Another long read from the Prague diaries.
And to say, ‘You’re very nice?”
‘Sei molto sympatico.’
‘And to say, ‘Would you like to do something tonight?’
‘Vuoi fare qualcosa stasera?’
‘Good. Hah! Have you seen this bit?’
You have (a) beautiful
‘Hai gli occhi belli,’ say I. You have beautiful eyes. ‘Posso ballare con te?’ Can I dance with you?
She blinks. ‘Sono qui con il mio ragazzo.’
I’m here with my boyfriend.
‘You don’t have a boyfriend.’
She shrugs. ‘It’s better than, ‘Non mi interessa.’
The first needle is in under the skin. It’s only a matter of time before she takes my fingernails.
This is the first time I ask Viola to dance. She reclines on the little divan in my studio, idly twirling paint brushes in her hands; her gleaming sweep of auburn hair is shocking against her white shoulders. It isn’t human hair, or it shouldn’t be. I touched it once, it is more like the glassy hair of a mermaid. She tosses the brush into a corner and smooths her lilac skirt down over her thighs. Viola is hyper-feminine, given to antiquated styles and luscious silks and chiffon. She likes to cinch in her waist, full skirts rustling about her knees. She is the only woman I know apart from Mona – who has been forcibly ripped from the past and shoved into the present and doesn’t really count – who wears stockings. Her make-up is applied with an artist’s hand. Long, sweeping eye-black, cheeks flawless and rosy from her little Moroccan pots of powder and rouge. She rises and picks up her bag. When she is not busy being a muse she works in a gallery, and I have made her late. I am glad the reason she is late is because we were teaching each other one of the most beautiful languages in the world. She trips past me with her swaying gait, her perfume rolling over me in a heady wave where I am sitting pretending to be absorbed in Italian grammar. The door closes behind her with a dull click, like a full stop.
I whisper against the palm of my hand, ‘Sono innamorata di te.’
I am in love with you.
I remember all this, painfully clear, as I smoke in the bath that evening. Suddenly I am an adult, but I do not want adulthood, with its loss and its terror of loss, and responsibilities and exit wounds. My mouth becomes dry, and I resolve to go and talk to Mona first thing in the morning, because I’m overwhelmed and Mona is a cocktail mix of helpful contradictions and employs the kind of hard-headed, practical values particular to whores and long-lived bohemians who have survived the razor’s edge. I wipe the steam from the bathroom window and look at the stars beginning to freckle the long evening sky. My heart feels weighted, steadily developing a little tumour of lead.
Mona lives in a well-off part of town and I always feel just a little degraded, despite myself, when I walk through it. People sometimes stop and look at me, they are dressed in neat and sober navy and winter grey; work suits for people who go to offices with coffees and pastries clutched in their hands, grease seeping through paper bags. My clothes are ugly, and they look at me as though I were an exotic but dirty animal let loose from someone’s private collection; a pet baboon with an unexpected freedom and mischief in its head. How Mona must make them tremble! She opens her door in a silk and velvet kimono decorated with peacocks, a cigarette dangling from her lips. She exhales, and I watch the smoke tumble past my shoulder like a spirit released into the street.
‘You sounded dreadful on the telephone, Dearheart.’ Mona calls everyone Dearheart, or My Darkling. She wrinkles her nose at my abject appearance and motions me inside.
Mona’s apartment is furnished like an opium den. Large, soft cushions are scattered around the floor of the living room, she has pinned long, filmy pieces of material across the ceiling like a tent. Low tables are cluttered with little silver bowls full of earrings and precious stones and packets of cigarettes seem to breed liberally across the floor. Sometimes you feel the crackle of one under your feet, like stepping on snails by accident. She folds herself into a pale pink threadbare chair with boneless feline grace, crossing her legs and squinting at me through the smoke. The smell of this place always makes my throat tickle, it’s like being inside an expensive ashtray.
‘Well, darkling, what is it? You look awful.’
She shrugs, ‘Don’t be silly, you know I worry.’
I sigh, running my hands through my hair, it is lank and dirty. ‘I’ve reached some kind of crisis point, about Viola. I can’t think about anything else, I can’t work.’
Mona snorts. ‘The Munchkin? Just let it run its course; you’ll find someone else to obsess over, you always do.’
