He was a living sculpture. Unlike the charlatans who cluttered the city’s high streets drenched in silver and gold, dressed as freaks, blowing bubbles, dancing, twitching, blinking, he did not move. He spent his days in back alleys, standing, staring at the dirt around him, rigid as marble. His eyes glazed over the shadows lengthening on the alley walls. His consciousness flickered, his heartbeat dulled. The greatest pleasures he knew were the searing aches that grew like foetuses within his muscles over the course of a day’s stillness. He was an atheist, but the pain brought him closer to God than any believer had ever been.
He disdained money. Dressed as anyone else, hiding in dark corners, away from the city’s tourists, he did not, at first, receive much, and so had little to disdain. But any coins flung at his feet he left there. Drunks and junkies would gather them in his wake, and there was a pleasure in this also, the misery with which they would clot their veins. Over months, as crowds began to form around him, regardless of how obscure the place he sought to exhibit, the offerings grew. By summer, his day’s art complete, the concrete would often glisten, pools of gold and silver over which he stepped unheeding.
Adulation encircled him: pointing fingers, puzzled faces, murmurings, he took great pride in it all. He was an artist. Stillness was his art. The years he had wasted composing haiku, painting, scratching the viola, all those failures fell behind him now like the stage behind the curtain. In the stillness of the day all his miseries were hidden. Unmoving, he was transformed.
She had been there many days watching him. Small and unobtrusive, she had dull fair hair, a porcelain face, chipped in places, as if several times dropped on carpeted floors. She avoided eye contact, spoke to his sneakers. ‘I think what you’re doing is amazing. I’ve never seen art so forceful.’
Blushing, he thanked her. ‘How do you do it?’ she asked. ‘Stay so still, I mean, for so long.’
He shrugged. ‘It’s not so hard.’
The girl glanced up at him, eyes rimmed with shadow, pupils heavy. ‘Yesterday you stood with your hands before your face for seven hours. You never twitched.’
Again he shrugged. ‘If I twitched,’ he said, ‘then I would not be standing still.’
The girl smiled, looked once more at his feet. ‘Would you like to go for coffee?’ she asked.
He looked at her and nodded, slowly.
The city’s coffee shops were all alike: petite Polish waitresses, carefully unsanded floorboards, framed posters of cult movies, cinnamon smells. These rooms were purgatory.
‘Have you studied art?’ she asked. Her hands, lying on the tabletop, pulsed like threatened starfish.
‘I study art,’ she said.
‘And do you like it?’
‘Yes. Did you?’
‘No.’ His espresso was bitter. He felt the caffeine like tar in his throat and stomach, choking him. ‘Studying art did me a lot of harm.’
The girl nodded. ‘I have heard people say that.’
He looked at her sharply. Her dress was made of greyish-yellow wool, trimmed with red tassels. Her only make-up was dark eye shadow, liberally applied. Her cigarettes were rolled. She was in every way a typical student. ‘You don’t believe them when they say it?’
‘Why?’ he asked.
‘Those that say it are usually successes. Whatever harm it might have done has not hurt them much.’
He smiled at the implication. ‘Successes,’ he said, quietly.
Over by the counter, a plate was dropped. The coffee drinkers laughed, applauded boorishly. He scowled. ‘Let’s go somewhere else.’
She nodded, the tassels on her dress bobbing like apples on a string.
They went for a pint, smoked some cigarettes, and kissed under a dirty streetlamp. They got the bus to her place, a house on the city’s outskirts, once her grandmother’s.
‘She died last year. Cancer. I nursed her through the last months.’
He nodded, asked her no more about it.
The house was small and cluttered, paperbacks scattered across the floor, easels bunched in every corner. She painted mostly still life, showed him sketchbooks filled with nudes and rotting aubergines. Though her draftsmanship was excellent, he thought her work hollow. The vegetables looked like photographs, the people like waxworks, realistic but not real.
