He was an alluring shadow. We met at the Brixton Windmill on a night when my friend Pete’s not-very-good band was playing.
More precisely, we met outside the pub, where the noise was lesser and the streetlights made the night glitter with dark promises. He asked me for a cigarette.
He was an artist. I asked him what kind of art he made. His verbose explanation meant nothing to me; I nodded along encouragingly, mute, not wanting to risk sounding a fool.
He added, “I also do taxidermy.”
“That’s cool,” I stated firmly.
I shuddered internally, picturing the small birds with their tiny dead eyes.
My grandmother’s house, awash with chintz, doilies and ornaments; endless objects of fascination in every room, an abundance of nooks to explore. It was a bright, warm place. But hanging in the downstairs toilet – always a dank, cold room – was the diorama.
I seemed to find myself compelled to venture down to it every time we visited, as though I was drawn there.
The sinister memory sat oddly beside the homemade jam tarts and watching of game shows; but somehow they went together, were part of the same thing.
I can only suppose that to my gran it was a ‘pretty’ scene; the little coloured birds perched on a branch adorned with silk faux cherry-blossom against a garish painted sunset. To my eyes it was a glass case filled with horror, which I would find myself staring into, transfixed.
The monstrosities within had once been alive. They didn’t look it. They were quite unlike living things, thoroughly other. I found it deeply disturbing.
“You preserve creatures,” I said stiffly to the artist’s silhouette. “You give them eternal life.”
He laughed, told me I was funny, and offered to buy me a beer.
My glass was empty, so I accepted and followed him to the bar, hoping to escape the haunting thought of the dead birds.
It was loud and rowdy inside. The artist was even more handsome than I had imagined in the darkness. He was appraising me in turn, smiling with sharp white teeth. I could feel my blood beating, pulse quickening. I decided to stop talking about taxidermy.
On the train home he held my hand and grinned at me as though he had won a marvellous prize, deflecting a hard stare from a burly man sitting opposite us with a cheery nod.
Afterwards, when we were spent, scented in each other, still twisted together in a mess of sweaty limbs, with one ear pressed against his chest to hear his heart thudding determinedly, I confessed about my repulsion to the diorama. He stroked my face gently as I talked.
“Maybe it was a childhood thing,” he said. “You should come to my studio. See my work. Face your fears.”
It was mixture of feelings that prompted my visit to him in Deptford one rainy evening a few weeks later. Partly, I didn’t want him to think me unmanly, to believe that I was broken or defective in some way, unable to reconcile the past.
He was absurdly pleased to see me, swamping me in a woollen hug. I felt a fraud. It was chilly in the studio, so he gave me a huge paint-spattered jumper to wear. We drank the wine I’d brought from mugs.
“Come on, then,” he said kindly, anchoring me securely with his arm, steering us towards his deceased menagerie.
They were all looking at me. I thought they seemed hungry.
“Is it art?” I asked, desperately fighting down the rising panic, struggling to appear normal.
A glaring weasel caught my eye, frozen in time, poised for attack. Its coat still had a smooth shimmer, yet there was something fragile and hollow about it, something lacking, all surface.
“Touch it,” he suggested.
I took a deep gulp of wine, held out a hesitant hand.
The fur felt cold, sleek and still.
“It makes me feel peculiar,” I admitted.
“You tried. That’s the important thing,” he said, towing me away from the scene.
I looked back regretfully; eyes hopelessly drawn to the dead show – that same strange compulsion taking hold that had lead me time and again to the downstairs toilet.
He firmly positioned me on the sofa, poured more wine, pulled out a bamboo screen to separate us from the watching dead. He plugged in an electric heater, which immediately filled the air with the smell of burning dust.
The wine was taking hold. I nuzzled luxuriously into him. We abandoned our garments in stages as the heat we created intensified, flinging them away carelessly until we were naked.
“Can I keep you?”
He was grinning, but it was a serious question.
I was drunk on him, intoxicated, and found in that heady moment that I wanted him to own me, to be his forever.
“Yes,” I promised, uncaring of what I was offering.
He kissed me with salty lips, stained dark by the wine.
“Stay there,” he commanded, detaching himself. “Stay like that.”
I lay, cooling rapidly on the dishevelled sofa, as he armed himself with pad and pencil, straddled a stool and commenced committing me to paper, devouring me with his eyes.
From the edges of my vision, half-shadowed by the screen, I could make out the sad glass-gaze of a stilted fox observing our interaction.
“Why do you do it? Taxidermy.”
“They were so beautiful,” he said thoughtfully, still drinking me in, fixing me in place. “Why should that end?”
The human folly; trying to cheat death by any means – unwilling to accept that everything ends.
I am dust.
Yet here I remain, amongst a bluebeard’s den of past conquests; recorded, translated through his eyes and fingers; undying.