A story where love, desire, dreams and artistry met and blend into the high strange and the terrible.
Two weeks ago I killed a woman. I did this deliberately. I knew precisely what I was doing and I planned and executed it all. But there is no evidence, any way that I can ever be held accountable for her death. While I assuredly did the deed, while I stepped out across her fate and re-wrote its ending quite consciously, no jury would ever convict me, no policeman will ever come to call, and even those who ask me to mourn with them for her passing will never suspect.
I am a painter. Some say a great painter; some even say the last great painter of my generation. I create. Now it seems I also destroy.
Does this make me a god? Perhaps, but what happens when the god finds the inevitable flaw in the makeup, the essential pieces of the jigsaw that it has missed? When confronted with that, the sum total of what is outside the god’s control rather than what is within its scope, what of the god then?
A god with a flaw is a monster. I lurk in fairy tales with my deceptively kind face. But I am a monster nonetheless. Let me tell you. Let me explain.
Three months ago I did not know my power. I was famous, respected, but remained essentially hidden. I always hated the pomp and ceremony of my exhibitions. I was known for being elusive, reclusive, and almost impolite. I was not censured; I was cloaked in my art, my skill, and my ability. Mostly in my fame. I had found an essential truth that was at once simple and paradoxical. For various reasons, which I will relate, I had sought anonymity, to be hidden, to be not seen by others. In the early days of my career this had been a difficulty, a problem for me – one must publicise one’s work after all. It seemed an eternity in hell, a necessary rite of passage. I supposed it would get worse as success stalked me, but I stalked success also, my art would not release me.
What I found, though, was that success is the best way to become hidden. What my agent once saw as problematic became a motif for my art – the enigmatic one, the recluse, and the hermit who emerged infrequently and briefly from his cave. What had once been a criticism became part of the mystique. I was forgiven everything that I had previously been criticised for – that is the essential nature of fame. Everything is forgiven, everything understood.
It was only in the harsh light of success that I could hide. No one sought to find what they felt they knew, and no one minded that I withdrew from their eyes.
I had to, as soon as it was possible, to endure further scrutiny would have been intolerable. I am an artist, but no work of art myself. I have suffered for my visage. My pronounced harelip, the most banal of disfigurements, prescribed my early life. There seemed little point in building a man’s body when I considered I had the face of a freak. I was told repeatedly that my face was ‘kind’, that I had through this physical vulnerability, something of the angel about me. I knew it was all pointless, though perhaps true it may as well have been lies. What was I to do with that? Who wants to be kind, or angelic, when it is only a fault that makes you so? It is only what others say when no other compliment is possible. It is the compensatory prize in this game of life.
And in my school years I was reminded of this daily by the cruel taunts of my peers. I withdrew to the art room where I could create what I never could be myself. I found I had an eye, a talent, and that I could communicate this through my elegant hands. My hands. One thing of beauty at least, creating another.
I learnt early also of my other ‘disfigurement’ – not in my eyes I admit, nor so much these days in the eyes of others, but when I was young, to love men rather than women, my own sex, my own kind – as though seeking in their beauty something I had been denied in my own form – was unacceptable.
Society’s laws have changed too late for me. All change comes too late for me.
Combine this problem, as it seemed to me in my lost and loveless life, with my ugliness, and even my eventual fame did not allow me to reach out for affection that was in any way lasting or sincere. I used to live for brief moments with strangers in sordid surroundings, mostly ‘rent boys’ under the kinder cover of night, hating my actions the next day, pursuing even this exceptionally rarely, never allowing anyone to see my face clearly or gain any purchase in my heart. I lived the clichéd gay life rather than a truly authentic one. I was absurd even to myself, but saw no other possible future for myself. But for almost a decade I had not even ventured out in this manner, I was celibate and more comfortable, if no happier, for it.
I was alone, for almost fifty years, and did not dare to dream of any other existence. To ask the universe for more than my talent seemed churlish. To expect love for a face I could barely stand to view in my own mirror seemed obscene. I had not the slightest hope. I was resigned to this.
But hope is a strange thing. It wakes and breathes within you so silently, but so inexorably, it takes you somewhere foreign before you realize your flight. And by then it is too late. It has begun. The music for the dance you know is forbidden has begun to play. And it will not stop until you dance.
It will not stop.
I first saw him over four months ago, a full month before I would understand what I had begun.
I live in a comfortable, almost sprawling apartment. There is a cosmopolitan piazza below. Every morning at 9.30 I light a cigarette and sit on the balcony, watching the life teeming beneath me. Those going to work, those more essentially lazy, emerging to have coffee or breakfast in the cafes across the way from me. I look at life and draw from it for my art. I watch a world I am simultaneously fascinated and repelled by – some know who I am and look up. At these moments I withdraw, either back into my apartment, or behind a convenient hat. Most do not know, however, and have little sense that they are being observed.
It is pleasant to watch. A million possibilities play out before me each day, combinations of lives I will never touch, never know, but may dream of, as they walk past my line of sight. It always seemed enough.
Until the day that he walked into my vision, and all sense escaped me.
What can I say of him that you will not censure? What should you not deride, after all? He was everything I was not, and that was the essential point – more essential than I realized in the beginning, and this was everything. But still, I could see, I have eyes that observe more keenly than most. It is part of my art.
Let me list the differences and you can make your judgments quickly and silently. I am used to the unspoken judgment of others, do not think you can distress me. There is nothing you can think of me I have not already thought myself. I deserve and accept it all, though I did not know this then.
He is young. At most early twenties. He is athletic in build, like the boys I would watch in the rugby games at school. He moves quickly as though time is perpetually a hound at his heels. He is alive in a way I have never been and he is beautiful, which gives him this life.
Blonde hair in the longish, fashionable style of his age. Eyes that I can see, even at a distance, are large and almost innocent. Fine features, the sleek bone structure of the middle to upper classes. Clothes that speak of reasonable money, though not affluence. A fluidity in his form, a natural elegance – even grace – that is uncommon in those of his age. Michelangelo would have painted him, or sculpted his form; he might almost have been that mythic David. And I, the Goliath on the balcony, yearning to be struck down by even a glance back to me.
