“But what about love?” said Elspeth from underneath the table. She was riffling through a sack of knitting yarns.
“I love that love plays no part,” he replied whilst taking off his linen jacket. He gave it a quick brush down and hung it on the back of the door. “Have you eaten yet?”
She pushed a chair out, crawled between the heavy mahogany legs and stood up.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like with no feelings at all.”
“There is plenty of feeling involved I can assure you.”
“You know what I mean: no emotion, no connection on any level other than… the physical.”
“It’s a transaction. We both get what we want and there’s no mess!”
Elpseth looked at Clem and raised an eyebrow.
“Don’t be vulgar.”
“It’s really little more than scratching an itch then!”
“In my experience, scratching an itch isn’t nearly as thrilling,” he said opening the fridge door. “I’ve got some smoked trout. I suppose there is enough for two.”
“And you don’t mind never see him again?”
“No bread I’m afraid but it might be rather good with oatcakes.”
Elspeth stood in the middle of the room, a ball of wool in each hand.
“And how do you know? How can you tell that you’re both there without any intention of getting on a coach?”
“Some might be getting on a coach and this detour is just a little bonus.”
“But why do you go there?”
“Because one has a fairly high success rate and it’s significantly closer than Hampstead Heath!” He looked at the knitting machine which was taking up most of the table, “I suppose we’ll have to go next door.”
“Do you have secret signs?” Elspeth asked. “Is it like the Masons? And how do you know which of you…?”
“I was rather hoping you’d clear away your things at the end of the day so I could at least have my kitchen back in the evenings.”
“Do you even have a conversation? Or do you just get straight on with it?”
“Enough!” he said. “If I’d known you were quite so prurient, I would have thought twice about our arrangement.”
“It’s just that it’s another world. I can’t imagine…”
“Then stop trying!”
“I’ll open a bottle of wine,” said Elspeth.
“Bought one have you?”
“Well, no, but–”
Clem sighed again, grabbed one out of the fridge and thrust it towards her.
“Thank you,” she said, unabashed.
He unwrapped the trout they’d recommended in the deli and threw some oatcakes into a basket. Elspeth found two wine glasses in the corner cabinet and carried them through to the front room. Clem had his easel set up by the door alongside a big wooden bench covered in pots of paint but at the far end there was a chaise longue, two metal stools and a low glass coffee table. Propped up against the wall was a folding screen covered in faded Japanese fabric. He dragged it upright and pulled it out, closing off the studio which left them in a snug little sitting room. Clem gestured towards the chaise longue, but Elspeth sat cross-legged on the floor.
“And how did you get on today?” he asked.
“Oh, it’s amazing,” Elspeth said. “Much quicker, not surprising when you’re using a hundred needles instead of two, and the fact that I can spread out, it’s going to make such a difference!”
“Well, it sounds like you weren’t going to get very far in your squat.”
“It’s not a squat! There are just rather a lot of us living there. Anyway, I’ve been experimenting with my designs and I reckon I could knock out a jumper a day, even the oversize ones that use lots of wool.”
“I’ll never understand this fashion for bulk.”
“They’re slouchy, not bulky, but I doubt you’ll be that keen on the colours either!”
“It still sounds like a lot of work as well as a lot of wool. You must make sure you charge appropriately.”
“It’s the only way you’ll be able to fund your own space to work and move on from selling tat in what is, I imagine, a shabby little stall.”
“I love Camden Market! Do you know, Jake can get you any album you want on cassette for a quid?”
“I’m rather sold on compact discs.”
“It’s such a treasure trove. You should see the gold mascara I bought today. Borrow it if you like,” she said with a wink.
“Camden has its charms, no doubt, and it’s fine for your plastic beads and fingerless gloves but–”
“I know, I know! Daddy’s bought me the machine and you are giving me a couple of weeks here – for which I’m very grateful – so I shouldn’t blow it!”
Elspeth took a large slug of wine.
“I’m not being funny, but wouldn’t you rather see them naked?”
