Grey-feathered gulls barked at the sway of the marina masts and a black cloud grew across the water. The artist snapped open the newspaper with a whip-crack across his folded knees and observed the sun’s descent into the burnt-honey haze at the horizon. The rub of cheap ink smudged the prints of his thumbs and ingrained on them the stale smell of recycled paper. He wrapped his slender fingers around the beer glass, moistening his palm with cold crystals of condensation. He raised the glass to his mouth and tasted only the bitter melt of the foam.
Reece Wilde’s latest masterpiece is perhaps the most stinging piece of satire to come from the controversial artist in years. ‘The Dirty Brexiteer’ is a step away from Wilde’s recent forays into watercolour, and the return to a more abstract style is a welcome return to form.
Wilde looked up to regard the changing hue of the sky. He couldn’t think of the last painting of his that wasn’t labelled a return to form. The article went on:
Wilde is a known student of the Cubist movement, and this is evident more here than in any of his previous work. The harsh angles and vivid, almost aggressive palette on show in the unnamed subject’s face are the product of a frustrated, albeit hugely masterful, creator. And the results, it cannot be argued, are astounding. ‘The Dirty Brexiteer’ is already causing a stir in the art world, and further cements the already concrete reputation of Brighton’s own prodigy.
Wilde raised the glass again and let the foam dissolve on his tongue as he shook his head. He wondered if the article had been written by a kid; an intern, perhaps, or an art student. Or just another of the blindfolded sheep-men behind their typewriters. I dance for the bears, he thought to himself, and the bears clap their stupid paws together because someone whispers to them that it is a dance and that they must clap.
‘It doesn’t look anything like your work,’ came a voice at his shoulder.
Wilde craned his neck and raised a slow, greying eyebrow to the chestnut, cat-like eyes of the waitress standing behind him. The lamp above the table cast a white glow on the crests of her olive cheeks. She stood with an empty tray tucked under one arm, and a ribbon of silky, raven-black hair fell across one eye.
Wilde regarded her and motioned to the chair opposite him. The waitress sat, her angled brows slightly turned in as she surveyed the artist.
‘You haven’t painted anything for a long time,’ she said at last.
Wilde smiled. So, one of my little rats has squeaked, he thought to himself.
‘Who have you been speaking to?’
She shook her head. ‘I’m just not as blind as everyone else, that’s all.’
Wilde’s forefinger skirted the rim of his glass. ‘And what do you know of art, exactly?’
‘I know that your true paintings are deeper than a six hundred page novel, and far more complex. I know that the way you mix colours takes my breath.’ She picked up the newspaper from the table and examined the black and white photograph. ‘And I know that your last three pieces were not painted by anyone so talented, unless you painted them with the brush between your toes, and a blindfold over your eyes, and a worm burrowing into your brain.’
Wilde observed the almond eyes before him, the cool expression.
‘Why are you doing it?’
Wilde gazed at the last heat haze of the disappearing sun. The truth was, he didn’t know why he was doing it anymore. An experiment, he told himself at first. But now what? It had backfired spectacularly.
‘If only everyone had half your wits,’ he said finally, his sentence trailing off unfinished.
The balcony was filling quickly as the lamps across the waterfront flickered into life.
‘I need to get back to work,’ the girl declared, standing up.
‘Come to my studio,’ Wilde said, fishing a card from the inside pocket of his suit jacket. ‘Tomorrow morning, open house.’
The girl scrutinized him.
‘Take the card,’ Wilde said calmly, his eyes fixed on hers. ‘I still have some pieces of my own.’
The girl took the card. She turned towards a table of new arrivals, looking back once to see the artist’s eyes still trained on her as he stood up to leave.
Wilde strolled the length of the marina in the fading amber light, his cane clipping the wooden boardwalk as he went. He came to the stairs of his basement studio at the end of the promenade that ran from the marina to the pier.
‘Ah,’ Wilde said, opening the door and finding the lights already turned on. ‘Found your way in, did you?’
Eighteen, he told Wilde he was. A dark boy with thick eyebrows and a brash, handsome face. His hair was black, an untidy mop overgrown past his ears. His expression was exactly the kind that Wilde had been looking for: sombre, suspicious, desperate. Sitting with his back up against the wall of the alley behind the train station, he had met the artist’s approach with impassive, coal-black eyes.
