She told me I was the last portrait she ever painted.
I knew the painter when she started out and I knew her in that funny little patch of time when she wasn’t famous or unknown and I knew of her when she made it quite big. I knew people from the start who said her work was genius, though not as many as I knew who said it was terrible. I knew people who didn’t even know her name and I knew people who said everyone would know her name one day.
Her art was okay. It wasn’t the best I’d seen, and it wasn’t the worst. I preferred her to her artwork. I did have one of her paintings hanging in my room when I knew her. It was a colorful one, which was unusual. Her famous ones now are the ones she did when she only liked to paint in black and white oil. The painting I had hanging up was of a young girl with a round head and body lying on a red-and-yellow tiled floor in bright blue pants and socks and nothing else. The painting uses a lot of different shades of the same three colors and they are dark and bright all at the same time and the round girl’s face stares out at you and she looks defiant and bored. I liked that painting a lot more than most of her works. I don’t know where it is now. The girl in the painting had paid for the portrait to be done and then said it wasn’t good enough and wouldn’t hand over the money. I got that painting for free.
I always preferred her portraits and she always loved doing them, but no one would let her. They said landscapes were where she was best. Her landscapes were terrible. Her landscapes were what made her well-known. She did maybe 30 portraits when I knew her and only one was of me. The rest were of students who went to the nearby art college or the university. They would ask her to paint them or she would ask to paint them. When she started doing the portraits a lot of them went to her. The first one she did was of a black photography student who knew her work and asked her to paint him photographing a landscape in the rain for his parent’s anniversary. He offered her a little money for doing it. He thought she’d put him in a little studio and make up the landscape. She made him go to a muddy field that overlooked the city whenever it rained for a month. She hung an umbrella over her canvas and sat perched on a wooden stool. She wouldn’t let him move. Water got into his camera and it broke after the first week. That first portrait was never finished. After a month he stopped turning up for the sittings. She phoned him every day for weeks and left him voicemails. She swore at him in the voicemails. She was aggressive. She thought eventually he’d go back just to stop her phoning. Eventually he did pick up the phone and he listened to her swear. He promised he’d go back, but two days later another girl came to have her portrait painted. The girl said the photography student had sent her. The painter shoved the unfinished canvas of him behind her fridge and never took it out again.
The rest of the sitters all told the same stories around the college and university. They called her the Bitch Artist because she wouldn’t let them move and because the sittings lasted hours at a time. She expected them to come every few days and would phone them insistently if they waited too long to show up. Sometimes she’d mess up and instead of painting over it, she’d throw the canvas to the side and start all over again. The longest sitting she ever did was six months. That was a private commission by someone obsessed with her artwork. He was rich and fat and he paid her a lot of money to paint him because she hadn’t wanted to at first. She said he wasn’t paintable. He pulled out a blank check and said she could charge him anything she wanted. She wrote down a number on it and he nodded. There were 16 different canvases cast aside before she finished his portrait.
The fat little rich man she’d started painting didn’t exist by the time she’d finished. He was skinny and nervous and red-skinned. He’d gone to her every three days for the six months and stayed there from ten in the morning till seven at night. She told me later she made the sittings even worse for him because she didn’t like his face. She told me she would turn the heating on in the art studio, so it was hot. She made him sit and stay in an uncomfortable position. She made him strip naked for the portrait though he didn’t want to.
She painted me when the students stopped asking her to paint them and everyone else stopped letting her paint them and she ran out of rich people who loved her work.
I was in the studio when he turned up and she handed him the finished portrait. He came in expecting another sitting. He was trembling when she handed him the finished piece. She said she thought it was one of her best works. She’d used erratic drops of white and light blue paint to show the sweat that dripped down his face and his body during the sittings. She used black lines to show the creases in his flesh. His expression in the painting was a grimace and he looked in pain. His hands were behind his back in the portrait and he was on his knees. The rich man stared at the finished piece. His top button was undone, and he had a loose tie wrapped around his collar and he looked up at the painter and the painter smoked. He didn’t even resemble the man in the painting anymore. He didn’t say anything much. He’d paid. He said thank you before he left. He stared at the piece a bit longer in the middle of the studio and then he said thank you again and she nodded, and he took it away.
