He was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor, surrounded by his scattered sketches. There were broken and stubbed pencils beside him; a small but sorry pile of crumpled paper at his feet. The screen saver blinked forlornly on the laptop on the table, the paint program abandoned hours ago.
“Not a good night, then?” I asked, softly.
He grimaced. “Crap,” he said, sharply. “It’s all crap. High school stuff. Back of fag packet stuff. Colour the dots stuff.”
I crouched just outside the circle that he’d constructed around himself and smoothed out one of the crushed paper balls. “No, it’s not,” I said.
He shrugged, impatiently. His foot nudged at a loose pencil in irritation, rolling it back and forth against his bare toes. “The perspective is all wrong. Too heavy handed on the lines of the face. No sense of movement in the lines of the body.”
I tilted my head to appreciate the sketched lines on the discarded page. “This is beautiful,” I said. It was only the head – some swiftly brushed shading around the jaw, sweeping almost carelessly into the strong threads of muscle at the neck; a flicker of chestnut hair across the forehead. There was tension in the lines around the eyes – but amusement, too, sparkling in the pupils. They were the only things he’d coloured – that, and the vibrant irises, purple-blue as if reflecting the echo of the sea at night, shining with the memory of laughter and desire.
“Beautiful,” I repeated. “Let me see more.”
He scowled, but his eyes darted up to my face almost slyly. “I can’t do it justice. I’ll never be good enough.”
I moved a couple of piles of paper to the side. I was very careful – he needed to be treated with delicacy at these times. My movements were measured and steady; I cleared a small but definite pathway into the centre of the circle. Towards him.
“You are superb. You are talented. You are passionate about your art. No-one could ask more.”
He smiled then, though it vanished quickly from his face. “You always say that.”
“I always mean it.”
He leant back on his hands, creasing some sheets under his palms, careless of them now they had escaped from both his hands and his pencil. “Why do you bother with me?”
And so I laughed. “You know that already. You’re the one I return to. You’re the one that makes it bearable, being away. Because I know I can come home to you.”
His head dropped, his chin to his chest, his eyes looking around the mess that surrounded him, his hands clenching lightly at his sides. “I miss you more than anything when you’re away.”
I didn’t know what to say. He knew I felt the same.
“I just want to put it on paper. I want to have it for my own, for every moment, for every day that we’re apart. A memento; a reminder; a comfort.”
I unrolled another sheet of crushed paper to find the scribbled lines of a thin, sinewy body laid on a bed, barely covered by a thin sheet. Naked flesh, yet the vision was erotic rather than obscene, the torso twisted away from the viewer, only the long, muscled back in sight. The head was bowed, yet turned to look at something off the page. One arm stretched out to reach for someone, in the same direction. The tail of a thick, soft braid of hair licked mischievously at the shoulder.
There was a small cluster of pencils drawn on the floor by the bed, like someone had abandoned them suddenly in a scramble to move nearer the body so illustrated.
I smiled. My heart beat faster. “It’s so good,” I said, and I dropped gently to my knees in front of him. “That was a good day. You captured it well.”
He looked up into my face, and the bare emotion was a picture in itself.
“You don’t need a picture,” I said, reaching for his waist, to draw him to me. “You have me here.” I embraced him, feeling the warmth of his body and the quickening of his heart against mine. His head sank to my shoulder; his arms came round my body and held me tight.
“Perfect,” came a choked voice in my ear. “This is what I try so hard to draw.”
“Hold me,” I sighed. “Hold that memory in your hands.” He held me tightly and we supported each other for a long time, knelt on the floor, sharing breath and heartbeats and the clutch of needy hands.
“Hold me forever.”