“Oh lord, not this again.”
“But wouldn’t it be more arousing?”
“I’ve seen you naked, many times, and it’s not in the slightest bit arousing I can assure you.”
“But that’s because you’re not that way inclined. It might be for someone else.”
“I sincerely doubt it.”
Elspeth picked up an oatcake and threw it at him.
“For god’s sake!” Clem groaned. “It’s like sharing a cage with a chimpanzee!”
“If they’re decent artists,” he said after he’d picked the crumbs off his shirt and trousers, “which they are for the most part, then they won’t be looking at you as a sexual being at all. I’m perhaps rather naïvely presuming that would be your preference incidentally, but either way, they’ll be far too pre-occupied with conveying weight, gesture and anatomy to experience any erotic stirrings.”
“I know,” said Elspeth, but–”
“And to be honest, a body like yours, it’s rather tedious from an artist’s point of view. We want copious flesh, with movement of its own distinct from the human skeleton or sinews, wrinkles, scars…”
“Ugh, you’re putting me off my supper!”
“But because you’re able to hold such remarkable postures, you make up for your bland physique; your perfect thighs, flat stomach and pert little breasts.”
“Ha – that’s yoga for you!”
“Well, those yoga poses, are interesting to draw so yes, here’s to yoga,” said Clem raising his glass.
“I held that crab for fifteen minutes this morning. Until I got the shakes.”
“It was rather impressive.”
“Derek called me a gem!”
“And it’s why he’ll keep on booking you.”
“My modelling days will be over once my knitwear business gets off the ground.”
“Well, I hope you’ll still sit for me, that is our agreement, after all.”
“Of course,” said Elspeth, “a deal is a deal but you’re not keen on sitting–”
“No, I want to see your body stretched, working hard, pulsing with life.”
“You’ve got it.”
“No pouting and languidly staring into space.”
“Have you ever seen me pout?”
“Only when I told you that you couldn’t have a bath!”
After Elspeth left, Clem carefully washed up their plates, glasses and the three mugs that she’d left in the sink. He looked at the scrappy sketches in a pile on the counter. Her designs were very of the moment, he supposed: geometric, lots of black slashes across blocks of colour – shocking pinks, royal blues, lime greens. He thought of the Arnolfini Marriage and the Mona Lisa – how green was supposed to represent status, safety, hope.
Three days later, when he came back to the flat at nearly midnight, he was surprised to find Elspeth still there, hunched over her knitting machine.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
“Does it matter?” he replied.
She smirked at him and rolled her eyes.
“So, come on, what do you love? Apart from loveless sex?”
“I love lots of things,” he said frowning at the snippets of wool strewn all over the floor.
“Art, jazz, theatre, for example.”
“Okay, I’ll rephrase: who have you loved then?”
“Well, this year alone I loved Ben Kingsley in Othello, Ian McKellen in The Critic, Lauren Bacall in Sweet Bird of Youth – she was sublime. What’s this?” he asked walking over to the table and picking up a heavy looking buckle.
“It’s a claw weight,” said Elspeth. “You attach it to the knitting to stop it narrowing.”
“I know what you’re doing, and I don’t mean in plays!”
“What are these for?”
“They’re huge. And very… plastic.”
“Who have you loved in real life?”
“I adore my mother.”
Elspeth pushed the carriage across the frame, dropped her head down towards her hands and began to snore.
“How much longer are you going to be here?” said Clem, looking at the calendar hanging on the wall.
“You said I could stay to the end of the month.”
“Pity it isn’t February.”
“Look, while I’m here we might as well get to know each other a bit.”
“I don’t think that’s really necessary.”
“Apart from your mother who else?”
He thought for a moment, “My father–”
“Apart from your parents!”
“Actually, if you’d kindly not interrupt, I was going to say my father’s clerk. His name was Ralph. I suppose you’d dismiss that though as an awkward teenage crush.”
“Did he corrupt you?”
