The birch is a quiet tree. It listens.
James sits by the window, touching the glass lightly. He has just taken off his drawing harness. The finished sketch lies on the desk: it is of the birch trees, pale and precise in the silver air. A daffodil at their feet is the only colour. Ruffled, a golden face staring.
He puts one finger in his mouth, tasting the glass.
‘You are listening. Aren’t you?’ he says to the trees.
Receives their silence.
His goldfish sing in their bowl. The morning is ripening. He goes over to the thank-you-jeeves and takes out his shorts. Today will be full of fighting, he knows. His mother will scream. Whenever Charity comes there is always fighting. That’s why he wishes she would stay away, even though she always brings him a present, kisses him, holds him close so he smells her sharp scent.
And today it’s her birthday. It’s always worse on her birthday.
He dresses in yellow, the shorts and the T-shirt with the reindeer. The T-shirt smells clean. He buries his nose in it.
There is a fumbling at the door. He watches the handle turn.
Sighing a little, he straightens the reindeer just so on his chest.
Suzanne comes into the room, wanders to the window, peers accusingly at the sky. Her hair is askew. She smells of cigarettes.
She picks up the drawing from the desk, sniffs, lets it drop.
She fingers the harness.
‘This is getting too small for you.’
‘It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.’
‘James, you have to learn that you grow out of things. You have to learn to let go.’
‘I will,’ he says quickly.
She gazes at him, the harness held loosely in her hands. He looks down at the carpet. Thick, hushed, the colour of bone. His toes sink into it, and are gone.
‘Look at me.’
Her face reminds him of the daffodil – blank and open, staring, too bright. He can smell her. She smells of her morning dose. Powdery, faintly metallic.
‘James,’ she says softly, ‘do you love me?’
‘Yes,’ he whispers. His throat skins over, a familiar mechanism to block tears.
‘Do you love Suzanne? Do you love your mother?’
‘Really? Really love me? Forever?’
She walks to his dresser and taps her long fingernails against the glass of his goldfish bowl. The fish rise eagerly, singing in high, frantic voices. She stares into their mouthing faces.
He swallows. ‘If you do that you have to give them powder. They think you’re going to feed them. That’s what I do when I feed them.’
She turns on him. ‘So what, sweetie? So what?’
He inhales, exhales. ‘They think you’re going to feed them, so you have to give them their powder.’
‘I don’t have to do anything, p’tit. I don’t have to do a damn thing.’
The fish clamour in four-part harmony. It’s like a knife in him, twisting.
‘I mean,’ and she laughs her low husky laugh, the one that means whatever, ‘you talk as if they’re real.’
The singing, singing, singing.
Her lips livid and puffed from the dose.
He begins to talk to himself inside his head: Reindeer, I love you reindeer, reindeer protect my chest, bright yellow protect me, birch trees, hear me, hear me.
And they must hear because she shrugs and wanders out of his room, running her hands over the things on his dresser and his bedside table, lingering to peer again at the sky, turning to give him a long look from half-closed lids, leaning for a little against the door, then shutting it after herself with a small, deliberate click.
The air settles to stillness.
The fish croon hopelessly.
He goes to his dresser and gets out their powder and they carol gaily at the sight of it but his hands are shaking so much that most of it goes over the floor and they gulp up what they can and then spiral down to the bottom of the bowl and lurk there, half hidden in their weeds.
t gets harder every year.
Aquila lowers himself into the sunken tub, making small sounds of pain and complaint. His whole back burns from the sculpture harness. He suspects he is developing an allergy to the polymer. His heart is fluttering weakly, his lungs turning themselves inside out like blown umbrellas.
Umbrella, he murmurs to himself. The word is meaningless now, an anachronism. It could be the name of a princess. A princess with no kingdom.
The water takes him kindly. ‘Hotter,’ he says, and the temperature dial reddens. ‘Hotter, hotter, hotter,’ he says, closing his eyes, his head lolling, ‘hotter,’ until the autoregulator kicks in and says, softly, sweetly, ‘That’s hot enough, don’t you think?’
