JESSICA SARAS, muse.
I didn’t even like Mrs Saras at the beginning, and I certainly didn’t want to have sex with her. I cannot pretend that when I met her I was in any way expert at the whiles of Brazilian women; I had been in the country only a day, and half of that had been spent jetlagged. But the representative for Mr Saras sent to welcome me at the airport (a woman) had kissed me on both cheeks, and the personal assistant who accompanied Saras to that first lunch meeting (also a woman) had done the same. I was of half a mind to dislike the familiarity, this invasion of my body space, this pretence of intimacy, but instead I decided I would indulge it. That when in Brazil, I would do as the Brazilians did. And so when Saras invited me out for a meal that second evening, and there with such great ceremony presented me to his wife, even giving a little bow of introduction, I fancied myself going quite native; I eschewed the handshake of time-honoured tradition, instead I fairly lunged at her with my lips puckered. And she recoiled. She actually recoiled. She wrinkled up her nose as if I were a bad smell. And she shot a glance at her husband, and he gave her a nod, and I could see she was asking permission – is it quite in order I should respond to this pasty Englishman making free with my cheekbones – or, worse – do I really have to put up with him at all? And at his nod she sighed, she smoothed away that expression of recoil; she fixed on a mask of weary acceptance; she stuck out one cheek in my general direction. And I didn’t want to kiss it now. For God’s sake. I hadn’t wanted to kiss it in the first place.
Because, as I say, I didn’t like Mrs Saras at first, and even the very concept of fuckery vis a vis her and me hadn’t even begun to permeate the wildest imaginings of my mind. She wasn’t pretty. Her hair was pulled back too severely, so it was tight against her skull, so it seemed like an off-blonde bruise on the skull itself. Her eyes were flat. Her breasts, flat. Her nose bulbous, the nostrils seemed caught in constant flare. And she was scarred, definitely scarred; three thin scars crisscrossed her cheeks turning her face into a crude map. I wondered what Saras was doing with her – he who had Brazil in his pocket, he who could have had anyone – and yes, she was young, she was half his age, she was half my age come to that, so she might have been a quarter his age, I can see the appeal of youth, but couldn’t he do better, surely he could do better. And, some time later in the evening, as she leaned forward to accept a light for her cigarette, a courtesy I should add to which she showed not the slightest hint of gratitude, I could see lit up in the sudden glare a faint moustache balanced on her upper lip – faint, as I say, but furry, and masculine, and unarguably unrelentingly there. Over my brief association with Saras I had occasion to doubt the man and his motives – but it was then – what was he doing married to a dog like this? – then, and only then, that I truly doubted Saras’ mind too. His wife was really that plain.
I’m a man who does not spend too much time looking at women and wondering whether they would be worth having sex with – I save all fantasies of fuckery for when I’m bored. And I wasn’t bored that evening; the wine was plentiful, Saras was being witty; I was on my best behaviour. So the violence of my rejection of the wife quite surprised me, since I hadn’t even begun to contemplate sexual congress of any nature with anyone at any point – and when my brain spoke up to me I tried to shush it down, its concern was quite unnecessary – don’t fuck her, it said, a non-sequitur popping up in the middle of a conversation about royalty payments – this Mrs Saras, the brain said quite distinctly, she is not a woman with whom you want to fuck.
Back to that first kiss. Back to where I left Mrs Saras, with her cheek poked out so rudely toward me. And I let her wait, I did. Because I was damned if I was going to humiliate myself. I was damned if here in public, watched by the representative from the airport (pretty) and the personal assistant (prettier), gawped at by all Saras’ hangers-on and chucklehounds and suck-ups (and all of them still prettier than Mrs Saras) – yes, I was damned to hell if I would take this surly scar-faced nostril-flared rebuff on the chin. I considered offering her a handshake after all. I nearly did it. That, I thought, would be the perfect put-down – my refusal of her, a demonstration that I was still the man, that I still had the real power.
But, I thought, I didn’t have any power, did I? That’s what I had to consider. (And consider quickly, because they were all still waiting, all still watching.) I had been briefed about Saras. I was warned he was temperamental, he was an artist, he distrusted the ways of the businessman, that he would try to play games. And as Mr Gladwell had told me when he assigned me the contract, my task in Rio de Janeiro was very simple – get Saras to sign his work to us, do what he asks, keep to the budget agreed, but anything beyond that, anything that might make him happy, that is up for grabs. I had to consider whether a public slight against his wife, no matter how great the provocation, would really be in the best interests of Gladwell, Green and Grant. By now everyone was watching, even those outside our party, those on other tables; there were giggles. I’d tried to kiss her, she’d pulled away – she’d offered a kiss in return, I’d pulled away too. For that moment it still looked witty almost, almost a little dance, a tease – and I looked at Saras and I could see he was amused by it. But the window for polite amusement was closing fast, the great open plains of blunt offence were stretching out before me. So I suppressed the handshake. I swallowed my pride. I leaned forward. She leaned forward to me. We collided.
I kissed her on both cheeks. I aimed my mouth straight at those ugly scars. I kissed them very faintly, there was hardly any pressure at all, there was certainly no muscle movement. – Not on my part anyway, I kept my lips quite rigid, and if there was a flexing of the cheeks on her end I wasn’t able to feel it and was besides standing too close to see. There was a smattering of applause, even, and Saras looked delighted by the fun. Mrs Saras didn’t. And her cheeks had felt a little like paper, like tissue paper, something that might tear.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I said then, “and a great honour to be in your beautiful country.”
“Don’t bother,” said Saras. “Her English is dreadful.” And more laughter from him. And from her, those flat eyes came to life just for an instant, they flashed at me, angry. And she turned from me. And I was dismissed.
I should say now. I’m not sure what this story is. I’m not sure whether this even is a story. Whether I understood much of what happened those few days I spent with the Saras in Rio de Janeiro, and it’ll be up to wiser heads than mine to read this account and work out what is relevant. If there is any relevance to be found. – But what it isn’t, I stress, is a confession, not of any kind; I don’t pretend that I covered myself with glory whilst in Brazil, nor that I ever had the best of intentions, but I am quite adamant that there is nothing that I did or said that made any material difference to the events at large. I must insist on that. If you are reading this narrative, you must do so on that understanding, I am offering information only, not excuses, and if you won’t understand that, if you refuse to take my word for it, if you refuse to accept my sincerity, then I would rather you stopped reading right now. – Whatever may have been in my head, I did nothing wrong. – (Save for one little thing I said, one lie, and for that alone I have some regret.) I do not know what happened to Miguel Saras. I am not responsible. I deny any responsibility. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t me.
I always understood, of course, that things began to go wrong with the Saras negotiations from that moment I met his wife. And I supposed at the time that was down to jealousy, a simple defensive reaction of an old man. But now I think that was wrong. That the assumption on my part was arrogant, that my interest in his wife and her interest in me could have made the slightest difference to him. Saras knew what he was doing, and I think introducing me to Mrs Saras was the point at which his games began. Who can say what is going on in the head of a genius?
