‘Why are you only revealing this now? We barely know Eve,’ said Andy. The taste of ‘Eve’ in his mouth was bad walnut. He nudged up the car’s windscreen wipers, bristled at their frenzied penduluming, then nudged them down again.
His girlfriend, Tanya, groaned from the passenger seat. ‘You barely know Eve. I’ve been drawing naked people with her for weeks. Believe me, it’s a friendship accelerator.’
‘I’m extremely uncomfortable with the thought of someone who lacks basic manners, not to mention hygiene, loafing around in the flat,’ said Andy, reminding himself that honesty was a defining feature of a healthy relationship.
‘Not loafing – watering the plants. Eve does have a life, mofo.’ Tanya had been collecting these terms of endearment – from Eve. ‘Talking trash’ was their way of unwinding after life drawing class. Normally they’d had their fill by pub closing but twice the banter had migrated to Andy and Tanya’s lounge, mere metres from Andy’s exhausted head in the adjoining bedroom.
‘Watering the plants? You just said she was going round to check on Jake and Dinos.’
‘Check on Jake and Dinos and water the plants. The forecast for the next few days is mucho scorchio if you hadn’t noticed?’
Andy surveyed the uniformly grey sky. ‘Which plants? Not in my studio?’
‘She may enter your realm if she can stand the stench of Febrezed fags. Behind the scattiness she’s all about the detail. You should see how accurately she renders a penis.’
‘But I’ve only got my succulents in there.’
‘Eve doesn’t know that. She hasn’t got a route map. She’s just going to check the fish feeder’s done its thing and zip round. Why. Are. You. So. Bov. Errrrrrred?’
Andy pictured Eve as a scavenging macaque. He thought about the scratches on his LPs and weird smears on the bathroom mirror, which had appeared after her last visit.
‘Because I’ve left my stuff out – my work.’
‘Well maybe put it away if it’s that private?’
‘I do, when I’m expecting someone. Especially someone with zero respect for… anything. For Christ’s sake, Tanya!’ Short fuse, single massive ejaculation: that was him, according to his girlfriend. He took a long deep breath. ‘When is she going round?’
‘I dunno. Any time now.’
‘She’s going round today?’ He somehow received the news via Tanya’s fringe, which Eve had chopped into a state of permanent shock. Andy could feel himself unravelling. There would be no time for a dignified workaround. No time to think even…
‘Yes, today and Monday, after hot yoga. It seemed preferable to letting our plants die.’
A sulky lull followed. Andy visualised his orderly studio with a slow panning shot, as if setting the scene for imminent violation. Tanya hardly entered on account of the carefully maintained smell. Half of the cigarettes he lit never passed Andy’s lips. When she did breach the studio, Tanya would knock; if she wanted to borrow something, she would ask. It had felt okay to leave the thing he’d been studying covered up on the easel. He tuned in to the thrumming of the engine and pushed his anxiety to the verge.
Tanya’s phone went off in her lap. Her notification sound du jour was ‘Noir’: a suspenseful woodwind crescendo.
‘It’s Eve.’ Tanya’s right cheek had appled up; child’s sunray lines spread out from her eye.
‘Okay, I may have been wrong about the quick pop in.’
‘Oh. Bloody. Great.’ He was grateful for the solidity of his nine-three wheel grip.
‘It’s a photo of her… elbow. She suggests I carefully interrogate its form.’ A snorting Tanya showed Andy her phone. He scanned the backdrop, his jaw tightening. Eve was at large in their living room. An inch above carpet level, her paint-splattered arm peeked round the sofa – his vintage Habitat sofa. Andy thumped his thigh hard enough to induce a dead leg and a weary sigh from beside him. They passed a junction and fell into quietness.
Tanya’s phone blared into life again.
‘Another pic… trust me, you don’t want to know.’ She looked sheepish but could not stop a snicker escaping her nose.
‘The thing is I do. I do want to bloody well know.’ He caught himself doing what Tanya referred to as his gallinaceous head-bobbing.
Reluctantly, she angled her phone his way. The picture placed Eve on the unswept kitchen floor. It showed her foot – her smelly orange-toenailed foot – propped on the counter between the tea and coffee caddies. Examine its proportions like you’ve never even SEEN a foot. Andy heard the caption in Eve’s fake American twang. She’d spent two years in Boston once and clung to the accent as if it were a beermat signed by the cast of Cheers.
The couple exchanged a look. Tanya dropped her smile like contraband as Andy refrained from likening Eve to a parasitic worm.
They approached a National Trust sign indicating a further six miles till their destination. Andy had been to this one before with his last girlfriend. He loved being half of a hip young couple amongst a slower, greyer crowd. Particularly when that other half was Tanya: funny, irreverent, knowledgeable Tanya. Did she feel the same? Certainly, she seemed content to accompany him. But he ought to be sure… the advice was clear that when in doubt, it’s best to ask. Abruptly, the thought of Victorian laundry rooms and concealed outhouses cast a despondent shade.
‘How about we sack this off and go into Exeter,’ he suggested. ‘See if there’s a film on?’
‘I’m basically up for anything that will calm you the hell down.’
The next phone spasm provoked no more than perfunctory tapping from Tanya. Andy couldn’t help but look. A blurred collarbone obscured most of their hallway bookshelves. It was comforting to glimpse his art volumes… but the caption? There was just enough time to read ‘blub’ and ‘shoulder’. Had Tanya been crying on Eve’s shoulder? Crap. He knew he was rubbish when people were upset; could not intuit when physical contact was required and wouldn’t risk getting it wrong. He wanted to bloody well show the support a lover needs, but what even was that?
When Tanya asked what he wanted from a relationship he could never answer. When he practised, the words bunched up in a disorderly queue: thoughts, memories and emotions, all jostling to be first from his mouth. It was his dread of the question that stopped him from asking her the same.
Andy envisaged them in the cinema, communications suspended. Until recently he’d thought that this kind of quiet companionability, a version of what Jake and Dinos enjoyed, was what he wanted. But people needed more than that – he needed more than that. He was fairly sure the ‘more’ involved Tanya. Either way, they couldn’t swim around each other forever.
Two months previously a vintage ring had waylaid him from an antiques emporium window. Andy had been headed for the art supplies shop next door, but found himself in the emporium instead, haggling at the counter. Afterwards he’d felt euphoric.
But his joie de vivre had evaporated on the drive back. Rather than planning the proposal, Andy had found himself compiling a greatest hits of his father’s snide remarks about marriage. By the time he’d got home Andy was wrung out. He’d started to describe, somewhat flatly, his ‘nice afternoon’ and Tanya – buoyant ahead of her life drawing class – had called him Marvin the monotone robot. Then she’d laughed herself into a farting hysteria. It had all added to Andy’s bewilderment.
Sure, he was learning to be alert to emotional triggers that can throw you off – principally his parents’ miserable marriage – but this was not translating into decisive action. Until such time, the ring, snug in its coffin-lid box, remained layers deep in his studio filing cabinet.
A burst of woodwind announced a new image. Eve’s ink-stained fingers were submerged in the fish tank, the join with her palm askew at the waterline. Just in shot, her greasy chin rested on the auto-feeder, a gadget mistrusted by Andy in normal times.
Tanya was studying the image, worrying about Jake and Dinos, he assumed. The accompanying text – Fish Fingers: a study in aquatic monotony – suggested Eve’s promotion to artist in residence… with a sideline in animal welfare. Andy saw his disgruntlement reflected on the faces of their pets. He muttered ‘bloody imbecile’ at a carefully calculated volume and Tanya cleared her throat to indicate he was driving too close to the car ahead.
He accepted being patronised like this because he looked up to her. Being around Tanya was stimulating but, fundamentally, it was reassuring. Tanya knew how to navigate people. She indulged Andy to a point, but when he fell off the edge of reason, she would winch him in. He always emerged from their debates battered but galvanized. And whilst previous girlfriends had struggled with Andy’s catastrophising, saying nothing or attempting to match him empty cup, for empty cup, Tanya dealt with it playfully – with empathy.
