Jeanne Duval tried to stop herself from scratching her arm, a thing she did compulsively whenever she was nervous and there was no way to pace. Sometimes she scratched so much she drew blood, which at least would be appropriate today. Jeanne looked at her collage of photos covering the gallery wall.
Were they good enough?
The other artists milled around, some chatting with one another, most standing aloof. Probably running the same monologue in their heads: good enough, good enough? Not that guy though. Look at him: insouciant air, unlit ciggie dangling from his lips, seemingly unaware of all the tension all around him. It was probably just a good act. But you never know: he might be one of those smug arseholes who completely believed he deserved all the praise he would doubtless get.
Insufferable git: she hated him already. And his photos of Mongolian shamankas: there was your cultural tourist in all his glory. Let’s go find the primitive people and photograph them in luxurious colour. It was rather revolting in the usual sort of way, which is to say she hated him and envied the fact that the bourgie people coming into the opening tonight would ooh and ahh over the pictures and doubtless buy them from the poor starving artist.
Starving artist, my Aunt Fanny. Another trust fund slumming artist wannabe, who would preen through the praise and in a few years give it all up to work in daddy or mummy’s office and pick up lovers with fond remembrances of his artistic days, clapping himself on the back that he had contributed to the culture.
Jeanne adjusted her own photos once again, not that they needed it. If she could just snag a little interest and get into a better gallery. Or even into some collective. Get a write up somewhere—even the Metro. Show that talent could trump a trust fund.
Not that she was bitter.
Not her, what with too many loans taken out to cover fees while her lazy arse instructors counseled them all to enjoy this time of life, be languid and receptive—especially if it meant sleeping with their instructors. That was another generation where art school was a dodge from working that could last until you had made your first pop record or fallen into some design company.
Like the heavy lidded Manqué, her sculpture instructor last term, usually dressed from head to toe in Stella McCartney. Smoking the herb no doubt as that’s all he seemed to do apart from encouraging everyone with the same tired phrases. ‘Plasticity, that’s it. Really feel the material.’ Wanker. But he had a Chelsea flat and sometimes threw parties for the students, probably just sussing out who had the best drugs.
These days who could even afford to live in London? Not her for sure.
But being exiled to the hind end of Essex had at least given her material. Jeanne smiled at her photos. The roadkill had come from the streets around Epping Forest. It had felt a bit ghoulish waiting for squirrels and what not to be killed, usually in the early hours by drivers half-asleep or distracted by children. There was that one turn that people usually got caught by, not quite seeing around the corner, forgetting there was a little wildness nearby. Brakes squealing and the soft impact, then her looming like a grim reaper.
The real gift was the vole half eaten by a kestrel, its innards stretched out and captured in glaring colour that approached the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio if she did say so herself.
And here was her chance: among the first of the arrivals—slouching in behind the arts students making for the free wine—came Manny Baudelaire. The critic who could make you or break you these days. Feared and respected in equal measure, he had an eye for what would sell, so gallery owners trusted him. For all their noises about artistic breakthroughs they really only cared about dosh in the end.
Jeanne wandered over to the sculpture in the middle of the room as if to look it over, but kept her eyes on Baudelaire. He was younger than he looked in photographs—thirties rather than forties—and obviously manscaped beyond all reason. Not a look she liked, but then her tastes weren’t important.
The critic moved with the languid confidence of a man who had been catered to most of his life. She remembered her mother saying more than once, ‘The rich think they deserve all they got. And they think the poor are all after it.’ Her mum, always sitting up too late marking papers, always getting up too early to pick up food for the kids she knew would come to school hungry. Jeanne used to be jealous of the care she gave those kids. Then she saw two of them. She and her mum, they were poor, but they weren’t ragged poor. Those kids though—well, she stopped being jealous after that. Instead it gave her a loathing for the rich that was physical. For a time, that meant beating up the rich kids at the slightest provocation, but she got wise. Anger is an energy, like the man said.
So, yeah, she hated Baudelaire at once.
Not that it would stop her from sucking up to him the way they all did, whilst pretending not to do so. She couldn’t change the system. Baudelaire took a cursory glance at the slick photos by the smug guy and passed them on by. Jeanne cheered inwardly. That showed some taste at least. Mr Artist Guy was fuming though he affected disinterest. His nostrils flared like he smelled a fart.
‘Mon then, come see my stuff, she willed Baudelaire’s pomaded locks. The critic paused by the wooden sculpture Jeanne had dubbed ‘Whirligigs’ though it had a pretentious-sounding name in the vein of Hirst, something like ‘The Facile Discrimination’ which, if she recalled tonight’s program correctly, was from a Will Self novel.
Baudelaire looked frankly scandalized by the thing, which gave her more hope. He hurried away right toward her wall. Jeanne realised she was holding her breath and let it out. The critic did not hasten away. The longer he lingered, the more she thought she ought to step up and actually speak to him, though she dreaded it, too. Why disturb him when he seemed to be enjoying the work? This was the worst part, tongue-tied, hating him but needing him, too. It filled her with pointless rage.
‘Did you kill them yourself?’ Baudelaire turned to regard her, a slight smile on his lips. Something about the curve of his mouth made her think of a leech, a pale white segmented leech. The words hurled toward her like an accusation so it required an effort to smile and respond lightly.
‘Would it sound better if I did?’
Baudelaire grinned. ‘There is a certain savagery here.’ He turned back to the collage while Jeanne struggled with the sharp desire to club him. Savage, am I? I wish I were, I’d knock that smug smile off your face.
But she said nothing. This could make her.
‘Have you got more?’
‘What?’ Don’t gawp like an eejit. ‘Not here, no.’
