I followed her, having nowhere else to go. She was shining like a wax doll under the bus shelter lights, looking like she’d melt. I sat down next to her and lit a Marlboro, feeling the drops of rain crawl down my face like insects.
“Has the last one been?” I said.
“The last bus left a long time ago,” she whispered.
A woman like her exists only in metaphor. She converted reality as easily as I picked pockets.
I looked at the money I’d stolen from Hank. I didn’t want to go back to the flat. I was running out of time that night, tired of seeing the same faces. The crowd I knew conformed to the idea of a rebellious life. We all propped up each others’ lies. And I felt exposed. Even my walk had the soiled predictability of a thief.
My reflection in the shelter sickened me. I stole a glance at her, wondering what her name was. She had a defiled mystery about her. Even now, I consider her iconic.
“Didn’t I see you the other night in the club?” I said.
“You mean Mirage?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“I remember kissing you.”
She leaned towards me.
“I could use some downers.”
We listened to the rain washing the pavements, just two users with mutual recognition between us as midnight fell beyond the hollow rooftops. Nothing seemed real in those days, the small corner of London I inhabited looked like a stage set. Everyone I knew was a facade, an empty mouth muttering words that made no sense anymore. It was all about to change.
“I know where I could score some,” she said. “Don always has good gear.”
She put her faded denim jacket over her head and we ran through the sodden streets, stopping outside an electrical shop. She pressed the intercom and we were buzzed in.
I followed her up some stairs to a studio. Don was standing in the middle of the room surrounded by clear plastic bags with pills in them. Clothes were strewn everywhere. There were two large frames on the wall which were turned round so their backs were facing forward. Someone had written “Do not reflect me” on the back of one in bright pink ink. Don was wearing only a pair of silver trousers. There were two long gashes on his chest. He’d been crying and his mascara had run.
“That bastard did this to me, Sam’s been screwing around again.”
“You need to get that looked at,” she said.
“By who? My injuries can’t be assessed by a doctor. I’m losing my definition by the day. What do you see when you look at me?”
She laid her hand on his shoulder.
“I see my friend, Don.”
“We trade. That’s all we do. I know about being used, I know what it feels like to be a hole.” He started removing his lipstick with a dirty rag. “We’re all strangers, peer behind the veneer. We make ourselves up until we can’t anymore.”
She walked over to one of the frames and turned it round.
“Look at yourself in the mirror,” she said.
Don raised a hand.
“I don’t want to see him.”
“That person claiming to be me.”
“Look at your chest.”
“You don’t want to get an infection.”
“We’re all infected. Take me naked as I am.”
“You’ll get scars.”
“Then I’ll make sure everyone sees them, what he did to me.”
His gut wobbled as he wandered across the room and struggled into a Miami shirt.
She cupped her hand over my ear.
“He self-harms, Sam ran away years ago.”
I watched as Don rummaged through a drawer, lifting out forks and holding them up to the light. He laid them down on a small table, then picked a bag up from the floor. I handed him the cash and he passed me the downers.
“What’s with the forks?” I said.
Don tossed his hair back.
“Who is this guy?”
She pecked him on the cheek, and I followed her outside.
“We could go to my place and sleep, I found some tins of soup,” she said.
“In an open van.”
“I don’t even know your name.”
On the way there I kept thinking she didn’t look like Florence. I knew all about the city of art, and I thought she was trying to dignify herself in some way. I’d never kissed her until that night. She made it up, the scene at the club. I liked that sense of corruption about her. She was well within my grasp.
Her one room flat stood over a hardware store and smelt of stale air and cheap perfume. The walls were lined with pictures. I looked at one in which she was tattooing an enormous man.
“That was a big piece,” she said.
“You’re a tattoo artist?”
“I own my own parlour.”
She slapped me on the chest.
“Hey, that’s how I can pay you back, Jack. I can give you a tattoo.”
We took the downers and smoked dope.
She waved her arm in the direction of the tiny kitchen area.