Because Miguel Saras was undeniably a genius. Even if you didn’t appreciate his art, then his talent for reinventing himself had something extraordinary about it. He’d started out in the fifties with paintings, and in his juvenilia you can see the influence of Picasso; indeed, it was that influence that at first so blinded western commentators to his own skills – if you’re going to want someone with a third eye, if you’re going to look at some South American Guernica, why not simply look at the original? But at home he found his audience, and they followed him. They followed him into sculpture, big sexless stone men standing by neutered and impassive as they’re raped by female devils with mad faces and fanged mouths and their genitals all on fire. He experimented with cubism, and with neo-cubism, and then developed a form that pushed neo-cubism into strange new areas that caused controversy; Saras was declared a fraud, declared an anarchist, declared at least an idiot – and in the late seventies Saras had just laughed at his critics, then gathered together all his neo-neo-cubist works in a big exhibition at Sao Paulo, gave a blunt public statement saying they were shit, and set fire to the lot of them – this, he said, was the real point of them, this had always been the plan. Arguably, this was his first venture into performance art, and from there he moved into video art, and from there into graffiti art. In one single week of celebration, his own private carnival, he spraypainted every single building within a one mile radius of his Rio de Janeiro mansion, the eligibility of the buildings determined methodically with a map and a protractor, and he painted on to the walls and doors and windows all the images he felt inspired by – numbers, letters, impossible constructs of optical illusions bleeding down the bricks, zodiac symbols, Sanskrit symbols, traffic sign symbols, chiaroscuros of himself grinning cheekily whilst being flagellated by shadows, flowers, fingers, footballs, his own face superimposed on any number of animals or human body parts: fish, crabs, eyes, tongues, monkeys, goats, penises, severed heads, dogs.
And he’d survived; he’d survived President Vargas shooting himself, he’d survived the military juntas, the tanks on the streets, he’d survived the demonstrations and the cautious return to democracy. He’d seemed not to notice the ever-fluxing fortunes of Brazil, his art was unaffected by it, and yet its very waywardness seemed to symbolise Brazil, to give it a voice in spite of itself. And for all the dictators’ fears of the untamed, for all the people cried out not for art but for stability and freedom and some little self-respect, they all embraced Saras – Saras was the soul of their nation, Brazil’s power, its unpredictability, its madness and its angry beauty. And Saras, his face known to all, his famous sneer printed on stamps, on T-shirts, on magazine covers, tattooed on to a hundred thousand Brazilian torsos and counting, Saras didn’t seem to give a jot. He stood apart from it all. He lived his art, he ignored the rest. And the money poured in.
That was in Brazil, of course. They do things differently there. If anyone thought to graffiti on my front door, I’d have the police on to him. I respected Saras’ work, but didn’t much care for it. It was all too spicy for me, and I like my art the way I like my food – solid, identifiable, and unlikely to return on me later in the evening. Gladwell confided in me that he didn’t much like Saras’ work either, but personal opinions didn’t enter into it, of course. Though there had never been much emotional interest in Saras outside his home country, there was an intellectual interest around the world, and it was to the intellectuals that the new exhibition in London would appeal. It would be a major retrospective of his career, putting examples of all his different styles and media under one roof; it had never been done before, if Saras’ art changed direction he seemed to reject his previous works so completely it was as if they were the products of a rival artist. There would be many attempts in the art houses of the world to acknowledge his eightieth birthday the following year; let ours be the major one, the one endorsed by Saras himself – and, as Gladwell put it – for once, let’s fuck over the Guggenheim, they got their fingers into everything.
I was rarely used for the foreign negotiations; my language skills are, at best, halting. I pointed out to Gladwell that I couldn’t speak Spanish. Gladwell told me that they don’t speak Spanish in Brazil, they speak Portuguese. I pointed out to Gladwell that I couldn’t speak Portuguese either. Gladwell explained that this would be an advantage; Saras didn’t want to negotiate with any buyer who spoke his language, it flattered his ego to demonstrate just how perfect his English was. And this would all be about flattering his ego. “He’ll put up a bit of a fight, for show’s sake,” said Gladwell, “he’s a superstar, he doesn’t need our exhibition. But make no mistake. He’s a superstar in Brazil. It must rankle that he’s never made such an impression anywhere else. It’s the end of his life now, he must know this’ll be the last chance he’ll get. Flatter his ego, make him feel he’s doing us the favour, and he’ll come to us nice and cheap with his tail wagging.”
That was what Gladwell believed, and there seemed a certain sense to that at the time.
My wife checked the weather conditions in Rio de Janeiro, and had my suitcase packed with the right clothes, formal and not quite so formal, laundered and neatly ironed. And on the flight I looked in my hand luggage and, yes, there she’d enclosed both a Portuguese phrase book and a travel guide to Brazil. I whiled away an hour or two practising a few words – ‘obligado’, ‘por favor’, ‘este e o caminho para…?’On the pages of the guide book she had fixed post-it notes to get my attention – yellow for things she recommended, red for those she disapproved of. A warning about the street crime around ATM machines earned a red sticker, as did a little article about easy hedonism. One of the few yellow approved passages showed a picture of Christ the Redeemer, some giant statue of Jesus with his arms out on top of a big hill. At last I put the book away. On the front cover there it was, the statue, Jesus overlooking the city from on high, his arms spread wide as if he were playing at aeroplanes.
I stayed focused for the eleven hour flight to Sao Paulo. It was only on the one hour connecting flight to Rio de Janeiro that I began to fall drowsy, much to my annoyance, and that was why when Saras’ representative greeted me after immigration with cheek kissing that I was so uncharacteristically flustered. She said she’d take me to my hotel. But first she would take me to meet Mr Saras. Mr Saras, she said, was very excited to see me.
I recognised Saras at once, of course, but he still wasn’t what I was expecting. You could see how that mouth could be turned into a sneer, but for now it was all smiles, and he greeted me like a long lost friend, he rose from his table and gave me a hug. He was smaller than I expected, but he stood confident as if he were tall, as if he thought he were tall and no one had told him he wasn’t, he didn’t shrink into himself or hunch his shoulders the way old men sometimes do – he may have been nearing eighty, but I’d have taken him for sixty-five, and his brown beard had only flecks of grey in, and I wondered whether he had it dyed. He asked me about the flight, he asked me if he could order me any food, anything I wanted, I must be hungry – he said that business class travel might pride itself upon the quality of its meals, but they still left him feeling gassy and bilious. (I didn’t tell him Gladwell had only flown me economy; I didn’t tell him that I wanted any food. I didn’t want either first impression I made to suggest I was either cheap or greedy.) He complimented me on my little attempts at Portuguese when I spoke to the waiter, told me I’d got the accent just right – and I looked for any sign of sarcasm but he sounded sincere enough; “Some foreigners find Brazil a little dangerous, I think,” said Saras, “but you have no need to worry, you’ll blend right in, you seem like a native already!” I didn’t feel like a native, sweaty in my business suit, still woozy from the flight, but I thanked him with the best accent I could muster. “Obrigado,” I said. “You’re welcome,” he said, and smiled with perfect white teeth.
And then he frowned, and it was a frown of concern. “Forgive me,” he said, “I can see you’re very tired. You must go back to your hotel and rest. There will be much opportunity for us later to talk. I do not anticipate any difficulty with our negotiations, I was just eager to see you. Take the day to relax, and we can have dinner tomorrow? I have a favourite restaurant in Santa Tereza, I will send the car for you. You will like it, I think.” He stood up, and I did the same, and he shook my hand. “And I’ll introduce you to my wife.”
Santa Tereza was a little town up in the mountains; it was the artistic hub of the city, and as I stepped out of the car I could already see all the long haired hippy types spilling out from tavernas too small to contain them, smell their alcohol, smell their dope. And Miguel Saras was the king of them, standing right at their centre, this proud old man with his court of young fools, letting them stand in his shadow, letting them laugh at his jokes, drinking his wine and drinking in his genius. When he saw me he came straight over, he broke a path through them without a second thought, some of them got elbowed aside and smiled with delight as if it had been a blessing. “My friend!” he said, and clasped my hands. “I shall take such care of you tonight. I shall make sure you meet everybody!”
