Updated May/June 2013
The first three chapters of Cheats and Liars. Publication Spring 2013.
Everyone’s a cheat or a liar, or both. What happens when the Greatest Living Artist in Wales decides to stop playing the game?
Brian Llewelyn is an artist at the peak of his powers, in fact he’s the Greatest Living Artist in Wales. Despite his success, or perhaps because of it, his life seems worthless. He decides to redeem himself by investing heavily in a community arts project.
Following this altruistic path exposes the fragile foundations his success is built on. His life disintegrates and his career evaporates as the corrupt liars and cheats propping him up turn on him.
Cheats and Liars is an exploration of success and its fallout set deep in the psyche of Brian Llewelyn, The Greatest Living Artist in Wales.
* First rough draft is complete. Here’s the first 3 chapters while the rest of the book is being edited for self-publishing in Spring 2013 – unless a publisher makes me an offer before then
* Update May 2013 – Proofreading almost complete – nearly there
* Updated with new small edits – June 7, 2013
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CHEATS AND LIARS
You should know that I am a cheat and a liar.
O N E
“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 cling like leeches 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. 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, though I’ve never been to Arizona, and had no intention of making it look like Arizona.
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 false 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 rectangle 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.” Tony 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?” Jake 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.
T W O
I’m having a frustrating day, picking up random pieces of unfinished work and looking for ways to finish them. Nothing’s working. Maybe it’s time to hold my hands up. I’ve had a good run. But what will I do instead of all this? This is me, this is my life. I’m not capable of doing anything else. I am cursed by my success. Perhaps it was too easy and it came too early? I need a challenge. I don’t want to waste a single puff of whatever precious breath the gods have allocated to me on some themed corporate shit.
The Mandela-Lennon idea is all right as far as it goes, but it’s not real. The subjects are not real. they are just photos and descriptions to me. I need a being of flesh. I need that rawness, that hissing spirit.
Jasper is around somewhere, flicking at particles of imaginary dust more than likely. She gets paid for visiting the house a few times a week to rearrange the cushions. I won’t let her near my studio, she’s a cheat and I don’t trust her. Lizi seems to like her though, perhaps it’s an ego thing. I don’t suppose it’s Jasper’s fault that Lizi cleans the place obsessively during the few spare hours she has, between her work in the hostel and the various clubs and committees she’s involved in, and of course her frequent visits up the valleys to visit her frail mother.
Jasper’s in the kitchen. I can hear the cupboard doors opening and closing, glass, metal, and porcelain clashing, and water running. I chuckle to myself; she’s a liar; there’s her name for a start. Jasper? Where the hell does a woman get a name like that? She’s not fooling me, she should know that. She’s either stupid or she doesn’t care. I wonder how she’ll react if I talk to her? I mean actually try to have a proper conversation. It would be the first time.
I go to the kitchen and stand in the doorway watching her for a minute. She is taking cutlery from the drawer, wiping it slowly with a linen tea-towel, and putting it back the right way round.
She becomes aware of my presence and turns around to face me.
“Excuse me Mr Llewelyn,” she says, with a deferential dip of her head, but there is a fierce flame in her dark eyes.
My eyes scan her body, or as much of it that shows through the unflattering clothes she’s wearing. Here we go again. I might regret this.
“I wondered if you’d ever considered modelling. You have good bone structure,” I say.
The truth is, I notice that under that shabby smock there is promise of a smooth firm body, and when her eyes flare with that fire a sliver of her true light escapes. I am inspired.
Her smile surprises me.
“You are serious?”
“Now will do. Unless you’ve got to be somewhere else?”
“How much will you pay. Will you pay?”
“I don’t know, say twenty quid an hour?”
“Will I need to take my clothes off?”
“Maybe, at some point. You’re fine as you are – for now.”
She looks herself up and down. “Not like this. Let me go home and change.”
The moment will pass. “Look, it doesn’t matter now; another time perhaps?”
“Wait.” She disappears from the studio.
I hear her hurry upstairs.
I smoke a cigarette and obey.
She comes back into the room. Her dark hair is loose and flows over her bare dusky shoulders. She’s found a purple satin evening dress in Lizi’s wardrobe.
“I hope it’s all right – I don’t think it’s ever been worn. I will look after it.”
The dress is ridiculous but the texture and form of her shoulders are a beautiful delight.
“It’ll do,” I say.
It’s impossible to predict when a painting session will become that ersatz spiritual experience when everything flows and the light writes itself onto the canvas. It can be hard and painful trying to achieve that state, and more times than not the trying ends in disappointing failure. But that pain has to be endured, otherwise there is no art.
Then, all of a sudden it comes, the truth comes through, and when it comes it’s always a surprise and a delight.