“No! He took me to see plays. Lots of them, hence a lifelong passion…
“Did you want him to corrupt you?”
“Dear God…” he said picking up the post.
“I’ve made a ratatouille,” she announced the following evening. “I bought all the vegetables and used your herbs.”
“But I don’t have any oregano. Or thyme, come to think of it.”
“Do you want some or not?” she said, putting her hands on her hips.
“Only if it’s edible,” he replied.
She found a tray, some spoons and got two warm bowls out of the bottom of the oven. He carried them through, and she followed with the saucepan.
“So, I’ve been thinking…” she said.
He grabbed a pile of old magazines and slid them under the pan as she plonked it on the glass table.
“About love and loving and what it actually means.”
“Not this again.”
“And I’m interested, I know you think you managed to dodge my question but seriously–”
“What is this obsession? Why don’t you tell me who you’ve loved since you’re so keen to share?”
“I seem to fall in love rather a lot,” she said. “It never lasts very long, but I’m always besotted.”
“Good for you!”
“And even with people I just feel like sleeping with, I can’t imagine not loving them, or at least thinking I love them, in the moment.”
“Do you break their hearts?”
“I don’t think so.”
“That’s something I suppose.”
He leant back as she slopped some lumpy red vegetables into his bowl, then picked up his spoon and prodded a cube of aubergine.
“I presume you found the garlic?” he said.
“I’ve actually got a rather good recipe–”
“I never follow recipes!” Elspeth announced. “Just fly by the seat of my pants.”
“That’s what I feared,” he said dryly.
Clem worked part time in a rare books shop, but he took the week off. Elspeth usually arrived at the flat by ten, they’d have coffee and then she would spend the morning modelling for him. In the afternoons she’d do her knitting; whilst he worked on his drawings, a pile of jumpers was building up at the end of the kitchen table. She’d bought a box of metallic wool and started a different range of designs. These ones had glittery zigzags, wide necks and batwing sleeves.
“I love feet,” he told her as he sketched hers in charcoal, “there you go! And I loved a man called Craig.”
“I found a photo,” she said when they stopped for a break.
“I knew you’d been snooping.”
“Was it him?”
“If you mean the black and white one, then yes.”
“He had beautiful eyes.”
“You should have seen them in colour! When he wore his purple velvet jacket, they actually looked emerald green.” Clem placed the charcoal stick on the bench and took a sip of his tea.
“He was brilliant, curious, feline,” he said.
“He was passionate, loyal and brave. He wasn’t particularly flamboyant, or political, or angry like lots of our friends. He was just happy in his own skin and being loved by him made me happy in mine.”
“Where did you meet him?” asked Elspeth.
“He was an actor, so at the theatre of course. I saw him in The Cherry Orchard then a mutual friend took me round to the stage door and we had a few drinks there and went on to a club. Not really my scene but I would have followed him anywhere. At the end of the night he asked me what I was doing the following day and invited me over to make marmalade.”
“He sounds wonderful.”
“Yes! He lived in a flat at the top of his aunt’s house in Finsbury Park and we spent the day cutting up Seville oranges and talking about Peter Brook, Moliere, Adam Ant, Gilbert and George. We drank Lapsang Souchong, sloe gin, Jura whiskey. We went for a walk around the park at dusk and again the following dawn. You asked me about love? Well, that was it. Instant. Immutable.”
Clem put down his mug.
“I wonder, could you flex your feet and splay your toes maybe?”
“Um… I could try,” said Elspeth. “When I paint my nails, I put cigarettes between them.”
“Perfect! Let’s try that!”
“Did you live together?” asked Elspeth.
“Not officially but I don’t think we spent a night apart in two years, either here or at his place. His aunt was a sweetheart, practically blind and never left the ground floor so he didn’t like to be away from her for too long. He did lots of little jobs around the house too, made sure she had food in, that kind of thing.”
“And did he work a lot?”
“He would have been very successful I’m sure, if he hadn’t got ill. Look here, why don’t you actually paint them?”
