It was my mother’s idea.
Mum was never short on ideas, bless her soul.
Somehow, she had found out that no one in our family had ever had their portrait painted, which didn’t surprise me. In our world, only rich people had the spare change to pay for a portrait painter. We had more significant problems, like food and electricity and dog biscuits if it came to that.
Which brings me to Eric. Eric the dog.
He doesn’t like to miss out on stuff.
Mum suggested that my new business venture, supplying rich people with household staff who could also play a musical instrument (more of this a bit later), could use a boost. “Imagine the impact on your prospective client when they come into your office and see a portrait of you, done in oils.”
The idea appealed to me. Despite my left wing leanings on most subjects, I’ve always liked the trappings of wealth and privilege.
Eric, on the other hand, just likes being where I am, doing what I’m doing.
So, when it came time to travel to the city for my first sitting, Eric wanted to go as well. He had no idea where we were going or that it involved a trip on the number 12 tram and even if I had explained to him that he would probably have to sit quietly in some outer office for more than an hour, he would still have liked to come — that’s Eric. He does not want to miss out.
“I like your dog,” said a delightful creature in a chiffon dress.
“And I’m pretty sure he likes you too,” I said facetiously.
“How can you tell?” said the delightful creature, who was in danger of catching cold, as my mother would have said.
For a moment, I thought she was kidding, but it turned out that she had left what remained of her intelligence in her other purse.
I have to say that I took advantage of the situation and we were going to be getting off the tram presently.
“I know, he speaks quite softly. I’ll get him to say it again, only a bit louder,” I said.
“I saw his lips move, but I didn’t hear anything. What did he say?” said the scantily clad creature.
“He phrased it differently, but the sentiment was the same. Oh, and he added a bit.”
“Yes. He reiterated his liking for you and suggested that if you were a dog, he would suggest a mating session — doggy style, of course.”
The beautiful creature blushed and stroked Eric on the head.
I love being out with Eric.
The artist studio was in an apartment on Little Collins Street, a costly part of town. Based on his fee, I could see how he was able to afford this address.
I expected his secretary — (yes he had a secretary, and I wondered what she did all day), to ask me to leave Eric with her.
I wondered what they would talk about.
As it turned out, the artist squealed like a little girl when he saw Eric.
“The dog is, how shall I put it, perfect!”
So that was that. Eric is now part of the company, and it has to be said that he gets more attention than I do, especially since we started using the portrait in our advertising campaign.
Eric has his own section on our website, and we share a secretary so that he has his fan mail answered.
You are probably still wondering about the ‘could also play a musical instrument’ bit.
Well, the idea has been around for a while, and it all started with an old interview with a famous Scandinavian film director who has his own production company. In a throwaway line, he said that he would not employ a lawyer who did not play a musical instrument. Considering how many lawyers a film production company would need, the interviewer tried to pursue the point. No one has ever been able to find out if the director was just outrageous for the sake of it or if he was serious. For our purpose, it does not matter, because the press picked up on it again many years later, and so did the people who like to design personality tests. The best selling book, “And Can You Play A Musical Instrument?”, established the idea in people’s heads and you know what happens when people get an idea into their heads — it stays there, and no amount of logic will shift it.
So, God help any domestic servant who is looking for employment without the ability to at least pound out ‘Chopsticks’ on a piano.
Sitting for a portrait is not as much fun as you might think. My neck got a crick in it, and my arm ached from hanging on to Eric. Eric wasn’t any too pleased either. He wasn’t having it, so I had to hang on to a cushion for most of the session.
I was happy when it was done, and I loved how the painting came out, and as with childbirth, I forgot about the pain.
There is talk of doing another one every five years so that we will end up with a bunch of them showing the permanency of the business, but I’m sure I can think up an excuse to not be available for the next one, and Eric agrees.
Image: Aaron Westerberg
Retrieving lost items is often a matter of waiting for them to turn up, which they almost always do — almost. I sometimes think that particular objects hide on purpose. Maybe they are forcing me to not make a fool of myself, who knows?
