The first time I met Frank I also tasted blood. I seldom saw him but I understood he was Phoebe’s boyfriend. He didn’t stay at her house very often but when he did I would often hear animated conversation.
One night I was heading to the toilet when he came out. I was confronted by a short but muscle-bound individual in a dirty white T-shirt. I nodded and went to move past him.
“Woa,” muttered Frank and moved to block my path.
“Is there a problem?”
“Only some pansy artist living at my girlfriend’s place.”
I said nothing but looked at him steadily. There was a beer bottle in his hand and he was swaying slightly.
“Nothing to say for yourself shirt lifter,” he growled into my silence.
I sensed a presence behind him and Phoebe was in the doorway. “Leave him alone Frank.”
Frank swayed backwards and his bloodshot eyes took her in. “Defending him now are you, you bitch.” He shoved Phoebe and she went clattering against the door. Instinctively I swung at his face, landing a flailing blow at his ear.
Frank swung around again, like some kind of mechanical enforcer and hit me full in the mouth with an efficient right hook. I went flying to the ground and blood started trickling from my mouth. He started kicking at me on the ground, sending the breath rushing out of my ribs. The blows were stopped abruptly as a blood curdling yelp emanated from Frank. I watched him stagger and hold his legs. I saw Phoebe behind him with a curtain pole.
That night when Frank had limped off, Phoebe bathed my bleeding mouth. Her delicate hair fell on my face and I touched her tears feeling the pain of this middle aged woman who was trapped between her dreams of a spectral watercolor world and the hard reality of Frank.
“You have to change the locks. Tell him you never want to see him again Phoebe.”
The woman suddenly looked very old and the tears welled up again. “How can I? I have been with him for six years.”
I looked at the tall elegant vase in her room, a gentle fusion of ibises and palm trees, but noticed a crack near the foot of it where it had been repaired. Her pale blue eyes were looking up at me, pleading. Suddenly, I felt older than Phoebe.
“Does he hit you often?”
“Here,” she said and lifted the folds of her nightie to reveal a series of bruises on her long, white leg. “Always where people can’t see. I don’t mind showing you.”
“By the end of tonight we will have drawn up a plan for Frank to never be in your life again.”
Phoebe inched up the nightie a bit further. “By the end of the night we may have achieved a lot of things.”
Over the next few weeks my easel was my constant companion. From dawn to dusk I would be out on the streets of London, finding obscure Medieval alleys, hidden monuments and beauty in the midst of everyday streets. If I visited to the tourist attractions, it would be to look at them from a different angle, the down-and-outs selling the Big Issue as Americans lined up to spend a small fortune outside Madame Tussaudes, and the toothless, old woman pushing a shopping cart outside Harrods. But as time went by my work evolved. At the homeless encampment by the Thames I painted men dancing with their arms in the air. I painted love among the loveless and Indian weddings in the meanest streets of Bethel Green. Increasingly my theme became triumph over adversity rather than being a mere recorder of the misery itself. For the most part, I crossed the great city on foot. At night I would collapse into Phoebe’s bed and be roused to a new level of passion that would renew my zeal to seek out my subjects on the streets of London.
I never forgot the intensity in her face the day she asked me to paint her. Her small hands were hard on my cheek bones and her eyes bored into me.
“I need you to do this Campbell. As I am now. Clothed. Naked. Doing the laundry.”
“Why the sudden urgency?”
“I’m dying of cancer Campbell. I want you to paint me as you see me now. In blue. Always blue, Campbell.”
Over the next few weeks, I removed myself from the streets and devoted myself to Phoebe from every angle and position I could imagine. The aching sadness we shared seemed to move my brushstrokes. I wondered whatever happened to my portrait of Jacques when he was dead and I thought of the mutilated boy in the streets of Mostar. Phoebe was the longest and saddest goodbye. The colors were beautiful that fall as if the russets of the rolling countryside had invaded the city bringing a lovely amber light. “Shut it out,” Phoebe told me. “Just blue darling.”
One day late in fall we drove Phoebe’s old car to the Dorset countryside, far up into the rolling hills. It felt like a sad parody of young lovers. “It’s not too cold to roll down the top,” she told me.
It was late in the day by the time we came to the Cerne Abbas giant, a man carved in chalk in the hillside, known for his prominent genitalia.
“It’s a fertility symbol. Couples come here to do it to conceive,” she told me. “I need you to paint passing life, not new life. See how the blue shadows of evening are creeping in to the west over the hills. Blue should not be a problem for you, Campbell. You suit blue.”