The Rings Of Saturn – Chapter 10

After engaging in a traumatic dialogue with Em and realising the truth behind his own deceptions, Manu is disturbed and thrown. But these revelations are nothing compared to what is to come. The day of Edourado’s exhibition has arrived.

~

Em,

Em? Are you in there? I keep staring at the flight case, where you were left, wishing I could take you out. The thought of having you paraded in front of a gamut of bourgeois faux-intellectuals sets my teeth on edge, and makes me want to grind them all into dust. You weren’t meant to become something to be gawked at in public like a cheap trinket, or an ivory box. You were to sit in me, and yet you forced you out of me!

I spend my time sketching other things: dark things, broken things, but though I bring technical proficiency to them, they do not have the same violent fizz that the picture of you carried. Bosques nods appreciatively at these new drawings, occasionally choosing an idea to be developed, and he then provides his own artistic interpretation and advice on the drawings, and I robotically carry out the instructions. I’ve become quite the craftsman in just a short space of time. He’s had an effect on me, no doubt. I start to wonder if I might be able to have a career in this after all. Does this mean I’m not a failure? The thought is alien and even unnerving. Bosques is filled with praise and good voice and humour, and tells me I’ll be the toast of the town.

We shall see. I’ve been let down before, haven’t we, old fruit?

The exhibition is tomorrow, and beyond all expectations, I’m actually looking forward to it. We drink a bottle of 1975 Bujanda to celebrate, and when the evening is done, and we can talk about this great city no more, I retire to bed. 

“I need to wash,” I say, slurring my words happily.

“No, do not bother,” he replies. “You are perfect just the way you are.”

With that gay thought, I am to bed.

~

Oh, the indignation of it all, Em! The fucking humiliation of everything that’s holy! There is no depth to which they will not stoop. There is no atom of humanity they would not smash for the inflation of their own gigantic egotistical narcissism. But I must tell you what happened at the exhibition. You must know, for it was you, you foul, fucked-up, gangrenous piece of mutton; you got me into this.

I arrived at the gallery in Lavapiés, just as Bosques said, via taxi. It was some time before the exhibition was due to open, but in spite of my earliness Bosques was eager for me to not be so hasty; in fact to be tardy.

“You will appear when the moment is right. That way, everyone will wonder, ‘where is the wunderkind? Where is he?’ The sense of anticipation will be great.” So I was ushered away from the main building and given a small office room in which to pass the time with a bottle of Sherry for company. A part of me – the suspicious part, so often the worst part – wondered if the rancid old goat wanted me out of the way so that he could take the credit for my work. I mean, he provided the inspiration, I think – I mean, he must have, or else I would not have been there – but it was my sketching and brushwork. My hands. In any case, I sat tight, until after some time, and when I was half-cut, no less (it is almost as if they knew my terrible weakness, Em!) I was called into the main gallery by a glassy-eyed young staff member, probably a student. They asked if I could remove my coat, and we were on our way. I could hear the hum and murmur of the crowd, bristling with guffawing and the slosh and chink of sparkling, fluted wine being used as proxy food by impossibly air-headed socialites looking to impress a mate with their parroted regurgitations about art and politics. Wait ’till they get a load of me, I thought.

I twitched with excitement, Em, not so much at the thought of being unveiled in front of this crowd, Em, but at the prospect of seeing you again. You thrill me, and horrify me, rising in me like a storm and then twisting inside out, so that I bare my very soul to the world. Maybe that’s what art is really about. As we made our way through the gallery, I could see several of my sketches, although I was surprised to see some pieces – paintings, sketches, the occasional piece of sculpture – that I did not recognise. The main atrium of the gallery was filled with squawkers and students and young pretentious types, and I immediately thought of the goth club I’d visited not so long ago. It probably wasn’t far from here. At the far end of the atrium was where I saw you, Em, and my heart skipped a beat upon seeing your face, but I stopped in my tracks, for I saw you were not alone. 

True, your face was upon the canvas as I had rendered it, in all your savage cruelty and degraded beauty – Venus in a safety pin dress – but you were flanked by two other pieces I didn’t recognise: another painting, and a large metal sculpture. The painting was a Baconesque gash of sexual violence, two bodies on a broken bed trapped in a union that was neither unitive nor procreative, a monstrous congress that ruptured the space between the him and the her. It ached me to regard it, from my brain to my stomach to my balls, as the black maw between the meshed couple stared out at me. The metalwork structure depicted an aggressively sculpted female figure, mouth open, engulfed by flames up to her midriff. The blank, dehumanised faces of others were embedded within the flames, looking up at her, but she couldn’t see them. For all the imagery of heat and fire, the sculpture sent a chill across my shoulders, and made me shudder.

I saw Bosques on a balcony overlooking the atrium, and I quietly made my way up to him, following the young staff member. On the way a few heads turned my way. I knew not why; they surely didn’t know me from Adam, unless perhaps they had seen my photograph somewhere, but I could not recall in that moment whether I had had my picture taken recently or not. When Bosques saw me, he grinned, clapped me on the shoulder, and took a slurp of champagne.

