Late as usual, I clattered along the magnolia hallway of our overcrowded flat, finding Paul still in the kitchen. He gave me a dirty grin from next to the dishwasher, which wasn’t surprising since I’d spent a couple of hours the previous night giving him a good time. I’d then spent fifteen minutes that morning trying to shower the smell of it off my skin. Not one of my best decisions ever, but it kept the rent low. Joe, our landlord and Paul’s lover, wasn’t there, of course. He was out wheeling and dealing with a load of artie types in Italy, lucky bastard, but if he knew what went on he’d … he’d … well, I didn’t know what he’d do but it wouldn’t be good.
“Hey there, Mikey. How’s tricks?” Paul stood up, his gut swelling the belt of his chinos, and his round face lined with sweat in spite of the cold. Looking at him made me glad for my own slim build and narrow features, not to mention my full head of dark hair compared to his receding hairline.
He gazed at me for a moment as if expecting something else, but I’d never been much of a one for chatting to men I’d slept with. Besides, I hated being called Mikey. It reminded me of home, but I wouldn’t tell him that. It might give him too much power.
“Enjoy last night then?” he said at last, pulling at his ear-lobe.
I shrugged, “Sure. It was fine.”
“More than fine, don’t you think? That’s understating it, isn’t it? It was bloody marvellous and you know it.”
It was far too early in the day to cope with enthusiasm and, in any case, it hadn’t set my blood on fire. Paul’s repertoire of sexual moves were less than the colours in the rainbow and like the rainbow they were always in the same order.
“Yeah,” he went on as the sound of kids yelling burst in from the street outside. “The thing about you is you’re so bloody good at it. God knows where you learn that stuff from. Do you know what?”
With his last question, he faced me, his grin turning sly.
“What?” I said, though I wasn’t interested in the answer.
“You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”
I laughed. What had he thought? That I’d never done it at all? That one glimpse of the solid flesh and wispy black hair of my fellow lodger had swept me over the edge into sexual activity? “Sure, yeah, I was Mr Catholic Priest when I turned up here.”
“No, not like that, Mikey,” he folded his arms and pursed his lips. “I mean for money. You’ve done this before for money, haven’t you?”
“Don’t be stupid. I don’t do it for money with you.”
“You call paying less rent to Joe because I’m paying the extra, not doing it for cash?”
No, I didn’t as a matter of fact. Paul may have thought he was making me into a real-life rent boy in downtown Hackney, if you could call a twenty-four year old a boy, but it didn’t count until you held the notes in your fist. Everyone knew that. But still, there were streets where I lived, and beyond, the East End for one, maybe Soho on a good day, which knew the shape of my stride and the colour of my flesh.
“Mikey?” Paul prompted.
“Just leave it.”
“Getting too close, am I?”
This was stupid so I turned to go, but with a sudden shift in mood, which I should have been used to, he grabbed my arm so hard I almost cried out.
“Cut the crap,” he whispered dangerously close to my ear so that the air around us crackled. “I know what you’ve been up to, I hear rumours …”
“What? In those bars you go to?”
He twisted my arm again. “Shut up. I think you should be more careful, you know. Joe wouldn’t like knowing how you make your money when you can’t sell that bloody art of yours - if art’s what you call it. Scribbling’s more the word, isn’t it? Anyway, you’d be out of here faster than you could say “Picasso”. Maybe you should be even nicer to me just to make sure you don’t end up on the streets, Mikey. For real.”
And with a final twist of my arm which made it feel as if it might burn for ever, he shoved me away, set the dishwasher to start and swaggered out of the kitchen.
I sat down. My blood was drumming in my head and I had to take several deep breaths to stifle the feeling of sickness, all the while listening to the sound of the shower and Paul’s tuneless singing. I’d only been here six months and already all the signs said it was time to go. But where? I knew nobody and each time I did a flit, somehow the next flat-share was always worse than the last. At least Joe’s place was clean, though the company he kept did nothing for me. The thought of being “nicer” to Paul didn’t fill me with any great enthusiasm and anyway what he’d accused me of was unfair. Sometimes I needed cash, and sex was the best way to get it. It didn’t make me a hooker. Simply someone wanting to survive. Maybe I’d have to be more careful next time, I thought.
When at last Paul thudded down the stairs and out to his treadmill job, arse-licking would-be clients for an insurance company, I leant back in the kitchen chairand groaned. What a start to the day. I needed to take my mind off it.
Alone, I tidied up my cupboard-sized bedroom, resisting thoughts of what had happened that morning and the night before. It wasn’t hard; putting things away where I didn’t have to think of them again was something I was good at. Anyway, the important thing was the drawing. It kept me sane and always had done. With a bit of luck, it could be my last chance for a way out of the life I was living, and Jesus, let it work soon, I thought. Best get down to it though. So, when I’d pushed open the window to let the London air wipe out the salt smell of Paul’s spunk, I lit my first smoke of the day and flicked through the pictures in my most recent folio, trying to see a way through to some theme in what I was doing. It wasn’t obvious. All I had at the moment was an impression of Paul and Joe together, a drawing of London rooftops, and several scenes of the Thames, most of them viewed from the South Bank complex. Something about the mix of river and concrete spoke to me in a way I couldn’t entirely understand. It must have been how the lines converged; the smooth seduction of the flowing water and the solid weight of the buildings. A sweet contrast and a melding. Those were, without doubt, the best in my current series. But I needed more if I was going to make it big, if I was going to get the exhibition I’d promised myself a long time back.
Sitting down, I found myself desperate once more for somewhere I could really call my own. What I wouldn’t give for a large sunlit studio where I could spread out, scatter ideas like dreams across the space and simply draw. Not that it would happen for a long time, not unless my luck changed. Some hope. Here, there was hardly enough room to stand up. When I’d first arrived last summer, even the sun had been forced to fight its way into the bare room to reveal the bed, thin carpet and one almost empty bookshelf. But I knew that one day, it would all be different. It had to be.
With future plans firing through my head, I turned the chair to get as much sunlight as I could, and began to draw, trying not to think too much. I always worked better that way. Again, what came out through my fingers were snapshots of the city; a street, scrubland, willowy figures with something in the curve of them that I couldn’t yet interpret. I was improving, even I could see it. Surely someone somewhere would take them.
And maybe it might even be Joe in that new gallery of his. I’d thought it was the best day of my life when three months after I’d moved in, Joe put the deposit down on the Moonlight Gallery, ten minutes’ walk away in Jade Street. Maybe this time he’d take my work, even though the art in his place was more traditional than mine would ever be. But he knew me, he thought I was good or rather had the potential to be good and I might get lucky. Or more likely not. He always went for the commercial touch and I didn’t think that would ever be me, no matter what I did. However, over the months I’d realised that you never know what might be counted commercial and what won’t. Anyway, it was time to launch into the next drawing. The one I was looking at was finished, time to start the next. But before I could sit back, close my eyes and plummet into the depths of myself for inspiration of any kind, the phone started to ring. In the hallway, I picked it up, hoping it wasn’t Paul.
“Paul? Is that you?” came the reply.
At once I recognised the voice and felt a shiver of guilt. “Oh hi, Joe. How was Florence?”
“Not bad, thanks, considering the time of year I had to bloody well get over there. Didn’t get as many new leads as I’d have liked though. Everything okay in Hackney? Paul not giving you any grief?”
“No, he’s fine,” I lied.
“Great. Are you busy?”
“No. Not really. Anything I can do?”
“As it happens, yes. Could you come to the gallery, say 4pm?”
This sounded good and my senses quickened. “Sure. Where are you?”
“Just on my way out of the airport. I’ve called Lee-Anne and something’s come up. I’d like to talk it over with you. I’ve got stuff to sort out, but apart from that the sooner the better.”
“Okay. No problem.”
“Good. See you there then.”
He cut the call and I stood in the hallway, unable to stop the grin spreading over my face. Maybe this was it, after all this time. Maybe this was the biggie.
After that, I couldn’t settle. Wasn’t it always the way? The day drifted by in a haze of TV, smoking and half-finished ideas, but 3.30pm found me locking the front door, with my portfolio under my arm, and setting out along the dirty streets and neglected gardens which made up this down-on-its-luck part of London. The area had aged like an old hooker, no longer the prize she once was. The roads and pavements were wide enough to belong to somewhere like Chelsea or that breath-taking part of the city around Tate Britain. But the people who walked them wore no designer clothes and their faces were sour. Old milk and old dreams. The air was full of the smell of them, and God knew why Joe and Paul still lived somewhere like this. The only reason I could think of was its closeness to the gallery, which itself was in a part of Hackney that still kept some of its faded glory.
By the time I arrived it was beginning to drizzle, giving a shimmer to the tarmac, and for protection I turned up the collar of my jacket. Inside, the clear light and sense of space made me smile. So different from the room I lived in. If only, I thought again, if only I could have somewhere like this, then inspiration wouldn’t abandon me like it so often did. Surroundings mattered. For me, they always would. Walking through, I saw there were one or two new pictures I wanted to have a closer look at later, if Joe gave me the chance. Sometimes he could be so off-hand, no matter how nice I was.
As the door clicked shut behind me, I heard the faint echo of a bell in what I knew to be the office and a second later a tall woman walked into view wearing a long green silk dress and with her auburn hair piled up on her head like a Roman goddess. She brought with her the rich scent of roses.
“Michael,” she smiled, her eyes lighting up as if she hadn’t seen me only a couple of days ago. And a hundred times before that within the last month. Was I really that desperate to sell my stuff? Yes was the easy answer. From now on I’d have to try to play it cool.
“Lee-Anne.” I smiled back, thinking once again how beautiful she was. If she was a bloke, I’d be begging for it. Not that she’d look at me, not someone like her. “Joe asked me to come.”
“Yes, of course. He’s in the office.”
She gestured me through and sat down at Reception as I pushed open the carved wooden door, not bothering to knock. He’d called me here after all. Inside, the décor was traditional but with a bright edge, in keeping with the way the gallery owner saw himself. Chrome and silver gleaming against ash and ebony, with here and there some stunning originals from the artists he supported. I wished one of them was me. The man seated behind the curved desk was leaning back, phone wedged under his chin and one hand pulling at his faded ginger beard. He gestured me in, the sunlight catching his hair as he did so.
Taking a seat and pulling it to one side, I sat down and waited.
“Yes. No. I don’t want that. Just listen, will you?” Joe’s soft northern accent thickened as his tempo increased. Like it always did if he was angry or drunk. “It’s not the sort of picture I want here. Not my style. I know what I said before, but that was only because I thought you’d come through for us. You didn’t. And that’s the end of it, as far as I’m concerned.”
He paused and held the phone away from his ear whilst at the same time pushing towards me a half-empty packet of cigarettes. I shook my head. They were herbal and it wasn’t my thing. Tasted like horse piss, for starters. If I wanted to hold something in my fingers, then it would have to be stronger than that, something to knock me out, ravish me. In every sense. Joe shrugged and turned away in his chair, though I could still hear the stream of meaningless words humming from the receiver. I almost felt sorry for whoever was getting the cold treatment on the other end.