I watch him from my balcony and wish for some suitable epigram, some wondrous words, to sum him up. I would be the Oscar to his Bosey, but without history’s ignominious end. It seems fitting. The art world is not so very different from the literary, and already I am fashioning the doomed love between us and my absolute loyalty to it, even unto the bitterest of ends.
He will be cruel, I think, as all the truly beautiful are cruel – unknowing of the obscenity of their selfishness and forgiven it eternally for the slow steady gaze from eyes under long, lush lashes. He will be inconstant and demanding to the very level that I will be constant and selfless. He will cause me pain but he will be mine and I will be his.
All this I dream and hope, watching this new, wondrous life in my midst. I shall call him Hope, though he will never know, because that is what he has born within me.
I am ready for the pain, I think, finally ready. But I do not know, I cannot even begin to plan, how to bring this morsel into my web.
To go out into the unknown of his life is unthinkable. I cannot even leave the balcony to traverse my apartment to the door, and then the ancient stairway, and then the glittering pavement below. I cannot. I dare not. His rejection is of course inevitable. I cannot kill my dream that quickly. I must be allowed to dream longer, sweeter, even if I cannot make the dream come true.
He can be art at least. He must be art. Because he is my love.
And so I watch him for days, learn his habits, his timing, and conjecture his life around it. He seems alone, he seems to be looking, just as I am, though he is braver, out in the world. Of course he is brave. Everyone loves his beauty. You can see people turning to watch him pass in the street. From my vantage I can see waiters and waitresses alike fawning over him. He seems oblivious to their attentions, locked within himself, a king sure of a kingdom to the point he would not even acknowledge it.
He will have had this affect from his youth, from childhood even. The world would always have been in thrall to him, as was I. So of course he was braver. Of course he could do what I could not. Of course.
I knew I would paint him, once I had observed sufficiently. It was the only way to possess this exotic butterfly, or so I believed. And in a manner of speaking, I was right, though not in the way I had supposed.
One morning I was running late to the balcony. I am a creature of habit so this could have been disconcerting, but even my timing was now more governed by my elusive distant love. He rarely came to the café before 10am, I therefore felt less compelled to have risen, shaved and breakfasted before 9.30. The better pleasures were to be had and savoured later, and so I was slowly adjusting.
Therefore the phone call at 9.45 did not vex me unduly. I hate the telephone and rarely speak on it for more than minutes, the perfunctory politeness of business calls, the arrangements – brief and rare – for social interaction with those who have become my friends. None take much time nor demand much eloquence. I could attend to my caller and be comfortably out on the balcony in time to see my beloved’s brisk, elegant promenade down the piazza to his habitual café (and yes, if you have suspected I enjoyed that he was as habitual as myself you are right, we look for similarities in our loved ones once the differences have initially captured us).
I answered the phone as I always did.
– Richards here.
Richards is my surname. My full name, as shown on every painting, and the one of my fame, is Paul Arthur Richards. Of these three potentially first names I prefer the last. It sounds stronger somehow – Paul seems both pristine and common at once, Arthur is hardly the heroic man of myth on my shoulders, more the under-trodden husband of a myriad of middle class English marriages. Richards, however, has a strength. I crave strength.
All my friends know me as Richards, and are required to address me as such. To call me Paul is to court my disdain.
– Richards, mate, it’s Cliff.
Cliff is a former art student who has progressed primarily to computer art. I know him less from this than from vague family connections – his sister once went out with one of my nephews. Cliff is a clever boy and often disarming. He is also an opportunist. He has no sincere affection for me. His contact will no doubt be for something. Something he considers perhaps only I can provide.
– Cliff, how are you my dear boy?
I am allowed the affectation of my sexual taste, although I advertise its actuality to none in my personal circle, none who could call and recognize me by my name. It is accepted in an artiste, and an old one at that. Most things are accepted of the famous, as I have said earlier.
I also like insincerity in myself; I like to send it out as I expect always to receive it. As you have received, so shall you give. I have few things to divert me in such a manner. I make the most of what I have, and hurt none after all – they do not know that is what I am doing.
– Fine, fine. I have a proposition to make to you.
– Ah, all my Christmases coming at once? Do tell, you know I hate surprises.
– A project Richards. A project I’m working on. We – my friend Ant and myself – are working on a series of animated ‘stories’ for want of a better word to have in a virtual collection.
– I’m not a writer Cliff
– Nor do you need to be! The point of you..the point of calling you..is the same as the others we are approaching!
– Other artists, other painters and so forth. Others of your caliber, in your league.
– Few of them
– Oh, of course Richards! But we only need four. Four artists for four perfect virtual art stories. Four very different artists, your work being the most traditional. You provide us with a story and some storyboards, some paintings…and then we animate them to fit the story. Or someone else writes the story and you illustrate it, then we animate it.
– No, not comics! Not Disney-fucking-land! Art Richards! Living art! Controversy! Soul! Not bloody Mickey Mouse I assure you!
– On a computer?
– Don’t be a snob old boy…computers are just a medium, like your canvas and paint..your art, in a living, moving form – animated through technology but still your art. Art in a manner never seen before. Not comics, nothing banal and usual. A new concept. A new way for your art to be.
– Have you approached your other three artists?
– And they are interested?
– I am surprised. But then, you can take hope in that. No doubt you will find someone to replace me.
– Richards..don’t be like that…
– Cliff, I have no wish for my art to be ‘animated’..I believe it has more than sufficient life on the canvas. I will not take part in some space age comic book sideshow…
– Cliff, I accept you have not meant to offend me, but persist and you most definitely shall…
I was looking at my digital clock in that moment, realizing it was drawing perilously close to 10am. I could not miss a footstep of my love for this drivel!
– Richards, you are taking this the wrong way..
– No Cliff, I am taking it my way..thank you for the offer, I politely decline..and if there is nothing else, I bid you good day….
