By Neil A. Edwards
The artist’s brush glissaded around the palette – smaller than a ﬁngerprint, ﬁner than a rat’s tail – meekly seeking the desired hue. Perhaps another artist might have settled for the carnelian blush that stained the model’s twisted cheek, but for this portrait, it was an oﬀence to the rendering of truth he was trying to convey and didn’t sit well on the canvas. Nor did the model sit well upon the lumpen bed, for she ﬁdgeted incessantly, an impatient child, biting ﬁngernails, cracking toes, and voicing her discomfort with military regularity.
“It’s not the nicest of rooms, is it?” she squawked, with the same squalid indelicacy of a magpie stealing a nest. It was for such base observations that a preference for painting from still photographs courted increasing favour with artists. Though the argument against their use was mounting daily, the models in them did not poison the air with the toxic torpor of their boredom.
“Your leg,” he said , “you’ve moved it again.”
“It’s gettin' stiﬀ.”
“Please refrain from moving it; you shall upend the eﬀect I’m after.”
“It’s not the most ﬂatterin' of poses you’ve got me in,” she moaned, ﬂexing her chalk-white leg before returning it to its position on the bed. “I dunno what you want people to fink. It’s positively indecent.”
Upon her shoulder the artist saw a mark. In the dim light he couldn’t tell whether it was a birthmark, a tattoo - given as a promise of something long forgotten - or the bite of a customer who took more than he could aﬀord.
“Indecency is a subjective term,” he intoned, “dependent on the angle from which one views something. In this case, we are merely presenting the cheerless truth that is your life. If people are uncomfortable with that, it says more about their own frigid lives than it does about the work they are viewing.”
For many years now the artist had traded in such truths and the shadowy areas they overlapped; and in doing so he had been playing a game with the public, hiding within those shadowy realms clues to a puzzle that had attained a level of fame the work itself might never reach. Art, he felt, could satisfy on two levels, the aesthetic, and the intellectual, and it was in the former that he liked to embed the latter. For him, that was both the challenge and the joy of bequeathing to the world what he knew would be his legacy.
“It’d be easier if I had a drink,” the model whined, “I could relax then.”
He’d been here before, of course, years ago and not too many miles distant. The streets and rooms, designed to shield the well-to-do from the sin that coursed through them, weren’t too dissimilar now, in Camden, to how they were then in Whitechapel; and the bawdy transactions that occurred within them still created the same repellent odour – that singular stench that characterised a poor man’s cheaply spent desire.
“So, are you famous then?” the model asked, her lips twisting into an untidy bow.
“That depends,” he replied.
“Upon how you deﬁne such a thing. If it is a person, the fact that you’re asking ought to provide its own answer. If it is deﬁned by a person’s actions, I’ll leave that for future generations to decide.”
“You’re strange,” she said attempting to justify the blank gaze that clouded her eyes.
“And you’ve moved again,” he said, curt this time, frustrated with his inability to capture the hue of her inpoverishly mantled cheek. The crepuscular light he was working in fought against his usual style, and created a challenge that his palette, on this particular occasion, could not rise to. No matter how much he mixed his paints, the cocktail of colours refused to yield anything more than a freak kiss of fuchsia or a smattering of mahogany. The desired eﬀect was to create a work that remained alluring, but managed to avoid any explicit signs of wantonness – diﬃcult in such circumstances; but then he knew one couldn’t make a Fabergé egg out of excrement.
“Do you fink in a 'undred years people will be lookin' at me here, lyin' like this, showin' all I’ve got?” the model asked scratching the oily mop of hair that nestled atop her plump milk bottle white thighs.
“Why limit it to just a hundred?”
“Fink very highly of yerself, don’t ye?”
“Our time together may be transitory,” he said, a trace of his German ancestry coming through, “but our work is not.”
He peered down at the creature, bright eyed but dull-witted, and the forlorn shape she made on the mattress. Her breasts sagged above the swelling blanket of her belly and the slit of her sex sought a shadow it could not ﬁnd. If a buyer could see both he might say that his portrayal of what lay before him was a notable failure. The mood was wrong, the dull walls were duller to the artist’s eye and the pale naked ﬂesh of his model was drained of the little excitement it exuded. He had, in a word, desexualised her, as God had desexualised him at birth.
“What are you gonna to call this?” she asked, remembering not to turn but addressing her question to a small cracked mirror in which she saw the artist reﬂected. He thinned his eyes and the seismic rupture of a threatening smile forked across his austere face.
“What do you think it should be called?” he teased.
“Dunno really. Somefink simple. People like simple things, don’t they?”
“So it would appear,” he concurred. “How about . . .” he twisted towards her and she saw the cracked line of the mirror hatchet his face in two, “‘The Devil’s Playground?’”
She giggled. “What would you want to go and call it that for?”
“Perhaps I see this room as a playground.”
