On good days my car resembles a moody teenager and let’s just say that today is not a good day. No amount of kicking it changes anything, but I’ve run out of options – I’m neither a mechanic nor a magician. My darling wife told me to have the car checked out before leaving and as always my wife was right.
Sighing, I lean against the hood and try to appreciate the beautiful and untouched landscape instead of cursing my car for breaking down in the middle of nowhere, where not even my cell is working. I eat a sandwich, then grab a bottle of lukewarm water through the open window and take a few gulps before, in a little panic attack, I ask myself whether I should better ration the water supply. Could be a while until a tow truck comes along and it’s not like my wife will miss me for the next couple of days.
At least it’s not raining. I tilt my head back and look into the clear blue sky, not a single cloud there to keep the sun company. Only when black dots start dancing in front of my eyes I avert my gaze, turning temporarily blind thanks to my own stupidity.
When my vision returns, I am no longer alone.
“Jesus Christ!” I curse and jolt, but not far since my car’s behind me.
A black dog stands on the deserted road and tilts its head to the side, dealing with the surprise of finding another being here with more dignity than I just did. It wears a red scarf as a collar and my heart rate calms down considerably when I realise that this means I probably won’t get eaten alive by a savage wild dog.
“Hello there,” I say, aiming for an unruffled tone of voice, and crouch down, bringing myself on eye level with the dog. “Where do you come from?”
As if to answer me the dog looks over its shoulder to the beginnings of a forest behind it and then looks back at me. It hesitates for a moment before tentatively taking a few steps towards me, sniffing my right knee when it’s within reach.
Slowly I extend my hand and stroke its black fur, black eyes regarding me with curiosity.
“You’re not a fox,” someone states.
I look up in response to that and find myself eye to eye with a young man who appeared as quietly as his dog.
“Uhm, no,” I say and rise when the dog returns to its master, “not the last time I checked.”
He has stopped on the same spot as the dog before, hands buried in the pockets of his faded jeans. He wears a loose white shirt and his naked arms are darkly tanned. Short curls frame a face with features almost disturbingly handsome and despite him being in his late twenties, I guess, it has something boyish to it.
He pats the dog with indulgence and explains, “It’s just that Sidi usually only disappears like that when he’s smelled a fox.”
“It’s probably because it’s not that common for people to stop here, is it?” I enquire and he takes a short, assessing look at my car and probably at the frustration on my face.
“Your car broke down?”
“Died on me, yes.”
“At least it chose a nice spot for the funeral.”
The amusement in his voice makes me smile involuntarily and I scratch my head.
“Any chance I can borrow your cell to get someone to fix it?” I ask. “Seems the modern world has ganged up against me today, my phone isn’t working either.”
“Oh, they usually don’t out here,” he responds calmly, “You can make your call at my house, if you wanna.”
In the movies an offer like that on a deserted road is the classic opener for a hermit slash mass murderer horror plot. Unless we’re talking adult movies, then it would mean sweaty sex in a woodshed within the next five minutes. Uhm, gay sweaty sex, considering we’re both male.
“You alright?” asks the young man, again with that silver bell tinkle of amusement to his voice.
“I think I’ve been in the sun for too long,” I say.
“Let’s get you out of it then,” he decides and stretches out his hand, “I’m Orlando, by the way.”
His handshake is firm and his palm feels slightly calloused.
“Nice to meet you,” I reply, “I’m Sean.”
“Hello, Sean,” he says and his lips curve up again in an almost private smile when he speaks. “That’s a lovely name.”
“Uhm,” I say, a little confused, “thanks, I guess.”
He lets go of my hand and his dog – Sidi – barks once before running off back into the woods. Orlando shakes his head.
“He never gives up trying to make me walk back faster,” he says when I got my little backpack and we follow the dog, leaving my car behind on the roadside. “And he always gives me that mournful look when I find him waiting on the doorstep.”