That’s how it is with Jasper. The light comes easily from her, and through my brush onto the canvas. As I paint I look around the studio at the discarded works in progress I have accumulated over the previous few weeks; they are like dead soggy leaves on the path that leads to this brilliance.
I work for hours without a break, and Jasper, bless her, senses that I need that concentrated flow and says nothing. I stop only when my bladder threatens independent action.
“Right,” I say. “That’s it for today,” aware that Lizi will be home in an hour or so and not wanting yet to tell her about my latest muse. “How long has it been?”
“Four hours,” she says.
Not quite, I think, but give her a hundred pounds, and ask her to keep the afternoon a secret until the painting is done. Jasper nods, takes the money and disappears. She doesn’t ask to look at the canvas, she has good instincts. I don’t really look closely at it myself, just turn it to the wall, nip to the loo, and walk up to Gino’s for a coffee.
Gino, poor bastard, is on his own, servicing a fussy handful of late afternoon lingerers. He waves at me as I sit at a favoured small table by the window. From here I can watch the idiots on the pavement outside as they perambulate past, earnestly fulfilling the pointless errands they use to justify their cushy lives. The usual crew are out in their finery, parading their over-preened selves or putting on a studied dishevelment; both modes are acceptable.
I make an A sign with my forefingers and thumbs as Gino swishes by. He does not look happy but he smiles to acknowledge my order for an Americano. A sacrilegious way to serve the angelic bean in his opinion but he has long since stopped trying to haul me over from the dark side. ‘You may as well drink warm water,’ he used to sneer. That’s how we became friends, if friends we are.
Friendship generally evades me; my best friend Phil pops up now and again, but that’s about it. I tend to avoid most people. It’s my choice, I guess I’m a misanthropist. Who can blame me; most people are barely conscious, and are content to wallow in the swamp of lies that define their life. Gino’s different, normally a happy soul, unimpressed by posing and whingeing and always kind and caring, but today he looks sad.
There’s some relief when a lovely dark-haired woman strides past in the street outside. I remember her from the exhibition. She gave me her card, a twinkle and a gentle touch on the arm. I didn’t bite then. I don’t know if it’s because I’m finally beyond all that, or if it was the vile occupation, listed in some cheap italic font that was supposed to convey sophistication and class. ‘Life Coach,’ it said. Life Fucking Coach; who needs a fucking life coach? What do they do? Do they pop out from your pillow at seven and bundle you from bed? Do they pull you from your porridge at eight and escort you to the bus-stop? Do they dither at your desk and teach you how to enhance your email experience?
I notice that Gino has finally managed to resist puking long enough to brew the abomination that is my coffee. He brings it over and sits opposite me with a glass of water. There are now just three or four other customers in the caff, licking the remnants of afternoon treats from fat fingers.
“Hello Mr Llew,” Gino sighs his usual greeting. He’s called me that ever since he found out that Llew is the Welsh word for lion. It used to amuse him but now it’s just habit. He doesn’t follow the greeting with his usual roar.
“Sorry.” He pushes his mouth into an apologetic pout. “I was too late for the exhibition. Every day I tried, and every day I was too late.”
“It’s all cool Gino. It’s all bollocks anyway. Now you, you do something useful, you take a humble bean and turn it into heaven. You are the true artist.”
“Shame the rest of this city don’t think the same.”
He sighs again.
“What’s up Gino?”
“I try. I work so hard, especially now that I’m more or less on my own.”
“I did notice. Business not good?”
“Terrible Mr Llew. It’s not been the same since the so-called recession. And Bethan has abandoned me, she works in an office in town, on the phone all day, too tired in the night, and going out with workmates the rest of the time. It’s all part of the job, she says. And Angelo, he is drinking and smoking drugs too much, since he lost his job, and he seems to have given up his course too. Sorry Mr Llew, I don’t mean to talk so much. It’s all right really, I just have to adjust, that’s all.”
“Yeah, you’ll be all right Gino. I’m sure they can’t stay away too long, not from your coffee, and your pizza, the best in town.”
“Nobody gives a toss, really, do they? I mean, you know that. You’re always telling me that people are all arseholes. Fucking arseholes.”
Gino is swearing? It must be bad.
“Is there anything I can do?” I ask.
“Not unless you can drink a hundred cups of that dishwash every day,” Gino laughs. “No, you’re all right Mr Llew. If only I had more customers like you.”
I look around the café. It is looking a bit tired.
“The place could do with a splash of paint,” I say.
“It wouldn’t be enough,” he says. “People these days expect more. They want things to be slick and perfect.”
“Spoilt bastards,” I say.
At least he manages a smile.
