The doorbell rings, an old one that should make a noise like a fire alarm going off, but these days it sounds more like a spoon rattling in a plastic cup. I open my eyes and check the clock above the television. Midday already. I take a sip of cold coffee, rise from my armchair and plod across the shabby flower-patterned carpet to the front door.
She’s in her mid-twenties. T-shirt and jeans, a radiant smile of white teeth and glossy pink lips. “My name’s Alice Freeman. I saw the advert in the shop window?”
She says it like it’s a question. God, I fucking hate that.
I don’t smile, partly because I haven’t got the energy, mostly because I don’t think I like her. Instead, I survey the surrounding properties for twitching curtains and nosy neighbors. There’s a lot of people around here with nothing better to do than spy on an old man when a pretty lady calls. Satisfied the coast is clear, I return my glare to her cheerful blue eyes and I say, “You better come in.”
She brushes past me like a cat leaving its silky scent on someone it has learned to trust. And I close the front door, locking the dead bolt, before following her into the gloom.
Alice stands bright and beautiful, burning a hole in a room not decorated for years. The grimness of it all makes her look somehow magical and smaller than she really is. She casts a furtive eye across my furniture, a nonsense hotchpotch of cast-off crap I collected over the years. Then she looks up, a twinkle in her eye.
“One of yours?” She points at the portrait over the fireplace.
“It’s a fab picture.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Eyes ain’t right.”
“Oh.” Her smile fades and she crinkles her nose. “Nice, though.”
“Wanna see where I work?” I don’t wait for an answer. My fingers grip the battered balustrade, the first stair already creaking under foot. I climb the staircase with calculated effort, treading the steps as if they were made from broken glass, the smell of sweet perfume close behind. A fish on a hook and I’m reeling her in easy as pie. I’d forgotten how good I was at this.
“Wow! More cool pics!” Alice Freeman runs her fingers around the dusty frames. Her enthusiasm for my artwork is absurd, she’s either taking the piss big time or she needs to see an optician. “Do you only draw faces?”
“Portraits.” I stop to study the artwork, not looked at for years. There are about twenty pictures scattered up the wall, sketches of women’s faces, mostly done in charcoal. Some watercolors and pastels brighten the upper half of the stairwell. To the untrained eye I guess they might look pretty good, but all I can see are the mistakes.
“Are you like a famous artist or something?” she asks.
I beckon for her with the untrained eyes to follow.
We reach the top and head down the hallway. A cobweb floats across my face and I brush it aside before rapping on a door as if expecting an answer. Not much chance of that. I turn to Alice, about two inches shorter than me, wide-eyed, face shining in the shadows like a child in Santa’s Grotto.
I smile and say, “This is where I draw my pictures.”
“Can I have a look?” This time it’s Alice who doesn’t wait for an answer. She opens the door, sees the darkness and reaches for the pull cord.
The cramped room is illuminated by a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. It has no furniture, bare floorboards and a window painted black. Dog-eared drawings are taped around the walls. Half-finished faces gone wrong. Scribbled out, waxy red lines spilling onto the walls.
“Why do you keep those pictures?” asks Alice.
“Idea is I won’t make the same mistake if I’m surrounded by all this shit.”
“Does it work?”
My easel stands bent and naked in the middle of the room, a glint in his brass eye, because he knows I’m planning a new picture very soon. Newspapers lie crumpled, littered at his wooden feet, and my painted footprints dance on yesterday’s headlines. A half-smoked joint rests in a tin, a bedfellow for the broken pencils and charcoal twigs. Empty beer bottles and a pile of old carrier bags collect in the corner, stacked and tied as if waiting for the laundry man.
“Why don’t you draw something else?” Alice smiles and lifts her T-shirt. “You can do me naked if you like.”
I place my fingers beneath her chin and tilt her pretty head. “Just your face will be okay.”
My hands shake and my brow drips. It’s too damned hot in here and Alice Freeman’s features shine perfect beneath the electric light. Her hair is tied in a ponytail, lips parted in a dreamy smile. In real life she looks like an angel just flown down from heaven, but in my picture it looks like someone just dug her up from a grave. The eyes are at different angles, the nose is too big and the mouth is wrong.
“I really thought I could draw you.” I get muddled, stick the charcoal between my teeth and go to sketch with the joint. Not funny when I’ve done it so many times I’ve lost count. I wipe a sooty hand across my forehead and taste my blackened fingers. Smoke and salt. “This is the worst fuckin thing I ever did. I can’t let anyone see this.”
I remove the picture from the easel, plod across the floorboards and stick it next to a sketch of a black girl, eyes like golf balls glaring through a squiggle of glossy crimson. I pull Alice Freeman’s lipstick from my pocket and zigzag a thick red line through my latest picture. Top to bottom, nice and slow, helter skelter down her crooked features.
“Perhaps you were right.” A tight-lipped smile, I walk over to Alice and curl my fingers under her shirt, lifting it above her breasts whilst my other hand explores the flatness of her stomach. “Maybe I should have a go at drawing something else.”
I pick up her head, put it in a plastic bag and place it on the pile. Then I undress Alice Freeman.
Stephen Owen lives and works as a sign maker in the UK. His interest in writing stories began in the nineties when he started writing for the school nursery his children attended. When teachers advised him to think seriously about taking it further, he took a crash course in evening classes to find out what he really wanted to write about. Many years ago he finished his first short horror story. He hasn’t written a child’s story since.