‘Nora Sillinger,’ she said. ‘Come in.’
A cat stared at me from the hallway. Looked like it wanted to jump up at me.
‘Stay right by me!’ Sillinger said, and the cat obeyed her.
‘How do you plan to work?’
‘I suggest three sittings,’ I said, ‘mornings after breakfast, afternoons, and evenings. One and a half hours.’
‘I can work with that. Do you need to be alone first thing?’
‘Then we shall have breakfast together.’
She picked at her blouse. Tiny dark stain – a crushed mosquito? A monogram. I looked her in the face. She’d had her teeth whitened. She didn’t like being looked at. A difficult model perhaps.
She asked what I wished to drink that evening. Dry red wine, and water. She left and the cat followed. I put a clean shirt on, brushed my hair and tightened my laces. A loose shoelace might annoy her. I stepped onto the balcony. Children in the courtyard, a girl with a lisp, screaming. I felt imposed on by their mothers, their lessons in free development. Women exhausted me. They found themselves a man, he proved a disappointment, the daily grind made them bitter, they started domestic fights, the man lost interest and they fell out of love. The lisping girl noticed me and threw a handful of sand up, which the wind blew back in her face. The mother ran to help. I decided the time had come, and went downstairs.
She heard my steps and called me into the kitchen. The animal was chewing a chair leg. ‘You scrub up nicely,’ she said. She assumed I had made an effort in order to improve her mood. I didn’t disabuse her. We ate spaghetti. I asked for a spoon. She shook her head; ‘you turn spaghetti against the bowl, not a spoon. Spoons are for sauce.’ I was her guest. I had to behave and didn’t argue. Then she said, ‘the etiquette in this house is to eat Bockwurst with your hands – a family tradition.’ Then she said, ‘you may not talk while chewing. You have a half-way decent singing voice.’ Then she said, ‘you suffer from emaciation. You look like something from the arse end of the day, the late afternoon. You need to cough it all up…’
She had a tongue on her. It didn’t bother me.
‘I was not a happy housewife,’ she informed me. ‘I was frequently spat at; I didn’t care.’ I finished my supper, my glass of wine; she filled it up.
‘The sittings will take place in the living room.’ Her words. She yawned, covering her mouth. I got the message. ‘Just leave everything,’ she said. ‘I have a dishwasher.’ Just as it seemed she had dismissed me for the day, she spoke of the risk she had taken. She didn’t know my work. She had never heard of me. Was I one of those artists who do the rounds to no avail? Or the kind who rise to the surface like grease and scum? There’s not much in it, I said, and she shrank back as if I’d said I practiced witchcraft. Couldn’t believe I was undiscovered. Museums were exhibiting mouldy scraps and clutter; at a young artist’s opening recently she’d been invited to admire dead flies in rusty, flat tin cans. An irate bourgeois lady: I sat and listened. I asked her to wait a moment, ran upstairs, ran back down, and handed her my portfolio. She leafed through the collection of loose sheets, studying the drawings in their sleeves. ‘You are the inverse of art.’
‘Inverse as in backside?’ I asked.
‘No, like the other side of a coin. Where do your pictures hang, aside from our mutual acquaintance’s gallery?’
‘In my flat. And in my friends’ flats.’
‘All of women,’ she said.
‘I’m not interested in observing men.’
‘Very sensible. The background in this picture,’ she said, ‘it looks like bonemeal mixed with yolk.’
‘It’s just paint.’
‘Do these women have names?’
‘In a sense,’ I said. ‘They’re called the astonished woman, the hungry woman, far-sighted, unfading…’
‘No. You have to find some new titles. Unfading – give me strength! Do these women really exist?’
‘Pure imagination,’ I said.
‘This woman has a hand like a flipper. Design or incompetence?’ she asked.
Night-time, in the kitchen of the woman employing me. Night-time, tired and fractious – a new city, new people. What should I do – an about turn? Like a fan opening up, I went into a rant. About the new elite, curators and decision makers, rewarding the trendiest and noisiest. Ornament dead. Painterly mystique beaten senseless. Many resorting to counterterrorism via handicraft. Gristly, fermented theory, codswallop from America; pseudo-intellectual bull sold for millions. I spoke, but then felt silly, and fell silent. She simply said, ‘Well, good night.’
Dismissed at last. In pyjamas, later, in bed. Fire and fever; hot forehead – momentum from the build-up. No. Shivering fit. Cold sweat. Drank two glasses wine fast then lay down. Sillinger was still up; I heard a newsreader. Politics infuriated her. She switched channels. A natural history programme. I listened to the animals’ cries. Fire and fever; sweating. I drank some water, writhed in the bed, fell asleep. Woke up. What was that sound? Stood at the window in the dark. A man stood below, waterproof jacket, pressed trousers, baseball cap. A man in the back courtyard just before dawn – he could not be there by mistake. Now what was he doing? Pebbles rained against the window I stood at. I grabbed my shoe from the floor, flung the window open and hurled the shoe at him. I missed. He fled. The cool dawn air was good; I stared blindly ahead. Creaking floorboards behind me: I turned.
