SHORT STORY

Heart of Stone
by Adam McGrath

     Dull, lifeless eyes stared blankly back at him as Daniel studied the face.  Not so much as a hint of emotion flickered there.  He ran the back of his hand gently over smooth cheeks that didn’t offer so much as a semblance of warmth.

     “As much tenderness as a King’s Cross whore” he muttered.

     He trailed his fingers down over the naked body.  They traced a delicate line over heavy, solid breasts and down to the firm arse.  His prick didn’t so much as twitch in his trousers.

     “And less attractive.”

     Daniel sighed, and rubbed his eyes with dirty fingertips.  He let the hammer fall from his other hand.  Turning to the worktable behind him he poured a large glass of scotch, lit a half-smoked cigarette from the ashtray and coughed twice.  As the whisky brought a flush of red to his already ruddy face, he turned back to face his handiwork.

     “Sophia, my dear, what am I going to do with you?”

     The statue just stared back at him, never saying a word.

     As the light faded Daniel cleaned first the studio, then himself, washing out chips and dust of white Italian marble that were almost unseen in his close-cropped grey hair.  He had done no work all afternoon, just stared blankly at the statue in the middle of the room and made a good-sized dent in the whisky.  Ordinarily he’d just pick up a hooker and a new bottle on the way home, try to wash some life and feeling back into his veins.  Somehow he didn’t feel like it tonight though.

     He’d been working on Sophia for a month now, pouring every fibre of his being into the cold and shapeless stone.  Slowly, she had emerged beneath his hands, taking shape and form from the pictures in his head.  Not life, though.  That was the problem.

     Sophia wasn’t supposed to be one of Daniel’s usual pieces of bland, soulless corporate art.  She wasn’t destined to adorn some office reception or corporate boardroom.  She was his creation, his passion, not just the rendering of someone else’s artless and unimaginative design.  But even after a month her features were inanimate, her body nothing more than an expensive mannequin.

     Daniel mused over the name.  Sophia.  That was the girl who had taken his virginity when he was thirteen, giving him hers in return because at fourteen she was anxious to get rid of it.  Since her, since that one fumbling night in a dark room while their parents drank themselves insensible downstairs, there had been no one.  Maybe a dozen unsatisfying encounters during three years of art college, but apart from that sex and women were always something to be paid for.

     He turned for one last look at the shamelessly uncovered body standing in the middle of the room, before flicking off the lights and closing the door behind him.

     “Woman of my dreams indeed.”

     Daniel hunched forward against the driving October rain, turning the collar on his jacket up to stop the droplets running down the back of his neck.  He clutched the worn leather portfolio case in his hands as he hurried from the bus stop into the college.  He was late, a condition he deplored in his students but expected them to tolerate in him.

     As he entered, the hum of conversation died down.  The room was sparsely populated, maybe half the class absent.  That was what Daniel hated about teaching night classes; most of the students had no passion, no dedication.

     “Good evening.  I’m glad to see some of you braved the rain, at least.”

     A murmur of greetings answered him from the scattering of floral-print skirts and black polo necks around the room.  As he cleared his throat and was about to speak, Daniel was interrupted by the classroom door slamming open and another student running in, anonymous under layers of rain-soaked clothing.

     “I’m glad you finally decided to join us,” said Daniel.

     The student threw back her hood, revealing long black hair and round, kohl-rimmed eyes.

     “Sorry.  The buses were all full.  I…”

     Daniel held up a hand to forestall any further apologies, regretting his earlier sarcasm as he did.  Aisha, the student, was one of the things that Daniel loved about teaching night classes.

     The class listened attentively as Daniel talked about changing medium, working in sketches, trying to strip back to the essence of the subject.

     “What we want,” he said “is to bring life into our art.  To make it more than just scratchings on paper.  We are not just drawing what is in front of us, we are drawing what we see.  We want to make it real.”

     He walked as he spoke, orbiting the circle of students earnestly rendering the vase of orchids in their midst onto sketch pads.  Occasionally he could find genuine words of praise, but for the most part all he could manage was half-hearted encouragement.  The drawings were dull and lifeless, faithful representation of the flowers but without any joy or spirit.

     He felt like too much of a fraud to be critical.

     When the class was ending Daniel made his usual cursory round of the students as they packed away their materials, offering comments and exchanging banal pleasantries.  At the last he came to Aisha, congratulating her on the progress she was making and bidding her goodnight.

     He paused.

     “Aisha, I wonder…”

     His voice trailed off.

     “Yes?”

     Daniel couldn’t help gazing at her bright red lips.

     “Would you like to… that is if you don’t mind me asking…”

     She just waited patiently as he stumbled over his words, smiling uncertainly, lips slightly parted showing perfect white teeth.  Daniel cursed himself inwardly for acting like a smitten schoolboy.  He cleared his throat and started again.

     “Would you be interested in modelling for next weeks class?  The life drawing?”

     She blinked.

     “Posing nude, you mean?”

     He couldn’t read the expression on her face.

     “Yes.  I mean, only if you want to.  It’s perfectly fine if you don’t.”

     Daniel could feel his face burning now.

     Idiot, he thought.  What did you have to ask her that for?

     He opened his mouth to say something, but Aisha spoke before he could.

     “Sure.  Why not.”

