The Most Beautiful Thing In The World
© Jon Horne  

   First Juliet and then the dog, yapping away like mad. At least you could hang up on Juliet. Mark Taylor did this, then yanked open the living room door. At the end of the hall he glanced into the bedroom where Susan - Juliet’s daughter - lay sleeping (or pretending to) with a sheet pulled defensively up over her shoulders. He put the front door on the latch before marching across the passageway and hammering on the door of Number 32. There was no answer unless you counted the frantic increase in the volume of Number 32’s rat-like Jack Russell.
    Across a walkway, on the top floor of Birchfield Court, a red-haired nurse took off her light blue dress before drawing the curtains of a sparse, pink-wallpapered bedroom. Mark faced forward again and butted the door once, then rested his head against the warm varnished plywood. The dog kept on yapping.
    He lay back on the settee and sweated. The coarse nylon cover rubbed hotly against the small of his back where his T-shirt had ridden up. He could barely close his eyes, never mind sleep. He got up, walked along the hall and peered once again into the bedroom. He stood and watched Susan breathe, mindful not to let his shadow cross her face. The bed would be cool on his side. He could let the soft sheets touch him and take away the heat which agitated every drop of his blood. But that would only wake her up. She would groan and push him away, sharp elbows and knees in his back; or perhaps she’d hold onto him, her chin in the back of his neck, her hair wisping against his cheek and nose, making him itch. Then he’d never sleep, and she wouldn’t move until morning.
    A week ago, tired of dreading the night, he had stopped going to bed. He still slept - on the settee usually, in his clothes. Maybe he should move into the back room, his work room - but that would bring it out into the open, make it a subject of discussion. Juliet would have a field day.
    Perhaps just for tonight though...
    He took a cushion from the settee and two sheets from the airing cupboard. In the work room an easel stood stage-centre, its gloating blank canvas covered by an old tartan blanket. Next to it in a corner was a desk with a computer. Experiments with painting software had provided a brief respite from The Block, but that was a while ago. Now the computer sat dusty with underuse. Mark’s artistic block, a creative impasse that left him unable to work, had lasted for months now. Perhaps he was just lazy, or his ability had somehow disappeared. He didn’t know, and instead of doing anything about it, he had given it a name: ‘The Block’. In the opposite corner to the computer was a camp-bed where nudes (always Susan) had reclined, where still lives had been still, and where one December a teddy-bear had sat in Santa Claus costume for a homemade Christmas card. Mark made the bed.
    There was a crick in his neck. He must have slept. It was still dark but the television was on. What was Susan playing at?
    She wasn’t. The living room was empty and the television blared from the flat below. Mark stamped his heel on the floor twice, then again, harder. The noise carried on. He stamped once more and then gave up.
    It was the lad downstairs who had inadvertently started all this business about sleeping in the living room. A week ago he brought a girl home. They were at it half the night, the headboard banging and the girl moaning. Susan heard it first and woke Mark up with a cuddle. For a while Mark forgot himself, was transported back to when they were first together in a student hovel near the art school: she an eighteen-year-old photography student, he a twenty-five-year-old (struggling) painter with one show to his name, teaching fine art to disinterested graphic designers. Three couples in bedrooms with paper-thin walls; no privacy, each setting the other off - orgies in all but name, followed by blushing communal breakfasts. As Susan reached around his back and stroked him, Mark had responded - for the first time since the accident - but when he turned to face her and saw the scar...
    That was the last night he had slept with Susan.
    He woke with a chill from the open window. There was a lightness to the air, a slight haze in the blue sky, clouds in the distance. From two floors up he could smell dew on the grass between Armitage Court and Birchfield Court. The flat was hoovered and unselfconsciously tidy. If nothing else, The Block had made him into someone who could housewife for England. He had the place to himself. Even the dog had shut up. He had to at least try.
    He pulled open the work-room curtains, then lifted the blanket from the easel. He stood in front of the canvas and laughed at it theatrically. HB to 6B pencils lay ordered in the top desk drawer. Split the difference, he thought. He picked up a 3B and made his first mark, a short line with curls at each end, like a mediæval ‘s’. It wasn’t a promising start, and he had to fight the urge to rub out the line or tear up the paper - a fight that he had lost many times before.
    Half an hour later he had a sketch done. Three hours after that, his first completed oil painting for six months.
    Mark glared at his handiwork. He had painted the redhead nurse in her underwear against a pink background. Everything was softened and rounded: the lines of her body, the edges of the picture. The window wasn’t there, which softened the image itself, hiding the adolescent voyeurism that was its only redeeming quality. He preferred The Block to this chocolate-box erotica.
    The phone rang. It was Juliet.
    “I thought you’d like to know, Susan’s staying here tonight.”
    Juliet had two voices: a harsh, high-pitched Lallans yap and a close-to-tears whine. Since the accident, he had heard little but the latter. Today though, she was barking in triumph.
    “I see,” said Mark, “can I talk to her?”
    “I don’t think it would be wise,” Juliet replied.
    “I’d still like to talk to her. Please.”