His muscles unknot in a slow, painful progression. He waits for the dose to come on. Lately it seems to be getting longer and longer, but he knows better than to increase it. Doesn’t want to end up in the clinic having his neurons resensitised. Doesn’t want to leave the house, in fact. Not anymore.
He thinks about the piece he’s been working on, sitting in the basement. Crouched there. He made it, but it scares him. Not least because it may not sell, not even with his name. And then what. He has expenses, a whole stack of them. Wife, kids, costly and demanding mistress.
When he closes his eyes, he still sees the ceiling, a resin transfer of Hive, his most famous work. (Or one of them. Academics and fans argue over the comparative merit of this or that masterpiece.) Hive, a universal favourite, is a hatched dome of greens that, with the appropriate dose, ‘prods the neurons into an unprecedented lattice of tranquillity, a holy calm’ (toploft magazine). Hence its presence in his bathroom, where he comes to put himself back together after the rigours of harness-time, where he comes to be reborn.
Come on, dose, beautiful dose, come.
When he was young . . . in his prime . . . he wouldn’t be lying in a bath like an old woman to wind down after a session. No, he’d be screwing the peachy ass off some groupie, or even, in those days, Suzanne. He’d strap on the harness like a warrior of old and dash off some incomparable, dazzling piece that would sell for a quarter million, then shower sleekly and go out to the cloud bars. In the best ones he had his own table on permanent reserve, in subtly secluded alcoves – not so hidden as to disguise his presence (after all, half the dupes in the place were there to ogle him and whatever five-star princess he had on his arm that night, to steal long envious glances at whatever rollicking good time they were having), but discreet enough to allow the moments of privacy that became necessary over the course of a standard evening.
And the views. Pristine ringside views of the night sky, its carefully choreographed comets, its skilfully arranged constellations. Once, on his thirtieth birthday, they made one in the shape of his face. The maître d’ presented it like a gift, whisking away a gauze curtain to reveal the tribute, oohs and ahhs all round, but he found it eerie – his face snared there in its own radiance, cold and huge and haughty. Hanging in the dark sky. All during that riotous night he could dent (ever so slightly) the monumental buzz he had on, just by catching his own glittering eye.
He hasn’t been to the city in months. He’s stopped buying the news. Down to one girl (not counting, as he doesn’t, Suzanne). One girl, and he can barely be bothered to do her. Despite her incontrovertible, rara-avis sexiness. Despite her semi-constant demands that he should.
When he opens his eyes and sees the ash-green resins and blond pine and concave mirrors of the bathroom lift and settle into a subtly different configuration, glowing softly, he knows the dose has kicked. He tips his head back, sighing, and takes a long look at Hive.
This house that his talent has built, its pitch-perfect elegance, its airy greens and creams, its walls of glass admitting views of delicate Nordic forest, its cloud-soft carpets and linens, the dulcet voices of its appliances, this calm. No wonder he doesn’t want to leave it. This house that his talent has built, that he has wrested into being, like a god creating his own sweet goddess out of clay. This peerless shell.
He loves it in long pulses, his throat bared to the ceiling.
The phone is calling him in murmurs. A sound like ebbing waves. He turns his head reluctantly and waves at the lens. Like everything else in the house it is meticulously styled, fashioned like pooled mercury, hanging on the wall like the cocoon of some high-sheened insect. It clears to show the caller.
It’s Antoinette. She says nothing, merely bares a breast, licks a finger and runs it over the nipple. He looks, says nothing. She shrugs and the lens thickens to silver.
Antoinette, now there’s a woman. Twenty years younger than him, twenty times the libido, quite the temper – she once attacked him with a fork after he criticised her new wall hangings. Superbly black, with peacock-blue nipples engineered by Cavielleri himself. She collects, not art, but artists. He’s given her precious little encouragement, what with one thing and another, but she’s persistent. Tenacious. He’s worth a lot to her. She will call back and back and back until he agrees to meet her. But not in the city. He’s done with the city, the news. She can meet him in the Meadows: so impeccable a hotel that it’s almost like he’s never left home. And it’s only a short catazoom’s ride away. She will complain, of course. She will perhaps rant a little. But in the end, she will agree.
The bath gushes willingly. He stretches, testing the taut elastic of his muscles. The aches are gone, replaced by a lionish feeling of pent strength. He feels a colossus, or near enough. He glances fondly at Hive.