Jake the Fake has been in touch with Tony, putting pressure on about the commission. I wonder how much of a kickback he’s getting? Now, Tony tells me that there are no rules apart from the simple brief. It’s a straightforward job, twelve paintings on the loose theme of the city’s Welsh identity, what makes Cardiff Welsh, that sort of thing. No doubt they’ll be expecting coal and rugby. Maybe I will do it, maybe I can play with those expectations, undermine the myths, and do it in a way that they won’t notice until it’s too late. Could be fun. It’s easy money, not that I need it; but you never know, maybe I’ll do something useful with it, donate it to a donkey sanctuary or some such place.
Kate’s in the studio. She’s sitting on a stool in front of a canvas already under-painted with a yellow, that in the right light would match the colour of her hair, but it’s a dark afternoon and my arm and my brain refuse to cooperate. There’s unlikely to be any painting today.
“Sorry to drag you here Kate, sometimes it’s just not there.”
She shrugs. “It’s cool. Do you mind if I have a look at some of your work? Before I go?”
“Of course not, carry on, take as long as you like. Just remember that most of it is work-in-progress. Do you fancy a cuppa, or something else?”
Her eyes lock onto mine for a moment. Her lips part and she smiles. Oh God! I fancy her so much right now. The feeling is overwhelming, it takes all I’ve got to hold myself still.
“I did notice that,” she says, still smiling with that killer blend of coyness and promise that I can never resist.
She’s pointing at the Malt on the windowsill.
“I can never resist that,” she says.
I’m glad of the chance to turn my back on her and prepare the drinks.
“Water?” I ask.
“Just a little please.”
She picks her way around the studio, tentatively poking at half-finished canvases. I hand her the whisky.
“That one there.” She points at the canvas that will become a portrait of Jasper. “Is that the type of thing you’re going to do with me?”
“Possibly,” I say. “I am interested in portraits at the moment, especially of beautiful women.”
It’s just instinct I suppose, or experience, or both, but I can’t stop myself flirting.
Her face reddens but her eyes still invite. I hope I’m not misreading this. This is the first time I’ve felt alive below the belt for months. I think of Lizi, but this is only sex and it can only do our relationship good in the long run. This could be the last one, should be. Yes, I can finish on a high. I’m sure I can do it, and I don’t read any expectation of anything other than sex from Kate. Anyway, I’ve got to keep my options open, the mood Lizi’s been in.
I fuck Kate in the afternoon. She’s a fine woman, there is a rare blush to her skin, especially in the dim orange light.
“When will you paint me?” she says in her hush of a voice.
I laugh. “You are wonderful.”
Her smile and that light spark the fire, the painterly cells in me ignite.
I am away.
I’m having a ‘formal’ meeting with Tony, the quotes are his, he insists that we have to do this every now and again, even though I see him in the Club almost every day. We’re ‘discussing’ the commission that’s on the table.
“You can take a holiday after this Brian, you and that lovely missus of yours can get away somewhere. I’ll sort something out for you if you like. It’s all part of the service, got to look after my biggest earner.”
“I haven’t said I’ll do it yet,” I remind him.
“No,” he says. “I get that. I understand where you’re coming from, but for fuck’s sake Brian, it’s easy money and you already know you can do what you like. No one’s going to compromise your artistic fucking integrity.”
“I though this was a formal meeting,” I say.
“Sorry, yes, but you know what I mean.”
“It’s not as easy as that Tony, you can give me all the artistic freedom in the cosmos but it’s still you, giving it to me, it’s still a commission, and that idea will infest every angle, every curve, every brush-stroke.”
“Well, just hold your nose or something.”
I flounder for a week, fretting about the work Tony wants me to do. Even the thought has already poisoned me, but maybe Tony’s right, it’s not like working down a fucking coal mine or anything.
I need to get some distance away from this so I can put it back into perspective. Besides, Lizi’s been in a weird mood lately, snapping at everything I say, avoiding my company. Can’t say I blame her, the state I’m in, moping around the studio, smoking, drinking, and falling asleep on the settee. So I’m definitely going to make the effort today
I’ve made the effort. I’m showered and shaved. I’ve even managed to work the washing machine after stabbing randomly at the buttons. The tumble drier is easier, but I haven’t bothered with the iron. The kitchen is clean, despite the frenzied cooking spree of the afternoon. It’s good to know I can still throw a decent curry together. I’ve even made some onion bhajees, they used to be my speciality, a messy business.
There’s chocolate, and flowers, not something I understand really, but it does seem to help; and there’s a couple of bottles of Lizi’s favourite Malbec. At the very least she’ll see that I’ve made that effort she’s always going on about.
Lizi gets in about half six. She looks tired, and although she scans me suspiciously, she doesn’t say anything.
I hand her a glass of well-breathed wine and guide her to the dining room. She sits down shaking her head.