She painted me when the students stopped asking her to paint them and everyone else stopped letting her paint them and she ran out of rich people who loved her work. I think I was the last portrait she ever painted. She told me I was the last portrait she ever painted. She asked me to come to her studio one day and I went a few days later. It was always best to let her wait. Half the time when she asked me to come over she wasn’t there when I turned up. I walked in two days after she phoned me, and she asked if she could paint me. She said she had a new idea for a painting. I said no. I said I wouldn’t know what to do. She said just do as I say, and it will turn out alright. I said what’s the idea. She said she would tell me at the first sitting. She said she was still tinkering with it. She said she’d pay me a hundred a day and because I had nothing else to do anyway and because I knew I could use some extra money I said yes.
Her studio was in Soho next to the closed-down Raymond Revuebar. It was the Soho Box club now and she told me at night she could hear the music coming from it and it helped her paint. It was a little room that had been an office before she stripped it. It belonged to the university and she paid them very little to keep it. She kept it very clean. She scrubbed the floorboards every day after she finished painting. The wooden floor was marked and rubbed smooth from it and it gleamed whenever some light was shone on it. She said it helped her think, cleaning it at the end of the day.
The studio was pretty much empty generally. There were piles of paintings and canvases littered around the outskirts of the room. There was usually one canvas up on a stand in the middle that she was working on. She never worked on more than one at a time. The one in the middle could be there for months or it could be there for days. In the corner was an old sink and table where she drank and ate. There was a dirty hose connected to the water main curled up in the corner by the sink that she used to flush the paint off the floor before scrubbing. The water flowed down to a little drain in the corner of the room.
I asked her how long it would take for the painting to be finished and she shrugged and said she didn’t know. “When it’s finished,” she said over and over again. We didn’t start the painting for a few weeks after I agreed to do it. She said she had to get some things for the studio. She said she’d phone me when she was ready.
“Now take off your clothes and get into the bath,” she said.
The phone rang early in the morning just as the sun was coming up the first time we had a sitting. I’d forgotten to close my curtain before I’d fallen asleep and the brightness woke me up just before the phone rang. I picked it up and answered while rubbing my eyes. I didn’t want to wake up.
“I don’t want to wake up,” I said down the line not knowing who was phoning me.
“I’m ready,” the painter said down the line and I put my head back down on my pillow and nodded with the phone pressed against my ear.
“Can you be here in 20 minutes?” she asked and I shook my head before remembering to speak.
“Why so early?” I asked weakly.
“I like to start early.”
“It means I can finish earlier if I want to.”
“I haven’t even got up yet,” I said.
“Can you be here in 30 minutes?” she asked.
“Okay,” I said, and I hung up the phone.
When I got to the studio it was different to how I’d seen it before. There was a grey bathtub in the middle of the room. The hose was inside it and the tub was slowly filling with water. The bathtub had streaks of dirt and mud on the outside like it had been dragged across some grass. The inside looked clean beneath the ripples of the water. She was standing at the little sink rinsing brushes and putting dollops of paint on her palette. The canvases and paintings had been gathered from around the room and put in a pile in the corner so there was more room. There was a camping chair set up next to a large canvas which was set up facing the bathtub. Her usual wooden stool was with the canvases and paintings. The canvas that was set up was bigger than any of the other ones in the pile.
She looked up when she heard me walk in and she nodded at me. She’d gotten her hair cut. It was usually up in a ponytail, so it was out of the way, but it was cut to just below her ears now. It curled around her ears. She had an apron on already and there were watermarks on it and some dry paint. There was dark blue and green and red all mixed together on her apron. She rubbed them when she turned to me and then she put the brushes she’d been cleaning in a pot and carried them over with the palette to the camping chair and put them on the floor. She shivered and told me to shut the door. I’d left it open and the cold air from the stairwell was blowing inside.
The bathtub was about half-filled. I walked over to the side of it and dipped my fingers in. It was cold. The painter sat in her camping chair.
“Now take off your clothes and get into the bath,” she said.
“I didn’t know I’d have to do this naked,” I said.
She impatiently waved her hand at me.
“The bathwater’s cold,” I said as I dipped my hand back into the water and then pulled it out again. Water dripped off my fingers and fell back into the bath with a ripple.
“I’m paying you to do this,” she said, looking at me. She looked at me hard and straight in the eyes. I looked away.
“There’s a kettle by the sink. Boil it and pour it in if you want.” She pointed at the sink and the old metal kettle next to it. “It’s only going to get cold again though.”
I walked over to the sink and I filled the kettle and we stood in silence while it boiled. It clicked when it had finished boiling and I could hear the water in it bubbling and gurgling. It bubbled and gurgled all the way to the bathtub and when I poured it in little bubbles floated to the top of the bath. She stood with her arms folded and watched me. I took the kettle back and then I got undressed and got in the bath. It was still quite cold, but I didn’t want to say anything. The hairs on my arms and legs stood up when I sat down. The water came halfway up my stomach and it moved up and down and up and down.
