Monday, 15 July 2013


A short story inspired by Sir John Everett Millais' painting 'Ophelia'.


Love is incompatible with life. The wish of two
people who truly love one another is not to live together but to die together.’
– Aldous Huxley, ‘Chrome Yellow’.

For he could not say he only painted for himself, that would be incorrect.
But Reve painted as himself, coursing acrylic over canvas in the hope that one day his artwork, and the fragments of himself within it, would be noticed. He was still young, body taut with that fibrous nervous energy eager to display something of itself.

He did not necessarily understand what people wanted – for he was only the artist. He would assemble himself next to the waterfall, or undergrowth, or whatever object was to be of interpretation and feel the air harden around him. He always painted in a kind of suspense, as if searching for a mechanism of life that was still missing, applying paint like a vacuous gauze healing some indecipherable wound. He liked silence, albeit in the right places, and although this shone through his artwork – people were not contented. At shows people searched his paintings for something meaningful to them, staring until paint seeped to a haemorrhage which meant only injury for him, and their departure – often home to find some source of comfort, the televised news telling of the latest person to die. That was normality.

His paintings, apparently, were not.  He attempted to paint closer to humanity, to encapsulate some kind of constructed meaning in his brushwork – railways, roads, bridges. The grass verge would weep against his knees as he knelt like another sacrificial victim to a life dedicated to decadence – the selling of one’s art, pressing brush desperately to the canvas with a movement close to indecency. On the hottest days, the sweat spooled from his brow and stung his eyes; his dark hair became plastered to his skin like an act of preservation and lay thick with salt.  It was like a prostitution of the lowest kind- the dust kicked back in his throat as a reprise, for living his life by means of touch. Abertha attempted to help him – the young woman who had once seen love in his eyes rather than his art, and had followed him, helped him.  Her house was only some meaningless distance away, though her true abode was inside the sinuous depths of her mind, in what she considered as devotion. She would sit and watch the intricacy of his work in a kind of ecstasy, knowing that he may even be inspired in being the object of love, and taking this as consolation.

It was rare, however, that people touched his life. He would not let them – if money touched his palm, then that was enough. For the cold air was his company, how it flavoured his hours!  Perhaps he would be considered a Dionysus of his time – he thought fondly that he might make the Papers, a kind of headline, so to speak. He and the newspapers both searched desperately for something to uncover in a quest of appalling self-consciousness. Abertha stopped him from uncovering himself.

Yet e knew he had to paint closer to humanity, where people became more sceptical, more cruel. Alcohol became a kind of sustenance for the long nights and the empty days – he had taken to painting landscapes at night, considering that his paints had darkened with age – and thus he would linger over monochrome nights with shrouded stars. The little paints opened greasily like canopic jars as he worked frustrated hands over some half-carcass in oil on the easel.

It was at one artists fair or another,  someone seemed to notice the effect of these old paints on a sun-warped watercolour of last year.

‘Say, son, is that the bridge over near the train station?’ He gesticulated bluntly.

Recognition. Reve nodded a hasty affirmative.

The man continued to stare at the painting, almost angrily, the jowls of his face heavy and soiled with grey bristles and scepticism.

‘Well’ He began bitterly ‘You have it all wrong – it’s nothing like that. Why so cold, so angular? It’s people like you who give art a bad name.’

Reve remembered the cold fluidity of that remark just as he remembered the accumulating abuse – the mounting distaste headed towards his work. People hated to see the monuments they passed every day defaced. Perhaps it was the only happiness in their miserable lives – the objects they could interpret themselves.

What the public wanted was to see was people – and art their means of imprisonment. Everyone enjoys a show. Even Reve’s mother had liked paintings of country families to be put up in the kitchen, the little worn figures handling rough grain or cloth – ‘Makes you feel so much better about your own life’, she would say often ‘Just look at their faces’.

