There is noise behind their bedroom door, a sharp bang as he knocks into the chair, which she has moved two centimetres into his path. The noise is an alarm, which gives her time to apply lipstick, smooth her skirt, fill the kettle and remember who she’s supposed to be.
Today he doesn’t swear about the bruise that will colour his leg purple, or call himself stupid and she doesn’t tell him how wonderful he is: her knight in a paint-splattered smock. Instead she hears a judder of laughter through the doorway.
The sound of his enthusiasm cramps her stomach and she heaves into the kitchen sink. The drool yo-yos before she wipes it off with her cardigan sleeve. Since he saw the consultant a month ago, he’s had lightness in his tread that has nothing to do with her, and everything to do with bionic retinas. He thinks it’s the solution to returning to his old life: painting portraits for societies darlings and moving unaided amid flawless people.
Her life here will be over.
Swilling her mouth out with water, she spits once more for good measure before plugging in the kettle.
A hesitant click. He’s switched on the bedroom light and a sliver of yellow peeks through the door-frame. It’s one of the habits he hasn’t changed despite light being just another shade of grey. He maintains that timelessness frees him from formality, that he is as creative in the pitch of night as the first fresh rays of day. But he is lying. He misses the convention. Time was a wall he could push against.
It is a small lie compared to the one she’s painting.
The kettle boils and she pours. How easy it’s been, she thinks, as she squeezes the life from the teabags, to change her tone, her texture, the length of her hair, her perfume: to re-make herself in his opaque eyes.
The bedroom door swings open and she watches him guide himself through the frame and over the doorsill. It’s how he first noticed his condition, falling up steps. He told her it happened gradually, his world shrinking over the years. In the beginning he tried to pass off the stumbling, faltering and misjudgments, as ‘one too many glasses of champagne’. He doesn’t know that she charted his decline through the newspapers, as sold out exhibitions shrank to a hasty paragraph on page three. She enjoyed the spectacle of his life flicker and fade, all the time waiting for the right moment to emerge and pin him down like a butterfly on a board.
‘Tea’s brewed,’ she shouts.
‘I’m not deaf,’ he replies. His grin splits his face, running from dimple to dimple across full lips. She used to find that charming.
She looks down, scowling at her distorted reflection in the back of the teaspoon: at her eyes which are too dense, her nose, a shade too drawn-out and her lips pencil-thin and pulled back into a snarl. She doesn’t think about her skin, which is a colour chart away from pure ivory.
‘I think I’ll have coffee today,’ he announces. ‘Can you bring it to the studio love?’
She frowns as she pours the tea down the plughole, watching it whirlpool.
Tomorrow they will fit a prosthesis over his eyes, which will filter light and shade back into his landscape. He will revert to the man he was before: the social butterfly she knew ten years ago, the man who destroyed her artistic ambitions with snatched sentences:
‘These paintings are weak, empty, lacking in originality. Pieces of junk!’
He should have been supportive of his students but instead he murdered her enthusiasm. Too ashamed to paint after his comments, she buried her brushes and her ambition in obscurity.
Even those headlines a few years later were not enough to revive her:
‘Well known artist loses sight of his paintings. Exhibition cancelled.’
But they gave her a way in, an opportunity to redress the balance.
She is under no illusion that if his vision is restored, he will be lost to the slightest breeze in a short skirt and heels: a replica of the portraits he thinks still hang in his studio: seductive women wearing fine coats of oil. There must be something she can do to clip his wings: to keep him confined: to stop the operation from happening.
Opening the fridge to replace the milk, her gaze alights on his eye-drops, queued up like the women used to, on his preview evenings. It gives her an idea and she removes one of the vials, snaps off the top and rolls it in her hand, squeezing the replacement tears into her palm.
It’s been a long time since she’s cried.
She leaves the empty tube on the draining board.
Coffee made, she takes it through to his studio, a large, glass-fronted room overlooking the canal. He’s sitting in front of a canvas, washed in sunlight, running his hands over the surface.
She tries not to gasp.
The picture he has painted has a spiritual feel to it, an aura that shimmers in pastel layers, with depth beyond the surface. He has captured hope in two-dimensions. It is almost beyond description and far better than his dead pretty portraits: the perceptions of women that made him rich.
‘I think this is finished,’ he says. ‘Is it good enough to show?’
‘Perhaps the next one,’ she replies.
He has no idea that she’s sold all his recent abstracts to a private collector. Even if the public views them, the signature she has scratched into the thick paint on the corner, does not match his previous work. It is her name inked there and the proceeds from the sales have almost cleared her debts.
He owes her a career.
She takes the new picture and exchanges it for a fresh canvas, which has already been primed.
‘This feels heavy,’ he says, mapping it with his hands.
‘A new fabric, claybord, less absorbent- perfect for acrylic,’ she lies.
He has no idea that he is obscuring his past with fresh layers of paint. This was one of his perfect, pouting, painted ladies before she suffocated her with Gesso.
His studio walls are almost empty of his former work.