“My boy,” he said, undoing a couple of my shirt buttons, presumably to make me appear more rakishly outré. “Perfect timing. Stand back, and come forth when I call your name.”

I nodded, and stood behind him. With that, Bosques raised his hands like a crab about to do battle, and called down into the atrium to the audience, “Mis amigos, por favor!

After a couple more rallying cries the crowd settled. 

“Gracias, gracias.” He continued in Spanish. “As some of you know, I have embarked upon a most unique project. We live in dark days, truly. I smell the fin de siecle in the air. I am an old man, and I worry about the world that will survive me. How will it change? How will the institutions, the intellectualism, the art, the philosophy that my generation used to shape the world look when our children have moulded their own visions upon it? Will they improve on it? Or will they destroy it? I cannot say. 

“You will see in your programme notes the extent to which I have committed to this project. I will say no more. You have already looked upon the creations that adorn the gallery, culminating in this magnificent triptych.” As he said this, he swept his hands over the space occupied by the painting of you, the other painting of the monstrous sexual scene, and the sculpture of death by burning. I frowned at the word triptych; that’s not what had been discussed, and almost said something, but he continued before I could formulate a question in my drunken mind. “You may ask yourself: are these reflections of the world yet to come? Perhaps the answer is to be found in the hands, and hearts, and heads that created them and brought them forth into the world. So, I give you my final triptych: Emmanuel, Katarina, and Agnes!”

I was nudged forward from behind by somebody whose face I couldn’t quite catch. As I walked onto the balcony into the light, confused by the mixture of awed hush, murmurs and, eventually, applause, to my left and right I caught glimpses of faces I knew. To my left was Agnes, her face ashen and wan, and her skin drawn beneath grubby clothes that seemed too big for her; she glimpsed at me with as much confusion as me. To my right was Katarina, more lustrous and sexualised than ever, her cleavage thrusting out of an expensive, off-the-shoulder black dress studded with sparkling stones, her lips red like blood, and her eyes black like nightmares. But for all that even she looked bereft of explanation for this reunion. After a moment we stood together, Bosques behind us, his hands aloft, and us looking shell-shocked, yet absorbing the applause from the preening dilettantes below. 

What are you doing here? the eyes of Agnes and Katarina seemed to ask. And I could not answer.

The rest of the evening passed in something of a blur, and I was offered little in the way of explanation as we were ushered around the gallery by some of the staff, with Bosques on attendance, uttering gentle shushes and affectionate kisses upon the hair whenever we began to raise a question. Barely a soul among the audience asked us anything or spoke to us, even as they wandered past us. When an audience member would say something, they would say or ask it of Bosques, never of us. Shame and humiliation already burned in me then, and when someone would get too close, peering into my eyes with a laugh or shaking their head with wonder at Agnes’s desperate plight, I would gnash and swipe an arm at them, and they’d fall back, their laughter somewhat diminished, but with clever things to say to their companions. Some of them pulled at my shirt, grabbing the cuffs or collar, and yanking it hard, until at last it was torn from me, and I had to finish the terrible parade half-naked. My stomach throbbed in my throat, and I ached to leave and die, but could not. All the while, your face was watching me from your position among the triptych: judgmental, fierce, cold.

When some time had passed, and enough people had gawped at us, we were taken to the roof terrace overlooking the city. It was a balmy night, but I was filled with trembling and the ache of a dulled heart, and had grabbed a blanket from the cloakroom to wrap around my shoulders like a vagrant. In silence the three of us stood abreast, each of us waiting for one of the others to ask what the hell had just happened. I flinched when Agnes touched my bare upper arm, and moved in for an embrace. Warily, I kept her at arm’s length, thinking that she might try to seduce me again, but she did not, and instead unlocked my rigid arms and placed her head on my chest. I wanted to close my eyes, and wish it all away, but here it was, the remainder of what I had built.

It was then, with Agnes in my arms and Katarina looking on, that somebody else came onto the rooftop from the stairwell. A slim man in tight black clothing and grey Gingham scarf, shaved head, cigarette held nonchalantly between fore and middle fingers, he had the type of face from which it was almost impossible to determine age. A hard-lived thirty, or an immortelle fifty-five? He approached us with a grin, and clapped his hands together. Agnes and I broke off the embrace.

“Wonderful, wonderful,” said the man. “I’m not supposed to be up here, but I couldn’t help it. I had to see.”

Katarina was the first to get words out. “To see what?”

“To see you. To see what the old genius has made. I have to admit, I thought his best days were behind him, but this is a crowning achievement. You know, I should be more aware than to think a master would lose his abilities just because age has withered his body. Any student of Goya would know that, would they not?”

I frowned. “Student of Goya? You mean Bosques?”

“Of course, but you knew that. That’s where you met, yes? Room 67?” said the man.

That shook me, Em, old fruit. “How do you know…”

He fished a pamphlet from his back pocket and waved it at me. The exhibition programme. I hadn’t yet been able to pick one up. “It’s all in here. He met you, Emmanuel, in El Museo Del Prado. Room 67. Home of the Black Paintings.” He turned to Agnes. “He met you, Agnes, in Trés Cantos, and you,” he said, looking at Katarina. “He met you, Kat, in… let us call it an establishment of the night.”

