‘I would have called his friends, but . . .’
‘He doesn’t have any’ was almost the response, but instead, Robert kept quiet.
He didn’t want to admit that his son had made no friends at college, and, after all, that was the very reason his wife had not finished the sentence. They had spent the first night hoping their son was sleeping at his girlfriend’s parents’ house, but his mobile phone was off and no-one knew the girlfriend’s address or phone number. They assumed he had met her at college, but he had not shown up at his classes the following day, and his mother was horrified to learn that he had not been attending for two weeks.
As Robert stared down at his briefcase on the kitchen work surface, he knew that his wife was still wondering why he had nothing to say. He tried telling her that he was running through the events of the past two days in his head. But the real reason for his silence was quite different.
He was still going over what had happened in his office only two hours earlier.
The brown A4 envelope had been sitting in his ‘in’ tray since that morning, and the scrawled writing on the front suggested that nothing important would be inside. It was nearly 8pm when he had finally reached over and opened the envelope.
All Robert knew in that moment was that his son was dead and there was nothing he could do to save him. In those first few seconds, he knew that he would never show his wife the endless trails of blood running across their son’s pale flesh, which someone had recorded for posterity in the Polaroid pictures now sitting on his desk.
Although they were horrifying and highly unusual, he looked more closely and thought he saw something he recognised. He stood up and laid the pictures out in front of him, leaned over them and stared hard, scanning each one in turn, and then began stuffing the pictures back into the brown envelope.
Now it was two hours later and he was looking down at the brown envelope on the kitchen work surface.
Like any child with a fascination for something shiny, she had waded out into the stream to get a closer look. Years later, she would occasionally wonder how it came to be there, but she had always preferred not to know. All that mattered was that the discovery of the knife in that stream was the defining moment of Ally’s existence, and her secret fascination with knives would continue throughout her childhood.
She made frequent trips to the local library to discover more about them, but rarely would she find a specific book about knives. By the time she had finished school, she had consumed copious amounts of material relating to art, crime, cookery, antiques, maritime life, restaurants, samurai history, medicine, and any other topic which might have involved knives.
At first, Ally’s knife was little more than a souvenir from a summer’s day out, albeit a secret souvenir which could not be shared with anyone else: her parents would not want her to have it, she had no brothers or sisters and she never dared take it to school. But she would soon find a use for it. She started off by whittling her name into the bark of a tree, and then spent years whittling on blocks of wood, sometimes extracted from her father’s supply of firewood during the winter.
At school, she became exceptionally good at drawing and painting, but found pens, pencils and charcoal to be too cumbersome and restrictive, while paint brushes stopped her from getting the level of detail she wanted. A palette knife, or even the point of a compass, had proved much more useful when creating her sculptures, but she knew she would create far more with her own knife if only she was allowed to bring it into school.
The wood was fine when she could access it – she had even won a school prize for her carving of a Native American woman’s face into a small cutting board – but she knew she would be able to achieve greater detail with softer material such as paper, cotton, plasticine or clay. She would eventually have the opportunity to try out her skills on all of these substances and more, yet still she was unsatisfied with the results.
Others, however, were stunned by her talent.
Ally was embarrassed by her parents and rarely surfaced from her room when at home. Her mother and father were cold and distant, and each became more and more distant as her father drank and her mother’s faced changed through the years. Ally had first noticed a change in her mother’s face when she was ten. Because her mother had denied that any change had taken place, she continued to deny to Ally that she had undergone surgery, even after a further five operations. By that time, Ally was a teenager and she resented the fact that no discussion of her mother’s surgery was allowed.
During her visits to the library, she had learned more about plastic surgery than even her mother knew, and in any case, the subject was discussed openly and loudly by her parents whenever her drunken father began ranting about the increasing cost of her mother’s visits to the surgeon. Ally used to wonder if her mother would have taken more of an interest in her had she known of her extraordinary artistic ability to sculpt with a knife.
Ally did poorly in all of her GCSE subjects except Art and Technology. In addition to winning that school prize, she had exhibited her work locally, and her art teacher claimed privately to other members of staff that she was the most gifted student he had ever taught. These accolades secured her a place at the school’s sixth form college, where she opted to continue studying Art and Technology. If she was not successful as an artist, she could always become a plastic surgeon. Two years of sixth form seemed at first like a terrible drag, but at least she would not have to be there all day every day, and she could wear her chequered shirts, Doctor Martens boots and jeans whenever she liked.