“Oh, I know that one,” I reply while I try to keep up with him. His steps are sure and wide, he must walk this not-really-path quite frequently. “My wife looks at me that way when she sends me shopping and I come back with normal milk instead of fat reduced.”
“I hope she doesn’t mind that you compare her to a dog,” Orlando says and looks over his shoulder, amusement twinkling in his eyes.
“Erm,” I stutter and say lamely, “she loves animals, so I think she wouldn’t mind.”
I’m pretty sure she would, though, and I’m not planning on calling her a bitch to her face any time soon, as nice as Orlando’s dog seems to be.
“So,” Orlando says conversationally, “you got pups, too? I mean kids?”
I don’t need more of an invitation to talk about my children while we make our way past ancient trees and rustling leaves. Sidi comes back to us a few times and encircles us like a shepherd dog would do with its flock of sheep. Eventually, we reach the end of the woods, welcomed by a barking Sidi who jumps around us like a puppy. There is a solitary wooden house standing close to the beach, painted blue a long time ago.
“Wow,” I say and stop when I can both smell and see salt water, “I didn’t realise the ocean was that close.”
“Well,” Orlando replies, scratching his dog behind its ear. Sidi’s tongue is hanging out and for a moment he enjoys his master’s attention, then he runs off again. Orlando laughs because indeed, he runs up to the house in front of us, takes the few stairs to the porch without slowing down and while his claws click on the wood he looks over his shoulder, expecting us to follow and pronto.
“You do know that dog well,” I comment.
“Got him when he was that wee,” Orlando says and indicates the size of a handful before he gestures me to follow him to the house. “He’s always been a drama queen, too. Just look at those sad eyes. Though he knows perfectly well that his bowl’s full and the doors gonna open –“
And exactly then the wooden door at which Sidi’s been scratching does indeed swing open.
“- right about now.” Orlando finishes with a chuckle and his trainers don’t make a sound on the stairs.
Sidi scrambles into the house when the gap is barely wide enough to let him through. Ridiculously, my heart beats a little faster and for a moment I can’t help but think of my horror movie scenario again.
But there’s no one waiting with a chainsaw for us.
Instead of a deadly instrument to cause mayhem the man leaning in the doorframe holds a coffee mug in his right hand. He has raised it to his mouth, blowing away the steam, and eyes us over the rim. Though he looks a good deal older than Orlando, fifty maybe, his clothes are as casual as the younger man’s. There are stains of colourful paint here and there on them, their surface cracked and uneven as if they have been resisting the efforts of a washing machine for quite a long time. There’s a smear of red – and by now I have my horror fantasies enough in check to be sure it is indeed just red paint, thank you – clinging to a strand of shaggy blond hair and one on his left cheek, too, stopping short over reddish blond stubble.
“You left the coffee machine on,” the man comments with a distinct British lilt and his voice is rough from sleep or maybe it is like that the whole day.
“And the smell enticed you away from the canvas?” Orlando asks back though it is not really a question. “My brilliant evil scheme worked then. – Look, I brought a guest.”
I raise my hand and wave, try a smile and hurry to say, “My car broke down and uhm, I need to call someone.”
“His name,” Orlando says, “is Sean. Isn’t that a nice name?”
Christ, I wish I had just locked myself into my car and waited for a tow car. This is weird.
The blond guy exchanges a glance with Orlando, then he shakes his head when the younger man giggles and finally says to me,
“Just ignore Orlando, he’s an idiot.”
“Oi,” Orlando objects with a grin, “I’m standing right here!”
Following his own advice and ignoring the younger man the blond extends a paint splattered hand in my direction.
“Nice to meet you. I’m Sean.”
Shaking the offered hand I must’ve blinked in confusion because the blond – Sean – adds,
“Sean Bean. – And only dolts find that funny, Lan.”
“Oh,” Orlando replies, highly amused despite or maybe because of the older man’s dry tone of voice, “it’s just that you go on and on about how special and unique you are and who comes along? Another Sean.”
