It happens like this. A tall, robot-faced punk wearing a tartan tam-o’-shanter stabs a man in the street. The man staggers, grunting in a way which makes my senses leap. It’s as if he had been waiting for this knife for a long time. The blade is driven right up to the hilt in his slight chest. The wicker basket he is carrying falls, scattering groceries and a pair of leather gloves, the brown fingers curling grotesquely on the pavement. The man drops heavily against some stone steps and lies like a huge twisted bird, startlingly dead. Later on in my dream I can see the body motionless under a ragged blanket, one shoe poking out with ghastly coyness. Someone has picked up the basket and repacked the contents — it waits beside its owner like a dog.
As soon as I wake I know it’s Angel and his seedy diary. I shouldn’t have read it, sure, but it was still lucky I did because it was even more psychotic than I had ever suspected. The dream hits me again when I’m sitting at the table eating peaches out of a tin for breakfast. It gives me a thump of anxiety in the chest. It’s as if some repressed forbidden longing has activated a switch and the reels have begun to turn silently, projecting troubling figures on a tiny screen in my brain.
In my sea-green studio with its morning shadows,. the radio murmuring in the corner, my cigarette smoke hanging in the air, Angel’s presence has suddenly become electric. I know for sure I have to get rid of him today, he is like an evil black bird circling over me. I hadn’t ever thought consciously that I was in any danger. I’ve tolerated him for so long because in lots of ways we do suit each other, we’re like Siamese twins.
For instance, he is the only visitor I’ve had for years who let me know that I was a freak the minute he set eyes on me. I am so tired of sycophantic people from the art world coming and murmuring at me. They murmur, their eyes averted reverentially as if I were some living icon. And here I am like a huge pale subaquatic monster sitting at the bottom of a greeny-dark pond, snuffling for the few particles of light slowly filtering down to me.
(Miss Rathbone, I was wondering how you see to paint?)
Visitors just ignore the whole bizarre set-up and pretend we’re sitting in a drawing-room and that I’m a trim, bright-eyed matron. They all say such nice things and keep their faces so wonderflilly smooth and untroubled and delighted with everything. I still remember the day Angel came — his startling orange hair close against his skull, making him appear deformed. We looked at each other in instant, amused recognition. I liked that. He instinctively knew me. He could see all the grotesque desires which still drive my old bones. With one glance that inhuman adolescent could see that I am an old person in whom the natural ageing of the impulse, the dignity of resignation, is completely absent.
Later on as I got to know him well, it was always amusing to watch his struggle between utter contempt and an almost hysterical desire to be my disciple, my friend, manage me, slime in on my creative energy, muscle in on my fame and somehow, anyhow, go down with me to posterity. His presence brought a strong meaty whiff of the streets into my closed-in old world, there was something dangerous about him which was at least alive. Like a hunting beast, with his rodent face and deformed skull. He needed me for other purposes as well. I had been feeling that strongly recently — that was why I finally read his diary which he left in his desk.
It’s as if he has started to feed off my flesh. I can almost feel his pointed little teeth. He’s so small and pale and reptilian with his orange death’s-head skull and flat insect eyes. The only genuine carnality about Angel is the dab of crusted spittle on his lips. Once recently he touched me by mistake and I suddenly imagined us in bed together. It was horrific. My huge wrinkled body, elderly smell, and Angel, small and sinister, grotesquely excited, burrowing in my flesh like a maggot.
The worst of it is that he seems to guess my fantasies, which he mostly finds contemptible. He somehow meshes in with them, feeds them. Here I am, a gross old baggage, lying in bed at night feeling a hollowness because I haven’t got a man in bed with me. At my age. Me, imagining the young body and soft curls on my mouth, the clean musky smell. Even I know there is only a thin line between Angel and me and the pit. I probably didn’t even need to read the diary to know that.
And then of course, straight after I met him we worked together on what proved to be my most famous series. Angel even named it — ‘Senseless Violets’. My dream is actually a replica of some of those paintings. It caught the selfsame quality I had been trying to express in the series — that graceless, clumsy, almost sensual way men move in their slow-motion dance of violence. The sensuousness as they close in for the kill. I’ve probably carried those muddy images round for years, long before I met Angel, but it was his unwholesome
adolescent presence which triggered them off. I see now of course that it would have been better to ignore the urge. Six
months of working like a dog, sleepless nights — feeling blank and stressed and twitchy all the time. Of course Angel helped
in every way he could. The paintings, I see in hindsight, must have been meat and drink to his disordered soul.