The painting had taken no longer than an hour. Wilde watched the boy carefully from the chair in the corner of his studio, surprised by the focus and concentration on the face of his imposter. After an initial hesitation with the paintbrush and the palette, the boy soon caressed the brush as if it had been a finger missing from his hand all his life. He stopped at intervals and tilted his head to observe his progress, making small amendments with tepid brush strokes. He closed his eyes for seconds at a time, picturing some distant muse etched into his memory. He did not turn around once from the moment he picked up the brush, and Wilde felt at times like a ghost in his own room.
The boy’s handling of colour was clumsy, thought Wilde, his technique rudimentary, but it mattered little. Intentionally or not, the boy had captured some kind of distant chaos in the subject’s face; and that small, perhaps mistaken subtlety would be enough to pass it off.
Once finished, the boy had said nothing. He stepped back from his work and gazed at it for several minutes, as though he had forgotten where he was.
‘It’s very good,’ Wilde lied.
The boy nodded. ‘I’m not an artist. But it could be worse.’
‘It is enough for its purpose.’
The boy’s eyes narrowed. ‘And what’s that?’
‘You will see soon enough.’
Standing in the middle of Wilde’s studio a month later, the boy still wore the same shabby leather he’d been wearing at that first meeting.
‘Fifty-fifty, as promised,’ the artist said, handing the boy a wad of crisp notes from the safe behind the sofa.
‘I’ve seen the reviews,’ the boy said, his eyes large and burdened. ‘I’ve seen how much it sold for. Give me the lot, or I’ll have you done for fraud.’
Wilde sighed and poured himself a glass of whisky from the table in the corner of the studio. He collapsed onto his favourite sofa; an old, beaten thing with holes in the fading leather.
‘What would stop me calling the police now and having you arrested?’ he asked.
The boy stared hard but remained silent.
‘You are not even the best artist out of all the homeless skunks I’ve pulled off the street, you know,’ he went on. ‘You realise, of course, that the painting is a success because it has my name on it? Your poor representation of the human form has been mistaken for an appreciation of Cubism. Your slipshod brushwork for political comment. Tell me, is that what you intended?’ Wilde took a slow sip of his drink. ‘What will you tell people, boy? That I asked you to paint a picture for me, all for fun? They’d lock you up. Take my advice: keep your mouth closed and your hand open. Take the money we agreed on and get out of this cretinous city.’
Wilde stood up and put his glass of whisky on the table.
‘I’ll tell you what,’ he said. He walked to the corner of the room, to a large canvas covered by a red velvet curtain. ‘This is what I’ve been working on in the month since we last met. In my humble but esteemed opinion, it’s the best piece of work I’ve ever created.’
Wilde pulled away the curtain to reveal the painting.
‘You may do with this painting whatever you wish. I have yet to sign it, and I’m willing to let you pass it off as your own.’
The boy did not take his eyes from the painting as Wilde spoke. Watercolour: a white cottage covered in moss and framed by rolling hills; two wooden chairs on the veranda and a vineyard rich with purple. The beginnings of some distant European dream. The artist’s escape.
‘If they believe I painted it,’ the boy said, ‘it’ll be worthless. You need to sign it.’
‘Ah,’ Wilde said, holding his hands out with a melancholy smile. ‘Isn’t that the wonderful thing about it all? What a charade this whole game really is. I will sign nothing. Take the painting and get out of here, and if I ever see you again, I’ll have you locked up.’
The boy stood on his toes for a moment, the air loaded between the two pairs of locked, stubborn eyes. Then he slouched out of the room, leaving the canvas behind and uttering not another word. Wilde looked now at the white walls of his studio, at the paintings ready for the viewing the next morning. These were not his best. His best works were already out on the walls of the ignorant masses, seen not with eyes but only through the screens of smartphones. What did it matter if these were seen or not? He could just as well impale a football with a stick and they would still put it on a pedestal in a museum and declare his genius.
Wilde finished the whisky and took the knife from the drawer of his drinks cabinet.
The next morning the first visitors to the studio gasped at the sight of the slashed paintings around the walls. Then they smiled, some laughing in surprise, when they noticed the artist sat on the sofa at the back of the room, arms wide in welcome and his head down on his chest in a curtain call bow. The crowd clapped, delighted. The waitress, standing at the back, was the only one to notice the pool of red at the artist’s feet.
Tomas Marcantonio is a fiction writer from Brighton, England. He has been published in various journals and anthologies, most recently The Fiction Pool, The Cabinet of Heed, and Okay Donkey. Tomas is currently based in Busan, South Korea, where he teaches English and writes whenever he can escape the classroom. You can connect with Tomas on Twitter @TJMarcantonio.