Sit still for a moment.
Imagine that you are doing this in front of a dozen strangers.
Now picture yourself naked. No, don’t flinch; just sit there, composed, still, without breathing excessively, without scratching or swaying. It’s OK; you can rest in half an hour, have a cup of tea and a smoke, before you do the next stint.
Henry Wilson had been a Life Model for the Council Adult Art classes for the last five years. Although he was in his sixties, he felt proud of his body and tried to show it off at every possible opportunity. He’d always been an exhibitionist; it gave him a thrill. There was a power and energy that he drew from it.
So what could be better than being paid to sit without a stitch on in front of a few bored, middle-aged housewives twice a week? Tonight was the Village Hall, a funny bunch this lot; guided by their artist-in-residence Margaret Utterby, Henry would sit for three thirty minute sessions for the standard council payment.
He’d gone through his usual routine tonight; bath, shave (face, chest and shoulders), clippers on his scalp (number one) then applied moisturiser and a few dabs of expensive aftershave. He looked at his body in the full-length mirror before getting changed and was pleased with what he saw.
Maybe a bit of extra flab on his torso. He wasn’t happy with that. He would nip down to the baths and do a few dozen lengths, then have an evening or two down the Gym. Nothing he couldn’t sort out.
He stepped up onto the small plinth then dramatically removed his dressing gown and cast it aside. He could feel them all looking at him now. This was the best part of the evening. He was to stand for this life class tonight – difficult for some but not Henry; his core strength allowed him to hold a pose like this easily.
As he brought himself to his full height he casually looked at who was there tonight. Usual faces, one or two blushing even though he’d been here countless times; he wondered what they were thinking. Oh, and one new one. A lady in her fifties with a red headscarf, not unattractive, not looking up – she was going through her bag, frantically looking for something. She pulled out a tiny case then took something out of it and popped it in her mouth. Oblivious to this, all of the others were either staring at him or chattering amongst themselves.
Margaret clapped her hands to quieten the din and spoke: ‘Ladies, we only have limited time with Mr Wilson so I suggest we make a start. Watercolour this week, let’s see if we can give this study a classical touch…’
Henry stood poised but slightly unnerved by the new woman. There was something about her, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
The evening drew to a close and Henry did as he did after every sitting and got dressed and went to see the images that had been produced by the ensemble. He was saddened by what he saw; around his midriff most had shown an overhanging stomach, he also noticed that all of them had featured prominently the small raspberry shaped birthmark on his lower back. Someone had shown it to be the size of an apple. It was almost as though they had started at that point then painted the rest of him as a mere background to this blemish. All of them, except the newcomer. What she had produced was remarkable; the tones of the painting drew in the eyes, he looked twenty years younger, his skin looked flawless, he looked as toned as he had felt and there was no raspberry mark to be seen.
‘I had in mind Edward Alexander Wadsworth,’ she said.
He turned at the sound of the voice to face the artist, who seemed a lot smaller and frailer than when she was seated. Her perfume brought back a vague memory. He couldn’t quite…
‘Wadsworth’s male figure. It’s just my bit of fun you see, to imagine that I can see life through the eyes of painters of days gone by. I can’t take these classes too seriously like the others,’ she whispered conspiratorially, as she swept her hand in a tiny motion to indicate her fellow students.
He smiled, pleased to be in this little joke.
The following morning Henry was up early, determined to get a full workout done and to take in a punishing swim. The love handles he saw in the paintings the previous evening had played on his mind. He was alone at the Gym and worked steadily for 50 minutes before changing into his trunks for a swim. As he stood in the changing room naked, he noticed the large mirrors at the wash basins and walked over to look at his reflection. Not bad he thought; certainly no huge stomach as some of the painters had shown. He turned to look at his back and shoulders and stopped in his tracks. The birthmark wasn’t there. He twisted and turned to examine his back and sides of his torso. No raspberry mark. In fact, looking closer he saw that his skin was almost glowing. How had that happened? His thoughts turned to the elderly artist last night, what was her name? Elise?
Four weeks later, Henry was back at the Village Hall and as he took up his position on the podium he scanned the artists but frustratingly there was no sign of Elise, then just as he had given up on her, the swing doors at the front opened and she burst through with a handbag in one hand and carrier bag in the other. She was flushed and out of breath and apologised to everyone as she set herself up to paint; the rest of the artists talking amongst themselves.