I’m too sheltered now, that’s the problem. That’s why Angel’s crudity was such a breath of fresh air. I’ve been living here for so long in this house that I’m like a foetus pickled in formalin. Immersed in my environment, peering wistfully out. It’s possible Angel is the only breath of reality I’ve had for years. Once, quite recently, a clutch of Polynesian kids came to my door by mistake. I could see they were quite terrified of me when I opened the door. They could even smell me. They stood there, poised like little gazelles, their nostrils delicate, sniffing the wind. They were lovely. I savagely wanted them to stay, just for a while. I told them their friend didn’t live here and asked them if they wanted something to eat. It was dumb, but I actually had some dates in my hands at the time — they looked in absolute horror at the blackish mass I offered. I really wanted them to stay, I even called out to Angel to bring them something to eat, but they made a bolt for it, right in front of my eyes. They were silly with terror. They ran down the path past my funny garden with the old iron sculpture. It was banging and scraping desolately as it does when there’s a southerly. Angel came to the door, looking petulant for some reason.
It was such a wounding insight into how I really looked to some people. I did one of the first self-portraits I have done for fifteen years as a result of that — of an enormous woman blocking out a doorway, looking down on some children, a mound of dates like worms in her hands. The painting was slanted down to the children’s perspective. There was a brown spiky nettle at the corner of the house. I liked it very much, but a lot of my friends were horrified. They thought it was a grim view of myself. They said I must have bad dreams. Angel thought it was a bit overboard; he said I was grotesque, sure, but not quite so unwholesome as the picture suggested. He has that ludicrous cool way of speaking which almost makes me laugh in his face sometimes. He takes himself so seriously, always calculating the most advantageous response to anything. Sometimes he calls me Dorry and it always sounds like a threat.
But this morning I’m not exactly frightened. I know he’s due to come in soon and I want to finish it all in one chop, I’ve had enough of this bizarre game we’ve played for so long. Going through my morning routine — cleaning up, getting the canvas ready, dawdling around smoking roll-your-owns —I feel sharp as a fox, I’ve got all my wits about me. I know instinctively how to deal with him — it’s almost like dealing with myself.
When he does come in, it’s an anticlimax, my head has been buzzing so much. It’s as if I have conjured him up out of my imagination. He walks so softly in his white sandshoes, my creation. I see how super-ambitious he is under his studied manner, all that nonsensical chic.
‘Hello, Angel,’ I say, leaping straight into the breach. ‘I’m going to paint you this morning. I had a dream about you. You were murdering someone.
He is quite quiet and I sit there watching him attentively, my cigarette smoke wreathing around my head as he stands poised. I feel all-powerful, huge, absolutely still.
‘What do you mean?’ he whispers.
‘You know, Angel.’ I’m not at all afraid of him. It’s as if our whole association, the great festering swamp the two of us have been dabbling in for a year is to be drained with one brutal cut. We’ve looked at a few things together, Angel and me, and now I’m itching to tell him to go.
He says softly, he is recovered almost instantly, ‘Have you been reading my diary? I thought I’d left it here. Were you reading about the performance art? Snuff movies, you name it. Hacking grotesque old women to death. Body art maybe. They video it, you know.’
He knows all is lost, I can tell he is wishing he could say something else to me, his partner in crime, his real mother. Such courageous bravado nearly makes me lose my head.
‘Sure I have. The trouble with you, Angel, is that you’re quite ordinary. You’re straight out of The Professionals. You know, the wizened little psychotic who’s been doing all the killings. He’s nearly always caught in the last frame. Before the credits start coming up. You’re on nearly every week.’
Of course I’m going too far but he’s really irritating me, it’s good to be drawing blood, piercing his sour skin.
He says, ‘I’ve never liked you much, that’s true. Why do you think I hang round you all the time?’
For the first time in our association I hear a whine in his voice. He sounds quite young and pathetic.
‘Don’t be dramatic. Come on, we’ve leeched on each other quite long enough. You’re not coming here again.
I guess I knew how it would go, right from the minute I woke up.
‘I hope you have more bad dreams, Dorry,’ he says, so softly I have to lean forward. I don’t want to miss anything he says. His face is soft in the dusk and sea-green room. The cats are watching us steadily with their wicked eyes. I can see he is still rigid with the desire to somehow win me back and keep his power, even though he knows deep down he’s lost it. He’s still not ready to go out into the wide wide world, poor Angel.
‘Body art,’ I say insultingly, smiling a bit. It’s just to help him out.
He laughs, suddenly, giving up. He is quite genuinely amused, I’ll give him that.
‘Alright, alright. I’m going. But I’m coming back.’
It’s only a friendly admonition. Angel, the murderous dream, my huge black bird, moves out of my sight.
Settling in with my paintbrushes and the cordial smell of canvas in my nostrils, I feel relaxed, uplifted, easy. I even talk to the cats, who shift unhappily at my voice. It’s still hours till my first cup of tea.