Losing things is also a red flag for me — a kind of ‘something is wrong with the way your consciousness is working, you’d better slow down, or you are going to find yourself inside one of your stories’.
Susan’s dilemma is slightly different from mine. Her ‘loss’ was forced on her, and now she MUST find a way to retrieve her ‘lost’ possessions.
Claudine thought it was an unusual name for a cafe, but my mind was on other things.
“You didn’t tell me I had to wear a hat,” said Claudine. Her mouth worked faster than her brain, and at times it was endearing and at other times not so much.
“It’s not like an entry requirement or anything. It’s just a gimmick, and you know how cashed up city types are — anything for a giggle,” I said while scanning the room for potential trouble. The only potential problem was the bloke wearing braces and a belt. Probably got ‘dacked’ when he was at school, and never got over it. A six-figure salary with bonuses and he’s afraid his pants will fall down. Then again, I’m wearing a red waistcoat with stripes, so who am I to give fashion advice?
“Even so, I’ve got a cute hat I bought at a Thrift Shop. I’ve been dying to try it out.”
“I’ll tell you what, if you stop talking about hats I’ll bring you back here next Friday night and you can show off your millinery to your heart’s content — deal?”
“Deal,” said Claudine, but I could see that she still had more to contribute to the subject, but the thought of a night out ‘all expenses paid’ was too good to pass up, so she gently closed her beautiful mouth and began thinking of another subject — at least that’s what I think she was doing. I was watching the woman with the pyramid earrings.
The cafe was packed with bright young things all semi-drunk after a tough week of playing with other people’s money. The decibel level was beyond the point where a Heavy Metal Band would tell us to keep it down — no chance of hearing what Ms Earrings was saying even though I was close enough to reach out and touch her.
“Step back and bump into her. Let’s see what she does and let’s see who notices,” I said.
“Bump into who?” said Claudine.
“The woman behind you. Purple hat, big earrings.”
Claudine looked over her shoulder and took a step back. Her bump never eventuated because she stepped on the woman’s foot and in her haste to ‘unstep’ she emptied the remains of her Gin and Tonic on Purple Hat and Big Earrings dress.
Claudine was mortified, and even though I couldn’t hear over the din, it seemed that she was apologising and encouraging the woman to head for the Ladies.
I wasn’t game to follow, but I imagined them removing the dress, washing it under the tap and running it under the electric hand dryer. The whole process would take about eight to ten minutes based on my own experience of spilling soy sauce on my pants at the Chinese on the High Street last Easter. I took it as a punishment from God for eating out at a Chinese Restuarant on Good Friday.
I scanned the room, but no one except the woman she was talking to took any interest so I could relax just a bit.
Eight minutes means I have time for another drink.
Right on cue, the two women emerged from the toilets with Big Earrings giving her dress a final straighten.
When Claudine got back to where I was standing, I leaned in close and said, “That was a bit more than I expected.”
“She wears very expensive underwear, she’s not a bit shy, and the colour in her dress didn’t run, even though it should have. Purple is notoriously hard to make fast. Oh, yes, and she slipped away from her minders, ‘I can’t breathe with those goons watching me all the time. Has your fella got a friend? I’ve been living like a nun for the past few weeks, and I could really use a bloody good…”
“Okay, I get the point. Lean over and tell her, yes. I’ll make a call. My boss is going to wet himself when I tell him she fell into my arms without her close support.”
I stepped outside to make the call, and I’m sure I heard my boss squeal like a little girl.
He said he could be there in ten minutes and gave a brief rundown of what he would do to me if I were winding him up. I assured him I wasn’t.
I walked back into the cafe, and the two women were gone and so was the bloke in the braces and belt.
I know Claudine will have an excellent story to tell when I catch up with her, but for now, I needed to exit the building.
I’ll explain it all to my boss once I find out where they went and when he has had time to calm down and dry off his pants.