He is a genius. He really is. They say it, and it’s true. He’s a public treasure. The world would be littler, colder without him. Lives would be dimmer. He is that rare thing, a master. As rare as comets used to be.
His every pore feels luminous.
That thing in the basement. First sculpture he’s done in a long time. He hadn’t known he was going to do it. Came out of nowhere. Nothing like his usual work. Like something done by someone else. It worries him, a little. Not a lot. It will sell, his things always sell.
He waves lazily in the direction of the lens.
‘Heide,’ he tells it.
The phone says ‘Certainly, Aquila,’ and the lens clears to show his dealer’s face, turning towards him in surprise. He hasn’t contacted her in weeks, although she has been calling daily, asking about the new work.
‘Heide, how are you? You’re looking great, just great.’
‘Thanks. You do know that you’re naked?’
He dismisses this with a lordly gesture. ‘Look, Heide, I finished the work.’
Her face brightens.
‘You’ve finished? Really? Can I see it? Oh God, you have no idea of the calls I’ve been fielding. We’re out of stock, we really need to position it now, this week if possible. Is that possible? Have you transferred the membrane?’
Heide – a thin, gingerish redhead – reminds him, in this eager mood, of a rabbit.
‘Well, dear, there’s just one thing. It’s not a painting. It’s a sculpture.’
She considers this. ‘That could work. I mean, of course it will work. It’ll price some of the lower-end buyers out of the market, and it won’t be suitable for every home, but then, there are people out there who would rebuild their homes to accommodate your pieces. Remember Chaginoff built a whole new wing to house Stamen. Weng Fa did the same thing for Polypop.’
‘This is a little different. A different direction for me.’
She frowns a little. ‘Different? Different how?’
‘You’ll really just have to see it.’
‘So, show me! I’m dying to see it, just dying.’
He hesitates. ‘Right now I’m in the bath. It was a hell of a piece to get done. Sculpture’s much harder on the body than painting. I need to relax.’
‘Tonight’s Charity’s birthday. She’s coming round for dinner.’
Heide’s face, in the fish-eye enlargement of the lens, creases subtly with distaste.
‘How is she?’
‘She’s never at her calmest this close to the start of the season. Her birthdays are always, shall we say, a trial.’
‘I can only just picture.’
‘I’m not sure that you can.’
The bath is cooling around him.
‘Heide, I’m going to get out of this water. Let’s spare your blushes and cut this short. I just wanted to let you know that I’m done. I’ll show it to you tomorrow.’
‘I can’t wait, Aquila!’
And she means it. She really does.
The lens clouds and he steps out of the bath. He feels alert and hungry. Perhaps some breakfast, now. The towel feels gratifyingly textured against his skin.
Aquila, Aquila. The hushing waves of the phone.
It’s Antoinette, and this time she’s mad.
‘Look, chien, do you know how many men I had last night?’
‘No, but you can tell me, if you like.’ He wraps the towel briskly around his hips.
Her nostrils flare to their fullest. ‘Yes, I would very much like to tell you, cochon. There were nine. Each one of them was at least twenty years younger than you. Each one was more beautiful, had smoother skin, a bigger cock, better conversation. I came and came and came like I had never come before. Do you hear that, old man?’
‘Well, pet, I’m very happy for you.’
‘Listen, Antoinette, I’ve been working all night. I have to get some breakfast.’
‘Fine. Go have breakfast with your zombie-crone wife.’ She pulls her shirt open, flaunting for a moment her iridescent tits, before the lens darkens.
Spare him these turbulent women, wanting and wanting and wanting him.
He thinks he would rather like a chat with his son. He hasn’t spent much time with him recently; the piece has kept him up late each night, and it’s been a while since he made an appearance at the breakfast table. He pulls the towel from his hips and glances into one of the long mirrors as he smooths back his hair.
Funny, he looks better today, younger. As if that piece in the basement had been a disease leeching him, something he’d cut out to save himself.
He looks into his own eyes, remembering the moment when the maître d’ had flung aside the curtain and everyone had gasped and clapped and whistled, everyone but him, staring at his glittering self in the empty sky.