And it seemed that I did. There was much hugging, much kissing of cheeks, and Mrs Saras was the only failure, the only hiccup in the social whirl. But I began to feel as the parade of youths went ever on, as they beamed at me so enthusiastically whilst I told them how much I was enjoying Brazil, how different it was to England, how happy they must be here, that their expressions of intent were becoming ever more extreme – they would laugh uproariously at my jokes that really weren’t jokes at all, they would hang on to every platitudinous word I uttered with eyeblazing fascination, nod in delight, then turn away and laugh. And it was the turning away that bothered me, the fact that the laugh was meant to be something private. “Our business here won’t take long!” said Saras to me, but it was like a pronouncement, and everyone shut up and listened. “My new friend from England, we have such a simple thing to discuss. And then he will be free to enjoy the best that Brazil can provide!” More laughter all round, more wide-eyed enthusiasm, those eyes so wide they looked ready to pop out of their skulls. “So,” Saras said to me, looking at me full in the face at last, “this freedom, what will you do with it?”
And it suddenly felt like a test. Saras waited for my answer. His minions, they waited for my answer.
I tried to remember the guide book, the bits highlighted with yellow post-it notes. “There are some good parks here,” I said.
“The Botanic Gardens are excellent,” agreed Saras.
“And there are museums.”
“There are always museums.”
“And I might pop up to see Christ the Redeemer,” I ventured. “That looks very good.”
“Oh, it is,” said Saras, “it is very good. Yes. You must see that. All the tourists must see that. You must see it, tick it off the list.” And he laughed. “It’s a remarkable achievement,” he said, “one of the seven wonders of the world, did you know? And the only wonder in Brazil.” And he laughed. “Standing up there on a seven hundred metre mountain, arms open wide, Christ looking down on us, we are all under his protection, we all feel safe.” And he laughed, and he laughed. “You must go to Christ! And maybe, maybe I will come with you!” And everyone laughed with him.
One of his disciples brought me a mug to drink from; it smelled meaty, and it was steaming. “This is our national dish,” said Saras, “this is feijoada. You must try it. Try it, and you will be a Brazilian.” I sipped at it. It was like drinking gravy, it was like the contents of a steak and kidney pie mashed up and liquefied in a blender. “You must try it,” said Saras, so I drank it down like a good boy, and managed not to baulk as the thick black gloop became progressively more chewy.
I hadn’t seen Mrs Saras for a while, maybe not for a couple of hours – it was hard to work out how much time had passed. And she wasn’t part of that swell of bodies around me, around Saras – and Saras didn’t want her near, didn’t speak to her again once we’d had that introduction. I thought maybe she’d gone home. I hoped she had. But now there was a plucking at my sleeve, and I turned around, expecting to see some new young woman wanting to kiss me, some new young man wanting to pump me by the hand and ask me to use my accent. Mrs Saras was there beside me, and she was recoiling again, recoiling it seemed at the very touch of my shirt, that her fingers were anywhere near my skin, that she was obliged once more to acknowledge me.
“What?” I asked her.
And she didn’t say anything, didn’t smile. She just tipped her head towards the door, and left the restaurant. She didn’t even turn back to see if I were following her. But of course I was.
Outside she took a breath of air, as if relieved she was away from that stifling heat indoors – but the heat was just as stifling out here, and to me it barely seemed fresher. She took out a cigarette, put it in her mouth, nodded her head towards me expectantly.
I didn’t have a lighter. I don’t even smoke. She didn’t care. She waited whilst I went back inside to fetch one, and when I returned she was in the same pose, her head jutted to where I had been standing, only frowning maybe with a little more impatience. She took the light. I saw that moustache. She blew out smoke through her nostrils, through those too-flared nostrils, and I don’t know how they did it, but as the smoke billowed out they flared even wider still, they found a little more give in them, they bulged and gaped. “Obligato,” I said, although I’m quite sure I don’t know why.
“I don’t think I caught your name,” I said to her.
“I have never been to Cristo Redentor,” she said. “Your Christ the Redeemer.”
“Oh,” I said. “You should. It looks good.”
“My husband will not take me. But you. When you go, you will take me.” And there was a slight upward inflection to that, but not quite enough to make it a question.
“Well, maybe,” I said. “Maybe we can all go together.” She stared at me. I tried to look away. “Your English is pretty good, actually,” I said. “Well done.”
And at this she tilted her head a little, looking at me as if trying to work out the joke – and then smiled. And it was an ironic smile, I think, I don’t think there was much warmth to it. But it was a smile nonetheless.
Then she looked away from me. And carried on smoking, flapping those big nostrils of hers about like sails in a storm.
“Well, anyway,” I said, and I made to go. And she caught my hand in hers. Not tight, it almost seemed as it could have been an accident, as if her fingers had just been clasping away for something and the fingers they’d clasped on to happened to be mine. She didn’t turn around to me. It was as if she didn’t even know she was touching me, as if she had no idea I was still there, only her left hand knew. The right hand had no idea, it was too busy pumping that ugly face of hers with smoke. And she stood still, looking out at the other people, out at Rio de Janeiro, out at the night skies, out at Christ glowing in the dark far above us, out at anything except me.
It took her maybe three more minutes to finish her cigarette. Then she dropped it to the street, ground it underfoot with one deliberate brutal twist of her shoe, looked at me at last, not a smile. “Come,” she said. And we went back inside. Somehow before we got in there my hand had been freed.
Saras greeted me as if he hadn’t seen me in days. “My friend, my dear friend,” he said. “I shall have to go home soon. I am an old man, I need my sleep.” I was relieved to hear it, it was two o’clock in the morning. “Our business is nearly concluded, I shall sign upon your dotted line. And what you have done for me, to take my work to your little country, to make it English, it is the act of a brother. A brother!” He hugged me.
“Well, you’re very welcome,” I said.
“You must not stay at the hotel,” he said. “An airport hotel. You must stay at my house. On Ipanema Beach, it is very beautiful. And there we can choose which of my works you shall display. Which of my art is your favourite?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “They’re all very good.”
He smiled at that. “Then we will find out. We will create our exhibition together, you and I! Yes? Yes. But first, I just need to ask you something. And my English, it is good, but sometimes the right words are hard…”
“Oh yes?” I said. “Well, if I can help.”
“I have mastered construction and grammar, but I have the occasional lapse at vocabulary. What is it, what you say, when a dog… Ach. The noise it makes?”
“Barking?” I said.
“That’s it,” he said. “That’s it exactly. So, before our business can proceed. Before you stay in my house! Will you bark for me, please?”
“Do what, sorry?”
“I want you to bark like a dog. I want you to bark for me. Like a dog. Like a little dog. Come on. Come on. Bark for me. Bark for your supper. You can bark for me, can’t you? Bark like the little dog you are.”
I tried to make light of it. “I don’t mind barking,” I said, “but is there any particular dog you would want me to be, maybe you have something in mind, ha…”
“The next thing you must say,” he said, cutting through, silencing me, silencing me with that steel voice. “The next word you speak, it must not be in English. It must be in dog.”
“Yip yip,” I said. “Yip yip yip.”
And he smiled, he grinned, and the room relaxed, and I felt sick inside, I felt the gravy I had eaten bubble up at the embarrassment. And I saw Mrs Saras’ face, and it glared at me, it was filled with such raw contempt – and for that moment I hated her, I felt I could actually kill her.
“Good,” said Saras. “And we will send the car to your hotel, yes? And pick up your bags, and bring them to my house, yes? Yes?”