Sean rolls his eyes but the right corner of his mouth twitches. When Orlando brushes past him and pats his shoulder he seems to lean into the touch for the briefest of moments. I want to look away because it feels private. And how odd is it that a pat on the shoulder can make you feel like you were spying on someone?
My gaze has dropped to the worn floor boards when two voices say, “Come on in then,” at the same time. Orlando is nowhere to be seen but Sean grins at me and adds,
“Phone’s down the hall, mate. Try Bettany’s garage.”
A few minutes later I glare at the cordless phone in annoyance before I put it back onto the small table with a little too much force.
I find the two men in a homey kitchen at the other end of the hall. Orlando is eating cereal from a bowl at an old table whose chairs don’t match and Sean stands at the sink and rinses off brushes of different sizes. He wipes one of them dry on the front of his shirt and then stacks it into the back pocket of his jeans.
“You look like you could use a cuppa tea,” Sean says, looking at me.
“It’s coffee here,” Orlando says with a full mouth, “how often do I have to tell you we’re not in Buckingham Palace?”
“Says the bloke who exists on chip butty,” retorts Sean and indeed begins to fix me a cup of tea, “and besides, putting the kettle on is like –“
“Getting in touch with your inner Queen?” Orlando supplies sweetly.
“Almost as satisfying as knocking you over the head with it,” finishes Sean in his version of the sweet tone.
“So, Sean,” Orlando says abruptly to me, ignoring the other Sean’s threat, “what’s with the long face? Have a seat.”
He kicks back a chair with his foot in invitation and I slump down on it, weight of the world on my shoulders despite their joking around.
“I phoned the garage and they promised to send someone,” I say but add gravely, “tomorrow morning. How’s that for service, I asked, but they said there was no way anyone could come today.”
I shake my head in misery and Orlando says around a mouthful of cereal, “You wouldn’t want Paul to come here when he’s not in the mood, trust me. He’d probably turn your car into that pink helicopter from ‘Riptide’.”
I laugh politely but humourlessly and shake my head again for good measures.
“I should probably call someone else. If they find this Godforsaken place. Maybe I should just hire a car. Or get someone to pick me up. It’s a couple of hours drive, sure, but –“
“Do you need to be somewhere?” Orlando interrupts my rambling and I look up from my clenched fists to find him licking his spoon.
I shake my head.
“I have a business meeting in the Seaside Inn tomorrow,” I say. “I wanted to be a day early, to catch up with some paperwork, you know. God knows why they chose this –“
“You can crash here in the guest room,” Orlando interrupts me again, lays down his spoon and props up his feet onto one of the remaining chairs while Sean puts his empty bowl into the sink. “Paul’s gonna fix your car in the morning and you’ll be right on time for your thing. No biggie.”
His tone of voice is casual but his eyes are sincere and I turn my head to look at Sean and wait for what he has to say to Orlando’s impromptu invitation. Sean places a mug of tea in front of me, smiles absentmindedly and leaves the room without a word.
“That means he agrees,” Orlando translates, pleased with himself, my staying already decided, and his brown eyes regard me with curiosity. “What kind of business meeting is held in the Seaside Inn?”
“I wish I could say it was about surf gear,” I say, “but it’s oysters.”
“You’re shitting me,” laughs Orlando and he really doesn’t believe me but doesn’t seem to mind either.
“No, it really is,” I confirm and find myself telling him all about my little business of speciality catering. I am a pretty good salesman, you know, I can get really excited over things like crème brule and canapés. And even though my day so far was kinda crappy and I’m not here to sell blueberry tarts or anything else for that matter, Orlando listens intently and even Sidi comes up and regards me with interest in his huge wet eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I say after a while and put my mug down, “sometimes I go on and on. I don’t want to bore you.”
Orlando chuckles and steals a sugar cube from a little porcelain cup on the table.
“You’re not boring me and you know that exactly,” he says, “so stop trying to sell yourself short. It doesn’t suit you, man.”
I blink at him and can’t decide whether I should find so much honesty impolite or charming.