“That’s enough,” Joe’s tone cut through what I imagined to be a flow of desperate abuse. “You’ve had your say and I respect you for that. Aye, I do. But you’re not signed up with me, and after this that fact isn’t likely to change. Good afternoon to you.”
He ended the call and stood up, his lanky figure a thin shadow against the window. “God, these so-called artists have no idea. Couldn’t tell one end of a brush from another.”
“Or what type it was.”
“Too true,” he laughed and lit one of his smokes. The smell made me think of autumn hedges and ploughed fields, though I’d never got close enough to either to know for sure. “But it’s good to see you, Michael. What can I do for you?”
“You asked me to come.”
“Yes. I hoped you might be wanting to see some of my latest drawings,” I opened my case and began laying out my offerings over his desk. “See, I think there’s a harder edge to some of this stuff, you remember you mentioned that before? And now I …”
As I went on talking and talking for no purpose, Joe began to look through my work, turning over the paper with his long fingers, his sharp gaze taking in every space, every line. I didn’t have to be inside his head to understand that. I simply knew it.
When he’d finished and I at last had found the strength to shut up, a short silence followed.
“Hmm,” he said.
I sprang to my feet. Suppressing the urge to gag and without looking at Joe, I shuffled together my drawings and placed them back into the portfolio. And all the while thinking, God, how could I have been so stupid? He’d be laughing at me now, he and Paul together after they’d gone to bed tonight. Bloody hell. A knife in the gut might have been better.
“Look, sorry,” I mumbled. “Didn’t mean to take up your time. I just thought …”
“Hey, don’t go,” he said. “You’ve got the wrong idea. I was trying to think something through, which was what I asked you here for in the first place. You see, Michael, even though what you do isn’t what I could show here in the Moonlight, right now I could use your skills.”
“How?” I asked, trying not to look as if I would take anything he could throw my way at any time and in any place.
He smiled. “I’ve had a request none of my artists could fulfil, but which you might be interested in, and I’ve done a bit of smooching on your behalf. No, don’t thank me. Want to hear it?”
I nodded. “Go ahead.”
He told me. It was good. Apparently he’d hooked up with an old art college friend during the conference in Florence who’d let him know that some big-shot firm up in the City had money to spend and were hunting around for some stylish modern drawings they could use in their new offices. Something to impress the clients and to show them how on the ball and go-getting they were. Joe had pitched for it but it hadn’t taken long for him to realise that none of his artists could work to the remit; spontaneous, free, modern. Then he’d thought of me.
“I’ll want my cut of course, Michael, if you land this,” he said. “Nothing comes for nothing, you know that. And I’m sorry but I can’t be with you at the first meeting. Something’s come up here which is more important. I’ve rung and apologised, let them know you’ll be on your own, but it’s okay. I don’t think they’ll realise it’s unusual. So. Will you do it?”
Sure I would. I’d be crazy not to. I would have preferred him to be there but, hell, I’d have to cope.
“Yes, I’ll do it. Who wouldn’t? And, Joe?”
“Thanks. I …”
“No time,” he swept my words away with a wave of his hand. “You have to be there in forty-five minutes. If you get it, try to make sure you free up your drawings even more. It’ll do you good. Now, go.”
I went. It was vital experience, not to mention money in the pocket if I landed the deal, as Joe put it. That might keep me off the streets for a while and away from Paul’s grasp, so I was doubly grateful. I left Joe’s gallery with the memory of Lee-Anne’s perfume and smile clinging to my shirt.
The quickest way to the City from Hackney was by bus, though given a choice I would have preferred to walk. It always cleared my head. But I had no time for doing what I wanted so I jumped onto the first bus that came along, finding a seat by myself and staring hard at anyone who looked as if they might want to join me. While the London pavements and people flowed past the window, scaled down through the streaks of dirt on glass to impressions from the side of my eye, I went through in my memory what was in my portfolio - it was way too big to open up on the bus - and tried to think what might work best.
It mattered so much. Drawing was the one thing I’d been able to do all my life. It had got me through some bad times, and some not so bad times, and I wasn’t intending to let go of what I spent long nights and longer days dreaming of. Not ever. So I considered in my mind the pictures I’d done, one by one.
First, a street in Hackney, near where I lived. I’d drawn it as if I was on fire, I remembered, hand ranging over paper as I sat in the tiny box garden at the front, the breeze making me shiver, and brought into the tips of my fingers the road I walked so often. Wild pencil strokes showing the untamed boundaries of tarmac, litter shifting in the acrid spin of traffic fumes, here and there a hunched figure shuffling towards an unknown destination, and always and everywhere the cars. So many cars, sometimes I felt as if they’d never stop. You could always hear them, even at that point in the night between today and tomorrow. Other London scenes followed as I continued to track my portfolio, such as it was; the South Bank, Westminster Bridge, the Embankment on a night when I’d got lucky twice and gone home richer than when I’d arrived.
Sometimes London could be easy money if you were prepared to flaunt it a little. More so on a Friday night with commuters spilling like wild dogs out of the late bars and heading home to their wives and families. Some of them had no idea what they were doing, but who cared? As long as they paid for it, and I always made sure they did, that was fine. Probably most of them didn’t remember me the next day they were so rat-arsed. Then I thought again of that night at Embankment. No, some of them would remember. No matter what they liked to tell themselves in the morning.
Smiling, I continued the journey. The drawings towards the rear of the case were mostly of people I knew. Paul at breakfast, an impression of Joe in the middle of shaving, even, on another day which had been good to me, one of Lee-Anne, just caught in the turn of her shoulder and a hint of a smile. Of them all, Lee-Anne was the best. With her on that day I hadn’t needed to rely on memory as I’d finished it in minutes with only a handful of perfect lines as she waited. She had the gift of being still. But it was true that drawing people wasn’t my strongest talent. The richness of objects was what mattered, and the feel of them: the warm roughness of wood, the angles and harshness of brick, a road’s cool smoothness, a park’s jagged railings, and all that my hands could express of them through paper. They were good, but not what people wanted to buy. I had to find something more, and fast.
And Joe knew that. What had he said when I left? I needed to be freer than I was. What did he mean? And how could I achieve it? The bus gave a jolt as it turned the corner towards Bank and I tried to forget what I should be doing in the future and concentrate instead on what might be happening now, or in the next few minutes. Time to get off the bus, and go and do some business.
Outside, the afternoon had turned bitterly cold. A typical February day. So cold now it could freeze your balls off. Glancing at my watch, I saw it was already coming up to 5pm, the time this Mr Hutchinson had wanted to see me. I hoped he liked what he saw. Because when the bus rolled away with a smoky screech, and I could see the company I’d been asked to come to, I certainly liked what I saw. MacMillan’s Reinsurance was something else. Its location too. I knew the City was upper-class, but at the time I didn’t get out there very much, preferring to take my evening walks in the south and centre of town looking for subjects to draw. The dirtier London became, the more I found I liked it. But here, you could smell the scent of money rising up from the pavement. The lack of litter made me feel out-of-place too, and it was as if the thousand windows towering above me were eyes, all-seeing, all-judging. Maybe the richer you were the less you bought. Or threw away. They must be earning millions. Well, if the miracle happened, Mr Hutchinson liked my work, changed his mind about its destination and put it front of house where famous art dealers could pass by and wonder, then maybe I’d be earning millions one day too. In my dreams. Straightening my shoulders and feeling like a bicycle faced with a row of oncoming taxis, I tucked my portfolio under my arm and marched towards my appointment.
Walking into Reception, there were smooth, pale desks, computers that were so thin that if they turned sideways you’d miss them, and even a water feature, for God’s sake. It made me feel as if I was in another world. As if I’d missed out on something somewhere along the road and hadn’t had a chance to turn back. How did people live like this? Or work like this? I always thought myself lucky if I had enough room to set up my paper and draw a few appropriate lines without my elbow bumping into shelves or walls or anything else which happened to be in the way. Here, I could have lain flat out and stretched my arms out wide, or set up an easel like a painter and paced back and forth from the paper to gain the perspective I wished I could have every day, waiting for the right line to come, seeing if it was in the right place.
When I approached the desk, the dark-haired, slim receptionist looked up with a smile that faded when she took in my appearance. No doubt they were used to well-dressed clients in a place like this. I cursed the fact I’d been so pushed for time I hadn’t been able to change.
“Good afternoon. May I help you?”
“Sure. I mean I’m Michael Jones. I’m here to see Mr Hutchinson, I think his name is.”
At once, she sat up straighter as if the name of my potential customer itself was a magic code, enough to make politeness out of indifference and interest out of hate.
“Oh, of course. Please take a seat and I’ll give Mr Hutchinson a call and tell him you’re here. Would you like a coffee?”
Would I? Sure I would. I never turned down a free drink. So when she’d made the call and found out that the bloke in question was in a meeting and would be at least another fifteen minutes, I breathed in the rich scent of Douw Egberts and enjoyed the strength of its flavour on my tongue. One cup of that and you might be awake for ever. Chocolate biscuits were brought on a silver tray too and I basked for a while in the knowledge that I was for once an expected and desired guest. Made a change. Though I only allowed myself one thick-coated dark biscuit. No point in spoiling my dinner. As I waited, people began to leave for the day, most of them in their mid-twenties and loud with a confidence I envied. Blokes on the whole, good-looking enough to make me wonder, with the occasional girl, tight-suited and heavily made-up. Some of them glanced at me but no eyes stayed. I was beginning to think Joe had made me take a wasted journey and that I’d never get to meet my new potential source of cash and glory, when I heard footsteps pacing along the unseen corridor to my right. The receptionist glanced up, said, “Good afternoon, Mr Hutchinson, your visitor is here,” and the man himself strode into view.
And what a bloke.
Tall, slim and with a way of dancing when he walked as if he was about to jump into the air simply with the joy of being alive. Older than me, well into his thirties, I’d say, so not the sort I usually went for, but with hair as golden as vanilla ice cream and blue eyes which seemed to take all of me in at a glance without the ache of judging. He smiled as he drew nearer and grasped my hand, and for a moment the whole reception area, the City and all of London and maybe even the world itself vanished and all I wanted to do was fuck him. Or let him fuck me, it wouldn’t have mattered which way round he liked it. If he liked it at all.
“Mr Jones,” he said, his voice low and husky like a warm car engine and a thousand notches above mine on the social scale. “I’m Jack Hutchinson. Good of you to come, and apologies about the wait.”
