I am not a man. I am a hat stand.
I’m standing in the corner of the living room, naked. Her favourite hat hangs from my erection. It’s getting cold. I’ve been here too long.
Oh god, I should start again somewhere else.
Paintings of small birds. Wrens, robins, chaffinches, budgies (lots of budgies), birds like that. All bright yellows, reds, browns and greens, except for the pigeon. The pigeon is grey.
I’m on the sofa. She’s sitting next to me. She has her legs crossed. There’s about this much space between us. Will’s in the kitchen, making cups of tea. This is the first time they’ve met. It is my idea.
‘This is Will,’ I say.
He’s stood at the front door in his dressing gown. Late afternoon. The dressing gown is speckled with paint and fag ash.
‘Hello, Will,’ she says.
‘Hello,’ he says.
‘Will, this is Alice.’
He invites us in and we follow him down the hall and sit in the living room. Will disappears into the kitchen. After a while we hear the rising bubble of a kettle. We aren’t speaking. She’s busy looking at the paintings. I’ve seen them before.
‘How was your holiday?’ I shout.
I shout it a bit too loudly.
How was your holiday? hangs in the air. It becomes louder than the kettle. We sit on the sofa listening to it. She has her legs crossed. They’re crossed away from me. How was your holiday? becomes unbearably, excruciatingly loud. If all the birds in all these paintings began to sing, suddenly, they would still not be louder than How
was your holiday?
I want to say something else, anything at all. I can think of nothing to say. Alice doesn’t help me out. She thinks How was your holiday? is funny.
Eventually Will comes back in with the three teas – his and hers in one hand, mine in the other. He’s so tall he has to stoop as he enters.
‘Sorry, did you say something?’ he says, handing me my mug.
I can’t bring myself to repeat it.
‘How was your holiday?’ she asks.
I want to pour the boiling tea over myself. I want to pour it over my head and my crotch.
‘Yeah, it was alright,’ he says. ‘Got a bit weird at the end though.’
He doesn’t elaborate. He waits for us to ask. He’s talking to her really. I’m just listening. Eavesdropping. And now he’s looking her over, probably wondering what her tits look like. He doesn’t know she has big nipples. He doesn’t know she has a big nipple complex.
‘How d’you mean?’ she asks.
‘I’ll show you.’
He gets up and starts searching around in a drawer. When he comes back he sits next to her on the sofa, so the three of us are pressed up in a row. There’s almost no space between us now. Only a half-millimetre of nylon and denim separates the flesh of her knee from the flesh of my knee.
I take a sip of tea. It burns my tongue.
Will is holding a stack of photographs.
‘Okay,’ he says. ‘So I go on holiday the other week to France. I’ve got this friend, Clare, who’s just set up this exhibition space in Paris, and I was invited out for the opening night. There was performances, free wine, all that shit.
‘So, everything’s going great. I’m pissed three days straight, and everywhere you look there’s these beautiful French women wanting to talk about art. And it’s good business, too. You know, talk shit to the right people, try and get ’em interested in my stuff . . .’
I can’t believe how intently she’s listening to him. She’s nodding and uh-huh-ing in all the right places.
‘And the weather’s fucking great. You know how it’s been over here – pissing it down. I’d forgotten my digital
camera, so I pick up this cheapie disposable thing from a newsagent.’
He passes her the first photo. She cranes over it, obscuring my view. Finally she passes it across. A picture of Will stood next to the Arc de Triomphe. He’s wearing shorts and he has his hair tied back and he’s grinning. He passes her another. The view from the top. Will’s head pokes out from the bottom left corner. And another. Will with his arm round some bloke in a foreign football shirt. They’re sat at a patio table, drinking Kronenbourgs, cheers-ing.
In 2007, Will was listed as ‘one of the year’s most promising artists’ by a well-known magazine.
He still thinks Metallica is the best band ever.
‘Anyway, once the party’s over, I don’t want to come back home. I decide to extend my ticket, buy one of those rail passes, you know, just sort of bum around France for an extra week and see a bit of the countryside.’
The next few are views from the train. A run of photos taken in the train’s toilet. One of the toilet bowl. One of himself in the mirror. She spends an extra few seconds on that one. She knows he’s an artist and she wants to impress him, so she says, ‘I really like this part here, how the flash sort of bounces off the mirror. Was that intentional?’
They are very bad photographs. Will is not a photographer. He’s a painter. His paintings themselves are crude, almost childish in design.