Although she was happy that many of the people who had ostracised her or picked on her at school had moved on to jobs or other colleges, a new wave of resentment began the day she met Adam. Of course, Adam was an object of interest to the other girls simply because he came from another town and another school, but he was in any case a handsome young man and a very talented painter.
Adam stood out because his hair was unfashionably long, like hers, and he wore similar clothes: baggy jeans, Timberland boots, and always a long-sleeved top, sometimes with a short-sleeved chequered shirt over it. He had long arms and long hands, which looked like the hands of someone older.
As Adam did not know Ally, he was not aware that she never spoke, but this did not bother him as he was happy to do all of the talking. During that first conversation, she was unable to stop her neck from turning bright pink, but she managed to nod and smile, despite the flesh on her face going numb.
As with the discovery of her artistic abilities years before, her friendship with Adam gave her a burst of confidence. She had even started bringing her knife into college, and worked with it in the arts studio during breaks and lunchtime. On one occasion, a group of girls came in to look for some props for a lunchtime drama rehearsal, but she did not care that they saw her with the knife. She knew for certain that they were watching her in that moment, but she relished the idea of those girls finding her notorious, and knew that none of them had the nerve to confront her anyway.
The knife was almost a moot point: to them, her very persona was reason enough to keep her arm’s length, which suited Ally fine. She could live with them thinking of her as dangerous, and if the knife didn’t keep them away, the look in her eyes almost certainly would.
After a few weeks of one-sided conversations – with Adam still doing all of the talking – she managed to whisper some responses, which led Adam to believe that a medical condition deprived her of a full voice. But it was around this time that he asked for her mobile phone number – which she gladly handed over – and, when he texted her that night, she was ecstatic. With text messaging, she was finally able to communicate with him. She finished many of her sentences with an exclamation mark, which must have suggested to Adam that an explosive personality was trapped inside the silent, tomboyish creature he knew from college.
By the time she finally went to bed at 1am, she had told him about her knife, and also that she hated her drunken father and idiotic, vain mother. Although she thought that she had found out everything about Adam during their chats in art classes or in the canteen, it was through this first text message conversation that she found out just how much they had in common. They had both grown to hate their parents but for different reasons: Ally’s mother was pre-occupied with her looks and social status, while Adam’s mother was focused entirely on his younger brother, a gifted athlete whose highly-competitive football, tennis, rowing and skiing commitments required her to drive long distances to drop him off and pick him up several times a week.
Adam’s mother owned an art gallery, and it was from her that he inherited his love of art: his mother’s favourite painting, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss, was found all over their house, from postcards and fridge magnets to a giant reproduction hanging on the wall of his parents’ bedroom. Ally was aware of Klimt’s paintings, and was drawn to the detail in The Kiss, but naturally, she much preferred the Rodin sculpture of the same name.
On the one hand, it seemed fortunate that Adam shared an appreciation of art with his mother, but on the other hand, it was clear that he had a difficult relationship with his father, who, like Ally’s father, was immersed in a macho money-making business culture. His attitude to art was summed up by his frequent dismissal of Klimt’s The Kiss – which Adam loved just like his mother – as ‘that horrible thing’.
Although they had got to know each other intimately by text message the night before, Ally still struggled to speak to Adam the following day, but at least she felt more comfortable smiling at him without feeling self-conscious. As they walked to McDonald’s that afternoon, she realised that she cared less and less about the resentment brewing amongst the other girls at college, and it was a great relief that she could now feel the flesh on her face when Adam was around.
It would be another two weeks before she summoned up the courage to invite him over to her parents’ house, explaining that she often had the house to herself in the evenings. She desperately wanted him to see the vast collection of sculptures and knife work she kept in her room, and she was aching to be alone with him.
When the first kiss finally happened, she was exhilarated and totally unprepared. The crippling lack of confidence that forced her back into herself was destroyed in one fell swoop by the tremor of excitement running through her body. She did not know how long she was supposed to kiss Adam, but in any case, she did not want to let go, and afterwards, she was relieved that she did not feel embarrassed or self-conscious. Adam was confident and gentle and always smelled good, and she felt physically stimulated just being close to him.
After only a few days of this intimacy, he allowed her to see him in a short-sleeved T-shirt, which revealed the long thin scars on his forearms. Each was roughly five inches long and he had about six or seven of them on each arm. Ally had always been drawn to his long arms, and they were usually the first part of his body she touched when reaching out for him, but she had given no thought to the fact that he always wore long-sleeved tops to college. When she saw these self-inflicted wounds, she could not take her eyes off them. She rubbed her fingers over them gently as she listened to Adam talk.