I hung up the phone and looked at it for a few moments, as though some explanation for the indignity that had just been suggested to me could come forth from its inanimate form. My art was not a comic. There was nothing ‘virtual’ about my work. Cliff had clearly missed the point of art itself, which was hardly surprising. It occurred to me that Cliff would usually miss the point.
I took out a cigarette from the packet next to the phone and tapped it, almost absent-mindedly, on the teak table top. I looked to my balcony, the bright rays of the morning sun painting the scene with its own welcoming light. I had an angel to watch.
I am watching him talking with a friend. They have met at the doorway to his favourite café – now mine (I even go later in the day and sit at the same table, the same seat and drink coffee from the same long tall glasses). It is his place and there is a delicious sense of invasion and transgression in inhabiting it in his absence. It is the closest I expect to get, the closest I would dare.
I understand the mind of a stalker now. In my own limited way I have perhaps become one. But I know so little of him really, and I am no inquisitive voyeur. It does not occur to me to follow him, nor anything else so banal. I would not go through his mail, would not telephone (if I even knew his name!) and sit silent at the other end as he answers, would not even plead with him for a moment’s attention. I do not beg. A lifetime of lack has inured me to that – I have my pride. I sit above him and watch and pray that this will be enough, that it will not destroy me, this slow, trickling pain that is denial and fear.
I hate his friend in this moment more clearly and cleanly than I have hated anyone, even myself. I envy. I loathe. I covet. Each smile, each casual touch on the arm, the happy and easy assent as the one asks the other to join him. They are both so young, and this friend is nearly – but not quite – as beautiful as my Hope. They belong. They fit in a manner that I never could. I would obliterate the friend now; wipe him from the canvas, return to the solitude I thought Hope and I shared.
His friend is more flamboyant. I find myself thinking that the more colourful garb of the intruder would find a far more worthy host in my love. I do not wish to criticize or judge the one I adore – it seems wrong, uncivil even – yet one does it despite oneself. There is no satisfactory way to shield oneself from one’s own opinions. Not matter how hateful. My love is a beautiful flower clothed normally in drab greys and browns. He shows no real imagination or flair. I hate that I see this, even more that I can put words to it, form a critique in this manner, but it comes unbidden and complete to me.
I cannot hide from the facts that face me.
But an idea occurs to me. I cannot have my love, but I can paint him, and in doing so I can create him in the colours that would more fit his beauty. High above him in this apartment block I can dream and put form to the life he should live, if only he would realize.
My beloved on my canvas comes easily, almost too easily, as though angels or demons guide my hand. I have him in a grey suit still, to retain some of his essence, but here a cheeky red cap, matched with a flowing red scarf. Finished with a simple red handkerchief peering out from his coat pocket. Two silver rings on his fingers – a thumb and a middle finger. He is striding towards the coffee shop, his lovely eyes shielded by fashionable sunglasses. Among the dark and drab inhabitants I use to fill out the scene he is an exotic creature, a darling of the gods. He is what I have dreamed and my art could be enough, after all.
How simply it begins, this fall from grace. I wonder if it was thus for Lucifer, most beautiful of the angels (and how could I presume to understand that?), but still, happening upon the thought of power – new, unbidden but complete – and therefore having to stretch, to reach, following the nature and the knowledge no matter where it led. We become complicit with our own ideas. I do not think we can escape that.
I could not have escaped. I do not offer this as an excuse – well, not entirely. It is also just a fact. The next day I began to see what I could be. I had not even imagined this, I would not have known where to begin, and besides, at first, there was always the possibility of coincidence, no matter how extreme. It had to be tested, scientifically, and if it fell away, then it was a chimera, nothing more. If it stayed, if it grew, then it was something else entirely.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Forgive me. I am ever like this, my thoughts have for so long been my only true companions, I race with them, thoughtless of whether any other person attempts to keep pace with us. You do not yet know, but have you guessed? Has my reverie given you a clue?
Before you judge all that follows, think of me at this pivotal moment – place yourself there – and then ask honestly if you would have felt differently, if your inclinations would have been so very alien to mine.
It was almost five past ten in the morning without sight of my angel. Sometimes he does not come, I wait till ten fifteen and then can bear no longer the empty (of him) piazza below (and being empty of him it is barren of all beauty to me now). Other times he is a little late and I forgive him this as an indulgent father might his errant son.
And then he appeared and my heart stopped in my chest, a silence in the cavern, a deathly hush of shock. For he came rushing up the pavement dressed exactly as I had painted him – as he drew closer the completeness of the transformation was wholly apparent. He waved to a waitress in the café and I saw the rings on the fingers, as painted, the flick of the saucy red scarf, and he reached and freed his lovely blonde locks from the red cap as he sat down.
What was this? I felt outrage at first, as though someone, somehow had breached the fortress of my apartment and reported to him in some dark and cruel complicity the painting I had so lovingly created. But that was impossible. I sleep too light for an intruder in the night and I have not left the apartment, even for food, in the past twenty four hours. And we know no-one in common from what I can tell, no-one who would take such an interest in my work and in him as to recognise and alert him and so quickly achieve such a hideous ruse.
I had spoken to no-one of him, let alone of my painting of him. It was my special secret. Not to be shared.
There could be no ulterior trick at my expense. It was not possible. My mind lurched from this truly repulsive concept with relief. I felt my heart again beating in my chest. The despair, fear and shame receded back like a tidal wave stopped just before impact. Dark clouds on the horizon receded. I could breathe again. I had not realized I had stopped.
So, how to explain? Could this be coincidence? The skeptic in me insisted it must be, but the equally pragmatic but more open side of my nature – the artist perhaps – could not accept this. It was too much. A red scarf perhaps, or the rings, or any other singular part of the ensemble may have been coincidence, no matter how strikingly different each was to his usual attire. But all combined? For this to occur must surely stretch the bounds of statistical probability to ridiculous levels.
