It was ironic, she thought. Her first shift at the museum was understaffed, it was just the two of them in ceramics. He was dark-lashed, very slight – given more to edges than the centre of things. She wondered why he’d gone for the job.
It would be a week before he asked her.
She was flattered, of course, but –
‘I want to be a painter, not a model.’
His cheeks were pitted with scars like two round strawberries.
‘Can’t you be both?’ He asked.
In the studio, shedding clothes like skin, she suspected she’d made the wrong choice. He said to choose a pose that was comfortable and that he’d brought food for after.
‘I hope you’ll be warm enough?’
‘I’ll be fine.’
They talked about their colleagues and the sludge from the canteen. She wondered what they’d talk about the next day at work.
The walls muffled intrusion from the outside world. She relaxed her knee; he asked her to move back to how she was before. He didn’t show an interest in women, or in men, but this – whatever this was – it wasn’t about that. She almost forgot she was nude.
Afterwards, they ate peaches and laughed at the sounds their mouths made. ‘Wouldn’t you like to see?’ He asked, while his fingers sought his scars.
The suggestion of her profile was striking. The hair, the hips…it was all her, but it was uncomfortable, like looking at a sister’s body.
Their next shift was much the same, except it was almost funny they were wearing their name tags with the little gold borders. Everyone at the museum said it was the image of her, the absolute image, though they didn’t know she had a birthmark! They started calling her the muse. You exude muse, they said.
It should have been a one-off. It would have been better, she’d come to think, to have stuck to that. There was a part of his work she didn’t know, couldn’t reach or even like. She realised with a kind of horror that this was true of everyone.
But then again what was wrong, she thought, with versions of yourself? Life’s all about creation. Mosaics are many pieces and you’d never call them broken, would you?
She asked him if he’d sit for her.
‘No,’ he said, and his mouth was a little hole.
‘But why not?’
‘Because I don’t like being looked at.’
In the spring, he announced he was leaving, which perhaps was for the best. The Blue Nude had sold; he didn’t know the buyer; did she want to see it one last time?
The paint shone like beetle shell. Its autonomy alarmed her. She could see herself in his work – but there was someone else in there, too.
It was wrong to say she missed him, so instead she made tea. It was wrong to miss him! Instead, she sketched a leaf in the 5o’clock quiet, but it curved like a woman’s back. The paper weakened as she pressed and a hole appeared.
Crooked teeth, workman’s boots, what else did she exude? Plates in the sink? Sundays off? The gold around her pupils?
Whatever people saw in her, it couldn’t be a painter.
She watches from the window. His hair is the colour of ink. He is awkward with his elbows and the folds of his clothes. He’s lighting a match, hand circling the flame; now he’s walking away.
‘Strange bird,’ the new girl says. ‘Gabbling about a Blue Nude. I asked if he could narrow it down, like, Picasso or Matisse, and off he went, gabbling again, scratching his jaw. Nervy.’
Tonight, she’ll dream of hawks.
Tomorrow, she’ll go to the old studio, see if they’ve any space. It always had a suspended air, like somebody left in an emergency. Costs are bound to have risen but she’ll rent, if she can, and she’ll buy new brushes, too. The feel of a new brush is a silken bud, almost too good to use; the thought of it causes a twitch between her legs, which she knows is probably strange but she also doesn’t care.
Over and over, she’ll paint the same figure. Blue will bruise her skin and she’ll note this fact with the cool interest of a doctor. She won’t colour in his eyes, his eyes can stay two blank almonds.
For her, he’s not so much a person, as the possibility of one.
Charlotte Newman is a freelance writer based in London. Her work has appeared in the London Magazine, Reflex Fiction, Litro and Popshot. She is currently working on a novella-in-flash and seeking representation.
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