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The Naked Eye

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1.

After all the fuss died down, I went back to painting.

Emerald grass, sapphire skies, a flag flapping in the distance, a ball in sure trajectory. For the first few weeks, it was comforting to return to a world I knew well, a peaceful place far away from here, a myriad open landscapes without thugs and unspeakable cruelty and dangerous greed.

That other world kept intruding though, as if to remind me it was on my doorstep always. My back would hurt after a few hours at my easels, the muscles protesting if I reached beyond a range of motion they were comfortable with at this stage of healing. On my trips to town for supplies, my mother asked after my week with a shaking undercurrent in her voice that had never been there before, and Em sent to-the-point telegrams updating me on Golden Malt’s progress week to week where before there had been years of silence between us.

And at times I had to venture further down from the mountain completely to Margaret’s office to look at some paperwork for the brewery, and then to drinks together at the pub with Tobe at his invitation. All these friendships springing up in the wake of something terrible, and yet nothing from Chris, who had promised it. I didn’t really need another person to remind me of those nightmare moments, alone against Grantchester and his grill, and I had no need of his services anymore, nor he any use for me. Still, something in me wished to see him; still, I neither called nor visited.

Back in the bothy, I painted, I slept, I dreamed, and most nights I woke in a frightened sweat; and the cycle began all over again. It was one night on waking, thrashing, my eyes fell on the painting of Dr Zoe Lang, popped against the wall. She had offered to buy it in a terse letter that Jed had delivered to me. I didn’t need her money, but it seemed churlish to withhold something I knew had moved her so. Still, weeks later, I had not replied. Now, as I stared at the brushstrokes, her face young and old, I realised it was the last time I had managed to capture what it meant for me to paint. All those sedate paintings of golf greens I’d completed in the last little while, packaged and sent off to my dealer in the States - they contained no more life than I’d experienced in that time.

That next morning, I packed lightly, travelled down to Dalwhinnie, bought a train ticket to London, and a few hours later, rang the doorbell at Park Crescent to my mother’s great surprise. She responded to my request with grace, as she did all things, and acquiesced for a sitting that very afternoon.

“Are you sure you don’t want to lie down for a while first, darling?” she asked while I fussed at arranging a backdrop that didn’t need to be arranged. “It must have been an early start for you.”

She sat still and straight in her usual chair, legs crossed and hands folded, making no move to touch me or comfort me even as she spoke and her eyes followed me around the room watchfully.

“Mama, I’m fine,” I said, not looking at her as I threw the curtains open for more light. “This isn’t strenuous work.”

My mother read while I sketched her, serene and untouchable in her tidy kingdom, the weak sunlight throwing a halo behind her short, dark hair. There were little bunches of violets in the pattern on the walls, and when Edna brought in tea midway through our session I sketched in the matching flowers on the delicate bone china cup by her side.

“Will you stay for dinner?” she asked, as I stood and stretched when I was done. It was dark outside now, and I thought of the silence of the townhouse now without Ivan and revolving tornado of nurses and lawyers and daughters.

“Of course,” I said easily, and sat quiet through the meal as she updated me on her comings and goings, studying the angles of her face, still drawing and painting in my mind.

As one of the executors of Ivan’s will, the brewery was an ongoing concern to keep an eye on, and the next day I attended a board meeting for the first time. Patsy was there, her eyes tired around the corners, even as she chatted away charmingly to an older gent, one of the other board members. Disillusionment had set in and divorce proceedings were underway, I was given to understand from Mother's update. She started when she saw me in the doorway, then gave me a small smile. Though I knew it was nothing but my imagination, I felt my back tighten on seeing her, the odd ache creeping in where the flesh had healed months ago. I made no move towards her, kept my face impassive, and she dropped her gaze, turning back to her companion who hadn’t noticed any of the exchange.

Margaret gave me a nod from where she stood at the head of the table, warned in advance by telephone yesterday that I would be attending, but with an ulterior motive. She was wearing yet another of her soft belted dresses, this one in a deep oxblood jersey fabric with a demure drop neckline, and subtle glints in the thin gold bracelet on her wrist and small diamond studs in her ears. She looked warm and approachable, and I knew instantly there would be some tough items on the agenda today.

I didn’t pay any attention to the discussions as they raged around me. Seated in an unobtrusive corner, ostensibly taking notes, I sketched Margaret in her element, the way she listened with her whole body, and commanded the room with little more than a tilt of the head or a calm recitation of the unassailable facts and figures that would govern the decisions around the table for another two years or so, even after accounting for the recovered money.

