Sunday, 10 April 2011

Portrait of Portrait

BFS Journal
I received my copy of the British Fantasy Society Journal this week, and it was a delight to see my short story Portrait of the Devil in print.  However, the icing on the cake was seeing Dean Harkness's representation of the final scene accompanying the story.  I had no idea it was going to be illustrated and can’t tell you how perfect Dean’s interpretation is. 

Talking of interpretations, a couple of writer friends of mine have just read the story and came up with yet another take on the ending.  It wasn’t right, but I have to say a quite like that Portrait is open to interpretation. 

So here it is, if you’re interested, followed by Dean Harkness’s beautiful interpretation of the final scene – and if you want to offer your own thoughts on the ending, I’d love to hear them.

Portrait of the Devil 

If the sun knew anything of how Barcelona used to be, it said nothing, and rose silently into the morning sky.  Antonio did the same.  He drank coffee at the Café de l’Ópera and read the paper until his knotted bones had warmed.  When he was able to roll a cigarette tight and thin, he was ready to hold a brush, and take his place on La Rambla.
     La Rambla was a half-mile avenue that carried tourists from the Placa de Catalunya to the threshold of the port, like fat cells in a bloodstream.  They would clot around mime artists and living statues, buskers and balancing acts, only to dislodge and float further along the artery.
     Antonio had worked the same spot for thirty years, opposite San Josep’s, where the flowers coloured the avenue and reminded him of his youth.  Tourists naturally gathered here to breathe in the ghost of Barcelona, before the fast-food signs and souvenir shops performed their exorcisms. 
     Some would linger and watch Antonio arrange his pitch, wait to see his samples, but he had none.  He always painted the first for free, but liked his subject to take a leap of faith – give themselves over to the old artist without foreknowledge of style or medium.  Their reward for this leap would be a portrait in oil or watercolour that would shame their moment of apprehension.  Antonio’s reward would be a queue of paying customers till suppertime.   
     This morning was slow.  Pickpockets roamed the promenade like hyenas.  Antonio watched them cautiously as he took dry bread from his pocket and scattered crumbs on the cobblestones.  Lime green parakeets and dusty-grey pigeons flocked at his feet.    He loved the honesty of the birds.
     His brushes were clean and his hands felt good.  Antonio was anxious to begin.  He could see a copper-haired woman deliberating the leap.  She was as wide as she was tall, a yellow blouse stretched across her blubbery bosom.  Would he paint the ketchup stain on her blouse?  The wart on her chin?  In the old days he wouldn’t have considered her at all, but he was wiser now – saw the world differently. 
     The woman lumbered away as a human Statue of Liberty jumped at a passing child, scaring the girl to tears.  Antonio disliked this man.  He had only pitched here two days ago and was already slowing business with his antics. 
     ‘Why would you want to do that to a child?’ Antonio shouted, but the statue only gave him the finger, and froze that way, to the amusement of the crowd.
     Out of season, Antonio liked to work in oils.  Customers were a rare breed, but freer with their time and money, and didn’t mind sitting for an hour or more. 
     He thought back to yesterday, when a man had asked for oil.  An old French gentleman with platinum hair, fawn tweed jacket and ebony walking cane.  He sat as patient as a spider in its web until Antonio made his final stroke. 
     ‘May I see, Monsieur?’
     Antonio turned the easel around, pleased with his work.  He had captured the steel in his eyes.
     The gent began to nod, his cheeks lifting the corners of his mouth.  ‘You haven’t signed it,’ he said, his smile faltering. 
     Antonio wiped paint from his brush with an old cloth, glanced at the crowd for his next customer.  ‘I never do.’
      ‘A strange practice, no?’
     Antonio dropped his brush into a jar of cleaning spirit.  ‘The image is the art, the art is the artist.’  He looked the gent in the eyes.  ‘The signature is the ego of the artist and has no place in art.’
    ‘But I would like you to sign it, Monsieur.’
     ‘I have signed every crease of your face, every shadow.’
