On the platform, I glance impatiently at the board showing that a train will arrive in four minutes. On the train my toe taps. Out of the Tube station, a girl beggar pleads for loose change. I hurriedly slip my hand into my front jeans pocket, grasp a few coins and, without looking at what I am giving away, drop them into the jacket she has spread on the ground in front of her.
When I arrive at the entrance to his building my hands shake as I look for the keys he gave me Thursday morning. I let myself into his flat, close the door, and stand for a moment at the threshold. The entire place is flooded with evening sun, and silent. There is not even Smith around. Then I hear a noise from upstairs. I look up. The door is shut. He is working. My instructions are simple. If you come in and I am working, don’t disturb. Never come upstairs.
Without Vann’s presence, the scrupulously clean flat is still and strange. I go into the living room and find a book and a note. The book is called Notes From the Bedchamber. I pick the note up.
It arrived. See you soon. x
I smile at the little kiss. I take the book, curl up on the big black leather sofa and open it. Soon I am giggling aloud. It is full of flowers descriptions and sex positions. A penis is a jade stalk, a pu**y is described as a jade portal, jade chamber, red pearl, but the one that gets me really giggling is when it is referred to as a fragrant mouse.
I hear the upstairs door open and instead of looking up I carry on reading. Soon master and cat are standing next to me. I don’t look up. The sofa beside me shifts. A man’s hand comes into my vision. He starts unbuttoning my blouse.
‘Do you want to put your jade stalk into my fragrant mouse?’ I ask, barely able to keep the laughter out of my voice.
‘Desperately,’ he says and we both laugh.
‘Do you want to go out?’
I shake my head. The truth is, ever since I discovered sex, all I want to do is have sex all the time. Even right now with two buttons undone it feels like unfinished business.
‘OK, I’ll go get in the shower and you can start preparing some food.’
‘I can’t cook.’
His eyebrows rise. ‘Right. What do you plan to feed Jack when he comes home from work?’
I frown. I never thought about that. In my dreams we never did anything as mundane as cooking or eating.
‘I’ll have my shower and we’ll cook something together. It’s time you learned.’
I smile. ‘Good thinking, Batman.’
He nods, pushes himself off the sofa and leaves in the direction of the bedroom. Smith fixes his eyes on me and yawns from the sofa opposite. I button my blouse and turn my eyes back to reading about mounting turtles, mating cicadas and jumping monkeys.
We cook chicken with rice. The rice is a boil in the bag variety so that will be really easy for me to replicate, but the chicken is another matter. It is some kind of Moroccan recipe with a whole load of ingredients. But I realize that cooking is actually fun. Vann is great company and it is a laugh.
When the food is nearly ready we lay the table and Vann lights some candles. The food is delicious.
‘Have you sold lots of paintings?’
‘I’ve never sold a painting.’
‘Not a single one?’
He shakes his head. ‘No.’
I frown. ‘Well, don’t you think you should start thinking about doing something else if nobody wants to buy your paintings?’
‘I’ve never tried to sell my paintings.’
‘I’ve destroyed everything I’ve ever painted.’
I stare at him. ‘Why?’
‘Wasn’t good enough.’ His voice is light, but I feel the intensity behind his words. I can’t connect.
I spear a piece of chicken and put it into my mouth. ‘What is it you are aiming for?’
He puts down his fork. ‘I want to make art that means something.’
I look at him blankly.
‘Do you know anything about art?’
I shake my head. ‘My knowledge of art starts and ends with recognition of the Mona Lisa as one of the greatest paintings.’
‘The destruction of art began in 1917 when an ignorant Dadaist, Marcel Duchamp, re-orientated a urinal ninety degrees from its normal position and called it art. It was actually a challenge from an anti-art advocate. Art, he was saying, is meant to be pissed on, but the fools who act as gatekeepers in the art world turned around and embraced the urinal, saw beauty where there should have been none.’
My eyebrows rise. ‘Really? A urinal was considered art?’
‘With that one move he turned the experience of art away from a quest for beauty into a sense of distaste. The viewer is presented with something ugly, tasteless, depressing and empty of any technical skill, and asked to admire it. If he cannot then he must be an intellectual philistine. To make it in the new art world all the artist had to do was can his own excrement, submerge a crucifix in his own urine; saw a calf in half, pickle it in brine, and exhibit it in a glass case; stud a skull with diamonds, or liquidize goldfish in blenders. So modern art became a smirking, degenerate thing whose sole purpose seems to be to trivialize or destroy.
‘But the truth is real beauty is rare, and producing it even harder. Far from being an old-fashioned idea, beauty has the ability to tantalize and crush. Humans have an intense response to beauty. In all aspects of life we worship it: people, fashion, photography, homes, nature, films. We are even obsessed. My aim is simple. I want to create dangerous beauty.’
I stare at him, his passion. He seems beautiful beyond what I thought. At that moment I admire him. Am I like that with flowers? Maybe. No. Definitely not. I love flowers, but I could easily live without them. The search for the perfect arrangement does not consume me. I have quite happily sent out flower arrangements that were not the best that I could do. I have never destroyed even a mediocre arrangement. Ziporrah would kill me if I did. He, on the other hand, is committed to producing something great, and until he does he will not rest.
‘You really love your art, don’t you?’
‘Art is the only thing that has ever taken me away from the bullshit. They can take away all my possessions, but they can never take away my art.’
‘So how do you make money to live then?’
‘I had a small amount of money left to me. Blake manages it for me.’ And then he closes over, and I wish I had not asked him about money. He was beautiful when he was talking about art.
After dinner we put the dishes in the dishwasher and Vann feeds Smith. Afterwards he turns to me. ‘Ready to be ravished?’