Claudine may call me later tonight or in the morning, and she may still have Big Earrings without her escort, but I doubt it. Life is never that easy. The Universe is never that kind.
I’ll catch up to Big Earrings eventually, and I’ll find out what she knows — I’m good at my job.
In the meantime, I’m going to buy a hat.
I’d been working on the idea for a long time.
When I finally took it to him, with all the excitement of a small puppy, he laughed at me.
It wasn’t so much what he said as the way he said it.
As though it wasn’t worth a moment of his precious time to even consider it.
I bundled up my shock and disappointment and confided in my best friend.
My friend’s advice was succinct and to the point, “Oh forget him, he’s an idiot.”
He handed me a large whisky and gave me the look of someone who wanted to know what my idea was all about.
He totally believed in me, and he was more than slightly surprised that I let this person rattle my confidence.
“Tiny lines of cotton that hold the world together,” said my grandfather, but he would — he was a romantic.
He wanted me to see what he saw, romance, adventure, creation.
“A woman comes to me with a dream. I never ask what that dream is, but I know it lingers beneath the request.” I need a dress for a formal occasion, might translate into, My husband is losing interest in me, and I want to knock his socks off.
Or maybe the lady is trying to impress the other women in her circle — that’s serious business, or so I have been told.”
I was twelve when this conversation took place, and within a year my grandfather would be found in his workroom, needle in hand, the life having ebbed out of him. No one said he had a smile on his face, but I’d like to think so.
“The customers I love are the ones who come to me because they want to please themselves. They know they are beautiful and they realise that the clothes I make for them complement their beauty and poise. From the time they step in the front door of my shop we are engaged in a dance. A creative dance. They don’t spell everything out for me, I’m expected to participate, do my part. When I have made the garment and done the final fitting, we both know that the dance is coming to an end. The exceptional customers participate in a denouement — they let me know if the garment had the desired effect. I love it when they prolong the dance.”
I was way too young to understand the undercurrents of my grandfather’s observations, but I guess he hoped that his words would stay with me, ring in my ears at a later date.
It was never my intention to go into the family business. I could think of nothing worse than being confined in a shop fussing over women with more money than sense.
I rebelled and left home as soon as I was able. I travelled and worked and soaked up life until I thought I might burst.
Every time I saw a beautiful woman I examined her clothes — off the rack or made to measure — you can always tell.
I remember the look I got from a girl in Paris when she caught me examining the stitching on her skirt. She wasn’t wearing it at the time. She wasn’t wearing anything at all, and neither was I. We were taking a break during a long session of lovemaking on an autumn afternoon. The view from her apartment was stunning, and the sight of her was equally so, but I could not resist the urge to find out how well her clothes were made.
“Have you checked the hems to see if there is anything hidden in them,” I said.
“No, why would I?” she said.
“Some old school dressmakers will hide little things like tiny pieces of paper with something inscribed, or a fragment of ancient cloth. They feel it personalises their work.”
The naked lady thought I was marginally less crazy after my explanation and we continued to tangle erotically for several more months until she left me for a trumpet player. I minded, but I got over it and continued my travels.
Whenever the money ran out, I would seek employment, and on more than one occasion I got work at bespoke dressmakers — not the usual job for a young man, but I had my family’s name, and it opened a few doors, even if I did end up sweeping more often than designing and sewing.
I didn’t care; I was free.
The Telegram caught up with me when I was staying in a provincial city in Spain. My father had died, and my mother was distraught.
It took me a few days to get back home, but they waited for me.
After the funeral, while everyone was eating little sandwich triangles and drowning their sorrows, I went to my father’s shop, the same shop that my grandfather had owned. The gold letters on the glass door spelled out my family name.
The rest you can probably work out for yourself.
Your dress is now complete. I hope you are happy with the work?
I know it is none of my business, but I was wondering why you wanted me to make it for you?
“I don’t need another dress. I just like spending time in your shop without igniting the gossips. Does my admission shock you? Have I ruined our friendship?”
