Something so close to love – Artemis Callaghan
Contains strong language and sex.
Please feel free to email me at Ceri.Lloyd@bodleian.ox.ac.uk
“What exactly did you do to Annie Weston?”
“What do you mean?”
“Now come on, darling, no one gives away a £5000 painting for nothing”
I stubbed my cigarette out and stared at the ashtray.
“Come on, Jenna, Cath told me all about it. Apparently some big art collector was all for buying that piece but Annie said no, she didn’t want to sell it. She wanted you to have it. Cath wasn’t best pleased, I can tell you. That’s a lot of commission to miss out on. I’m not sure she’s forgiven me for bringing you to the private view yet”
“I didn’t ask her to give it to me, did I?”
“Now, now, no need to snarl, darling. You’ve done quite nicely out of it, what ever “it” was”
Cass was grating on my nerves, more than that, she was shredding them. How could I make her understand I didn’t want Annie’s painting? That wasn’t strictly true; of course I wanted it, who wouldn’t? But it wasn’t as simple as that. I didn’t want the one to the exclusion of the other, and given the choice, I’d rather have Annie.
What was happening to me? Before I’d managed to conduct my love life simply, I could happily fuck around behind at least three people’s backs and have it not interfere with my everyday life. Now I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It had been bad enough thinking about Ella almost every waking moment, now she’d been joined by Annie. Distracted, it was starting to affect work. I lost concentration in meetings, finding I was staring out of the window or into the middle distance when I should’ve been listening to sales pitches, quarterly figures, promotional pushes. You need a holiday, my boss told me in a tone of voice that let me know it was an order rather than a friendly suggestion.
So I took two weeks off but rather than do the sensible thing and jet off to the Seychelles, I stayed at home and moped around the house. Me, a woman who had never moped about anyone in her life. I slobbed around in my tracker bottoms and an old t-shirt, daytime TV splurting on in the background whilst I lay about on the couch. Let me tell you, I wanked more in that fortnight than I had done since I was a teenager. Joyless, unsatisfying masturbation that led to frustrated tears more than anything.
I was caught on the horns of a fucking dilemma.
The phone rang. I grabbed it after the second ring. Jeremy Kyle was mutely upbraiding some haggard old scrubber who looked about 60 but was probably only 40, I didn’t know what about, but there was a tearful, tarty girl sitting across from her, mascara cascading down a face that might’ve been pretty were it not so harden with too much experience too young.
“O hello, I wasn’t really expecting you to answer. I thought you’d be at work and I’d get your answerphone”
I didn’t recognise the voice at first.
“I’m on holiday”
“Ah, okay. Well, hi. It’s Annie, Annie Weston. From the gallery”
My heart fluttered. That sounds stupid, like a foolish teenage girl cliché, but it’s true.
“Annie, hi. How are you?”
“Me? I’m okay, I guess. How are you?”
You know, I think about you all the time. I think about the way you took off all my layers, literally, figuratively and emotionally. I think about the way you fucked me up against the brick wall of Cath Marshall’s office and then walked out of my life. I think about the way you took something from me but gave it back better than it was. I lie on the couch with Jeremy Kyle and Trisha Goddard and Montel Williams and I bring myself off at the thought of you.
“The exhibition has come down now. If you wanted – I mean, if you’d like Josie, I’d still like you to have her”
I was blushing, I could feel it. My cheeks were burning. I clutched the phone a little tighter.
“Are you sure? Cass was telling me it’s worth a lot of money”
“Yes, I’m sure. The guy who wanted to buy it, he’s got the money but he’d never appreciate her. You understood her and you’ve never even met her. You should have her”
“You must let me pay”
“No, Jenna. That wouldn’t be right”
I felt raw. Jeremy Kyle was speaking to camera, straight out at me, he could see me sitting there laid bare. My voice, when it came out, was small.
There was a pause. The TV flickered onto ads for home re-mortgages, accident compensation and funeral expenses policies.
“I’ve got her here at my studio, would you like to come and pick her up?”
She said it so nonchalantly; too nonchalantly, there was a hint of desire under the casual remark. I sat up.
“Yes, I’d like that. When would you like me to come over?”
“Well, I’m free now if you’re not doing anything else”
I flicked the TV off.
“Not now I’m not”
“Good, I’ll see you in a while then”
What do you wear when you’re trying to be causal about something you’ve dreamt about for the last four weeks? When you’re going to see someone who can sum you up instantly just by looking at you? What do you wear when you are trying to say if you want to fuck me then I’m up for it but I’m not that bothered either way? What do you wear when you want to say o this old thing, it’s just something I threw on? What the fuck was I going to wear?