“Yes,” I said. And I glanced over to where Mrs Saras had been standing, but she’d gone, she’d already walked away. “Yes, that would be fine. Obligato.”
I have never deceived myself that I am an attractive man. I know I possess charm, and it’s a charm that can cut a swathe through the boardroom, and is sharp like a knife at a very particular sort of business meeting. But it’s not a charm that has ever made much impression on the weaker sex. Women don’t like me. I don’t know why. I am not an ugly man, I believe. I work with a lot of men on a daily basis, sometimes under very trying circumstances of great stress in which ugliness can be emphasised, and I think some of them end up looking very ugly indeed, and I fancy I am no uglier than the average of them. I understand seduction, of course, I understand the nature of it and how it works and what a useful weapon it can be. I have closely observed some very fine seducing in my time, and I think I have learned much from it – but as an observer only is the point I’m making here, rarely as seducer, even rarer as seducee.
And for those of you who will criticise, who would seek to remind me that I have a wife (as if, quite frankly, a wife like Margaret would be something I could easily forget), I will point out that she is the daughter of a senior management executive in her own right, and she not only appreciates the need to seize opportunities as they present themselves, she in fact urges me on to seize ever more of them, to search them out and grasp hold of them hard – and saying all the while that I shy away from that, shy away from making something of myself, something worthy of her and her father (her father being, as I say, a management executive, and one who gives every intimation that he has spent his entire life thus far seeking out and seizing at every opportunity he can get), saying that I don’t have an eye for the main chance, saying I’m letting all my potential slip by, saying that I’m wasting time, that I’m a waste, saying it all with a regularity that is undoubtedly consistent and logical but rather wearying to boot. By allowing myself the opportunities afforded by Mrs Saras I had my wife’s most guiding maxims in mind. And if it’s likely that the actual circumstances would be something Margaret would regard with no little disapproval, I am certain that she can still take pride in the fact that by letting Mrs Saras into my bed I was following her most cherished principles to the letter.
By the time I had reached the Saras house its master had long since retired to bed, and so, I thought, had its mistress. The car that had taken me back to the hotel had waited whilst I packed my bags and checked out, and I had done both as quickly as I could; the roads were empty and the driver was fast; even so, I didn’t reach Ipanema beach until half past four in the morning. The house was dark and silent. A maid led me to my room. If I had thought that the guest bedroom of a multi-millionaire would be better than my suite at the airport hotel I was disappointed – the room was small, largely unfurnished, and smelled of paint. There was a ceramic sink set into one corner where I could wash, but no mirror in which I might see what I was doing. The bed was hard and short. The light was a single naked bulb, hanging down from the ceiling. The maid didn’t say a word to me, and I suspected she couldn’t speak English, but she may simply have been rude. I wasn’t sure whether to offer her a tip. I decided not to.
I say the room was unfurnished. It wasn’t, quite. There was one picture on the wall. A picture where the mirror should be, so I was forced to look at it as I blindly brushed my teeth. It was a picture of a small dog. It was not a good picture; the dog’s body seemed rather elongated, as if the artist had painted the head and then realised he had more canvas to fill with the torso than he’d hitherto expected. The legs were strange and stumpy, one of which was a different length to the others, another extended not to a paw but to a smudge; the legs didn’t look as if they even belonged to a dog at all, let alone this dog, this dog that seemed so out of proportion that he’d have required thicker legs just to support his frame, surely? The dog was faced out towards me, and its tongue was lolling out, and its mouth was set into a grin, the whole thing designed no doubt to be a pose of ordinary genial dogginess – but there was no joy to the expression on that face, the eyes were flat and dead. And there was no context to it, no background, not even a hint of colour, the misshapen beast just standing there on plain white. I took a closer look at the picture. I was surprised to see that it was signed: ‘Saras’. One of his lesser works, then.
I finished washing. I put on my favourite of the three pyjamas that Margaret had packed for me, the pair with the stripes, the ones that seemed a little jaunty. I got into bed, and, tired as I was, decided to look at the guide book once more before turning off the light. But I could so easily have put it out, I could so easily have been in darkness – and that’s what made it so much more fortunate for Mrs Saras that when she came into my room without even knocking that she didn’t disturb me.
She was still dressed. Though not, I realised later, in the same clothes she had worn to the restaurant in Santa Tereza earlier that night. I was too surprised to see her in my bedroom at all to be surprised by this little fact as well – but in retrospect, I must admit, it bothers me. Did she change clothes in the middle of the night in anticipation of my arrival? And if so, why did she not try to make more of an impression? Because she still looked awful. The dress she had worn at the party had not exactly been flattering; this replacement was no better, the colours were dull, they hung off her baggily.
It occurred to me in a split moment of guilt that the reason she was there was that I had done something wrong; Saras and his wife had been waiting up for my arrival; they had intended to be welcoming host and hostess; going straight to bed as I had, without even stopping to say good night, I had slighted them, I had offended Saras, I had ruined the negotiations and Mr Gladwell would be displeased. So the first words I said to her were, “I’m sorry.”
She shook her head impatiently, put a finger to her lips. I understood of course that she wanted me to be quiet.
And we just stayed like that for a while. Me in bed, guide book in hand, the construction of Christ the Redeemer in mid-paragraph. And she, now looking around the room, taking it in, as if she’d never been in it before, judging it coolly, as if the sink were fascinating, the lack of décor fascinating, as if the Englishman in striped pyjamas was the least fascinating part about it.
“Can I help you with anything?” I whispered.
“No,” she said, perfectly loudly, too loudly I thought – she hadn’t wanted me quiet then so I wouldn’t disturb her husband, she just hadn’t wanted to hear my voice much. And then she looked directly at me, walked straight to me, stood over me. Frowned in some consideration, and as she did so the skin on that unlovely face of hers tautened and twitched, the scarred map of her face readjusted its nations’ boundaries. Then without another word the head shot closer to mine, she forced her tongue into my astonished mouth, she hammered away at the back of my throat with the blunt tip of it for a few seconds.
As kisses went, it may have been the most decidedly unerotic I had ever had – it was right down at the bottom of the list alongside Aunt Amanda’s, the one who would always aim for my mouth whenever she greeted me as a teenager, alongside that fat secretary’s (since departed) I had drunkenly snogged at the Christmas party of 2008. And yet, and yet. Even though my brain was screaming its old warnings at me, get away from this woman, there must be no arousal here, even as I was starting to gag at the relentless pounding of that tongue – there was a stiffening downstairs under the bed sheets, I could feel something poking its way up and out of the striped pyjamas, a perk of interest from an organ who had long ago shut off and gone to sleep. O-ho, something primal said, it seems like there might be some fuckery afoot!
The kissing done, she climbed on top of me. I stared up at the face, trying to find the best angle to view it by. The harshness of that light bulb wasn’t doing it any favours. “Can we at least do this in the dark?” I suggested.
No time for that, it seemed – because then she was licking me. She was licking at my forehead, the tops of my cheeks. She licked at my eyes, she put a whole wad of tongue in there and slurped away freely.
“You want to please me,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
“Well, yes. All right.”
“Then bark for me. Bark like a dog.”
“…Do I have to?”
“You barked for my husband. You bark for me.”
“Yip yip,” I said.
“Yip yip yip,” I said, and put some real welly into it.
And as I yipped, so she licked – great gobby licks that left my skin feeling soaked. Working her way down my face now, coating my nose with a sheen of spit, now back on to the cheeks, the tongue massaging it in hard, painting the spit on thick. She pulled back. “Open your mouth again,” she commanded. And stuck out her tongue in readiness.