Mona calls Viola The Munchkin because of her Alice in Wonderland fashion. I’ve always sensed a certain antagonism towards Viola from Mona, a quiet, coiled-spring tension. Whenever she talks about her I get the impression of bullets being slowly loaded into a revolver. I would not want to be on the other end of Mona’s barrel.
She takes another long drag. ‘I’ve seen this happen to you before; if she deigned to turn that little sunflower face in your direction, what on earth would you do with her? As soon as you’d worn out that peachy skin you’d be bored stiff.’
‘That isn’t true! She’s a good artist. I’m not just attracted to her.’
Mona laughs, high and shrill. ‘Darling, as soon as you got past the mask you’d realise how desperately unoriginal the thoughts in that pretty head truly are.’ She flicks ash into an empty cup, her wrist smooth and practised as a whip. ‘The plumage of songbirds is always wonderful when seen from far enough away, but you wouldn’t want to keep one in the house. The noise would drive you mad.’
She tilts her head to one side, gazing at a corner of crimson red material that is shifting in the breeze. Her face is curiously ageless, and she could be anywhere between an unhappy thirty and a spiritual forty-five. The sounds of the early morning filter in through the open window and I catch the smell of sweet bread baking somewhere.
‘Isn’t that a terrible thing, though? To become bored, to admit the possibility of becoming bored with another person, especially one that I say I’m in love with? Am I so interesting that I have the luxury of being bored with Viola? Isn’t that just a terrible arrogance?’
Mona sighs and shifts in her chair as Lucian, her large grey cat, leaps onto her lap. He is a smoke-and-velvet prince with one fiendish yellow eye, the other having been clawed out in a fight. That’s how Mona found him, in the street with blood weeping from one empty socket.
‘It’s not a moral outrage to need diversity in one’s life,’ she caresses Lucian’s flat head, her body is outlined through the kimono, the picture before me is one complacent feline stroking another. ‘Especially for an artist, it’s a necessity. You are no more indispensable to her than she is to you.’
I gaze out of the window at the pale sunlight streaking the city with butter fingers. I feel sullen and glum. The whole business seems suddenly petty. Look at the artist, rushing about chasing down his Nightingales, what an absurd fellow he is!
‘I think she might be seeing Laurent.’
Mona shrieks, and I leap from my chair in alarm, but she is only laughing. Her throat rattles like machine-gun fire. Lucian the cat, more accustomed to these outbursts, merely blinks.
‘Dear god! Can you imagine a more perfect meeting of little minds!’ She stubs out her cigarette, savagely grinding it against the ashtray. ‘It’ll be like two peacocks crowing nothing at each other.’ She fixes me with a grave, dark gaze, perfectly mirroring the Virgin Mary staring out from an icon on the wall above her head. ‘You’re worth more than this, darkling, more than these…What did Satre call them? Sunday writers.’
As I walk back from Mona’s house later that evening the sky is slowly turning a sultry orange. A jealous, vinegar bile is simmering away inside me. I hate Laurent. He lies. His whole life is one carefully constructed performance; even the gestures of his hands are those of a consummate actor, a classical dancer’s gestures. His deep brown eyes and crooked half-smile are magnetic to girls, but I know a secret about Laurent, because he confessed to me once when he was drunk that he believes himself to be impotent with women. He asked Viola to model for him and they went down to the big cemetery and although it was near-freezing they sat there for hours; she posing as an anguished angel, half-clothed. Now it is Laurent’s name always on her lips, and how she savours it, that elegant collection of letters! His name nestles between her teeth and tongue, her breath smells of him, of sandalwood and tobacco. I hope that Laurent is impotent, the awful man. I hope that he tries to lie with Viola and can’t. I imagine her face, her closed and impenetrable expression, her lips set in a mocking line, heavy crimson lipstick smudged across her mouth. I imagine his despair; perhaps he will confess everything to her in anguish, that wilted blossom useless against his thigh. I rest my face in my hands, poisoned by the roiling mercury of my own thoughts. There’s nothing to eat in the house. I tear the last dry bit of bread from the bag and slot it into the toaster. There is a smear of jam left in the cupboard, and I work with the knife until I have caught every last little bit. I bring a box of large, flat mushrooms to my nose and recoil. They smell like fish.