“I don’t get it Brian. What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” I say, trying to look innocent, but thinking of that last time with the delicious Kate.
“This isn’t like you,” she says.
“I just felt like it,” I say. “Just been thinking about how lucky we are, especially about how lucky I am. I know I’ve not been very good at it, but you must know how much I love you.”
“I guess so,” she’s still not sure.
I’m trying hard here, because I do love this woman. She is literally my other half; without her I would be lopsided and fall over. I smile at the thought.
“I’m serious,” I say.
I’ve got to put Kate out of my mind though, not because I feel any inclination to fuck her again, but because I don’t want Lizi to get suspicious, she’s very intuitive.
“Oh, all right,” she sighs, taking a sip of the Malbec. “Nice. Thanks.”
The meal is good despite the overcooked vegetables, and at least we’re talking in a civilised, almost matter of fact way. She’s doing well at work, but everyone there is stressed, fighting to retain their funding. Her mother is doing well too.
“We could go and visit her on the weekend if you like,” I suggest.
Lizi laughs. I open a second bottle.
“This curry isn’t too bad,” she says. “It’s growing on me.” She pats her stomach. “Literally.”
We laugh together.
She spoons more food onto her plate. I do the same, not because I’m still hungry, but because I want to share with her.
“So,” I say, “what do you reckon?”
Lizi covers her mouth and laughs again. “Don’t push it Brian.”
“I’m serious,” I say. “I’m telling you, things are going to change, they already have.”
I tell her what I think about Tricky Dicky and about Fake Jake, about how Gino is having a tough time of it, and (it slips out under the wine) about the portrait of Jasper. She laughs so much at the image of Jasper in the purple dress that the wine spurts from her mouth and dribbles over her lip.
I tut and wipe her mouth with a paper napkin. It’s a joy to see her relaxing. I like this Lizi. I’m not sure if I like that other Lizi, the one with the inexplicable moods.
I find a bottle of Shiraz in the kitchen and remember about the ice cream I’ve left to defrost in the fridge. It’s a bit runny but we scoff it all anyway.
We’re stuffed like anacondas, and it’s all we can do to get to the lounge and fall flat on our bellies on separate sofas.
I wake at half three feeling sick and bursting for a piss. Lizi’s not in the room. I go upstairs, relieve myself in the en-suite, drink a glass of water, and fall down next to her on the bed. She rolls over and kisses me on the cheek. I respond but she’s already snoring.
Despite last night’s excesses we are both up at seven. I’ve already made the coffee when Lizi comes into the kitchen, freshly showered and looking lovely.
“Morning,” she says. “Hmm, that smell.”
“Do you want some toast?” I ask.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to eat for a week after last night. Thanks Brian, that was nice.”
This is so good. This is the sort of life I envisaged – success as an artist, beautiful wife, partner anyway, nice house. Why have I forgotten all that? Nothing changes just because you forget to appreciate it, except your perception of it, and maybe that’s all it is, the key to life, just a small shift in your attitude towards things.
Lizi gets off to work. “See you later,” she says. “And behave yourself.”
“Aye Aye!” I salute.
Can it really be this easy?
The answer comes quickly. Within a few days Tony’s whining has snuffed out the pathetic tea-light of my optimism and I’m back to moping around the house during the day, only looking forward to seeing Lizi in the evenings when she comes home from work. When she is here, she’s too tired or busy working on her laptop, poking about in spreadsheets, or on the phone, emailing and texting. I understand, I will be patient, she’s put up with enough from me over the years.
Lizi’s tiredness has turned to impatience, and when she’s not snapping at me she’s ignoring me. Why is she being such a bitch? The other day, when I went to all that effort for her I thought I’d cracked it, thought we were together again – properly. Yet, here she is, virtually ignoring me, dismissing me with shrugs and grunts.
“What’s up Lizi?” I ask. “Hard day at work? Can I get you anything?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake Brian,” she says. “Cut the crap.”
“I don’t understand . . .”
She gets up off the sofa suddenly, and snaps. “I was trying to read the newspaper.”
“Sorry,” I say.
“I’m going to have a lie down,” she says as she leaves the room.
I really don’t get this but I already know that there will be no more discussion or any explanation tonight. Lizi is unmovable when she’s in this mood.
T H R E E
The thin layer of clouds is silvery-grey below the moonlight. I wonder if I can reproduce that effect on canvas? The streets are damp after a shower of rain, and the moonlight blends with the orange glow from the street lights in the film of water on the paving slabs. I am jogging carefully; I don’t want to slip and crack something for a bag of chips.
It’s too late. He’s unmoved through the plate-glass. It’s a minute past ten o’clock. His shop is closed. He’s a prick but I admire his stubbornness. It’s there in black on white. Opening Times: 6pm to 10pm. He has his parameters, his principles. Where have mine gone? What became of that well-meaning boy?