Adam loved The Kiss by Klimt, while Ally loved The Kiss by Rodin, but they both loved the song The Kiss by the band The Cure. That night, as they lay in her bed listening to that song – surrounded by burning candles, her sculptures and carvings – Adam lay on his back while Ally stared down at the small set of longer, angrier scars across his belly, which he had briefly alluded to just before taking off his shirt, warning that she might not like what she was about to see.
But Ally did not turn away as he had feared. As he lay on his back, she kissed the scars on his belly, partly because she wanted to heal them but partly because she found the texture irresistible. She gripped his hair and pressed her weight down on him. Finally, she had everything she wanted in her life.
The secret of his scars and the secret of her knife were now shared.
As they spent more and more time in Ally’s room, and less time at college, their resentment of the past would only grow.
It was inevitable that the gulf between the two of them and their respective families would only increase. Ally had already decided that she would train as a surgeon, and then work to support both of them so they could be artists, but she had not yet told Adam about this plan. Either way, they knew that they had to get away from their parents, from college and from everything that had ever happened before the day they met.
When she saw Adam on the Monday morning of that fateful week, Ally’s first concern was that he was disappearing. Like her father when he drank, or her mother when she underwent surgery, Adam had somehow become distant. He seemed to look through her rather than at her, and his lanky frame now seemed to be skeletal. She had not seen him at all on Sunday, as he had been forced to attend one of his brother’s more important sporting events, and she was surprised that he had not texted her, as he had promised to. She had been aching to tell him that her parents would be away in Oslo for ten days, so they would have the whole house to themselves, but now she found herself asking him what had happened and what was wrong. He became angry and defensive, eventually walking home to be alone.
After hearing nothing at all the following day, Ally waited for him to appear after his History class on Wednesday at 1pm but he did not show, so she went to his house. He had been asleep, but he let her inside after she rang the doorbell and called him repeatedly for several minutes.
Ally had been inside Adam’s parents’ house only once before, just long enough for him to show her the huge reproduction of Klimt’s The Kiss which his father hated, even though it graced the wall of the main bedroom. She eventually found the enormous kitchen and made Adam a mug of strong black coffee to wake him up. For three days, she had been worried to death about losing him, and it was not until she was in tears, pleading with him to tell her what was wrong, that he finally relented. He said that he was ashamed of his scars and felt worthless because the prizes and accolades he had won for his paintings over the years had counted for nothing.
On the kitchen wall hung a framed picture of an old, messy painting he had done at nursery – the only example of his artwork around the house – while his brother’s sporting trophies formed a shrine in the living room. To him, the framed nursery painting was a mockery of everything he had done since he was two years old. Although Ally was scared when Adam hurled the mug, smashing the glass and staining the painting with black coffee, she noticed afterwards that he was calm now that his anger was released.
Ally had always been impressed by Adam’s eloquence, but now he opened up as never before. He sat in the living room and looked into the distance, while she listened patiently, curled up on the sofa. In the past, he had told her that he cut himself simply to ‘feel better’, but now he claimed that the real reason for the cuts was his father’s insistence that he was not good at sports because he ‘couldn’t take pain’.
Ally asked him if he had ever talked to someone about his relationship with his father, and he said he used to attend regular sessions with a therapist. This had not been successful. The therapist had asked him how he would feel about showing his father the scars to make him understand what he was going through, but Adam refused. He was convinced that his parents would have put him away if they found out what he did to himself.
Although she had no clear idea of how to help him, Ally was secure in the knowledge that they only needed each other. She managed to cheer him up that night by taking him out for a burger and telling him that her parents would be away in Oslo, so they could spend the whole time together at her house. It felt wonderful to see the familiar narrowing of those brown eyes as he smiled again, and she felt relieved that he was back to his old self. He was even able to laugh and joke about his therapy, claiming that he had never taken it seriously. He said that he had dismissed his therapist’s reference to his scars, telling her that if he ever wanted to show his father real suffering, it was his duty as an artist to come up with a far more spectacular visual display than those few long, ugly scars across his belly. Ally told him that there was nothing ugly about his scars. They were, after all, a part of him, and she would always accept him, his feelings, and everything that had shaped him through his life.
The next morning, Ally awoke to find Adam walking around her room, studying her carvings. He had always been in awe of her work, and loved running his long fingers through the grooves and details she had created with her knife. He said he now had a clear idea of how he would communicate his feelings to his father, and it had been staring him in the face all along.
