‘Mr. Mannheimer had to go and get the stepladder to tie my hands to the beam. He used rope because he said he didn’t have any chains, but that I was to try to imagine that’s what they were seeing as that’s what he’d paint. He said he’d just tie me loosely but I said no thanks, if I have to hold my arms up myself I’d be worn out in no time so please to tie me up proper so I can hang from the chains and not pretend. Afterwards he got down and off my plinth and looked at me tied up there. I liked it when he did that, better than when he’s looking at me from behind his easel. Then he frowns and says, “Please not to shave under the arms again.” Then he says: “You are a dromedary.”’
‘A what, Ada?’
‘That’s what I said. He repeated it very carefully: “An-drom-e-da. You are chained to the rock waiting for a monster to come out of the sea and eat you alive. This is what the patron wants always – naked vimmen in danger. For me is not normal but he is rich. Move your right foot just a little bit over this side – let your weight go more to left. This is good. You are a desperate lady, not a tree. Hang your head down, so. Let your hair fall. Ah wait, you have those stupid pins!” So up he gets and stands in front of me and takes the grips out. I can smell him. I do like the smell of him, Nellie.’
‘You said before – cigars and turpentine, you said.’
‘He has the nicest black curly hair- just a bit of grey in it. And gypsy dark, he is, with black shiny eyes and lovely white teeth. “I will paint long hair, but not covering you. Otherwise the patron is not happy. Now, remember you are without hope, Mrs. Parkin”. Well, that wasn’t hard, Nellie. I’ve only to think of Mr. Beron coming for his rent money, or that George will be out of stir in three months. I don’t need no reminding about not having hope.’
‘What are his pictures like, then?’
‘Oh, they’re very fine…but you wouldn’t really know they were of me. I’m always looking at nothing, or looking away. My face is sort of empty. He paints naked women; he doesn’t paint me. I don’t think he really sees me, Nellie. Like I’m a monument.’
‘Get you another one, dear?’
‘Oh, yes please.’
‘If he’d only touch me I should go off pop, I’m sure. But he never does, no more than is needful. There was one day when I wasn’t standing just the way he liked, and he got up and squatted in front of me and moved my leg how he wanted it. He’d one hand round below my knee, and the other one pushing on the inside of my thigh – his fingers just here, like this. But not like I was a woman, more like he was making something out of clay. I looked down at the top of his head and it was all I could do not to push his face in on me. There was another time when the sitting was long and he said I could step down for a few minutes, so I did, and started to walk around a bit, and he said, “Please to wear the robe, Mrs. Parkin, when not in pose.” It’s always Mrs. Parkin this, Mrs. Parkin that. I hate that name, Nellie, because it’s George’s. I only hope when he gets out again that he doesn’t stay out. He’d only a week at home last time and then he was took again for receiving, but that was enough time for him to black my eye and take his belt to pore little Tom.’
‘You oughtn’t to complain your Mr. Mannheimer doesn’t bother you then.’
‘But I wish he would!’
‘What’s the matter, Ada?’
‘Some woman walked into the studio today, that’s what’s the matter. But she done me a favour, though she never meant to. I was all strung up to the beam of course. She come in, all scent and cigarette holder, a fox fur slung round her neck and a look on her face like she’d killed the pore beast herself. Well, she throws over her shoulder, “Hullo, Mannheimer”, offhand like, and walks straight up to my plinth to look me over. I keep my pose, but I lift my head up so I don’t have to spy on her through my hair, and stare back at her. I don’t like her looking at me, not one little bit.
‘“Leave Mrs. Parkin in peace, Alice. She can’t do you any harm,” says Mr. Mannheimer.
‘I didn’t care for that too much either, Nellie. I wanted to scratch her, but more than that, I wanted to scratch him for saying that. She don’t leave me alone, of course, because she’s annoying him as well as me. She takes a long drag on that holder and peers at the lipstick she’s left on it, then blows the smoke up at me, and says: “I can see that, Leon. Common, ain’t she?”
‘“Enough,” he shouts, and crosses the floor before I can open my mouth. “We must work, Mrs. Parkin and I. Please to leave now!”
‘She laughed at him then, though she let him take her by the elbow and lead her out. ‘“I’ve Davenport to see, anyway. Says he’s a present for me.”
‘I heard them both go down the stairs, either because he wanted to make sure she was gone, or didn’t want me to hear what they said, or both. He was awful slow coming back up; like his feet were heavy. When he came in he looked old and tired and I was ready to forgive him for saying I was harmless. She had told me his name. I didn’t know it before.
‘”I am very sorry, Mrs. Parkin. I shall untie you now and pray you do me the honour to join me in a drink. I have need of one and I think maybe you also.”
‘We sat on the little settee we use for the lying down poses. He didn’t say anything about putting the robe on and I didn’t remind him. He gave me this clear stuff to drink in this queer glass shaped like a tiny jug and told me to down it in one. Coo! It didn’t half burn but made me all warm after. He said he got it from home. Where’s that then, I wanted to know. He spelled it for me, a place called Prossnitz in Moravia. You ever heard of it, Nellie?’
