It was like being underwater, the way that he woke up. Sounds echoed too-loud, and distended round his ears. His vision all gummed-up and hazy.
He took a moment.
A doorway was squared firmly above him. A doorway, or just the overhang of one of the monoliths he adored around here. Mothering stones, sanctums, sweet and solid bedding haunts. Cold concrete floors. Good for the spine.
A few more moments and he could feel the shadows stretching back, time-lapsing into sunrise. Early-morning masts were moving. The first of the boats were heading out to taste the open sea, to trawl around the islands and beyond. The port would be full of fish, sated like a fine-living whale, come three, four hours time.
He sat up, though it took a minute, and wiped his hands on his inside shirt, the cleanest, before he rubbed his eyes. Not much clearer, but he could tell that the woman walking towards the metro station across the road was Rosa. That was a name he’d given her, like he’d scribble it on the back of a print to sell to someone later. She’d been leaving work over on the Rue de _____ when he first saw her, and he’d named her then, as he watched her walk down that street past all those ‘exotic’ clubs, places where men with underloved members and money to burn could go to get their fix. He’d seen her leaving and he’d thought he’d try and save some money just to see her dance – he thought hers was a dancing club – but it hadn’t quite happened yet because his latest paintings hadn’t quite sold.
Every morning she was here now, a quiet cockerel crowing, like a muted wooden cuckoo chiming for the hour of four. Half a year, of her life and his. He didn’t take a break and neither did she. She was getting older, though, getting around to looking older. A few years and she’d be like the other hags that hung outside the club doors, rotten meat to tempt the unzipped flies. She’d be ugly as the rest of it.
And then Rosa was into the subway and his day was going uphill or downhill from here, though it hadn’t been decided which. He thought the sky was clear, so he’d look up towards the church today, way up on the hill, and paint its silhouette, deep indigo on white, then pinken it, then lay white wax on places he wanted to keep clean and wash sky-blue ink across whatever’s left.
If he worked quickly, he could make Marseilles vanish three, five, eight times today and it would still be here in the morning. It would be gummed-up and hazy and here.
Bits of fish blood were running in the hosed-out water towards the small bollard where he always sat to paint. That wasn’t good for business. Tourists would avoid stepping in things like that, things that scuffed the holiday, stained the postcard picture prints. Maybe Scousers, like he’d been once, wouldn’t mind, but then maybe they’d gone soft in the past thirty years.
He’d sold one of his older charcoal things for twelve euro earlier, but he thought that he was done for the day now. That wouldn’t get him so much as a sniff at the doors over on Rue de _____.
It’d barely get him fed.
There were women handing out razors walking about the dock-front, wandering the streets, but he forgot he had a beard until they were gone because he wasn’t thinking about the razors.
In the afternoon he sold all four paintings. He charged twenty euro for the first two, then twenty-five, then thirty, and he dipped his hands in the water and squinted at them, dried them on his shirt, squinted again to make sure they were clean, then rubbed at his eyes.
He bought a kebab from a place that agreed to serve him if he didn’t sit down. He’d said Can I just stand here then? and the man had taken his money and said something about his mother, not getting the joke. The meat tasted good from there, though, so he’d try to go back, if he could remember where it was.
He walked up the hill to the station so he could see all of the place, and all of the place looked how they filmed soft-focus in old porn, with petroleum jelly on the lens. He didn’t know if they still did that anymore. Maybe some studios did, trying to be more authentic. Those greased-over actresses would be like the old dogs on the Rue de _____ now. All the old dogs except Rosa.
The greased-over men would be like him.
It was a long walk back down to the port for a night when he’d eaten as heavy as that, but if he stayed here then he’d miss his cuckoo clock, his wake-up call. He tucked some spare bits of salad into the napkin and packed it in his pocket and put the polystyrene case in a clear plastic bin-bag. He knew someone who stole one of those to sleep in once. Said it was warm, but that he woke up with his clothes damp on the surface from the condensation that caught up inside.
Rosa! he called and wasn’t sure at first if he’d actually said it, or even if it was her. It wasn’t too light and his eyes were gummed over again. He rubbed at them and remembered that he hadn’t wiped his hands. He did so and then rubbed his eyes again. Noticed the crusted lashes that came away on his thumbs.
The woman turned to look and then turned back.
Rosa! he said once more, but she must have thought he was having a nightmare or something and she didn’t turn around again.
He got up and wanted to follow but didn’t.
His paintings were the same as yesterday’s, and it was rare that that happened, but he couldn’t think straight. Maybe the kebab hadn’t agreed with his stomach even though it had very much agreed with his tongue.
He didn’t pinken the pictures today, though, and he didn’t wash them in sky-blue.
He sold one painting for thirty euro and thought that he might be having a lucky day and if he’d ever been a gambler he knew that he would be one now.
The man looked at him, at the box of paints and the two sheets of stretched canvas under his arm. Admission was fifteen euro, but he gave the man twenty and was let in. One of the old dogs seemed to be eyeing him up as she stood outside smoking and he almost wished the gumminess would thicken further, faster, settle firm like his concrete bed.
There were small booths inside, like they used to have in telephone exchanges, with curtains pulled across, or like changing rooms in clothes shops. A pair of ankles and stiletto heels stuck out of one, the curtain of another shook. Everything, especially the lights, looked greased-over, looked like there was jelly on his lens.
There was a pole on a platform at the end of the room and there was a woman moving around it. She had one leg raised and bent at the knee, and she lifted it higher, until her foot was by her head.
He almost called her name again, but didn’t, and just sat down to paint. She had sky-blue where he gave her sky-blue, her eyes, her hair. She had pink where she had pink. He looked at the paper and he looked at her, and he really focused on her and even with her looking all greased-over, maybe because of that, she looked authentic. Those old movies were like her. She wasn’t like them. Those old blue movies and her sky-blue hair.
He didn’t call out, but he wanted to. He moved right to the edge of the stage and wanted to call out and laid some money down, so she’d reach over to take it up. Her fingers lifted it as though it were clay from which to sculpt the world anew; like it just turned liquid in her hands, fed into her skin. She pulled it up across herself, smiling. She pulled it up across herself, waved it at him – the price of the prize – let him savour, kept on smiling. Didn’t think of how it was that she’d be young and here forever when he finally went blind.