Though he’s described what I do perfectly, I take an instant and intense dislike to him.
“I like what I’m seeing here, but want to see more of your stuff,” he says through his unctuous lips. “Is that possible? Do you have more?”
Of course I have more, though I’m not sure I want to exchange it for this slug’s slime.
“I am a bit busy at the moment.”
“Not now, not now, I’m busy myself. Perhaps we can arrange something. I’d like to see your studio?”
“It’s not that kind of studio, and anyway, Tony here deals with all that.”
“And I will Brian, I will. Leave it to Uncle Tony, I promise we won’t disturb your artistic flow, we wouldn’t want to do that, shooting ourselves in the foot we’d be.” He makes his hand into the shape of a pistol and points at his feet. “Kapow.”
Richie Rich laughs and slaps Tony on the back. “You’ve got a good one here Brian.”
Lizi nudges me.
“Yes – all right. We’ll sort something out.”
“Good, good. Let’s make it soon.”
Rich the Prick drifts away.
Tony calls after him. “I’ll catch up with you in a bit.”
“OK Brian, nice one,” Tony says to me.
I glare at him and shake my head.
“Oh stop being such a prima donna. Who do you think pays the fucking rent?” He touches Lizi on the shoulder. “Sorry, ‘scuse the Anglo-Saxon my love.”
The evening becomes more enjoyable as the level of alcohol in my system increases. I am schmoozing like the best of them, even giving the spiel to those who are obviously too poor to buy a decent pair of shoes, never mind one of the exhibits. I’m probably making an idiot of myself but am too pissed to care. I notice Rose hovering in the doorway, shaking the rain off an umbrella. I like Rose, at least she makes the effort for the right reasons.
“Wayhay Rose,” I say, throwing my arms around her and kissing her cheeks.
“Steady on Brian,” she says. “It’s going well then?”
“As always,” I say. “Glad you could make it. I thought you had a Council meeting.”
“It finished early,” she says. “Well, actually it finished on time for once.”
Tony and the Dick called Rich barge past, both just as drunk as me by the look of them.
“We’re popping out for a smoke Bri, wink-wink, fancy joining us?” Tony says.
He’s gone before I can respond.
“Who was that with Tony?” Rose asks.
“That my dear, is Mr Richard Large, entrepreneur, now of this parish.”
“Ah!” Rose says. “I thought I recognised him.”
“He’s a prick.”
“Can’t disagree with you there Brian. Why is he here?”
“Nothing to do with me, he’s Tony’s mate, his best buddy by the look of it.”
“Good. Just watch yourself with him. He may not be all he says he is.”
I get distracted by Lizi, who is waving at me from the other side of the room. She’s probably got some potential buyer lined up.
“’Pardon me Rose,” I say, and stumble across.
I’m sitting in my studio wondering what piece of work to pick up on and whether I should consider last night’s sycophantic reactions to the exhibition. I’m in a contemplative mood, opening myself to any inspiration that may fall from the ether.
Paintings, canvases, oils, colours, portraits . . . more women? No, men, great men, so-called great men, men like, like . . . Gandhi, Mandela and Lennon, not plain portraits, but compositions of colour and form representing the essence of what made them great. The Lennon painting will include musical symbols, and references to Yoko and Paul. The dark side of the Beatle’s personality will shimmer in the shadows.
I need a bit of feedback, and although she’s not always right, I can depend on Lizi for an honest opinion. She’s in the lounge shoving a vacuum cleaner around. I push myself from the chair and move out of the studio. As I approach the lounge the terrible whine of the motor increases, threatening to consume the carefully phrased question I want to put to Lizi. I lean down and switch the cleaner off at the mains.
Lizi looks up puzzled, becoming annoyed when she sees me in the doorway.
“Put that back on.”
“In a minute. I want to run something past you.”
“Put it back on.”
Fair enough. She’s not receptive right now. The question disintegrated under the weight of her hostility anyway. I lean down and flick the switch. The whine resumes. I stay in the doorway watching, as she works pointlessly, since we have a regular cleaner who invades the house every other day. I’m about to retreat to the relative peace of the studio when she switches the machine off and faces me.
“Well,” she says, “get it over with. What is this something you want to talk about?”
“It doesn’t matter.” I can see she’s in one of her moods, best back off.
“It does matter. If it didn’t matter you wouldn’t have asked.”
“All right. It’s like this you see – there’s people, and then there’s human beings. Not all people are human beings, but all human beings are people. Just because you’re a person doesn’t mean you’re a human being. Human beings are more than people, they’re like gods, they understand, they’re special people.”
Oh shit, that’s not how I wanted to put it.
Lizi takes a breath. “That’s just Nazi thinking. I suppose you’re putting yourself in the human-being sub-group. You think you’re a god don’t you? You’re a dangerous person, and, I’m ashamed to say, you’re a human being. We, that’s everyone on this planet who inhabits a human form, is a human being. Do you think the things you feel are unique? Do you? Well, do you?”
“Ssh,” I say softly, holding my hand out towards her. “I was only saying, that’s all.”