So what the hell was this plant-fish sitting business all about? Tanya knew he couldn’t bear having people he didn’t know in his – correction their – space (for true intimacy means sharing space). Prior to this arrangement, she’d pandered to him. Even the times she’d brought Eve back, Tanya had given him a heads-up and tried to contain her to the lounge. Did she not care now? Was this just a giant ‘fuck you’?
Andy’s back was grumbling. It always happened when he drove agitated. With a jolt he realised that the immediate threat was sitting silently for three hours: time enough for a stocktake. Enveloped in surround sound, Tanya would scrutinise their relationship from every angle. If she progressed to planning a break-up she would be unstoppable. It would be the most devastating dumping Andy had ever –
‘What you thinking then, private dancer?’
‘Not much… other than I’m sorry. I started something last week. It’s on the easel.’
‘Oh, I didn’t realise. Creative block thawed then?’
Andy concentrated hard on overtaking a camper van. ‘Unexpected inspiration.’
‘Cool… may I enquire as to the source?’
‘Ha… how about when it’s finished you try work it out.’
Right. Strange that discussion of his creative process would be the thing to tip Tanya’s mood. Meanwhile, the real source of their misery was loose in the sacred penetralia, fingering their possessions with those filthy macaque hands.
Andy reconstructed the flat via Eve’s oddly divisible body. The parts she hadn’t supplied Andy invented – and monkeyfied – locating them in the tucked-away spaces. Eve’s furry breasts were consigned to the understairs cupboard and her simianised midriff to a dusty windowsill. The end result was an unsettling blend of estate agent’s particulars and ultra-niche pornography.
He imagined her response to what was propped on the easel. Like most things she would find it uproariously funny. Joke: if an Eve laughs in your flat and nobody’s around to hear, does she make a sound? Answer: yes, because Eve would bray like a demented donkey.
At that moment she would be revelling in his inadequacies. His attempt at self-improvement would be pure gold for Eve’s one-woman show… which was to say her life. But would she mention it to Tan? Was it worse if she didn’t? A guarantee of gossip? Then again, the opinions of Eve’s devotees were worthless… although that, contradictorily, included his girlfriend –
‘It’s Eve again.’ At some point Tanya must have muted her phone.
Andy flicked his eyes across: no caption this time – maybe Eve was running out of steam. There was, however, an inverted backside wearing nothing but a pair of tatty red pants. Whilst the anatomical curves were familiar, Andy did not recognise the background at all.
‘Where the heck’s that? That’s not even in our flat.’
‘It’s the inside of my wardrobe.’ It was rare to see Tanya’s eyebrows lowered; her miniature fringe looked positively marooned.
Andy snatched another look. ‘What are those stuck up on the back? Photos? Is it… erotica?’
‘They’re postcards. I collect vintage postcards of sexy women. I get off on Bettie Page et al frolicking. It’s not something I was necessarily going to share.’
‘Wow. That’s… okay. So – ’
‘It’s not a generalised thing, Andy. Rest assured King Willy reigns supreme.’
‘Cool, I – ’
‘I stole some postcards from my grandparents’ sideboard when I was little. Got caught – bollocked, obviously – but not before an ‘awakening’. Anyway, it’s imprinting or something, never gone away. But it’s separate, y’know, from day-to-day shagging. From us.’
When you listen to your lover, attune to their feelings.
‘I get it. All pretty normal I would say. Par for the course.’
‘Right, nice golf metaphor. Anyway, Eve’s really taking the piss now. That piece-of-crap wardrobe’s not stable and she’s got her fat Cyclops’ feet pushed right to the back. She’s gonna get eaten alive – which will serve her fucking right – but she’s also gonna destroy my wardrobe.’
‘We should call her. It’s beyond a bloody joke now. If she’s wedged herself in there, what’s she going to do in my studio? I can’t have her smashing about with my work out.’
‘Andy. I. Saw. It.’ He noticed she was turning off her phone, settling in for a conversation.
‘Saw what?’ He was seven, denying the sweet wrappers under his mattress.
‘I saw the book last week. Your oh-so-secure cover had slipped off, incidentally.’
‘It was just…’ It was Nurturing Intimacy: love well, love smart.