To Ally, it did not sound like a ‘plan’, but this was the word that Adam kept using. For days, they argued and deliberated, with Ally pleading with him repeatedly not to make her go through with it. Every time they had the conversation, she could see the distant look coming back: his eyes would sink back into his head and he would shut down, as he had done before, sometimes getting angry and storming off.
All she wanted was to please him, but she became petrified that she would lose him if she did not go along with the plan. For his part, he could not understand her reluctance. After all, he knew that she was never satisfied with her carvings because the texture never felt right. Here was an opportunity he knew she had always dreamed of, and he became irritated by her resistance. He knew for sure that it would be the perfect showcase for her incredible talent. In any case, with her parents away for ten days, he would have plenty of time to convince her, and when he had finally got her to agree, they would have plenty of time to carry out the plan to his satisfaction. Time and consideration had to be given to this plan in order to make sure that it had the devastating effect required.
As he continued staring down at the briefcase on the kitchen worktop, Robert said nothing and ignored his wife’s questions. How could they possibly call the police? They would almost certainly ask awkward questions about why neither of them had shown much interest in Adam’s whereabouts over the last six months while they had been pre-occupied with Michael’s tournaments. In the office, Robert had thought at first that Adam was dead, but as he leaned over his desk to stare more closely at the pictures of his son’s naked body, he knew that Adam had done this to punish him.
He thought back to that moment in the office when he had assumed from that first glance at those awful pictures that his son was never coming back. All he had seen was a mass of cuts and lines completely covering Adam’s back, and lots of blood. But the blood was controlled, looking as though it had been wiped away as each incision was made.
Some kind of torture?
It seems pathetic now, but Robert almost wished he had put the pictures back in the envelope there and then and continued to believe that Adam was dead.
He hesitated only because he saw something familiar in those cuts and incisions, and it was only when he stood up to get the bird’s eye view that he realised what had been carved into his son’s back.
It was Klimt’s The Kiss, of course.
The entire painting, with all its beauty and detail intact.
The hours of dedication had paid off. The painting that represented everything Adam loved and everything his father hated was etched perfectly into his back forever. For his father, the painting symbolised his son’s wimpy, effeminate tastes, and for Adam, it represented his passion, his anger and his creativity. It also proved that he could endure physical pain on a level that his father could never comprehend. For Adam, however, the physical pain he had endured while Ally had worked hard with her knife – making each incision carefully, following the poster reproduction he had got for her to work from – was merely on a par with the mental turmoil he had already experienced throughout his tragic, lonely existence.
Ally knew that her reproduction of The Kiss was her finest work yet, but hardly anyone would get to see it. But, thanks to Adam’s plan to make his family suffer, she now knew that human flesh provided the best possible material for her knife work, as she had always suspected.
Although her heart had been in her throat during the first few minutes of the operation, she had become exhilarated in her work. She had carved into Adam’s back for days, slicing gently into his skin, mopping up the blood as it flowed, spraying the flesh regularly with a local anaesthetic and wiping the sweat from her forehead with a towel. She knew that she could now claim some form of ownership over his body and she felt safe and secure every day and night as she attended to his back, keeping the cuts clean and making sure the wounds did not go septic.
She would do this for him for the rest of their lives if necessary.
While Adam’s father agonised over what to do about his son’s disappearance, and Ally’s parents were still in Oslo, the two of them stayed in her parents’ house and talked. They now knew that Ally could reproduce Klimt, but she would much rather have produced an original work of her own.
The question was, could she and Adam now build on their accomplishment by finding other subjects?
Surely there were others out there who would allow themselves to become living canvasses for her talents?
As they lay on her bed – Ally on her back and Adam on his front – they heard a noise outside the house. Ever since she had posted the Polaroid pictures to Adam’s father, Ally had known it would only be a matter of time before the authorities would be called, people at college would be questioned, someone at college would say she’d brought in a knife on at least one occasion, and then the police would force themselves into the house.
There would, of course, be all of the pointless questions about why they did this, what were they thinking, and so on. Then there would be the inevitable discussions about psychiatric evaluation.
Her knife and his body would make both of them notorious, but what did they have to fear? As Ally knows only too well, it is only the judgements of others that make you notorious.
As she heard the start of a loud banging – which could only have been the sound of someone breaking down the front door – Ally realised that she was already notorious, and always had been.
James O. Heath is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. As part of Race in the Americas (RITA), he makes films and contributes to academic journals. His book, To Face Down Dixie, a study of judicial politics in the USA, is being published in December 2017.
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