I was unable to reply. Instead I nodded and tried to suppress the urge to stroke his fingers which were still holding mine, to laugh out loud, maybe even dance like him around the bright desk. Which was slowly coming back into my consciousness. Yes, the desk was still there, with the receptionist who appeared not to have noticed anything strange. And so were the chairs, one of which I’d been sitting in only a moment ago when everything was different, and the thin computer, the water feature, the white telephone. It was all still there and everything would be fine. Everything. Except my skin felt hot as if it would never be cool again.
At last, he let my hand go, releasing in me the ability to speak. “Sure, no problem. Happy to be here, you know, it wasn’t a problem. Really. And Joe … I mean Mr Garmon sends his apologies, he rang you, I think. Earlier?”
I was babbling and he looked at me, one eyebrow arched on his oh so beautiful face. “Yes, he did, but I’m sure we can deal with it on our own. I didn’t want to wait. Let’s go into my office and we can have a chat about the assignment, look at your portfolio.”
I followed him as he swung round and led me away from Reception and down a vast expanse of corridor lined on one side with glass overlooking the darkened road and on the other side with prints of objects I couldn’t name.
“What are these?” I blurted out, curiosity drawing my attention away from his body and towards the swirling lines of red and black and gold.
He hesitated and came to hover by my shoulder, filling the air around me with the herbal scent of aftershave. “What do you think they are?”
“I don’t know. Something scientific, maybe. Edgy, strange.”
“Do you like them?”
Peering closer at the picture I’d stopped by, I thought for a moment. “No heart, there’s something missing. As if someone made it and forgot to put a centre to it. As if they didn’t care.”
He laughed. “I understand what you mean. And you’re right about the scientific element. They’re supposed to be versions of motherboards or the inner workings of an engine, I forget which.”
“For an insurance company?”
“Reinsurance. But yes, exactly, it doesn’t fit, does it? A leftover from this building’s previous life. Though we can talk business once we’re in the office. Come on.”
He strode away to the end of the corridor, turning right into a long line of wood panelling and opening the first door on the left. “Here.”
Standing in the doorway, I admired his surroundings: beautiful mahogany furniture, dark wall panelling like that which I’d just walked through, curved work desk, several chairs huddling round a separate small circular table, for meetings I supposed, and a gleaming green leather sofa.
He must be even more important than I imagined, I thought, or at least more than Joe had let on.
“Nice place,” I said, knowing it was a stupid thing to say but wishing I could have some time here and commit it to paper. Still, I could do that from memory later if I wanted to.
“Glad you like it. Has Amanda’s killer brew finished you off or would you like another coffee?”
Amanda. That must be the receptionist. I shook my head and he gestured to the table. Time to forget the disturbing effect he was having on me and instead bring out some art he might like, and try to look as if I knew what I was doing. Harder than you’d think when all you wished for was to run your hand through the hair of the person you were trying to impress or at the very least get a little closer to that aftershave. What was it?
I laid my portfolio on the patterned wood of the table and unzipped the case with business-like efficiency. The action made me feel in control. “Could I have some more light, please?”
He sprang away and manoeuvred the lamp from his desk, bringing it to the edge of the table. I adjusted it to my liking and then began to show him what I’d done, spreading around my drawings of London, Lee-Anne and Joe, but leaving the ones of Paul hidden. Suddenly they seemed too personal. Or not for Mr Hutchinson’s eyes. I couldn’t bring myself to call him Jack, not even in my head. Not then. And I kept on making the odd comment in an effort to seem professional.
“Objects are what I’m best at, atmospheres as well, which is why Mr Garmon thought I’d be suitable for what you’ve got in mind.”
“Yes, I know. He said as much. Tried to talk me into some of his gallery artists, but they weren’t suitable. Then he mentioned you.”
And thank God he had, I thought, continuing my spiel. This could be my big break. “And if you want pencil and charcoal drawings and not watercolours or oils, then it makes sense J - Mr Garmon - should recommend me.”
“Because most up-and-coming artists don’t do what I do. They’re more interested in colour and what they think it can do, which means drawing, real drawing, suffers. With me, you get a focus on one medium and so the quality is better. Not everything should be expressed in colour, you see. Some things are meant for shades of black and grey.”
As I’d been speaking I realised I’d been leaning towards him to make my point and now I found his blue eyes and full mouth were enticingly near. Straightening up, I took two steps back, but he appeared to notice nothing strange and gave half a smile.
“Yes. I like to think so.”
“So not really established yet then?”
I should have kept my mouth shut. Like I usually did. What was it about this bloke that made me want to say too much? But he must have known that. Joe would have told him.
“No,” I said at last as he seemed to be waiting for an answer. “Not yet.”
A pause, while he continued to look at my work. To me, it was obvious I’d blown it and there was nothing more to say. A company like this, a man like him, would want someone they could rely on, someone with real experience behind them, even an exhibition or two. I had nothing but some scribbled impressions of modern city life and Joe’s recommendation. It was pointless, I didn’t even know why I’d come or why Joe had bothered to call me in. Maybe it had been a joke after all and I’d been too eager or desperate to see it. A sick joke. I’d kill that bastard when I saw him tonight, I thought, really I would. This might have been my only chance to make it in the art world, my last chance … And it still might be. Because looking at Mr Hutchinson’s elegant fingers where he was holding my best London drawing, I knew I didn’t want to let this one go. This one I wanted to fight for.
“Mr Hutchinson,” I cleared my throat and he jumped and glanced across at me, as if surprised to find me still there. “Mr Hutchinson, I may not be what you would call an established artist, but I’m good, I can produce the sort of work you want and produce it quickly. On top of that, if - when - I one day make it, just think of how good your business will look at all those posh dinners you go to, when you can say it was you who discovered me first.”
He stared at me for another long moment and then burst into laughter, revealing a not quite straight line of teeth. The imperfection made me want him more.
“That’s one way of looking at it,” he said.
“And, besides that …” I was ready to push my advantage, but he held up one hand in the unmistakeable gesture of authority.
“No more, please. I get the gist,” he shuffled my papers together and then placed them in a neat pile in the middle of the table. “You’re certainly keen, which is good. And you can draw. But I have other people to assess so I can’t give you an answer now. It’ll take a day or two to make my decision. In the meantime, here’s my business card in case you have any other questions.”
He handed me the card and I pocketed it in my jeans. It felt as heavy as a stone.
“Sure, thanks.” But I couldn’t keep the disappointment from my voice and he gave me a searching glance as he replaced the lamp onto his desk.
“And I’ll need to keep these, to compare with the others.” He patted my pictures as if they were a dog in need of calming just as I was making a move to gather them up again. “You’ll have them back, whatever the outcome.”
I nodded and clutched my almost empty portfolio case to my chest. Like a barrier, but against what God only knew.
He saw me out of the building, but our walk through the corridors and the now empty reception area was a silent one. I could think of nothing to say and he, I thought, had said all he needed to. His face told me nothing.
As he twisted the latch and swung open the huge, glass door, letting a rush of wintry air and London noise into that warm and silent place, he turned and gave me an unexpected grin.
“These days, you know, there aren’t that many posh dinners,” he said.
When you fall in love, everything changes. Whilst it’s not something I allow myself to do often and it’s not something I’m proud of, when it happens, the quality of light falling on your skin makes everything different, more vibrant, more alive. The journey back to the dark corners of Hackney was filled with the sound of singing in my head and at every judder of the bus, every coming and going of its passengers, I found myself smiling and unable to stop.
It was as if London itself had receded a step or two to allow me to breathe. But why now? And why with a man a good ten years older than me, maybe more, with lines around his eyes and - I was sure of it - wrinkles on his skin? Not my style at all. The couple of times I’d fallen in love in the past, the bloke had been young and hot, though of course it never lasted. Why should it? Love didn’t help anyone, though lust was different. And love didn’t interest me. The things that mattered were drawing and having the money to draw. Anything else was fun, but nothing to change a life for. This, I told myself, would be the same. But still it worried me.
It was still worrying me as I pushed open the broken gate Joe had never bothered to mend and padded up the overgrown path. The light in the high-up kitchen window told me someone was home, and when I turned the key in their door and walked in, I knew it was both of them. Murmured conversation was coming from the kitchen, but I didn’t feel much like joining in, so headed along the hall towards the privacy of my room.
Caution didn’t do me any good because Joe must have heard my key in the lock though I’d tried to be quiet; the kitchen door opened, releasing the smell of coriander and cumin into the hallway, and the landlord I wasn’t sleeping with right now poked his head round the corner.
“So?” he said, wiping from his cheek a smear of yellow that clashed with his red beard. “How did it go?”
“Too early to say,” I shrugged, trying to stop a smile from giving me away. “You know.”
“No, I don’t. Come in and tell me.” Joe grinned and clapped me on the back, guiding me through the doorway and into the steam and spices of the kitchen and almost forcing me into the nearest chair.
As I sat down, Paul glanced up from whatever he was reading opposite me, frowned and looked back at his book. Joe didn’t notice. He was sprinkling a handful of herbs into one of the pots on the hob, after which he gave it a quick stir, wrinkled his nose and then turned to me.
“What did you think of Mr Hutchinson then?” he said.
“Tall. Important bloke. Knows what he wants.” Meaning gorgeous, sexy and I am desperate to sleep with him.
“Yeah, he does. But what did he say?”
“Nothing. He’ll let me know, in a few days.” Please, oh please.
“Didn’t turn you down straight off then.” Paul muttered, and as he spoke he flipped shut the magazine he was reading before leaning back in his chair, arms folded, head on one side, like a dog about to bite. “Makes a bloody change.”
“What do you mean?” All my hot fantasies about Mr Jack Hutchinson vanished as I glared up at Paul and clenched my hands into fists under the table.
“You heard. Ain’t no-one ever given you a commission for that scribble you produce, have they? Now Joe here says …”
“Paul,” Joe began, whirling his wooden spoon in the air like a conductor, but it was too late.
“Why don’t you shut up?” I was standing now, leaning across the table right against Paul’s podgy face. “You’re just jealous, that’s all, because no matter how hard you try there’ll be nothing you’re ever any good at, nothing at all, and you know what I mean.”
“You little ...”
He reached out to grab me, but Joe snatched at his hand and pushed the two of us further apart. “Now, boys, stay cool, will you? Or if you’re going to fight, for God’s sake don’t do it in my kitchen. Okay?”
That was fine by me, but Paul had obviously had enough. He gave me a look which promised revenge later and strode out of the kitchen, leaving his magazine behind. Without looking at Joe, I picked it up. The Gay Times, Paul’s regular drool, I should have known. There were several adverts at the back he’d been reading to go by the smudges and I grimaced. It always surprised me that Joe never said anything about some of the blokes Paul hooked up with. Or where he hooked up with them. Maybe he simply didn’t see it, or chose not to. Whatever, it was their business, not mine.
Sitting down, I pretended to read, though it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. After a while, I looked up.
Joe turned round from his intense scrutiny of his cooking efforts and gave me half a shrug.
“He shouldn’t have said that, though,” I went on and then something else occurred to me. “What did he mean about what you said to him? What did you say?”