     The gent turned away, perused the gathering crowd.  ‘You know, Monsieur, I am well known in the art world.’  He turned to Antonio.  ‘It has been a lifelong passion . . . obsession.  I have a very good eye.’
     Antonio lowered his gaze.  ‘Some people don’t see themselves the way I see them.  If you don’t wish to pay for the painting . . . ?’
     ‘I would pay any amount for this painting,’ he said.  ‘I have several in my gallery in Paris.’
     Antonio rose from his stool, his legs aching from sitting so long.  ‘As you can see, Senor, I have paying customers waiting for your chair.’
     ‘I heard rumours you were still painting somewhere in the world, but who could have imagined it would be here, in this . . . circus.’ 
     At that moment the Statue of Liberty jumped from his podium and chased a young boy into the arms of his mother.  The mother coaxed the frightened boy to the collection bucket and dropped a coin in.  The crowd clapped.  The statue peered into his bucket, frowned, and froze.  The crowd laughed.
     ‘You clearly have me mistaken for someone else,’ said Antonio, wiping his hands with a cloth.  ‘I am a street artist, nothing more.’
     The gent looked at Antonio’s hands.  ‘How is it you are still able to paint?  You were crippled with arthritis.  You couldn’t hold a cup.’
     ‘Old bones, yes, but good for a few years to come.  Now please, take your painting.  I have other customers.’  Antonio took the canvas from the easel and passed it to him. 
     ‘An Antonio Rodas original,’ he said, holding the canvas at arm’s length, then turned to Antonio.  ‘You can hide under that cap and beard . . .’  He marvelled at the painting again.  ‘. . . but you cannot hide this.’
     Antonio took up a small brush.  ‘Most certainly you are mistaken, Senor.’  He replaced the canvas on the easel.  ‘My name is Paolo.’  He ran the thin bristles through a blood red on his pallet and applied it to the painting.  ‘Paolo Santiago . . . There, you have your signature.  Please go.’
     The gent stood, his eyes darting from Antonio to the canvas, then resignation clouded his face.  He drew several notes from his leather wallet and handed them to Antonio.  ‘I meant no offence, Monsieur.  I am obviously mistaken.’
     Antonio took the money and began stringing the canvas for carriage.  By the time he finished, the gent had already walked away.  
     Daydreams of yesterday were shattered by a scream as the Statue of Liberty reached out and grabbed a young girl by the shoulder.  The parents laughed, the girl cried, and Antonio frowned.  It was going to be a slow day.
     The pickpockets were thinning, and so too were the birds at Antonio’s feet.  As he reached into his coat for more breadcrumbs he could feel someone staring at him.  He looked up and saw a young man standing by the Casa dels Paraigúes.  He wore what Antonio called The Thief’s Uniform: baggy jeans and trainers, a grey hooded sweater with the tail of a white t-shirt visible at the hem.  Antonio scanned the promenade for more of his kind, but could see none.  When he turned back, the young man had pulled up the hood and veiled his face in shadow, and in that instant, Antonio closed his eyes.
     It was an ingrained tool of composition.  An old master once told him the best way to characterise was to glance at the subject and then close your eyes.  The features that remain are the signatures of the face, the pathway to character.  Antonio performed this exercise like breathing; in his prime he could paint a crowd from just a brief glimpse.  He tuned his mind now to the youth’s face, but was astonished to find he could not recall a single detail.
     Antonio opened his eyes and the youth was gone.  He threw the crumbs to the birds and stroked his beard, pondered the void in his memory, then a piercing scream turned his head.  The Statue of Liberty had clawed at another passing child, causing the little girl to drop her ice cream and flee to her mother.  Antonio stood, but thought better of shouting again.  He sat down and rolled cigarettes for later – cursing the fool beneath his breath.
     He was contemplating coffee when the highlight of every morning walked by.  He called her Gabriella, though he didn’t know her name.  She worked in La Boquería, the market at the heart of La Rambla, and delivered bread to the Café de l’Ópera.  In market clothes she was addictive to the eye; this morning she was pure opium.
