I was trying to get the shading right on a pineapple when she came and sat next to me, hair the colour of turkey wattle, a ladder creeping up her tights. She dragged her easel closer with a flatulent scrape and ignored the sidelong glances. Her fruit bowl was charcoal banana and grape bunch, a fuzzy rush of muddy curves and circles, thick black hairs crawling from a plughole. She looked at my pineapple and nodded.
I could tell she wanted to say something, but she just sat and sighed and sniffed and coughed her boredom until I looked at her. She scrawled this is shit under her drawing and then shut her eyes as tight as claustrophobia until her cheeks leapt out.
“When are we going to get a chance to use some paints?” she finally asked, her eyebrows arched. “I’m sick of all this precision.”
“It’s still life.”
“I get that,” she said. “But where’s the colour?”
I shrugged and sloped a curve around the pineapple shadow. I aimlessly scratched at the paper and watched her out of the corner of my eye. I remembered her from the first class. Her name was Meg and when she laughed she honked like a goose. She was rolling a cigarette on her knee, her head tilted as though she had found something totally unexpected: a tiny person playing hopscotch on her fingertip, a flower that could sing, indisputable proof that the sun was a giant glowing onion. Her plaits were wound as tight as the rib-cage lobster pots we had drawn the week before, and her eyelids creaked under mascara when she blinked.
She turned and held a cigarette out to me. “Let me paint you,” she said. She pointed at the fruit bowl. “I’m bored of this banana. I want to paint yours.”
“Brilliant,” I said. “You’re a genius.”
She laughed. Honk honk. “Let’s get some tea.”
“Nothing’s open now.”
“Mine’s open,” she said.
I wasn’t sure what she meant.
Her flat was splintered wooden floorboard, paint-spattered and a whorl of severed branch knot. Canvases littered the walls and lined the skirting boards, furious flurries of colour and texture, phlegm-coated treetops, bruise-blue seas and skies and sunrises, jaundiced mannequins. She painted and repainted until the surfaces got so heavy they sagged like jowls.
“Lobster pot,” she said, pointing at a tangled mesh of golden cog. The paint crawled from the canvas, crooked limbs reaching forward, dragging you in, keeping you out.
She was so much better than me, but I didn’t care; it was all so fat and desperate that I wanted to steal it, rip it apart, get inside it. Her red hairs ran through the paint strokes like capillaries; they were her signature, proof that she was part of her work. I wanted those hairs in my sheets, on my shower tiles, winding through the threadbare pile of my carpets. I wanted her hairs in my hairs.
We went and sat in her bedroom, opened the skylight, had a cigarette, looked at her recent work. She told me that earlier that day she had been using red and she’d been a bit clumsy. It looked like she’d spent the morning killing. The floor was juicier than an abattoir. I wondered whether she’d used her hair to mop up.
“Red,” she said. “Red is definitely what I think about.”
“So that,” I said, pointing at a splash of offal, “is anger.”
“No. That’s an apple,” she said.
Then we took our clothes off and got on top of each other. I spread myself across her, hoped I could soak up some colour, suck in some strokes. I held her hands above her head and played with her thumbs until they cast branch shadows across her face, I twisted her onto her side so she curved like a palette, I bit down on her hair. I wanted her to come over me like a brushstroke smearing across my stomach canvas, my chest canvas, my face canvas. We mixed like oil through water.
A couple of weeks later she took me to meet her family. We got an early train and watched through the carriage window as the butter sun spread across the toasted fields of rapeseed. Meg told me not to be nervous about meeting them, but that I should know in advance they had been through a difficult time of late.
“They’re lovely, I love them, they’re lovely,” she said, “but both my sisters have had accidents in the last six months and it’s been really tricky for everyone. Olive had half her face burnt off when a chip fryer exploded, and then a few weeks later Minnie was in a car crash and saw her boyfriend decapitated.”
“Fucking hell,” I said.
“His head landed on her knees, but she couldn’t move it because she was trapped. She hasn’t walked since. They think it’s got something to do with his head being on her legs.”
“Well, shit, I can imagine.”
I patted her hand and whistled, I tried to imagine her naked. Outside, trees and crows and pylons flashed past as though caught in a hurricane. There was a pile of stones stacked like skulls. A fox had dragged a rabbit under a hedgerow and was wearing it as a hat. I thought about drawing. Somewhere nearby Meg was telling me about her father’s recent brush with meningitis, her mother’s ongoing malpractice trial. There was a honk honk. I was pretty certain there was nothing worth honking about.