So, how did this come to be? Had he heard me on some spiritual level – were we tied now at soul level so that the desires of my heart telegraphed to him and he complied, a willing lover in answer to my love? Did he read my mind? Was he really an angel, or some creature from another world, another place, showing his ability to me? But how could that be, for he did not look up at me, there was no hint of acknowledgement, or of mutual understanding. If he did this in answer to me he did not even seek my response. It was also impossible. If we communed on that level and he had sought to show me this, it would be inconceivable that he would not then seek to see the message received.
My beloved did not know of my painting or my desires or even of me. He did not respond consciously to the call of my heart. So what then?
I gazed at the painting, then out to his form in the café. I looked back and forth and back and forth letting the truth emerge slowly, no matter how hubristic and impossible it seemed. What do they say – that when all other possibilities are proven false, whatever is left, no matter how improbable, must be the answer?
I am an artist. I am a creator. It took time for me to accept what this meant and to what degree. I cannot stress too much how long it took for me to fully comprehend and assimilate this thought, how many hours that day I sat in frightened contemplation. But it is important to at least acknowledge this so that you do not think me too vain, too insane, in finally admitting the truth.
I had painted the future. And not a likely future that I might have intuitively, or even psychically foreseen – he would never have changed his garb without coercion from some force, some intelligence – it was not a future that occurred separate to my desires. It was the future I fashioned and painted. So I created it.
What I painted came to be. I could will a future through my canvas and it would come to life. The possibilities of this were both frightening and intoxicating. But would it happen again? Was it like a trick of the light, possible in one split second through some glitch in the universal fabric, not replicable, a moment of power that, in its passing away, became another totem of human impotence? Or was it more?
So you see, I had to try again. I had to know. Both to know my own power and its potential – the ego reaching for knowledge of itself – but also for whatever might be between my beloved and I.
Once I realized I might be able to paint a future between us, I had to go on. The thought, once conceived, could not be banished. I had to know the limits of my power and my love.
It became an experiment for me. I had never been much of a conventional, bookish scientist at school – the tables of chemical compounds and values had seemed like another language, wholly inexplicable to me, and cutting up frogs was repulsive. However, the concept of experimentation appealed in some manner. The precision of the experiment and the controls, the keen observation and recording of results had something of the artist about it. An hypothesis must be tested from all angles, much as a painting must take into account the three dimensional subject replicated in a two dimensional form. Aspects of light, of movement, of physics and even of humour should be displayed in art. Proportion, balance, the occupancy of space and time – all these are common both to the arts and to science. At some point they may intertwine, and this may be what magic is in the final analysis. Like this magic of my own that I sought to test.
I had to determine tests that were unlikely but possible – I could not have him flying in the air or turning into some shapeshifted animal – this was absurd. Somehow I knew, I intuited, the limitations of this new potential power. I could only move my will in accordance with general physical possibilities much as a god might be constrained after establishing the framework of existence. Aspects within reach had to be consistent with the scene in which he had appeared to me – I could not imagine his life outside of this piazza and so could have no confidence in enforcing situations beyond these bounds – and even had I felt capable of this, I would have no way to test the efficiency of my will in places beyond my experience.
Nor, though my greedy heart already wished to fashion in this manner, could I accurately paint love and adoration. I could paint with love, but how to portray it returned? I was afraid of rushing too soon into this unknown field, and already aware that my own imagination had its limits, and therefore so must my art. Can you paint the look of love such that it is impossible to interpret it in any other manner? At best I knew I could paint situations that were suggestive of love. But that should wait until the power itself had been thoroughly examined for its replicability and its endurance. If I were to paint, for instance, a meeting between us, I needed to know that it would occur reliably as painted. This Peirot would not search out his Columbine without certainty. I feared the pain of rejection far more than the discomfort of denial.
So the experiments began. Fashion was tested a number of times – each time slightly more daring or more unusual than the last. Each time my paintings came to life. By the fourth morning, seeing him in purple slacks and platform shoes (ridiculous on a tall man such as himself) I became confident, and almost chided myself on the point that I had tested my love to the stage of absurdity. The looks he received that morning were not entirely ones of admiration – often a look of perplexed wonder trailed in his wake. He saw this no more than any other gaze in his direction so he was not hurt by my experimentation, but still I felt ashamed to place him in this position.
It may even have been that I momentarily wanted to bring him down, closer to my level, and this is absurd, it could never be, but the willful heart that is learning its power is as narcissistic as a child. I resented the brightness of his youth, his potential, his beauty, even as I adored it.
I then tried more ambitious tests. Meetings of types of people. I expected to fail, for how can I fashion people out of nothingness? But perhaps I had some concept of the types of people he would know – and perhaps there are only so many types of people anyway, so the movement from canvas to real life is not as hard as I might have suspected. The experiments were not entirely successful however – hair colours would be wrong, or stature – even on one occasion the sex of the person – but if I painted him meeting someone, he did, and there would be enough identifying characteristics that fit to outweigh any slight imperfections.
I learned from this that the power was better to the degree that you knew your subject. But it had some resonance nonetheless in absence of such knowledge.
In my numerous tests I made him more popular and social than he had earlier seemed. I grew tired of this and jealous of the companions I had summoned for him through paint and brush. I moved on to changing his inclinations slightly. I would have him arrive from a different direction, or paint his gait as slower. I felt bad for the latter, it came about quite clearly from him having injured himself, a sprained ankle it seemed. He limped. I painted him a speedy recovery of course.
I tested for one whole month. There was no stage where a painting did not come predominantly into being. I grew in knowledge of my power. I grew more confident. I knew I could be one of those who met him, apparently accidentally, but paint a welcoming response from him. From there, nature would have to take its course, but I felt confident of a beginning.
And for me a beginning was more than I had ever dared to hope for. I would meet my love, I would learn his name and of his life. I could reach out from my shell and know I would be received.
I was intoxicated with the power and the promise of love.
We meet as I have painted it. I have emerged like a butterfly from an interminable chrysalis, out on the streets, and we literally bump into each other as he rushes down the pathway oblivious to my approach. It seems you can almost paint a temporary blindness in your subject. I should have been visible from a long way back and he was not so quick on his feet as to err so easily. Yet, the painting will have its way. He is carrying books in his arm, again as I painted, thinking of all contingencies and ways to facilitate a first conversation. As they fall we also bend, simultaneously together, to pick up the texts.
