I See Someone Unravelling
"One day, you'll realise there are some people you will never see again. At least, not in the same way." – Iain Thomas
A short walk beyond the Bohemian chic of Camden Market, Arlington Studios proved to be a monolith of a building, with solid red brick and long thin windows. From the front step, Michael could see the building was at least five floors high and far overhead, the clouds of evening greyed, tinged with the white-gold of the setting sun beyond. Michael pursed his lips and shook his head. Romanticising everything. He definitely had it bad.
He turned his attention back to the door in front of him and after scrutinising the labels on the intercom, pushed the button beside one.
“Hey, you,” came the response: deep, languid and easy. “The lift’s out of action right now. Take the staircase on the right.” The buzzer sounded and with that, Michael pushed the door and complied, noting the faint smell of paint in the lobby. He made short work of all five flights of stairs before exiting onto a landing with a single door at the far end. He neared the door and buzzed the intercom beside it.
Footsteps approached from the other side and the door soon swung open to reveal Stewart, looking as though he’d just come from the office, with his sleeved shirt unbuttoned at the collar. Pressed trousers completed the ensemble. “Hey,” Stewart said. “Sorry about the stairs. They tell me someone’s coming with the parts for the lift tomorrow.”
Michael dropped his gaze as his polo shirt was a little shabby (and the upturned collar look probably didn’t help that). Now he was more conscious that his little ginger beard could possibly use a trim, especially in comparison to the fresh cut of Stewart’s short back and sides. Stewart’s eyelids slid closed in mock exasperation and he dragged Michael forward into a kiss. “Stop bloody worrying,” he said, his voice muffled by the brush of lips. The kiss deepened, with Stewart’s arm coming around Michael before the wistful release. Stewart grinned and led him inside, closing the door behind them.
“You just finished?” Stewart asked, and then stopped, a faint smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Michael not only knew why, but he could feel why. Those who were ginger were often maligned about it, but just to exacerbate things, his cheeks heated, no doubt making him look even more like a carrot. His first night with Stewart had been a couple of days ago and even now, Michael was walking on air from the progression to the next level. That stubble-framed smile had descended on him, and brought him to a delicious realm of excitement; swollen hard and tight. Silence hung between both he and Stewart before the latter read all he needed to from Michael’s embarrassment and, muttering ‘pervert’, led him by the hand down the hallway.
“So,” Stewart said, double-squeezing Michael’s hand before letting go. “What do you think?”
Michael took in the sight before him. An expansive studio of polished wooden flooring held a number of large pieces of art adorning all four walls, the fourth wall set a yard back from its neighbours by the hallway. Track lighting angled from twin rows overhead, giving the studio a strangely melancholy look with a headless alabaster statue in the middle of the room. Michael folded his arms, hands cupping his elbows. He never considered himself to be an art lover, by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, he’d been to the Louvre before, marvelling at the sculptures and paintings, and the frescoes in Italy were breath-taking. But this? That Stewart had invited him over for a private viewing and the first viewing made it even more beautiful, and he felt his heart race a little. The other man held an open expression, eyebrows raised whilst shoving his hands in his pockets, and Michael glimpsed that Stewart may have been a little unsure as he himself was.
“Ladies?” Stewart brought his hands together in a clap. “We have company. Please make our guest feel welcome.”
Seeing no one but Stewart, Michael blinked, his lips parting –
Stewart shook his head with a little smile. “Ah, that’s the theme of this little collection. Each piece comes courtesy of a female artist.” His hands remained clasped, his expression expectant.
“It’s… it’s great,” Michael said, and Stewart’s shoulders relaxed at this, his smile now a little wider and enhanced by the creases at the corners of his eyes. “When did the last piece come in?”
“This morning. It’s actually this one,” Stewart said, leading Michael over to a painting further along the adjacent wall.
Michael peered at the picture. It looked like an interpretation of a bowler-hatted businessman leaving a porch under an archway, only the figure walking was actually the shadow and the man himself was cast as the reflection, angled in line with the contours of the steps he fell upon.
“Remedios Varo,” Stewart said, from behind. “She’s one of the few surrealist painters, at least that I know of. You’ll find similar themes in a lot of her work: all arches, steps and such. You like this one?”
Michael nodded at the painting. “It’s different – a little out of the ordinary, isn’t it?” He smiled, trying to relax. “Let’s see what else you’ve got in here.”