The painter watched me with the paintbrush in her hand and then she circled me slowly. She stopped to the right of me and she dragged the canvas and her chair there. Then she walked over to the sink and filled a dirty glass up with water and brought it to me.
“Drink,” she told me and then walked back to her chair.
I drank it without saying anything.
“Put it down next to the bath,” she said.
I put it down next to the bath.
“Sit as you are and don’t move. Put your hands down on your lap and cover your dick. I don’t need that, and stop sucking your stomach in.”
“I’m not,” I protested, and she shook her head and brushed some imaginary hair off her face. She shook her head again.
“Stop sucking in. It makes your body look fake.”
I breathed out and my stomach moved out so it bulged out onto my lap.
“Good, now splash some water higher up on your stomach and chest. I want to see it caught in the hairs there.”
I did that. I stopped feeling self-conscious. She only looked at me like an animal in a zoo. She looked at me like a rock. The skin on my fingers started to wrinkle.
She sat down in her camping chair and she settled back and she started to paint. She’d shut the curtains and the light from some lamps she’d switched on around the room made everything look orange and dark. I could hear the sounds of cars and construction coming from the street outside. I could hear a trickle of music coming from somewhere. I could hear people shouting. There was a crack of light shining around the curtain where it didn’t cover all the window and I stared at that. I stared back at her every now and then. I’d never seen her paint before. Her expression didn’t change. She looked at the canvas the same way she glanced at me. I couldn’t see her hand move as she painted.
We sat like this for an hour and the water got colder and my back started to hurt and all I wanted was to go back to bed. She stopped painting and stood up and walked over to me. She picked up the dirty glass from next to the bath and she carried it again to the sink and filled it with water again. She brought it back and I drank it because I knew she wanted me to. She picked up her camping chair and she carried away and then she picked up her stool. She walked back over to her canvas and put it down. She sat higher up now, and her eyes flicked over me and she nodded to herself.
“Now I need to you to urinate,” she said, looking back at the painting.
“Piss in the bath.”
“I don’t want to do that.”
“Piss in the bath.”
“What the hell for?”
“Because I told you to piss in the bath.”
“Why!” I shouted.
She looked surprised that I’d shouted.
“I want the water to be that kind of yellow. It will make you look despondent. I had the idea when I had a bath a few weeks ago. The cloud that rises up through the water when you do it before it settles and after it settles. I love the color.”
She said this so normally that it sounded normal. I went to stand up.
“It’s not like you’ve never peed in the bath before,” she said.
“If you don’t do it I’ll never get to do the painting,” she said.
“Please,” she said.
I settled back down and almost without knowing what I was doing I started to pee. It was a light yellow, and it drifted in the water in a little cloud for a few minutes before it spread out and turned the water a little yellower. It smelled a little and the smell rose up from the water and tickled my nose. It didn’t smell awful. It made the bathwater a little warmer. She started painting faster when I started to pee.
“Whenever you can go, go.” She nodded at me.
We sat there for a few more hours and I urinated a few more times. The bath got yellower and yellower. My back hurt. I said this to her around midday and she immediately stopped painting. She stood up and said I could go. She asked if I was available the next day. I told her I would be the day after. It passed like a normal conversation, though I was soaked in bathwater and piss. She handed me a towel before I dressed and turned away as I dried myself and got dressed. She blushed when she turned around too fast and saw me naked outside the painting. I left quickly.
She circled me sometimes and made little nods with her head as if she saw something she was pleased with.
When I went back for the second sitting she didn’t give me anything to drink.
“I read that dehydration makes your pee darker,” she told me. She showed me what she’d done so far the second time I went. The outline of the bath was done and parts of my body. There was the corner of a leg and my waist. Some stray black lines were showing the hairs on a piece of my body not yet completed. There was a lot of yellow in the bath. She’d done it so you couldn’t see my body through the yellow. It was a mess. She told me to take a look while she was mixing paints and then she told me to get undressed,
The water was a little warmer this time and I settled into it. She didn’t wait for me to start peeing to paint. She circled me sometimes and made little nods with her head as if she saw something she was pleased with. It took a while for me to pee and when I did she smiled. I didn’t even have to tell her it was happening. She looked over straight away and smiled. The first time was the same weak color as before, and I looked at it and I felt ashamed at its weak color.
Around two hours passed before I could get anything out again and when I did, it was dark. Like honey. I was thirsty and cold by then and I was reluctant to let go of any liquid in my body but eventually, I couldn’t hold it in. It darkened up the water straight away. I did try at first to not let it out. I made it like a game. How long could I keep it in without fidgeting around. Around 20 minutes was the answer and then the game wasn’t so fun anymore.
It took about four weeks for the painting to be finished. I went to her every two days. The days passed quickly when I was there. I got used to it. I liked having something to do in the day. My back hurt all the time though and my hands and skin were rough and dry from being in the water all day. She would shout at me whenever I’d try to move or get comfortable. I think she got used to me being there. She told me she’d never painted a friend before. We didn’t really speak at all when she was painting, and it was nice. Sometimes I’d look over at her and she’d look over at me and our eyes would meet.
Sometimes after she was done painting I’d stay for longer and we’d drink beers together. She got drunk quickly and she told me about the painting we were doing. She told me she thought it was going to be the best thing she’d ever done. She told me she wanted the painting to look desolate. “You looking out the painting like it’s a photograph and sitting in your own filth. Don’t you see the meaning of that?”
I told her I did. She asked me the same question every time. She showed me the painting every time we finished a sitting. Sometimes there’d be lots done and sometimes I wouldn’t see anything different. I didn’t know what to think of the painting and she never asked me if I thought she was doing a good job. Sometimes she asked me if I didn’t think the bathwater was lovely. It was lovely really. I learned to love the color when I was sitting in it. I’d run a hand through the water when I was sitting in it. It really did look beautiful.
She started telling me after a few weeks that the painting was going faster than she expected. She told me she didn’t think it would take long to finish it at all. At one of the last sittings we did I looked at the painting and I saw all that was left to do was the head and the rest of the bath. I felt surprisingly sad and we got quite drunk before I left. I started having dreams where I was sinking deeper and deeper into some kind of thick liquid the same colour as the yellow bathwater. When I woke up it was all I thought about.
She would pay me after each session in cash. She’d push it into my hand. The bills were always crumpled. I didn’t know where she got her money from. Someone told me her parents funded her. Someone told me she sold her paintings online all the time. I didn’t ask her. She always held my hand for a second when she handed me the money and she’d say thank you. She would tell me sometimes while holding my hand how hard it was to find good subjects to paint now. She said before me they all would fight with her. That they didn’t want to do what they were told. “How hard is it?” she asked me. “You know now. Is it hard to do this? If you love art then it is not hard. If they truly loved art, it would not be hard. It is for the art that we do this.’
She never asked me if I truly loved art. I just told her that it wasn’t that hard.
I couldn’t feel what face I was pulling. My face was a mystery to me in the bath. Sometimes I wondered if I even had a face anymore.
She made me go in at five in the morning for the last sitting. She said the light of the sun coming up would be good for the coloring. She said she would finish my head and finish the coloring of the bath. She said the color wasn’t perfect yet. I didn’t drink anything again before I got there, and my head throbbed a little. When I got there, it was still pitch-black outside. Her hair was back up in a ponytail because it had grown out. She told me to get undressed quickly and get in the bath, so we’d be ready for when the sun started coming up. I did as I was told as I always did. I got undressed and threw my clothes into a pile by the wall and got into the bath. It was even colder than usual.
“Why is it so cold today?” I asked.
“I put some ice cubes in there.”
“Oh,” I said.
“I need you to look uncomfortable.”
She rubbed her nose.
We looked out the open window and waited for the sun to come up. It was still very dark, but the sky was brightening and there was no noise coming from the streets outside apart from some taxis driving up and down. I pissed quickly just to warm the water up a little. It didn’t help much.
She looked over and saw and then looked back out the window. It took another ten minutes before the sun started to rise. She started painting as soon as the studio started to brighten.
The sun was golden and orange as it slowly rose, and it hurt my eyes if I looked at it too long. I stared at the orange glow it made on the water in the bathtub instead. It was dark orange and the amber of the urine shined and shimmered in it.
“The color looks beautiful,” I said to her. She grunted and painted and I felt embarrassed. The water was so cold the tips of my fingers were turning white. I lifted them out the bath and pulled a face. I drummed them on the side of the bath, and it made a hollow echo.
“Stay still… I need you to be still,” she said around the canvas.
“I’m not moving my head.”
“Just stay still.”
Time passed slowly and the sun kept rising. The street outside started getting louder. My fingers and toes started to ache from the cold, and I couldn’t stop shivering. Every now and then she would look at the face I was pulling, and she would smile and nod. I couldn’t feel what face I was pulling. My face was a mystery to me in the bath. Sometimes I wondered if I even had a face anymore.