One of my oldest friends drops in to stay for a week since she’s passing through town. Usually I am furious when people invade my apartment, I guard my personal space jealously, but I love Theresa fiercely and at this time of heartache and uncertainty it is especially good to have her around. She is an adventurer adept at cheering me up with her stories. Her hair is cut short and ragged like a pixie, and she has a way of lacing her fingers beneath her chin when she is listening to you that always puts me in mind of a storybook elf. She sits opposite me in my studio, strong black coffee cradled in one long-fingered hand. Her hair is constantly being dyed different shades and is currently peroxide blonde. She peers out at me from underneath her scrappy fringe, her eyes almost the same shade of leaf-green as Viola’s. The thought makes me stutter inside, as though in pausing to think about the shade of Viola’s eyes the rhythm of my body must be suspended for an instant, so she can fill my whole being without distraction.
Theresa looks at me pityingly. ‘You’re getting too thin.’
‘There’s nothing to eat.’ It’s true, I can feel my ribs like an elegant fist about my heart, my spine presses uncomfortably against the back of my chair. ‘And I never have any money.’
‘Because you spend it on coffee and paint.’
‘I’m a Renaissance man.’
‘You’re an idiot.’ She begins to deftly roll a cigarette, her pale hands quick and precise. She is dressed in her customary black, a roll-neck jumper and wool trousers. Everybody I know seems to have a certain ingrained style; Theresa, cool and elegant, her simple, clean silhouette like a sombre and sarcastic lily. Mona and her decadent chaos, Laurent’s genteel, shabby-chic suits and Viola’s Alice in Wonderland dresses. They all seem so carefully crafted, so individually stamped by their apparel. I feel ragged beside them, untogether. I slump in my seat, suddenly miserable beside Theresa’s understated sophistication, and I don’t know why.
As though reading my mind, she blows a long stream of smoke towards the ceiling and says, ‘I’m going to take you shopping.’
‘I can’t go shopping, they don’t let people like me into anything other than the Red Cross.’
‘Don’t be silly. We have to get you out of those rags.’
I bristle. ‘That’s so shallow, it isn’t how people dress that matters.’ I pick at the hole in my trousers, feeling ashamed. I’m a hypocrite.
Theresa just laughs, a pleasant, husky sound. ‘Of course not, but you can’t deny that clothes are an expression of individuality, and what we say with them tells other people things about us.’ She stubs out her cigarette decisively. ‘We’re going out, we’re going to get you into something less like a bin bag, and you’re not going to angst over that prick Laurent any more.’ She pulls me to my feet and we navigate the chaos of the house. ‘And when we get back we’re bloody well sorting this mess out.’
I shrug, ‘It doesn’t really seem worth it, at the moment.’
‘Oh dear, we are ill,’
I am thankful, as ever, for Theresa’s blunt, schoolmistress character.
We go out, reeling along the pavements, merry and a little drunk from the crisp cider that Theresa plied me with at lunch. People turn to watch us as we skip along the street, smiling. We end up at a little vintage boutique halfway up one of those skinny side alleys; once the province of cut-throats and purse-snatchers, now host to trendy shops full of button-down shirts, musty fedoras and battered suitcases. It is the kind of place that I loathe simply because I do not have the money to spend in it. Theresa is one of the few people with serious money that I can stand. She is not prideful or boastful about it and is unthinkingly generous – not in an attempt to buy anyone’s affections, but simply because she likes to see people enjoying themselves. Her outer shell is cool and sharp, but her core is warm and embracing. She is a soft-boiled egg, or a bitter dark chocolate with hazelnut cream inside, Salt Caramel.
She holds a suit up to me; in artistically battered fiery gold cord with a sky-blue necktie.
‘Maybe not, you don’t want to look like Laurent.’
I hiss at the sound of his name. She scolds me. The lady behind the counter, with an open face and startling blue eyeshadow, is watching us with an indulgent smile as Theresa holds up shirts and jackets and suits under my chin. She probably thinks that we are lovers.
‘I can’t see him as a corduroy man, somehow.’ She supplies from the other end of the room.
‘I know what you mean, it’s just so useful in the winter.’
‘Wool’s always the other option.’
Theresa sighs, ‘Yes, but the colour’s generally very limited, it’s usually all greys and blacks, you know?’
The lady nods sagely. I feel like an alien in a strange new tribe watching the elders communicate. They both stare at me, strangely rooted to this one spot on the carpet, unable to take charge of my own sartorial future. I feel as though I have in some way placed my whole reflection, like a huge, delicate ball of blown glass, into the hands of these two women. We leave with a red paper bag stuffed with linen and cotton and boiled wool. Theresa slaps her hands together with the satisfaction of a job well done, as though dressing me is like plastering a difficult wall.