“Nothing, Michael. Nothing you don’t know already. And, hey, everything passes.”
“Tell me anyway.”
“You don’t …”
“Please, I want to know, to get it clear in my head. It might help me.” I moved round the table to stand next to my landlord and, in spite of what I owed him, in spite of the fact he could make my future difficult for me if he wanted to, shook his arm.
He sighed. “Okay. I told Paul you draw well, you have a lot of potential but …”
“But, once again, you need to loosen up your style even further. You’re good of course, but you could be better. Your current work will suit Mr Hutchinson if he chooses you, and I hope you’ll use the opportunity I’ve carved out for you to go to the next level of your art. If you don’t and if they don’t like what you come up with, then …”
“Then I’ll use the contact I have now with them to guide them towards a more traditional artist, at very reasonable rates,” he grinned. “Either way, I win.”
Everything was still. He was using me. For all his talk, he didn’t think I’d deliver the goods, and he’d get his own gallery artists in there in the wake of my failure. For a moment I wanted to throw up, there on the floor I’d scrubbed yesterday. Then I wanted to hurt someone, badly. I did neither. Instead, I swallowed once, turned and left.
In the hallway, Paul was staring at me, threat hanging over his head like a dark cloud.
“You’re wrong,” I said, to both of them, and then louder. “You’re both wrong, do you hear? I’m a good artist now and I’ll be a bloody good one, one day soon, no matter what I have to do to get there. You’ll see, you’ll all bloody well see.”
As I opened the front door and felt the cold air knifing through me, I heard Joe call out, “Michael, for God’s sake, that’s not what I meant. You don’t understand, I ...”
I didn’t bother to hear him out or reply.
Joe had twisted the afternoon into something cruel and I no longer wanted to be inside with the two of them. I slammed the door behind me and swung down the garden tarmac into the open street. At once I felt lighter, as if the walls and roof of the flat, the spices in the kitchen had been weighing me down, forcing me into a shape I didn’t recognise. Few people were about, only a couple of tramps and a scattering of whip-thin boys, too young for my liking. Three of them tried to hustle me but I pushed right through the cage they’d made with their bodies, spitting something wild into the night air, and they drew away, laughing. The tramps I ignored, I had nothing they would want.
I strode on, past the litter and broken railings, the wiry straggle of parkland and the promise of gardens. The heavy smell of London splintered into strands of human flesh, brick, tile, dying grass and abandoned dogs. All of them demanding a response I was unable to give. Because the only thing in my head was Joe’s comment and what it might mean. Why was I only “good”? Why couldn’t I be the best? How could I get better? Drawing was what I breathed for; it was the only need that drove me from my bed in the mornings. Every day, I was always looking. Looking for snippets of vision, something quirky at the corner of a building or in the way some men held their smiles. Looking so I could memorise what I thought I saw and commit it to the precious paper afterwards. It was a release and an abandonment.
But how could I improve enough to make the people who mattered see its quality?
Heading south, my head full of desire, I passed orange street lights casting monstrous shadows onto faces, old warehouses which would never be used for anything but drugs now, and always more and more people with the poverty or desperation they wore. London. It smelt of failure, something I couldn’t stomach. Until today, so much in my life had been wrong, or less than right, that I couldn’t see how I could bear it any longer. I had to make a change. Striding past a bus waiting at traffic lights, I turned at the last moment and squeezed on, the aisle packed with people heading to the centre for clubbing or for sex. And so for a while we careered round the streets, leaving behind our lives, and seeing lights and gangs and theatres and always people, so many people sparked once in my sight and then gone. The nearer the heart of the city came, of course, the slower the journey. I knew by now where I was heading. Just past Tottenham Court Road, I waited for the bus driver to change down a gear and then jumped; a sensation of flying through dirty air, and then landing on my arse on wet pavement.
Behind me came the raucous jeering of the bodies left on the bus, trapped like animals until their destination. I took no notice. Picking myself up, I brushed my jeans, checking for rips, but found none. Then pushing through the curious stares of more tramps and drunks, I hunched my shoulders and hoped that the end of my journey might take the sweat off my skin for a while. Or add to it, maybe.
Ten minutes of walking and letting the air dry my jeans brought me to the narrow entrance of The Two Ravens. An ugly building, with its crumbling brickwork and crooked, rain-beaten sign, but still something about the way the lines edged into each other as if stumbling their way home made me feel alive. It was one of the places I most enjoyed drawing, though I showed no-one the results.
Through the warped door, the smell of flesh and sweet wine flowed over me. On offer, as always, more poncy cocktails than I would have liked, but behind the bar Frank was only doing his best. Not that there’d been many new faces here in all the time I’d been coming, let alone yuppie ones, but you had to admire his trying.
He nodded as I walked in, his thin face sweating in the muggy heat. “The usual?”
Around me, male flesh danced its muscular rhythm of mating, eyes smiling, catching glances and letting them go. Soon, I thought, I would join in, simply for the hell of it, to see what might happen, tonight when I so much needed to forget, but for now other things were more important. So I waited and watched as Frank reached for the nearest glass, wiped it and began pulling the foaming liquid from the pump. It made my mouth water.
“Don’t know why you won’t try any of my posh stuff, Michael. Everyone says my Manhattan could pass at Claridge’s.”
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t. Anyway, I’m happy with what I know.”
He laughed, his smile taking years from him, but said nothing. While he finished pulling my pint, I wondered if he still had a thing about me, and what I might do if he had. When I’d first mooched into his establishment, partly for the dope and partly for the other extras you could get without fear of questions, I’d caught him a couple of times looking at me with that certain slyness about the eyes. I knew what it meant, but at the time I hadn’t been interested in someone his age. Why bother with ancient history when you could get something fresh? Now with my reaction to Jack Hutchinson so hot in my memory, I wasn’t so sure.
To take my mind away from the flush burning my skin at the thought of that bloke, I grabbed my drink, took one long swig of it and leant back against the bar.
“So what’s different?”
“Since last week when you were in, you mean?”
“Come on, this is the city - things change all the time around here.”
“If you say so. Smoke?”
When I nodded, Frank reached down and pulled out a couple of spliffs from the counter under the bar. He gave me one of them and lit the other, holding it in his mouth. Then leaning forward, he touched the lighted end to mine. A moment’s suppressed laughter and hesitation and then I breathed in the sultry smoke, feeling it begin to drift through my blood, easing muscle and bone and so much history. Opening my eyes, I sensed rather than saw Frank’s hand almost touching the skin around my mouth. Smiling a little at him, I moved away. But not too far.
“Go on, tell me,” I said, my voice sounding hoarse. “Anything new around here?”
He grimaced and jerked his head towards the corner of the bar. “Well, as you’re asking and I’m nothing but a bloody good publican, and don’t forget it, then he is.”
Following the direction of Frank’s gesture, I saw a figure I hadn’t seen when I’d first come in. A dark-haired slim bloke, a boy really from the look of him, huddled round his glass as if he was protecting it from thieves. Obviously a first-timer, but even at this distance, I could tell his suit was good quality, maybe even the best. An inexperienced rich punter. At last my luck had changed. It would be a walk-over.
Leaning across the counter, I whispered, “Watch this, Frank. Watch and learn.”
I sauntered across the floor, dodging blokes snogging or pretending to dance, my beer in one hand and the joint in the other. I felt mellow, like honey. At the table, the boy looked up, seemed to shimmer as I smiled at him.
“Can I get you a drink?”
“N-no, thanks. I mean I’ve got one.” He opened up his arms as if surrendering to reveal what looked like Frank’s most colourful cocktail. What did he put in those things? They had to be lethal.
“So I see.” Hovering for a few moments brought no response. “Can I sit down then?”
“Oh. Oh of course, yes that would be great.”
We chatted for a while and I learnt more than I wanted or needed to know about his job as an accountant in Bloomsbury, the girlfriend who had just chucked him and how he felt that he was missing out on something in life, maybe not going in the right direction - yeah, yeah, same old stuff we’d all heard a thousand times before - and how he’d walked into The Two Ravens as someone at work had said it was a gay bar. That made me laugh, knocking shop for blokes, more like. But I mean, who cared about all the social stuff? If we were going to fuck, and now I desperately wanted to, then why bother with small talk? So I just waited until he’d talked himself out, which didn’t take as long as I’d feared, and then leant back on my stool and stretched a little, so he could see the goods.
“I need to freshen up,” I said. “Nothing like a quick spruce in the bathroom, is there?”
“No, I suppose not, I …”
“Would you like to come with me?”
For a second, I could see he had no idea what I was talking about, and then his face cleared as if lit by a streetlamp.
“Yes, yes I would, thanks.”
I got up before his gratitude killed the feeling, “Okay, the Gents here is down the stairs and first on your right. Give me a minute and then come and join me. Bring your wallet. Got that?”
He nodded and, triumphant, I sashayed back the way I’d come to show him a hint of what he was about to have. As I passed the bar, I stage-whispered to Frank, “Be a pal and make sure no-one but him goes downstairs for a while, would you?”
He gave me a dark look and grunted, a noise I took as an affirmative. The old bugger had never let me down before, no matter what.
In the shabby toilets, I splashed my face with water and noticed that the peeling paper above the sinks was worse than ever. Frank would be better off sorting out his décor rather than worrying about cocktails and the yuppie crowd. It might please his regulars more.
A minute went by. Then another. Great, maybe Mr Sex Tourist had changed his mind and slipped away before he got into too much trouble. Frank would be laughing out loud now if it were true and I’d never be able to drink in here again. I was beginning to think murderous thoughts and cursing all sex cowards when the clatter of shoes on the wooden stairway made me reconsider.
The door swung open.
“At last, I thought you’d never …” I began to say, but then stopped.
It was Frank. And the sly look was back.
Oh well, I thought, I’d rather have had the boy, but if I’d suddenly developed a fancy for older skin, then Frank was as good a place to see what it was like as any other.
Neither of us bothered with conversation. Thank God for the more experienced punter. First I went down on him, noting with satisfaction the size of his prick. Never let anyone tell you size doesn’t count, because it does, every time. Then because he seemed to want more, I undressed him, slowly, taking in the lines and folds of his skin, before shedding my own jeans and jumper. Choosing the strongest-looking of the condoms I’d brought and closing my eyes, I leant over the cleanest loo and let him fuck me. He enjoyed it and it wasn’t that bad for me either, especially when I could imagine it being a sexy investment analyst rather than a rickety old queen. Though I suppose there couldn’t have been that many years between the two of them. It just proved what money could do. Whatever, it got some of the fire out of my blood and I was grateful.
Afterwards, Frank lit another spliff and we shared it until it was all but gone. I found his being older than me wasn’t a problem and was glad.
“Why now?” I said, wishing I was more spaced than I was. “Why try it on this evening after all this time?”