“Alright,” I reply after a moment and fold my hands on the table, “anyway, enough of me, tell me about you. So, what do you do?”
“Walk the dog. Make the coffee. Supply words of wisdom.”
“And if I ask what your real job is,” I comment, “you’ll probably punch me?”
Orlando’s brows furrow comically.
“Punch you?” he repeats.
“Well,” I say, “Christine – that’s my wife – did that with a bank manager once when he asked her whether she had a job or was quote just a housewife unquote.”
Orlando laughs out loud, a strange mixture of a cackle and a giggle, and gets up from his chair. I follow his example.
“I think I fell in love with your wife just a little bit right now,” he says and gives me another of those full body waves to follow him instead of answering my question.
We walk into what must be the living room and Sidi trots past us and hops onto the sofa, curling up there. It’s that sort of living room where a dog on the couch really isn’t odd. I catch myself contemplating whether it’s part of Orlando’s job description to vacuum clean the sofa regularly. The place looks tidy enough, if you ignore the half squished tubes of paint scattered everywhere, and just like in the kitchen the furniture seems to be picked out for its not-matching qualities. There are several easels standing in the room, their backs to us, and it smells of acrylic paint, cinnamon cookies and salt water. It’s very spacious and open and through the huge windows I can see the shore and the ocean as if we were in some ad for vacation places. Have you ever smelled a freshly baked muffin and just then realised how famished you were? It’s like that and my eyes are glued to the blue and I step through the veranda door out into the mid afternoon sun.
“As for jobs,” Orlando says, interrupting my awe and stating the obvious, “Sean’s a painter.”
Said painter crouches not very far from us, pottering about tending to some rose bushes. He looks over his shoulder, up at us, and adds to Orlando’s explanation, “And someone has to make sure I eat from time to time and change my underwear regularly.”
“How come then,” Orlando says, “that you hardly ever wear any?”
Orlando smiles cheekily and Sean’s green eyes twinkle in something more than amusement. I look back and forth between the two of them, realise what that means and can’t help blushing. It’s not the gay bit that does that, I assure you. I’m totally cool with the whole man-on-man thing, or as cool as a heterosexual guy can be, I guess. It’s more that the age difference – stressed by Orlando’s boyish casualness and Sean’s weatherworn features – makes it surprising and I can’t help asking myself when and how they met and why they clicked.
“Uhm,” I say because really, I don’t know what else to say.
“Just ignore Orlando,” Sean says for the second time, seeing me shuffling my feet, “he’s an idiot.”
Orlando doesn’t say anything to that but just slaps the back of Sean’s head lightly.
“I certainly see why someone living here becomes a painter,” I say, partly to steer the conversation into safer waters again, partly because the waters – not the metaphorical ones but the ones right in front of us – do make a lot of sense.
Sean’s eyes flick to Orlando as if out of habit and only then they follow my gaze and he replies,
“Oh, you mean the ocean? Yeah, lovely view, that.”
“Nice waves, too, today.” Orlando adds and looks at me with an arched eyebrow and a suggestion in his eyes. “I have a spare surfboard, you know.”
I haven’t surfed in ages but I nod to the unspoken proposal, as if it’s impossible to say no to anything Orlando suggests. So, I find myself riding a wave a short time later, and a much shorter time after that I’m close to drowning in the ocean. Repeatedly. I swallow about half a gallon of salt water and hit my head with Orlando’s spare board twice.
But it’s amazing.
In the late afternoon, I sit in an armchair in the living room, right next to the open veranda door, my hair is still damp from a shower and I read my book. Well, it’s not really my book but one of Christine’s and I’m not really reading it either. Every once in a while I scan a paragraph and then let my mind digest it slowly and idly, like you do it with a single piece of chocolate. And my eyes are cast down and I’m not watching Orlando and Sean. Seriously, ‘cause that would be impolite.
Orlando takes up all the space on a three seat sofa because he has dragged his long legs up onto the upholstery, trainers and all. And he’s not even pretending to do something else but staring at Sean, even though Sean’s not doing anything particularly watch-worthy.