‘Right, next up you need a couple of waistcoats, I didn’t like the ones in there.’
‘You mean, you want to keep going?‘
She laughs and skips away down the road. ‘You’re my new project, sweetie! I can’t leave you unfinished!’
We plunge into a tobacconists on the way home. I feel like Aladdin, surrounded by treasures in the cave of my living room. Everything seems to offer me a fantastical new version of myself, like those cut-out dolls you used to see as children, where you could make the paper girl into anyone you wanted. I stare at myself in my speckled mirror, Theresa’s slim black figure behind me, grinning hugely around her cigarette. Her eyebrows are raised; a magician quite stunned by the success of her own trick.
‘Blood of Christ, you’re a handsome devil when you’re not promoting Oxfam.’
I glance at her over my shoulder and raise one eyebrow, self-consciously. She bursts out laughing and takes a step forward, planting her lips lightly, so lightly, against my own. The smoke from her cigarette coils around us, streaked with gold from the sun pouring through the window. We are both being enveloped in a bright, bitter cocoon.
Viola and I have not spoken properly in weeks. I am still baffled and tense when she appears in my thoughts, but I have found a marvellous new confidence and way of living. It was not, of course, all in a bag of wool and cotton but as Theresa said, in working out what I would most dearly like to say about myself. My work is pouring out of me. Mona is delighted, knocking aside any feeble protestations about the Emperor’s New Clothes. Theresa has left, gone on to Prague, swallowed up by the world. When the door knocks I am surprised, jolted out of hours of painting, straightening my back with a grimace. Viola is standing there. The spitting rain leaves wet freckles across her shoulders and puts diamonds on the brim of her hat.
‘Come out to the pub, it’s been ages,’ Her voice is hard, dull and brittle, it might snap. I study her face; her skin is bleached-bone pale and looks thin as tissue paper. Her eyes are mysteriously bright and dart about like anxious green fish.
‘I’m tired, I’ve been working.’ I am streaked with paint from knees to fingertips, my painting clothes stiff under layers of blue and yellow. I feel gloriously light and at ease in my own body.
‘You’ve probably earned a drink, then!’ She laughs, a horrid glassy laugh.
‘Viola, are you alright?’
She shivers, and shakes her head violently, dislodging the raindrops. ‘I know, I’ll get a bottle and come back!’ Before I can protest, she has turned from me and pattered down the street, the thin soles of her flat shoes mingling with the sound of the rain. I go back upstairs, leaving the door open, and wait. The door slams again, just as I realise that I am probably not in love with her anymore, and those cat’s-paw feet trip up the stairs. She is clutching two bottles of cheap red wine, the first glass catches sourly at the back of my throat, making me choke. Two hours pass. Her sense of femininity is deeply wounded. He is in turmoil, he loathes himself and her. I once imagined, with awful glee, Laurent finding himself impotent in bed with Viola, unable to muster false desire, and now that it has happened I am so sorry. Sorry he has had to live with the cross on his back of such a big lie under all the others; sorry to see Viola sprawled drunk and sobbing when her dignity has always seemed impenetrable to me, as permanent as her made-up face. There is a gruesome, wrenching sound and suddenly she is vomiting on the rug; a hand over her mouth streaked with purple, wine and stomach acid dripping through her splayed fingers. I crouch beside her, lifting that great, glossy mane of red hair away from her face. A weight flies away from me, everything is a pale, secondary love compared to my reignited affair with colour. When I craved her, my work suffered. Now I can inhale the colours; I can become them. I find her a tissue to clean up her face and she sleeps in my studio, wrapped in a thick blanket, and in the morning I make her coffee; a vast, airy space within me where once there was so much shrieking and painful desire.
She wraps her hands around the mug as though grateful for the warmth on this summer day.
‘Thank you.’ She looks me over. I am going to meet Mona for coffee, apparently she has something to ask me.
‘You’ve changed,’ she says. Her eyes are narrowed, she looks like a child whose sweets have been taken away, and I remember something that Mona said to me:
This might be a woman’s thing, but in school there was always a dull girl who everyone actually wanted to be friends with, because she made them look so much better by comparison, and when that girl had had enough and made herself over they put her down – because if she got herself together, where did that leave them? With their own flaws, open and raw and suddenly visible. Darkling, Viola is one of those terrified girls; so long as everyone stays a little bit beneath her, she is safe.