Never mind, I’m in a good mood, despite Lizi’s continued grumpiness, probably because I’ve just had a gorgeous evening in the studio touching up the paintings of Jasper and Kate. Just one more sitting with each of them should do it. They make a good pairing; the delicate blue-eyed blonde and the vigorous brown-eyed brunette, each with that defiant light and a core of steel. Perhaps one day I’ll bring them together. I wonder if I’ll ever fuck Jasper?
Onwards towards the main street and a later-opening chip shop, they do bigger portions anyway. Despite the showers it’s a fine night for a walk through the terraces. The streets are empty of people, the windows of the huddled houses glowing with warmth and promise.
There are three human shapes at the other end of the street; they’re walking towards me. I notice a swagger in their jumbled gait. We travel inexorably towards each other; they’re young, arrogant, and drunk. One of them is a chubby girl, the others are two lank boys. One of the boys is holding an unlit cigarette to his mouth.
“Have you got a light mate?”
I shake my head and look down, hoping.
“What’s the time man?” the other boy says.
I shake my head again, perhaps too dismissively.
The girl kicks me in the shin. I stumble and carry on walking with my head down.
“Oi!” shouts the girl. “Ignorant pig. Have some fucking manners.”
I limp on.
I hear running behind me on the wet pavement. Suddenly the boys are facing me, blocking my path. They hold their arms out towards me.
“You heard her mate.”
“Excuse me,” I say, and move forward purposefully aiming for the gap between them.
They close in; the heat of the girl’s breath, panting against the back of my neck, triggers some primitive response; I take a deep breath and lift my head, leaning towards the boys.
“Get out of my fucking way.”
I take another breath and move forward, bump my way between them and stride on. It works, they are disoriented long enough. I stride up the street. I’m almost at the junction with the main road.
“Fucking tosser,” the girl screams.
I turn into the security of the busy street, with its pubs, restaurants, and takeaways. I’m hyperventilating, my heart bouncing in my chest. I lean against the wall in the doorway of a vacant shop. Demons, they are demons, infesting this sodden world, but I’m strong and they can’t harm me. I must remember to breathe slowly, to touch that light inside me. I close my eyes and focus, calming down, regaining my sense of stability.
I open my eyes and the gurning faces of those vile demons fill my view. The girl pulls her arm back and jabs me in the groin. More hard knuckles jab at my face. I crumple forward.
There is blankness.
I hear voices as the sounds of the streets return.
“Brian – Brian?” says a familiar voice.
“Is he hurt bad?” asks a distant unfamiliar voice.
I grunt and push myself up. Gino’s son Angelo is here amongst the rubberneckers.
“I’m all right,” I say. “I’m fine.”
“You’re lucky,” someone says.
Someone else pats Angelo on the back: “Well done you. God knows what would have happened if you hadn’t intervened.”
Angelo shrugs. “They’re just losers.”
“Thank you Angelo,” I say, “for whatever it is you did. I can’t remember, I must have blacked out.”
“Knocked out more like,” says Angelo. “And they really are just a bunch of losers you know. You don’t need to worry about them. They caught you off guard.”
“Do you know them; will you get in trouble for this?”
Angelo shrugs. “So what?”
The small group of onlookers disperse. I’ve lost my appetite, so I begin the walk home, Angelo at my side like a bodyguard.
“I’ll be fine Angelo, there’s no need.”
“It’s cool Mr Llew. I like you. You’re one of the good guys.”
I’m embarrassed. Me? One of the good guys? What have I ever done for Angelo? He’s just Gino’s son and all I ever give Gino is the price of a cup of coffee. In return, I get back countless hours of free therapy as he listens to my endless moaning.
I can only say, “You too Angelo, you too.”
He smiles; I feel a bond grow between us. I wonder what it’s like to have a son. Remembering the anxiety in Gino’s eyes, I guess it must be hard.
“So, how’s it going with you then?” I ask, as we walk slowly up the street towards my house.
“I’m all right Mr Llew. Just a bit of this and a bit of that you know.”
“How’s college going?”
“I dunno,” he says. “It’s boring.”
“What are you doing there? I forget.”
“To be honest I’m leaving. It’s not working for me any more.”
“Oh! What will you do?”
“Dunno yet, probably have to get a job. There’s not much about though. Might have to move away to London or something. Don’t tell Dad though. He’s got enough problems.”
“What do you want to do?”
Angelo shrugs. “Something simple, bar work or something. I dunno.”
“What happened to that band you were in?”
“Ah, it didn’t work out. It’s a waste of time, all that.”
I nod. I remember how excited Gino was in the build up to Angelo’s first gig.