He moved on to the next one. This time, he noted that it was more of what he would refer to as a conventional painting, with the figure looking as though it was from Victorian times with the embroidered costume and high white collar set against a black background. The same figure held what appeared to be the page of a musical manuscript. But what really drew Michael’s attention was the face. Not only did the figure appear to sport a mutton-chop beard, but also the whole face looked like it was covered in hair.
“What’s this?” Michael whispered, his tone one of bemusement. “Is he supposed to be a cat or something?”
“She,” Stewart corrected, coming up behind him, “is Antoinetta Gonzalez, and what she did have is what’s known as hypertrichosis, commonly called werewolf syndrome. A Lavinia Fontana, who’s regarded as the first woman artist outside of a court or convent, does this one. Known as Monkey Child, I believe.”
“Huh. And I thought I had it bad being called ginger.” Michael grinned, and Stewart smiled with him, but beneath that smile, Michael thought he saw something falter in the other man’s expression.
Michael cast his gaze around the rest of the gallery. The wall opposite held his attention, with one picture displaying a rabbit-headed figure holding another one, bloodied, in its arms. The picture next to it depicted another painting on a black background, this time of a balding bearded man in bed, his hands held fast by a maid while another woman set to beheading him, armed with a short sword. He felt Stewart’s gaze and turned back to him.
“Just when I thought this couldn’t get any weirder,” Michael said, gesturing over his shoulder to the portrait of Antoinetta. He crossed the studio as the portrait’s eyes tracked his movement, impassive. Michael appraised the painting of the beheading, nodding in appreciation. Blood ran in the rivulets over bed sheets and sprayed from under the sword. “This is some really macabre shit,” he whispered, before turning his attention to Stewart. “I think I see someone unravelling,” he said with a laugh. He wagged a scolding finger.
“You should get out more,” he said, turning back to the painting.
“Maybe you’re the one unravelling. It wouldn’t hurt to be polite instead of flippant.”
Along with the tone of annoyance, Michael felt a glare upon him: someone else’s contempt that would swell slowly in silence from each and every nuance of you. He looked over his shoulder, away from the painting.
Stewart pincered him with a look of faux reproach, dark eyebrows drawing together. “You should be keeping an open mind. Besides,” he said, relaxing in resignation as he gestured at the walls, “art should engage the beholder and give them something to think about. Looks like this collection is hitting the spot.”
Michael shrugged. “If you say so,” he said, scratching absently at his beard. He’d have to shave as soon as he got back. “Are you looking to get any more pieces for this collection?”
“Mmmm, no. This is now a prime collection.”
“Mmm-hmm. Prime. How many pieces do you see?”
Michael considered this for a moment, chewing at his lip. Mouthing silently, he counted each piece, from the rabbit-headed figures to the portrait of the beheading next to it. Around the room he went, noting an eerie black and white woodcut of an old man on a stool hanging a noose (that was eerie, he thought), before finishing with the sculpture in the centre of the room: what appeared to be a headless statue, with a heavy cord draped over its shoulder. Cord? Maybe it was entrails; the carving certainly portrayed a thick and gelatinous look. “Thirteen pieces?”
Stewart gave a sage nod, his gaze never leaving Michael’s face. “That’s right. Thirteen pieces.”
Michael weighed this. Of all the numbers to pick… “See?” he said. “That’s really fucking macabre.”
“I said don’t be flippant,” Stewart chided and, with a half-smile, dealt Michael a playful slap in the face.
Now context was everything, opinions would differ and while the slap was little more than a tap on the cheek, the reason for it stung Michael nonetheless. Some of this art was starting to creep him out, truth be told – and the number of pieces didn’t help.
“Don’t fucking slap me,” Michael said, swatting his arm away. “I’m not your bitch and I’m not your man-servant.”
“Well, don’t keep taking the piss,” Stewart said, stepping closer, the heat of upset evident in his eyes. Right now, Michael really didn’t give a shit. Playful or not, that slap had crossed a line.
Stewart reached out a hand to Michael’s shoulder, but he batted it away. Forceful now, Stewart reached for him again, this time, grappling Michael into a passionless embrace. The two men tussled before Michael, a head shorter and somewhat weaker, succumbed to a headlock. Michael tore and dug at the arm. Beneath the cool cotton of Stewart’s shirtsleeve, he could feel a bicep, lean and hard. As Stewart grappled Michael and led him in an awkward circle, Michael worked to pry his fingers under the limb… and then faltered.