     She wore a floral summer dress with bright yellow sunflowers, costume pearls around her slender neck and poppy-red shoes that matched the shade of her full lips.  Her shoulder-length hair was a waterfall of mahogany, caramel and amber, and if she were the last thing Antonio ever painted, he would die a happy man.  In the old days she would have sat for him, but not now.
     ‘Thinking about the good old days?’
     Antonio jolted from his reverie.  Sitting beside him was the youth, his hood pulled down over his elusive face.
     ‘That seat is reserved for paying customers,’ said Antonio.
     ‘Name your price, old man,’ said the youth, his voice older than his apparent years.
     ‘You couldn’t afford it; now go, before I call for the police.’  Antonio turned, took crumbs from his pocket and tended to his birds. 
     ‘You were thinking about the girl, weren’t you?  How women used to fall at your feet and into your bed – anything to be the next subject of the great Antonio Rodas.’
     ‘My name is Paolo.’  Antonio cupped his hand with breadcrumbs and a vibrant parakeet dipped its beak.
     ‘No,’ said the youth.  ‘You are Antonio Rodas.  And you made a pact with me.’
     Antonio shook his head.  ‘My name is Paolo.’
     ‘Who did you think you were praying to all those years ago . . . God?’
     ‘Go now, or I will call the police.’  He held his breath, listened for the youth to stand and leave, but all he heard was the click of fingers.  Antonio looked down at the parakeet; it lay dead on the cobbles.
     ‘I’m sorry about that, Antonio, but time for me is a luxury.’
     Antonio dropped the crumbs and took the dead bird in hands that were once disfigured with arthritis.  ‘I prayed to God and only Him.’  He laid the bird on the ground and turned to the youth.  ‘You are not Him.’
     From deep within the abyss of the hood, dark blue eyes glimmered, rippled like a midnight sea.  ‘So we’re agreed.  I’m not Him.’
     ‘You have come for my soul, is that it?’  Antonio’s heart felt like a brick in his chest as he weighed the dead bird with a glance. 
     The youth snorted.  ‘Don’t be so melodramatic.  Consider us friends, you and I.  He leant forwards onto his elbows, laced his fingers together.  ‘But I did you a favour.  Now you have to repay that favour.’  He sat back in the chair. 
     ‘And what could you possibly want from an old man like me?’  The crowd hustled forward, enveloping Antonio in claustrophobia.  
     ‘I want you to paint my portrait.’ 
     Another scream, another child crying.  Antonio winced.  The youth clicked his fingers.
     As the crowd broke and turned to the commotion, Antonio saw the Statue of Liberty grimace.  His eyes frosted over like rare bird eggs, and his costume seemed to lithify.
     ‘I will be at your room by nine,’ said the youth.  He stood and walked away. 
     Antonio watched him stop at the Statue of Liberty.  He dropped a coin into the collection bucket and stroked the stone face with the back of his hand.  The statue wobbled, then fell to the ground, smashing into pieces. 
     The crowd gasped and applauded and threw coins into the collection bucket.
Antonio lived in a single room apartment above a boutique in the Gothic Quarter. Barri Gotic had changed a lot since the ’60s, and bars and restaurants now flourished where the old workshops once had.  Sometimes he would transport himself back to the old Barcelona, and stand in the narrow streets to look up at the timeless architecture.  But the warmth of nostalgia was always chilled by memories of the old Antonio. 
     His room was cold and dark all year round.  The heat from the fireplace was lost to the vaulted ceiling and the building opposite so close it blocked the sun.  He kept his bed by the window so he could watch the stars at night, and next to it, a stool for his bible and tobacco pouch.  The rest of the space was uncluttered apart from a wooden table and chair, broken easels and blank canvases and two shelves that still clung to the flaking plaster after all these years.  The Frenchman’s portrait from the day before now sat on one of the shelves and was the only piece of art in the room. 