Reve liked male faces best. The meticulous contours of bone and skin, intricacy of the jaw, the border of the collarbone. He had given what felt like all his love away to a standing male nude at college, leaving the art he had inside him  numb and mechanical. Male friends would emerge from those days occasionally, to come back and see him, placing their high society hands on what still felt like the shoulders of a boy. He felt ashamed – how he could never ask to paint them! How he would never caress to life the delicate porcelain of the neck, the silk of the tie, the cold hard lips which mocked him in their artistry. They were far away now, distant, resplendent bodies to be cats in marble as the very model of a man.

Two years and he had made so little – made no money, no name, no recognition. The cigarette quieted him like a finger against his lips. He had to paint someone; the inevitable tragedy of humanity people lusted over. It would have to be Abertha, he concluded, twisting the cigarette to stunned  silence against cut-glass. He could taste the ash in his mouth.


People consumed women in art, this he knew.

It was almost November when he asked Abertha if he could paint her, the formal proposal of roles – he the artist, and her the object. The utter intensity of her sad smile pained him, the strange meticulous wringing of her hands. For how she wanted to be a woman to him! And he was only the artist – his cold, astringent movements perfunctory in his task.

He wanted to paint her in water – for how tragedy seeped from flesh so close to utter immersion! She agreed with everything he said, for her voice was decadent, obedient, in any kind of response to him; she watched with concern the exhausted fluttering of his eyelids – eyelids like paper shutters over slightly grizzled cheeks. He knew, and yet he did not want to. All he wanted was to paint and for it to be over.
The body had to display something of itself.

He chose a whitewashed outbuilding adjacent to the cottage he shared with his mother as the site for his work – as it was in the outbuilding the light struggled against the mere incisions of windows, leaving the room almost soaked in the pallor of sleep. This weighed heavy in his mind as he bailed water into the old bath tub , a relic perhaps preserved from watering the cattle years ago, so ultimately striking – like shell or bone, it had laid there, untouched for years. It was almost like chaste skin for the water to be encapsulated in, the water he let run through his fingers like speech. It was lukewarm. He imagined the body laid within it – pure and clean as a young man, the desperate beauty of innocence, like Shelley who had drowned so long ago. A truly male idyll, the incessant pulse of the tide against those strong masculine forms ‘LOST AT SEA’, water sealing a skin already so white in a kind of completion in his mind.

But what people wanted as a female model.
He had told Abertha to arrive early in the morning, just after he had filled the bath at dawn. It was the time when the light was languorous, still infused with the bruise of the sky, and thus mingled a darkness he so desired. She wore the white dress he had given her, a dress which enshrouded her like a cold crepe, mixing with the contours of her body until she became almost a pattern – a pattern with wide eyes and a shock of long red hair. How pale she was! She stood in front of him, bare feet upon the cold floor, mercilessly naked apart from the single shroud of gown.

‘Where shall I stand?’ Her voice emerged tentative, as if held and released from her small white hands.
He hadn’t told her about the water! It had completely evaded his mind amidst the array of things – the long nights scoring the paintbrush across pages and pages like a knife, writing desperately, feeling his hair thin and watching his eyes fade. Watching the healthy young things thread the street. Was it shame he felt? He dared not hesitate. He told her.

And she said nothing, only smiled slightly as she stepped into the bath – immersing her feet in the thin layer of water like entering a perfect mirror, watching it lap at her ankles, slowly sitting. A sense of admiration flooded her heart, several sharp shocks rippled along her spine. And it was the artist, the artist who laid her back in the water with his palm cradling her head – she giving herself in complete cold surrender to him as she lay, the water covering all but her face, the back of her head on the base of the bath. Her hands were turned upwards in offering, palm lines firmly, almost disturbingly deep. The crucified figure in the cold. The drowned poet. He tried to avoid the tenderness in her eyes as he withdrew from his preparations and began to paint.


The painting process took many weeks – morning after morning of the same routine, her submission, a different kind of beauty by the day. Over the time, her skin settled to a more translucent hue, he admired the thin telling expression of her lips, the angular cast of her bones like a boys. He traced, his hands ached, felt the reassuring burn of alcohol against his lips. And she laid for him, felt his eyes pass over her, imagined emptily, numbly.