There are legal books, heavy, ponderous, then beneath them a couple of texts on art. My heart rises almost to my throat. Art. I hadn’t thought of this at all so this was true, true of him, not fashioned by me, but so perfect as to be almost preposterous. And in tandem with the law, what a strange combination for my beloved. And even more there is a folder, collapsed between us, with sketches, now spreading out on the ground, threatening to blow away in the wind. Our hands grab each item greedily, hurriedly. We speak as we do so but do not look at each other. We are two inhabitants of a moment in time that has become an accident, we both seek to remedy it, but one of us knows it was not accident at all.
– I’m sorry
I say, apologetic for more than he realizes, but secretly triumphant, then continue;
– I did not see you till it was too late
– No, no, no..really, it was my fault
His voice is lovely, quite deep and divine, a voice made for reading poetry, drunk on wine.
– I was in too much of a hurry, I didn’t see you, and the ridiculous thing is, I don’t even know why I was hurrying..I didn’t think my caffeine addiction was that bad!
At this moment we have collected all the fallen treasures. He is crouching on one knee, the other leg half raised to give his books and his arms a place to rest. I am similarly positioned, looking at him. He is amused by his own observation and a sense of internal silliness. His eyes dance into mine.
– A caffeine addiction is understandable. There are worse addictions
– There certainly are!
We stand, and I am handing him some of the texts I have picked up, already panicking that this moment may be over too soon and without further conversation. I only painted this exact action, no more. I think dryly and with some regret and humour interlaced that Cliff may have a point about the advantages of animation. But the point passes as quickly as it rises, for my beloved is suddenly quite excited.
– I know who you are!
I am frightened for a moment that he somehow does know of my game and how I have sought to control his actions. I fear being caught out, being uncovered, being exposed, and shrink back slightly, still holding some of his texts, causing him to move closer and become all apology once more.
– I’m sorry! I don’t mean to alarm or offend you. But you are Paul Richards aren’t you? The painter?
The name Paul on his lips is actually like music. I am amazed. I shudder with pleasure, which again he mis-interprets, and he continues for I am incapable in that moment of speech.
– It’s just that..I’m..well I’m a law student, but my passion is art..my family..they wouldn’t approve of that…but I know your work..I love your work..and I’ve seen photographs of you..so..it is you, isn’t it? I’d heard you lived somewhere around here…
– I am Paul Richards, that is correct.
I hand him the last of his books, but not the few sketches I have retrieved from the greedy wind.
– Are these yours?
– Yes, but they aren’t…I’m sure they are not…proficient…I am better with the law than with art..I’m embarrassed for you to look at them..you are a master..and I…
And you, I think, you are my beloved. You need never be embarrassed with me. Besides, they show some promise, these sketches. He will never be a great artist perhaps, but he will be a competent one, with guidance. I feel the hand of fate above me, over-arching my own power and will through my paintings.
– These show promise. Do you have a teacher?
– No, not at all..it’s just a hobby..a passion..but..I study the law not art
– Would you like a teacher?
– I can’t afford one…
– Can you afford the time?
He understands where I am leading him and he is part eager, part afraid. He does not know my motivations, but I am promising him something he had thought out of his reach. He does not understand that even just in this moment, in this exchange, he is doing the very same thing for me.
– Of course I could, but…Mr Richards..
– Call me Paul…
I amaze myself in this moment.
– Paul..are you offering to teach me..can I presume..because I can’t pay you…
– I am offering, and I have no need of money. I make quite enough of that. But it will take time. I live in an apartment in that building over there. Number twelve. You can come there as often as you like, but I would suggest at least two times a week, and we will see what knowledge and skill I can impart
– Why are you offering me this? You don’t know me..
He is suspicious. Perhaps the beautiful must learn to suspect all approaches to them, no matter how useful they may appear. I am momentarily offended, but I hold back, trying to understand, because the wrong answer in this moment destroys everything. Everything.
– I like your drawings. And when you have a gift it is sometimes required that you pass it on..like a spiritual law..does this make sense?
– Yes, yes I think it does..
– Perhaps not a law you will find in your other studies?
I smile, amusement in my voice, some irony. He smiles back, a deep smile, a sense of camaraderie, and my heart races ahead to possibilities I can have no way of recognising fully as yet.
– No, I doubt that. Look, thank you..I would love to do that..let me..buy you a coffee at least..were you going to the café?
– Yes, I was, as it happens, and that would be delightful. We can plan your tutelage there and then.
And so it begins. The mentor and the student walking side by side in companionable silence to the café. We sit at a table that I consider ours, though he does not know, and we plan a future I have already rehearsed in my mind. I am not surprised, not any more, even by the vicissitudes of chance that attend this moment. I did not paint that he would be an artist, but he has an artist’s soul – I can see this in his eyes. And how else, in any case, would my beloved ever come to me, except through art?
On the way into the café he tells me his name is Richard.
It is perfect.
We settle on three times a week. He comes ostensibly for an hour on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, after his law lectures and tutorials have finished for the day, but always stays longer than the allotted time. He draws and sketches under my guidance for the hour then we talk and sometimes share a meal, some wine. While he draws I am a stern master, I am relentless in bringing his art out of him. I think I frighten him somewhat, and reflect that he would be even more frightened if he knew of the powers of my own secret Art. But he need not fear me. I could never hurt him, never touch a hair on his head except in tenderness.
I have not painted any more ‘future’ paintings since we met. I have not seen the need. I want our actual relationship to be free of this, to follow its own path, or so I believe at first.
He is a lively conversationalist. He is very intelligent, and this is true beyond all bias I may be permitted by my love. He is very proficient in his legal studies. He hopes to be admitted early to the Bar and from there to have a colourful and celebrated career in the law. His grandfather was a Queens Counsel, anything less would seem like failure. But he also wishes to explore his creativity, so he comes to me. I encourage him, it draws us closer.
– Do you think I suffer from hubris Paul, to want both the law and also art?
