Last week Edouardo announced his intention to hold an exhibition, and to have Manu be a central part of it. So Manu sets to work, and has an unexpected and difficult reunion with Em, his epistolary correspondent. The truths, hidden behind layers of paint and wine, begin to reveal themselves.
I’m still here, my sweet, I’m still here, don’t be consumed by it yet.
I didn’t so much as glance at the sketch of you after that. Couldn’t bear it. I scrunched you up, and tossed you in the huge pile of discarded ideas by the window. Pity me, Em, but I couldn’t bear to burn it, so there it stayed for days, eyeing me up like a crumpled accuser. Even among the dozens of other screwed up leaves of paper, I could tell which one was you, the line of your creases, the rage in your discardedness. And I felt your burning hot breath on me as if you were right there with me. In me.
Oh, I tried to forget about you, I did. For days I laboured on other sketches, other draft paintings, trying to turn away from the path my hands wanted to take towards your delightful face, but Bosques disliked them all, and turned his nose up in disgust. I wanted to tell him that he couldn’t do any better, but it would have been shameful to pick on his disability like that. I provided Edouardo with assurances that I would I find the vision in his mind, but at every turn it was hopeless, and I felt you calling me from the heart of that screwed up piece of paper.
After informing me of my uselessness one time too many and leaving the studio in a huff, complaining that I was a mistake, an error of judgment from a foolish old man, I was feverish with upset. I’d been working on this vision over a series of sleepless nights, a week, maybe more. It was with rather a forlorn heart that I slunk over to your picture and unfurled it. There you were, like a standard, as monstrous as an army poised to charge, as deep and brilliant as a mine of diamonds, as beautiful and devastating as a supernova. Your inimitable face.
Why was this? Why you, Em?
Perhaps there is no why. Perhaps you just are.
I began work on you immediately. I pinned the sketch up, and moved to Bosques’s main canvas. I don’t know if this is what he is seeking. I confess I can’t see how it could be, but who knows any longer? All I know is that it’s what I’m seeking. And so I worked. I worked like I’d never worked before, furiously, angrily, fearfully.
Bosques hasn’t been back yet. I ordered a pizza and left the studio only to visit the local shop to buy a half-dozen bottles of wine, a few cartons of black fags and some pep pills. The wizened old hag behind the counter gave me a frightful look, as if I might leap over the counter and wring her neck. Some people, eh, you old fox? In response to her rudeness I flashed her my best grin, which did nothing to dispel her disgust, so I grabbed my bounty and retreated to the sanctuary of the studio. After working until even the pep pills and fags could prop me up no longer, I collapsed on the sofa for a rewarding sleep.
When I woke, I splashed some water on my face in the bathroom and looked in the mirror. My God, Em. What have I become? I am become a monster. My hair is grey and long and lank, and I haven’t shaved in… in fact I can’t recall when last I cut off this wiry beard. And my lips are red and blooming, like those of Lovelace, who said, “Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” But my lips are planted onto a wan, lonely face, whereas Lovelace was a man who knew love. I…
Things became hazy after that.
I returned to the studio like Quasimodo, still naked, quaking from your gaze. Thinking I had to work to create Bosques’s vision, I picked up a fine paintbrush and held it mere centimetres from the canvas, thinking to add some lustre to your eyebrows so as to frame your Quixotic gaze. You were but a draft, just a proof-of-concept. But I put down the fine brush, and instead took up the wide brush. Again it hovered above the canvas, but I wasn’t sure. So I just had to ask.
“I’m going to paint over you now,” I said. “I can’t face you any longer.”
“I understand.” Even as you said it, you looked sad.
As I stood upon Bosques’s stepladder, scoring deep stickleback scars across your beautiful face – and we were beautiful, once – I said: “how did things go with Great Aunty Baby?”
“You must know,” you said. “You left her dead in her bed.”
I scoffed and looked down at my scrawny nakedness, and wished that Katarina, or even Agnes, were there to remind me that I could still become hard and make love, because in that moment the thought of it seemed so impossible as to be laughable. I choked back a tear. “I wouldn’t do that. Not to Baby.”
“Nobody would know. Nobody did know. She is still there, drownded in her own adult diapers in a room filled with sand. Her room floats like a cubic bubble above the Earth, preserved in aspic in the unfathomable deadend streets of your head. You can try to forget. And maybe you will forget. But the dead cast shadows. Some are not visible in the light. Some are only visible in the darkness. And I think you know this place, this city. I think you know it is filled with darkness, because darkness fills the bodies of the lost. It fills the bodies of the Moroccan soldiers murdered in houses by nationalists eighty years ago; it fills with doomed despair the hearts of a thousand wretches who were dragged from incarceration and driven to Paracuellos only to be shot and dumped in mass graves; and it fills with bleak agony all those dissidents who were assassinated, raped, or shot in the street or in their beds under the Falangist cloak of impunity. Yes, the trace of darkness of those deeds remains here, and under a black light you may yet see the remains of their blood. Above all, you may yet see the blood of those who died two hundred years ago, in the war that killed not only so many tens of thousands of men and horses, but also the joy of the artist whom you revere above all others, Goya, and turned him to the darkness. You feel it, don’t you? The tug of the abyss, the deep dive down the throat of the screaming man, the hoarse gasp for air in a windowless room filled with dust.”
I held the brush from your face. You were finished. And I needed a drink.
At that point Bosques came in, and clasped his claws to his face with delight at seeing my work. He hadn’t tied his hair up, leaving his grey tresses to fall about his shoulders like an ageing rock star. He’d look better if his hands were just lopped off. I sniggered at the thought, but he seemed not to notice.
“Manu, Manu!” he cried, holding his hands out towards you. I tensed up, realising I’d daubed hideous gashes and scars all over the image. “What have you done?”
“I…” I started, but couldn’t find any more words.
“It is magnificent!” he said, rushing to the foot of the stepladder supporting me and reaching out to touch you, but stopping short, as if to touch you would break you.
Was he mocking me? “It’s just a proof of concept, Edouardo. A draft.”
“This is no draft. You have done it. Is it dried yet?”
“Ah, no. Maybe in a couple of hours it’ll be touch dry.”
“Then this evening we will have it packed away, safe, so it does not get damaged before it gets shipped to the exhibition hall. Well done, my boy!”