Over easel he coursed oil, acrylic, scored on the dress like a second skin which seemed almost melted into the flesh, the strange protrusions of the chest he traced in charcoal. For there, on the white spread under his fingers, he desired the painted body of a slight young man. But not yet. He sighed, departing from the picture as if breaking away from that hot physical grasp of a lover. Kneeling by the bath, he spread out Abertha’s long red hair about her, unfurling through the water, plastering her hands, cast against her neck. The hair was cold and saturated in his hands like a whole human weight, slippery, serpentine.

By the end of the third week, he finished sketching the body, the hair.

She would lie, gazing up at him, a thinning chrysalis preserved in the clearest amber. For what they shared, she knew, was the intimacy of silence, the whole body of water solid at each side of her head, over her hands, her feet. Preserved in absolution, and the paintbrush, as she could see it – flicking, forking, turning – as if wiring her very frame. She gazed up at him from a beautiful annihilating cold.

Yet in the fourth week she did not arrive.

He laughed with disbelief at first – perhaps she was tired, perhaps like the last leaves of the artichoke her energy had fell in a kind of exhaustion. Maybe she hated him – he could not know by now. It was on the second day of waiting when the light began to fade, he knew he must continue alone – all the sketching completed and just the hair to paint. Her hair scarred each iris as if it had bled into his very hands, lingering on his fingers like lashing red ropes – the shocking red, how it projected the searching desperate nature of her eyes! He bit his dry lips nervously. In the garden a peacock gave a scream like a flash of pain as it alighted the fence with disjointed motions, unhinged and horrible. He wondered when he had last eaten, stopped wondering.

The red like a heart encased deep in the chest! The red of a poppy swollen heavy with opium! He searched his box of paints frantically – lingering over the greasy grey emulsions. His weary eyes tinged his vision pink in a kind of mockery – if only he could concentrate the colour, squeeze his very soul into it, a horrid, frantic externalisation of arduous emotion! He searched the old chests of drawers in the out-building with quivering fingers – pulling them apart into skeletal heaps, coursed the floor, even filed through the house, scrabbling, searching. Smashed the medicine cabinet - Crushed tablets in a desperation of colour, watched them fizz against his fists in a portrayal of artificial anger. The sunset mocked him through a sky of thick cobalt. His sight mocked him. In the outbuilding – the last shot of sunlight mocked him as it cast a red-thick rainbow over a glass tile. He could taste the ash in his mouth.


 ‘Crazy, just crazy,’ The Chief Inspector shook his head in a heavy kind of disbelief. ‘We’ve found one girl dead with hypothermia just this week, and now this –'

The police investigation found him several days later – after all, it takes a considerable time to wonder on the actual circumstances of an artist.

Reve’s body was still slumped over his easel, appearing to have fallen onto a glass tile, his palm seemingly spread to take the impact. It did not take long to lift the wasted body away from the painting, for his clothes coated him like a film, coated him as his body had become half-curled, half – embryonic. And yet under him on a single easel lay the single perfect suspension of a young woman in water, reams of rich red hair unfurled behind her – the eyes intense and passionate, nostrils fluted, almost aquatic.

After the body was buried, the painting went up, for if there is melancholy in art, it ought to have already been captured.

 A young man, from somewhere in the South, entered tough competition to have the painting in his possession – for it had been in the papers, the subject of public scandal, a post-mortem - emerging at the expense of many-thousand and a few ounces of dignity.

Now the young man eats his lunch beneath the painting sometimes – sitting, utterly captivated, his delicately fluted jaw working over some tasteless morsel or another, gazing with china-blue eyes at the delicate skin, the haunting dress sprawled inside the frame. He watches, the aesthete immersed. He sees male and female beauty in the delicate body, the dress draped like a second skin.  And sometimes, when the breeze brushes against the curtains, there it sparkles and seeps – the hot metallic clotting of that long red hair, so slick, so strong in the sun.
The signature lies beneath, those  last tortured strokes of the artist. The artist at work. The artist who had the hope that one day his artwork, and the fragments of himself within it, would be noticed.