“There´s a lovely piece of meat, Miss,” said the butcher, laying the steak on the counter for the customer´s approval.
But it wasn´t lovely. I knew this. It was bloodied, marbled with fat, sweating as if in anticipation of the spitting skillet which awaited it.
So why was it that butchers always described meat as lovely? Call it delicious, maybe, once it was cooked, perhaps after marinating in balsamic vinegar and Dijon mustard, served with mashed garlic potatoes and sweet green beans.
Even gastronomic. Or an epicurean delight.
But never lovely, not in its naked state.
The customer made some incoherent murmur of satisfaction, but I sensed her shudder, give a shiver of distaste as she took possession of her purchase, as if we were both of a similar mind.
Meat in its raw state is not lovely.
“How's it going, Penny?” asked Arthur, coming around from his counter with a cup of tea for me. A stout man, with face and hands as raw a red as the meat he sells, as he offered me the cup I noticed his fingernails, bitten ragged, the cuticles rusty with flecks of dried blood.
Still I accepted the tea, though, setting aside my pencils.
“This is all getting a bit bloody,” he remarked, looking at the drawing I was doing.
I agreed, but added as an excuse, “Meat usually is though, isn’t it?”
“Not when it’s butchered properly it isn’t,” he said, with a look of professional disgust. “That looks like it’s been hacked at by a novice. Or a psychopath.”
Again I was forced to agree. “I don't know why it's turning out as it is. The mood affecting the medium, perhaps?”
“Best you give it a rest for the day, love. We don’t want folk thinking this is an advert for my business, do we?”
He returned to his own bloody work, from behind his counter returned my smile. I could see the wisdom in what he had said, but still I persevered, my attention fixing on the carcasses which hung around his stall.
The market hall had become a favorite haunt of mine, a vast and extravagant Victorian structure with masses of girders high above arching this way and that, flying like Gothic buttresses from one wall to another, a frosted dome at the top which shimmered like confectionery or burned like stained glass according to the weather. In the hall there were stalls selling every type of goods -food, clothes, fancy goods- and I had drawn or painted almost every one at some time or another, but Arthur's stall was the one I always returned to. Sitting on a folding canvas stool, low down, people could see the work I was doing as they walked past and most of them wondered, some even asked outright: why meat?
This went some way to showing the lack of originality of the people thereabouts, that they should think art had to be all about traditional beauty; no one in their right mind would want a painting of a slab of beef hanging over their mantelpiece, this was the way they reasoned, a pretty picture for their lounge was what people generally needed. What had been good enough for Soutine, though, was good enough for me. That Soutine painted pieces of meat until they putrefied and the smell upset the neighbors was something which quite delighted me.
On that particular morning when there was meat on my mind, though, I could see the way the work was progressing and noticed that any beauty there might have been was slipping from me, that the succulent red flesh and creamy marbled fat was starting to look rather mutilated; the carcasses, as I had depicted them, were tortured and racked like crucifixions, bleeding and broken, and the more I became aware of the change the more I wondered if there was a reason for it.
As I finally gave up for the day, packed up my things, Arthur made me a gift of a couple of pounds of tenderloin and I slipped the bloody parcel in my satchel.
There was no conscious connection between the hunks of meat I drew in the market and the portrait I was doing of Stephen.
In my room he sat on the edge of the couch and I took the canvas, which had been facing the wall, set it on a portable easel borrowed from college. I didn’t look at the painting until I had my brushes and oils set out, and when I did I wasn´t sure where to begin. Admittedly I was never too hot on faces, could usually make them look like real people but was always aware that the true reality of a person was something more than an exactness of proportion. I had already spent weeks on Stephen’s portrait and still struggled to capture his true reality, had thought I was getting close to it at the previous sitting but now saw that it was as dead as the hunks of meat which hung from the butchers’ hooks in the market. There was something missing, something that was all the more troubling for the fact that it was indefinable. I mixed colors on the palette, thinned them with turpentine and linseed and loaded the brush, but then could find nowhere on the canvas to apply them; the flesh tones belonged to the face, I knew, the soft blue-gray should shade the eyes, it was all so easy that even a child could have put the right color in the right place, but still it seemed wrong.