‘Where’s your studio?’ He was patting his pockets, obviously looking for something.
Studio, yeah. That was a fine description of her squalid space. She told him and he stared, clearly appalled. ‘Good god, you are a savage.’
‘I find such energy in the collision between nature and culture,’ Jeanne said trying to make it sound unrehearsed, willing him to want her work.
‘Is it going to be worth my while if I trek out to the hinterlands to see your work?’ He had found what he was looking for, a little notebook which he thrust at her. ‘Write the address here.’ Jeanne did her best to do so without her hands shaking. He jammed it back into a pocket and turned away, saying over his shoulder. ‘Tomorrow night then.’
Jeanne watched him saunter off with a mixture of feelings. Irritation that he just assumed she would be free, coupled with annoyance that it now meant sitting around waiting, then a slight stirring of hope that somehow this meeting would help her get noticed.
Then finally blind panic: how much could she create by tomorrow night? Jeanne could hardly contain herself until the gallery closed. Skipping the after party she splurged on a minicab back to her flat. Don’t panic, don’t panic, she told herself. Then she gave herself five minutes to panic. Taking the cracked hurley her brother had discarded, Jeanne struck out at the rotten wood in the back of her squat until a sizeable hole had broken through the next layer. Then she stood panting, her mind clear.
Okay now, what to do?
What had he said? Something about savagery? There wasn’t time to get more road kill. She needed sometime quick, raw, and bloody. Jeanne worked like a maniac, mixing paint to look like rich arterial blood, prepping canvas, setting up a tripod and then making herself the model. A few hours sleep, then some darkroom work, cursing at the shading of her exposures, redoing a couple shots, more sleep and then assembly.
Jeanne stepped back to take in the whole of the collage. The mix was good, like crime scene photos. But it was too cold. She grabbed the dish with the rest of the red paint. Brush in hand she stared for a while, then put the brush down. Instead she dipped her hands in the paint. Jeanne closed her eyes, tried to see the elusive image, then let her hands reach up, slam the pictures, grab the canvas and then slide down as if falling.
She stepped back to take it in and shivered. It was absurdly effective. Jeanne had often enjoyed her own work, but this had an uncanny sense of itself, as if she had been no more than a conduit to its birth.
Then there was just the waiting and waiting, despairing and then more waiting. Every time she looked up, however, the collage restored her faith. It sang to her with its rightness.
At last he came, rapping at the door with a peremptory air, complaining about the minicab driver who’d let him off over a block away. ‘Can’t tell me they don’t know,’ he blustered, ‘They just do it to annoy.’
Because they know it teases, she finished in her head, unable to think where that line came from. ‘Can I offer you something to drink?’ A genuine question, Jeanne realised. She didn’t have so much as a Tizer.
‘God no.’ Baudelaire pulled a face. Jeanne tried not to take it personally. Making a grand gesture with one hand, she led him through the old work which he grunted at and occasionally hummed at, but made no other sound. Then she walked him around to the collage for the big reveal. Her pride swelled. He had to recognise her genius.
The critic started when he came face to face with the work. ‘Good god!’ His gaze swept the canvas back and forth like a weathercock in a tempest. ‘Is that…blood?’
‘I’ll never tell.’ Jeanne did her best to hide a smile. Her heart wanted to burst right out of her chest. Recognition would be sweet. To have her talent recognized at last, what a relief. The things bursting inside her might at last be manageable.
‘What the hell?’ Baudelaire leaned in and actually sniffed the collage. ‘Smells like paint. Mostly. Glue. Blood mixed in though?’ He looked at her with a smirk on his lips that made her eye twitch, though she did her best to make it stop.
‘Yeah, course,’ Jeanne said, wishing she had done so. But that’s how legends were started right?
‘Bloody thou art,’ Baudelaire said with a laugh. ‘Bloody will be thy end.’
Jeanne stared at him blankly. ‘Does that mean you like it?’
He laughed. ‘Serves me right, quoting Shakespeare to a savage..’
‘Lay off the savage business, mate. It was never funny.’
‘A good selling point though.’ Baudlaire sniffed. ‘People need a bit of romance with their art experience.’
‘Yeah, the bourgie types who haunt galleries, they want to slum a little, get some rough stuff, feel the savage heart beating. You know,’ he winked at her and reach out to give her a playful slap, ‘a bit of the dark meat.’
Jeanne could not make sense of it after. The flash of light in her brain, the movement, the hurley in her hands and the solid satisfying sound of it hitting, hitting. And then just her breath in the cold night air, the distant sound of cars speeding by, on their way to the next little crash.
She looked down at what was left of him. It would not be too hard to hide the body, drop it in the forest somewhere in the middle of the night. No one knew he was here, surely. The minicab would say the wrong address. Rifling through his pockets she found the notebook, tore out the page.
Jeanne stood up, the page crumpled in her palm and then stopped. The blood seeped along the floor, radiating out from his head, itself a pulpy mess. She looked at her hand: blood and paint mixed together now, inextricable.
Then she got her camera out. This would be her masterpiece.
A writer of bleakly noirish tales with a bit of grim humour, Graham Wynd can be found in Dundee but would prefer you didn’t come looking. An English professor by day, Wynd grinds out darkly noir prose between trips to the local pub. Publications include SATAN’S SORORITY from Number Thirteen Press and EXTRICATE from Fox Spirit Books, as well as tales in the 2016 Anthony Award-winning anthology Murder Under the Oaks and the Anthony Award-nominated Protectors 2: Heroes . Wynd’s stories have been translated into German, Italian, Polish and Slovene. See a full list of stories (including free reads) in the links.