     Antonio’s bones were stiffening from the lack of sun.  He threw logs on the fire and held his palms up to the growing flames.  Before long, his hands were fists, and they were shaking. 
     For thirty years he had believed his hands were a gift from God, a reprieve from the decade spent cursed with arthritic claws.  How many nights had he prayed for his artist’s hands to be returned?  What had he promised?
     ‘Would you like me to remind you, old man?’
     Antonio nearly fell into the fire; his cheeks pinched with heat.  He staggered and turned.  ‘How did you get in here?’
     The youth was sitting at the wooden table, his face shrouded in the black tunnel of his hood.  ‘It was something along the lines of: “Dear Lord, never will I think of myself as more than I am.  Never again will I treat another soul as lesser than myself.  Never again will I be ruled by ego – these are my vows, Lord.”’  The youth stood and joined Antonio at the fire.  ‘“Never again will I sign a painting, if only You will let me paint.”’
     Antonio shuffled backwards and sat on his bed before his knees buckled.  ‘Prayers and promises to God, not to you.’   
     ‘Do you think a decade of alcoholism and regret is purgatory enough to sate Him?  If I had not given your hands back to you, they would still be knotted branches clinging to the neck of a bottle of absinthe.’ 
     ‘If I had known the gift was from you, I would not have accepted.’
     ‘Brave words, thirty years on.  Perhaps I should take back my gift?  You did after all, break your promise.’
     Antonio stood, his chest swelling with indignation.  ‘I have been repentant of my immorality these last thirty years – strived to be a good man.  I have broken no promises.’
     The youth placed his hand in the fire, let the flames lick his palm like puppies’ tongues.  ‘You signed a painting.’
     ‘Yesterday.  The Frenchman.’  With one hand still in the fire, the youth pointed at the canvas on the shelf.    
     ‘That was not my signature.’
     The youth drew his hand from the fire, raked the flaking plaster above the stone mantel with a blackened finger.  ‘You signed a painting,’ he said, as he carved the word PAOLO into the chimney breast. 
     ‘So this is how it ends,’ Antonio said to himself, and then to the youth, ‘So now you take my hands?  Well take them!  I am an old man, I’ll be dead soon enough.’
     ‘That’s not how I see it.  You would still owe me thirty years.  But don’t worry, I’m not here to collect.’
     ‘Then why?’
     ‘I told you.  I want the great Antonio Rodas to paint my portrait.  The man who was once considered the greatest portrait painter of his generation.’
     ‘Well let’s get on with it; my hands are stiffening from the cold.’  Antonio moved toward his easel but the youth raised his hand to stop him.
     ‘Unfortunately, you are not the great Antonio Rodas.’
     Antonio stared into the black hood.  ‘What do you mean?  Of course I am Rodas.’
     ‘The great Rodas was young.  You are old.’
     ‘The old Rodas is all you have.’  Antonio set his easel and contemplated a canvas.
     ‘Not necessarily,’ said the youth.  ‘How would you like to be young again?  Become the great Rodas, once more?’
     Antonio laughed.  ‘I think the great Rodas is better left in the past; he wasn’t such a good man.’
     The youth clicked his fingers and Antonio fell to the floor, writhing in agony.  His bones felt as if they were splitting into a million shards, his skin as if flaying from his burning body.  It seemed an eternity had passed before he could breathe again.  He lay panting and sweating in the dust; the memory of the pain a tormenting echo.
     ‘Stand, Antonio.’
     Antonio rolled onto his belly, dragged his knees beneath him and scrambled to his feet.
     The youth held up his arms.  ‘The great Antonio Rodas!’
     Antonio swayed, vaguely aware he no longer ached.  He clenched his fists; his fingers felt strong and supple.  ‘What have you done to me?’
     ‘I’ve restored you.  Now you may paint my portrait.’
     Antonio reached up to his face.  He was clean shaven.  His skin was smooth and plump; his jaw-line taut and defined.  ‘Change me back.  I don’t want this.’
     ‘If I take it back, I have to take it all.’