“Dad deals with stuff in a strange way. He’s always wanted to be a writer, so he tries to brighten any family tragedy with literary colour. I think I get that from him.”
“Are these family tragedies common occurrences?” I asked, my voice hitting a higher octave than usual.
“Mm-hmm,” she said.
The house was big and warm, with a log fire and soup on the stove and a dog with a missing leg. Meg’s parents hugged and kissed me when I stepped in the door, asked me to call them Mum and Dad, said I had lovely blue eyes and I should make myself feel at home. They mentioned that they had received some sad news earlier, that a friend of the family had drowned in the bath, but they were positive people and they were going to show me a happy household.
I was introduced to Olive, the sister with half a face, and she shook my hand and dropped her head. In profile she was both beautiful and terrifying, serene and stretched. She smiled and gave me a balloon. It was purple and languid, it had a bell attached to the bottom and a message on its front: Welcome to our family.
We had some lunch and sat at the table playing whist. The dog jerked past, saliva hammocking its blue-black gums. Meg’s father sat opposite me, occasionally laughing to himself and scrawling words into a notebook. He told me three times that he would be offended if I didn’t call him Dad, that he had once had a son but he had only lived a week.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
I rolled a cigarette, but it was terrible, warped like a sodden plank of wood.
“Can you not roll?” Olive said, one side of her face mocking, the other gravely serious.
“His cigarettes are Picasso,” Meg said.
Dad poured more tea and dealt the cards with a flourish. “You should meet Clive. You’d love Clive,” he said to me. “He’s my brother. He recently would’ve won the lottery, had the same numbers every draw, but his wife, Sandra, forgot to pick up the ticket that week.”
“That’s awful,” I said. I wanted to add that it was an up-to-the-attic-with-a-shotgun-in-the-mouth-type scenario, but I feared that might be following.
“He felt like a man who has lost his childhood teddy bear, like a girl who …” Dad paused, looked up to the light bulb, pressed his thumb and index finger together and swirled them in front of him like a spoon stirring tea. “Like a girl who has been jilted at the altar,” he said triumphantly. “Anyway, Sandra decided gluten was to blame, so she started making these gluten-free sausages. They were a hit at her dinner parties and eventually the village butcher offered her one hundred pounds for the recipe. They’re now stocked in every supermarket in the country. Britain’s number one gluten-free sausage. The butcher made himself a fortune, but he never offered her another penny.”
“So they could have been millionaires,” I said. “That is unlucky.”
“You make your own luck,” he replied, quick as a click.
I worried that perhaps he was right.
Minnie was asleep in her room when I popped in to say hello. It was a mishmash of dolls and dance shoes, ketchup-encrusted plates and empty bottles, smothered under the sickly smell of weed. Next to her was a pinboard covered in photographs. The legs had been ripped off the girls, the heads from the boys. I left quietly and found Meg.
We packed paper and went to the park to paint. The sky was a cracked egg; broken yolk was seeping through the clouds and spilling yellow light over the treetops. I sketched the line of trees whilst Meg rolled cigarettes. After a while I grew tired and lay back. She looked at my drawing, head tilted, then opened some oils and splash splashed across it. Twenty seconds. She gave it back to me, nodded, and lit her cigarette. I turned the page and started again.
The park stretched down to a stream on one side, a road the other. I watched buses lope past for a while. Meg was painting; her brush was nightmare orange, her head so close to her work that her plait was dragging through it. I imagined the red cracks that would be creeping through the paint. A Frisbee floated above us, a dog barked and jumped up at a pram, a group of shirtless teens drank cider and shouted nearby, but Meg was oblivious; she gazed at her painting and told me about her mum’s brother and how he had been bankrupted by a recent stock market crash, a cousin that had climbed a mountain and disappeared, a neighbour who was murdered by an intruder in their house whilst feeding the dog during a summer holiday.
“We were cursed by a gypsy,” she said.
I said nothing, but she was waiting for an answer, so I nodded, scoffed, feigned a little laugh.
She told me to forget about sketching, that planning was for those who always needed to know the time, that pencil was protruding bone that needed smothering in daubs of colour. She remembered a gallery of protruding bones the family had collected over the years: snapped clavicle and cracked scapula, fractured femur and twisted tibia, patella flipped over, metatarsal tipped under. I felt sick to fucking death.