We looked at each other again. 

The man spoke up. “My name is Rico. The other people in the room think you are something merely to be studied, and stared at. They think you must have been blank canvases, but I do not think so. I think you were already moulded into half-somethings: moulded by fate, by grief, by fear, by nihilism and self-destructiveness, and by sex…”

Katarina put up her hand, and shook her head. Of the three of us, she was most visibly vexed. Agnes looked forlorn, and I was drunk. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But I really don’t understand any of this. It’s my work that was supposed to be exhibited here, and yet hardly any of it has been mentioned tonight; at least, not to my face. I’m Edouardo’s amanuensis. He–”

That perked me up, and I felt compelled to interject. “Hang on. I’m Bosques’s amanuensis. He chose me to…” I looked at Agnes, with the dawn of realisation slowly creeping into my bowels. But at that moment, the feeling wasn’t fully formed. “What about you, Agnes? Were you his amanuensis, too?”

She nodded sheepishly, though with a tad more steel in her eye.

Rico shook his head and bowed it, scratching the nape of his neck in a slightly embarrassed manner. “You never got it? Man, he’s better than I thought. Sorry, but you guys were never his amanuenses. You were the subjects.”

Another unpleasant feeling fluttered in my stomach.

Rico continued. “You were the subjects, and the objects. You’re the art itself. Those paintings and sculptures you made? Technically very good, but you were only ever the hands that were so cruelly taken from him. You cannot say that this is your masterpiece. There is no justification for saying these works are yours. There was no…” he sought for the right word in the night air. “…No autonomy in them. No, you were the masterpieces, the pieces de resistance.”

“That’s not true,” I said, but the words were weak.

He waved away the impotent objection. “You know, I have to hand it to him. For years Spain has been heading down the toilet. Corruption, greed, unfairness, inequality, and set against a backdrop of the world’s greatest art, architecture, music, even football! Madrid burns, and we are all fiddlers now. Goya’s later years were framed by a background of terrible and violent upheaval. And the later years of Bosques? What will they say of them, two hundred years from now? You, Emmanuel, and Agnes, and Katarina, are the crowning glory of his art; together you are a triptych of unparalleled depth and magnitude. A metamodernist masterpiece; you are the descent of the decadent artist into a slavering wretch, consumed by grief for what has been lost, bending sex into the very antithesis of procreation, and thus bending yourself into self-annihilation. You are the noble savages of our age, the very definition of this world of ours. Look at this city; we are truly at the summit of civilisation, are we not? And it will be the same qualities that brought us here that will ultimately cause it to topple.”

A part of me wanted to grab this Rico and throttle him where I stood. My hair, limp and long and grey, tickled my bare shoulders. Arms bristled with gooseprickles. Chest hurt with shallow breath. My hands had been worked dry; the nails were unshorn and overlong, and the skin cracked, calloused and yellowed. 

“It’s not true,” I said, louder this time.

“It is true,” said Rico. “You only orbited Edouardo. But can you not see that even this was an extraordinary privilege?”

Katarina slapped the man hard across the face, and began screaming at him all manner of terrible Spanish maledictions. I swung a punch, but my inebriation caused me to lose my balance, and instead I tumbled to my knees, and almost vomited. The utter despair of it. The sheer, voluminous, deafening despair, like balloons popping in my eardrums. I barely heard the crunch of Agnes hitting the pavement five storeys below; it was only when I turned to look at her I saw she was no longer there. When Katarina looked at the empty space where Agnes had stood, she clasped her hands to her face and screeched some more. Even Rico now looked alarmed, and made good his escape. What a fucking prick. I had no strength in my legs to chase after him, and I’m too much of a coward to devote myself to Agnes’s choice of fate, so there I sat, sprawled out upon the terrace, quivering with rage and confusion. 

“I am an artist,” I said to myself. “I am the artist. That works is ours. I’m more than just a… a prosthetic hand, a paintbrush by proxy, aren’t I? And you are too, Kat. Kat?”

But when I looked she was peering over the ledge at the horror below. I stood and went to comfort her, putting an arm around her shoulders, but I did not follow her gaze downwards. Instead, I looked over the rooftops, staring at the twilit cityscape with a throb of doom in my gut. In that moment, with Katarina’s shoulders quaking with ferocious intensity into my chest, and above the wreckage of a fallen human body, it seemed impossible that the city would be anything but permanent. But I suppose, Em, everybody feels that their own life, their own circumstance, their own social structures are rigidly permanent, that what is now has always been and will always be. When you realise that it’s not permanent at all, and just a tiny piece of in-between space, it doesn’t half spill your guts out, Em.

~

Chapter 11 will come next week…

Published by Dan Jones

I'm a science fiction writer and podcaster. My debut novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published here and there. I also host Chronscast, the official podcast of SFF Chronicles, the world's largest science-fiction and fantasy community. Away from writing I work for the UK Space Agency on a programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: