Gavin McGrath’s art career is in ruins, his health is failing, his wife’s left him because of his promiscuity, and he’s alienated people in the industry with his aggressive and arrogant behaviour.
But when a full pot of red paint falls on his current canvas, apparently ruining it, it brings a change in his life he never expected. A strange, beautiful young man appears in his studio as his companion and Muse. Matteo is from another time but he understands artists all too well—and now his place is with Gavin.
Matteo brings devotion and inspiration across the centuries, forcing Gavin to take stock of his life and his behaviour in the months he has left to him. Eventually Gavin realises he must reconsider the capacity for love he’s always scorned—before it’s too late for both him and Matteo.
© Clare London
What the hell was happening? I found myself waiting for him.
I didn’t invite any other visitors. In fact, I cancelled a couple of scheduled interviews with local magazines which would have entailed leaving the studio and going into town. Macy reminded me they were hard to get and I needed the exposure, but I had no appetite for it. What I did find new enthusiasm for were the abandoned paintings in the studio. I dragged out a few of them, the ones I remembered being initially eager to work on. There were a couple of nudes, young men on an abstract background, in various poses, arrogant and challenging and amused. There was one of an older man, sitting naked on the edge of a bed, his head in his hands. One of a young man watching his reflection in the mirror, self-conscious yet vain at the same time. I’d forgotten how many of them I’d done and then discarded.
Matteo examined them with me and suggested which ones to work on. He never actually said that, of course—he deferred to me as the artist—but his eyes lit up at the ones he liked and his breath caught in his throat. The first few times, I turned to him with an ill-tempered protest. Who the hell did he think he was, telling me what to do? A young man who hadn’t been invited in the first place, who didn’t get the fuck out when I told him to, who was getting in my way…
But he wasn’t, of course. And as he grinned at me, any protest died away. He smiled a lot, actually, and ate my fruit and biscuits, and sometimes drew small animals and birds in my sketchpad to amuse himself while I painted. He had talent, though it was immature. I laboured away at the easel with my newfound zeal, and he hummed tunes I’d never heard, laughed at my cursing and fetched me water when I needed it, to ease my throat. He was just…there.
He posed for me, as well. I didn’t call on anyone else—not the fawning students who still occasionally came to the house, not the casual tradesmen I used to pick up at the pub or club. Matteo seemed to be enough. Sometimes he just twisted into position and held it for a while so I could refresh the lines of the bodies I’d sketched. Then I’d paint quickly and confidently, blocking in the flesh, returning to shade in the skin tones later on. I didn’t admit it even to myself, but I suppose I was nervous, not knowing whether Matteo would stay or go or…never return again. If I asked him about his daily schedule—did he have one?—he laughed and avoided the questions. I often felt stupid when he was there. Angry, confused, excited.
One day he stripped for me, to allow me to examine the pattern of his spine down to his arse. I couldn’t get the dip down to the buttocks right in my mind, for one of my nudes. He stepped out of his clothes without any inhibition, exposing a strong young body, just as I’d anticipated. His skin was darker than mine, the arms muscled, the calves rounded. I sketched his back, the skin taut across the bones, the bare crease of flesh at his waist when he bent to the side. His buttocks were small and tight, the shadow between them hinting a dusky promise. When I’d finished, he turned back to face me. His chest was mostly smooth, just a few hairs trailing down between penny-brown nipples, a light scattering of them on his taut belly. There was a scar above his hip, a few inches long. The skin was only slightly paler than on the rest of his body, but it had a glossy look, declaring it newly healed. My gaze drifted down to his groin. His cock nestled gently against his balls, framed by dark curly hairs, matching the hair on his head and body. Reaching for his shirt, he caught me staring at him, but he just stood there, smiling. His dick twitched gently and he put a hand to his belly, as if to calm himself inside.
“You’re meant to be painting, Gavin,” he said. Mischief lit up his eyes.
The paintings were a different matter, though. It wasn’t just a matter of finishing them off. I changed the lines in some—the brushwork in others. They began to excite me again. Matteo didn’t seem to say or do much to influence this directly, but once he leaned over my shoulder when I was working on the old man and said, “A blanket, Gavin. He needs a blanket for contrast. And it should be red.” I painted a blanket across the man’s knees, not to hide his nakedness that was still on view, but to lift the painting with colour. Dammit, I’d never painted to someone else’s recommendation; my arrogance refused to let me.
But it looked good. Somehow, the vivid red against the naked flesh added to the overall depth of the picture, rather than distracting from the character. The model’s face appeared to flush with its reflection, suggesting emotion that hadn’t been there before. It warmed the painted limbs; the veins seemed to shine under the thin skin. There was life in the old man.
The splash of colour found its way into all of them, then. The youth at the mirror dragged a worn hand towel carelessly behind him; the other youths bore scraps of clothing, or cheap pendants around their throats, or coloured streaks in their spiky, gelled hair. All red. Sometimes when I was finishing off a painting, Matteo would come and stand behind me. He’d put his hand on my shoulder and sigh happily.