And that’s when I saw it. That tongue of hers. And that it was no single colour – the front part was quite a dark shade, even brown; it was connected to another piece of tongue that looked scarlet, fresher, younger; there was another patch next to that, red again, but a more faded more tired red. And I could see, I thought I could see, where these separate shards of tongue had been stitched together, I thought I could spot the little traces of black thread holding them locked in position. Then the tongue was back in my mouth – or rather, not a tongue, but pieces of tongues – and her tongues were touching my tongue, my tongue outnumbered maybe but in decidedly better shape, my tongue rubbing against hers – and I fancied I could trace where those different islands of tongue overlapped, the little coastlines fatter where the edge of one had been fastened on to another. And I fancied too that this hammering of her tongue inside my mouth wasn’t a kiss at all, not really; it wasn’t for pleasure; it was a means of lapping up water from me, of getting her makeshift tongue more moist – and then, she was out! – and then, she was back at my face, licking now at my lips and chin, that the spit I was being drenched in was in fact my own.
But I would add that I was very tired, and probably still a little jetlagged, and the stiffening below didn’t seem to mind, it was still holding out hope for a spot of fuckery regardless. “Were you in some sort of accident?” I asked.
“Yip,” I agreed.
My face was all licked now, every little part of it, she’d even sprayed up my nostrils, and so she rolled off me. And I thought this would be the moment she began to get undressed. (And at that, I decided, I would probably have to insist that the lights really were turned off, I didn’t want to see any more of her patchwork body than I could help. I fingered at my trousers, prepared to slide them over the raging bulge. But, no. No, she got off the bed, walked to the door.
I think I squeaked. “Is that it?” I asked her.
“Sleep,” she said, without even looking back. And she left.
I did sleep – I slept very soundly. But before I turned off the light I went to the sink. I washed my face. It didn’t seem to do much good, I could still feel her taste all over me. I wished there had been a mirror; my face was still tingling, I wanted to see.
But of course, you’d rather I’d talk about Miguel Saras, and his theory of art. Forgive me.
Saras and I discussed art only the once, and as with everything he said or did, I’m uncertain how much of it was sincere, how much of it was a joke, and how much it was something that started out as a joke but ended up sincere in spite of itself. I awoke late that next morning; it was nearly ten o’clock, and I leaped out of bed, I washed as fast as I could. I did not want to keep my host waiting for me. I did not want to get our business negotiations off to a bad start. In fact, it was another hour before Saras appeared in the breakfast room, and then in his dressing gown, unshaven, decidedly unkempt. For a moment he looked surprised to see me there, but he recovered well. He grinned, he folded me into a big bear hug. He looked more frail than he had the previous night, now shorn of his designer wardrobe and his hangers-on. But the hug was strong.
“My friend, my dear friend,” he said. “I trust you slept well?”
I assured him that I had.
“You must forgive the guest room, I do not often have guests. I do not like guests. I like to be able to shut the door on them, yes, shut the world out. But I did want you here. I did want to get to know you better, and that maybe you will get to know me better. I hope you would like that, I think you will. And so pardon my selfishness in taking you from your, no doubt, reasonably adequate hotel, with its minibar and pay for view television and continental breakfast room service options.”
“Thank you for your hospitality,” I said.
I had whiled away my time waiting for him by eating a bowl of cornflakes – another disappointment, frankly, I had hoped that the great Saras would have had a more eclectic range of breakfast cereal – and by looking at the one solitary picture he displayed upon the wall. I had expected that the walls would be hanging down with art, that there’d be statues looming out of every spare corner, but there was nothing, the décor was spartan even. Save for this one picture, just a small one, framed behind glass, but not even painted on proper canvas, was it just on ordinary plain paper? It was hardly a complex piece, just a wash of green descending into blue. I had dismissed it out of hand at first, concentrated more upon the cornflakes, but with nothing better to do I had started looking at it from different angles, and it was a curious thing – it was impossible to work out where the green finished and the blue began, the distinction between the colours was lost within the shimmer. A pleasing effect, certainly, nothing of any depth, but skilfully enough done to afford some amusement, to give me distraction once the cereal bowl was empty.
“One of yours?” I asked Saras.
Saras said, “Of course, everything that comes into this house belongs to me. Do you like it?”
“I’m not sure I understand it,” I said.
“That’s not what I asked.” But he was smiling, it wasn’t a rebuke.
I looked again. “Yes, I like it,” I said, and I did. “What’s its name?”
“My very first sold work,” said Saras, “back when I was a young student. Back when I had no idea what art was, and certainly no idea who I was. It took me so many years to find it, so I could buy it back. The best four million reals I have ever spent.”
“It must mean a lot to you, then,” I said, stupidly.
“We need to remember our beginnings,” said Saras. “Back when anything was possible, back when on a whim any day we could reinvent ourselves and become something brand new. Before we chose paths to follow that would deny all the other paths, shut off what might have been. We spend so much time obsessing about where we’ll finish up, what our legacy will be to the world, whether we’ll even leave a legacy, whether anyone will care once we’ve gone – and what does it matter, what does it matter. The Saras who created this, he did not know that, he did not know anything, but look what he could still do without knowing. No, this picture does not mean a thing to me. I can’t even remember painting it. I don’t even know what it was for. Maybe it’s just a bit of blue and green on some paper, who knows?”
“What’s its name?” I asked again. And he looked at me with genuine surprise.
“How can it have a name,” he asked, “when it isn’t even finished yet?” And his eyes bore into me, and he said softly, “Do you… do you have a name for it?”
And I thought it must be another one of his games, but there was something desperate about that look, and for a moment I thought he was almost begging me for an answer, that Miguel Saras honestly wanted some junior contracts man from Gladwell, Green and Grant to give his painting a name, me, someone who could never paint, who could never draw, who took piano lessons until the age of eleven when he got bored, who didn’t understand art, who secretly didn’t even like art, its arrogance left me cold, I had never seen anything beautiful that would make me catch my breath the way the critics told me it should, but I was still looking, I was still out there looking, and each time I failed I thought there must be something dead inside me. That Miguel Saras was honestly letting me become part of the process, that he would let me be an artist too. And I was about to stutter something out, a name, I don’t know what, anything, and then, and then the moment was gone, the look was gone, it was wiped away and replaced with that smile, those teeth. And I felt sad, as if I’d lost something, and also relieved, and I realised I’d been shaking.
“I owe you an apology,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. “Well.”
“I’m quite sure I do. My little performance last night. But you see, it’s all a performance. My people expect it of me. For them I am a great man. To them I am a god. I have to act the part, do you see?”
I didn’t, but I said I did.
“I am Brazil,” he said. “I am Brazil through and through, its hopes and dreams and fears, they need me to be strong, to be fearless, even to be rude. But I shall tell you a secret, my friend, because I think you are my friend, yes, and this is a secret no one knows, not even my beloved wife suspects it. Really, I am just an ordinary man. No, it’s true. I am an ordinary man with man’s weaknesses, the same as you.”
“Really,” I said.
He sighed sadly, clapped me on the back. “Come,” he said, “I shall make you breakfast. Feijoada, yes? My own special feijoada?”
I told him I’d already had some cornflakes, that was ample. And that however much I had greatly enjoyed the feijoada the previous night, and I really had, I found it a little too piquant perhaps as a breakfast meal. “No, no,” he said, and laughed, and fetched me some anyway. “Feijoada is our national dish. Do you know why? It was invented by slaves. They gathered all the leftovers they could find, bits of meat, beans, scraps of anything, they’d mix it altogether. Brazil is proud of it, Brazil is expert at making something from the scraps. It’s the food of oppression, but it’s also the food of surviving oppression.” He handed me a mug. I sipped at it suspiciously. It was good, and warming. “And some people’s leftovers are better than others.”