“Pub?” Margaret asked me as she tidied up the last of the papers on the desk, the room emptied after meeting’s end.

“Let me call Tobias,” I said. I closed my sketchbook, noting Margaret’s curious eye as I did, but she didn’t ask to see it and I didn’t offer.

Then a visit to the last of my planned subjects. I found her in her office, phone tucked into the crook of her neck, a frown on her face. She waved me impatiently into a chair and continued her argument with, it appeared, a stock feeder disputing his last payment.

“Come to see the victor finally?” she asked when she finally hung up. I’d given Golden Malt a pat on his distinctive forehead in the stables after his winning run, but that had been the last of our interactions. I knew he was in good hands with Emily.

“To see you, actually,” I said. “I want to paint you, and I was wondering if you had time for a sitting.”

“When?” she asked, already picking up the phone to make another call. “Hope you don’t mean now, we’re a bit busy as you can see.”

“This afternoon?” I suggested. “And maybe something after, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“A drink, sure,” she said, a reluctant grin tugging at the corners of her mouth. “I could make some time for that. You can come back at four, I could spare you the rest of the day then.”

Em was as good as her word as always. She was in the yard watching her lads with the horses with a critical eye when I returned, but when she saw me she made a move to go inside.

“No, I’d like to sketch you out here for a bit, if you don’t mind.”

She shrugged. “Suit yourself.” I watched her stride across the ground, calling out sharply to one of the lads who was leading a skittish horse. I already had in mind how I would paint her, but I renewed my familiarity with her form in her utilitarian trousers, the barely contained energy in her every movement, and sketched her for the next hour or so as she went about her work, paying me no mind.

After the meal (a pie I had brought back with me as thanks) and two glasses of red each, it was easy to tumble into bed with her, and learn the hard planes of her body again, this time with my hands instead of my eyes. It was always easy with her: simple, uncomplicated, and familiar. But for the first time I felt unsatisfied inside, as if longing for something more. The ache of it, more than the discomfort of the hard bed at my back, kept me awake for a good while longer after Emily had fallen into a deep sleep.

 

2.

“Hullo!”

The greeting broke my concentration, and I looked up from the canvas in annoyance which drifted to alarm when I saw the silhouette of a stranger in the doorway. It had been another morning of perfect light for painting, and I’d left the doors and window wide open as I continued to work on the portraits of Vivienne, Margaret, and Emily, set up side by side. I was just starting work on Margaret’s, laying down the base colour.

“Can I help you?” I said, standing up slowly, thinking about the last time I’d had unexpected guests at the bothy, thinking on what I could use as a weapon in defense. Walking over to the door cautiously, the silhouette became the outline of a hiker, a familiar sight around these parts. I felt no less panic at this. He was wearing the expected gear, shorts and heavy walking boots, a woolly cap over his head with only a few wisps of copper-coloured hair drifting over his forehead, binoculars around his neck, and had a map clutched in his hand. Then I looked into his eyes - bright, brown, full of laughter - and followed the slant of the sockets, and the fear turned into a rush of relief and delight.

“Hullo,” Chris said again, smiling, “Sorry to drop in unannounced, but I thought if the mountain won’t come to me…”

“No, you’re very welcome,” I said. “But I’m afraid I’m not very well prepared for visitors.” I looked around at the spartan setting, the paint cans and cotton duck spread out over my workbench, and winced. “Actually, not at all prepared. I could do you a cup of tea? Or are you hungry, it’s lunchtime around about now. Ah, it’d only be cheese sandwiches and canned soup, I survive on very simple fare when I’m deep in a project, forget to eat sometimes if I’m honest,” I trailed off, hearing myself babbling, uncharacteristically nervous all of a sudden at the impression I was making.

“Sounds great,” Chris said, unfussed by me or the surroundings. “Do you mind if I take a seat? The walk up was a bit more strenuous than I expected.”

Before I could worry about the lack of chairs, he had set his backpack against the wall with a contented sigh, then sat down on the floor with it as a backrest. “Ah, my poor feet,” he said ruefully. “Not sure if I’ll use this disguise again, if I’m honest.”

“It worked though,” I admitted. “Wasn’t sure who you were at first.”

“But you worked it out,” Chris said. “You’re so good at picking me out.”