“Because for the first time ever, you looked like you might let me. And because …”
“Because I know there won’t be another chance. Will there?”
No, there wouldn’t be, but knowing the landlord he wouldn’t let it bother him. Which meant I could still go back and drink or fuck in a pub I liked. Stretching myself awake in my narrow single bed the following morning, I glanced at the table and smiled at the five crisp twenties nestling in my wallet. Good old Frank. He hadn’t been keen at first when I’d asked for cash afterwards, saying something about the beer being on the house, but when I’d suggested that what I’d done and let him do was a hell of a lot of beer, and besides he’d got rid of my one paying customer, then he’d given in and had even been generous. Not as generous as any yuppie on the prowl, but generous enough for a bloke like him.
If nothing else, letting Frank screw me had made me decide what I was going to do about the art deal, how to make Jack hire me ahead of all his other choices. It was wonderful how a bit of prick-work could make everything clearer. For some.
First though, I had to wait for Paul and Joe to finish their early morning humping which I could hear through the thin walls of my room, and get out of the flat. They never took long. Joe must have liked it like that. While they grunted and bounced around on the duvet, I planned my campaign to get that job and if I could manage to get the giver of the job into bed with me. The first part of the campaign was thought up while my two landlords shared a noisy shower and got dressed. The second part took a little more time as I got a lot hotter, so had to give myself a thorough seeing-to while the happy couple were in the kitchen poaching egg and enjoying a post-sex glow. Mind you, after ten minutes, all three of us were enjoying the glow, but not together. Thank God.
I waited until the clock showed 8.30am and the front door had slammed shut before I got up. Deciding to grab some breakfast before I showered and started step one of the great plan, I padded through the hallway and into the kitchen. But I wasn’t alone. Paul was stubbing out a last-minute cigarette, his crumpled suit smelling of smoke and stale aftershave.
“You up then?” he grunted.
“What’s it look like?”
“Thought you couldn’t face us,” he said, ignoring my words. “Not after last night’s little scene. What is it, Mikey? Got all shirty just because Joe told you that you just don’t cut it. Again.”
“Yet. And God knows why Joe doesn’t see through you.”
He got up and leaned towards me. “I tell you this, the only way someone like you will make it in the bloody art world, you bastard, is by screwing your way into it. At least that’s what I think. Now I can’t chat all day to you, pleasant though it is. Some of us have real jobs.”
He swung past me on his way out, still laughing, and I came as near to punching him as at any time. The only thing that stopped me was the discount. And the fact that, if I couldn’t find a way of upping my game, then he might be right.
But I knew what to do about that, didn’t I?
“Hi there, can I speak to Mr Hutchinson, please?”
The woman on the switchboard paused as if weighing my accent in the balance and finding it unacceptable. Then she said, “I’m sorry. He’s busy, I’m told. May I take a message?”
“I’d like to speak to him.” Fingers digging into flesh. He had to speak to me, he had to.
“I’m sorry, he’s busy, but I …”
“No, don’t worry,” my tongue was too big for my mouth and the words seemed to get caught where I couldn’t rescue them. “Just leave it. Just …”
“May I say who called?”
I was about to say no, it didn’t matter, what was the point as someone like him would never ring me back, it was too stupid, when my hand closed around the business card in my jeans pocket. He’d given me that, whatever it had meant.
“Yes,” I said. “Tell him that Michael Jones, the … one of his possible artists, rang and I want to discuss something with him. Cheers.”
Dropping the phone back onto its base in the hall, I sauntered back into the kitchen and lit a cigarette. One of Paul’s. I thought I might even have sounded okay on the phone to that posh tart at Reception, like someone who had a business deal and knew how to hustle for it. Someone not like me then. Finishing the smoke, I wandered into my room, trying to look important. The late morning sun was slanting through the narrow window, filling the duvet’s folds and valleys. Reaching under the bed, I pulled out my selection of papers, all stacked in different sizes. My hand drifted towards the largest, but I hesitated. There wasn’t the room here to do it justice. Instead, I went for the middle ground. More than anything I wanted to start something new.
I’d have to ring him back.
Of course I would, if he was going to find out about my plan. Stupid, stupid git. I hadn’t told the girl what to do, had I? I’d said nothing about ringing back later or whether I wanted Jack to ring me. I’d just said the bare outline and then left it. Great, Michael, yeah, last of the art wheelers and dealers or what? I was never going to be a real professional, not at this rate.
Slouching down onto the bed and grabbing the nearest pencil, I ran one hand through my hair and rolled into a position where the sun lit up whatever I might do. Pushing the worries of the day into the smallest fraction of my head, I moved my hand across the page and let out whatever I could find inside me.
Drawing, even if it wasn’t for a living, at least not yet, is a strange thing to do. Taking what’s inside yourself and making it into something else isn’t natural, not really. And, most times, I would never know what it was I was going to try to get onto the magical, oh-so-white paper until I’d started. That was always the best part of the game, just seeing what was there and what I really thought of it. Then, once I’d got going I could bring into play what I’d learnt in my short time at school and from the practice I’d had over the years. All twenty-four of them. What was sexy Jack Hutchinson doing when he was twenty-four? Or who? I wish it had been me, I wish I was older.
Mustn’t get side-tracked, not even by sex. It’s no good when I’m about to start a picture, because when everything else is gone, even physical stuff, or when, God help me, I’m too old to pull anyone, it’ll be the pictures that count. It’ll be the pictures that last. I hope, I hope, somewhere. It doesn’t matter about me, but what I do, that’s what matters.
And then, suddenly, when the sun is beginning to warm my face, I’m there. In the zone where everything is perfect, and I’m drawing. Fingers, hand and charcoal pencil, even thought, are one and what I am, what I see, or part of it, is skimming across the page, darker here, lighter on the left, a smudging - deliberate - and feathering with spit. While inside, the crimson glow is burning, that bubble I carry within me where I store everything that happens, good or bad, where I can think about it when I’m alone, at night or on the street, waiting for the chance for cash and an easy screw. As the glow burns, it travels through my limbs, blood and bone, and into my head where something explodes like an electric shock, so I’m shivering, retching even as my hand still moves over paper, tasting vomit in my mouth but refusing to let it go, swallowing down the bitterness. And still I draw, sweat sticky on my forehead and under my arms, but the only part of me touching what I’m doing is my hand with its instrument for line and block and shadow. Nothing can harm me now.
Ten minutes later the urgency fades, though I wish it would stay. Maybe that is what I need to make it. Just more of the beginning push and the feeling of flying to get me over the edge of amateur into the realms of the professional, I wish it so much. But I can do nothing about it. What comes, comes when it wants to. And I’m left with the shreds of what I hope is talent to make it stick. The thought for some reason makes me laugh and I slide off the bed, kneeling down and staring at what I’ve produced to see if it means something. To anyone else, that is. It always means something to me.
What I see makes me smile. So much for not thinking about sex, because the outline of what I’ve done is the inside of Jack Hutchinson’s offices. An impression of panelling and a deeper smudging for carpet - so deep it looks like the sea. And all of it leading to the hint of a great window, a space, facing out onto … what? I didn’t know and it didn’t matter. But I knew I wanted to finish it. So gathering up everything I needed, I headed to the less intense surroundings of Joe’s living room. The light was always softer there, more spread out. And of course a damn sight nicer when neither of the other two were in.
Starting to work up what I’d done already, I was happy, in the way that being alone and drawing could make me. The only other thing I could wish for was that I had an easel, rather than relying on one of Joe’s art books across my knees, I thought as I added the remains of the window, placing it to the right on the paper, something that would mean there might be a future. For Jack and me? I wouldn’t dare even to think it. But the art job, maybe there was hope there. I’d ring him back this afternoon for definite. Just for fun, I drew in the outline of a figure sitting and gazing out, focused on something through the window. Something I couldn’t draw. Something beyond the paper. What would it be?
The phone rang, as if from nowhere and my breath caught in my throat. Probably bloody Paul back to stick the pins in a little more. Let the answer-phone get it this time, what did I care? I was pushing open the living room door when the machine finished its bland greeting, clicked in and I heard the start of the message.
Two seconds later, the phone was clutched in my hands, sweat making it slide across my cheek.
“Ah, you are there then. Good morning to you, it’s Jack Hutchinson here. I believe you called?”
Of course I knew who it was; he didn’t need to announce himself. One word from across the city and it felt as if I’d been scalded.
“Yes, yes, I did,” I said, trying to kick my brain into action and finding nothing connected.
“So, as I’m keen to get this project up and running, I thought I’d ring now. I’m seeing a client this afternoon and I don’t want to waste any time.”
“Sure, yeah, I see that.”
A pause during which my fizzing brain still couldn’t produce any logic to impress the bloke with. What the hell was I going to tell him?
“So,” I took a breath deep enough to catch my quarry if he’d only been nearer. “So, I’d like to discuss an extra proposition with you. About this art project.”
So far so good, I thought, though I wished I hadn’t stumbled over the word “proposition” quite so badly.
“Go ahead,” Jack said. “But make it quick.”
I did. “I’m very interested in what you want to do, and I’m working right now on something that might fit. If I can show it to you and you like it, you can have it for free. If I get the job, that is. And the same goes for the next picture I do.”
When I finished, I was panting as if I’d been running for hours. He was silent. I thought he might laugh and if he did I might die. Right there on the end of the phone, and Joe and bloody Paul would have been right about me and what I did all along and no-one anywhere would miss me for a fucking second.
“All right,” and now he did laugh but not in a cruel way. “You’re on. I assume Mr Garmon is happy with this. That being the case, come to the offices again tomorrow, eleven o’clock, and you can have three minutes to convince me with whatever you’ve got. I’ll see you then, Mr Jones.”
With that he put down the phone and I was dancing, like a boy, right round the hallway, into the kitchen and then back, back to my picture to do the best I could do for tomorrow.
Jack’s offices swallowed me up once again like a fly in the Underground. I wished that their owner would do the same to me, but right now that was too much to hope for. The art was what I was pushing, not sex or even a good snog and a hand-job, which I didn’t even know he would be up for. He was probably straight with a wife and at least three children crawling over his vast estate somewhere in west London. What was I to know? I didn’t have a hope.
Standing in front of the curved reception desk, my eyes prickling with lack of sleep and clutching in my portfolio the picture I’d chosen to tempt him with, I knew I wasn’t at my best.
“Good morning,” the receptionist - Amanda - began and then, “Ah, it’s Mr Jones, isn’t it? Mr Hutchinson is expecting you.”
Well, I thought, this is different from last time. Almost makes me feel important. I refused the coffee she offered and sat down, avoiding the layers of meaningless newspapers and staring in the direction which Mr Hutchinson would come from. The air seemed to quiver with the expectation of male beauty and I found myself smoothing down my hair and rubbing my face to try to banish exhaustion. Some hope. The clock said 10.45am and ten, no, thirteen slow minutes ticked by unendingly, during which I changed my position four times, stood up, stretched, and yawned, whilst people, who weren’t the man I wanted to see, strolled through chatting about nothing, or nothing I could understand.
