The following short story was originally published in Playboy (South Africa), December 2011.
The pornographer’s muse
The waiters tittered in their corner over the large woman trying to squeeze her lower half under one of the small tables outside in the late afternoon sun. What amused them most was her ogling young female passers-by, blatantly so at times even though a pair of dark sunglasses hid her fleshy eyebrows and her small, dark eyes. She had a big round face, heavy with the hang of her jowls, the top of her lip beaded with sweat, which showed up the dark, downy fluff there. Her short hair was dyed flame red and worn in a youthful wave, not entirely incongruous to her age, but certainly in an attempt to escape any easy gauging of it. A colossus, she was not the kind of person the young waiters expected would be comfortable at this café frequented by lanky models stringing along the foolish rich.
But Anne Hemwidge came here often. An art critic and professor, sometime painter and poet, Anne was enjoying the last few weeks of her sabbatical. She had planned the renovations at her home badly – a new coat of paint, new bookshelves fitted – and with the painter and cabinet maker in the house, she couldn’t focus on anything aside from some paperwork. So she was out and about, lazing over lunch, paging through a glossy book on painting from this or that era. Now she had to get back home and see the workers off for the day.
Taking her glasses off, she called for her bill. Her small, rodent-like eyes tracked the young woman bringing the folder to the table. Cheeks flushed red with two pints of beer and the summer sun, Anne was feeling carelessly flirtatious. She got up to signal that she was ready to pay immediately, grinned at the waiter and counted out the cash, her practised eye picking up the name from the bill.
“Keep the change, Jess.”
“Thank you,” the young woman smiled broadly at the big tip.
Anne sized her up quickly and noticed the ruby red glass cross she wore as a pendant.
“Oh, that is beautiful,” she said.
The waiter instinctively brought her left hand to her neck, covering the jewel with her palm.
“Oh, this? Thanks.”
Her hand slid down and she briefly held the pendant in her finger tips, then leaned forward to pick up the bill folder.
As the cross swung free, Anne impulsively reached out a big, doughy hand to lift the pendant closer, pretending intense scrutiny.
The waiter wanted to draw back and so return the pendant to the private space where it belonged, but the big tip she had received made her reluctant to cause offence. She remained frozen, bent forward, the awkward pose unnoticed by Anne.
“Aah, Venice,” she said with mock wistfulness. “Have you been?”
The waiter blushed, stammered, but was also quizzical: “My parents went there a while ago… How’d you know it was from Venice?”
Gathering her things, Anne held her art book up, shrugged her shoulders and said: “I’m an art critic so I know a bit about Venetian glass.”
As she swung her leather satchel over her shoulder, it caught the top of the small vase on the table, sending it crashing to the floor. People at the other tables looked in her direction and Anne heard a burst of laughter from the opposite corner of the café terrace.
Despite the waiter’s protestations that she need not worry about the incident, Anne’s mood swung from careless and confident to a fluster. She could feel the many pairs of eyes now focused on her, puncturing her self-possession.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she exhaled, “but these tables are so close together!”
She felt now she had a certain integrity to defend, but as she made her way through the narrows between the tables, she couldn’t help knocking askew an empty table or chair. Quite deliberately, she made her way past the restaurant manager and scolded him for packing in the tables and chairs so tightly.
“Hussy,” she muttered to herself as she left the place, the eyes of the flabbergasted manager, the waiters, the other patrons all boring into her back.
She’s nothing but a hussy in cheap glass trinkets, Anne thought. Jess. Jezebel rather. A hussy of a Jezebel. How I would like to have her. And have her I would. Have her panting for more.
Anne grinned to herself, self-satisfied with her easy, prodigious ability to summon a fantasy starring herself and anyone she encountered. She could be anyone and have anyone, of any age, in any way.
After seeing off the workers, Anne rolled a joint, opened a bottle of red wine and stuffed a chicken for later roasting, quickly getting high by dragging deep and lightening her mood further by singing and swirling along to the loud music she played while preparing the food in the kitchen. Soon she must get ready for Jess.
Wine and joint in one hand, she went to her bedroom, stripped and entered her closet where she donned a purple, see-through chiffon burqa. It was her favourite colour and favourite ‘costume’, raggedy now from use and washing. From one of the drawers she also retrieved the hard-drive with her cache of pornography. In her movements through her closet, bedroom and bathroom, she avoided even glimpsing at any mirrors, even though the bedroom was shuttered and lit low. Not now, she thought, later.
To her irritation, her telephone beeped. The number was undisclosed. As she was still preparing herself for an evening of self-pleasure, had hardly even begun, she checked the message: “Yacub Jacobs found dead. Cause unknown. Probably heart attack. Madeleine.”