“Help yourself to some food.”
Her fridge contained a bottle of Smirnoff and a slice of rotting cheddar. I found two buckled tins of tomato soup in a cupboard full of light bulbs.
“I know where I can get you some crack,” I said.
She was lying on the floor, and she looked at me with the momentary hope of the damned. I knew the look. It existed in the faces of all the sad women I’d exchanged for one another.
I studied the pictures as the downers kicked in.
“I’ve been doing it for years,” she said. “I’m good with needles.”
“You really are, these are some of the best tattoos I’ve seen. You should be famous.”
There were tears in her eyes as she stood up.
“Do you want to know a secret?”
“I’m Rothko’s daughter.”
“You mean the artist?”
She shoved a heavy book across the floor. I opened it and stared at the images. They just looked like lines of paint on squares. I’d always thought that kind of art was a con, aimed at all the pretentious people who have soirees, fuck each other’s wives, and talk about which plays they go to.
“I’m part Russian,” Florence said.
“Florence Rothko. It has a ring to it.”
She shook her head.
“Florence Dimes. My mother was a nightclub entertainer, she was so beautiful he couldn’t resist her.”
“You mean a stripper?”
“No, a cabaret artist, she was sophisticated, Jack.”
“Have you ever been to a soiree?”
“I did once, I had this dress.”
She made a gesture with her hands. Her eyes were heavy, and she stumbled to the floor. I looked at her lying against the sofa, her face broken and lost.
“Did I tell you about the time he took me to New York?”
“I’ll show you the pictures. That’s where I get it from, my ability with needles.”
“You must have it in your veins.”
“His artistic temperament.”
“That’s it, Jack, you understand me. My skin’s a canvas. The first time I got a tattoo, I thought, this is the real meaning of penetration. The needle’s entering my body, but it’s leaving something beautiful behind.”
She shut her eyes. I could see them dart around beneath her eyelids as she slept. I’d watched her sleep before on the night bus, dozing against the window. I followed her on. Her bag lay open beside her on the broken seat. I stole her phone to ring my dealer and listened to her messages. There was a long one from a guy called Mick.
“You’re a hideous fraud,” he said.
Then he yelled so much he made my ear ache and I threw her phone across the street, where it smashed against a lamp post. I was out of pills that night. I remember falling asleep at the back of a shop selling futons, seeing her face, wanting more from her. I lied about seeing her in the club, I’d never even been to Mirage. I lied to her about most things. That was what I liked about her the most, she was such a willing accomplice.
I studied her on the floor of her littered flat. I didn’t understand her, I didn’t care. I just wanted to watch my wax doll melt. Her skin had the pallor of an icon. She didn’t deserve to have that. She was no better than me. I wanted to show her who she was.
I read the book about her famous father. It talked about his theories and how he was influenced by Nietzsche. It said Rothko died in 1970, which would have made him in his late sixties when he impregnated her mother. I slammed the book shut and woke her. She took a pair of retro glasses out of her bag and put them on. They made her look middle aged. She began looking for something in a drawer as I took my shoes off and went over to the bed. A picture of a man with slicked back hair stared at me out of a corroded silver frame.
“That’s my ex,” she said. “The asshole, he never gave me any money when he left and now he’s shacked up with some bird.”
“A man like that can’t appreciate an artist like you.”
“Jack, that’s exactly right.”
She fished a CD out of the drawer and put it on.
“Do you like Edith Piaf?”
“I was reading about your father.”
“You know he struggled with the label of abstract painter? He said it was like arguing with your parents, that in the end you have to recognise your roots.”
“People in that world talk bullshit. I know, my old man’s an art critic.”
“That’s not the same, critics prey on artists. Rothko hated and distrusted them. They think they can define people, and tell us what makes great art, but they don’t understand it.”
“Rothko might have thought we’re connected to our roots, but I’m nothing like my father.”
