Cambridge U.K., Tuesday, June 5th, 1979
“You’ll forgive me?”
Deanna flinched, opened her eyes and noticed immediately that he was different. Older. Confident, laid back. A touch of somewhere European in his voice. Funny, baggy clothes and paint splattered vest. His goatee was trimmed but he needed a shave, his eyes deep brown under unruly eyebrows and more unruly bangs that turned into a thin ponytail that flicked to the front of his shoulder when he looked at her.
“A phonetic aberration of Pooh sticks?”
“…N. No.” She watched her last petal float toward the water of the river Cam. “I drop the letters of names. Like they’re attached to the flower petals. Or sometimes, don’t tell anyone, I use pieces of paper. Not big ones. It’s like making a wish and he loves me, he loves me not, all together. Only he always does…Love me, I mean, because it’s seven letters and I start with ‘loves me’. I guess it isn’t like that part at all, is it? If he always does.”
“Just a wish then?” He’d already gotten more answer than he wanted. From behind his back he produced a white, most likely stolen from a garden, flower, held it out over the railing and rubbed it briskly between his palms. A shower of petals kissed the water and disappeared. “More the merrier to help yours on their way. I have a wish.”
“I’ll bet you do. I’m not going to wash your, um,” here were those stupid wrong English words for everything, “vest for you. It might be pointless. I don’t think all that paint will come out. I mean ever.” She pulled back a touch. “And I don’t really have time for anything else. Anything else.”
“A painter’s vest is his history. When I’ve forgotten what paint belonged to which project I clip out the best parts, put them in tiny frames with big prices for the English’s come-meet-an-artist weekend boot sale at a country estate, and buy a new one with the proceeds.” He held his thumb and forefinger the width of a piece of paper apart. “And there is a wee small something else.” He looked at her, curiously. “Michael.”
“You or me? Michael, I mean?”
He shook lightly with a contained laugh, nodded at her bag full of poetry and literature books. “A sense of humor is a must if you’re going to fill your head with that.” He seemed to sigh, or maybe it was an even lighter version of the laugh. “I shan’t ridicule. Art is the wordless man’s literature. Stories bound by a frame, not cloth or leather.”
“There was Blake. He did both. And —”
“From the Greeks to Lyrical Abstraction there have been artists who expose more than one creative facet. Yeats painted to send his mind out to the cleaners. Cummings painted as if Van Gogh spilled paint on a wet Picasso. Morris, Rosetti, Burne-Jones, all the Pre-Raphs got up to everything they could lay hands to. The Twentieth Century is full of them. Vonnegut, Plath, Michaux, Lorca, Cummings again. The tip of the iceberg. The modern pop-art lot believe that all creative outlets belong to them and we’d damn well better pay attention, even if it’s no more than varnished shit in a biscuit tin or a whistle that blows itself. I’ve even been told Sinatra paints.” He leaned both arms on the bridge rail, looked like a relaxed bag of laundry in paint splattered work boots. “Bring musicians into this conversation and we could go on for days.”
Deanna had scrambled to dig a steno pad out of her bag while he talked. “No. Do. Go on, I mean. No! I meant not go on on, like leave or anything, but who did you say?”
“Writer’s who paint are legion. Put the pen away. Pick a century, or an era you fancy, ask an art librarian, not one of your lot.”
“Okay. Wow. I will. Thank you, really. I love connections, you know, because core concepts and symbolism, like feminism? They’re spread all across the curriculum, especially in the arts and since —”
“You can thank me by granting my wish.” He remained relaxed, not pushy. Interrupting. A lot. But not pushy.
“Oh? I don’t know…I’m not a genie. Or a pickup whore. So I —”
“Feminist symbolism says you’ve a modern girl’s mind. Your look as well. Thin, pale. Your hair is a bit of a…Statement. All of you creates a…” His pause full of appraisal, hands a foot away from her body on either side, moving up and down. “A uniquely attractive…Surprise?”
“Do you think so? Really?” She bounced her hair with her hand and made a face. “I kind of, well I —”
“What I think, really, is that you would be a perfect change-up to model for a pensioners art class I direct.” He reached out with both hands again, fluffed her shortish jagged layers of hair, tilted his head, looked at her like her mom used to look at curtains or dresses. “Two sessions. An hour and half each. Forty pounds for all. Mm?”
“Forty pounds? To let old people paint pictures of me? No shit?”
“You. No shit.” He kept leaning his head, looking at her from different angles.
“Cool! And can we talk, maybe? After? You and I? About art and symbolism and —”
“Yes. Fine. Wednesday a week. Seven-thirty.” He handed her a card. “Come more than a few early, if you don’t mind. Lay of the land and all that.”
She glanced at the card, had no idea where the address was, but she’d find it. “You’re a real artist? With your own studio and everything?”
“I am a real art instructor and lecturer with an old room in an old building furnished by city services where I tell my gran’s neighbor from the oldies home she’s the next Matisse. I occasionally take all their spectacles away and end up with a room full of Monet. You know my name. You are?”
“Deanna. Collings. Collings! Just like you! Except I’m not from here. Well, I am. Now. But, well —”
“I never would have guessed. Miss? It is Miss? Good. Miss Deanna Collings.” He took her hand, gave it a light squeeze. His hands were rougher than she’d imagined. But he did frames and stuff, probably.
“Do you make —”
“Michael Collings, Miss Collings. It has been my pleasure. You have an honest face and a sympathetic surname, I’m going to trust you.” He handed her two folded twenty pound notes, looked her in the eye. “Wednesday. Week. Not tomorrow. A week. And again a fortnight.” He raised his eyebrows in that “Got it?” sort of way.
“Okay. Not tomorrow. But a week from tomorrow. And two weeks from tomorrow.” He bowed, slightly, made a goofy sweeping gesture with his hand before he turned and sauntered off. He had kind of a wide butt, but he didn’t swagger or do the guy things with his shoulders or arms or the stoner shuffle or the jock walk. Straight ahead. Some guy, hands in the pockets of his baggy pants, his mind on something else, on to somewhere in such a casual and unusual for Cambridge no big hurry way. But seriously, the Michael guy was taking an extra butt with him. She giggled to herself while she stared at the card.
Personal and Commercial Environments
Design and Execution
An address somewhere in Cambridge and one of those long English phone numbers.
Kinda wordy, all that was missing was landscaping, but he probably had a couple of cards with that and more. Artists never made any money until they were dead, so he had to advertise everything he did wherever he could. Blake did that. She’d have to see Michael’s art to see if he’d be worth anything dead, though. Or alive. The goatee with paint flecks in it was gross like all beards. And he did have that kind of big butt which she never imagined artists like Blake having. At all. But forty pounds? Wow.