Madeleine. It had been three years since they last communicated, in a flurry of emails that rehearsed the same old acrimonious arguments when they had broken up years before. Why would Madeleine want to be the bearer of this news? Did she care, or was she hoping for one last stab, opening old wounds? She herself couldn’t respond as the number was withheld.
And Yacub dead? Should she care? Who should she care about? No, she decided more firmly, she would in any case not want to respond.
Still, Anne did not know what to do with the information. Yacub Jacobs was, now had been, a painter of average reputation – because of her doing, she’d like to think. She had described his work, years ago, as poor imitations of Lucian Freud’s, had called it nothing but the work of a pornographer using his male gaze for cheap sexual thrills.
Friends and colleagues had mildly, jokingly, reprimanded her for the crude terms in which she expressed her critical opinion. She had shrugged it off. There were two defences of his work in the arts pages, but that was mostly it. Madeleine, however, was his most vociferous champion, not in the pages of newspapers and journals, but in private, across the dinner table, here, in this house.
It still stung. It stung as painfully as the day she and Madeleine broke up, when in high acrimony Madeleine had shouted: “At least he’s a better fuck than you!”
She, Anne, had felt then that all that time she had been harbouring and feeding a thief in her own house.
Unable now to recall Jess’s image or summon any other fantasy, Anne lolled on the bed, listlessly scanning the pornography and finally pulled the ridiculous transparent veil of her burqa from her face.
After a week of frantic administration, Anne was looking forward to the start of university classes. Beyond all the high mindedness of believing that teaching was a calling, she enjoyed the parade of flesh that the university became in summer. She could stand outside in the sun, smoking, veiled by sunglasses, and watch the pretty young things en masse in their summer-wear. And some of them would be passing through her courses.
Her first class for the Monday was a group of third-years, who hastily scuffled to their chairs as she entered. Going through the registration list, Anne became aware of nervous whispers and giggling in the back, one student leaning over from his desk to look at something on another’s laptop screen. Bar a few newcomers from other universities, she knew this group well.
“What do you have for us, Andrew?”
“Just a funny Youtube video.”
He was lying.
“It’s some new painting by Jacobs, discovered after his death,” Claudette said. She was one of Anne’s favourites and sought to deflate any interest in the picture out of a sense of duty. “It’s a bit… pornographic. It’s come to light now with the administration of his estate.”
Anne was curious. Should she act with indifference, disinterest?
She dismissed it: “Aah, more pornography from Mr. Jacobs,” and returned to her desk at the front, some students laughing in solidarity.
Doling out reading lists, she ran through some preliminary rules about attendance and essays, and asked the class to read a few articles in preparation for tomorrow, when they would start proper.
In her office, she quickly found links to online copies of the painting.
It was called “The Pornographer’s Muse” and depicted a big, naked woman, rendered in long strokes of white – shades of white, ghost-white, bleak-white, grey-white – on a black background. White that shimmered, but nevertheless pallid and morbid, like slabs of pig fat; over-sized buttocks that billowed over the seat of the chair; rolls and rolls of fat that hung and sagged around the belly and ribs and arms; fat, wobbling arms, one with leisure laid between the pillows of fat that were her thighs, the ham of the hand swallowed between them. The image was tender, yet elicited distaste.
The face a clammy white, and mutating from jowly bulldog to human to pig, her nose like a short snout, her eyes narrow slits in a swoon or closing in shame and disappointment, in impotence and realisation against the vision of herself she saw: a blob yearning to be like her muse. From the naked woman’s red hair extended a curve of flame – red, yellow, white, ghost-like – at the end of which, and level with her face, face-to-face with her, was the face of a young, boyish Princess Stephanie of Monaco, both beautiful and wraith-like.
The woman’s face itself had a deathly pallor in confrontation with her muse; she wanted to turn away but couldn’t, wanted to look, but couldn’t. She was trapped in a duel between a beauty she imagined she could conjure from her mind, and her body that forever would deny her the sex she craved with a beautiful woman.
To the woman’s left, on a small table, was a laptop with a dull screen, a wine bottle on its side, its dregs in a small dark pool, a broken wine glass, and a plate, white and pallid, some smears of mustard from the meal, a half eaten steak, its fat congealed and echoing the colour of the woman’s flesh.
Anne felt queasy. The face was unidentifiable, but it was clear to her who Yacub Jacobs’s subject in this painting was. The flimsy purple garment on the table, part of it lying in the dirty plate, the table itself, but, most intimate of all, the face of Stephanie of Monaco… After sex one night with Madeleine, she had named the young princess, hardly out of her teens, as a frequent subject of her sexual fantasies.
And now it stung again – the treachery. Madeleine had moved through her house like a treacherous thief in the night. And it was as if Yacub Jacobs himself now had been moving around in her most private spaces, camera in hand, like a pornographer.
© Rustum Kozain