‘Soon they’ll all find out,’ she said.
‘That you’re here. These men are prepared for a confrontation.’
‘You are a man; that makes you a rival.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you go to the police?’
‘To report people walking at night? That’s how they’d present the facts. At best. You should calm down and go back to bed. You don’t look good.’
‘I think I’ve caught a chill.’
‘Get some sleep,’ she said, and left my room.
My shoe was outside in the courtyard. Clean shirt, clean socks, yesterday’s trousers: I stumbled downstairs. Saw the tips of the cat’s ears, asleep behind a cushion on the sofa. Saw the ribbed rubber caps Sillinger wore on her thumb and fingertips. Page turners. She took the gauntlets off and put them on the open newspaper.
Breakfast for two. She explained: stray pensioners, they fell asleep in front of the TV, set their alarm clocks for an ungodly hour then went out to throw stones. Her head was a pouch of desires; they reached deep inside. At least two biros, with tight grips, in their breast pockets. A cat, a newspaper, I thought – did I see something else? I stood up and dashed into the drawing room, returned with a handful of paper strips. She had torn up a drawing of mine. A temple facade, flagged with inscribed banners. On the roof a woman in make-up – resembling her. Clearly she couldn’t tolerate this.
‘A fit of rage,’ she said. ‘I will reimburse you naturally.’
My losses so far: one shoe, one picture. After a little haggling we agreed on three hundred euro. She used money to burn out evil impurities. I stuffed the notes into my trouser pocket, asked to be excused for five minutes and went to search the courtyard, even checking the bins. The stone thrower had taken my shoe with him. A trophy.
She was waiting on the doorstep. ‘You will have to get out of the habit of walking around in socks. Here are some shoes and socks of my husband’s – he has no need of them.’
‘My thanks to the deceased,’ I said. She flinched. The sitting took place in the drawing room. Portrait of a lady in a white blouse, bloodless lips, hair up, rouge, eye shadow, mascara, fine, strong features. She had no truck with people who shoved leftover food around their plates. Not a woman who huddled by the radiator on cold nights. Shading for the forehead: soft pencil held sideways. Mark the hairline, pencil in the left hand, swoop of the brows – seen from my left – drawn with an arc. Pencil in the right hand. Right eyebrow done.
‘You work with both hands,’ she said.
‘Did you teach yourself that or could you always do it?’
‘Always done it. I have a weakness for damaged left-handed women – on paper, not in real life.’
‘You’ve got yourself a rather crude proclivity there.’
‘Sit still, please,’ I said.
Transition from neck to head – a mistake, rubbed out, corrected. Better. Dimpled chin. No, no flat hollow on the chin. Back to the eyes: she was looking at me. She was watching me work, with a smile. Her smile didn’t fade. She really was amused. Eyes light blue, a woman’s gaze. Harder than I thought to catch this look. Half an hour, then I had succeeded. I turned the piece of paper round, we remained seated. ‘Do you recognise yourself?’
‘If I had small children, I wouldn’t employ you as a tutor.’
‘What are you trying to say?’
‘You are meant simply to be copying me,’ she said. ‘Instead you seem to be trying to fathom me out. Those are not my eyes.’
‘We see ourselves reversed in mirrors,’ I said.
‘Is that so?’
‘Yes. I believe we are distorted in photos too.’
‘That there is an object with signs of wear and tear. That thing there is not me.’
‘Your word is my command,’ I said, and screwed the sketch up.
She suggested we run the first and second sitting together. I reached for the next piece of paper, told myself to keep it simple, held the pencil as if noting down an address. Frowning forbidden. I was standing on a snake’s tail; I would get bitten if I got it wrong again. A woman, early fifties, well groomed and attractive, no money worries. Don’t make up stories, I thought, put the black on the white, control yourself. The lady of the house in portrait, static, in daylight. She asked for a minute’s break. Rotated her head, vertebrae clicked softly. I bunched my hands into a fist, pumped them, banished the pain. Onwards. Sitting still, drawing seated. I showed her the result. She said, ‘Much better. But I see one mistake.’
‘Some people do have banal faces. Made up of two equal halves. Two semicircles welded into a globe. With the join running from crown to chin…’
‘I get it,’ I said, and screwed my right eye up, held my right hand up flat to obscure the left half of her face: rage and trauma. Left eye, left hand, right half hidden: gentle and smooth. Different muscles, different mechanisms, different air breathing through this side. We arranged to meet in the evening.