Faded indigo jeans, frayed at the cuffs but fitting my arse to perfection; a pair of fawn suede Dr Marten boots, soft as butter, hard as nails; a white vest top that would ride up to show my backside in the faded, frayed indigo jeans, ride up to show my stomach and the jut of my hips. I stood in front of the full length mirror, looping my thumbs in the waist band of my jeans and tilting my hips. Yes, that would do.
Annie’s studio was a brick shed in someone else’s garden. It was fighting with the vegetation, creepers stringing themselves up the walls and across the roof, soft and organic. It was a hut in the forest, Hansel and Gretel and the Babes in the Wood. I would never have found it without instructions. The door was open but still I tapped it with my knuckles.
“Little pig, little pig let me come in”
“Not by the hairs on my chiny chin chin”
“O well I’d better piss off then”
She appeared in the door way.
“If it isn’t the Big Bad Wolf”
There was that heat in my face again. Annie stood framed by the creepers, her arms folded, appraising me. She was wearing a pair of paint smeared workman’s dungaree over just a bra. Her legs were braced and she was wearing the same big boots I’d seen her in last. She was little and tough and incredibly sexy.
“You’ve made your house out of bricks, I see, like a sensible pig. No way I can blow that down”
“Then you’d better just come in then hadn’t you, Wolf”
She reached out and grabbed a belt loop of my jeans and pulled me in. Startled, my body collided with hers and it sent shock waves through me. She leant in to kiss me but halted halfway, as if she’d changed her mind, or thought better of it. Instead she smiled at me and stepped aside so I could pass her.
After the bright sunshine of the garden, Annie’s studio seemed dark, almost gloomy. A cave in the forest rather than a hut. But as my eyes adjusted I could make it out much better. There was evidence of work everywhere: canvasses in various different stages of completion; jars, brushes, half squeezed out tubes of paint covering any available surface. The walls were papered with sketches and photos, articles and pictures cut out of newspapers and magazines, pinned and tapped in an apparently haphazard fashion to whatever would hold them. In the middle of the room, where it got the best of the light, stood a big, old fashioned box easel, battered and scarred with age, encrusted with oil paint: impasto blobs of vermillion and cobalt, burnt sienna and viridian green. Sitting on the easel was the painting, the naked girl. Josie, Annie had called her. Looking at the girl again, the way she glared out of the plane, I wondered who she was and what she was, or had been, to Annie.
For a second time, Annie came and stood by me and asked me what I was thinking about looking at the painting.
“When I first saw it, I made it all about me; it was my gaze she was meeting, me she was daring to look at her. But here it’s different. She’s not interested in me at all; it’s you. You’re the subject of her focus. She’s defying you to look at her, to see her. Before I thought she was fierce and proud, but now she can see that she’s angry, she’s angry at you for not looking at her properly, for not seeing her”
Annie gave a small laugh of disbelief.
“Can you see now why I couldn’t sell her?”
I glanced at her: she was staring down at her boots, her face flushed. When she met my gaze, her eyes were bright, her face serious.
“I let Cath persuade me to put her up but when I saw your response, I knew I’d been wrong. Except I wasn’t wrong, not really, you got to see her so that wasn’t wrong. I was wrong to let Cath put a price on her”
“Who is she?”
Annie walked over and sat down in a battered armchair, covering her eyes with her hand. She sighed.
“It would be easy to say that she was just a model I hired. There is an element of truth in that, she was a model. I met her at art school. It’s a weird situation though, isn’t it, when you come to think of it? I’d seen this woman with her clothes off every week for three months, standing in front of me, showing me everything she had. But then, I’d been looking at life models since I was 16. Part of you stops seeing them as people: they’re a collection of skin tones, angles and lines, musculature and fleshed out skeletons. My portfolio was stuffed full of dispassionate studies. But Josie was different. There was always something about her that bordered on the haughty: the Queen of Sheba with no clothes on in a badly heated room. One side of her blue from the cold air, the other red from the two bar heater.
One day after the class, I waited until she’d dressed and asked if she’d pose for me privately. I’ve got money, I said. She could’ve frozen me with her stare. What would I want with your money? If I was frozen, shame thawed me out quick enough, I mumbled my apologies and started to walk away but she caught my arm. Ask me, she said, just ask me one human being to another. Will you let me paint you? Yes”
I hunkered down in front of her, taking her other hand in mine.