We arrive at my house. By now Angelo’s despondency has overwhelmed me. I feel hopelessly sad. I shake his hand awkwardly and let myself in.
The house is dark and cold. I climb the stairs to the bedroom. Lizi is lying motionless beneath the quilt, her back towards the door.
“Everything all right?” I ask.
She moves slightly to signal she’s alive but doesn’t respond.
“Good,” I say, closing the door gently.
In the bathroom mirror I see the blood and the bruising for the first time. I touch my face, it’s a little tender here and there but it’s not as bad as it looks. I tug off my clothes and step into the shower.
The shower helps diminish the shock of the attack, I put my dressing gown on and go into the studio. Perhaps I can do some painting. Besides the portraits of Jasper and Kate, I have another dozen canvases completed or nearing completion. These are works I held back from the exhibition because they didn’t fit the theme and are of a type that my current audience might not appreciate. They’re in a naïve style, colour and shape their dominant attributes.
It’s only a quarter past eleven so there’s a possibility of a decent session. Nothing comes. I stare blankly at the canvases. There’s nothing there. No light. No beauty. No skill. No art. No soul. I go to the lounge and sip from a bottle of Malt, watching crap television until after two. I fall asleep on the settee.
The front door slamming as Lizi leaves for work wakes me up. It must be eight o’clock, a long lonely day ahead. I make tea and toast listening to the news on the radio in the kitchen.
Throughout the day, still in my dressing gown, I shuffle between the studio, the kitchen and the lounge before flopping on the bed in the early afternoon. Lizi hasn’t made the bed and it still smells of her. We’re like magnets moving around each other but never touching, never finding the right polarity. I resolve to make an effort tonight, we’ll do something together, perhaps I’ll cook again. Yes, I think, drifting into sleep.
The sound of the front door slamming rouses me again. It must be Lizi returning from work. I lie still for a few minutes, then roll off the bed and go downstairs.
Lizi’s in the kitchen. She won’t look at me as she prepares a salad.
“Did you have a good day?” I ask.
“Yes thank you,” she says, too formally.
I go upstairs to get dressed. My mobile phone rings, it’s Tony.
“Hey Picasso you old bastard,” he says, “where are you?”
“At home,” I respond automatically.
“Good,” he says. “Get on over to the club as soon as you can, I’ve got some good news.”
“Sorry Tony, no can do.”
“This is worth a lot of money mate. Come on . . .”
I disconnect the phone and go downstairs. Lizi’s eating her salad at the kitchen table.
I sit down opposite her.
“Lizi,” I say, reaching across to take her hand.
She pulls her hand away and looks up at me.
“My God Brian. What have you done?”
I remember about my face.
“Oh,” I say, “that’s nothing, I just slipped, fell against a wall. It’s nothing.”
“Were you drunk? When was this?”
“No, I was not drunk. I was running for the chippie last night, that’s all, the pavement was wet.”
“Fair enough,” she says, returning to her salad.
“I thought we could go out tonight, maybe see a film, or a play, if there’s a decent one on.”
“No can do,” she says.
“I’m meeting Mary.” She stands up and glances at the clock on the wall. “In fact, I’d better get going. It’s an early showing. Don’t wait up though, we’ll probably go for a drink afterwards; might even stay over at Mary’s if it gets too late.”
“All right,” I say.
“There’s some salad in the fridge, some left over potatoes there as well if that’s not enough.”
Ah well, on my own again. I could do with a drink and a laugh; I’ll go and humour Tony after all.
The Club is already draped with the overpaid underemployed dolts. Tony’s regaling a couple of brain dead bimbos at the bar, his greasy hair, like zombie fingers, trails over the collar of his candy-striped Paul Smith shirt.
I yank his arm. “Well?”
He winks at the girls. “In a bit, got some business to see to.”
The girls smile at him. One of them looks at me. I’ve got to admit that she is beautiful, bronzed skin, well proportioned features and a strong nose. Her bright eyes look into mine through the chasm of our existence and we connect for a second, then, she is away with her friend, heading for a quiet corner.
Tony turns to me and flicks his wrist. “Smoking!” he says.
“What’s all this Tony? What’s so urgent? Is it something to do with those wankers, Fakeman and Dickhead?”
“Yes, it’s in the bag boy. Have you made a start on them, you promised you would.”
“No I didn’t.”
“Anyway, that can wait a bit, I haven’t had the deposit yet. I wanted to tell you that they’ve upped our cut, another twenty grand. We’re well into six figures boy, over a hundred grand, just for a dozen canvases, c’mon.”
“I thought it was two-fifty?”
“Yeah, well, there’s expenses, and commission, and the overheads of the project.”
I feel trapped and used. I’d rather be dead. I’m a fucking artist, not a commodity.