“Maybe not in the way you think you are, but it will come out in some other way. Look at me and the needles I paint with. Rothko’s alive in my tattoos. It’s all about perception, Jack. Painters show us the way the word really is. You can spend your life not seeing anything, not knowing who anyone really is, because that exists beneath the skin. Did you father really understand art? Could he see someone for what they are, for their unspoken beauty?”
“He belonged to this sick crowd of people who looked down their noses at everyone else. They had their own private little language, just so you knew you were excluded.”
“Do you think he loved you?”
I thought about the last time I’d seen him, and the look in his eyes when he found out I’d been stealing.
“There was a lot of fraud surrounding Rothko, that’s one of the reasons I don’t like the art world.”
“That was caused by businessmen ripping him off.”
“Why do you think he killed himself?”
“He was misunderstood. He said a painting is permanently impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling.”
“A painting doesn’t feel anything, it’s an object.”
“I know what unfeeling eyes can do, Jack.”
I looked at her and she was crying, lost in the music, and I held her for a while as she rocked on her little feet. She looked up at me with her mouth half open and I tasted her deceit as she bit my lip and we fell onto the bed. Then I was wiping the tears and the past away as I waited for the dark.
The next morning she said, “Come and get a tattoo, Jack.” She handed me her card.
I had no intention of seeing her again. I felt she was tricking me.
I went back to the flat. Hank had gone, taken everything. He’d left me a note.
“Thieves like you belong on the street,” it read.
I had a few clothes in a wardrobe. They smelt dank and I stood there trying to remember if Florence had a washing machine. I put them in a black bin liner and looked at the unpaid bills. I couldn’t afford the rent. I wanted to move on from the whole stinking place and most of all myself.
I thought I might run into one of the crowd at The Fox and find a place for the night. Instead I saw her ex there. I recognised him from the picture. He was snogging a young blonde guy and I wondered if he’d turned gay after leaving Florence. I began to feel better about myself, having this piece of information. I knew more about her life than she did.
That Saturday afternoon I went to the tattoo parlour, half expecting it not to be there. She was behind the counter reading Grazia magazine in the empty shop.
She led me through to the back and I took my shirt off and sat in the chair.
“I figure I’ll get my right arm done,” I said. “What are you going to do?”
It hurt, but not as much as losing my self-respect. The pain felt like some physical absolution, and the fact that she was administering it to me filled me with the urge to vandalise her shop. I looked at her face as she stared intently down at her work. The skin was hard beneath her observant eyes. I wanted to ask her about her gay husband. I wanted to find something to hate about her.
I didn’t look at it until she finished. She’d drawn a series of lines across a box.
“What is it?”
“It’s a Rothko. It’s called Magenta, Black.”
“I thought you’d do something like a woman or an animal.”
“This is better, don’t you see, it’s worth a lot of money, you’ve got a replica by Rothko’s daughter.”
“If I ever need to score I can just hack my arm off and sell it to the nearest art dealer.”
She took my head in her hands.
“Don’t say that, don’t ever say that. I want to be your lover, I need your arms around me, but I’ve got something missing inside.”
She was beautiful and displaced, like a stolen stained glass window, and her body was alive with the kind of sexual disease that turned me on instantly. I held her in my arms as she swayed there in the parlour, the sound of cars hissing on the road outside, and I knew she was an invention. That was what we had in common, our lies. She really was good with needles.
“Do you want to come back with me?” she said. “I’m closing up now.”
“I haven’t got any pills.”
She looked down at the black bin liner. There was a rip in it and a shirt sleeve stuck out.
“You’ve brought a bag, Jack.”
“Just some clothes.”
She smiled and I felt like washing. I didn’t want to go back with her. I had vertigo in that shop as I glimpsed what I could feel about her if I stayed around. But I needed a place for the night.
She lay down when we got to her flat, and propped her head up on her hand. A lot of her postures looked copied from paintings. I knew all about forgery and theft. That was why I spent those soiled those days with her.
“You can put your things on the sofa,” she said.
I felt sad for her then. There can be no permanence for people like us.