– I think one must have ambitions, and the loftier the better. In your case, I think you can have both. Beautiful boy, do you not know people such as yourself are the darlings of the gods?
I am allowed florid language because I am an artist and a celebrated one.
– Whatever do you mean?
– Physical beauty is its own ticket. You know this, do not deny it. Never be dishonest with me, I will see through it and it will hurt your art. You know this to be true.
He stops his sketching and looks at me with his incredible eyes. On our better acquaintance I know now his eyes to be large and a very pale grey in colour. I have never seen eyes like them. They are calm, like a storm covered sea before the tumult, or perhaps like the first dawning of the morning after the deluge, before the sun can paint the sky.
– I know that people tend to..indulge me because of how I look..but not always..not always
– Come now, what has been denied you?
– More than you might suppose…I cannot have everything I want..sometimes what I want most seems..impossible..completely and utterly unobtainable..
He looks away, a deep regret in his eyes. He is speaking of someone or something specific. Hope flares in my heart. Did he speak of me? Does he see his mentor as so far above him that he cannot be reached? It is too soon to test this, too soon, but hope makes us willfully blind. Or perhaps it destroys our critical faculties, our sense of examination. I settle quickly and desperately on the interpretation that he is speaking cryptically of me and do not entertain for one conscious second that he could speak of anyone else.
In my apartment, in our private world of art, there is no-one else. It is unthinkable.
– Perhaps even what you do not expect can be yours
I suggest. He looks at me doubtfully, but hopeful.
– Do you think so? Do you always get what you want Paul?
I am bitter for a moment, and aware he has mis-understood me. He is everything I am not, so he will have what he desires far more easily. It seems cruel and heartless to compare as he seeks to do.
He seems genuinely surprised. He has stopped drawing entirely now and is just looking at me, eager for some other kind of knowledge. I realize he is innocent to the harm he has done and may continue to do. It is not his fault. He does not know. How could he know my experience? How could any other, for that matter, and particularly one so different?
– Richard, the world is not as kind to me as it might be to you.
– But you are famous, celebrated..
– Yes, that came to me in time, but when I was your age, my life was far more circumscribed. I was eternally aware of my own ugliness, to the same degree I think that you are innocent of your beauty…
– You’re not ugly Paul
I shut my eyes. I couldn’t bear to look at him and his ill-judged generosity.
– No, Paul, you’re not..why would you think that?
I opened my eyes. I couldn’t speak. I shook my head at him, warning him to stop. But his hand reached out and touched me! Touched me! And there, there..oh, for the love of god..there on my harelip..a tender, gentle touch, unafraid, almost in wonder.
– Is this why you think that? This little thing?
– This little thing as you call it is not little to me..it is a disfigurement
– You can hardly see it Paul..they did a good job on it
– You see it Richard!
I am trying to warn him to stop. I cannot bear it, his kindness, and the slow, creeping realisation that perhaps it is not kindness at all, perhaps he really believes it..perhaps I am not ugly to him. It is too much. Everything I have hoped and dreamed of but schooled myself to never, ever expect. Ongoing pain is easy compared to this – you get used to it, you adapt. The hope of..acceptance..is far harder. I do not think I can cope with that. I am close to tears.
– I see it, but it’s not that much..it’s almost..charming..Paul..your face is..beautiful in its own way
– Don’t patronize me
– Oh God, I’m not..I would never!
He is genuinely distressed. He stands up and walks away, looking out the window behind him, as though he believes he has lost the right to look at me.
– Paul, please..
He says finally, still not daring to turn to look at me.
– I am earnest..you are not ugly..not in the least..you are distinguished, your form echoes your art and your soul..I don’t think..I really don’t think..an ugly man could paint as you do
With this he turns to me, but I see this only in my peripheral vision, for I have turned away myself, to hide the tears in my eyes.
– You know so little
I say, derisive, self-defensive.
He says, his low, sonorous voice like a siren call to me across the room.
– But what I know, I know is true
Weeks passed, my heart trembling in his presence as though on the edge of a precipice. Was it wrong of me to read between the lines of his words, his gestures, to something more personal, more sweet, more tender? How could I help it? The eye sees, but often only what it wishes to see. And the trickery we play upon ourselves, this insolent ruse we internally manufacture within ourselves, is effective – we do not see what we have chosen not to see, and in this denial, we do not even recognize the choice.
And so I courted hope, even as I courted him. I indulged his art work, I taught him principles and practices of design, drawing, proportion, style. Already I knew the truth of what I had intuited the first day I saw his sketches, that he would never be a great artist. He had style and precision certainly – the boy could see with fine detail any subject you suggested to him. What he did not see, which only the great artists see and represent, was the essence behind the practical form. The ephemeral, one might say the Platonic form or the archetype, but even these descriptors lessen it. The religious might speak of soul, the poet of the muse, the alchemist of the Philosopher’s Stone. It is impossible to give words to this form, this being which is in all, and it is impossible to show in which lines or brushstrokes the true artist captures it. Yet, instantly one sees if this butterfly has been caught or not, and for young Richard it flew eternally free, outside his grasp.
I began to worry about his eye in other ways because of this lack. For, to me, the playful dance of our emerging relationship must also be seen beyond itself to the realm of the artist’s senses. To read in the words and actions the love that I hoped to inspire and claim, I used the artist’s perception. I hoped that he could also see this, respond to the call, recognize what he may not have the technical skill to reproduce on canvas.
Behind every word we exchanged I saw the silhouette of everything we could be. My heart almost burst with the radiance of this vision. But did he see the same? We progressed so slowly, if at all, the changes or movements towards one another at a snail’s pace, slight iterations that I fed upon but despaired would ever reach their destination.
I became impatient. I had eschewed any more of my manipulative paintings of him, preferring to see the relationship develop its own form as a collaborative effort rather than as an outpouring of my own design. I so much wanted him to meet me on my level and not merely to follow. I was his mentor, a position of sufficient power, I did not wish to manufacture more.