‘I’ve drawn you, you know,’ she admitted, blushing. She pulled a notebook from her bag, handed it to him. In dozens of pages he stood at the centre of charcoal crowds, scowling fantastically at himself. His chin hag-like, eyes vapid, the space around him loose and dark and shadow filled, he seemed a creature ripped from the Gothic, caught within a nightmare. He set the notebook down.
‘You don’t like them?’ she said, voice trembling.
He shook his head. ‘Not that. It can be hard to see yourself.’
She frowned a moment, her small, imperfect features knotting tightly together, lips whitening like a boxer’s knuckles. ‘I understand,’ she said. ‘I’ve often thought that too.’ She glanced at the empty bottle before them. ‘Would you like more wine?’ Before he could answer, she was halfway to the kitchen. ‘You know,’ she called from behind the bead partition, ‘I’ve never had a model like you. To stay so still, so long. It’s incredible.’
He shrugged. Between the blood-red beads her silhouette worked the cork patiently. ‘There’s no easier thing in the world,’ he shouted back, too loudly he knew at once. He drained what wine remained in his glass. ‘Really I could stand much more. Sometimes, I think, well… I think I could never move again.’ He laughed. ‘I’ve dreamed that.’
‘And why not?’ she called. Her voice was more distant now, her silhouette gone.
He sighed. ‘I don’t know. People grow indifferent, then soon resentful. Already I sense it, the way they mutter after me, the faked concern. They prefer the high street freaks and beggars, the sand sculptors, the doll dancers, the goldpainted whores. Try explaining art to them!’ He shook his head. ‘No, I’d be locked away, shot blind with electricity, if I pushed myself even close to where I can go.’
How long since he had spoken so much? He was drunk, he realised, his speech slurring embarrassingly. Suddenly she was beside him again, her hand pressed hard against his leg. ‘You are a great artist,’ she said, smiling.
He nodded, reassured. ‘I think so.’
When she removed her dress, she pushed his face to her small white breasts and he breathed deep. She smelled of incense. Tiny scars ran along her stomach. He kissed each one, causing her to groan. Then she pushed him back, straddled him on the bed, pupils pulsing within their shadowed sockets.
It was bright when he awoke, sunlight so white it burned his retinas to look on it. His eyes did not shut. His hands did not move to his face. His mouth did not open wide in puzzlement. He heard sizzling, smelt bacon frying, and felt his tongue water in response, but when he went to move it, nothing.
Panic seized him, but the physical sensations that went with it, and that he knew so very well—the dry mouth, constricted breathing, sweating hands—did not appear. As his eyes burned, his mind locked, and for several seconds—it could have been minutes, hours, so timeless was the quality—no thought went through his head, just the purest terror.
Like a patient, he lay, propped high in the bed, pillows beneath him, arms resting neutrally over the paintstained duvet, beyond whose ends he could see his toes poking. The room in which he had spent the night was heavy with light and shadow now, its bare walls flecked with paint. Books and bottles scattered everywhere, and in the furthest corner, an easel, its back to him, set beside a low table, more coloured than any rainbow.
A low hum joined the sizzling filtering through the beaded partition. Panic came again in waves, but though his mind thrashed like a cornered wildcat, his body was a cadaver, and all the screams which pierced his inner ear could not cause his tongue to tremble.
At length, she appeared, dressed in knickers only and carrying a plate piled high with rashers, eggs, buttered toast and in her other hand a pot of coffee, the smell of which now sickened him. Around his crotch, the duvet rose slightly. She smiled. ‘Do you like the music?’ She set the breakfast down on the floor, laughed, sat beside him, cupped a hand to his face. ‘You are such an artist,’ she said. ‘To stay so wonderfully still.’ All he could do was look at her.
She stared deep into his eyes, smiled. ‘I painted you while you were asleep. You were so peaceful, I couldn’t resist.’