I could feel a blush rising at his words, and busied myself with the kettle over the gas burner instead.

It was strangely comfortable having another person in the bothy, a place I’d always thought of as my fortress of solitude. Chris brought with him a trove of stories from work, and I listened avidly, marvelling at the twisty, quick way his mind worked; the schemes he came up with to reach the ends using only the means given him along with that trunk full of carefully prepared personas.

“But that’s enough about me,” Chris said easily. “What have been up to? Tobe said he’d seen you a few times.” There was no sting behind the words, but I felt a guilty squeeze of my heart, knowing there was some part of me that had been avoiding him.

“I’ve been busy with a new set of paintings,” I said, in evasive answer, nodding to the canvases behind me. “Had to fit in sittings and working drawings and getting the right paints, and so forth.”

Chris sprang to his feet lightly and walked over, but he passed by the easels to look first at the painting of Dr Lang, still sitting against the opposite wall. I had finally replied agreeing to the sale, but had heard no response, and guessed with some relief that by waiting so long the opportunity had passed.

“This is fantastic,” Chris said. “Bit different from your usual though. Are they all going to be like this from now on?”

“Well, the horses and courses still pay the bills, but I - I thought it was time for something different. Something that moves me.”

Chris stayed on Zoe’s face a moment longer, then turned his intense gaze to the unfinished portraits.

“This one’s of your mother,” he said. Hers was progressed the furthest, with the walls of the room and the rest of background already filled in with vigorous strokes over a layer of purple, and her pensive, still figure sat right in the middle.

“Yes, and then one of Margaret,” I explained, moving behind him to study him studying my work. I wanted to sketch him in that moment; the shifts in expression as he thought through a problem, the light from within those eyes that didn’t change no matter who he was pretending to be from day to day.

“And lucky last,” he said lightly, turning to the final canvas.

“My - my wife, Emily,” I said, tensing as I watched for his reaction.

Chris lingered on this portrait longest of all. The canvas was already covered in a vivid green that I’d set down the day before, and on top of that, drawn lightly in pencil, the outline of the painting to be, down to the detail of the expression on her face.

“You’re still married to her,” Chris said slowly. “And you still call her your wife, no qualifiers.”

“I would feel odd calling her estranged when we’re still on good terms,” I said carefully. “And we have no plans to divorce.”

“I see,” Chris said, nodding, a frown crossing his face. “And yet, you live here, and she lives there, and you see each other whenever it suits the both of you?”

It was no more than a statement of truth, but hearing him say it woke that tendril of dissatisfaction that I’d felt in my chest after that last time with her.

“True, that’s how it’s been,” I said finally. “But I - we’ll never be together as a couple again. She told me I don’t belong with her, nor she with me, and she’s right. I think I’m ready to believe that now.”

Chris’ head jerked up suddenly, and he was very still for a moment. But when he turned to me there was no sign of what he thought of our unusual arrangement.

“That was rude of me, asking so many personal questions,” he said instead, holding out his hands as if in apology.

“I wanted you to know,” I said, and I did, and I wanted him to hear the honesty in it as well.

“It’s getting dark,” Chris said, looking out the window at the sun setting in glorious pinks and yellows on the horizon. “I should be going, I’ve monopolised you for too long. You’ve lost all your painting time.”

“They’ll be there tomorrow morning,” I said, but Chris was shrugging on his backpack already. As he readied himself to leave, I lit the lamp, and saw him to the door. The flickering flame threw shadows across his face, and it wasn’t until I felt the touch on my cheek that I realised he’d raised his hand to cup the side of my face.

“I wanted - your hair,” he said thickly, and he slid his other hand to untangle a knot of curls over my left ear. I turned my face blindly into his hand, lips almost touching skin, and I heard Chris draw in a sharp breath then move away.

“There,” he said. “Now you look a picture.” He smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes, and I thought of asking him to stay. But I didn’t, and he walked away with a quick wave. I watched him go, and he didn’t turn back.

 

3.

I wasn’t one for exhibiting my work, though I had been asked once or twice in the past year by some golf-mad enthusiasts in the States, but by now I’d painted and sold enough ‘Alexanders’ to support myself and didn’t see the need for any other accolades. So it was with immense shock that I received an invitation to an exhibition of ‘new and old works by acclaimed artist Alexander Kinloch’ in the lot of mail I collected one morning. The date given was in a few month’s time, at Kinloch Castle.