He didn’t pour any for himself. He sat down with me.
“I am Christ to these poor people,” he said. “Do you think Christ was the same with the common herd as he was with his friends? Do you not think Christ didn’t want to sit down, and relax in his dressing gown, and take the weight off? But we expect our gods to be above us. We expect them to be cruel and angry, because if they’re not cruel, how do we explain the shitholes of our lives, those frustrations and depressions, the poverty, the pain, the death, the tedium of the day to day to shithole day. How, my friend? You tell me.”
I couldn’t tell him. I was too busy with my feijoada.
“I am a cruel man,” said Saras. “But I do not want to be cruel. They need me to be cruel, and I make you bark like a dog to make them happy. But sincerely, I do not want it.” He took my hand, and he squeezed it, and I had to hold the feijoada in the other hand, and that was difficult because the feijoada was hot, and I wished he’d leave me alone to my feijoada. And his eyes were watering with earnestness. “And my art,” he said, “it is cruel, it is so cruel. And it is getting crueller, so savage, so unkind. And I’m sorry. I’m so very sorry. And maybe I can escape it soon.”
“I like the picture of the dog,” I said.
He looked at me blankly.
“The dog in my bedroom. I like it.” I didn’t. “It’s nice.” It wasn’t. “That’s not cruel.” And that, at least, seemed true. It was sad, misguided, I think, but it wasn’t cruel.
“Oh, the dog!” He laughed. He laughed loud. “The dog isn’t one of mine.”
“But it’s signed ‘Saras’.”
“My wife is also called Saras. It’s her picture. She does love her pets. It’s a pity, she has no pet at the moment. The last one died.”
“Oh,” I said, and I wasn’t sure what to say about that.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, she broke it. I said, you’ll have to be more careful, or I won’t let you keep any pets at all! She didn’t like that. She didn’t speak to me for a month. Not for a whole month! …I think that pet was a dog, yes, it was a little hard to tell.”
“Where is Mrs Saras?” I asked, but he didn’t reply.
“I am better than Christ,” he suddenly said. “Do you think Christ bought back his first bits of carpentry when he hit the big time? Do you think he paid four million reals for his stools and spice racks? I don’t think so.”
“You do all seem very keen on Christ here,” I said. “What with that big statue on that mountain and everything. We’re not all that keen on him at home, not unless it’s Christmas, and even then, only if he’s in a manger. Can I have some more feijoada? I’ve run out of feijoada.” I offered him the mug, but he wouldn’t take it. “Maybe we could visit the big statue?” I said. “I think that might be fun.”
“I shall never visit that statue,” said Saras quietly, “I shall never visit that monument to gutlessness, to picture postcard bland tourist pleasing gutlessness. Until they have chopped off Christ’s head and replaced it with my own.”
“Because I am their Christ, I am their Redeemer. The other Christ, he’s a lie, opening his arms out in, what? Benevolence? Care of some sort? But you look at his face, and there is nothing on it, no expression, not a thing. Do you think my face has expression? Look at my face! Look at what I can do with it!”
“Right, I am, yes.”
“And it’ll take the greatest artist in the world to replace Christ’s head with mine, and I shan’t do it, so it shall never happen, so I shall never visit the statue. So.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “Do you have more feijoada?”
“Business first,” he said. “Then there’ll be time for all the feijoada in the world.”
“Yes, please,” I said.
“Make your pitch, little dog,” he said. “What will you give me for my work? Yip yip!”
And I launched into what I had prepared. I told him how proud Gladwell, Green and Grant would be to host his work, and the great plans they had for him, but I was distracted, I think I called them Gladwell, Grant and Green, or I may have called Gladwell Gladgreen and Grant may have disappeared altogether, it was all a bit confusing – and Saras listened for a little while, then got bored, then began to study his nails, then at last just put his hand up to get me to shut up. “What is the largest sum of money you are authorised to offer me?” he asked. I gave him the figure in pounds sterling, he interrupted impatiently. “In reals, in reals.” I told him. He considered. “It’s a fair price,” he said at last. “So I shall demand just one real more.” I told him I accepted. That if it came to it, I would gladly pay the extra real out of my own pocket. “That’s the idea,” he said, “that’s exactly what I want you to do, I want that final real to be yours, little dog of mine.” I asked him if we could shake on it, I held out my hand. And he took my hand, but then he pulled me towards him, he yanked me hard towards his cheeks, I wasn’t sure what to do, I kissed him on one, I kissed him on the other. And there we were in this embrace, and his arms were trapping me, I couldn’t move, and his face was so close to mine, and his beard was tickling at my chin, and his eyes were boring into me, and I could see that trademark sneer of his playing across his mouth, the lips parted so the sneer could be given full rein, and I thought, oh God, he’s not going to start licking me as well, is he?, and that feijoada made my stomach gurgle at just the wrong moment. And he whispered, “It’s a deal then, it’s a deal,” and I agreed it was a deal, also in a whisper, and then he whispered back, “What do you make of my wife?”
The question caught me by surprise. “I don’t know your wife,” I said. He didn’t loosen his grip, the eyes staring at me, the sneer still spreading. “I don’t even know your wife’s name,” I went on, “what is it?”
“She is not to be liked, she is to be admired. She does not like you. But maybe you are not to be liked either. I sometimes wonder,” he said, and he suddenly seemed lost in reverie, and he let me go, and he was smiling, smiling like a child, “I wonder how she’ll turn out.”
He poured me another feijoada. I took it gratefully. This time it tasted sweeter, so sweet my head spun. “Shall we choose some art?” he said, and I agreed.
We started at the very beginnings of his oeuvre, the paintings from the 1950s. Here he showed me women with three eyes, teeth that tapered off into fingers, a man with thick red lips growing out of the side of his head. I wasn’t sure whether Saras would mind the comparison to Picasso, but he was looking for a reaction, looking at me so expectantly, and I had to say something – what else was there to say? I opened my mouth, I thought I would phrase it intelligently at least, and suddenly I could feel that sweetness all over my mouth, popping like millions of little bubbles, and it was as much as I could do just to get one coherent word out – “Picasso,” I mumbled, and then belched.
At this he merely laughed. “Pick a picture,” he said. “What shall we display in this exhibition of yours?”
I didn’t know, I didn’t care, and the bubbling was past my mouth now, it was pricking at my nose, and pretty soon I thought it’d reach my brain. I took another sip of the feijoada, maybe that would take the edge off.
“Pick one!” he said, and he sounded angry now. “What shall we have? An extra ear? An extra eye? Or something more inventive, a pig’s snout, a cow’s udder, a dog’s tail maybe, would you like a puppy dog’s tail?”
I didn’t like the anger, I thought I’d take refuge in the feijoada. I raised it to my lips again, but he took the mug from me. I reached out for it, but it was far away now, too far away. I didn’t want to open my mouth, I knew that if I did all the bubbles would come pouring out, but Saras did seem very insistent I make a decision – “That one,” I said. I don’t know what I pointed at. I just hoped I wouldn’t throw up all over it.
“My pictures are nothing like Picasso’s,” said Saras, but he said it gently, as if to a child willing to understand. “Picasso painted the absurd images in his head. But I make my images live, and then, only then, do I paint them.” And I staggered, I nearly fell over, and he caught me by the arm. He looked genuinely concerned. “You are not well?” he said.