‘Dunno,’ he shrugs. ‘Didn’t really think too much about it. I was just trying to . . . capture the moment. I guess I wanted some of me in there, cuz once you’re travelling by yourself it’s like the whole thing’s a dream. And unless you get some proof of it . . .’
He tails off. He takes the photo out of her hand. He looks at it for a long time.
‘I think I wanted proof that I was there.’
I take another sip of my tea. It’s gone cold. I stand it near my foot. Later, when we get up to leave, I will knock it over. I will apologise. Will will tell me it really doesn’t matter. Alice will look at me like I’m a prick. I will go over the top and offer to buy him some carpet shampoo. She will say, ‘Fuck’s sake, it’s just tea. It’s not blood.’
‘So I end up at the coast, at this beach. God knows where. I book into a little guesthouse and there’s none of the usual tourist shit around for miles. It’s really quiet and I’m having a whale of a time – on the beach every day, smoking Gauloises, having a read. I even buy myself some trunks, to go swimming in the sea.’
I can’t see where this is going. I’m waiting for the point and doubting there is one. Maybe this is nothing more than some sort of dodgy courtship ritual. I wonder if she’s even listening to him or whether she’s already off ticking mental boxes:
Would he be a good fuck?
Would he be faithful?
Would he give me space?
Would he do as I ask?
She passes me one of the beach. Blue waves. White sand. A bird, frozen in the sky, angled towards the sea.
There is only one photo left in his hand.
‘So it’s my last day before I need to get back on the train and I want a photo of myself on the beach. But there’s no one around to ask, no couples or families or anything. It’s a ghost beach. It gets to the afternoon, I’ve just been swimming in the sea and I’m drying myself off, and I really should be going, when along comes this old geezer walking across the sand dunes.
‘I call him over. Pardon, monsieur! Excuse moi! And he hobbles down the slope towards me. It takes him ages. He must’ve been at least in his seventies. He’s this local fella, with a plastic bag of groceries. Je voudrais une photo, I say, showing him the camera, you know, photo, like that, and he seems to understand. So I go and stand where I want it taken. I only have one picture left on the camera; it needs to be exactly right. So I get myself positioned with the sea behind me and I place him a couple of metres away. And just to make sure he gets it all in, I convince him to kneel down, too. I mean, I feel really bad cuz he’s so . . . well, old, and it takes him fucking ages, but finally he manages it. So I go, Okay, Monsieur! and wait for him to take the picture.
‘Nothing happens. He just takes his eye away from the viewfinder and mutters something to himself. He’s shaking his head and sort of beckoning me towards him, so I assume, you know, he wants me a bit nearer . . . to get everything in. I take two steps forward, put my hands back on my hips and shout Okay! Oui!
‘Again, nothing. He’s shaking his head now and muttering and gesturing to me to come closer still . . .’
He stops talking.
There is only one photo left in his hand.
‘So?’ Alice asks. ‘What happened?’
He passes it to her. She bends over it and sort of gasps. Her knee presses against mine. She hands it across.
It’s a photo of Will’s crotch. His orange trunks very nearly fill the frame. You can make out the black wisps of hair running down his thighs and curling upwards towards his belly. You can make out the spots of seawater clinging coldly to his trunks and tanned skin. You can make out the clear bulges of his cock and balls.
Artistically speaking, it’s the best of the bunch.
We get home and Will is all she can talk about. How long have I known him? Where has he exhibited? How much do his paintings cost? I turn on the telly and she drifts out of the room.
An hour passes.
I want somehow, very quietly, to destroy myself.
I want to become invisible.
Then she calls me to the bedroom. She has the curtains closed and the lights out. It’s only six o’clock.
‘Lie down on the bed,’ she says. Her voice is quiet. It’s just the outline of a voice.
I can hear the slipping off of clothes. I can see her silhouette, over by the blue rectangle of window. This will be the first time we’ve had sex in a week. I lie down on the bed and shuffle out of my jeans. Outside a car drives past.
She climbs on top of me and lowers herself roughly onto me, the breath catching in her throat.
I start to think of that white beach again with the bird frozen above the sea. The cars going past are quiet waves.
She smells like a cocktail with a little umbrella in it.
‘Will,’ she pants all of a sudden. It escapes her lips under the cover of breath.
What? I only just make it out.
‘Will,’ she says again. This time it’s louder. It’s almost a shout.
The beach has dissolved. The beach is a slug and she has poured salt all over it.
‘Will,’ she says.
Once it’s over, we both lie there in the dark, static, breathing heavily, and there is nothing I can say. I can’t confront her about it, though that must seem the most obvious thing to do. I can’t say a word without sounding crazy because my name is also Will.