    “She didn’t go into work today, did you know that?”
    He didn’t answer. She continued.
    “No of course, you haven’t see each other today, have you?”
    Mark bit back a snarling response.
    “Look,” he said finally, “just ask her to call me, alright?”
    Juliet hung up.
    Mark Taylor had once been described - in The Times, no less - as a ‘purveyor of kitchen-sink neo-realism, a still-life Mike Leigh for the sheep-in-formaldehyde generation’. This had garnered him a ten-minute spot on The Late Show, defending a Lowry exhibition against an onslaught from three metropolitan critics. His own ten-year retrospective - the first one to tour, and the one from which The Times had made their frivolous judgement - was still on the road. The days of the artist as Star - a Hockney or a Warhol - were thirty years past, but the exhibition had gained enough interest and sales to make him one of the few British artists who paid his own rent.
    He played the game. When required to comment, Mark parroted his art-school teachers of fifteen years before, alluding to deconstructionist critiques and nihilistic theories which he knew would make the critics drool. This was delivered in a broad, almost rural south-Birmingham accent that made the most pretentious statements seem vaguely down-to-earth. It had worked, on and off, since his first show.
    If they knew the truth, the critics would slaughter him. Mark Taylor painted beauty. Nothing but. He was as much of a sentimentalist as the pre-Raphaelites whose wallspace he shared in the city gallery. The Handsworth Series, which made his name, was an extension of the drawings that had littered his school exercise books: vigorous scenes of urban black vitality that were a pure romantic reaction to the blinding niceness of a cossetted suburban childhood. The picture which had attracted most attention - depicting in agonising detail a stabbing outside a Soho Road nightclub - had been painted with the slavering relish of a boy who had sneaked into an X-rated film. In the background, broken buildings were drawn brick by crumbling brick, each shape a fabulous contrast to the last. Then there were the people - middle-aged West Indians in shabby suits or wrinkled polyester dresses. He painted the figures in microscopic detail, every pore of their flesh, every goose-pimple that the draughty studio had brought out, every drop of pigment that made their skin deeper and richer than his own.
    He was now better known for his nudes.
    Susan’s body could be seen on walls in Birmingham, London, Bradford and Manchester, and would soon be on show in Glasgow and Chicago. Her skin was as white as his, and pockmarked by thirty years of clumsiness. She was small and pointed, with sharp features and a boyish figure. He had painted her relentlessly.
    As Mark laboured to bring out the jagged imperfections of Susan’s frame (which was the most beautiful thing in the world), critics saw chicken-pox scars, bruised shins and elbows, a broken toe and the relic of a hare-lip. They called him ‘brutally honest’ and her ‘brave’. A two-column feature in the Guardian women’s page labelled the work ‘antiquated and obsessive, an unwelcome throwback to the patriarchal ideal of artist and muse’, which had only added a hint of danger to his burgeoning public image. Susan’s solitary quote (given on a mobile phone during a bad-tempered working lunch) had done no harm to his credibility either:
    “How does it feel to be put on display, degraded and objectified by these images?” the journalist had asked.
    “Couldn’t care less,” Susan had replied, “anyway, they’re in art galleries, who the hell’s going to see them?”
    Seven paintings remained unseen. The first had been done a year before, and six more had followed; one a month. They sat at the back of the wardrobe in the bedroom in temporary cardboard frames, carefully covered and bubble-wrapped. He looked again with distaste at the soft-focus redhead on the easel and decided it was time to get the pictures out.
    Mark was in the wardrobe, clambering amongst dresses and shirts when the phone rang again.
    “Hello. Can I speak to Susan please?” a voice asked.
    “Sorry, she’s not here. Who’s that?”
    “Sandy. At the Mercury. Is that you, Mark?”
    “Hi Sandy, what’s the problem?”
    “Well, she’s not been in all day.”
    Mark thought quickly.
    “Listen mate, it’s my fault. She asked me to call in for her. Slipped my mind completely. Sorry.”
    “Is everything alright?”
    “Oh, erm... it’s her mother - had a bit of a health scare. I’ll try and get hold of her, but she might be down the hospital. You know how it is.”
    “Yes, well, tell her to call if she can’t make it tomorrow. We’ll have to use stock shots otherwise.”
    “OK. Bye.”
    Mark put the phone down, then picked it up again and dialled Juliet.
    “Is Susan there?”
    “Would you ask her to come to the phone please, Juliet.”
    “I said she’s not here.”
    “Fine, well if she comes back, ask her to call the office. They need her tomorrow. It sounded important.”
    “Well of course, Mark. We wouldn’t want her to lose her job, would we?”
    “No, we wouldn’t.”
    “Not when she’s got a tortured artist to support.”
    Mark rested the phone between his ear and shoulder while Juliet gave her usual speech about how he was exploiting her daughter. Not only was not providing for her as a man should, he was putting her on show like a piece of meat in a butcher’s window, humiliating her. “If you must do it, why can’t you use a model?” He’d heard this at regular intervals for the past twelve years, so once more wouldn’t hurt. He began to unwrap the first of the paintings, cutting string with a craft knife and taking the sellotape away from the bubble-wrap.