‘Can’t say I have. Never been further than Frinton, myself. I was sick on the train.’
‘His wife took off with a Prussian officer before the War. He don’t know where she is or if she’s still alive and can’t care less by now. “I do not have the luck with vimmen,” he said. “And here in London they are not kind.” I don’t know as it wasn’t the drink got him that way, with all that talking about home and all, but he put his head in his hands and started to cry, and then –‘
‘- go on!’
‘I’d never touched him before, you see. So I patted his back ever such a little. I was afraid he’d push me off, or get up and go away. But he turned round to me, so I put my arms about him, and held that lovely curly head against my bubbies. I thought I’d stop breathing I was that pleased. So I talked to him, quiet-like. I told him about George being in the Scrubbs again, and what he was like whenever he was out, and how in the War they wouldn’t have him for a soldier because of him being a felon, when good men had to go. I told him how Tommy was afraid of him and only trusts me and Mrs. Stephens who watches him for me. After a bit he stopped crying. Then he looked up at me as if he was looking at me for the first time though he knows already every inch of my skin. But he looked so unhappy still that to comfort him I did what any mother would do…’
‘I don’t know that I want to say, Nellie. It’s sort of private.’
‘You’re a terrible tease, you are!’
I put him on, like you do with a baby. That’s what I did. No man’s mouth has ever made me feel the way his did, just doing that. But any other man would have gone on and finished the job proper. Instead after a bit he stopped and kissed the one he hadn’t had in his mouth and got up and took my hands so I stood up too. Then he made this little bow and kissed my fingers.
‘Forgive me, Mrs. Parkin, only today have I seen what a remarkable vumman you are. Such generosity is a stranger to me. You should leave that brute and come here and bring with you your boychen. If you were kind to me always like today I could be a good painter. I will not insist, Mrs. Parkin, if you do not wish, but does it please you still to come tomorrow, the usual hour?’
Oh, it pleased me alright. After I’d got dressed he insisted on opening the door for me and seeing me down the stairs. Never done that before. Then he took me by the shoulders and kissed my lips, too quickly for me to kiss him back.
I thought when I come the next morning he’d be his usual self, barely looking up from his paint brushes. I didn’t believe all that talk about me leaving George. I’ve heard that line too often from others, but I hadn’t realised then that Mr. Mannheimer always means what he says. He also has a perfect sense of timing. You can take that any way you want to. No, that morning he was quite the gentleman, helping me off with my old mackintosh and hanging it up as carefully as if it was sable. This was the last sitting for Andromeda so he tied me up again. I was setting my feet into the chalk lines he’d drawn on the plinth, so he wouldn’t have to shift my legs about, when he did this remarkable thing that makes me shiver when I think of it. He knelt down and kissed me where I had wanted him to kiss me most of all. And he took this big deep breath whilst he did it, like he liked my smell the way I like his. He was worshipping me, down there on his knees. I don’t think anyone has ever worshipped Ada Parkin. But he didn’t do any more than that, not then. He left me tied up there, wanting him so much I couldn’t stand still.
‘Fantastisch!’ he shouted from behind the easel. ‘I will love you with this brush.’ He did too, without ever laying a finger on me. He just talked, which he’d never done before when he was painting, and that was enough to make me all of a quiver. I thought he would get angry with me for who wants a model who fidgets, but he was delighted. ‘You see, dear Mrs. Parkin, how close is sex to death. The critics will marvel at how real is Leon Mannheimer’s Andromeda – terror in every muscle as the monster approaches – but he alone knows why she trembles so. I was painting a myth, Mrs. Parkin, but you have shown me how to paint a vumman!’
You’d think he’d have had his wicked way with me the moment he’d untied me – Lord knows I wanted him to. You can see that from the painting. It’s me alright, but he’d put my hair away from my face after all, and I know and he knows what my open mouth and half-shut eyes really mean. And I’m straining against the chains, but not because I want to get away from the monster. Every man who looks at that painting thinks I’m showing myself to him. It’s funny to think that there are men not born who will one day look at me that way, and women who will wish they were me up there on the wall. If it’s an old tale like that, they can say it’s classical, and pretend they’re not looking at smut, you see.
The new painting is about a woman who goes with a swan because the swan is really a god. So Leon arranges me on the little couch, lying me back with my knees open so the swan can get at me. ‘This cushion is the bird,’ he says, and then he steps back to see if the pose works. He puts his head on one side, and frowns. ‘You have a wonderful yearning body, Mrs. Parkin, but your face is trying to be bourgeois. For this painting I must have the face of a vumman gripped by passion. Do you think – Ada – you can do that for art?’ Art be blowed, I think, looking at him smiling down at me. ‘I’ll do it for Leon Mannheimer,’ I say.
He throws the cushion on the floor. ‘Ach!’ he says, kneeling above me and freeing himself. ‘That swan, he never had all these trouser buttons.’ He has a beautiful cock – dark, of course, with a nice curve to it. But most of all I like it because it’s his.