“Were you in love with her?”
She dropped her hand at looked at me.
“Was she in love with you?”
“It’s hard to tell. Love is hard to recognise sometimes, isn’t it? People you think love you turn out to not care at all. Other people tell you they love you all the time but only think they do, other people never tell you they love you at all. I’ve always been bad at being able to tell the real from the counterfeit, and I’ve always been bad at saying I love you. Take with Ella – ”
She saw me flinch but she held my gaze; unafraid of facing the uncomfortable.
“I never told her that I loved her. I’d skirt the issue if it ever came up. She wears her heart on her sleeve, which in many ways is a good way to live; at least you are open to life even if you do get hurt. I didn’t tell Ella I loved her and in the end I hurt her. I couldn’t cope with her loving me as openly as she did. Couldn’t cope with the trust she put in me. And so I told her I didn’t want to be with her anymore, that I thought I could do better. You see, I’m a brutal bitch at times”
“What happened with Josie?”
“I painted her”
“Is that all?”
Annie’s laugh was bitter.
“Yes. I didn’t even kiss her. I certainly never told her I loved her”
I linked my fingers through hers.
“Are you sure you want me to have her?”
I brought the back of her hand up to my mouth and kissed it. She lent forward and stroked my hair. It was only a short gap from there for my mouth to meet hers. She sighed against my lips, I could feel her breath. Her hand cupped my head.
“I told myself I wouldn’t do this”
The palm of my hand rested against her face.
“You see – I know I was stupid to let Ella go. She was the best thing that had ever happened to me. You really can’t get better than Ella”
I pulled back a little, so I could see Annie’s face.
“Are you still in love with her, do you want to be with her?”
She shook her head.
“No. The problem I have is with you”
I withdrew further, frowning.
“What do you mean?”
“Is there really enough of you to go around?”
I grew angry. I knew she was right but I was still angry. She seemed unmoved by it, like she expected it and could handle it, no trouble.
“Because it’s not just Ella, is it? What about this Paul; where does he fit into all this?”
Annie was doing what Annie did best: lifting up stones, exposing all the dark secrets to the light where they would have to account for themselves or shrivel up. A scalpel honesty, clinical and detached. Honesty was the only response.
“I’ve always thought it must be nice to like just the one gender, pick a side and stick to it. I’ve always said that it’s not about the gender, it’s about the sex, but that’s glib, isn’t it? It’s women that get to me the most, but then I’ll meet a man that I have to fuck. I’ve been having sex with men since I was 15 and I’ve never apologised for it. Bruno was spot on when he said that when I met them at that wedding I could as easily have gone off with him as her. On a different day I would’ve done. On a different day, I’d have made a play for both of them and thought nothing of it.
I was with Paul because it was easy. I’ve always been with men because it was easier. The first boy I ever fucked it was because I wanted some stability in my life, I wanted someone who could hold me down. He was a friend of my brother’s, two years older than me, and I lost my virginity in the back of a Ford Escort. It didn’t hurt half as much as I thought it would but at the same time it didn’t feel half as good as I thought it would either. All that mattered was that he was my boyfriend, that I had one. Even better, he was older than me and that showed the girls at school”
I stood up and started to walk around the studio, picking things up, putting them back down again.
“Girls confused things, you know. Much as I flirted and snogged boys at parties, there were all these other feelings going on. I’d look at couples and realise that I wanted the girl more than the boy; and then I’d pull the boy from right under her nose because I could. Fuck, they hated me but that made it easier”
I turned and looked at Annie who was sitting on the edge of the chair, silent, listening to me.
“You know I said about men holding me down? I don’t mean literally. When I’m with women I can lose my head, my sense of proportion, and it’ll be like I’m back at school. I’ll fuck it up by doing something stupid”
There was a piece of cloth in my left hand, I noticed, balled up from where I’d been squeezing it. And when had I started rubbing my hair line? I let both hands drop.
“I met Paul at work, and yes, the thing that first attracted me to him was that he had an arse to kill for, but there was something else there. He is the nicest man in the world. He’s kind and gentle, generous and doesn’t ask too many questions. All he ever did was love me. Hold me down. And then I went to that bloody wedding. I saw Ella and I lost my head”
I glanced at Annie but she hadn’t moved. She was sitting with her forearms resting on her legs, listening to me. I sighed.