When the sun was fully up and the room was bright, she put down her brush.
“It’s done,” she said.
All of a sudden my heart started hammering in my chest like a lost little builder was trying to break out from there. He hammered on my ribs.
“You can get out,” she said over her shoulder as she walked with her palette over to the sink. I didn’t want to get out. I felt safe in there. I got out and stood shivering and dripping water onto the floor. The light from the sun got caught in some of the drips and vanished when they exploded on the floor.
I stood and she brought me a towel. Blushing and looking away from my body. I could smell the urine on my skin, and I steamed a bit from the temperature change. I wrapped the towel around my waist and she finally looked at me.
“Do you want to see the painting?” she asked.
“I want to see,” I said, and I walked with her. The paint was still wet, and it glistened a little. I saw a man in the painting that looked something like me. She looked at me looking at me. She started to describe what she’d done, and I listened.
The man who looked something like me sat in a bath full of dirty water and urine. His belly was round and stuck half in and half out of some amber and yellow bathwater. She told me she’d used thick strokes of the brush to make everything look heavy and hard. I said that I thought I looked sad and defiant in the water. She nodded. My face was brighter than my body and my face was puckered. My eyebrows hovering above my eyes, my mouth gritted slightly. I looked grotesque, she said. That’s what I was going for, she said. My body disappeared at water level underneath the amber and yellow. She’d made the bath almost the whole painting. There were only glimmers of the room that surrounded the bath. Some patches of the floor the bath sat on were done in solid brown and grey. The painter looked at me and then back at the painting and then back again. She looked satisfied. There was a patch of yellow paint on her cheek the same color as the bathwater.
“There’s some yellow paint on your face,” I said to her and she touched it self-consciously. “What are you going to do with the painting?” I asked her.
“I’ll just keep it for a while I think.”
“You’re not going to try and sell it?”
She looked confused when I asked her this and she tapped her fingers on her collar bone.
“You think someone would buy it?” she asked.
“I don’t see why not. People buy your other work.”
She shrugged and then she pulled my arm and walked me to the door.
“That’s everything then?” I asked.
“That’s everything,” she said. She smiled at me.
I felt sad and nervous as I walked out the door and stood in the hallway and turned and looked at her.
“I’m quite sad it’s over,” I said to her.
“I always am when I finish a painting.”
“Do you think it’s the same feeling?”
“I hope not.”
“So do I.”
I left after that and I went back home and I had a shower. The smell of dirty bathwater and urine hung around me for a few weeks before it finally disappeared one night as I slept. I felt sad all over again when the smell went, and I shook my head for a while trying to get rid of the feeling. I felt sad like that for a while. The painter phoned me to come and see new paintings or to talk every few weeks as normal and I knew her well for another year or so. The portrait was always there when I stopped by. It was the only one that never changed. She’d hung it up on the wall.
Sometimes I wake up at night and I realize I’ve been dreaming of the yellow she used for the bathwater.
She stopped phoning me after about a year. This was about the time her black-and-white landscapes started getting well-known and she started getting bigger in the art circles. I’d left the university and wasn’t in those circles anymore. I heard about what she was doing through other people. I’d ask them every now and then if they’d ever seen the portrait she’d painted of me and they would ask which one was of me. They’d laugh and shake their heads when I said the bath one. The ones who’d seen it said she never told anyone who it was in the bath. They were surprised it was me. Some of them didn’t even remember she’d ever painted portraits they loved her black-and-white landscapes so much.
When she killed herself a few years after that and, the same way it always does, her paintings started appearing in museums and galleries and selling for thousands in auctions. It was only ever the landscapes that appeared. Sometimes someone would come across one of her portraits in a charity shop and, recognizing her name, try to sell it, but none of them ever sold.
Sometimes I wake now at night and realize that sad feeling of something ending will always come back and it does. Sometimes I lie awake for hours shaking my head and feeling that feeling twist its way around my gut until I finally drop back off to sleep. Sometimes I wake up at night and I realize I’ve been dreaming of the yellow she used for the bathwater. When I dream of that yellow I wake up smiling and I lie still and look up. I lie completely still and I feel a warmth as I pee, as if I’m still sitting for that portrait.
William Hayward is a fiction writer and has just completed his first novel. Born in Birmingham, England, his short fiction has been published in The Emerald City Review, The White Wall Review, Underwood Press, Welter at The University of Baltimore, and various other journals.
Header photo by Gorodenkoff, courtesy Shutterstock.