Not at all, but you might want to take the dress off.
You wouldn’t want to get it all wrinkled.
Painting by Jack Vettriano
My grandfather loved books, and I think he loved me almost as much.
I know I loved him.
I can still remember the feeling of squashing down next to him in that comfortable ancient armchair.
No one sat in that chair except my grandfather. It wasn’t because we were scared of him or anything like that, it was just that it was his chair and to sit there without him in it, didn’t seem right.
I was working overseas when my grandparents died; one after the other with only days between them.
It wasn’t the kind of job that I could up and leave, so by the time I was back in the country, there wasn’t a physical sign that they had ever been here on this Earth. Their ashes had been scattered, and their house emptied and sold.
Indecent haste was how I phrased it.
“Where the fuck were you while all the work was being done?” was their reply. I guess I pissed my father off because he wouldn’t tell me what had happened to my grandparent’s furniture. It was the armchair that I was really interested in, but I guess it was landfill or in some op-shop warehouse somewhere. I hoped that it had been purchased by a house full of uni students. I could see a nineteen-year-old female English Literature student curled up with a tattered old copy of something by Somerset Maugham. Possibly, ‘The Razor’s Edge’. Yes, that would be good.
My grandfather introduced me to the delights of Enid Blyton and Robert Louis Stephenson in equal measure. He didn’t treat me like a little girl, he saw only a curious, young person who had fallen in love with the worlds that existed between the pages of a book.
He had the most beautiful husky voice, and sitting close to him was like sitting in an old dusty closet. He was warm even in winter, and I got the feeling that it was because of some kind of inner glow caused by his love of books.
He always read me books that were a bit above my understanding, and I think that was on purpose. He would smile when I asked him what a particular word meant, and he would sometimes get me to run my finger over the word as he explained its meaning.
I collect bookmarks because he did.
I give books as presents because he said it was a wise thing to do.
His heroes were authors, and mine are too.
He thought that reading was as essential as writing, and so do I.
We will meet again someday, but for now, I have to be the person he wanted me to be, and I need to find a comfortable old armchair so I can sit and read and remember.
A wisp of smoke emanated from the barrel of the gun as I placed it gently on the desk. There had been enough violence in the last few moments, so laying it softly down seemed like a dampening gesture.
I’m not a lover of guns, but like all things made by man, they have their uses.
He stood staring at me for as long as it would take to light a cigarette, then he crumpled into a man-shaped heap.
I’m sure he wasn’t expecting to be shot. Most gunshot victims are surprised. The way he lived his life, he shouldn’t have been surprised. If it hadn’t been me, it would have been someone tired of his lies and deceit.
That’s what I am, tired.
Not tired in the traditional sense, more fed up than anything.
People disappoint me — continually.
From the young man behind the counter in the only coffee shop on my block (yes, I could walk a little further and get better service, but what’s the point of that?) to the half-wit who got promoted over me just because he’s a man (no that’s not fair, it had more to do with who was sleeping with whom and who owed who because of large scale indiscretions — see what I mean, tiresome?)
I’m guessing you are wondering why I shot him? Well, you can wait a little longer, it’s my story after all.
I wasn’t the only person in the room, and I got there in a roundabout way.
It was a pleasant enough party. Well dressed women and tidy men ignoring their wives.
This was my first visit to this mansion. A man who sold used cars built it many years ago, and when he died, it went through a few hands (all owners trying vainly to impress) until it landed in Michael’s grubby hands. Michael’s wife’s hands were pristine and well manicured — she’d stabbed a few people in the back, but her hands were unbloodied. Her crimes were metaphorical.
There was nothing metaphorical about Michael.
We, my husband and I, had been summoned to hear Michael’s terms. He believed that he owned us. My husband was close to the end of his wits, but I don’t buckle so easily.
I only know the part that concerned my husband and me — our disgrace, our downfall. Never let the devil know your secrets for he will drag you down to Hell.