At last at 10.58am I heard the sound of a door clicking shut, the shuffle-whoosh of feet on rich carpet and he appeared in the sunlight that flooded the reception area, his hand outstretched.
I took it. And squeezed once, before letting go. I couldn’t help myself. Not that it seemed to matter as his mind was on the business ahead.
“Welcome again, Mr Jones. Glad to see you’re early. Shall we begin?”
From instinct I turned to head in the direction of his office, buried deep in the heart of the building, but I was wrong. This time, he headed past the reception desk, smiling at Amanda as he did so, and opened the door at the corner which I hadn’t seen, hidden as it was by the end wall.
Following him, I found myself in a purpose-built office, filled with a table, four or five chairs and a small coffee machine. Everything in plastic and light wood. Nothing at all like where I’d been before. I’d have preferred to have been with him in a room I already knew, but he’d obviously decided against it. For whatever reason.
He gestured at a chair before taking one himself and steepling his fingers in front of him like someone about to give judgement. I didn’t sit down. Instead, I stood opposite him and without taking my eyes from his, I eased my picture from my case and pushed it across the table to him.
“There,” I said. “That’s what I’ve done. Something I thought you’d like and, as I said on the phone, this one’s for free.”
He nodded once and then took the paper and studied it. I watched him frown and then give half a smile but still he said nothing. What was it he saw? Of course I knew the physical lines which made up what I’d done, but what the viewer saw, well that was another thing, something I couldn’t control. Thinking this, I found I was sweating even though the room was cold. I closed my eyes and my drawing seemed to be burned into the blackness. The strokes and shadows of Jack’s office, the scent of sweet wood shown in charcoal, the space of air laced outside the window which, if there was a life beyond the page or rightness to be found anywhere, might show trees flowing through railings, silhouettes of people walking. And nearer in perspective than that, the figure at the front right of the picture, the profile of a man gazing out, a suggestion of happiness in the light lines of his body, but with a hint of strength inside that couldn’t be tamed by walls or parks or cities. A man with the eyes and mouth of Jack Hutchinson.
What would he think? So much depended on this, more than I could bring myself to know.
He went on looking. Shifting from one foot to the other, I hugged myself and wished he’d say something. Anything. Maybe I was stupid to think I could swing a big business decision in this way, maybe I should snatch back my work and walk out of here, leave the building and the whole of the bloody City behind with all its rich-git laughter and politeness and go back to what I knew. Walk and keep on walking until I could tell by the smell of the dirt that I’d come home. The downbeat drum of Hackney, the sweat and shine of the streets.
Then he looked up.
Finally he spoke.
“This is good,” he said. “Not the best I’ve seen, maybe, but you haven’t had much time. And I like the fact that you’ve been proactive. None of the other candidates has been. That’s a big point in your favour.”
One eyebrow was raised at such an interruption but I held his gaze. He leant back in the chair and crooked his head to one side.
“Meaning,” he said, “that we accept your offer and we’ll give you two months to come up with something we like. If we don’t like what we see, then the agreement’s off, though of course you’ll get paid for your time, and we’ll go elsewhere. Deal?”
I smiled, “Deal.”
But what a lot I would have to learn in such a short time.
February to March
I danced out of that bloody office, I swear I did. I remembered pumping Jack’s hand over and over again but have no idea if he might have said anything else. I left with excitement buzzing in my ears, the pavement almost melting with late morning sun. The whole of London seemed to be smiling; even the tramps in the gutter and lurking in what was left of the bus-shelters, even the women tap-tapping along in their high-heeled business shoes, even the men in their pressed suits and pressed frowns. For the moment the world felt good. In a way it might never again.
The first thing I did was take a bus, swaying through the silky City streets in a cloud of fumes and wishes, and into the dirt-encrusted houses of Hackney. The gallery was warm and welcoming, this time with two or three blokes dressed in chinos and grey polo shirts sauntering through Joe’s market-place. Tourists only, I thought, not serious buyers. Lee-Anne, a vision in sapphire, must have thought the same, because she wasn’t paying them much attention apart from the odd smile when they looked her way, and was instead flicking through some office catalogue.
“Hiya,” I said, trying not to grin like a boy with a new train-set. “Joe in?”
“Morning, Michael. Or afternoon, rather. Yes, he’s in. I’ll check if he’s busy.”
But just as she lifted the internal phone, the great gallery-owner himself opened the door and strode out, presumably on the way to some cut-throat artistic wheeler-dealer session somewhere.
“Michael,” he boomed across at me as if I were the person he’d most wanted to see all day, even though I would have thought I’d be the last. “How are you?”
His accent became several notches more northern as he spoke. He must be worried about something; certainly couldn’t be drunk. It wasn’t a Friday night and it wasn’t late.
I shrugged. “Fine.”
“Good, good, I’m pleased,” he rubbed his hands together like a TV presenter about to get a scoop. “Listen, Michael, about what I said … I don’t want you to think that … I mean everything …”
“… passes, sure I know. But I’ve got some good news.”
“I’ve got that job. The one with the City firm. Start next week.”
“Really? Excellent, well done!”
As he spoke, the second’s disbelief on his face gave way to relief, and I could see him calculating his cut. Probably best not to tell him about the freebies I’d offered, I thought. Not yet anyway. Though I’d swung it, hadn’t I? He’d be pleased in the end. All I had to do was make sure Jack liked my stuff enough to keep it. So I smiled as Joe gestured at Lee-Anne who from nowhere - how do women do this sort of stuff? - produced cold champagne and three glasses. A part of me was touched at the gesture so I swigged it down, wishing it were beer. I wasn’t a champagne bloke. While I drank, I gazed round the walls of Joe’s gallery and hoped that soon, soon, one day and somewhere, it might be my artwork on display.
Fifteen minutes of congratulations and planning later and Joe had gone. Floating out behind him and still wafted on a tide of champagne and joy, I dared to kiss Lee-Anne goodbye, an action which made her flush to the roots of her auburn hair, and then left to take the ten-minute walk back home. Where instead of doing what I should have done and got down to some hard slog with the tools of my would-be trade, I drifted about the flat, tidying the papers Paul tended to dump on any surface he thought fit, taking the bowls and glasses and plates out of the dishwasher and putting them back in the cupboards, each in its place. I hated things to be a mess. Whatever I could control, such as where things were kept or how the lines on a page melded together to create something better than themselves, I would do it. It made everything seem more familiar, easier to handle.
After that, I got engrossed in the idea of cleanness and I was just finishing off the hoovering in the hall when Paul came home. Early. Sometimes flexible hours could be a bad thing, for those who lived with those who had them.
“Got your French Maid outfit on then, Mikey?” he sniffed the air as if searching for clues. “Been spraying the lavender polish around? Or is it some kind of weird sex game you’re going to let me in on later?”
“For God’s sake.”
“What’s that? Can’t take a joke?” he flung his leather jacket at the coat hooks, missed, and stomped into the kitchen, where I heard the sound of a can being opened and then a faint gurgle as Paul downed his first beer of the evening.
Picking up the jacket and hanging it up while trying not to touch it was difficult, but I did my best. He slunk out of the kitchen, beer can swinging in his hand, and snorted when he saw me.
“Fancy a quick one? Before Joe gets home? He’ll be ages yet, he rang to say he was held up at the gallery. Again.”
“Come off it, it’s not your usual day, is it?” I tried to suppress a twitch of disgust, but I couldn’t have been too successful as Paul frowned and paused in the act of opening the living room door.
“Nothing. We just don’t do it at weekends, do we?”
“So maybe now’s the time to start. Don’t worry, Mikey, there’s good discount in it for you.”
But I wouldn’t have cared if there’d been the bloody Crown Jewels and half the London fire brigade in it for me. Because all I could think of, for the first time ever, was how dirty I’d feel afterwards and how if my new employer found out he might dismiss me on the spot. Who would want a hooker in all but name doing a drawing job for your high-living, high-class company? Not that he would find out - I was mad to think he might. It was just that if Paul touched me this weekend and I went in on Monday, I was sure that somehow Mr Hutchinson would know. God knows how. But it made me shiver.
“So?” Paul prompted me.
“Naa, no way,” I was chancing a smack from his fat hand but I didn’t care. “Let’s save it, shall we? Anyway, I might not be needing a discount for a while.”
He laughed. “Cut the crap, you’re cash-crazy, you are. When have you ever turned down the readies?”
Knowing he was right didn’t help. “So maybe I’ve changed. People do.”
“People like you don’t.”
Fists clenched, I took two paces towards him and was pleased to see him flinch. In my experience, bullies were always cowards. If only I’d known that sooner in life, things might not have turned out as they had. Leaning right up against his sweaty body, I spoke quickly before he recovered his usual swagger. He’d get me later, I knew, but I simply didn’t care.
“Don’t be too sure about that. I’m a bloke with a commission now and I don’t need your charity. That job I went for, I got it, so put that in your bloody can of beer and drink it.”
And before he could retaliate with his fists, I backed off and hot-footed it to my room. Behind me his laughter followed.
“Fucking hell, what did you have to do to get that? Sleep with the bloke?”
I wished he’d been right.
As I’d thought, I paid for that bit of rebellion. Still, on Monday morning, ten minutes before Mr Hutchinson was expecting me, I turned up at the offices almost like a normal worker and prepared to start my new life. If I’d let myself think about it, I wouldn’t have been able to count the times I’d tried to do that but this time, I swore to myself, it would be different.
When he stepped into view, he was humming a tune I didn’t recognise, something classical which had never been my game, and his smile made my skin shiver. What I wouldn’t give for a couple of hours with this bloke, for starters. And then who knew? A couple of hours alone with him would wipe out those nights with bloody Paul and all the other nameless punters and sweep the past away.
“… don’t you agree, Mr Jones?”
“What?” I hadn’t been listening at the very moment when I should have been paying attention with every atom in my body and more. Shaking my head to rid it of the image of the man in front of me naked and ready for anything, I listened while he repeated the question and then agreed that, yes, it was a good idea to take a tour of the building, meet some people and then discuss assignments.
Though, to be honest, I would have agreed to whatever would make him smile.
So we spent the next two hours walking the padded corridors and plush offices of what I was now sure was the most posh and cleanest place I’d ever been in. Everyone I saw was dressed in identical dark suits with crisp plain shirts, if a bloke, and tweed or twin sets if a woman. It was like being back at school, as the uniform took away any traces of who you were, melding everything into a vast mass of working humanity. In my newest jeans and cleanest sweater, I felt like the poor boy come to beg. All the time I shook hands and nodded and smiled, with not a hope of remembering people’s names afterwards, my fingers itched to put pencil to paper and recreate some of the swinging and diverging lines of contact between people and machine that hummed the air. The sunlight gathering in the enormous darkened windows seemed to lurk and promise a brighter day.
