Clifford poured himself another glass of claret, stretched out fully on the green velvet sofa and considered the irony of being driven to drink by a Methodist.
The Methodist in question was Maureen. She inhabited the same block of flats as Clifford and other than that, they had absolutely nothing in common. Had fate and poor plumbing not conspired so that the pipe under Clifford’s sink had leaked through Maureen’s living room ceiling late one Thursday afternoon, they would almost certainly have never spoken.
After all, reasoned Clifford, he was an artist, when he wasn’t wasting his life in the Council’s housing department, a man who had nothing to do with the Maureens of this world, a man that one day would be interviewed on culture programmes, a man who had known from an early age what discs he would take to his desert island.
Clifford drank more wine and reviewed what he considered to be his entirely reasonable grounds for disliking his neighbour.
Things had got off to a bad start on the day of the leak when, first glimpsed through the half-open front door, Maureen had appeared to him to be completely naked. On Clifford’s closer and most reluctant inspection, she was found, in fact, to be wearing a contour hugging track suit, the very colour of goose pimpled flesh. As Clifford had later discovered, Maureen habitually wore sportswear, apparently oblivious to its intended purpose, which to Clifford indicated she had probably also abandoned herself to reality TV, ready meals, Radio 2 and God knows what other modern shameful practises.
Secondly, Maureen was obese. And Clifford, who had always prided himself on remaining slender, even in middle age, made a point of avoiding fat people whenever possible, as if fatness might be catching. He had been known to walk out of long anticipated exhibitions in renowned galleries to avoid the risk. And anyway such people blocked his view.
Clifford’s final objection was that she smelt of bleach, which brought to his mind hospitals, public lavatories and swimming pools, all of which held unpleasant associations for him: the death of his beloved mother, that man in the gents on Stockport railway station and David Hockney, who in Clifford’s opinion had somehow managed to spread precious little talent an awfully long way.
He refilled his glass.
It hadn’t been until their second meeting that the issue of Maureen’s beliefs had arisen. However on reflection Clifford thought he should have guessed she was religious since anyone who dressed so badly must be confident of divine forgiveness. On that particular day, Clifford, who had a particularly bruising day with the morons at the Council, had been expecting the good-looking boy who collected the milk money. Accordingly, he had answered the door, shirt untucked, hair artfully ruffled, a clean filbert size eight in hand, and was somewhat disappointed to find his caller was Maureen, rubenesque in bulging orange Lycra.
“Just to let you know, the living room’s drying out fine,” Maureen had said all in one breath before Clifford, who had been scanning the street for the boy over her shoulder, had chance to speak. “I’ll be able to repaint soon. I always do the whole flat magnolia, so it’ll be really easy.”
Maureen had continued with the next part of her speech so quickly it had clearly been rehearsed.
“There is a bring-and-share supper tonight at the Methodist Church Rooms at seven o’clock if you’d like to come.”
Clifford had simply stared. He was still haunted by the thought of a dwelling, in such close proximity to his own, entirely the colour of porridge, and couldn’t quickly turn his mind to this new horror.
“Don’t feel you have to bring anything. I’ll be taking more than enough food myself.” Maureen had giggled, then added, “There’s no alcohol of course, with us being Methodists.”
As a man of the world, Clifford was, of course, aware of religions that forbade alcohol but he couldn’t recall ever being invited to attend one of their gatherings. He abandoned his fleeting fantasy of redecorating Maureen’s flat in the shades of peacock feathers whilst she was out, and instead contemplated a booze-less evening in a draughty hall in the company of multiple Maureens trying to convert him with trays of vol-au-vents and sherry-less trifles.
Meanwhile Maureen had lolled playfully against the door frame and given him a you know you really want to look, whilst waiting for his reply. Clifford had feared the wood was likely to give way.
“I’ll be busy.” Clifford had said rather feebly. “You see, I’m an artist.” And had held out his brush by way of illustration.