She rose quickly, went to the easel—her butt cheeks rising, falling—and lifted the canvas from it and turned it to him. He couldn’t but be impressed. Her lines were clear and well drawn, as before, yet this composition was truer. She turned it back to herself again, scrutinised it, eyebrows drawing together. ‘I’m not sure,’ she said. ‘There’s something in it that I like, but it’s not quite there, you know? Still,’ she put the painting back on the easel, ‘many more chances.’ Grinning, she lifted the plate from the floor. ‘Now,’ she said, ‘I imagine you’re hungry.’ She took a strip of bacon, and dangled it above his half open mouth. Oil dripped onto his face— he saw but could not feel it. ‘Open wide,’ she whispered. The scars on her stomach resembled train tracks. ‘Open wide,’ she insisted. Like a goldfish, he gaped at her. ‘Not hungry then?’ She shook her head. ‘And me after going to all that trouble. Well, I guess I’ll just leave the plate here, your lordship. Take some when you feel up to it.’
In the background, the music twanged on.
Some time before dusk she would push his eyelids shut. Then came the sound of the needle’s preparation—he had been in hospital before and knew the clicks and hisses well. He could not feel the injection, of course, but, having seen the pocks on his arms the days she swabbed him, realized where he was being shot. What he was being shot with, where she got it, he had no idea— perhaps her grandmother’s, he thought. It didn’t matter—he had accepted he would never leave this bed.
During the day she would paint him, and at night too, after the drug had wiped his senses clear. She showed him the sketches, the paintings. By them, through a methadone mist, he tracked his own deterioration. She cooked for him frequently but never fed him. Often the uneaten food—steak, pasta, once even a takeaway—appeared in her portraits, propped on his thinning chest, or beside him, on the locker, between novels and political treatises, leather covers ringed with coffee stains.
The drugs—he presumed at least it was the drugs—prevented him from hungering. But they could not dull the hate which gripped him, nor the weary fright of the passing days, as through her paintings—often nudes—he watched his ribs grow ever more pronounced, his skull begin to force its way out from behind his features.
‘Such an incredible model,’ she would repeat, running her hands almost lovingly across the paper covering his skeleton. When propped up at certain angles, eyelids open, he could see his heart sighing within his chest; through the grey of his skin purple veins showed like silhouettes.
She would read to him sometimes, extracts from novels, poems. Her hands waved expressively as she read, as if to an audience of schoolchildren. Her voice drilled like a migraine.
Gradually, to his relief, he began to deafen. All sounds became thuds, then just the ocean, as from the inside of a shell, then not even that. His vision too started to blur, so that all her paintings came to resemble blobs, and her face, pressed to his, a blur, and he could see his suffering no more. At last, his senses were stripped entirely and there was only his mind, warped and ethereal, hanging like an angel in the depths of hell. And relief came to him, as his soul filtered from its cage, and hung over this shattered body, and he was perfectly, completely still at last, and ever would be.
It was several days before she realised he was dead. His eyes had died before his body, which clung to life still, just as her grandmother’s had, long past its time.
Weeks ago she had run out of medication. For nights, visions of him rising from the bed, taking her neck in his skeletal grip played endlessly in her dreams. On the day of his last injection, after much thought, she hamstrung him. The mattress soaked with blood, more than such a tiny frame could possibly contain. He whimpered—a first sound in thirty-seven days—then nothing once more, and she went back to her easel and painted.
Her last portraits were of his skeleton, the organs decomposed, ripped from his bones by the cats she had let in through the room’s back window and the tiny larvae she sensed but could not see. In the end there were well over a hundred paintings. Spread one side of the house to the other, she thought them a work of some magnitude, even brilliance. She exhibited them at a city gallery, where they aroused a mixed response, with critics admiring the excellence of her draftsmanship, but dubious as to the work’s originality, and unhappy with its scope. ‘What is offered here is nothing new,’ they wrote, ‘and lacks authenticity. This is the work of a gifted imitator, not an artist.’ She read the reviews with disdain, tore them into tiny pieces, and buried the remnants in her garden, alongside his bones, where they were dug up by dogs, and scattered across the grey and artless suburbs.