I did not realize, until him, how essentially lonely I had become – or perhaps had always been. I wanted someone to meet me where I truly lived, to reach that level, to commune. I wanted it to be him.
But, time was dragging. I began to fear he would never see the nuances of our relating. He would see the approved and time-honoured mentor/pupil relationship, even accept without hesitation the clear love that an older man may have for a younger without the trappings of sexual and emotional union. Did he see more, did he hope for more, did the shyness in his eyes on occasion or his protestations that he could not have everything he desired, mask a more abiding passion to meet mine?
Eventually I had to know. I now understood god and his wish for man to have free will in a manner I had previously not apprehended. Love is not love if it is coerced or forced. You must choose to engage from your own desire, be it sexual or spiritual or both. But even god holds a weapon in his arsenal – eons of religion which remind one of the penalties of not returning this love, of straying from the path. As a hidden god I could not play this game with Richard. At best I could withdraw my patronage and tutelage. But of course, that would have been impossible for me – to lose even that connection with my beloved was unthinkable. So my only power was hidden also, the power of my paintings to progress a matter, rather than dictate it wholly. Was it so bad, then, to do what god has done for centuries, even under the guise of powerlessness? If the penitent sinner is beloved of god and acceptable, and if god’s threatened ire is considered spiritually just, then how could my power – given from I know not where – be wrong?
I was given the gift of art and I pursued it, even where many were not so blessed. I thought nothing of it. I was given material comfort and I enjoyed it, even though many starve. I was given the crucible of a happy family life in my youth when I knew many of my peers were not so fortunate. And also I was given the harelip, the awkwardness at sports, and a myriad of other disadvantages. It all balanced in the end. You use what you are given and there can be no wrong in that.
Therefore, given this power, how could its use be unholy? In fact, to not use it, was that not churlish and ungrateful?
Thus I convinced myself, driven by my need. I painted late into the night our first embrace. Do not judge me harshly. It was no naked bacchanalian festival. I did not presume to draw or paint that most intimate and glorious of moments. No, instead, it is the embrace of two fully clothed men, the very moment after the declaration. It is the relief of loving and returned love, that wonderful sensation of stepping over the threshold into an entirely new and more welcome life. I would let nature take its course for the further and more intimate expressions of love – I wanted not to direct my beloved in this manner, I wanted to see his love in its natural form, as he would give it, not as a producer might elicit a passionate dance for a film.
After the painting was finished I gazed at it, long into the night, pouring all my hope and love and need into it, as though to further ensure its efficacy. Every other painting, even the one that allowed us to meet, was more an experiment. Had they failed I would have laughed to myself and returned to my lesser life a wiser man. But this – this – was more. This was everything. This was the beginning. This was also paradoxically, the full flowering of my power through my desire.
I could not bear for this to fail, for my art and my power to desert me. I could not bear it.
Too late a god understands that free will has a hidden sting. I wonder if the original god, who created all of our world, found a similar regret when his creations had inner lives, not just outer. Like me perhaps, this original deity had principles no doubt, and beliefs and some form of self-regulation. And in so doing perhaps a certain unconscious arrogance is surfaced – the belief that within those confines people will actually do as you will, and not just a pale approximation of such which is then something quite other.
In the Garden, I think perhaps, the apple was meant as a symbol only, and god did not count on curiosity. Positioned high on a tree it was a form of art, like mine, and meant for something quite other than what it was eventually put to use for – something quite other indeed.
God knew too late, as did I, as did all of mankind. Knowing too late, that’s the precipice of every tragedy in life.
I was smug, I was excited, I was certain of so much. So when my beloved Richard came to call I only wondered how we would move from friends to lovers, and not if that would occur. Had I not painted our first wonderful embrace and did not everything I paint come to be?
Well yes, it did, but not as I had imagined.
Richard is flush with excitement the moment he enters the studio, and foolishly I think he may make a declaration in this very moment, running to my arms. And if he does, although I have painted it, I also assure myself it is true, it is real, and has arisen from the deep intimacy already established, quite genuinely, between us.
I think I will faint at his first words, swoon as a young lover might, and he must speak soon, soon!
– Paul, I have such news! Such news!
Yet even with these first words some incongruity arises, some slight flutter of dismay and unease. Are these the opening words of a lover?
– I have not dared to tell you, not dared to tell anyone, it is so fast and so perfect! But now I know my affections are returned I feel I can speak!
He has read my love in my kindness, my concern, my intimate care! In any moment, my joy will be complete.
– I am in love Peter! I met a girl only weeks ago, and it was love at first sight! I cannot even begin to say, but she feels it too, she told me last night, and I am so happy! So happy! Oh my dear friend, we are to be wed, so soon!
And as the completely alien message starts to sink in he is indeed in my arms, hugging me close, so happy he cannot contain it and must share his joy with me, his dear, dear…friend.
The painting has come alive, quite perfect in s vision, but completely imperfect in its import. Free will! I have not counted on the life that one leads away from the dictates of the canvas! I have not counted on that, and I have not put it in my calculations. And now as he embraces me, as I dreamed, it is completely unlike how I have dreamed it. Completely unlike.
– Richard, that is wonderful news, wonderful.
I have to say it, though my heart is breaking so fast and hard I think I will indeed faint, but with despair, not joy as I had expected. Free will, it is my undoing, it is the undoing of everything. I can paint a world and make it be on the outside, but I cannot also make it so on the inside.
And if this, in some bleak way, confirms that any real affection between Richard and I is genuine, for I could not paint his caring, his liking of me, it is only that: the smallest and most bitter of consolations. Liking. It will never be more. I cannot paint that changing without something much more extreme, much more intimate, to the point of obscenity. Yes, I could paint us at lovers, naked and within each other’s embrace far more intimately, and I could make that be, but in these circumstances what could that be but rape?
What has any of this been, in reality, other than a type of rape? I am ashamed in his sudden realisation. I cannot do that. And in any case, what would that do to my dear Richard, and his new love?
His new love. A thought occurs, so brief and unformed I barely know my own motives.
– Do you have a photo of your new love? Can I see what this paragon looks like?