“Fuck it Tony. I won’t sell to those toads anyway. I don’t want their dirty money, don’t want to see their filthy faces again.”
“You don’t need to, they’re not interested in the art, or in you personally. It’s the image they want, it’s marketing, plus you are a good investment. They can’t lose. You can’t lose.”
“No. Fuck you. It’s not about money.”
“You’re losing the plot boy. You’ll end up ruining yourself.”
“So what? The answer is no.”
I turn and walk towards the door. I’m shaking. ‘Get a grip man,’ I mutter to myself.
I walk down the street to my house. It’s getting darker now. There’s a dampness in the air that reminds me of last night. There are a few people about, walking quickly in the shadows, they all have their missions to fulfil I guess. I try to keep my head down, focussing on an imaginary moving spot a few metres ahead of me, but I can’t help myself, my head flicks from side to side and swivels around assessing potential threats. I feel like an albino crow, vulnerable and persecuted.
I enter the empty house and bolt the door behind me. I’m still shaking. I down another half bottle of Malt and fall asleep on the studio floor.
I wake up freezing at four and immediately start painting, grabbing new canvases and throwing the paint at them in a glorious blaze of pure creativity. The new canvases run out so I start on the half-finished rejects stacked against the outside wall.
By midday there are ten canvases splayed around the studio. Perhaps I’ll let the bastards have them, I think. They’re only acrylic abstracts, but it’ll be satisfying to take their hundred grand for a morning’s work. That will shut Tony up for a bit, keep him tanked up with golf clubs and Paco Rabanne water. I laugh to myself, Tony’s right, I am losing the plot. I grab my warmest fleece from the back of a chair, and head up to Gino’s for coffee and sanity.
The café’s unlit and the door’s locked. I peer through the glass. Gino is sitting in the dim light at the back of the shop, the table in front of him covered in paperwork.
I tap on the glass. Gino looks up but doesn’t move. I wave at him and point at the door. He lifts himself heavily and plods across the room. When he opens the door I see his unshaven face etched with anxiety and distress.
“What’s up Gino?” I ask.
Gino shrugs and lets me pass. He locks the door and we move towards the table.
“I hope you’ve got some of that heavenly brew on the go,” I say as we sit down, hoping to lighten the mood.
“That’s the problem. There is no coffee. Gino’s has run out of coffee. It’s the end of the world.”
Lizi’s still in Mary’s. She texts me every day with some excuse about how Mary needs support. It’s a good thing in a way, I’m doing more work, enjoying the long days, but this has to be the last session with Kate. I considered cancelling it to avoid temptation, but the portrait is good, it has the potential to become one of those rare paintings that become favourites; paintings that I can spend hours with, years after they are completed, and still discover something new in them. I couldn’t finish it without another sitting. Anyway, the sketches and photographs just aren’t enough. I’ve tried.
So, she’s here again, in my studio, and we’re coming to the end of the session. Truth is, it could have ended twenty minutes ago. I have all I need, but I’m hanging on to her beautiful presence, just for old times’ sake mind, nothing’s going to happen. Just one thing left to do. Kate has made it clear that she will not take any payment, especially since we became lovers, so I’ve bought her a present. Buying presents is not something I do very often so it’s probably crap, but I feel I have to do something. More than likely it’s because I don’t want to owe her anything. I want our relationships, artistic and personal, to end on level terms.
“That’s it,” I say.
She gets off the stool and stretches. “Is it finished?” she asks.
“No, no. There’s a lot of work yet, but I’ve got everything I need from you.”
“Are you sure?” she giggles. “Everything?”
A last chance. I hesitate.
“Look at you,” she says. “Don’t worry, I am a grown up. I’m not going to boil your bunny, besides, there’s Jimmy.”
“Someone I met recently, last week, we just clicked. He’s a journalist.”
“That’s good,” I say, relieved of course, but with a pang of jealousy.
“Well, I’ll get off then,” she says.
“Yes. Just . . . I know you won’t take any payment, but this painting is good, one of my best. I’ll do well out of it, if I can ever bear to sell it. So, I’ve got you something to mark the occasion. You have been a true inspiration and I want to thank you.”
She blushes. “Thanks, not just about the gift . . . you know what I mean.”
“Hang on,” I say.
I get the bag from the corner of the studio where I dropped it yesterday, take the box out, and hand it to her.
“It’s just a trinket,” I say.
Kate opens the box, takes the necklace out, and turns it over in her hands. I notice the afternoon light bouncing against the crystals.
“It is really lovely,” she says. “It’s beautiful. You must have gone to a lot of trouble to find this.”
I nod. She gives me the necklace and stands in front of the tarnished mirror that I sometimes use for self-portraits.