At the end of it all, we reached Jack Hutchinson’s office. It felt like coming home. He gestured me to the rich green sofa and switched on the coffee machine, the heavy scent of beans weighing the air down. But I was too curious to sit. Instead, I wandered round his desk looking for clues.
Next to the laptop, so small I could have walked out with it under my jacket and nobody would have known, were two photos I hadn’t been able to see before. One of an older couple laughing straight into camera and surrounded by what looked like acres and acres of meadow, and the other of two children playing on a swing, a boy and a girl, whose ages I hadn’t a chance of guessing. No picture of a woman though, so maybe no wife. Or could he be a widower? The thought made me feel sick. There was so much I was wanting right now that letting it go would feel like a knife in the gut.
“My parents,” he said. “And the others are my nephew and niece - my sister’s two.”
Good. That solved it. For the moment.
“Yes, I’m very fond of my sister. Have you got family?”
He sat down, leaving me stranded like a wounded bird on the carpet in the middle of his office. Everything shimmered once before coming back into focus.
“No,” I lied. Then, “So what would you like me to draw for you first?”
He looked at me for a long moment and then turned to shuffle some papers next to him. “What struck you most when I was showing you around?”
“That’s easy. The way people here are with each other.”
“Which is …?”
“Formal but with something else - something that reminds me of water.”
“Yes.” The way Jack was looking at me was making me feel uncomfortable but I struggled to the end of the thought. “It sounds off-the-wall, I know, but it’s like seeing what happens on a pond, isn’t it? The way you can be sitting watching the water any time of the night or day and there’ll always be something happening, but all the time the birds or insects don’t bump into each other or even seem aware of each other. It’s like a dance.”
He leant back and smiled, “Very impressive. So why don’t you interpret that in some way? In your drawing, if you understand me.”
“Good, then go ahead. How long do you think it will take you to produce something we can use?”
“A day. No more.”
“Okay, I’ll see you back here on Thursday,” he paused as he tapped something into his laptop. “I’m free for a short time at three-thirty. Will that do?”
I nodded. At the door, I turned back for a second. “Is your sister like you?”
“Penny? No, not really. She’s very back-to-nature, a bit of a dreamer, works part-time, something I wish I could do sometimes. No chance of that yet, I’m afraid. Still we all have to have our dreams, don’t we?”
And that was the end of our first real conversation.
The next couple of weeks were spent padding round the offices, jotting down ideas, lines and half-sketches which I could complete or expand on later, and after a while Mr Hutchinson asked me to drop the “Mr” and call him Jack, a gesture which filled me with joy. In the end, I gained a commission to come up with ten to twelve pictures they could use, initially in one of their boardrooms, though some might be for their reception area, depending on quality and subject matter. That would show Joe for sure. I’d be making him money that didn’t include rent.
It was good, but it was strange. I’d never been in any office for that length of time and in the days ahead what was first a jumble of people and paper came to have some sort of logic. A routine became visible, of morning meetings and snatched breaks, moments of wild flurry and moments when everything was a sea of calm. But always under the surface was the feeling of movement, of people working to one purpose, no matter how individual their efforts were. Edginess was apparent too, the scent of hatred in the air between long-time enemies and also the times when a desk was empty, a coffee mug unwashed. None of this happened in Jack’s department though, and as I watched him I could see the generosity and fairness with which he treated his staff or those he considered to be his staff, even me. Not that he didn’t demand the most you had, but he gave more. And he cared, something I hadn’t seen in a while. If situations got sticky or edgy when he was around, he’d be there with what seemed to be his stock phrase, “Let’s be calm about this,” sorting it out and restoring peace and purpose. Being with him and watching what he did felt like retracing my steps down the years and wondering if even I could have taken another route.
All the time I was getting to know him better. I timed my breaks and my trips to the City to coincide with what I could find out about when he was going to be in and not as busy as he usually was. Whenever I could, I’d show him the progress of what I was doing on the pretext of asking his advice but really I simply wanted to see him, because each time after I’d gazed at his honey hair and blue eyes, at the firm lilt of his muscles and the way his mouth was slightly crooked when he smiled, I came away fizzing with heat. In a way which made my drawings all the better. I was producing the best work I thought I’d ever done, in a series of fluid styles bordering on the surreal, from clear blocks of solidity to a pattern of swirling lines, through which I made the shapes of people and objects quiver.
And while I showed him these and noted any comments he had, I found out by luck and subtlety the things I wanted to know. He was rich, of course, someone like that would be. He had no wife to spend it on, and I could make out no other lover, male or female. Or none he talked of. Though why should he? I wasn’t a friend, not even a colleague; as far as he was concerned, as soon as I’d completed his commission that would be it. All the more reason to try to slow down my pace of work though that, for me, was hard. He lived in Islington, yuppie-land for sure, and talked about his parents, who lived in Surrey on something which sounded like a mini estate. In fact he talked about his whole family, and as if he got on well with them, loved them even. I didn’t know whether I envied that.
Some of my drawings he liked, some he didn’t. Nothing is ever perfect, is it? But I soon got to know that the trick of keeping the commission was to set the lines on the page verging on the surreal, but still containing enough so that people could make sense of it. My impressions of people improved too. But the couple of times I asked if he’d like me to do another one of him, he shook his head and I didn’t push it. He was paying me, after all.
Not that I minded that much, not at first. Because at home things were very different. Whenever I left him, I would spend the bus journey back thinking up new ways to draw the man I was obsessed with. The moment I got back, usually mid afternoon during those cold February days, I would switch the heating on - neither Joe nor Paul ever bothered to set it to suit me, only themselves - and stretch out on my bed with a clean sheet of paper in my sketchbook. I had special pencils I used for drawings of Jack. Secret drawings, ones I didn’t want anyone to see, except him if one day the thing I wished for and dreamt about were to happen. God, that would be so good, I could hardly bear even drifting towards the great barrier between knowing something is fantasy and wondering if it might become real. Most of the time I managed to stay on the right side. After all, he’d given me no reasons to plan for reality. Which was maybe why the pictures I did of him during those days meant so much. I started off being good, drawing him with clothes at first, shirt open to hint at the cool expanse of sleek chest, and then the shirt disappeared and my drawings took on their own erotic life, a life I took pleasure from. Best of all was when I allowed myself to stop pretending and draw him naked, stretched out on a bed I knew was mine, hair messed up after sex or sometimes gazing straight out of frame at me, in the moments before sex might happen. On those moments above all the others, my cock showed me how much I wanted him.
Even when I was happiest though, a part of me was listening for Paul’s key in the lock and his heavy tread up the communal stairs. The signal that I had maybe thirty seconds to hide my work inside my portfolio case, shove it under the bed and lie and wait to see what the hell he was going to do that evening. I’d already paid the price for my rudeness to him in the week I’d started working with Jack. Three rough sex sessions with no rent discounts before he considered the insult paid for. I think afterwards Paul had even felt guilty because he hadn’t then come near me for a week, which was no sadness for me, and when he did he was quick and the discount was bigger. As a one-off. And of course Paul never asked in the middle of his thrusting, before the great collapse, how I was doing. He wouldn’t think of such a thing. Joe did though, a couple of times, and seemed pleased when I told him I was hanging in there and everything was great. But why wouldn’t he be? As he’d said before, with this commission he could win either way.
And so the days moved into March. The nearer I came to the end of my time of work and pleasure, the more I dreaded everything going back to how it was. Was that it? I’d give in the last picture, Jack would smile, shake my hand and then it - whatever it had been - would all be over? The thought made me sick. Like the job, I couldn’t let him go, but I had no idea what to do about a man I fancied but couldn’t treat like a paying punter. Relationships had never been my thing. Up until now I’d never wanted one, but the more I saw Jack, the more I talked to him, smelt his fragrance, and heard him laugh, the more I thought I might be wrong. But even if he were gay which, Jesus, I still wasn’t sure of, what the hell would someone like him want with someone like me?
Which was the question, almost, I asked Frank as I leant like a man in need of support on the wet bar of The Two Ravens just before closing time the night before my last day with Jack.
“What bloke do you think I’ll end up with then?” I scanned the flesh in the pub for a couple of seconds, decided I couldn’t be bothered tonight and glanced up at the landlord to see what he’d say.
“You mean tonight?”
“No, I mean like permanent. You know?”
“You?” he snorted and then stopped laughing when he saw I was serious.
“Sure, me. Why the hell not?”
“No reason,” he wiped the dirtiest of the glasses in front of him with a damp tea towel, which only made it worse, and placed it under the counter. “It’s just I didn’t have you down as the type.”
“What type’s that then?”
“The type to be bothered with seeing a bloke for more than a quick fumble in the nearest loos, the type that doesn’t think of pleasure first and what it can do for him.”
For a second or two, I was silent, thinking he might have a point. Who didn’t like to have fun? “People change.”
“Sure they do,” he said. “All the time.”
“Maybe. I suppose you haven’t been coming in here scoring weed as often over the last few weeks,” his face cleared and then took on an expression of cunning. “Oh I see, Michael, you’re in love, are you?”
“Don’t be stupid. I …”
“Then why ask the question?”
“Just curious, that’s all.”
“Sure, sure you are. But if you want to know my answer, then you probably won’t end up with the bloke who’s best for you, though you won’t know that. You’ll do whatever it is you want, if you can get away with it. And whoever it turns out to be, I don’t know which of you I’ll be sorrier for.”
“Cheers, Frank. Great character reference.”
“You know me. I tell it like it is.”
Yes, he did. That much was true. But as I walked home, it didn’t feel as if I liked how it would be tomorrow.
I couldn’t sleep. My heart was pounding too much blood round my body and every time I lay down it felt as if my head would explode. A couple of times early on that night, I even thought I might be sick, just like I had when I was a boy, but padding to the bathroom and leaning over the toilet panting didn’t help. Sometimes there was nothing inside to come out, no matter how much you wanted it. And the shabby bathroom, though clean, didn’t make me want to stay with its whisper-pink tiles and gold-lined mirrors. Sometimes Joe could be too much of a queen for his own good. He should never have been allowed to decorate. I crept back to the bedroom, trying not to listen to the muffled groans coming from the boys’ room. It made me think of Jack, and thinking of Jack only kept me awake.
Lying flat out on the bed, I stared at the patterns on the ceiling and tried to follow them to a logical end but nothing went anywhere. Not where the need to touch Jack’s skin, to look at him, didn’t follow. The clock said one o’clock. Another six hours before I could get up, take a shower and go to work for the last time. From where I’d come away and never see him again. I couldn’t bear it. I’d have to think of something to make him want me to stay on. What could I do? Another picture? But he was happy with what I’d done, he didn’t want any more. It was over.