– Oh yes, oh yes! Perhaps you might paint her someday?
Perhaps I may indeed.
He shows me the photo, a picture of a lovely, smiling, blonde girl with perfect facial symmetry and youth. Such youth. I can see her full, see her whole, from this one picture.
I can see her quite well enough to paint.
I wonder, as I paint, if the story of the Fall is actually the story of god and not an errant angel. Could it be that profound disappointment makes you resent the boundaries you place around yourself, and if you are indeed a god, how can you be anything, truly, but boundless?
Perhaps God, weeping for the willfulness of humankind, split apart and sent his own despair and disappointment and rage as Lucifer, and thereafter that has been the Fall, the splitting apart of a once whole god. I could understand that, I could empathise if so. For this is how I felt now, split apart, boundless, only curious in some detached, bleak way about how far I might go.
Forcing Richard by my painting was too far, even for me, and in any case, my rage was not to him. It could never be to him, for I loved him so simply, so perfectly. Thus Lucifer had to split from God to do his damage to humanity. God could not have done that from such profound love within. And neither can I.
But part of me fell, split apart, given birth by my brush and my paint. And my hatred fell on the shoulders of a different one, the one who had stolen my love, the one who had made my beloved so deeply and unknowingly betray me.
I paint her very deliberately. And her form is perfect. Richard had many photos of her, in fact, and from these I gleaned every precise detail required. I painted her running, rushing to her lover, across the street from my home, across to the café, laughing with joy to be with my beloved. My beloved.
But just as she is crossing, she does not look, does not look in time, and she is hit, sudden, complete and fatally, by a speeding car. I paint death in the pain and the impact, and on my beloved’s sweet face a strange mixture of joy and horror, caught in the split moment of the painting. The moment he realizes she is gone, just as she is leaving, just as the soul departs.
It is perhaps my greatest work artistically, the nuance of that precise moment caught so perfectly. It is a shame I can never show this, and I know I never can. Like so many of my god-strewn work of late, it is a private affair. It is my equivalent of Dorian Grey’s portrait in the attic, the proof of my mastery over life that only I can see lest it is taken from me forever.
And it is also proof of my mastery over death.
Once finished, I sleep fitfully, then the next morning, around the time of cafe assignations, I sit at my window to watch.
At precisely 10am I see my beloved arrive and sit, happy and excited at a café table. He is dressed exactly as I painted him, of course, and my heart breaks afresh to see his innocent joy as he awaits the arrival of his love. Her name is Penelope, a lovely name for a lovely girl.
A lovely girl about to die. I am struck by guilt for a moment, can I allow this to be? I look back at the painting and wonder if I can save her, stop this, by burning the painting, burning it now. But would that even work? I do not know if the painting needs just to be done to work, or whether its power would be robbed by its destruction. I have not tested that, do not know, but I could now, and in doing so learn something. I could save her for the moment, but leave the opportunity for me to continue on this path later should I choose.
What would a god do? What should I do?
But then time answers my questions for me – there is no time left. She is already hurrying down the other side of the street to him, dressed in the red dress of sacrifice I painted for her. I am struck by seeing her as real, and the guilt awakens afresh. She is young and vital, and he loves her, and how can I wipe her out from the world? Now I see her as a person and not just a hated, painful idea? Can I destroy the painting, even now, and save his love?
But if I was to burn the painting now it was very possible both she and my beloved would spontaneously combust below me. No, for now there must be resolve, the resolve of a god.
And then she is rushing across the road, and the car comes screeching through at the appointed moment, and the impact occurs. Even though I have painted it, I still sit up, shocked and bewildered to see it in real life. Real life and real death.
I see my beloved’s face change, just as I painted it, see him run to his love in despair, hear him cry out a moment later that she is dead, and see him fall by her side, weeping uncontrollably. He is holding her in his embrace, rocking her back and forth as if by this soothing he can call her back. But she is gone. I have made sure of that at least.
I want to go to him to comfort him, but even I know this would be obscene. I watch, sitting back from where I can be seen, watching others surround him in sympathy or just morbid curiosity. I watch, hidden, until the ambulance comes and the dead body of his love travels with him away from this bloody scene of my creation.
The true nature of a god is loneliness. I know this now. It is the price of such power, it follows in its wake. You cannot commune with others that are, essentially, alien to you. It is to be separate. It is to love, but always in a detached, separate way. A god will never embrace his creation. It never can be.
I know this so well. I have created the weave of life and I have taken life with it. I have murdered a woman, but as I said, I will never be charged. No-one would ever guess, or believe if they did. Still, I am imprisoned for all that, in knowledge of what I have done, what I am and what that means.
I have not seen Richard since the day and I will never see him again of his own free will, I know. He called me, a few days later, crying down the phone and telling me the news, but also saying he has no heart for this city anymore, or for anything associated with it, including the art we have been working on together.
I understand of course, and assured him of this, though my heart breaks afresh with each word. I could paint him coming to me, I could paint him changing his mind. But would he really change his mind, and who would he be then, other than a captured butterfly, pinned to my wall? Beautiful but pointless and lifeless in all essential senses.
He is my love but I will never be his. And that seems as perfect a way of thinking about a god and his creation as I can imagine.
A friend of mine once said he thought God left the world because he became bored. He’s gone, he said, and what we have left is pointlessness.
No, what we have left is the unbounded tragedy of freedom. And God has left, I believe, for he would be heartsick to realise the truth, just as I am. You can only love something with a rich inner life, something which can choose to return that love. Without that, you are lost. But in creating us, he created the very choice that would alienate us from him, and in my painting I have done the same. The same.
So I cannot paint, never again. I cannot risk my power in this world, given it has stolen the only thing that could have mattered to me. I know, deep within, that Richard would never have loved me. His love moved towards a woman, not a man. But had I not painted our meetings perhaps we would have met in any case, and genuinely, and at least I could have the genuine friendship of the man, even now. Yes, it would be attended by the bitter pain of seeing him with his love, but he would be happy. And he would truly be my friend. And perhaps that would have – should have – been enough.
But now I will never know.