Stephen was looking away, towards the window as I had posed him, gazing out at drab slate rooftops, so it took some time before he noticed that I was not actually touching my brush to the canvas, simply making hesitant gestures or sometimes dabbing a bit of color to the background where it didn’t matter. I was like a blind person stumbling about an unfamiliar room and Stephen was a stranger I kept blundering into.
“Is there something wrong?” he finally asked, when a stiff neck caused him to turn his head and he saw that I wasn´t actually doing very much.
It was then that I gratefully put the brush down and admitted that it wasn´t working.
“I don’t inspire you?” he said, but with only a hint of a smile.
“Genius is more perspiration than inspiration,” I answered, but the platitude was a poor excuse and I had to confess that there was something lacking.
He seemed hurt and said he was sorry, as if it was his fault. It might well have been, but I told him that there was no need to be, gave no clue that whatever was lacking seemed to be in him rather than in the painting. It was just one of those days, I persuaded him, when things don’t quite work out as they should, a common malaise that afflicted every artist at some time or other.
“Never mind, leave it for tonight,” he advised, with a mature wisdom which he thought might be beyond me. Like a father he offered his counsel.
“Leave it. It’ll probably work out better when you come back to it.”
I nodded and packed away the paints, set the canvas –which Stephen had still not seen- face to the wall once more, went to the bathroom to wash my hands. When I returned he was busying himself about the place, fussing around as if it was his alone, as if he belonged there, plumping cushions and putting on music. The records he chose were the ones we used to listen to when we first started dating, all the slow smoochy ones, the ones he might say were evocative if only the word occurred to him. My tastes had changed since those early days together, I was into other styles and deeper meanings, but he wasn’t one for change so it was usually me who had to suffer his tastes, me who had to smile and nod, at some point in the evening, when he said ‘Remember when-?’ It seemed that even then, barely out of his teens, Stephen was looking to the past, was afflicted by a middle aged nostalgia, while I was looking to the future.
The first introduction of my body to his was when his right hand grazed my cheek and his left hand clasped my fingers in his, his thumb gently stroking the tip of each; then his kisses weakened me and I settled more deeply into the couch, one leg raising a little, like a drawbridge, to admit him
His shirt was open, I had my hand on his stomach and his flesh felt soft and warm. It was at this point that I started to want something more than the little he offered. I ran one hand across his shoulders, trying to peel away his shirt, let my hand other slip lower to tug away his trousers, and he squirmed, pretending that he didn’t want it there, but I could tell that he liked it, could feel his response.
So if he liked it then why didn’t he take off the shirt and the trousers -and his shoes and socks, for fuck’s sake!- why didn’t he strip us both naked and carry me through to the bed where we could both enjoy a little more freedom? The sensations I felt were nice, and there was no denying that I enjoyed them, but there was something lacking.
I had reached the stage where I was almost pleading with Stephen to take off his clothes, my hands were frantically tugging at his shirt and trousers, but the urgency of my movements had him too excited and he was in and out and spouting like a geyser, clutching me to him as if the only thing on his mind was making a baby.
Making babies was a popular pastime in my home town, the ultimate ambition for many of my peers, and it dawned on me that Stephen, for all that he was a man, was no different than most. It was apparent that he could never be anything other than what he was; he had a career which would occupy him for a lifetime, he would earn promotions and better himself, and the points which marked his progress would include the house, the car, the wife and the child.