“I saw your ex kissing a guy.”
She sat up.
“You must be mistaken.”
“No, it was him all right.”
She started pacing the room.
“Do you know what that bastard said to me? That I knew shit about art. Me!”
“Let’s go there now.”
We did. To a derelict basement a few miles away.
He opened the door in a pair of grey Jockeys and said, “I haven’t got any.”
“I don’t want money, Mick.”
Florence pushed him aside and marched into the flat. He chased after her and I walked in and watched them fight in the filthy corridor.
“Who you living with?” she said.
“Why do you want to know?”
He had his hands on his hips and she looked over his shoulder into the room behind him.
“Huh,” she said, “huh.”
There was a young man in the bed, I could see his chest above the sheet. He had this pug face and he kept blinking.
“Too afraid of women now, Mick?” Florence said.
She began to march down the corridor towards the front door.
“Come on Jack.”
“Even your orgasms are forgeries,” Mick shouted after her.
We headed to the nearest bar.
She sat there drinking Martinis, feigning sophistication on stolen money, a tattooed scar on the edge of the broken street.
“Why does it matter?” I said.
“Why does what matter?”
“The fact he’s gay, he’s not with you anymore.”
“But he’s not gay, this is all an act put on to make me feel bad, to go back to him.”
“Do you think he’d go to those lengths?”
“People do go to lengths Jack, we all want to be seen in a certain way.”
“What lengths do you go to, Florence?”
“The lengths I need.”
We left the bar and travelled back to her flat.
I felt trapped as she closed the door. She came right up to me so her face was inches from mine. I held her, and she was someone else then in the twilight that fell beyond the window. I searched for her eyes in the room, but she kept them closed, as if the world was too much for her to bear and she wanted to dream. What it was she dreamed I don’t know. All I know was that as she touched me and I kissed her face she was shivering. She pushed her hips towards me and gasped.
“I want a baby.”
“Do you think your daughter would be like Rothko too?”
“Come on, I’ll show you.”
I tried lying, saying all the things she needed me to say. But my face felt like a mask in the dark and I wanted to pull it away and bleed on her, shock her, stop the game that she played better than me. As I tasted the despair in her mouth, I wondered what hatred felt like when it was too old to be born, and lay there inside you holding on like an ancient foetus. I wondered what I’d be like in ten years. And I thought that if she carried my child we’d have to abort it. I’d have to make sure it never saw daylight.
I thought about the time I looked in her handbag while she was sleeping on the bus and that is what it felt like then, inside her as she lay with her eyes shut dreaming of Rothko, conjuring lies. I’d watched her that night at the pale yellow bus shelter. I listened to her talking on her phone. I felt excluded from her conversation. I studied her, so when we spoke it felt natural. That was the advantage I enjoyed. I used to spy on lives and remove things from people I felt they shouldn’t own.
I looked at the Rothko she’d inked on my arm as she slept. I was trying to steal money from her purse when she woke.
“Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” she said.
“Looking for pills.”
“I haven’t got any.”
She got up and pulled on some clothes.
“You were looking for cash.”
“We all steal things, Florence.”
“You’ve stolen who you are.”
She began to punch me with tiny fists and I stood there laughing until she crumpled sobbing to the floor.
“Why don’t you put that song on?”
“Do you know why I do tattoos?”
“It’s your art.”
She stood up and rubbed her eyes.
“What does it feel like being Rothko’s daughter?”
“Unwanted and alone.”
“But it must be a buzz.”
“How can you say that?”
“They could write books about you.”
“They don’t write books about people like me.”
“You could be a painter.”
“My tattoos hide scars. That’s why I got the first one, down here, deep down here, to hide it. Then I got more, because I keep seeing scars everywhere, I want to cover my whole body with tattoos. Don’t you think skin’s disgusting? I don’t want to be a physical object. I want to be one huge Rothko then people can look at me and see.”
“What I really am.”
“Everyone has skin, Florence.”
