Now then. I've just got a cat with my darling wife Susan, and I could have written a smushy thing about him. Pfft.
This one is a play on a few things. The picture they're talking about exists; I don't really like it, and Sue does. I have one she doesn't like, so we hang them both, or neither. Fair, see? The smells Cat likes, I like, but she's not me; I just wanted to have a character that liked some of the same things I liked so that I could write about liking them. Selfish, yes.
This isn't based on any reality; Sue and I were never at Uni together, I don't know anyone that's done anything like this... it's just a nice thing based on a few real things. One or two truths in a big pack of lies, I guess. I've been told to 'write what I know'; this has some things I know in it.
“What? Jeez, I’m busy, can’t you see?”
He fumbled awkwardly with the hem of his t-shirt. I stared at him through the window, brush and palette paused in mid-air. I wanted to make sure he knew he was disturbing me, this time.
“I just wanted to, er, could I have your, um, y’know-“
“No, James, I don’t know. Do you want something? Just bloody get it yourself.”
I went back to my painting. It just wasn’t coming together like I hoped it would; James probably had borne the brunt of my dissatisfaction with the piece. The colours were just muddy, none of the essential light in the original picture was coming across.
I sighed and put my tools down. To give him credit, he was still stood there, even if he was biting his lip and playing with his t-shirt. One of those was cute; both was just... infuriating. I took a deep breath.
“James, I said just get whatever it is you need. I’m sorry I was a bit short with you, but I’m having a bad morning.”
“I can’t,” he blurted out, and then quickly added “I need you. Erm, need you to look at something. Outside.”
I looked back at the painting and resisted the urge to just throw it out the window and start again. Instead I stood, took off the apron I was wearing and turned my back on it. Maybe a bit of fresh air would help.
It wasn’t a long walk. James lived in the dorm next door, second floor, so I couldn’t just go and lean on his windowsill like he did to me. It was kind of annoying, sometimes, but other times, if I was really honest, I liked it. Not that I’d ever tell him that.
The stairs still smelled like new paint; the workmen had only finished the previous week, and I took a good deep breath. Something in me loved the smell. Glue, too; petrol, now there was a smell. No wonder people though I was nuts.
James kept his room meticulously neat. The way his room smelled was another smell I enjoyed. It was completely unlike anything else, just ‘his’ smell. Sort of sweet, if a smell could be measured in how it tasted. In the middle of his room was a shape covered in a blanket, quite tall, but thin. He stood by it.
“Well?” I said, hands on hips. This’d better be good.
He pulled off the cloth and let it puddle on the floor. Underneath was a painting; it was beautiful. A girl playing a cello, the light captured perfectly. There was such dynamism in her pose, she was obviously playing the whole time it was painted. Nothing stiff in her posture, she was as fluid and graceful as a panther. I checked it over with a professional eye.
The frame was in good condition, so I ignored it. Any picture could be reframed. There was a signature in the corner, not one I recognised; it was an original, not a print, the light shining off the brush strokes visible in the paint.
I couldn’t stop the interest leaking into my voice, however I felt about him interrupting me. “This is... well, it’s a beautiful picture, for a start. Where’d you find it?”
“It was behind a warehouse over on the other side of town.” I kept checking over the back of the picture, idly listening to him. “I saw it a few days ago, kept going back to see if it was still there. I figured, it was rubbish, or someone thought it was. Then I saw the date on the back.”
I picked up the painting and carefully turned it round. There was a date in one corner, 1696, and I let out a low whistle. This was old, over three hundred years.
“It’s old, right? So it might be worth something,” he said.
I cleared my throat and put on my artist’s hat. “There’s stuff I could tell you about the technical side of it, but for what it’s worth, I think this might be worth a bit of money. You’re sure it was abandoned? It’s not... stolen?”
He was shaking his head even as I finished the sentence. “I even went and asked around, but no-one said it was theirs.”
I carefully placed it back on the stand and stepped back, giving it one last look. It was a desirable piece of art, to be fair, from a purely subjective point of view.
“It’s nice,” I said, “and it might be worth money. This should be up on a wall, with someone who appreciates it. Not that I’m saying you wouldn’t you understand.” I blushed; hadn’t meant that to sound insulting. “What do you plan to do with it?”
He smiled, a genuine smile for the first time today. “I’ve got an idea of where it’s going,” he said, and re-covered it with the cloth. “What’ve you got planned for the rest of the day?”
“Probably going back to swear at my painting, get cross, cover it up and start again,” I said. I’d been right; a breath of fresh air had taken away a lot of the irritation I felt.
“Well, if you want, we can have a drink later on. Uni bar? Usual time?”
I shrugged, and nearly turned him down. I needed to finish this piece, and soon; deadline was looming. Then I heard myself agreeing to meet him, and that was that. I took a last breath of his room, his scent, and left.
The following day was a blur; the hangover didn’t help. I woke up in his room, which was somehow empty of that painting. That kind of irked me; I’d wanted to study it a bit longer. Something was niggling at the back of my mind, the signature and style seemed a little too familiar. James wasn’t there when I woke up; I was still fully clothed, which suggested we hadn’t done anything together. Probably for the best.
I stumbled back to my room, and there was my nemesis. The painting. It was a mess; I’d taken a big grey paintbrush to it in frustration, covered vast swathes of it as tears had streaked down my face. I felt hideous embarrassment at that idea now; what if someone had seen me completely lose it? Finally I’d covered it in a sheet and gone out with James. Hence the hangover.
I flumped down onto the office chair in the middle of my creative mess. It never bothered me; I knew where everything was, near enough, and could lay my hands on any given thing in, say, five minutes.
There was a note pinned to the sheet; big writing, a little heart making the dot to the ‘I’. “Happy Birthday - James”. He’d remembered. Little bastard; when did he get in here to do this?
With a heavy sigh I lifted a hand and snagged the sheet, pulling it off. There, under the sheet, was the painting. James’s painting, the girl on the cello. I marvelled again at the way the artist had captured her perfectly, the ebb and flow of light and dark.
“You like it?”
I jumped up and span round. James was sat on my bed, cross-legged, smiling.
“Jesus, shit, god, James; you scared me!”
He got off the bed. “Sorry, but you were so... upset. Didn’t want to disturb you.” He stood there, hands in pockets like it was the most natural thing in the world for him to be in my room. I guess it was; you don’t hear me complaining, normally.
“You remembered it was my birthday.” I sighed and waved at the painting. “Did you really find this out the back of a warehouse?”
“Well... tell you what. You’ve got a choice. You can either take it, get it valued, research it, find out who painted it and when, and then you’ll know. Or,” he continued, moving past me towards it, “you can hang it on your wall, keep it with you, take it as a present from a friend."
Damn him. I stared at him, then at the painting. He turned, smiled. “Happy birthday, Cat,” he said quietly.