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. He pulled a white flower that said stolen from a garden mum from behind his back, 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. Any thing 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 bigger 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 shant 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 yours.”
“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.
“What the fuck?” Deanna shook the satiny bathrobe Michael handed her when she’d set purse and down and taken off her jacket.
“Can’t have you spoil the illusion by in off the street to nude in front of everyone.” He put a hand between her shoulder blades and gave her a gentle shove toward a DIY four-panel room divider made of old doors. “Did you get my message about loose clothes, no bra, no panties?”
“Yes, but…” She spun around and had to walk backwards because he was right there and kept coming. “But I hate braless, all bouncing around and cold and everything. Unless I’m just home or something. And no panties? I mean how gross is that? I mean it, what the fuck, Michael?”
“Tight clothes and elastic leave lines where a discerning eye would rather none.”
“So? I’m not a nude model.”
He pulled one of the doors almost to the wall in front of himself to enclose her, stuck his head in. “You are tonight.”
“I am not! I don’t do the nudist thing. I did that once on accident water skiing and lost a sixty-dollar bikini. And six weeks of a summer with someone I was in luh…who was important.”
He pulled the screen panel open, stepped right into her face. “Shut it. Now. You took the forty. To model. What did you think they wanted to see? A skinny yank in out-sized clothes? You’ve nothing special to keep hidden away. On a right day you’re no more than a knackered mop stood on end.” His scowl intensified for a few seconds before it vanished when he heard the door. He checked the clock on the far wall. “They’ll be setting their places. Clothes or no clothes, on the stand or down the stairs, as you will. Six minutes.”
She peered through the cracks where the panels joined. Older than grandparents people, canvases of various sizes in hand, pulled easels from a cluster on the far wall. They way they sorted and picked it seemed they each had staked claim to their own. Along that wall and under the tall windows facing the street were worn, mid-thigh high wooden cabinets, eight inches wide at most. The tops served as window sills and a shelf for glass jars of all sizes from test tube to gallon. Some with brushes inside, tip up, some full of colored liquid, and between them what seemed like hundreds of brushes lined up on oil cloth and old towels.
At seven-thirty she stepped around the edge of the screen of doors in the satiny robe. Timid, frightened, shaking but determined. Knackered mop? Insulting her pride to get her naked? Another gamey asshole trick. Mother fuc—
She flashed the Miss Popularity smile that had momentarily resurfaced by necessity and stepped up onto a homemade riser covered in a worn out oriental rug and topped with a faded Victorian bench, facing the room, back to the windows. She slid out of the robe, one knee forward in a move she’d seen in one of Jackson’s old movies. Those stupid old movie afternoons of his had been good for something. Where was he? Godammit, she couldn’t smile like this all night, and big-bottom Michael needed to turn the heater up, something she mentioned through the smile. “Summer” in England was a lie. It rained a little less, there were green plants. The rest was still late fall in the real world.
A room full of male and female pensioners, Michael and one Dr. David Childs, Ph.D, had spent three enjoyable hours spread over two ninety-minute sessions with a too thin, starkly attractive, non-speaking naked young girl so frightened they could see it in her eyes. She’d presented them with a vulnerability rarely seen in nude models, something Michael had captured with a camera so that he could paint her himself when he had time, and pop out a few prints on the soft porn side to “friends.” Childs had logged that look as well.
Michael stuck his arm across the doorway, stopped David Childs in his tracks. With his right hand he waved a folded bill in David’s face.“No, David. The Fifty is for the ring to come and have a look. I’ll be needing the forty I’m out for getting her here.”
“You are aware of my delicate financial situation, Michael. Couldn’t we —”
“Ninety, David. Or I’ll call Lady Childs for it and your financial situation will indelicately vaporize.”
David counted out another forty pounds, slapped them into Michael’s outstretched hand. “Beastly excuse for a man you are.”
“Comes with the under compensated instructor’s crown, you know that well enough.” Michael folded the bills and shoved them in his front pocket. “I’ll let you know how she goes.”
David Childs’ eyes said bastard louder than he ever could. Or would. Michael hadn’t much dangerous going for him except an advantage in size, but if it came down to insults leading to blows David was even less. Pushing fifty but younger looking down to vanity and a private bathroom full of magic creams from the women’s counter at Boots. A full head of hair, distinguished touch of gray at the temples and practically invisible rimless glasses. Sallow, pale in an academic way, gone soft or never really been in shape, but a proper weight and dressed in suitable, casual professorial elegance by his wife. A man easily described by pulp novelists as a ‘milktoast’.
He’d had Deanna’s information from Michael, discovered in her records that she would be around at least two more years. He’d schedule her into his rotation at leisure. It might take him a year to work through his current list until she came up, but he would certainly find a place for her. Her hair and look. She’d be his little Bohemian rhapsody, something different than the overworked, over stressed, soft, pale, everyday school or party girls looking for a favorable letter from a distinguished chaired lecturer in their CV portfolios.
Michael broke their genteel version of Mexican standoff, ushered David out, said “Good Night” to his last pensioner and locked the door from the inside. Unlike Dr. Childs, he didn’t have patience, a title, wasn’t well married or have a list of girls to work his way through.
“Michael?” Deanna tossed the robe over the top of the screen in another old movie move. “Are we going to talk about the cross curriculum symbolism? I made some time for us, and a list.”
He unzipped his pants and shoved the room divider open. “Knob bob time best served before wordplay, Miss Collings. I’d ask to have at down below but that’s a right lion’s head you’ve got between your legs.” He reached for her and his pants hit his ankles. Hers were only halfway up when she let go of them to slide out the backside of the screen and shuffled to grab her purse, book bag and coat. Michael almost tripped backing out of the screen, and after two shuffle steps he grabbed the back of a chair, hop danced his feet out of captivity, lunged and caught her. She spun away from him but her feet, still bound by her jeans, didn’t follow. He caught her by the upper arm, dragged her to the riser and tossed her like a rag doll onto the ratty upholstered Victorian bench she’d modeled on. The good news was she’d lost the jeans along the way, the bad news was she bounced off the bench onto the riser, rolled to its edge feet first, and then off. She tried to stay up but her momentum, balance and sock feet were at cross purposes. In an effort to stay upright she clutched at an easel and when she knew it wasn’t going to work and she was on the way down, with or without it, she heaved the easel at one of the tall glass windows in the second story studio. The sound of the window shattering seemed to last for hours.
Michael picked her up, propped her on the riser. “Are you done?”
“Yes. No! I’m finished, not done. I’m not a fucking cake. Are you?”
“A cake? No, I’m not a bloody cake. Well done I am, thanks to you.” He looked through the hole where the window had been while he pulled on his baggy pants and reloaded his shirt tail. Deanna had never heard so many different emotions in the word “shit” before. Maybe it was an artist thing. She heard the not too distant doo-dah, doo-dah of British police car sirens approaching and said it herself.