‘Nobody will buy them at those prices,’ I say quietly.
‘I am the back-up buyer at those prices.’
There is a brief pause when we are both silent.
‘You are the artist. I am the businessman. Leave me to decide what the market can afford. The perception of value is everything. If a Barrington wants to acquire the entire collection…
‘You haven’t seen it yet.’
‘Is it any good?’
‘The best thing I have done in my life.’ I slept with my muse, you see.
‘That’s good enough for me.’
‘See you tomorrow at seven thirty?’
‘See you then.’
‘Oh, do you need us to pick Julie up?’
And suddenly the pain hits. Right in the solar plexus. Oh f**k. Later has come.
‘Right. I’ll get Lana to arrange it with her. See you then.’
The phone hits the wall so hard it smashes into pieces. I stand with my back to the glass wall and look around me. Here, I have been truly happy. I go to the kitchen and open the fridge. That habit of hers, leaving a half-drunk glass of orange juice in the fridge. I take it, find the imprint of her mouth and drink a mouthful of juice. The juice is cold and for some reason tasteless. I leave it on the counter. I need a real drink. I reach for the bottle of beer and stop. I don’t want beer. I’d like to get smashed on a whole bottle of cognac, the kind my granddad used to drink. I close the fridge and I go up to my studio.
At the threshold I stand and look at the empty place. By now, all the paintings are probably being unpacked and the perfect wall to hang them on being decided upon. I go towards my easel, my paints and my brushes. They have comforted me in other times of pain. But not pain like this. I walk to the unfinished canvas on the easel and look at it. There she is smiling mysteriously at me. I put my palm on her mouth and drag it down the canvas. The wet paint smears downwards. I take a rag and wipe my hand and walk to the tap. I watch the water running and realize that the large ceramic sink is totally out of place in this state-of-the-art apartment. It occurs to me that Blake had it installed.
He wanted it to be like my studio in Paris. He went to a lot of trouble, quietly. But I have never appreciated him. I wash my hands and go downstairs, cross the silent, empty space and enter the bedroom. The bed is unmade. I go to Julie’s side and smell the pillow. There’s her scent. Is it mango or coconut shampoo that she uses? I lay my head on the pillow.
My eyes fall on the lap dancer’s pole. As if the scales have fallen off my eyes, I understand now that the previous tenant didn’t decide to leave, he was told to leave, or rather given an inducement to leave. In his hurry to accept, he left the pole behind.
She was practicing her dance for me. I will never see it now. I stand and, like a man in a daze, go to it. At the level of her crotch I sniff it, but it smells of metal and lemon polish. I let myself lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling. For a while there is the sensation that I am the last man on earth.
That I am totally alone.
I walk to the Tube station numb with shock. It had all gone so disastrously wrong. In the train I stand with all the other passengers. A man in a pin-striped suit stands up to offer his seat to a pregnant lady. I watch the exchange blankly. She sits and meets my eyes. Smiles. I smile back automatically. At my stop I scramble off. I stand on the platform for a moment before heading towards the exit. I put my ticket through the barrier gates and come out into the silver light of the evening. There is dog poo in my path and I manage not to step into it. I open my door and my mother calls out, ‘Is that you, Julie?’
‘Yeah, it’s me,’ I reply and I am surprised by how normal my voice sounds. I go up the stairs and enter my room. I sit on my bed and look at the wall of photos. I see Jack smiling up at me, squinting, looking moodily, laughing, expressionless, a cigarette dangling from his lips, sitting in front of a beer, and the photo I never liked, but kept anyway—a girl on his lap and two kissing him on either cheek.
How very strange.
Is it possible that even this morning I had kissed Jack’s photo and been convinced that I was in love? I had built a fairy tale in my mind and I was so strong-minded that I refused to give it up, no matter what. Now I know I must have been mad to think that I was in love with Jack. What a fool I’ve been? I feel the bitterness of my own stupidity. I sit with my hand pressed to my midriff. Could I trust what I feel now? And yet the feeling is worlds apart.
I loved Jack in my head, I loved him because he had the blue eyes, because he was so handsome and so dead cool and because all the girls were crazy about him, and what a trophy it would have been to have him, love him, because he was a doctor and in the end he was an imaginary figment of my imagination.
I love Vann with my entire body and my heart. I love talking to him, I love being in his presence, I love kissing him and being kissed by him, I love making love to him, I love the way he makes me wet simply by looking at me, I love eating with him, I love listening to music with him, I love having a laugh with him, I love that he doesn’t give a shit about money and celebrities.
I love that he doesn’t strive for what all of us spend day and night trying to acquire—oodles of money. He simply walked away from it all without a backward glance. What most human beings would sell their souls for. What I felt for Jack is a tiny thing compared to what I feel for Vann. My entire body feels it. I realize, too, the feelings I had nurtured for Jack were all wrapped up in jealousy about Lana and wanting everything she had. I feel light-headed and suddenly cold. It is like being in a dream. I thought it was passion and lust but it is love. Things that shouldn’t make sense do.
I’m in love with him.
I am head over heels in love with him.
How long have I been in love with him? I cannot say. It does not matter anymore. Only that I love him. The depth of this new yearning is so intense, the ache so great that the girlhood crush that I nurtured and stubbornly kept alive for years has paled into nothing. He is the first person to make me ‘feel’. He makes me feel replenished. My fears have flown. I no longer need to gorge simply to hang my head down the toilet. I took him for granted. Never appreciated the splendor of the man.
Surely he must have felt something for me too. I think of him, winking at me, building me up in that dim drawing room, accepting me into his flat that first night even though he had heard me refer to him so scathingly as a servant, asking me to pretend he was Jack, crouching beside me on the toilet floor and wiping my damp face as I stank of vomit, offering to take me to the hospital to see Jack. Why, no man would do that if he did not love a woman to distraction! I’ve hurt him terribly.