“The stupid thing is I really did think I could have both of them. I’ve managed it in the past. But this was never going to be simple. They both wanted more, didn’t they? I know Paul did. He wanted to marry me. I know Ella did, she left my house that morning and I’ve not heard from her since. And then – ”
I paused and stared out of the window at the late summer sunshine in the trees; it was dappling the grass, alternating light and dark. Annie was still silent but it wasn’t oppressive; it was attentive. I knew she was truly listening to me, hearing me. She was simply waiting for me to go on. I held her gaze and forced myself not to look away.
“And then I met you. Cass says that I compartmentalise my life. I’ve always said that I live in each moment, give it my all, and when it’s over, it’s over and I move on to the next one, whatever or whoever that might be, regardless of other people’s feelings. So that’s me, the casual, callous bitch who can step from Ella to you without seemingly turning a hair. You said I wasn’t irredeemable. Do you still think that?”
“Like my moral probity is unimpeachable. Remember, I’m the one who seduced you even though I knew who you were. And today, I didn’t need to call you, I could’ve arranged for the gallery to deliver the painting to you. I’ve been with Ella and I’ve not told her about us, and it was hard but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’ve tried to make myself leave you alone, leave you to her but I can’t”
She sat back down in the depths of the armchair, arms crossed over her chest.
“I can’t leave you alone”
“I don’t want you to. I want to tell you something”
I braced myself on the arms of the chair, leaning in so my face was close to Annie’s. She was still serious, but her lips were parted, her breathing a little heavy.
“No one has touched me like you did. And I don’t mean the sex. What you did to me was painful but incredible, it was as if you scorched me back to bare earth”
I moved into the chair, so that my knees were either side of her of her hips, my face so close, I almost brushed hers with my lips.
“I told you that at the time, remember? That you opened me up, exposed me. I’ve been raw ever since. I took two weeks off work because all I could do was think about you and if I didn’t take the time off, I would be sacked and it would be your fault”
Warm breath washing her cheek, her ear.
“I’ve always been very good at my job. There’s a box marked “Work” and nothing’s got in there before. Even when everyone was gossiping about me and Paul, it didn’t interfere”
My tongue tracing the line of her jaw, her breath catching.
“But then I was sitting in meetings, in that charcoal suit, and no amount of flashy Power Point presentations could keep the image of you rocked back on your heels seeing into my soul out of my head”
I unzipped the fly of my jeans, took her hand and guided it down into my knickers.
“I would sit in meetings like that. I should’ve been thinking about quarterly targets but all I could think about was your fingers inside me”
I cupped my hand around hers to keep it where it was. Her eyes were enormous.
“Annie, I don’t expect you to ever say you love me, and I can’t promise that I won’t fuck things up. I only know I want you”
Finally, after a month of wanting nothing else, her mouth opened under mine.
Eggs, where were the bloody eggs? The layout of these places was never logical, or if it was, then the logic was beyond me. Why couldn’t there be a universal plan that every supermarket stuck to so no matter which shop you were in, you’d know where everything was supposed to be? Of course, what I should really do was shop online but I never seemed to find the time to do that and instead ended up having to come out here. You’d think the eggs would be somewhere sensible, like with the baking stuff or with the bacon or – Bam! Out of nowhere my trolley was blind sided. Startled, I instantly leapt on the offensive:
“Why don’t you bloody watch where you’re going?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t – Jenna?”
It was Ella. Ella standing in the middle of the breakfast cereal aisle of Tescos and I didn’t know what to say. Annie still clung to me like a guilty secret, her scent on my skin, her taste in my mouth, but seeing Ella I was swamped by her scent, her taste. A flicker book of images: a harlequin waistcoat, a tortoiseshell cat, eyes as mutable as weather. An eternity passed before I found I could speak.
“Ella, hi. How’ve you been?”
Was she blushing or was that me projecting? I knew I was, I could feel that familiar burn. Try as I might to be cool, I knew I was failing.
“I’m fine. I’m sorry I haven’t called it’s just – ”
“Sweetheart, which one do you want, with bits or without?”
A girl, probably early twenties, pretty with bleached blonde hair and beautiful dark, almost black eyes, holding two jars of marmalade in her hands. She was looking at them but talking to Ella, calling her sweetheart. When she got no response, she looked up at Ella and then saw me. Her glance shot between the two of us, and then she frowned slightly.
“Well, I’d better be on, I guess. I don’t suppose you know where the eggs are, do you?”
Ella seemed incapable of speech so the blonde girl answered.
“Sure, they’re down the next aisle, next to the bread”
“Yes, that would be sensible place for them. Thank you”
I left my half full trolley by the large free range eggs and walked out of the shop.
Continued in Part 6
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