This long and narrow room’s ceiling is high, the floor uneven and painted chestnut red. The walls are a combination of rough white render and, on the windowed side, exposed brick. Here and there can be found faint traces of previous industrial use—the ghosts of long-gone beams, hatches, hoists.
To my right, as I sit on my fold-up chair facing the tall windows, is Mr Mr Perkins, according to the nameboard that sits above his pictures. He is in his mid-thirties, I would say, and wearing a patterned jumper, drainpipe jeans, and silver boots. His longish, straggly hair is dark, as are his eyes, which are quick and a little anxious. His work looks like manipulated photographs of atomic-level cellular material, but I can’t be certain.
To his right, Apple Anna Aris hangs canvases on which she has painted sprays of flowers in primary colours. She is blonde and small, and is dressed in a polka dot frock, a tight roll neck jumper, low top converse trainers, and bobby socks. She talks excitedly with girlfriends in a soft northern accent—Cheshire, perhaps. Her voice echoes faintly off the hard surfaces.
To my left, the tenant of the large space to the end of the room, Douglas Walker, is making adjustments to a series of time-lapse photographs, augmented artfully with acrylic paint. The centrepiece—a dramatic rendering of Battersea Power Station involving the extensive use of gold leaf—draws the eye like a magnet attracts iron filings. He is assisted by a woman who is dark-haired and high-cheekboned. They work quietly, side by side—swapping, straightening, occasionally conferring on some point of practical detail—then a peck on his cheek, and she leaves.
Visitors now enter through the large double doors at the end of the room, to my right. Some pause to look at the work of Apple Anna Arris and Mr Mr Perkins, both of whom are quick to engage them. I sit on my chair and read, my paintings of Californian landscapes beside me—canyons and palms, buildings made in the moderne style, impenetrable blue skies bearing down on muted purple sagebrush and white stucco. I have built my display around a large picture of an abandoned Palm Springs motel—sprawling, white-walled, and terracotta-roofed, framed by pink mountains and lanky palms. To the front, parched lawn and then street.
When I look up, Douglas Walker is surrounded by people. I can’t hear what is being discussed, although I see him paying close and genial attention to his interlocutors, and gesturing with authority as he speaks.
A middle-aged man stops to look at my work. Through a faint stammer, he tells me that a late friend of his expressed a wish that the paintings she owned—given to her by an artist with whom she had subsequently fallen out—be destroyed rather than returned to him. It is gay art, he tells me. Later, a well-to-do and cheery couple tell me they are looking for something to complement the new blue sofa in their drawing room. But the blue of my California skies is not for them.
When the tide of people slackens, the blocks of light thrown by the windows have shifted slightly on the floor since I have been here.
Apple Anna Aris and Mr Mr Perkins converse sotto voce, and he leans in close as she speaks. She enlists his help in taking her photograph, Instagram-bound, as she poses languidly beside her work.
“She’s cute,” says Douglas Walker, who has arrived silently at my side. We look on as Apple Anna Aris explains to Mr Mr Perkins that she has decided to show some ankle, extending a smooth brown leg for his consideration. “Look at him, the poor sap,” Douglas Walker tells me, his mouth barely moving. “She’s into him, but he doesn’t know how to close the deal.” Douglas Walker has close cropped grey-white hair and a delicate tan. His teeth are even and brilliant white, and he wears a pale blue sports jacket, a shirt open at the neck, slacks, and oxblood Italian loafers.
My shoes still polish up okay, but they have gravel in the cavities of the heels where they have worn through.
A short man with a red face approaches and marches straight up to my paintings, which he examines with mouth open. His shoe bumps something protruding from the floor, the head of an industrial-sized bolt, but he doesn’t seem to notice. I wish him a good afternoon.
“This is amazing!” he tells me, pointing to the motel picture. I thank him, and he follows up with: “They come with the frames, and that’s part of the price?”
“Yes,” I tell him.
He shakes his head in wonderment, and again mutters “Amazing!” to himself.
He departs, and I return to chair and book.
“Did you paint it on location?” a woman, standing over me, asks of my motel picture.