Of course, some people, particularly people he worked with at the Council, would say that this wasn’t quite true, but in his mind and his soul he was an artist, indeed an artist struggling against an indifferent world. He drank deeply, then poured the rest of the wine into his glass. Perhaps, thought Clifford, he should just abandon himself completely to drink. After all, it had worked wonders for Jackson Pollock.
Maureen had called again after the bring-and-share-supper, bringing Clifford a delicious steak pie that had been left over and asked him to a charity quiz the following week. Then she had brought homemade cheese scones and mentioned that tickets were still available to an evening of gospel music. And only yesterday, Clifford had been most affronted by the chocolate brownies and the invitation to join a discussion group whose purpose was to explore the meaning of life.
This, Clifford felt, had marked a new low in his relations with Maureen. It appeared that she, like so many others who’d apparently found God, assumed that he wanted to do the same. He didn’t; he was quite happy to leave God well alone. Anyway, if the woman had bothered to look, Clifford went on to reason, now rather the worse for the claret, she would see in him a life dedicated to the endless pursuit of beauty and truth, embodied by his art and his pursuit of the charming but elusive milk money boy.
Clifford’s glass was empty again and he knew he didn’t have another bottle of claret in the flat. That was Maureen’s fault since he hardly dare go out these days, other than to work, for fear of running into her. She had left him no choice but to start on the emergency brandy. So he did, without delay.
After the first glass, Clifford realised it was also Maureen’s fault about the milk money boy. She’d probably had a word with him and put him off from coming round. Surely this was the only possible explanation as to why he’d failed to turn up for his first sitting. And without a suitable model, someone sufficiently svelte and beguiling, Clifford knew, an artist of his sensitivity simply couldn’t paint. Why else had he been unable to produce anything for weeks, months even? Clifford felt the sudden and familiar creep of self-doubt. He wondered if he’d ever paint anything of real merit at all.
But then he pulled himself together with a second glass of brandy, rapidly followed by a third. Now Clifford could see clearly that Maureen’s recent conduct was simply a misguided attempt by a desperate woman to save his soul. Whilst Clifford had no doubt that she acted from the best of intentions, and that his soul was indeed worth the effort, if Maureen was allowed to continue, she would destroy not only everything he held sacred, but deprive the world of an artist of undoubted genius. It was true that this genius hadn’t as yet been discovered, but then just look at Van Gogh. Maureen absolutely couldn’t be allowed to succeed.
By the time Clifford had poured the dregs from the brandy bottle, he had the preliminary outline of the form already laid out on his largest canvas. As he fervently applied the oil paint, he felt the unfamiliar trickle of sweat under his shirt. Clifford painted with the passion of a young Michelangelo. He couldn’t remember working at such a pace for years, not since he was a boy painting secretly in the evenings after his parents thought he was in bed. Now his vision was clear and he couldn’t imagine why he hadn’t come up with it before. What had he been doing all these years? Perhaps it had all been just a prelude to this great, defiant statement, his breakthrough.
Shortly after dawn, Clifford, paint smeared and exhausted, sank back onto the sofa to contemplate his finished masterpiece.
The painting, still glossy and damp, was so large it rested on two easels, belittling everything else in the room. At first Clifford looked at it with uneasy, narrowed eyes, hardly daring to look his work full in the face, but as he continued to gaze his fear ebbed away. His heart beat more quietly, more certainly. He ceased to focus on the form on the canvas and became lost somewhere deep within the subject.
There stretched across the canvas, larger than life-size, lolled the form of a woman of monumental proportions. Above the folds of naked, puckered flesh, a beautiful face, timeless yet familiar, with an unmistakable you know you really want to look, held a silent invitation into an unknown world of plenty, warmth and joy.
The truth looked straight back at Clifford from the picture. He felt like an Old Testament prophet receiving the word of God. It was a beautiful sight.
Sarah Griffiths’ first short story appeared in Redline Magazine in 2014. Since then her work has been published by Writers’ Forum and Scribble Magazine. She is a single parent who lives and works in a small town in beautiful Cumbria which provides the inspiration for most of her stories.