He has moved one of the smaller easels out of a corner and has taken a while to choose a canvas, settling for one about five feet square. Then he’s applied some liquids that smell like mechanic-has-love-affair-with-cleaning-lady with a sponge and the laziness of someone preparing dinner even though he’s not hungry yet. Right now, he’s painting the entire thing in one single colour, up and down, as if he wasn’t painting a canvas but a wall.
It’s absolutely still in the room, there’s no fire crackling in the fireplace and Sidi has stopped snoring. Quietness except for the distant rolling of the waves and the smooth rish-rashing of Sean’s brush on the canvas. Sean’s done with the up and down and has proceeded to left and right – same colour, same brush – and his eyes keep drifting to Orlando every once in a while.
I don’t know much about painting but I guess all this is just preparation or – if you excuse the sexual metaphor – foreplay. And yet, it’s like something has changed about Sean, there is a sort of magnetism to him now that forces you to pay attention to him. His presence is dominating the room in a way that top managers do it on a conference and with them I have always put it down to the expensive suits and big cigars and the perfect haircut. Sean’s half long blond hair seems strangely fine and soft in addition to its uncombed status, he still hasn’t bothered to shave either, and the blue sweater he’s put on is worn thin at the elbows, frayed like his jeans. His face – strong chin, jaw and nose, features carved out roughly, lines of age showing already around his mouth and his eyes – his face bears the concentration of a little boy. An expression oddly innocent and sweet really, and at the same time almost disturbing.
I catch myself wondering what he sees when he looks into the mirror in the morning. Have you ever looked at yourself in the middle of shaving and thought, ‘Huh, who is that guy?’, like in the grocery store you never really look at the person behind the cash register until one day you do? I scan the next paragraph of my book and ask myself whether Sean knows about this presence of his or whether in the morning he’s too busy rubbing sleep out of his eyes and spitting toothpaste foam into the sink.
Orlando certainly is aware of it and I would say that it is like a moth drawn to the light, only it isn’t. Again, from the corner of my eyes I see Sean looking at Orlando, not to check whether he’s still there, still watching, but as if Sean was the moth and Orlando the light.
The strange thing is that Orlando isn’t beautiful in the perfection kind of way. His nose is slightly crooked, his eyes are too almond shaped for the straight lines above and under them and his lips are rather thin and right now he kinda smiles like Mona Lisa. Also, I've known him less than a day and have already witnessed him walking into a door and stumbling over his bare feet on the beach. And honestly, he laughs like a thirteen year old girl and eats like a construction worker.
Sean looks at him again and for a moment he seems to be frozen in time, his brush half raised and his thumb scratching his nose. I can barely keep myself from jumping up and running to see what he’s painting when he begins to stub a brush into fresh colours. Earlier this afternoon, even when the waves crashed rather impolitely over my head, I was sure I knew what Sean was painting – the ocean of course, in its million shades of blue. Now I’m suddenly sure that it’s portraits of Orlando and always Orlando.
“What are you reading?”
I jolt but not because Orlando’s voice is particularly loud, on the contrary. But maybe because I feel like I am caught red handed.
I look at the book cover.
“I think it’s the autobiography of a female star cook,” I reply and get a giggle from Orlando and a chuckle from behind the easel as a response. “My wife packed it for me, heaven knows why.”
“Well, if it turns out too boring,” Orlando says, “you can borrow Sean’s sports paper from last month that's lying on the staircase.”
“Thanks,” I reply dryly and realise that I really haven’t shown them any gratitude up until now.
“Thanks for taking me in by the way,” I say.
“No problem,” Orlando waves it aside, “Couldn’t have left you there, kicking your car, could I?”
“You could have just called me a taxi,” I reply and put my book into my lap.
“I figured you’d be the surfing type,” Orlando says, “Purely selfish reasons for bringing you here, see?”