I heard the shouting, and when I opened the sturdy oak door to Michael’s study, I saw that two men I vaguely recognised, were arguing with Michael as my husband stood meekly by.
Michael stepped behind his dark-stained desk and drew an automatic pistol from the top drawer. The man in the blue suit reached inside his jacket and pulled a huge pistol. The man in the brown suit reached behind him and drew a revolver.
My husband was unarmed.
I held my breath as the shouting died down. Michael realised he was outgunned and attempted to defuse the situation.
“Okay fellas. Let’s all of us calm the fuck down. I’m putting my gun down, and we can talk,” said Michael. He put his gun on the edge of the desk and put his hands out in a mock gesture of surrender. He took a few steps away from the desk as the two men lowered their weapons.
I didn’t plan what happened next, but I have to say that it could not have worked out better.
I’m a smart girl, and I can recognise an opportunity when I see one.
Michael saw me enter the room, but he held his ground. The other two men momentarily raised their guns again, probably thinking that I was Michael’s secret weapon.
My dress was red and was not concealing anything. The two men realised I did not have a weapon and lowered their guns once more.
Michael went back to placating his adversaries who were none too pleased about being summoned and threatened.
My head was spinning with possibilities.
I took three quick sets across the room and picked up Michael’s gun. The safety was off. Without hesitation, I shot the man in the blue suit. He fell to the floor, and everyone in the room looked at him as though he might get up and laugh that it had all been a game.
My ears were ringing from the blast, and my wrist hurt.
My husband looked at me with confused eyes.
The brown suit came out of his stupor and looked at me just as I shot him in the chest. Now my wrist was beginning to ache.
“Julia. What have you done?” said, my horrified husband.
“Haven’t finished yet darling,” I said as I waited for Michael to turn and face me. No good shooting him in the back — too much to explain.
Michael started to say something, but he didn’t get to finish.
The blue suit’s gun had fallen at my feet. I picked it up and shot Michael who looked very surprised.
“Everybody shot everybody else John, and our problems are over. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” I said, and John nodded. I guess words were too much effort at that point.
Just before the guests burst through the study door with looks of horror on their well-dressed faces, a wisp of smoke emanated from the barrel of the gun as I placed it gently on the desk. There had been enough violence in the last few moments, so laying it down softly seemed like a dampening gesture.
I’m not a lover of guns, but like all things made by man, they have their uses.
Her name is Rose, and she lives above us in 4B.
She shares the flat with her husband, a canary named George and a small plant that doesn’t have a name – but if it did have a name I think it might be Wilfred — not sure why.
When I was younger, Rose’s general disregard for clothing was a bit disconcerting.
Large, warm breasts (I was surmising their warmth) tend to make a young man forget things, like where I was going and, “Yes Mrs Abernathy, I can get you some bread on my way home. I’ll leave it outside your door. You can pay mum when you see her.”
The prospect of encountering Mrs Abernathy’s breasts at close quarters was more than my youthful resolve could cope with.
Rose has a big heart, at least that is what everyone says. I believe them. Mr Abernathy, on the other hand, is less than kind. I guess a lifetime of knowing that every male in the district is staring at your wife’s tits is enough to turn you sour.
I stay out of his way, but some of my slower friends have not been so lucky. Billy still walks with a limp.
Rose’s favourite activity (as you can see from the photo my friend Michael took) is hanging, partially clad out of her fourth-floor window and watching the world go by. Michael, by the way, is recovering slowly. He didn’t mind the beating because he managed to distribute a considerable number of photographs before Mr Abernathy caught up with him. Michael says he has enough for a deposit on a car — or an electric wheelchair if his recovery falters.
Michael always looks on the bright side.
I’ll be glad when I’ve saved up enough for my own place. I don’t much mind where I live as long as it isn’t too far from my family. The only requirement I have is that the building does not have a friendly older woman with huge breasts and a grumpy, violent husband.
Hot water and heating would be nice, but I’m not fussy.
Artist: Geliy Korzhev