The invite was professional and tasteful, printed on good quality cream stock - I had opened the unfamiliar envelope thinking it was a stray card sent to me by mistake - but there was my name and address on the front; there was my name in bold lettering inside. I called my mother, suffering Donald’s highway robbery for the privilege, but she knew no more than I did.

“Not my doing,” she said. “But I think it’s a marvellous idea actually. Why don’t you ask your uncle Robert, he must know.”

Himself had the good grace to look embarrassed when I barrelled up on his doorstep demanding answers.

“I did think she would let you know in person first,” he said. “It was her idea after all, though I do think it’s high time more people knew about your talent.”

“She?” I asked, puzzled.

“Patsy,” Himself explained. “Well, her, and that Lang woman. Patsy was here the day she came to pick up her painting, and was mightily impressed by it. Don’t think she’d ever paid attention to your work before. I think this is Patsy’s way of making amends to you.”

“She’s done enough,” I said, a touch sharply. “I don’t need - an apology was sufficient.”

“She’s trying still,” Himself said, gently. “You’re her brother now. And a splashy event like this is Patsy’s forte.”

In the end he wore me down, and promptly asked for a retrospective of paintings I could show, including permission for the one that sat pride of place on his wall.

“You’ve painted some other portraits lately, haven’t you?” he asked. “Jed told me Flora says they’re wonderful. Make sure they’re in the lot.”

And just like that, I lost the next month to running around instead of painting, feeling a little like a travelling salesman: I asked people to lend me my own works for show; I travelled back and forth carrying canvases under my arm. I reviewed some of my early paintings with newly critical eyes and decided several times I would rather get on my knees and beg Patsy to cancel the whole shebang than show them; but then Margaret and Mother’s responses to their new portraits were enough to convince me this wasn’t all a giant mistake.

Emily was one of the last to see her portrait. She easily agreed to lending me the painting of the horse race hanging in her sitting room, but was cooler than I expected when faced with her likeness.

“You went with the obvious,” was all she said.

“I thought you’d be pleased,” I said, a little hurt.

“It’s great,” she said, but as she continued to look at it, her forehead was furrowed in a frown.

I stayed for dinner that night, though there was an unusual strain between us, even over the light conversation about familiar, safe topics. And after the meal was done, I was glad to head for the door. I leant down to brush my lips over Emily’s cheek, taking my leave, and as I moved to go she raised her chin and said directly, “You don’t mean to stay the night?”

“No,” I answered; it had not even crossed my mind tonight. I turned the offer over and over in my head, knowing it wasn’t due to an absence of desire - some part of me would always love her, want her - but because it felt wrong now, as it hadn’t before. As if I was going behind Chris’ back, I realised with a start, because I had told him that part of my life with Emily was over.

“You’ve met someone else,” Emily said, breaking into my thoughts.

Caught by surprise, I stared at her and tried to deny it, but she continued before I could speak.

“Is it that girl who saved you from - who was with you at Patsy’s?” she guessed. “Christina, the quiet one at Ivan’s funeral.”

She always knew me too well, even when she was wrong. I found my voice and protested, “I told you, I’m not - it’s not like that.”

I thought about Chris walking away from the bothy that night. “We’re just friends,” I added. There was so much more I could’ve said, but like always, I left it unspoken.

While I was in town, I thought about visiting him at Young and Uttley, or giving him a call for a drink like I would with Tobias - things friends would do. In the end, I didn’t - I couldn’t. But when Jed delivered a stack of invitations to the exhibition, courtesy of Patsy, I sent him one with a short note and a hopeful heart.

 

4.

Patsy pulled out all the stops for the opening night of the exhibition. The house looked particularly imposing on approach, blazing with light within; waiters in stiff uniforms handed out glasses of champagne in the entranceway; and in the Great Hall well-dressed guests wandered around peering at Alexanders new and old.

I stood in a quiet corner, so unobtrusively that more than once I stood in polite silence as strangers made judgements and pronouncements about my art without realising who I was.

All the while, I waited impatiently for those I had invited and actually wanted to see.

“I like the ones with the horses the best,” young Andy told me, his father’s hand proudly on his shoulder. He had been on his best behaviour, inspecting each artwork solemnly as he was paraded around the room. “Especially the ones where they look like they’re about to charge out at me. Those are good paintings.”

I thanked him equally seriously.