It occurs to me that Orlando is a pretty good surfer, has to do it regularly. And on his own. I don’t think I’ve ever been to the beach without my friends back in the day. And now, too, Christine and I live a pretty tightly scheduled social life, so to speak, and we’re both enjoying it. I mean, this place is nice in a holiday sort of way but I can’t help wondering how long one can stand being here, how long someone as lively as Orlando can be here before –
“Does it get lonely?”
The question is out before I think about it and I smile apologetically.
“What?” Orlando asks, interested but not understanding immediately.
“I was just wondering,” I rush to explain, “I mean, it’s none of my business but you’re here completely out on your own, aren’t you?”
Orlando shifts and comes to lie on his belly, his head turned to face me.
“You know,” he says after a moment, explanations given as freely and generously as his smiles, “we spend some weeks in town from time to time. I go out and dance and don’t sleep for three nights in a row and Sean drinks ridiculous amounts of beer in crappy make belief British pubs.” He smiles at the memory. “Recharging batteries.”
“Why don’t you do it the other way round? Why don’t you live in town and just come out here from time to time?”
Orlando looks at me as if I’ve asked him to emigrate to Mars. His brows are knitted together and it takes him a moment to realise that I was asking seriously. Then his face lights up again in that Mona Lisa smile of his.
“Sean can’t –,” he stops and starts again. “When we’re in town, Sean doesn’t paint. And here, I have him all to myself.”
My eyes flick to the easel at the other end of the room because it feels like the thing to which Sean might have to respond to. But the other man doesn’t. Maybe ‘cause there is nothing else to say and the beauty of personal pronouns is they work both ways. Orlando notices the movement of my eyes and my frown but he obviously doesn’t need Sean to add something.
“But don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have you as a guest,” he assures me then and with a glance at the book in my lap adds, “Any chance you feel like cooking by the way?”
So, Orlando and I leave Sean to his paint and brushes and the young man sits on the kitchen table, watches me and we talk about England, where they are both from. I create as much of a three course dinner as one can with random supplies out of their fridge. When I’m done the smell is enticing enough to lure Sean away from his painting as well, something that seems to surprise Orlando rather a lot. Sean comments on that by saying that it’s not burned toast for a change and earns himself a kick in the shin and a brilliantly innocent smile from Orlando, opposite the table. We have some wine and the conversation revolves around Yorkshire pudding, sand castles, Orlando’s 30th birthday and Acrimboldi before Sean returns to the living room. Orlando’s eyes keep drifting to the connecting door and so I proclaim to be turning in early, retiring to the guest room to leave them to themselves.
I wake up because I need to pee. Wine does that to me, go figure. Sighing, I push myself up and out of bed and take careful steps towards the door, so I won’t knock into anything. I scratch my head once I’m in the hall, trying to get my sleepy brain to remember where the bathroom is. I end up in the kitchen and I’m about to turn around on my heels when I see that the door to the adjoining living room is slightly ajar.
On the other end of the room the unpainted white canvases seem to reflect the very first light of dawn and the easels cast shadows of slightly darker patches on the wooden floor. They all stand with their back to me and I realise I haven’t seen even one of Sean’s paintings. There are none decorating any of the walls in the house, you see, at least not the ones I have seen. I worry my lower lip and rub my thumb in my palm, my fingers itching to push the door open a little further so I can sneak through and have a look.
What stops me is not the knowledge that one shouldn’t spy on one’s hosts. It’s movement.
Through the second door, the one from the hall, a lean figure in pj’s comes in and almost bumps into one of the comfy chairs – Orlando. He halts in front of the ever open veranda door and rubs his eyes with his left hand, scratches his bum with his right. When he yawns, there’s movement again, out on the veranda this time, and Sean turns his head. A tiny red glimmer next to his right hand shows that he’s been smoking. But the way his body seems to have tightened up against the cold tells that he's been standing there longer than an average cigarette length.
“Effing freezing,” Orlando murmurs and steps through the open door.