    It was lovely. To anyone else it would have been just another of many pictures of Susan, posed halfway between sitting and reclining on the work-room camp-bed. In the bottom left-hand corner was an opened camera-case with Susan’s twenty-year-old Leica sitting loosely inside. The expression on her face resembled those of her own photographs - peering off to one side, vaguely amused and wondering what had made her the centre of attention. Mark’s fanatical devotion to detail was everywhere. His pictures were not objects to stand back from. At the edges of the canvas, colours could just be made out under a heavily over-painted grey border. The image was stark and south-lit.
    Juliet’s voice began to crack.
    “You never even learned to drive! What sort of a man are you?”
    Mark put the phone down and made a cup of coffee. Then he returned to the paintings.
    When Susan came home, Mark was sitting on the bedroom floor, leaning up against the bed. His eyes were red from tears and fatigue, but they were wide open from the ten cups of coffee he’d drunk throughout the night. It was six o’clock in the morning. Eight paintings rested against the wall, in order.
    He didn’t answer.
    “You’ve got to stop blaming me, Mark.”
    He continued to stare at the paintings.
    One of the paintings was still wet.
    “Did you hear me?”
    He turned to face her. “I never blamed you,” he said.
    The pictures were all of Susan, sitting or lying on the camp-bed. The light grew softer as the series went on, from harsh white summer glare through to autumn red and winter grey. Her figure softened too. Pregnancy had suited her. Along the line of paintings leaning up against the wall, her pointed boyishness began to round out. The expression on her face remained amused and distracted - she’d been watching television while she posed.
    On the last of the paintings - the one he had just finished - Susan’s face was barely visible. A wound that ran from her left eye down to her neck had obliterated her features. It gaped and bulged, a cubist terror turning in on itself, then exploding red and grey onto the image. What was left of her mouth was contorted in teeth-bared agony. Her breasts were swollen and her abdomen distended, but the baby was gone: something horrifically between a stillbirth and a miscarriage had happened in casualty on the night of the accident. There would be no more children.
    The first thing Mark noticed as he looked up at Susan’s face was how small the scar was. It was ugly, a thick white line down one side of her face, and one eye drooped slightly; but beyond that there was no sign. Then he saw her walking stick propped up in a corner. She had gone out without it; the first time since the accident.
    Mark stretched his arms up to Susan. She stood for a moment, then knelt in front of him and let him kiss her. From eye to cheek, he kissed the scar. He said again: “I never blamed you.”
    “It wasn’t my fault,” Susan whispered, “it was just an accident.”
    The car had been twisted into something unrecognisable by the lorry’s impact. Everyone said it was a miracle Susan had survived.
    “No, it wasn’t your fault.”
    Mark kissed her again. Susan brushed hair from his forehead and traced the lines of his eyebrows with her fingers. Then she sat down beside him.
    “It’s too late, Mark.” He put his head on her shoulder. She stroked his hair and said: “I’m leaving. You know that, don’t you?”
    He nodded, brushing her cheek with his head. There was a silence.
    Later she reached into her handbag and pulled out an orange ‘disabled’ sticker.
    “I drove here this morning. Mum’s lent me her car till I can get my own.”
    “You’ve got rid of the stick, too,” Mark said.
    “And you’ve started painting again.”
    “Aren’t you going to ask me what I think about it?”
    Mark forced a smile. “Go on then.”
    “I think it’s the best thing you’ve ever done. You hate it, don’t you.”
    “You were going soft - beforehand. Look at that one.” She pointed to the last of the paintings from before the accident. “I look like a little pregnant angel. They’d have laughed at you.”
    “I wouldn’t have minded,” Mark said.
    “No, I don’t suppose you would. Listen, I’ve got to get to work.”
    “Sandy called.”
    “I know. Are you going to be alright?”
    “Yeah. Are you?”
    She got up. Before she left, she said: “It would have been a good life, wouldn’t it? You and the baby, you’d have been happy.”
    “Yes, I would.”
    “Me too, I think.”
    “Go on Susan, you’ll be late.”
    Mark took the last painting back into the work room. He put it back onto the easel and started to fill in the grey border. Susan was right; it was good. Maybe it was his best. He still hated it. It would sell - for a lot - and he’d probably shift the rest of the series along with it. He would be feted once more for the honesty of the work; especially if Susan were really to leave him - which he didn’t doubt. It would be lonely without her, though perhaps not as lonely as the life he’d given her since the accident.
    He returned to the painting of the nurse. He was about to bin it when he had a thought. He drew the woman again, quickly with a 6B pencil: no details, just the lines. He chewed the pencil for a moment, then tried again with even less detail.
    Once more; this time with a broad brush. The figure was down to five flowing lines, halfway between a painting and a Chinese pictogram. It was... beautiful.
    He took the mirror from the bathroom wall and drew himself in the same way. Again he ended up with five lines. He grinned to himself. Perhaps there was something in this. Perhaps.

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