I didn’t want to speak, I didn’t want to let the sweetness out, the sweetness in my head would drown everything in its path – no – no, I was not well – no, I shook my head.
“The jetlag,” suggested Saras. “I am sorry. You go back to bed. There is plenty of time. We shall look at my cruel work of yesterday, and then I’ll show you my crueller work of tomorrow. Yes! And then, then you can go and visit your Christ, yes?”
I spoke in spite of myself. “Where is Mrs Saras?” I asked, out it blurted, and I didn’t even know why I cared, not until the words had popped out of my mouth like so many sweet bubbles, and then I knew that I really did care, that it mattered in ways I couldn’t understand. “Where is Mrs Saras?” I asked again, but at this he laughed, and he gave no answer, or if he gave an answer I do not remember it – because I remember nothing, I don’t remember how I got to my bedroom, how I was undressed, it was all a blur.
(My story is nearly told. Miguel Saras asks me one more question, just one, and then never speaks to me again. We shall get to that soon.)
You’ll say I was drugged. But I don’t think I was drugged.
My wife met me at the airport when I flew home. I was surprised. She’d never normally meet me at airports. And I wasn’t sure how to respond to that, and it had been a long flight, so I put my arms around her in welcome, and she put her arms around me, but I could quickly tell that hadn’t been what she’d wanted. On the way home in the car she was mostly silent; she answered my questions politely enough, but never asked any of hers. Only the one, quite suddenly – “Is it all true?” she asked. And I didn’t know exactly what she was referring to. “Yes,” I said, and at that she nodded, and let the subject drop. I wonder whether that had been the right thing to say. I wonder whether a ‘no’ would have made the slightest bit of difference.
About a week later she came to me and said, “You must know we’re all very disappointed.”
I said, “Yes.”
“It’s not your fault,” she said. “You were drugged.”
“I was drugged,” I said.
She sighed. “You’re such a victim,” she said. “Don’t you see how much better it would be if it had been your fault? How much more easily I might be able to forgive you?” I didn’t say anything to that. I just put on the usual facial expression, the one that got me through our occasional bouts of awkward conversation. She shook her head sadly. “I will forgive you,” she said. “I’ll do my best. It’s not your fault, I’ll tell Daddy, it’s just the way you are. I’ve decided that we can have a little fuckery. I’ll give you some fuckery tonight.” And I thanked her for that, and I was grateful, I did understand the concession she was making. My wife looks a little like a horse, I’ve always thought, that long face, that noble bearing. When I married her I thought she was a champion thoroughbred, not exactly warm or funny, but you don’t want thoroughbreds to make you laugh or feel better. In bed she’s more like a rhinoceros. She just lies there and sort of wallows. That night I did my very best to service her in the way she’d come to expect.
You say I was drugged. But I wasn’t drugged. That would be too easy. And it wouldn’t make sense of the things I said to Mrs Saras, the way I deliberately decided to say them. I don’t pretend that many aspects of my time with her didn’t confuse me, but there were moments of great clarity, and that night I knew I had chosen to change my life. That it didn’t quite work out that way, that within days I was back at home in Richmond rutting the rhino, it doesn’t alter that. I was a man with Mrs Saras, I was the master, I was no victim.
Maybe this is a confession after all.
She came to my bedroom again. I started awake.
“Ssh,” she said, and put a finger to my lips.
“How long have I slept?” It was dark outside.
“You must be hungry,” she said. She had brought me a bowl of feijoada.
“I don’t want it,” I said.
“But you are so hungry,” she insisted, “I can see how very hungry you are.” And I could hear the growling in my stomach, and no doubt so could she, there was no point denying it.
“I don’t like it,” I said.
“But these aren’t his leftovers. These are my leftovers. Look. Look. Smell. Taste.” And she spooned some into my mouth, and it was like steak, it was juicy and so full of flavour, and that flavour had a copper ting to it, and I swallowed it down greedily and my stomach growled for more.
“There’s some on your chin,” she said. And she opened her mouth, and out came the tongue, and it was a beautiful tongue, why should a tongue have to be of one colour and one consistency? And she licked the gravy away.
And she licked at my face then, hot and hard, and this time I could feel under the sheen of the saliva my skin become softer, more pliable – and that the tongue was pushing at it in different directions, playing with it as if it were warm clay, she was moulding me anew.
“I wonder what you’ll turn out to be,” she said.
And she stripped off my stripey pyjamas, she ripped them, and I didn’t care. And she kissed at my neck, at my chest. She kissed at my breasts, she took one nipple between her teeth, and she pulled on it – and out it stretched like chewing gum – she tilted her head back further and further and still how that gum stretched, I laughed to see it, and she laughed too at my laughter. I reached up and out to her and in to her and she didn’t recoil, not this time, and my fingertips traced the scars on her cheeks, tickled her moustache, and she closed her eyes at my touch and she groaned and she sucked my finger into her mouth and my finger turned to syrup. She licked at my balls, and I felt something harden and something puddle, it was very curious, it was very disconcerting, it was very wonderful. And once in a while she’d climb up my body again, back to my face – and my body was now leaking on to the bed like melting icecream, and my face was like a lake – and she’d put her tongue back into my mouth, and she’d suck out all the moisture she could, she’d suck out all my water and then use it to make my body putty. And then she might pause, she’d look down at her handiwork, she’d smile – and my heart would skip, my heart that now seemed smeared across my entire chest, everywhere there was a heart beating for her. She blew on my skin so it tingled; she breathed in deep, sucking the air in like it was a cigarette, like the world was her cigarette, and then she puffed it all back out through those glorious nostrils of hers, the air would be a frost on my warm liquid skin, it’d make the skin harden, it made it set.
“I like your dog,” I said.
She looked confused. She stopped. I didn’t want her to stop. “Don’t stop,” I said.
“My dog got broken,” she said.
“The dog in the painting,” I explained. “I like it.”
And at this she tilted her head a little, again trying to work out the joke – and then smiled. And this smile seemed real and warm.
“That’s my favourite dog,” she said. “But I didn’t get the legs right.”
“It’s my favourite dog too,” I assured her. “He’s beautiful.” I said, “You’re beautiful.”
“Bark for me,” she said.
“Yip yip!” I said.
“No,” she said. “No. I’ll bark for you. Let me bark for you.”
And she pulled back her head, she looked up to the ceiling. And out she let a howl. It was long and mournful, as if searching for a moon that wasn’t there. She reached for my hand. I took it, I held it tight.
“I love you,” I said. And she looked at me. And she considered this. And then she kissed me – and it was our first kiss this time, a real kiss – not something for public display in front of baying strangers, nor something that was meant to change who I was and what I could be to her. It was very soft, very gentle, and just a little nibble at my lips.
She was still dressed, all this while she’d been dressed. And I held her close. And there was no stiffening downstairs, I’m not sure any longer I had anything left that could stiffen. But I felt something fatten between her own legs, a little bulge that came into play.
“Show me,” I said. “Show me what you look like.”
She nodded. She got up. She took off her clothes. I saw the art in all its glory.
“What’s your name?” I said.
“I can’t have a name,” she said. “I’m not finished.”
And at that, I admit, looking at my poor dear sweet love, all the different chunks of flesh that had been put to use – I wondered what her leftovers might have been, what meat might have been swimming in that feijoada she’d fed me.
She was not a pretty piece of art. She was a cruel piece of art. But all the parts of her patchwork body, where had they all come from, what adventures had they had! It seemed that they’d all had more life than me, seen more, done more than I’d even tried. And I loved them. And I said so.