This is a bit over the top, even for a moody Lizi, I wonder if there’s something else going on with her.
“Don’t you palm me. Why don’t you go and find some tart in town to toss off your ageing ego.” Lizi turns her back on me and switches the vacuum cleaner on.
I get it. She thinks I’m still screwing around. If only she knew. The truth is, it’s just not happening any more. Perhaps it’s all over, perhaps it’s because I’m not happy with my work, perhaps I’m just shit in all departments. But whatever I am I need her support, and here she is, once again sweeping aside the fragile web of my artistic personality. Why can’t she just humour me now and again?
“Fuck you Lizi.”
She switches the machine off and stares at me, the steel shaft of the vacuum cleaner gripped in her hand like a primed spear.
“Did you just tell me to fuck off?”
“No. I did not. But I think I will fuck off.”
I open the door and walk out.
“Fuck off then,” she shouts, “and don’t bother coming back. And while you’re at it, why don’t you go and . . .”
That’s all I hear. I’m already halfway along the path, the door slamming shut behind me. This is easy, the Club will still be open, with a bit of luck she’ll have calmed down by closing time.
It’s good to see another red dot on one of my paintings, a little oil pastel of a green view in Carmarthenshire. The Club has turned out to be a good place to display my lesser work, the kind that doesn’t fit a formal exhibition. It’s a good club, in the sense that it attracts the kind of people who can afford to buy the odd work from the country’s Greatest Living Artist.
Tony’s here, sitting at the bar flirting with the teenage barmaid.
I poke him in the back. “Come on Tony, even I couldn’t justify that.”
“Fuck off,” he says.
“Not you as well,” I say.
“What’s up Bri? Getting a hard time at home boyo? Never mind, Uncle Tony will look after you.”
I’m looking at the painting with the red dot. It could be brighter, the colours look dull in this light, not one of my best.
Tony nudges me. “Hey, come back, you went off on your travels for a bit there.”
“Sorry, yes.” I sit down at a small table with Tony and a pint of cold lager.
“Bloody artists,” he chuckles.
“Another one gone then,” I say, nodding at the dot.
“You’ll see a tidy sum from that little beaut. Not bad after the Club’s commission and the gallery’s cut. You are hot boy – smoking.” He clenches his hand like a gun and points his index finger at me. “Kapow!” he says. “Smoking!”
“Get off the stage, no one’s clapping,” I grunt. Tony is a tosser, useful sometimes, but still a tosser.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he says. “Jake is on his way over. I was going to give you a ring anyway.”
“Jake the Fake?”
“You shouldn’t call him that, not in public at least. He’s been good to me over the years, and he’s involved in the Large company’s project. He’s running it from the council’s side. Did I tell you how much it’s worth?”
I shrug. I’m not interested.
“Ah!” says Tony. “Here he is.”
Tony’s smile is wider and more slimy than usual. He slaps Jake the Fake on the back.
“Lovely to see you Jake.”
Jake isn’t impressed, he’s a mean-looking bastard, pinched face and small cold eyes.
“Brian,” he nods at me.
I can only grunt in response. He knows I don’t like him.
“I’ve been telling Brian about the commission,” Tony says, grinning. “Can you remind me how much it’s worth.”
Jake takes a breath. “Well, the total budget is two hundred and fifty thousand pounds.”
I laugh. “Another one of your fantasies Councillor?”
Jake’s eyes narrow. He takes a more deliberate breath.
“I don’t know why I bother Tony, why did you drag me over here?” He says.
“And me,” I say.
“Shut up Brian. What’s the matter with you?” Tony says.
“He’s got form,” I say. “Promises revolution, delivers sod all, unless there’s something in it for him – typical politician.”
Tony touches Jake’s arm. “Don’t listen to him Jake. He’s just winding you up.” He glares at me.
I’m not in the mood for this shit.
“Fuck you,” I say. “Fuck you both. In fact why don’t you both fuck off.”
I mean it and even though I know they won’t fuck off, I don’t care if they do. I know what this is about. I’d like to let Jake know what I know, shock him out of his preposterous posturing as some champion of the arts. What Jake does is nothing to do with the art. The art is just a convenient vehicle for his fakery.
Tony chuckles. “Artistic temperaments eh!” he says.
Tony glares at me again. He’s hoping I won’t continue to rant. I won’t, not yet anyway, might as well hear what they’ve got to say, got to keep my options open. I do know what it takes to get a commission from this man, but I don’t know if I’ve got the stomach for it. I also know I must not show that I know.
“A series of a dozen paintings, it’s a good commission.”
Tony nods silently.
“I don’t do commissions.”
“You can have artistic freedom; and it’s a lot of money, even for you,” Tony says.
“I can do what I want?”
“Yes, so long as they fit,” Jake says.
“What if they don’t?”
“Well I suppose we could always change the design, but there are other factors. Let’s meet up; I’ll go through the brief and show you the plans, and we’ve got a little 3-D model; we’re still open to suggestions.”
I nod, despite my misgivings, a guy’s got to work. I hope I don’t regret getting tangled in this snake’s snare.