     ‘Then do it!’ Antonio shouted.  ‘I cannot have this.  I don’t want to be the man I was.   I’m not strong enough.’ 
     ‘You are wiser now.  You won’t become that man again.’
     ‘I will, I know I will.  Change me back!’
     ‘I will have to take your hands, Antonio.’
     ‘Take them,’ Antonio cried.
     The youth turned to the fire.  ‘The way I see it, though, is that if I hadn’t given you your hands, you would have drank yourself to death, so I would have to take your life, too.’
     Antonio fell to his knees and stared at his new hands.  He was repulsed, and yet . . .  ‘I can’t . . . I mustn’t.’
     The youth left the fire and stood behind Antonio.  ‘Oh, but you can . . . you must.  I can only have my portrait painted by the best, and that is the young Rodas.  If you choose to paint me, you have to accept this gift.  If you refuse, I will take your hands and your life.  They are mine to take.’
     Antonio wept.  ‘I will revert to the man I was – I know it.’  He felt the youth’s hands on his shoulders.
    ‘Is that really so bad?’ he said in a soft voice.  ‘If you were not supposed to enjoy the spoils of your talent, then God would not have given them to you.  You deserve to be rich, to be celebrated.  You deserve the most beautiful of women – you are Rodas!’
     Antonio felt hot breath in his ear.
     ‘You want the girl from the market, don’t you?’
     Tears stung Antonio's cheeks.  He shook his head as he sobbed.  ‘No – no – no.’
     ‘You could have her now, have any woman you like,’ the youth whispered.
     Antonio shook free of the youth and stood by the fire.  ‘But I have done such terrible things.’
     ‘The folly of youth.’
     ‘I have broken marriages – devastated families.’
     ‘A family united in love can never be broken.  Don’t blame yourself for the weakness of others.’
     ‘I don’t deserve a second chance.’
     ‘Everyone deserves a second chance.’
     Antonio blinked tears down his young cheeks and stared at his hands for the longest time. 
     ‘I will paint,’ said Antonio.  He mounted the largest of his canvases on his easel – arranged his brushes and colours.
     The youth went to the fire, leaned into the flames and inhaled.  Glowing embers rose in a spiral, catching the mouth of his hood alight.  He stepped back from the hearth, his Thief’s Uniform disintegrating in clouds of ash that floated up into the vaulted ceiling. 
     Antonio recoiled from the horror, fought back a scream and tried to still his racing heart.   
     ‘Begin,’ said The Devil.
     Antonio took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and was left with the true nature of the beast.  He opened them again and began to paint.
     Before long he was in the frenzy of composition.  His hands felt glorious; he was the old Rodas again.  Colour grew on the canvas as joy swelled in his heart.  An hour passed, then two.  He worked frantically – weeping and laughing – singing old songs and cursing old foes.  He was the happiest he had ever been.  The saddest.  He repented the lives he had ruined – recalled the pain on the faces of friends and loved ones until he thought his eyes would burn in their sockets. 
     At midnight he stepped back from the canvas, exhausted.  ‘I am finished.’
     ‘May I see?’ said The Devil.
     Antonio nodded, sat on his bed and stared at his young hands.
     In the Thief’s Uniform once again, the youth stood before the easel.  ‘Sublime,’ he whispered. 
     ‘I captured the eyes,’ said Antonio.
     ‘I believe you have,’ said the youth, chuckling softly.  ‘And you thought you weren’t strong enough.’
     The youth laughed for some time and then clicked his fingers.
If the sun knew anything of how Barcelona used to be, it said nothing, and rose silently into the morning sky.  Antonio did not rise.  He lay on his bed, a faint smile barely visible beneath his grey beard.  Clasped to his still chest were hands that used to be strong, but were now twisted and gnarled.  Next to his bed was an easel, and on it, a portrait of a woman.  She wore a floral summer dress with bright yellow sunflowers and her shoulder-length hair was a waterfall of mahogany, caramel and amber. 

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