And when I told her I loved her, I saw that this time she believed me. She believed in me, and I saw her little stump of a penis stiffen – and I thought, o-ho, there’s fuckery afoot!
But it wasn’t fuckery. It was love, it was real love, even if just the once, even if in that tangle of limbs I wasn’t sure which body parts were hers and which were mine, there was really no way to tell. But she didn’t lay there like a rhino, like some rhino who could only express approval through yellow post-it notes, and she was all around me and above me and beneath, she was everywhere and I was everywhere, and I thought we might just fuse together, at times I think we actually did.
“Are you finished?” I asked at last.
“I’m finished,” she said. “So now you’ll have to name me.” I said I’d give it some thought.
“Sleep,” she said. “I’ll watch over you, I’ll take care.” And she began to lick again, and I wanted to lick her back – but there was an intensity to what she was doing, the concentration of an artist at work, I knew I mustn’t interrupt – “sleep,” she said again, and she kissed me on the forehead, and she smiled, and I did sleep, because I was spent.
You’ll say I was drugged. I was not drugged.
She stayed with me all night. When I awoke, her head was resting on my chest. My all too solid chest, ribs hard, skin hard, hard enough to support her, hard enough to keep her safe.
I stroked at her hair, still so severely pulled against the skull. I teased a few strands out, they came loose in my hand.
“Good morning,” I said.
Her eyes were wide open in a moment, flat and hard and so wide. “We have to tell him,” she said.
“Right,” I said. “Good idea. Do you want me to be with you for that, or shall I just…?”
I got washed and dressed. I spent a long time getting washed and dressed. By the time I came out of my bedroom the deed was done, Mrs Saras had told her husband she was leaving him for a pasty Englishman with no appreciation of art. Saras was slumped in a chair, all the swagger had gone out of him.
“This is what you really want?” he asked her.
“You knew this would happen some day,” she said.
“Some day,” he said, “yes. But I am so proud of you. So very proud.”
She said nothing to this. I cleared my throat to speak, realised I had nothing to say, closed my mouth again – but it was all right, neither husband nor wife had turned to me, it was as if they didn’t know I was even there.
“And where do we go?” he asked. “Where do you want to do this?” And he looked at me for the very last time. “Where do you want to go today?”
“The statue of Christ the Redeemer,” I said. “Let’s all go there.”
His eyes flashed with fury at that, just for a second. Then he nodded, turned away from me forever. “So be it,” he said.
Saras got changed into one of his designer suits. To me he looked much like his old self, leaner, snappier, the confident sneer playing around his mouth. But as we made our way to the ticket entrance, at the bottom of the Corvocado mountains, no one seemed to give him a second glance.
“I’ll pay for these,” I told my hosts, “this is on me.” They didn’t bother to argue. The woman behind the glass window of the ticket booth told me there was no point visiting the statue today; there was heavy cloud, I wouldn’t see a thing. “It doesn’t matter,” I said, and she shrugged, and sold me three admissions.
Other tourists, it seemed, were just as stupid as we were. The tram that pulled us up the side of the mountain was packed. Children were leaning against the windows, their parents were taking photographs of anything and everything. Saras stared dead ahead, he took no interest in the view. He came out of his reverie only when a band began to play the samba with guitars and maracas – at this he allowed his eyes to roll in despair. I reached for Mrs Saras’ hand, but she didn’t want to be held.
Seven hundred metres in the sky, Christ loomed down on Rio de Janeiro. But in the clouds we couldn’t see Christ’s head, it might as well have been replaced by Saras’ for all it mattered. I stared down over the railings at Rio, but Rio was lost within a smog of thick white, there may have been no city beneath us at all, it may have been smoothed away and erased forever.
“I love you,” Saras said to his wife.
“I know,” she said.
He seemed to wait for something else, anything else. When it didn’t come, he smiled at her politely. He moved his head towards her. She moved her head the same. He kissed her smartly on both cheeks.
And then she kissed him.
And he moved his head towards her lips in acceptance – but these weren’t pecks to the cheek she was offering, they were hungry sucks with the mouth full open, she was nuzzling into his face, first one side, then both sides. I could see the spit spill out the sides of that mouth of hers, and how that mouth grew, how big it was, Saras’ face being taken in with hefty gulps. And then, suddenly, she pulled away. And already I could see that his cheeks were softening, where she’d kissed was putty, the skin was starting to drip. And he looked so very old.
He stumbled back. He gave a bow (to her, but not to me), then quickly turned away and I could no longer see that face and oh, how it melted. And he disappeared into the cloud.
“Goodbye, carissimos amor,” she said, softly.
She turned to me.
“And now,” she said, “I’m yours.” And she smiled with that mouth still so wide, still with flecks of white saliva at her lips. “And now,” she said, “you have to find a name for me.”
“I can’t think of a name,” I said.
“You will,” she said. “A name that we can both enjoy.” And she leaned forward to kiss me on my cheek.
And I recoiled.
I did not mean to recoil.
We held the distance between us. For a moment her lips stayed fixed in mid-pucker, as if giving me the chance to relent, to put everything back the way it should be. Then the lips sagged back. The nostrils flared. The eyes were dead. And the hair looked so severe, and disappeared hard into the skull. And there was that distance, and we both held it. For the longest few seconds.
She said, “Do you love me?”
I said, “No, I don’t love you.”
She nodded at that. She didn’t wait for an explanation. She turned, she walked into the cloud, and she was gone.
I said that I regretted one lie I told. I said I loved her, I said I didn’t love her. And whichever one was the lie, that’s the one I regret.
There is little else to add.
Saras has not been seen since. The authorities now suspect he is dead, but he hasn’t been given a funeral yet, everybody is still hanging on waiting to see. Green and Grant think this is another one of his games, that he will pop out into the limelight again before too long, it’s some new piece of art with Saras as the subject. Gladwell thinks Saras has killed himself. Gladwell thinks Saras couldn’t bear the thought of old age, of the fading powers of his artistic vision, of his oeuvre measured against the eternity before him, etc, etc, he thinks Saras has done an Arbus, he’s done a Rothko or a Kahlo, he’s done a Van Gogh. “Why are artists such depressives?” he said to me. “Why are they all so fucked up?” And he laughed, and said he and I were better off just collecting the money! But Gladwell wasn’t there, Gladwell doesn’t know anything, Gladwell was never hugged by Saras and called his friend, and I don’t care that Gladwell is an executive and my immediate senior, as time goes on it strikes me that Gladwell is something of a complete fuckwit.
Gladwell, Green and Grant are all in agreement, however, about shelving plans for the exhibition. If Saras couldn’t hang on until he was eighty, there’s no point in hosting an eighty year retrospective of his life. Just a few months longer, maybe, and his art would have been of use to us.
Mrs Saras was seen again. The police in Brazil began an investigation into her husband’s disappearance, and for a couple of days the international newspapers had pictures of Mrs Saras on the cover. But there is no evidence of foul play, and the great love Mrs Saras showed her husband does not seem to be in doubt. She is in mourning, just as the whole of her country is in mourning. Mrs Saras has told the press that the greatest tribute she can pay him is to explore her own interest in fine art; her painting was a talent her late great husband encouraged and nurtured all the years of their tragically short marriage; his work will live on through hers. Her first exhibition was a small one, admittedly, but it had a lot of media attention – she was photographed, all smiles, such pride, heavy make-up concealing the scars on her face, a big German shepherd dog her constant companion.
And she now has a first name. It’s Jessica. Jessica Saras. It’s not the name I would have chosen for her.
Margaret tells me she wants a baby, and I am doing my best to provide. It would be nice to create something, I think.