A machine, turned human. A shredding machine. Man shredder. She shredded all feeling, all warmth. Her god-given right. I would survive. I was just the artist-for-hire in her little palace. Sillinger had described the saddle slashing incident to me, and the inquiries she had made, the grating silence in her head. Who were the suspects? She didn’t know.
‘Perhaps it wasn’t a man,’ I said, ‘but a child.’
‘Children do graffiti,’ she said. ‘This required grown-up nerve.’
She had a new saddle fitted.
Enough sketches, enough drawing. I wanted to start on the painting – I released her from the sittings. She bought an easel, plastic sheets to protect the carpet from splashes, falling paint and falling sweat, paper tear-off palettes, pigment thickener, cheap paintbrushes in plastic sheaths. She had saved jam-jar lids. I congratulated her. Good for mixing paint. Grim weather, the city veiled and swimming in rain. The water dripped from awnings and eaves in strings of pearls, both thin and thick. I began. Staring ahead: the cat nosing at a bird’s corpse. Staring at the canvas: ninety by fifty. Delineation first. Pinned-up hair – important. Background – sky or drawing room? Cityscape or burgundy velvet curtains? Sillinger hated complicated patterns. She liked simplicity. More intelligent than her portrait. Representation, not a window onto the soul. Don’t tear, don’t cut. I worked into the night. Her animal rubbed at my trouser legs. She sat still on a chair behind me; rustling cloth from time to time, her tights crackling as she crossed her legs. She wasn’t a machine now, I could tell.
I felt nothing. Just thirst, no hunger. Blue outline, a gazing woman on a dusky pink ground, a string of lanterns – I painted it out; the taught cable looked like a distant horizon. She laughed, and I turned. ‘You’ve finished,’ she said.
‘And it will dry quickly.’
‘Then I’ll fix it.’
‘Really? That’s hardly professional.’
‘Will you stop whinging just for once,’ I said. ‘Try accepting something for a change.’
‘You must be tired.’
‘Because I’m answering back?’
‘The painting will be ready for framing tomorrow.’
‘Maybe I won’t want to have it framed.’
‘Why are you in a bad mood?’
‘Don’t play games with me. I’m not some pensioner stalking you.’
‘Should I pay you now?’
‘If you have the money in cash.’
‘I’ll be right back.’
She gave me a moment to calm down. I was not going to apologise to this woman with a grievance against everything. I allowed myself some mean thoughts: move to Switzerland, get older and greyer there, delighted that no-one spits on the pavements each time you go for a walk. Enjoy the company of perfect ladies and fearful men. Crack up. Drop dead at eighty-six. Your bloody life…
Sillinger returned, called me to the table, counted out the money I was owed, still standing, placed the notes in an envelope and handed them over like a trophy of war. Business concluded. She asked about my plans for the following days – I got the message. Next day, after breakfast together, I would leave. She smiled in anticipation. Soon it would be just her and the cat, walking around her legs. In bed I reflected. Now she was removing her makeup. Now she was slipping into her nightdress. Now she was shaking out her pillows. Now she was regretting inviting an unknown painter into her house… What was I doing? I hated her. She hid herself like a mouse in a corn heap, always popping out, no peace in her presence. Tomorrow the search for a new client would begin. My hollow refused to warm up; I wriggled out of the papery larva, it crumbled into dust in the night. A body which did not want to be enveloped, eeriness – that strange word in my head. Down the stairs, into the kitchen. There she sat, her hand flat in a pool of honey on the table top. Slightly bent, her nightdress tight round the shoulders, scent of some herbal ointment. Silver strands in her hair, at the back. Was it right to watch her from a distance? She said, ‘You have eyes which get wet when you’re not even sad. Stupid really.’
‘Always these little insults,’ I said.
‘Don’t take it so personally,’ she said. ‘Sit down.’
I did as she said. She never asked; she gave instructions.
Her hand in the pool. Shiny fingertips.
‘I take it you haven’t gone mad,’ I said.
‘No. There but for the grace…’
‘Are you alright?’
‘What kind of question is that?’
‘Have you eaten anything?’
‘Next you’ll be feeling my pulse.’
My hand on her hers. I lifted it up, pushed her gently towards the kitchen sink, washed the honey from her hand using both of mine, wrapped her hand in the teacloth and rubbed it dry. She gazed at me the entire time.
‘He broke his back.’
‘Nasty,’ I said.
‘Let go of my hand,’ she said.
‘Of course,’ I said.
‘Stay another day. As a favour.’
‘If it helps.’
‘It will,’ she said. ‘What has happened to your hair?’
‘My pillow is my hairbrush.’
From Der Mietmaler by Feridun Zaimoglu © 2013 Langen Müller in der F. A. Herbig Verlagsbuchhandlung GmbH München, All Rights Reserved