Sean doesn’t reply and while I wonder what he’s doing out there at this ungodly hour, Orlando obviously knows and doesn’t need to ask. Instead he reaches out with an outstretched finger and lightly pokes Sean’s naked arm.
“You’re goosebumpy,” he observes.
The poking becomes an idle caress of a fingertip gliding over cold skin and tiny blond hairs, standing up.
“I keep telling you that’s not a word,” says Sean with the same low voice that is not really a whisper. His whole body seems to lean into the small contact of his and Orlando’s skin.
“And I keep telling you that it so is, if I decide so,” contradicts Orlando.
He steps behind Sean and wraps his arms around the older man’s slender form, trapping Sean’s left arm. Sean flicks the cigarette away, his fingertips sneak under the rim of the sleeve of Orlando’s pyjama shirt and he relaxes into the embrace.
“Cause you’re the king of the universe?” asks Sean.
“Cause I am the king of the universe,” confirms Orlando and lets his chin rest on Sean’s shoulder. “Damn straight.”
In the dim light of a slumbering morning they stand perfectly still, sharing body heat and an affection that makes my heart sigh. I wish I could be with Christine just now so she would make the quiet aching in my chest go away by hugging me or tickling my feet or I don’t know. The way they melt into each other and hold and are held alike, seems more intimate than any kiss or even sex. And Jesus, it’s so utterly private that I’m actually ashamed of myself to be standing behind that door and not being able to look away.
Well, for a long moment anyway, until my bladder reminds me of an even more pressing matter than decency and respect of privacy. After taking care of that I all but tiptoe back to my room. It’s quite a while later and I’m again under the thick blankets for a bit more sleep, that I hear two pairs of feet on the wooden staircase and Orlando’s suppressed giggle.
When I step into the kitchen again a few hours later, dressed and ready to leave, there is no sign of Orlando downstairs. Sean is up again, though, and after a precious cup of coffee he offers to walk me back to my car. While with Orlando I found myself deep in conversation within five seconds, Sean barely speaks a word when we wander through the woods. Sean seems to have left the magnetism from yesterday, the almost uber human presence, back at the blue house by the sea, - right now he’s just an ordinary guy walking a black dog in the middle of nowhere. But still it’s the silent walk through the woods that makes me grasp Orlando’s meaning when he dismissed moving to town. Maybe it’s just the early morning – I find myself not in the mood for enthusiastic communication either – but maybe it’s because Sean doesn’t need to speak to hear his own thoughts, see them in bright colours all the time. It’s good to breathe the fresh air and to have thoughts that are bright and clear and undisturbed by city life or random people.
The mechanic, a white blond guy with piercing blue eyes, is already waiting there and he brought magical hands – my car is purring like a big fat cat in no time. Through its open window I thank Sean again for taking me in. He just shrugs and lightly pats the roof of my car with a flat hand.
It’s a few months later and Christine and I are having a lazy Saturday morning breakfast. We share the paper, and exchange the interesting news over a cup of strong coffee.
“They’re working on Main Street again,” I say, chewing on my toast, “electricity cables this time.”
“Uh huh,” says Christine, not really listening.
“What was the name of that guy again?” she asks all of a sudden. “You know the one with whom you stayed before the oyster thing? He was a painter, right? Was it Sean Bean?”
I raise my eyes from the stock market headlines to look at her but she’s still reading.
“That’s him,” I reply and frown. “Why? Something happened? You’re not reading the death ads again, are you?”
She looks at me as if she would never do such a thing as reading obituary notices of strangers (she does, though).
”No, dummy. He didn’t die. The town hall gallery is holding an exhibition of some of his works. Highly praised.”
“Really?” I say and pour myself fresh coffee.
She looks at me with that knowing look of hers and suggests with a smile, “Say, why don’t we go and have a look? I’m curious.”
“Well, if you wanna go,” I reply, and she laughs at my sorry attempt at acting casual.