Perhaps it was unkind of me to see his life in such blunt terms, but I was sure that it was an accurate prognostication of the way it would unfold, and I realized that it was not a life I could share. Freedom was important for me, freedom to think what I liked, to do the work I liked, the freedom not to conform to what was expected of a person born in that town. Even wanting Stephen totally naked to the touch was nothing more than a demonstration of this freedom I craved; it was not the simple lust for physical pleasure that it might have seemed, but something more allegorical, a subconscious metaphor, if you like, in which the freedom of the naked body could be likened to the freedom from small town life. The escape from mundane reality which might come in the arms of a naked man could never be any more elating than my eventual escape from that oppressive town.
Stephen began to stir on the couch, where we were becoming cramped and uncomfortable, kissed me tenderly a time or two and then said, “I guess I’d best be going.”
“I guess,” I agreed, and as I watched him tidy himself I saw that he was still attractive, as attractive as he had ever been, but was disturbed to sense something also repellent, not a thing which disgusted me or offended me but something which persuaded me that I wanted him to be away. It was not ugliness, at least not in the way that I found my town ugly. As with the town, though, I was aware that there was something missing, perhaps indefinable but none the less vital for all that it was vague. I knew who Stephen was, but it was as if I didn’t; I could see him and describe him but I couldn´t quite understand him. Who was he? What was he? He was a person, a young man, one of God’s creatures; these were sensible enough answers, but not sufficient in themselves, they only described Stephen’s physical aspect and left unsaid what was most important of all, the true meaning which was hidden behind the outward appearance.
As I kissed him goodnight at the door I could see nothing beyond the physical, he lived and breathed and smiled as he went but these seemed to be no more than biological accidents; he seemed to be no more than a biological accident, flesh and blood, skin and bone, meat.
Gathering together the things I would need for college in the morning, I took another look at his portrait and found it as unsatisfactory as ever; the slight smile I wanted from him seemed like a sneer, or, even worse, a cruel gash across his face, with no sentiment in it, no sensitivity. It occurred to me that having it there, in that room, was a little like sharing the womb with another person’s child; bringing Stephen there diminished the security the room afforded, diluted the life which had previously pulsed with such a strong creative force. It was almost as if whatever was missing in Stephen, that something which left him no more than flesh and bone, was being sought after by him each time he entered, being inhaled along with the smell of the paint and the oils, slowly being drained from the room and drawn into him. He was taking too much, giving too little.
In college I had the carcass of meat sketched out lightly in charcoal on the canvas; the rail from which it hung was like the horizontal beam of a cross, there was bone and gristle where a crucified person’s rib cage would be and lower down the torso tapered into two stumpy legs, blunt and bloody. I began to fill in the tone using various shades of sienna, giving the composition some weight and substance before adding any true color or detail, and the canvas gave gently under the touch of the brush, a wonderful feeling which had me almost purring with delight. I whistled softly as I worked, unladylike but contented, quite oblivious to my surroundings.
The work progressed nicely, the beef gradually becoming more solid, taking on substance, a very real weight; colors became stronger, to give depth to certain parts and bring others forward, the canvas was no longer a flat object but became increasingly three-dimensional. I could almost feel what an effort it would take to grip the meat in my hands and lift it from the surface. This was how a painting should progress, and was precisely how my portrait of Stephen was not progressing. When I got home that night I tried to improve on it, without having him posing before me, tried to make it seem at least as real as the slab of beef. As it was the face was flat, only one side could be seen and I couldn’t imagine there being another, it was no more real than one of those old Victorian silhouettes; though it had color it was lifeless and might as well have been black and white. I struggled with the painting for an hour or two before giving up, returned to it the following evening and the evening after that, but made little progress.
Even when Stephen came around I still had difficulties.
“How’s it coming?” he asked, perched again on the edge of the couch.
“Fine,” I lied, because I was grateful for his patience and didn’t want him to think he was wasting his time.
“Is it nearly finished?”
“Soon, I think.”
The fact of the matter was that the more I worked on it the more animal the image became, as if there was something bestial about Stephen which was coming to the surface; at one point I had been concerned with making him look handsome, but now it had got to the stage where my only concern was with making him look normal. Even this was beyond me, it seemed. Time and again I had to look hard at him, and for longer and longer periods. He was nothing like the portrait, not bestial in the way that it was; there might be times when I sensed something missing in him, some inner spark, but nonetheless he had a surface beauty which was becoming more and more elusive as I tried to capture it on canvas.