“Rothko’s canvas was his skin.”
“What are the scars?”
“Oh, you should know.”
“Because you’re stained like me.”
She told the truth in a figurative way, the literal was lost on her. The meanings she conveyed felt like tiny fish hooks entering me.
“I’m scarred, I need to be tattooed inside.”
“Like you need a baby?”
“I’m told I’ll never have one.”
I looked at her standing there, and saw how young she was.
“You’re not really his daughter are you?”
“How can you say that?”
“You’ve made yourself look older.”
“Are you nuts?”
I picked up her glasses from the night table.
“These have clear lenses in them, you don’t need them. You’d have to be ancient to be his, and you’re not.”
“Get out, get out,” she said.
I was going.
Then, as I was by the door she said, “They never wanted me. They never even used to touch me afterwards.”
I was holding her for hours before she let me get away. She clutched onto my jacket with mascara stained fingers and left a print there. It was still there the day I burnt it like a soiled memento.
Florence’s real parents had given her away. She told me stuff about her childhood I never want to recall, things that made me hate desire. She asked me for things I would never be able to give and reminded me what I was. She was naked without her lie. I left her at the parlour that night as she began to cover the rest of her body with tattoos.
“Do you understand now?” she said.
“Why Rothko? Why pick him? It could have been any artist.”
“Because he’s abstract. The truth isn’t reality. He colours my stains. He allows me to forget.”
“There are other abstract painters. It was a movement.”
“Did your father give you that information?”
“Yeah, he did.”
“What else did he give you, Jack?”
“Is that why you have to steal?”
“We’re all trying to take a piece of ourselves back.”
“You’ve stripped me to the bone.”
“I think he would have liked you.”
That was the best I could come up with. As I closed the door she was staring down at her skin with incredulity.
I expected to read about her in the papers, having died from some weird ink poisoning, an indecipherable portrait of suffering by the roadside.
I moved on, but I couldn’t erase her memory. I called her at the parlour a few months later, and Florence stayed in touch over the years. She took up painting. She married a guy I used to know. He told her he was an art dealer. I asked him to tell her the truth, I didn’t want to know more about her life than she did. She discovered he was dealing drugs when he went to prison. She had several miscarriages and an exhibition called The Meaning of Skin. I got an invitation but I never went. I didn’t want to remember who I used to be.
Many years before I met her, I once tried to steal a painting from a gallery. The guard saw me lifting it off the wall, and I ran away. It was by an artist who’d been well reviewed by my father. I thought I could sell it, and get some cash for drugs. I despised the art world. I wanted to gatecrash it and bring it down. Those days I spent with Florence changed that. She removed my desire to trespass in others’ lives.
For a while that left me with nothing. I went to visit my father. I hired a suit and listened to him talk about the art world. I’d gone there with a speech prepared about what my life had been. I wanted to make an admission. But all he did was talk, stealing my opportunity. As I was leaving, he asked me what I did. I told him I owned a paint factory and a yacht.
“Are you interested in art?” he said.
“I knew Rothko’s daughter.”
“I didn’t know he had a daughter called Florence.”
“You didn’t know you had a son called Jack.”
He went off to look for an article he’d written which he wanted to show me and I drove away. All the way back to my small flat I tasted the bitter root of hypocrisy. I thought of how I hid from Florence, and exposed her as a forgery. And I realised in doing so I’d robbed myself.
She OD’d soon after her exhibition. She’d lost her home. Some kids found her body in an alley. They were taking pictures of her tattooed legs when the police came.
I still carry the small Rothko she left me with. An art dealer, a real art dealer I sold some coke to years later said it was a good representation. Florence was a metaphor for too many things. I still remember her for showing me the complex beauty of deceit.
Richard Godwin is the author of critically acclaimed novels Apostle Rising, Mr. Glamour, One Lost Summer, Meaningful Conversations, Confessions Of A Hit Man, Paranoia And The Destiny Programme, Savage Highway and NOIR CITY!