But it wasn’t. Not inside. Something about Jack had really got to me this time in a way that all the others hadn’t. It made me feel weak and I hadn’t felt that in a long, long time. Groaning, I ran both hands through my hair and swung my legs onto the cold floor. Why couldn’t Joe run to carpet? Thin rugs were useless in winter air.
No way was I going to get any sleep now, not when Jack was lodged in my head like a knife in flesh. I might as well do something. And as ever when sleep refused to come, I did the only thing I knew. I took my sketchpad, turned over two or three pages at random so whatever I did would be secret and began to draw.
Jack, of course. I drew Jack. Naked because the thought of clothes wouldn’t come, even though by now I knew exactly what he’d wear: his Pierre Cardin suits, his pressed silk ties - in many colours, his gleaming shoes and bright gold cufflinks. If only you could draw the individual smell of someone, the scent that makes them them, I would have done it. I would have drawn herbs and small wild flowers whose names I couldn’t hope to know, and something exotic, of the East. Something out of reach. Thinking this, my face felt wet, but I carried on drawing.
It took a long time, far longer than usual because my eyes kept on crinkling up and the skin on my face felt tight. Neither would my hand concentrate. After two hours, I knew I wouldn’t finish it. Sleep was winning at last. So I sat back and considered what I’d done. It was gentler than usual. There was none of the wildness that took my fingers when I was lost in what I was doing. Jack was lying stretched out in a setting which held no clues. But it didn’t matter because what mattered was the man himself. There was no strong sexual feel to it, or not as much as had been coming out in my drawings of Jack, and that surprised me. I ran the edge of my finger over the borders of how I’d drawn him, how I imagined he might look if he’d let me undress him. Long, lean, his arse tight and his thighs strong, a runner’s thighs. He was at rest, for now, and I let my hand linger there for a while before smoothing the paper over the back of his neck and then the profile of his face, caught as he turned towards the viewer with a slight hint of that sock-it-to-me smile he had. It was rough, but I’d do another one later, a better one, and add the glow which his perfection was made of. For now, it made me smile, though something in my chest was tight, like a strung-out bow.
When I slept, I slept with the drawing pad wedged under my pillow. And when I woke, I knew I couldn’t leave him behind.
“Last day then.” Jack gave me a look I couldn’t interpret before running one elegant hand across the top of his highly polished desk. I wished I was that desk and then almost smiled at the thought, except the ability to smile at all seemed to have gone. This was the first time I’d seen him today. He’d been in bloody meetings all afternoon and now it was 6pm and not much time was left. Underneath my arm, I felt the throb of the drawing I’d done of him nestling in its case. All day I hadn’t been able to lose sight of it, all day I’d been wondering when the original would turn up and now he was here.
“Yeah. I …I’ll be sorry to go.”
“You’ve done a good job.”
“No, I mean it. Thank you.”
He stared at me for a moment and I wondered if I looked as desperate as I felt. Maybe that was what was making him seem jumpy. Because that was what he was at the moment. Jumpy, edgy, in a way I hadn’t seen him act before. What the hell was happening now? I had to say something, anything to break the deadlock. God, Michael, sound professional and maybe he’ll recommend you again the next time someone wants some wall candy. But no, don’t think like that, it’s not wall candy, it would never be, even if it was only me who thought so. It’s my life, it’s my life, it’s my life.
“Was there anything you wanted me to do before I go?” I asked, knowing even as I said them that the words sounded stupid, out of place. “A last request, if you like. A final picture.”
And then I laughed, God knew why, and it didn’t sound like laughter anyway. The space between my laugh and his reply lengthened between us until I wondered if anyone would ever speak again. Or breathe, or move, or live. Not just here, where the silence was as strong as hatred, but outside, in the street, the whole of bloody London, the world.
“Such as?” he said at last when I thought I would die here, staring at him. “One of the offices?”
“No. You. It wouldn’t take long. I’d make it a free one. Again.”
I saw him swallow. Once, as if swallowing down words he couldn’t bring himself to say. Then he turned round, looked at all his rich bloke possessions as if he hadn’t seen them before and gave half a shrug. “Where?”
“On the sofa,” I said, not because I’d planned it, but because if he were really going to give me the chance of drawing him as he was and not as how I remembered or imagined, then I’d need somewhere he could relax. Relaxed people, or people focused on something other than the artist, are easier to commit to paper.
He sat down. I took one of his chairs and sat opposite him, opening my pad to the first clean page. I would sketch him now and work it up later. I didn’t have the equipment for anything else. He fidgeted, shifting left and right, sitting straight and then swaying as if the leather was burning him.
“It’s okay, I don’t bite.” Now I was the one in charge and it felt good to see him smile. “Just sit sideways, get a comfortable position and I’ll do a sketch. It won’t take long.”
He nodded and then rubbed his hands up over his face and through that dazzle of soft yellow hair. A quick movement, hardly worth the mention, but when it was finished, there was a mark on his face, a speck of dirt that hadn’t been there before.
“Your cheek,” I said, sweeping one finger across my own as a guide.
“There’s a mark on your left cheek. If you could …?”
Without a word he passed one hand across his face again, but still the speck remained.
I shook my head, smiling. “No luck. Try again.”
He did, with the same result.
Still smiling, I stood up, dropped my paper and pencil on the seat behind me and walked towards him. “Here, let me.”
Bending down, I reached out to brush the imperfection from his skin, but instead my hand moved of its own accord to balance itself against the back of the sofa and I leant closer, using my tongue to lick him clean. His face tasted of salt and that herbal aftershave I couldn’t name. I took my time, drawing my tongue across his cheekbone almost to the level of his eye, which I noticed was closed. Then I stepped away, surprised at my own boldness.
“There,” I said. “All fine now.”
He said nothing.
Back behind my sketching pad, my fingers were trembling and I was unable to bring them under control. Neither could I breathe. For the next five minutes I couldn’t look at him once, not a great position for an artist to be in, and neither could I draw anything worthwhile. Thirty seconds into that time, I knew he wasn’t going to respond, that I’d read it all wrong, he wasn’t gay and I’d made myself into an idiot. Bloody, bloody hell. Why didn’t he say something? Was he simply being polite, pretending it hadn’t happened? Who was the mad, the dangerous one, him or me? My pencil scrawled strange lines I couldn’t interpret over the page and in the end I couldn’t stand it any more. Grasping the bottom of the page and angrier than I could remember being for a long time, I crumpled the paper and was about to tear it off when a hand was placed over mine.
His hand. I hadn’t even heard him get up.
At once, remembering the drawing which lurked underneath to give me away, as if I hadn’t already done that myself, I tried to pull the paper back down, to cover my own wild fantasies.
“Here,” he said. “Let me look.”
Wrestling the pad away from my grasp, he smoothed down my ruined drawing and turned his head to one side as he took it in.
“Hmm, I can see why you’re not happy with it. Why don’t you have another go?”
Before I could stop him, he’d ripped the paper out and the drawing underneath, the naked, yearning drawing of him, the one I’d wanted him to see and not see, was exposed. Now, there was silence. Except I could hear the ticking of the clock and the distant sound of voices outside the room. They might as well have been in another universe. I turned away and put my head in my hands. He’d know now. He’d know everything. I’d thrown away any chance this job might have given me. He’d tell Joe what I’d done and I’d never get another commission. Anywhere. The world of art was a small one. Especially in this town. I wanted to throw up and it took a few deep breaths to deaden the feeling. I wished Jack would say something, anything. What was he doing? I mean it couldn’t have been every day he came across a naked drawing of himself or what I imagined he might look like naked. He’d know now that I thought about him every day and most of the bloody night too, week after week after week. Surely he’d see it all. He had to have some kind of response if it wasn’t going to be the one I’d longed for, didn’t he? Anger? Embarrassment? Dismissal?
But he still said nothing. I couldn’t bear it.
“Look,” I said. “I’m sorry. I’ll go. It was stupid, I know, but …”
I shut up. When I glanced up at him, he was gazing at my drawing and his face was still. What was he thinking behind that beauty? I wanted to get up, run out of that room and away from my humiliation, but I felt too weak to move. Neither could I speak again.
In the end, it was he who broke the tension.
“It’s good. Different. I wonder … I wonder how you think it compares.”
Then laying down the pad with its drawing of himself exposed to the warm inquisitive air, he turned and walked to the door, which he locked before sauntering back to the sofa, as if nothing had changed. My throat felt dry. He stretched once, muscles flexing under his dark blue silk shirt and then sat down. Without a word, he took off his shoes and socks, placed them at the edge of the rug, and began undoing his cufflinks. Not all the cash in the world could have made me look away. So I watched as he took off his shirt, folded it and laid it next to him. Next came the trousers and briefs, revealing his dick, still astonishingly limp, and a mound of fair curly hair. He was even more beautiful than in my fantasies or so I thought then. My throat felt tight and my own cock pushed against my jeans.
“So,” he said at last. “Do you want to make some alterations? To your drawing?”
“What? Yeah, I mean sure.”
Even to myself, my voice didn’t sound like my own. He was crazy, he had to be. Just what the hell was going on? But I grabbed my pencil and, stealing glances at his body now and again, began to work up what I’d done: the length of his thighs which I’d foreshortened; and his large, bony feet. Another imperfection which, like his uneven teeth, somehow made me smile.
But not for long, because my mind was travelling elsewhere even as my hand skimmed over the page, adding a line here, a smudging there, a hint of more, and more delicious. And in the end I couldn’t keep going any longer.
“Look,” I said, dropping my pencil onto the floor and knowing my skin was burning hot. “This is crazy. I can’t concentrate, I just can’t. Don’t you see that?”
“Yes,” he said in a voice so low I had to strain to hear it. “I’m not blind. And I hope I’m not stupid, but how long are you going to make me sit here naked with you fully dressed and looking like …? God, Michael, how bloody vulnerable do I have to make myself before we can have sex?”
My head jerked up as if pulled by strings and this time there was no mistaking it. He was fully erect, quivering and dark purple. His blue eyes burned into my brown ones and the next second the sketchpad had tumbled to the floor and I was scrabbling at my own clothes, ripping off my polo-shirt and not caring about untidiness or anything else but the need to touch him.
Then he grabbed me and I tore at his skin as if I wanted to wear it or be worn by it, but he held me away for a moment. I wondered if he might kiss me. I’ve always liked kissing, though it’s not something breeders expect us to like. But what do they know? Smug bastards. Anyway he didn’t. Not then. Instead, he reached out and touched my neck with his fingers, stroking me and drawing his hand down my back, down and down and then slowly round to the top button of my jeans. Which he began to undo. I didn’t even think about asking if he’d be willing to pay. Such a question never entered my thoughts.
That was about as much foreplay as either of us could take that first time. Turning me round with a strength I couldn’t help but find exciting, he pushed me forward and across his desk, scattering papers, disks and files over the carpet, and I felt his legs shaking against mine. Just before he pulled down my jeans and briefs, I managed to whisper, “Condoms … back pocket of jeans … use one.”