“Help me with the clasp please,” she says.
The necklace feels good in my hands, substantial. Marc has done a great job. When I told him I wanted to spend about three hundred pounds he shook his head.
“I can do you a fantastic piece for fifty, you don’t need to spend that much.”
“No, three hundred,” I insisted.
“I’ve got some rare crystals, and there will have to be some silver from what you’ve told me about her. Leave it to me,” he said.
The back of Kate’s neck glows with the same soft beauty as her face. I fiddle with the clasp longer than I need to, resisting the urge to kiss it.
She looks up and our eyes meet in the mirror.
“I love it,” she says, turning to face me. She throws her arms around my neck and kisses me on the lips.
There is some movement at the edge of my vision, near the open door of the studio. I turn to look – it’s Jasper.
Jasper smiles. “Sorry,” she says, before disappearing.
“Jasper,” I say to Kate. “She’s got her own key.”
“Ah! The other model. She’s beautiful.”
“Not like you,” I laugh.
Kate gets her stuff together. I walk her to the front door. She leaves me with a friendly peck on the cheek. I look for Jasper but she’s not here, she must have left the house straight away.
I could do with a bit of fuss from Gino but of course he’s closed. There must be something he can do? Perhaps he’s not thinking straight, with all the trouble he’s got with Angelo, and his relationship with Bethan. Perhaps I’ll go and see him. Maybe all he needs is a chat. I owe him that at least.
Gino’s is still closed; despite my banging on the door there’s no response. I use my mobile phone to dial the number printed on the window. I can hear the phone ringing in the café but it is dark inside and there’s no movement.
I peer through the glass, the door in the back of the café opens slowly, a silhouette appears, framed in the doorway. A light comes on and Gino comes to the front door. He unlocks it and I step in.
“Hello,” he says. “Come through.”
I follow him through a dingy storeroom to the kitchen.
“Sorry about the mess,” he says. “There’s a stool over there.”
“Do you want a cup of coffee?” he asks. “It’s instant, Angelo likes it.”
I nod. It’s not about the coffee.
“How’s things?” I ask, noticing he looks more drawn and tired than he did the other day.
He shrugs. I see him struggling to hold back the emotion.“Well, you know, sorry,” he says.
He turns away and wipes his eyes with his sleeve.
“What’s happening?” I ask. “What will you do?”
“I don’t know. Have to get a job I suppose. I don’t know.”
“So what exactly is the problem here then?”
From what he tells me it seems the main issue is cash-flow. The bank refused a loan. His turnover’s down. He knows what to do, knows the business needs investment, but he can’t get the cash, it’s just cash.
I want to help but what do I know about running a café, or about business. I just feel awkward, knowing that what he needs to save his business, his livelihood, his whole life even, is just a few thousand pounds, a few thousand pounds that’s just sitting in my bank account, looking pretty on a piece of paper. I’ve never done anything like this before, I just can’t bring myself to make the offer.
My hand has found the few twenty pound notes I always have in my pocket. I’m tempted to yank them out and give them to Gino, but that would be patronising.
“I’m sure you’ll sort it out Gino,” I say as I leave with my head down.
I’ve told Jasper that I need her for one last sitting. I wish I hadn’t, after that dazzling session with Kate it will be an anti-climax, and since I left Gino and his brave smile in the café a couple of days ago, I’ve been too distracted, worrying about his fate and the future of his café.
Jasper arrives, not saying a lot, not saying anything really. She sits perfectly though, and the way the light falls on her cheeks inspires me to take a fresh approach to her portrait. Now, for the first time since the first sitting I feel it will become one of the best. I’m getting excited, anticipating pairing Kate’s portrait with this one.
Suddenly I’m done with her. I’m in danger of overworking the painting. It’s best to let it rest now. I’ll come back to it in a few days.
“That’s it,” I say. “Thank you Jasper, that was wonderful. You were wonderful.”
Surprisingly, she giggles. She always holds herself very seriously so I’m taken aback. She gets off the stool and stretches, a very different proposition than Kate’s stretch. Where Kate has an entirely human, almost goddess-like beauty, Jasper is an animal, a beautiful yet dangerous cat.
“Well,” Jasper says. “Do you really think I’m wonderful?”
She moves towards me, her body quivering under Lizi’s purple dress, her eyes fixed on mine, a very sexy, very luscious creature I’m sure, but here she just looks ridiculous. Besides, I’m too scared of her to allow this to go any further.
I fumble with the brushes and take a step back.
“You’ve been good,” I say, taking a hundred pounds from my pocket, and then another fifty. “There’s a bit more than usual, seeing as it’s the last time.”
She smiles with her mouth only. Her eyes are hard dark stones.
“Thank you,” she says, taking the cash.