He got up to kiss her but Wally turned her face away and sat down. She smelled of flowers and wine. After he resumed his seat he reached across the table and tried to catch her hands in his. Again she avoided him, pulling her hands into her lap. Those blue eyes looked unflinchingly at him, it was his turn to withdraw, looking down at the table top. Frosty silence settled on their heads and shoulders like snow as they sat in the gloom.
Wally kept her eyes on him, probing his downcast face, peeling the layers of skin to the sinew and bone below. A twitch in the flesh between his ear lobe and chin betrayed his emotion as he clenched his teeth together. His mouth was downturned at the corners, the lips white as he pressed them into a thin line. Still he wouldn’t meet her gaze.
Her own lips were more relaxed, set in a sardonic half smile as she wondered at the turnaround in their positions. Four years of being look at, looked into, every pore searched, every hair measured for length and thickness and curl. Examined all over her body from the soles of her feet to the crown of her head, fingertip to fingertip across her back, up and down the front of her, under her arms, between her legs, around her breasts. His eyes and hands had been everywhere, scraping at the surface, exposing everything, digging into her.
Those first days when she had been, what 15? 16? Thin and hungry, her ribs protruding below her breasts, her belly hollow between her hips, she had stood in cold rooms shivering as he scratched away at his paper. She remembered a day when two of them had been there together in front of him. Both word black stockings, nothing else. The tops of hers hung down from above her knees, the other girl had shorter ones that reached just to her bony thighs. The waif had been so thin, so young, with tiny breasts and very little body hair. Wally remembered that she had suddenly felt embarrassed by the size of her own breasts and had covered them with her arm and hand. She was already a woman then. She had been made a woman since arriving in the city five years before. Young girls had to grow up to survive if they were poor.
Back then he had been like the others, taking what they wanted and only paying if they were in a good mood but there had been something, a spark between them, a gentleness somewhere in his frantic energy. More and more often they had been together. She wearing a blue skirt, naked above; standing in a patterned blouse that reached almost to her bottom; her legs and hips wrapped in that multicoloured blanket he loved so much. He was always hungry, working fast, moving her again and again, changing position, sometimes twenty times in the day and then wanting her to stay in the night.
He was wild, more and more young girls and women her age, older lying, standing, kneeling naked or clothed and exposed, alone or in pairs or threesomes, with her or just them and her looking on. He worked on himself as well, lots of times, in awkward positions, ugly faces, wanking himself, there were no limits, only the extent of his urges, his demands.
We were living together in a few months she thought. Travelling out of the city when it all got too much and he needed a rest. It had been harder, in the village. People were outraged that they lived in the same house, slept in the same bed. Angry words spat at her in the street, backs turned to them, doors shut as they approached. They hadn’t really cared, too much in love. He worked even harder, landscapes as well as more and more bodies. Once, they had to leave when people saw him and a naked girl working outside in the garden. The it had gone so wrong the next time when he was thrown in prison accused of messing with some rich girl. They kept him in for three weeks with no paper, nothing. He would have starved except for her. She had taken him food and water, talked to him, calmed him down. He was demented, dying because he couldn’t work, his spirit suffocated.
The court had reduced the charge, burned his work, branded him a pornographer. Another three days in jail but now he could have paper, now he could work and he did, howling with the pent up frustration, gasping like a drowned man back in the air. I was with him all the time, thought Wally. Never abandoned him even as they spat at me and called me a whore to my face. I’d had worse. These people are such hypocrites anyway, pure on the outside and depraved underneath. At least he doesn’t hide what he feels, what he thinks, he puts it in their faces instead.
After the prison he changed, grew deeper. He still wanted the sex, the nudity, the crotch hair and breasts but he got more careful, stopped using children, got more detached. Some of the faces were like dolls then, little button eyes, lines instead of mouths and noses, sagging bodies like puppets without their strings. Then he made our faces. Mine tilted to the side, white collar on the black dress, a bit of that blanket, red hat and a stem of leaves. He made my eyes look wistful, unfocussed, full of what he was doing to me, to my soul. His tilted the other way, only one eye showing fully, looking though his face is turned away. On the other side of him a branch with bright red Chinese lantern fruits, the leaves brown with the end of a manic year. He pulls his lips into a pucker as if he is thinking or about to kiss. He seems to be looking but actually he is staring inside as much as my blue eyes are.
Did he know we were doomed even then? I knew it would never be better, we couldn’t last together, he was heading somewhere I couldn’t go. Even so I did all the paperwork, handled the money, dealt with the agents and the buyers for three years. As well as that I was still lying on my back showing my knickers and what was not always hidden in them. Red blouse and garters, knees in the air; kneeling in a chemise; lying with a dress caught around my waist, black stockings and those red garters and my sex pink under the red hair, obscenely exposed; coy in a dress with my knees together and a hand in front of my face. I gave him everything knowing he would outgrow me.
So here we are, he is marrying that mouse Edith, not even her cat of a sister Adele and I am to smile. Me, the woman who introduced them as if organising his life had no limits. What could I do? Hard work and money can’t make you respectable, never. Oh my poor love she thinks, you still have so much to do and so little time left.
He has never sat so still but now it is like being shut up in a room with a thundercloud, the energy inside him will burst at any moment. He reaches into the pocket inside his jacket and pulls out an envelope. Wally knows what it contains and she isn’t interested. Instead she stands and walks out of the door. She leaves her immortal self behind in chalk and graphite, gouache and oil. And her body, already dead walks towards scarlet fever two years hence.
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