I look up and tell her no—that I took photographs and then worked from them back in the UK. She tells me that she likes the crimson stripe—the ‘no parking’ line on the kerb that runs across the length of the painting and its echo in a single motel door. I tell her that it is the colour of danger, and how motels in American literature and films are the setting for fleeting encounters between transients, trysts, overdoses, murders.
She is wearing a grey fitted woollen two-piece suit, and her lipstick is the colour of dried blood. I tell her how the door was really blue, and that I made it red after the fact. That the symmetry is imposed.
She takes the book from my hand and flicks through it before settling on a page. “I’m not sure about Raymond Chandler,” she tells me. “His women are either battle-axes or beautiful but broken and defined by men who seduce and abandon them.”
Archly, she deposits the book onto the seat of my chair with the tips of her fingers. She tells me that she has recently ended a romance and is wondering whether she wants to be in the city any more. Her eyes flick downwards as she says this, and I follow her gaze. I see that there is a small hole in her black woollen tights just above the right heel of her scuffed zebra-skin shoes. She stands with feet pointing towards each other slightly, toe to toe.
“I forget to eat this morning and then forced down a piece of cake,” I tell her. “I bought it yesterday and forgot about it. It was in my bag. It was the only thing I could lay my hands on when I realised how hungry I was.”
“So I see,” she says crisply, and then she laughs with a sound like dirty bells. She lifts her right hand to pick a crumb from the corner of my mouth with strong, deft fingers. Her nails are neatly trimmed, and unvarnished. As she concentrates on this task, I see that her irises are hazel and flecked with gold. Maybe they are reflecting Douglas Walker’s picture of the power station. “There,” she says matter-of-factly, crumb removed.
Visitors are now sparse and disengaged, and rare are those spotted with a purchase bubble-wrapped under an arm. Restless, I head off to take a quick look at others’ work in other rooms. A fair proportion of the spaces are now unattended, with their occupants either absent or chatting with neighbours. All but the most persistent visitors are ignored.
I wander down the stairs and to the front of the building for a cigarette, and stand by the big main entrance as I smoke it. I chat to the man on the door. He checks that the few people now arriving have tickets, and then directs them up the stairs to the exhibition rooms. He too is a painter, he tells me. He would rather be in his studio but he is enjoying not being at home for a while. He is wearing a black suit, and the right lens of his heavy-framed glasses is thick, and slightly distorts his eye and part of his nose. I head back upstairs, and my shoes rattle a little as I climb the steps, two at a time.
The sun is dipping to the west now, and the stripes of light through the windows lie oblique on the floor, fuzzy, pale lemon and petrol at their limits. I am tired. Before long I will have to rewrap my paintings and carry them to my car, which is in a car park about half a mile away. I consider making an early start. I don’t want to read now.
Douglas Walker is beside me once more. He shows me a photograph of his apartment in Venice, where he is about to spend a week. His gaze settles once more on Apple Anna Aris. He leans close and tells me quietly: “I have made a lot of terrible mistakes in my life.” He sounds rueful, but he smiles a little as he says this. I wonder whether he will be going to Venice with the woman who helped him to hang his work.
I am sitting and looking at Mr Mr Perkins’ pictures through half-closed eyes when the woman with the zebra shoes returns. She is carrying two glasses of white wine. Like the short man with the red face, her right shoe catches on the stud that protrudes from the floor as she approaches, and she stumbles. A little of the wine splashes up onto her face as she rights herself. I rise from my chair, take the glasses from her and place them on the floor. I place my left hand on her right shoulder, and with the index finger of my right hand I wipe away the drops of wine. In so doing I trace the contours of her cheek and lip.
It is possible that his pictures are not photographs at all, but abstract paintings that reveal themselves in the fading late winter light—of nimbus clouds over flat seas, perhaps, or horses rampant.
She remains still. Her eyes are not hazel, I see, but green—another consequence, perhaps, of the earth having moved a little further around the sun, rotating all the while.
© 2019 Chris Blunkell
Chris Blunkell is a writer, painter, academic and musician. He lives just outside Whitstable, from where he more or less scratches a living.