“But I still like the cup the best,” he added. “Dad, can I - “

“No,” James said firmly, but he let himself be towed away, grinning back at me and mouthing his congratulations.

Both Detective Sergeant Berrick and Inspector Vernon came, and each thanked me once again profusely. Their wives looked enraptured with their portraits, and more than a little awed by the stateliness of their surrounds, sipping nervously from the tall stemmed flutes.

Tobias came to greet me with a resplendent Margaret on his arm. We chatted, then out of the blue he said casually, “I caught up with Chris last week.”

Emily came up at that moment to join us and I responded with a weak, “That’s nice.”

Tobe smirked and said, “Yeah, said he’d been invited to this fancy do and wondered if he should get dressed up for the occasion.”

“He?” Emily said, surprised, just as I asked nervously, “Is he coming?”

“Ask him yourself,” Tobes said, nodding over my shoulder. I braced myself for whatever get-up he’d prepared and turned as Emily did.

Chris looked like himself and no other, even in a smart navy suit, hands in his pockets as he ambled up to us, his eyes mischievous and warm.

“Hullo,” Chris said.

“You remember - “

“Emily,” my wife said. “And you are?”

“Chris,” he says, shaking her hand with a firm grip.

Emily tilted her head to take a second look. “Tall, dark and leggy,” she murmured to herself, a look of understanding washing over her face. “We’ve met before, haven’t we.”

Chris inclined his head, a secretive smile on his face.

“You’re not what I expected,” she murmured, shooting me a sharp look.

“Nor I,” Chris said. “You’re even more beautiful in person than in Al’s painting.”

“You’ve seen it?” Emily asked, ignoring the compliment. “But you just got here.”

“It wasn’t finished then,” Chris said. “Al was in the middle of painting it.”

“Oh, so you’ve been up in the mountains with him,” Emily says, throwing me another look, this one much more knowing. She wound her arm through the crook of Chris’ and said, “Well, come and tell me what you think of it.”

Chris and Emily stood in front of the finished painting of Emily. A down light fixed above it threw a glow over it, and their upturned faces. I’d painted her in profile, her face proud and fierce, as a quivering Golden Malt crossed the line first in the King Alfred Cup. They studied it for long moments, where I could hear and feel my heart beating louder and faster than galloping horses along the final stretch.

“It’s so alive and bright and almost overwhelming,” he said eventually. “You and the horse amidst the scenery. Everything around you melts away into the shadows, while you look ready to leap off the canvas. And out of his life.”

Emily said coolly, “Is that right.”

“It captures the fact he could never hold you down, any more you could him,” Chris says with a shrug. “That’s what I can see anyway.”

“You are two of a kind,” she says, shaking her head, the corners of her mouth turning up almost unwillingly. “I never got what he felt about painting, until much too late. Don’t make the same mistake.”

She touched my arm lightly as she walked away, a blessing and a goodbye. Chris and I shifted, almost unconsciously, until we were side by side. Behind me I could faintly hear the noise of the rest of the room, but I wasn’t aware of anyone else around me except Chris, the warmth of his body so close to mine, the smell of his cologne sharp with a touch of spice.

“So that’s Emily’s life, her desire, her goal. You saw it clearly and painted a life that you could never be a part of.” Chris paused then said in a low voice, “What about you, Al? What is it you want?”

“Do you think anyone would notice if we left?” I asked instead.

I didn’t say anything else as we walked through the corridors of the castle, but Chris slipped his hand in mine and I knew he had heard me in the silence.

In the dark of one of the long abandoned bedrooms, he pressed his mouth to mine, my back against the wood of the door. We stumbled our way to the bed, where Chris lay patiently as I mapped his body with my hands, my mouth; learning the shape of him for future reference, until I knew him so well I could’ve drawn him, all of him, from memory. Not just the planes of his body or the jut of his cheekbones or the arch of his brow, but the gasps he made when I had him in hand, the heat in his kisses and caresses as he came. It felt strange and exciting, and yet it was also like finding my way home.

Then he returned the favour, and with experience I had yet to gain he took me apart until all that knowledge flew out of my head, a blank canvas waiting to be filled again and again.

After, as we lay curled around each other, as my eyes started to close, I could feel Chris tense as his hands found the marks on my back.

“If I’d seen these then I would have killed him, consequences be damned,” he admitted, fingers tracing the raised weals lightly.

“I love you too,” I said drowsily, and in his arms I fell into a peaceful sleep for the first time in a long while.

END