‘OK, OK, we’ve had enough disruption for now – this week, as planned, I’d like to see oils please…’
The sitting continued as before, but Henry’s eyes were drawn to Elise. She was almost other-worldly, and worked away to the total exclusion of everyone else. At the end, Henry made his way over to the paintings but only took a passing glance at the other artists’ efforts, to be polite. He was desperate to see what Elise had come up with this week; and he was not disappointed. It was astonishing. He had been painted from behind looking out over a range of mountains. Luxurious strawberry blonde hair blowing in the breeze.
‘I’m sorry, I took a liability with the hair,’ she chuckled quietly.
There was that scent of perfume again.
‘It’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog by Friedrich. It’s always been a favourite of mine.’
‘It’s amazing,’ he replied, eyes fixed to the canvas. ‘Beautiful.’
At this point, Margaret walked past, took one look at the image and muttered, ‘I do wish you would stick to the topic in hand’ before continuing on to the next portrait, this time cooing appreciatively.
There was a silence before Elise said, ‘Well, there’s no accounting for taste’, which made Henry burst out laughing, much to the bemusement of the other artists.
Henry plucked up courage to ask Elise for a drink but she declined politely before kissing him lightly on the cheek, whispering, “See you next time”.
That night, lying in bed, Henry stared at the ceiling, thinking of Elise. He couldn’t stop thinking of her. He was, although he tried not to admit it; falling in love.
The following morning he awoke and his first thought turned to the painter that had somehow turned his world upside down. He was like a smitten schoolboy, thoughts spinning round his head, stomach fluttering, heart racing. The thought of waiting another four weeks before he could see her again cast a shadow over him and he ran his hand over his shaven head. Except it wasn’t shaven; between his fingers he felt soft, luxurious hair. His heart was pounding now and he leapt out of his bed to the mirror by the door. Thick, strawberry blonde curls topped his head. He ran his fingers through, pulling and stroking, and all the while laughing and turning round, dancing. She had done this! Elise had done this.
The next four weeks stretched out agonisingly slowly and come the day of the Village Hall Art Class, Henry ran through his usual routine of shaving, bathing and moisturising; preparing himself for the show to come. He’d been working out much harder recently as he was proud of what he saw in the mirror.
Once again, Elise turned up late, in a rush as she hurried to her place. The sight of her as she entered made Henry gasp, he was utterly smitten.
The sitting went on as usual in three parts and Henry positioned himself so that he could observe Elise through the corner of his eyes. He stood, chest out in front of her, showing his body to her and only her; on display.
He watched her work furiously; every now and again she would raise her head and fix her eyes on him, studying, seeing through him. Towards the end of the third session he slightly turned his head to her and their eyes met. His lovers’, hers accusing. And for the first time he recognised her – a much younger her and a much younger him from a previous world and a previous soul, one that had lain in the dark, buried away in the depths. They’d had drinks and he had walked with her home hand in hand – she gave him all the signals and he was ready. Then, as they were approaching her flat she dropped his hand and said, ‘I don’t think this is a good idea – I’d better go’. Then just blackness until hours later, running through the park, sobbing. He remembered his strong hands closing round her neck then ripping at her clothes, punching her over and over; then violating her as she lay motionless, whimpering.
He’d moved away then; a new address, a new life, a new Henry.
He eased his head away. He could feel sweat forming on him now. It was only when he heard the giggling that he snapped from this memory. He looked out at the painting ensemble as they stared back open mouthed.
None of the women were painting now, they were frozen, some with hands over their mouths, some almost salacious. He looked down. He was fully aroused. His head snapped back to Elise, she had lost all colour from her face and slowly slumped to the ground, angry eyes fixed on Henry all the way down.
‘She’s gone. I’m sorry’. The Paramedic covered her body and starting packing away the equipment.
‘Ah, typical!’ Margaret Utterby exclaimed heartlessly. ‘Diverting from the subject in hand as usual’.
Henry turned his head to look at Elise’s last painting. That was his face in the picture, he could see that but, what? His breathing quickened and his eyes widened.
‘It’s Caravaggio,’ Margaret sneered.
‘She’s even painted herself into it as Salome. Very droll.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Henry stammered.
‘She’s painted you in the style of Caravaggio – it’s Salome with the Head of John the Baptist.’
Henry’s hand automatically moved to caress his throat, and then his world slipped away.
Nick Knibb is a performance poet from Coventry, and can regularly be found getting on and off trains.