He reels off a list of colours he will need: rose absolute, crimson, yellow ochre. She places them in order on a shelf in front of him. He will use the electronic reader to check the tones before he smears them onto canvas with his fingertips.
‘Perhaps this one will be better,’ he says. ‘We could call the Gallery?’
She’s told the Gallery that his art dried up with his sight. She accused them of cruelty; to imagine a blind man was capable of creating anything. They have no idea he has changed his media and now paints like an angel. His disability has given him a new perspective, limited to her.
‘Perhaps,’ she says, picking up a small bottle of turpentine from the table next to his easel. ‘We shall see.’ She slips it into her cardigan pocket.
‘I can’t wait to paint your portrait,’ he adds, smiling as he grips the lid of the first paint tube. He twists but instead of the lid, the metal splits down the side and oozes paint in thick bubbles. ‘Blast it,’ he says, tossing the tube away. ‘How many times do I have to remind you to clean the tops?’
The lids stick because they’re student quality acrylic. It’s what his budget allows. He is unemployed and has no income apart from the disability allowance. She’s told him that his fortune has been spent on modifications. And the Care Agency are still billing him. They don’t know she’d journeyed from bathing him to his bed.
It was easy to exchange embarrassment for intimacy.
She passes him another tube of the same colour. She is his factory line.
‘Sorry,’ he says. ‘For snapping.’
‘It doesn’t matter what happens after the operation.’ She strokes his shoulder as she speaks. He leans his cheek against her hand in response. The patches of stubble he has missed when shaving irritate her skin but she doesn’t pull back or let him know how she’s really feeling. She feels his stress in the tautness of his jaw.
‘But think what we could do if I could see.’ Even though his eyes are blank, she knows there is light dancing the tango behind them.
‘I am happy here,’ she says. ‘I’m happy with just us.’ She gives a shy, practiced smile, as he traces her lips with his paint-crusted fingers.
What she needs is more time and more of his paintings to pass off as her own. She steps away from him.
‘I’ve started painting too,’ she says, building up the lies layer by layer, preparing him. ‘Just dabbling. I will be glad of your opinion.’
She squeezes his shoulder, feeling knots under her fingers where he has perched too long in one position. But shoulder pain is a small price for the exhibition she has planned: her artistic debut.
He smiles. ‘I’m pleased I’ve inspired you to try.’
This time he successfully twists open the new tube of paint and starts to smear zinc-white across the canvas, with the same light strokes he uses in the bedroom. It’s like he’s reading what’s underneath. She shivers and looks away, noticing a hint of grey under his fingernails from yesterday.
She leaves the studio, her slippers silent on the floorboards.
When he doesn’t emerge for lunch, she disturbs him with a plate of sandwiches. She leaves the empty bottle of turpentine on the draining board.
Finger-deep in thought and paint, he doesn’t hear her enter the studio. She watches as he finishes the piece, that in the last three hours has been transformed into a soft, peaceful almost ethereal picture. Except for the centre. When he leans back she sees a vibrant streak of red that slashes through it.
He turns at the noise and pushes his chair back, stretching out, clicking shoulders that have been hunched. He wipes his hands on a cloth as she places the plate in front of him. Lettuce drops through stained-paint fingers as he raises the sandwich to his mouth.
She looks again at his painting and thinks of the anorexic women that beautified these walls when she first moved in. It is nothing like that and her stomach knots.
He has represented her by emotion.
‘I’m not who you think I am,’ she says, her guard down for a second, moved beyond tears at how he has captured her imperfections in the pattern: the birthmark that burns across her cheek. How does he know her flaws so well? Does he remember her from before?
She hears him swallow as he puts the plate to one side. It jerks as it clips the edge of the easel. Reaching up to her, he catches her hand and pulls her down onto his lap. He runs his finger over the raised surface that cuts across her cheek. Her face flames under his touch.
He smells of walnut oil and masking fluid.
‘Careful,’ she says, reaching past him to place the eye-drops she has been carrying on the table. She does not want them to spill.
Circling the flesh that rides above her waistband, he holds her. ‘ It’s imperfection that makes a picture sing,’ he says.
She swallows hard. He’s the one with opaque eyes, but it is her who has been blind to what’s happening. The connection she felt to him all those years ago, before he cut her down with his cruel words, returns. She looks up at the studio walls, at the faded squares where his past used to hang and bites her lip, until the metallic taste of blood coats her tongue.
There is only a future for her here, if they remain imperfect.
‘It’s time for your eye drops,’ she says, picking up the open vial from the table.
He holds out his hand, ready to pinch the tube between paint-blemished fingers.
‘What’s that smell?’ he asks. ‘Turpentine?’
‘The cloth you wipe your hands on, is soaked in it, ’ she replies, deliberately spilling some of the liquid onto his skin as he takes the vial.
She stands up as he leans his head back, and administers the drops. She watches him blink in discomfort before turning to go.
‘Be careful,’ she says, over her shoulder. ‘You don’t want to get turpentine in your eyes. Not with your operation so close.’
Published by Hodder & Stoughton as part the ‘Bloody Hull’ Crime story Competition