Through the headlock, he could see another Stewart walking toward him from across the studio.
And holding a short sword: handle grasped in one hand, blade resting against the palm of the other.
Michael felt the skin on his scrotum shrivel and tighten. Time appeared to slow enough for the scene before him to play out with sickening detail: the unhurried pace of the doppelganger across the studio, its unsmiling face, and the lines of the blade it held. By the time it was upon him and Michael was close enough to see the creases in the skin over the knuckles, Michael screamed and, in desperation, did something he hadn’t done since primary school.
He grabbed a fistful of Stewart’s crotch.
The reaction was immediate, with Stewart letting him go with a cry of alarm and back-pedalling, allowing Michael to skitter out of reach and catch his breath. He looked up to see Stewart watching him from a few yards away, his hands fisted by his sides, his chest hitching under his shirt. Silence lay fractured by the sounds of their breathing.
Just the two of them.
“Who the fuck was that?”
Stewart cast him a sullen look. “Who?”
“For fuck’s sake...” he began, and then stopped himself. Who exactly had he seen?
Michael crept around the corner to the hallway, seeing nothing but the door at the end of it. A door that big, and anyone leaving in a hurry would have made a lot of noise in the process. At the far end of the hallway, a cubicle of a toilet with a single washbasin. To the right, an alcove with a swivel chair facing a desktop computer and a small fridge beside it, opposite a two-seater couch. Stewart obviously spent some time here outside of normal office hours.
“Honey,” Stewart said, his voice cautious. “What’s going on?”
What was going on? At this point in time, Michael had no fucking idea and he felt the hairs of his neck elevate in a shiver. The headlock was real. As for what he’d seen?
His bare arms broke out in gooseflesh and he massaged his forearms.
“Hey,” Stewart soothed, and tentatively reached for him. Michael drew back, but Stewart pressed on, gently snagging his hand. “You’re shaking. Come on.”
“No, don’t touch me,” Michael said, backing away. “Not now.”
Stewart’s lips parted, as if forming a response. His gaze never leaving Michael’s face, Stewart stood silent for a moment before pulling a vial from his pocket, twisting off the cap and tossing it aside where it skittered along the floor. He fished out one tablet and dry swallowed, before proceeding to down another, and when the second one went down, he gagged a little. Michael noticed the wetness in his eyes.
“What are you doing?”
Stewart’s gaze remained frozen. “You really don’t care, do you?” He popped another pill. “So why should I?” And another one. “Why should I?”
Surreal as it was unexpected, Michael stood transfixed as the tableau unfolded before him, in much the same way that theatregoers will remain seated waiting for the lights to dim and the curtain to rise. By the time he had the presence of mind to knock the vial from Stewart’s hand, the damage was done. Stewart pitched forward and collapsed on the floor in a boneless heap.
“Oh, God,” Michael muttered, and dropped beside him, touching two fingertips to his neck for a pulse. “Oh, God.” Was there a pulse? Shit, was he even feeling in the right place? He couldn’t be sure. The other man’s skin already felt cool to the touch, rough with the rasp of stubble on his neck. Michael lifted Stewart’s wrist and touched his fingertips against it, remembering Miss Mallory’s words from first aid in school: use the fingertips, since the thumb had a pulse of its own.
Part of him wished that he had never come here this evening, beyond that, that he had never met Stewart at all. Michael’s pulse thudded away in his temples with deafening volume, not only from trying to rouse the comatose body. His eyes scanned the floor where the scattering of pills and the empty vial themselves looked like some kind of exhibit in Stewart’s studio.
Tapping, soft and discreet, came from overhead and with the deliberation of dread, Michael turned his head to the source.
The noose in the woodcut swung gently against the surface of the picture in an almost hypnotic rhythm. Not missing a beat, the old man of crude lines holding the noose tilted his head in an unspoken question and as his lips drew into a smile.
He gave Michael a wink.
Whimpering, Michael bolted around the corner and sprinted down the hallway, following it round to the left …until it brought him back to the studio.
Yelping in alarm, Michael dug in his heels, but couldn’t control his momentum and it toppled him to the floor, where the next shock hit him.
Stewart’s body was gone.
Michael skittered back against the wall, his skin crawling with revulsion.
What the fuck?!
His internal monologue railed at him – and even then he was simply too scared to think too much in case it provoked some other perverse terror from the studio.