“I haven’t bought any polish.”
“Let’s go and find some and I’ll buy you lunch.”
They ate risotto and tiramisu and drank a bottle of Chianti. Then they went to Boots in Victoria Station.
“These colours are so boring,” wailed Elspeth.
“If I decide to work it up into a painting, I promise you can choose whatever colour you want!”
Back at the flat he bought out a pile of sketchbooks filled with drawings of Craig. They sat on the chaise longue and looked through them one by one: Craig mashing potatoes, throwing sticks for a dog, running down the stairs, tap dancing, hunched up with laughter. Craig prowling across a stage, singing with a microphone, lunging with a sword. And then there were Craig’s feet, a whole book of his feet.
“They were the only thing I could bear to draw,” said Clem. “When he got ill, they were the only part of him that stayed the same. The rest of his body… His toes stayed strong though, the skin on his heels didn’t get any thinner. Everyone assumed, still assumes it was AIDS. He died the same month those ghastly advertisements went out on the telly and they all thought ‘queer’ and shook their heads.
“I’m sure they didn’t.”
“You have no idea,” he said bitterly. “He was emaciated, sweating one minute, breathless the next, then there were the nose bleeds, the bruises. You only have to go over to the Middlesex to see, the symptoms are all the same. Some of our friends are in there now. I can’t face visiting.”
He got up and walked over to the window.
“So, what was it then?” Elspeth asked.
“Leukaemia. Rather an aggressive one I’m afraid. He didn’t stand a chance.”
Clem reached up to the top shelf of the bookcase and bought down a dusty bottle.
“I think we should drink this port,” he said. “What do you say?”
Later, they staggered into the kitchen in search of food. Clem had played all Craig’s favourite albums, they’d mouthed, hummed, then sung along and Elspeth had danced on the coffee table.
“Isn’t it my last day?” she said, giggling as he took her arm to steady her.
“Knitting here? Yes.” He looked at the boxes of jumpers stacked up by the door. “Where are you going to sell them?”
“Well, I haven’t actually got that far,” she replied, trying very hard not to slur her words.
“There is a woman who comes into the bookshop sometimes, she has a little boutique in Chelsea–”
“Cool,” said Elspeth draping herself over the counter.
“Try one on then,” he said. “Let’s take a look!”
He took one out of the box, unfolded it, and she grabbed it out of his hands and teetered towards the bathroom.
“I’ll need a moment,” she called through the open door, “you can top up my glass.”
Clem walked over to the sink, ran the tap until it was ice cold and then drank a pint of water. He surveyed the chaos; the empty cigarette pack, glasses, balls of trailing wool, patterns, a dog-eared note pad, an instruction manual, his dressing gown dumped on a chair.
Next door Etta Jones was scatting away.
“I’ll need my lipstick,” Elspeth shouted, “it’s in my handbag. And I don’t suppose you have a brush?”
Etta launched into At Last and right on cue Elspeth emerged from the bathroom. Her hair was scraped up into a side ponytail and she’d wrapped her tights around her head and fastened them in a big floppy bow. She had red nails, blue shimmering eyes and unfeasibly pink lips. The jumper came down to her knees and when she lifted her arms and started twisting and twirling, the sparkly wool shimmered in the light.
“What do you think?” she sang, stumbling slightly.
He smiled and nodded.
“I like it,” he said. “I like it a lot.”
After completing an English degree at Oxford University and working as an actor and arts administrator in London, Clare Owen married a boatbuilder and moved to Cornwall.
She writes and performs with the all women ensemble, Riot of the Freelance Mind and
her short stories have been published online (Paragraph Planet, 1000 Word Story Challenge) and in print (Mslexia and the anthology An Outbreak of Peace). She was selected as one of the Editor’s Choices for 2019 FlashBack Microfiction Competition.
Her first YA novel, Zed and the Cormorants, will be published early 2021 (Arachne Press).
Image by Mabel Amber from Pixabay
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