“Oh, is that right?” she asked, twisting her foot with the playfulness of an obstreperous child. “Then wouldn't that make you the Devil?"
The painter ran his tongue across his upper lip, then followed it with the knuckle of his right hand to dry it. Each man is the author of his own destiny, he thought, feeling the coarse hair of his fake moustache and remembering why it was there – adding his own brief chapter to history with the actions which deﬁne him. Some people pass through life contributing just a line or two and are happy with that; others create volume after volume of noisy incident as a way of combating the cosmological inadequacy of their brief sweep through life. Artists meet this particular challenge in their own unique way, and his way was, arguably, more unique than most.
Hunching over, he reached down to the ﬂoor and felt for his small black leather case. “You said, when we spoke earlier this evening, that you wanted to be famous; that you liked being ‘talked’ about.”
“Better to be talked about than to be the one doin’ the talkin’, that’s what I always say,” she said, twisting herself again, her flab rippling like twisted rope.
“Ah-ah, you’re moving!” he cautioned.
“What are you doin'?” she asked, but it was a question that, on this occasion, met no reply.
Twenty years earlier, his knowledge of anatomy had helped varnish his actions into the category of myth for which they were now known, and proved a divisive factor in the investigation which they precipitated. They had said that only a medical man could have demonstrated such an intimate knowledge of the human form and the parts encased within it, just as they had said only a man of good educational standing could have fashioned the works of Shakespeare – a man with an intimate knowledge of life at court, and the vicissitudes of world history at his ﬁngertips. A full ﬁve years had passed before he felt comfortable laughing at their naiveté. The world turns at its own pace, he had realised, much to his own good fortune, and is only wise to the things it wishes to be wise to.
When he stepped towards his model, with the new implement in his hand, she simply smiled and, with his shadow carpeted feintly over her, spread her legs further apart as if to acknowledge a possible increase in her fee. And when he took her by the chin, and looked down at her with what she took as fatherly concern, she pouted coquettishly, the whites of her eyes enhancing her youthful vigour, and waited to accommodate him the way she’d been forced to accommodate her father and his drunken friends whilst being dragged through the broiling cauldron of her childhood.
The second smile she made appeared, not from a signal supplied by her dull brain, but across her throat. It came in a ﬂash and coincided with the contorted corkscrewing of the artist’s body, which stumbled and grunted with the increased exertion. Paint, a constellation of glutinous crimson, splashed across the walls, the ceiling, door, window and sink, and the vampire grin of her neck opened and yawned wide, forcing her head to roll back and loll to the side as a plush carpet of vermilion rolled down the collapsing staircase of her body. Her ﬁngers stretched wide and clawed at air, carving modernist patterns on the walls, at ﬁrst in an orchestral frenzy, then with lilting grace. Another smile, a third, appeared across her breast, a fourth cut across a ﬂaying arm, a ﬁfth sewed hell into a petriﬁed stomach, and the sixth, seventh, eighth and beyond came in a storm of fury and created a fountain as ferocious as anything designed by Bernini in Rome.
When, minutes later, the artist bent over his model to collect her viscera to place beside her on the small bedside table, he saw in her frozen form a loveliness her slovenly demeanour denied her in life. With her jaw relaxed and her eyes unstressed by the pressures of seeking a means for paying her rent, there were the discernible qualities of a ﬁne-looking girl.
Standing, the artist looked down at his hands, freshly embalmed in the labour of his new masterpiece, and glazed with a cancerous infusion of colours in the gothic pre-dawn light: browns, yellows, blacks, and . . . could it be . . . ? He held up one ﬁnger and saw the stain of dark cherry animating its slender pencil-thin tip. Stepping backwards, he could see the canvas on which the bedraggled portrait lay still unﬁnished, pale and lonely, disconsolate with life’s woes. He stroked delicately the painted ﬁgure, brushing with his blood-stained ﬁnger the pale cheek of his forlorn muse and giving her on the canvas what she had lacked in the ﬂesh. His eyes glistened with satisfaction, for as if kissed by mythical princely lips, the spiritless form radiated suddenly with a hue that had thus far eluded his palette. Veins that ran cold with despair ﬁlled with a warm countenance that would, a century later, beguile all those whose gaze settled upon it. And so it would be, that from her death, she would, in the frozen mien of her painted form, ﬁnd the blush of life that she had so lacked.
Gazing down upon her, languishing peacefully on her bed, demanding not the air to breathe nor to oﬀend, the artist gave free reign to his mind, which scurried oﬀ in search of a title. The Devil’s Playground . . . As he considered it, his eyes taking in the room and its awkward corners, and the view of Camden discernible from the crooked window, he felt it no longer seemed right. It jarred with the slumbering tranquillity of the room, stealing the focus away from his eager model who had, after all, been so giving. Too cruel, he thought; too unkind. She had earned her fame.
He went to the sink and washed his hands, then sat down to resume his work. He would think of a title tomorrow.
© Neil A. Edwards MMXI