“I’ve got a hole in my heart,” she said.
“Shit,” I said.
She shot jets of paint as she told me about her first boyfriend impaling himself on a railing whilst climbing for conkers, her pedigree Labrador that was stolen by carnies, the time her great-grandmother was tarred and feathered by Cossacks. I wanted to put my fingers in my ears but her voice was too loud.
I looked at her tights, the freckle on her lip, the way her teeth jutted out when she painted, and tried to imagine fucking her in the fetid park toilet, watching her face in the mirror as she grabbed onto the taps. But I kept picturing her with a crystal ball and large hoop earrings, her face burnt off, septicaemia blotching her skin, my head on her lap.
I started to get the uneasy feeling that she was painting me, so I stood up.
“Have you been painting me?”
She put her brush down and turned the paper to face me. It was a painting of a burning building. In a top window, arms clawing at the air outside, was a figure, trapped, flames licking around its head.
“Is that me?” I asked.
She didn’t answer.
That evening Mum and Dad returned from their seaside trip with solemn faces. There was muttering, then the chafe of thumb on lighter. Dad had been stung on the mouth by a bee and his lips were hideously swollen.
“We’ve not had a great day, I’m afraid,” Mum said, running a hand through her hair before reaching for another cigarette. “Someone died right in front of us on the beach.”
Dad nodded lugubriously, his huge lips bouncing together like gluten-free sausages. “It was beautiful down there. The sand was whiter than seagull, the sea glinting like crisp packets. Your mother and I were drinking cappuccino in an alfresco beachside café, shading our faces from the high, hot sun, and watching a young girl flick sand off her spade and catch it. Flick and catch, flick and catch.”
“Get to the point, Dad,” Meg said softly. She put her hand on his.
“A breeze blew up, rough like stubble, like a builder’s palms, like rusted iron. It began to pump at the windbreaks; it affected the flight paths of birds. The parasols were bucking like frightened horses, booming like the revered voice of a grandfather, spinning like the wheels of a bus inexorably treading the monotonous grey lines to which they are condemned.”
He paused for a moment to write something down in his notebook. Mum sighed and took up the story.
“A parasol wasn’t tied down properly. It lifted up and impaled an elderly gentleman through the neck. I gave him mouth-to-mouth, but he died with my lips on him.”
Dad drummed at the table. “It comes to us all. We just have to hope it comes later rather than sooner.”
That night Meg and I fucked but I couldn’t touch her. I didn’t know what she would leave on me, what stain would be tattooed across my skin at the end of it. Her legs were hot, her lips ashen, her weight falling beams and brick. She crackled when she came, she spat ember, scorched my face.
Afterwards a breeze filled the room and fiddled with the purple balloon Olive had given me, turning it round to face me; the bell tinkled and I imagined grabbing hold of it, letting the helium take me up and away, out of the window and back towards a place where whooping cough was the worst I knew. I couldn’t sleep. Her painting had found its way onto the inside of my eyelids and I couldn’t stop thinking about that top-floor window, the flames, the solitary shrieking figure little more than a fleshy brushstroke, raw as a pork-gristle stretch mark.
The next morning I said no. I said it was not working. I told her she was great, and her family were lovely, I loved them, they were lovely, but I wasn’t in the right place for a relationship. I said I would get my stuff together and leave for the train in an hour. I packed my bag, tried not to look at her. I felt like a worthless piece of shit, a coward, but I could feel that fire creeping up to the top floor. I hid in the toilet for a while, and when I came back she was at the easel, working on the burning building again, giving the trapped man features. She looked at my face before she added the eyes.
I said goodbye. She was sad and her mascara ran. She looked like a chimney sweep. As I left, she turned to me. “You can’t leave the balloon. They’ll think you left because you didn’t like them.”
I wound the string around my palm and walked out.
I stood on the platform. A sad honk honk told me the train was coming. I could hear the tracks stretching, anticipating the gnash of electricity. The balloon was still in my hand, its string wrapped around my knuckles, the bell pressing into my palm. It was shrivelled like a dying pomegranate, the crumpled buttock of an old woman. I looked at it, saw that a red hair was winding around the string, a snake up a ladder. Welcome to our family. The sky was clear and high. I unwound the string and listened to the bell ding once, twice. And then I let go.