Silence simply compounded the terror. Along with the clean bare aesthetics of the studio, right now, it had to be the creepiest fucking thing Michael had ever witnessed. The interlude. The certainty that silence would soon succumb to more horror.
Despite the futility of his escape attempt, Michael groped his way backward, not once taking his eyes off the room. Paintings remained indifferent, each one lit with hideous, hideous perfection by the angled lighting overhead. Michael made sure that he kept the wall at least at arm’s length, not daring to make contact lest the wall itself should strike fear into him. From the periphery of his vision, he could see the base of the picture frames, the plinth of the statue, the pills dotting the floorboard from when he slapped them away from –
Alabaster feet charged him from the plinth with footsteps of solid and weighty stone, and cold hard hands wrapped around his throat, hoisting him high. Reflex took over and wrapped Michael’s hands around the arms of the statue to wrestle free, but his assailant was implacable and lifted him into the air as though he were an infant at play. From this angle, Michael could look down at the planed surface of the neck where a head would have been – and that, coupled with the silence of the attacker, terrified him more than anything. Now closer to the overhead glare, the track lighting began to warm his forehead and dazzle his vision. His feet beat a useless cadence against the wall and one of the paintings in an alternating pitch of sound.
Above the growing pressure on his neck, his vision swam.
Kicking away from the wall, he threw himself forward with all his might. The statue fell with him, and smacked into the floor with a brittle crack, splintering one floorboard and pitching Michael free, the impact rolling him a yard away.
Gagging and coughing, Michael pushed to his hands and knees. The statue lay face down in its original pose rather than one of attack, the arms broken off and revealing rough edges. Pebbles and granules of alabaster lay nearby.
Michael got to his feet. The statue remained prone and broken, the paintings still graced the walls …and Stewart stood glum over his shattered centrepiece.
“Fuck!” Michael skittered back and collapsed against a painting. Jesus Christ, Jesus fucking Christ, the body was cold, he was dead, he was fucking dead, that’s not him…!
Stewart, head hung, remained where he stood immobile; no, not quite. Michael watched the slow lift of Stewart’s head, his own legs trembling. This was all too fucking much.
Tears rolled down Stewart’s cheeks as the two men faced each other, the horror between them a divide, the quiet even more so.
Stewart spoke first. “You really didn’t like it?” His voice was choked.
Michael felt tears prick at his own eyes, and his heart lurched at the surprise emotion. Shit, his throat still hurt from the attack. “That …thing,” he said, stepping forward, and Stewart took a step back, shaking his head.
“Okay, so you didn’t like it,” he said, his voice wavering. “You didn’t have to go and break it.”
Fear or not, Michael felt like a prick.
Through his own upset, Michael did his best to take it all in: Stewart’s anguish, the felled and broken statue. Plus, Stewart’s pills and vial were gone. Michael cast a wary glance at the pictures, which earned a scoff from Stewart. Worst of all, Michael could not shake the incessant feeling that some sinister sleight of hand had been pulled for Stewart’s benefit, but deliberately not for his own. The feeling of being watched was stronger now, if anything.
“I think you’d better go,” Stewart said.
Michael stepped forward, gritting his teeth and mentally pleading that the studio at least stay its hand for the moment. “Look, I’m sorry.” He swallowed, his gaze shifting briefly to a point behind Stewart. “But this place –”
“No,” Stewart said, his mouth set in a hard line. “Just don’t. I think you’ve about done enough here.” Tear tracks glistened on his cheeks.
And over his shoulder on the far wall, the rabbit heads of Rego’s “War” turned unnoticed with slow deliberation, glaring coldly as Stewart led the other man away from the studio.
Words wouldn’t come; any guilt Michael felt remained stifled under an increasing weight of fear. It brought a chill that shivering wouldn’t rid him of, and only Stewart’s proximity kept him from bolting for the door again. The memory of his last attempt teased him without humour. As Stewart held the door open, Michael reached for Stewart’s hand, only for the older man to respond with a grimace and a shake of the head.
“Just go,” he muttered.
Michael searched his face for some hint of leniency and finding none, finally caved and left.
Stewart watched him, his expression one of hurt. Further down the hallway and within the studio, framed faces had swivelled in the direction of Michael’s departure. Moreover, Stewart’s expression hardened with displeasure and shame.
Matching the other expressions within the studio.