Parking is a bitch in front of town hall but somehow, miraculously, we do find a parking spot eventually. Quite a lot of people have found their way here and wander through the well lit rooms of the gallery, stopping here and there to chat. Christine spots the owner of the gallery, a woman in a red dress, waves at her and leaves me with a kiss on the cheek ‘just for a sec’.
Aimlessly I wander through the first room – showing works of an (obviously insane) Mexican Sculptor – until I reach the first painting by Sean. I stop dead in front of it and can’t move. The canvas is huge, towering over me and it’s like it has gripped me and holds me captive, shaking me and making my heart beat faster.
It’s Orlando. It’s like he’s here with me, so strong is his charisma on the painting. I can see, no, I can feel his eyes on me, feel his laughter as if it was inside me. There is a sort of benevolence to his presence that makes me feel looked after and challenged at the same time, makes me want to reach out and feel how it feels when someone, when Sean drops the brush and touches him.
It takes me a while to tear my eyes away and walk with ridiculously weak knees to the next exhibit. Again, Orlando’s energy is captured on the large canvas, only that it’s never trapped but vibrating and free. I feel what Sean must’ve felt, painting this, I can see what he sees in him, what he means to him, and Jesus Christ, I can’t believe I ever thought Orlando anything but perfect after seeing this.
The third painting is the two of them, in a dance and a battle of minds and bodies, of spirits, wrapping around one another, consuming each other and creating each other anew. It’s dominance and submission, concentration and relaxation, independence and complete trust. It makes me feel small and insignificant and in awe at the same time.
The forth is Orlando with Sean again and I can barely look at it. Fleetingly I wonder whether kids are allowed in this gallery because this is obscene, only it isn’t. I cast my eyes down and feel myself flushing but can’t help looking up again from under lowered eyelashes, affected by something this painting has awoken in me. I can see Orlando on his knees next to the easel, I can see Sean’s hands on his sweating body, everywhere, all night. I can see penetration and consumption, them seeping into one another, more than just semen and sweat and saliva. I can see Orlando’s mouth open in a cry of need and fulfilment, hear Sean’s own turning hoarse in my ears eventually. Two souls laid bare completely, nothing is left hidden and it’s like looking into the sun even if you know it’s going to blind you eventually.
For a moment I’m not sure whether I said this or someone else, but then Christine hooks her arm through mine and leans against me.
“Yeah,” I agree and can feel her heart beating faster, just like mine did.
“Ah, I see you’ve found the Beans.”
Reluctantly, I turn my head to see who is talking now. It’s the owner of the gallery, her hair in an artistic tower on her head and her eyes on us.
“This is –“ Christine begins but doesn’t find words.
”It is, isn’t it?” The woman agrees but there’s no blush on her cheeks over the beautiful crudeness, no sparkle in her eyes over the uncompromising devotion. “One of his best works, if I might say so, though most of them are this,” she stops as if searching for a word as well, only with her it’s show, “vivid.”
“It’s like –“ Christine starts again, her eyes still glued to the painting, and she almost reaches out to touch it.
“It’s fascinating,” the gallery owner says after a moment and I detect a sort of wonderment in her voice after all, “that even his latest works still appear as innovative and original as the first of his paintings that he did fourteen years ago.”
Fourteen years? I smile and do the maths, unnoticed by my wife and the gallery owner. Both of them look at me when I chuckle quietly, but only in Christine’s eyes I see realisation twinkling. To her I don’t have to explain. I look at the painting again and am sure that it was a 16 year old Brit, tripping over his feet, that provided the proverbial kiss of the muse and definitely much more than that for a decade and a half now.
The gallery woman steps a little closer to the painting and to us and smiles with bemusement at my unexplained outburst before she talks again. Her voice bears both a hint of college professor and of saleswoman when she says,
“Those deep red spirals up left are clearly an homage to Franz Marc. The band of green connects them to the onyx depths and it’s an unorthodox but quite brilliant device to add sparkles of gold in the manner of Russian icons which –“
I stop listening when her first words of academic analysis sink in.
All of the paintings are abstract art.
I hadn’t even realised it.