‘– not a great way to recognise things have got so shit? I didn’t read your notes, okay.’
‘Oh God, Tanya. I – ’ Embarrassment bloomed in Andy’s cheeks as he realised he’d been toyed with.
‘Listen, I’ll admit I was a little ‘thrown’ that you’ve resorted to a corny book to fix us but at least you’re doing something.’
‘Can I – ’
‘– a more pressing issue is your non-existent-but-much-alluded-to work. You’ve produced sweet F.A. and the exhibition’s in two months, doofus.’
‘I know. I just got so side-tracked.’ You couldn’t explain away zero productivity. Andy felt ashamed – a fraud – but Tanya’s concern was touching him. It compensated for the studio intrusion; he was surprised to feel okay about that.
‘Tanya, can you please stop calling me names? It’s like being at school, only your insults are more… American.’
‘Okay, Prince Andrew.’
‘Seriously. It’s beyond irritating. Just Andy or Drew. When we met it was Drew. I’m pleading with you.’
‘Okay, I’ll try. Sorry.’ She actually looked it. ‘And I’ll call Her Royal Mentalness from Exeter. I grossly underestimated the level of bat-shit going on there and for that I also apologise. No more plish-sitters.’
‘Y’know I was this close to telling her about your book when you were being obnoxious last week. Anyway, I stuck it behind your filing cabinet before we left, so you can relax.’
‘That’s good.’ Relief spread through Andy like a gulp of warm tea. ‘And I know the day you mean. Sorry.’
‘Well, I was thinking of us both.’
‘Of course… dirty linen et cetera.’
‘Maybe. Here’s a radical idea: how’s about we, metaphorically speaking, set up a safe for our private shit? We seem to have made some hefty deposits. May as well let it all hang out now. Between us.’
Tanya was talking fast, nervous, he realised, around the subject of her own revelation. He longed to soothe her with some witticism but had been advised this was not his forte. ‘I’m sure I could loosen up, share what’s on my mind more.’
She let his words dangle and Andy wondered if they were true.
‘You’re over-thinking it. We don’t need a dummies’ guide; our basic set-up is solid. We just need to talk more. Touch more.’
Could it be that simple? The book said that a relationship required heartfelt daily tending.
‘Talk at me if it’s easier. I barely know anything about you. You may as well have come from a man-mould.’
Andy laughed generously and thought about the mould he’d come out of. He flashed back to the nature-nurture debates that would lumber past dawn at Goldsmiths.
‘I want to have fun with you again, Tan, and, yes, more intimacy. It’s like you’re getting your quota elsewhere. When I finish up you’re always into some project – or out. I’m superfluous.’
‘Fun is the reward for getting shit done. You emerge from your sweaty burrow at completely random hours. I get home at six. How about we synchronise?’
Yes, a schedule, overseen by Tanya, that could work. But he needed to offer more, something of weight. ‘If you wanted to use the studio sometime, I could clear a corner. I’ll have to work evenings for a bit… fancy keeping me company?’ In his mind’s eye Andy was naked save for a palette knife, a squinting Tanya sizing him up with a pencil.
‘That would be very cool, Drew, thank you.’
They were nearing the junction for Exeter now. Tanya switched her phone on and was greeted with a modest vibration. It was a parting snapshot from Eve, underscored with a farewell: Adios, gilipollas!
Eve was straddling a metal drawer, harem pants rolled up over scabby knees, a hand draped between her legs. Andy recognised her perch as the filing cabinet in his studio just as Tanya declared her friend a prize-winning dickhead. It was energising to hear and feeling energised was one of the four signs of relationship wellbeing.
Andy looked back at the image. Just discernable, in the triangle of clutter beneath Eve’s thighs, was a small jewellery box. He didn’t stop to wonder how it had wriggled its way to the top of the drawer, he was too busy noticing it no longer looked like a coffin. Tentatively, he squeezed Tanya’s thigh. She rewarded him with a cross-eyed fish-face. Returning his eyes to the road, Andy felt Tanya’s beams warming up his left side and made a mental note to rotate his succulents the second they got home.
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