Jim came to my studio with his new girl. I heard them from the top of the stairs as they entered the hallway and figured out what was happening. I thought, Here we go again. I wasn’t looking forward to the next hour or so.
Jim always introduced his girls to me, like a kid coming home from the woods with some dead squirrel he’d found, sticking it under my nose and saying, Hey! Look at this, look what I’ve got. He’d just appear one day, all innocence, and present his latest trophy, knowing well that it bugged me, knowing well I didn’t have his ease around women, that they sussed me out quickly as someone, I don’t know, someone with his mind on other things maybe. Anyway, he brought her to the studio, up the six flights of stairs, to the studio at the top, the one overlooking the river. I figured I’d put a brave face on it and it would soon be over.
When she came in I could see she was a beauty, no doubt about it. And they had style, both of them, they looked well together, complemented each other. They sat down and there was some small talk. There must have been some small talk, I can’t remember. Oh yes, Jim asked me what I was working on. I told him I was doing a portrait of my grandmother who had died about a fortnight earlier. Had they met? I couldn’t recall. Yes, they had met, he said, once.
I had an old photograph, a six by eight black and white and was working from that. I was using a heavy watercolour paper and some Conte chalk which I applied with one hand and simultaneously removed with a rubber that I held in the other, slowly building up the image. I was pretty pleased so far. Did they want to take a look? No, Jim said. He’d wait to see the finished result but I could tell he was intrigued. She was too.
I was watching her, closely. If she noticed anything she didn’t let on. I thought about her as I watched. She was the sort you wanted to be around. So much so you could almost imagine being her, climbing inside her skin to feel what it would be like to be her, so as to know if she was conscious of everything she was doing, all her little movements, breathing maybe or just sitting, maybe even just sitting, looking around, taking it all in and letting it out again with every breath. Looking at her you could tell she was right up to date, on how to live I mean, in the world, how to get by and what the rules were, how to bend them or break them in order to move about in it freely. I could see who she was, all the stuff she had going for her. I could see it all straight away. I didn’t want her to leave.
Will you have some tea? I asked.
Jim answered. He said, Yes, why not? We can have tea. We have time.
I looked at the floor. It was littered with paper. There were paint stains, wood shavings, bric-a-brac of all sorts, what you’d expect to find in an artist’s studio. There was an ashtray too, somewhere. I started to look for it, lifting up newspapers, moving boxes, apologising, the way you have to when these things happen.
Is that it? she said, pointing to the mantlepiece. I smiled. I liked the way she’d done that, the way she knew it was on the mantlepiece, the ashtray I mean, but didn’t say There it is. No, she didn’t do it that way. She posed a question. She said, Is that it? instead of There it is, so as not to make me look foolish. I picked it up and put it on the floor between them. I figured they’d want to smoke while I was out of the room, getting the tea, from the kitchen, which is where I went next.
It wasn’t much of a kitchen. Actually the studio was just one room above an office and they used the kitchen as storage space for filing cabinets, unused furniture, office supplies, that sort of thing. But it was once a kitchen so there was an oven, a fridge, a kettle, cups, a sink and there was a window too, the sill always covered in a layer of pigeon droppings. It wasn’t a very pleasant sight but I could never bring myself to do anything about it. I stared at it while the kettle boiled. I thought about going back into the room but hesitated, then it was too late, the kettle had boiled and switched itself off. I unplugged the flex and poured some of the boiling water into the blue ceramic tea pot, swirled it around and emptied it into the sink. I chose three mugs from the side board and scrubbed each in turn under the tap with some steel wool to remove the tea stains. Then I dried them and placed them on a wooden tray along with some sugar cubes in a bowl, and an open carton of milk. I took two tea bags from the jar over the sink, put them into the tea pot and poured in the remaining water. I replaced the lid and put the tea pot on the tray.
There were other things to think of too, like a spoon for example, so I thought about that for a second, then reached into the drawer, found one, and put that on the tray along with the other things already there. Then I took my jumper off over my head. I followed that with my shirt and tee shirt. Actually it was a white thermal vest, but anyway, I took that off too. Then I removed my shoes. No, sorry, they weren’t shoes, they were boots, I always wore the same boots in the studio, left them just inside the door so I could put them on straight away. They were paint stained and had no laces, but they were an essential part of the ritual, for work, they grounded me, attached me to the earth if you like, even though the studio was six flights up in the air. Anyway I took them off and my trousers and socks. The last thing was my underwear and I took them off too. I took a quick look at myself in the mirror over the sink and straightened my hair that had been tussled by me having to take my jumper off over my head. I straightened it as best I could while looking in the mirror. The next thing I did was to pick up the tray and carefully open the door of the studio. I entered and placed the tray on the small coffee table at the centre of the room, took one step backward and said, So, who’s for tea?
Jim opened his mouth to say something but then didn’t. I sat down. She got up and walked to the window. She looked out over the river, maybe at one of the coal boats being unloaded at the far side or at some people on a fishing boat. When she turned around I could see she was expecting something to have changed. Nothing had. She came back and sat down next to Jim. They looked at each other and must have decided something between them, silently.
Maybe we can have that tea now, Jim said, turning to me. Then I think you should show us that portrait you’re working on.
I looked at the teapot and mumbled something. It must have been yes, because when I looked up they were still sitting there. They were happy too, I could see that. They were happy to be there, smiling at each other, then at me and then at each other again. Me not so. I don’t remember being particularly happy at the time. Anyway, all this took place in the studio, six flights up at the top of the stairs. It wasn’t that long ago either so I figured I’d tell you about it, before I forgot all the details I mean.