‘I never thought I’d see you in a suit,’ she says. ‘You look like a banker.’
I smile at the cheap shot, I know I do not, and she herself blushes, dipping her face to her cup. I understand, she feels she has humiliated herself in front of me, and now she needs to regain her position as the unruffled, smooth and untouchable girl whom everyone wants but no one is quite good enough for. It must be exhausting. I feel pity pinching me. Her face is blotchy, her eyes are smudged with black. Her hair, I think, still has vomit in it. She is in my old dressing gown and looks almost childlike…It’s touching, seeing this real person under the powder and paint, but I know she wouldn’t see it that way. She would be disgusted with herself, with me for seeing her in her vulnerability. Viola’s humanity, I realise, has always been something distasteful to her, something that must be covered up, split by a dividing wall beautifully painted, but terribly hard.
I suddenly feel the need to ask, ‘Viola, have you been working recently? Painting, I mean?’
She shakes her head, hand wiping the salt crust from her eyelashes. ‘I haven’t really felt like it, not since…I mean since Laurent and I…’
I nod. I want to crouch in front of her and take her hands in mine. I want to say, ‘Work suffers when you’re in love with the wrong person.’
‘Sweetheart, you can stay as long as you like, help yourself to the hot water, but I have to go out.’ I swing the keys from my fingers. She nods her head, red hair falling over her face like a defeated poppy. She stands and gives me a weak smile.
‘First, a shower, then to re-conquer the world.’ She reaches over to her crumpled jacket, pulling a lipstick out of the pocket. I watch as she takes the cap off, winding the stick of brilliant crimson as far out as it will go, saying nothing.
‘I guess they call it war paint for a reason.’ I say. She flicks another smile at me, but it is stronger this time, more assured. I roll my sleeves back a little and salute her.
‘Just put the keys back in through the letterbox.’
She nods, already gazing into the mirror. ‘Arrivederci.’
I stop briefly on the stairs and breathe in and out, once, deliberately.
The streets are streaked with buttery sunlight, the trees along the pavement whispering in pale green are in on a secret. Mona is waiting outside the café, a glass of gin and tonic in front of her at two in the afternoon. She looks up as my shadow falls across the table.
‘There you are, Darkling! Where have you been?’
‘Sorry, Mona – I was learning Italian, I lost track of time.’ I order a coffee from a hovering waiter.
She beams. ‘Broadening your horizons! Excellent! Well, if I were you I’d get a bit of Slavic chatter under my belt as well.’ She tosses an envelope across the table towards me.
‘Theresa? Why did she send it to you?’
‘Because she knows you never open your mail.’
I look at the envelope. ‘You already have opened it.’
She shrugs, lighting a cigarette. Mona is always so deliciously unapologetic. Theresa’s missive is brief.
You – I am working with a little theatre in Prague who are looking for new set design, I showed them some photographs of your abstract work and they like it. Come. Even if it doesn’t work out you’ll love this place. Absinthe cafes!
What am I saying? Your ticket’s already booked. For Christ’s sake, Mona, make sure he gets on the right plane.
I look up. Mona is watching me with her Egyptian queen eyes. I hold the letter in my hand for a long time, marvelling at how something so filled with future can feel so light and thin.
‘I have your ticket.’ She says, in her gravelly voice. ‘The cat pissed on it but it’s still legible.’
I look up at the sky; I imagine travelling across it. I think of long flat fields and narrow, gothic streets. I see Theresa in my mind, curled over a book and sipping wine in a café. I imagine walking towards her and watching her face tilt up to mine. Mona watches the mood ripple over my face like wheat in a breeze and laughs with pleasure, her harsh crow’s laugh. She lifts the gin to her lips. ‘You could always come back.’
It bounces between our hearts, the knowledge that I am probably not coming back for a while. ‘There’s a way to send on people’s things, like they used to send on trunks and furniture, isn’t there?’
The ice tinkles gently against the side of her glass, and she makes me some reply, but I don’t really hear it. I let my head fall back again. In my mind I am already winged and weightless and Theresa is there, her elbows resting on the wall of a bridge, looking out over the Vltava. I remember her telling me once that Prague, or Praha, means ‘Threshold’. I tap my fingertips on the table to a jaunty, inner rhythm as steam curls away from my untouched coffee. In my mind I am already striding purposefully across the sky.