For once I was grateful to hear Stephen talk about his day, it distracted me, I listened to the account of his boring life, even encouraged him, and my interest pleased him, he chatted incessantly and the smiles he gave me were warm and fond. After two hours of work, the customary length of our sessions, I was glad to put away my things, to turn the painting to the wall once more even though little improvement had been made. The evening had gone well in Stephen’s view, though, the lengthy conversation I had drawn from him had him in such a mellow and contented mood.
Our love making was more satisfying than usual that evening. He even took his shoes and socks off.
Eventually, in defeat and desperation, I decided to take the portrait into college, to work on it there in the hope that I might get some advice on what was wrong and what could be done with it.
To my astonishment people were enthusiastic when they saw it, noting a vitality in the painting, a vibrant animal quality. My tutors said that it was not just any portrait but a portrait of a living person, one qualifying this by adding that the person was not just any living person but a person who had ‘lived’.
With the portrait, and especially with the carcass of meat, one tutor saw the influence of Bacon -´no pun intended´.
Another thought James Ensor.
A third Picasso´s ´Demoiselles´.
“No, Francis Bacon,” the first insisted. “Remember his figures for the base of a crucifixion?”
“It´ll be finished soon?” asked Stephen that night, as I set the canvas, back from college, firmly on the easel.
“Tonight,” I said confidently, putting all my strength into tightening the screws which held the canvas in place. It needed to be secure, to resist my assault.
“Really? That´s marvelous!”
With a loaded brush I attacked the canvas. No hesitancy. No tentative gestures, now, of a blind person in an unfamiliar place, but a fierce confidence, a driving enthusiasm. The canvas rocked on its easel beneath my assault, at one point seemed about to topple, and Stephen reached forward to catch it.
“Stay!” I told him, my arms out, paintbrush in one hand and palette knife in the other.
“Penny, take it easy. Calm down.”
Stupidly he ignored my warning, recklessly advanced, onto the outstretched palette knife which pricked him beneath the eye. The blade was flexible, but strong, it pierced the flesh an inch or two, sinking in effortlessly.
“For fuck´s sake, Penny!” he cried, clapping a hand to his face as I withdrew the blade, blood already seeping between his fingers.
Blood, and some gray vitreous matter.
Intrigued by the color, I stabbed at his other eye, and suddenly, with both hands now to his face, he was vulnerable before me, his throat laid bare, his chest, his belly. Open to a sweep of the knife and a stroke of the brush. Blood mixed with paint as I worked, I had my palette, and yes, it was all so easy that even a child could have put the right color in the right place. Prussian blue and cerulean for the bruises I raised, rose madder and scarlet lake for the blood which poured from the wounds.
“If the painting refuses to resemble the subject,” I told him, attacking his body with the same fervor that I had attacked the canvas, “then the subject must be made to resemble the painting.”
As I often did, when Arthur made me a gift of some meat, I reciprocated by taking him a sample of my cooking. This time it was a goulash of sorts, made to my own recipe. He lifted the lid from the dish slowly, as if the contents might jump out and bite him, sniffed loudly, nodded approvingly at the aroma, trying to recognize what herbs or spices I might have used.
I was always adventurous in my cooking.
“Basil? Oregano? Definitely oregano,” he said, and I giggled, gave a shrug. Maybe.
“Taste it,” I encouraged him, and he dipped his spoon into the thick stew of meat and vegetables, chewed slowly, considered.
“The vegetables are a bit crunchy, the gravy perhaps a little too heavy,” he decided. “But the meat is lovely and tender, though.”
That word again, the word butchers were so fond of using. Lovely.
“Thigh,” I told him. “Thigh is always tender.”
“It was tenderloin,” he corrected me.
“No. It´s thigh.”