     Daniel shook his head as he walked through the Soho streets, declining offers from the prostitutes that called him by name as he hurried along.  He fumbled with his keys at the studio door, slipping quickly through once he had it open before bolting it behind him.  Sophia gleamed in the harsh white fluorescent light, as Daniel picked up his tools and set to work without bothering to change his clothes.  He worked up close to her face, smiling gently as he reshaped the bee-stung lips, thinning them slightly and parting them to fit the image in his head.

     The next week could not pass quickly enough for Daniel.  His mind raced with panic as the days passed.  What if she doesn’t come, he thought, what if she changes her mind?

     When the next lesson did come around, his students were surprised to find him already in the classroom, waiting for them.  He had covered a low bench with a sheet and cushions and arranged the seats around it in a semicircle.

     “Come in,” he said.  “Sit down.”

     Daniel greeted each student as they entered, staring past them at the open doorway as he did so.  Five minutes passed, then ten, each one increasing Daniel’s agitation.

     “Has anyone seen Aisha this week?”

     None of the other students had, although one middle-aged man offered to stand in as a model for the class if she did not arrive.  Daniel stared at the man for a second, at his wrinkled bald head and damp, sweaty jowls.  He managed to conceal a shudder of revulsion.

     “Thank you, Robert.  I hope we won’t have to trouble you to do so.”

     Running footfalls sounded from the corridor, followed by Aisha rushing through the door.

     “Sorry.”

     Daniel breathed a long sigh of relief, which Aisha seemed to take as exasperation and continued to apologise.  He reassured her, before showing her into the storeroom at the back of the class to change.

     “Are you sure you don’t mind doing this?” he asked.

     He could feel his heart slamming against his ribcage as he spoke.  Aisha just shook her head and smiled as she pulled the door closed behind her.

     Daniel turned to the rest of the class and began to lecture them on how to look at the subject, how to sketch out the proportions, how to bring the person to life on paper.  He had to fight to keep his voice calm and measured.

     The storeroom door clicked open.

     Daniel turned as Aisha walked out.

     She was completely different to how he had imagined her.  He had always pictured some pigeon breasted, balloon-chested form, flat stomach and porn-star thighs hiding beneath her usual shapeless mass of clothing.  Maybe ribs straining against her skin like some of the cheaper, uglier whores he had known.  Her caricatured body from his wet dreams bore no resemblance to the flesh.

     Her dusky, olive skin was smooth and flawless, rounded out over wide hips and a stomach that was full rather than fat.  Copper-coloured nipples topped the orbs of her breasts, which swayed gently as she walked slowly across the room.  Aisha had none of the pasty, bleached complexion of the women whose bodies Daniel only ever saw under the harsh glare of streetlights.  She moved with an assuredness that bore no trace of self-consciousness.  She was alive, real.

     Daniel realised that he was staring.

     Under the harsh studio lights, Daniel sat on the floor staring up at Sophia.  Daniel had spent his life facing a wall, never turning to look at the perfect Form of beauty behind him.  All he ever saw were the shadows that beauty cast, flickering and dancing in front of him.  Aisha had taken him by the hand and turned his face to the light.

     Seeing her lying naked before him in that class, Daniel couldn’t wait for the evening to end.  He had to get out, get back to Sophia, instil in her the life and radiance that he saw in Aisha.  Reshaping cartoon breasts, rounding hips and stomach.  Recarving minutiae, fragments.  Morphing form into Form.  Feverishly questing after the image that remained.

     Aisha-Sophia stared back at him as he drank whisky and masturbated gently.

     On the last evening of the course, Daniel thanked the students for the bottle of wine they presented him with and wished them all well in the future.

     “But not too much success.  I don’t need the competition.”

     They laughed, and said they were going down to All Bar One for a few drinks; would he like to come?  Daniel shook his head.

     “No, I can’t.  Enjoy though.”

     Aisha took him by the hand.

     “Oh, come on.”

     She winked.

     “I mean, only if you want to.”

     Daniel brought the first round, making small talk as the students made strained conversation about art.  As the night wore on the group fragmented; Daniel drifted on the edges of knots of conversations, laughing nervously at their jokes and hating every relived moment of his own time in college.  Aisha moved from cluster to cluster, blending easily as she went.

     At midnight Daniel put his jacket on, bid goodbye to the group he was listening to, and went to the door.

     “Daniel?”

     Aisha’s voice.  Daniel turned.

     “Are you sneaking out on us?”

     “Yeah.  I, uh, I have an early start tomorrow.”

     Daniel imagined himself asking her out to dinner, maybe a few drinks.  He would stumble over the words, and she’d barely cover up a disgusted face, and walk back into the crowds.  She’d say something that would make the others laugh, and they’d look over at him as they did.

     “Well, thanks for everything.  I really enjoyed the classes.”

     Maybe she would say yes, and he’d bring her to the Ivy and they’d laugh as they ate.  At the end of the night he would clumsily ask her back to his house.  She would become angry, shout at him and walk away.  Naturally he would run after her to apologise, until she screamed at him to fuck off and leave her alone, and what did he think she was, some kind of fucking whore?

     “My pleasure.”

     Perhaps, just perhaps, she would come back with him.  They’d screw like rabbits for a month, before it all fizzled out and she moved on to someone else.  All he’d remember then would be the arguments, the flaws and imperfections that started them.  For a week after her he’d find bits of her clothing and other things littering parts of his house, maybe see her for the last time when she came over to get them back.

     “Well.  Goodbye, then.”

     Say something he thought.  Say anything.

     “Yes.  Goodbye.”

     The lights flickered into life as Daniel poured himself a large scotch.  He weighed the heavy, coarse hammer and chisel in his hand as he drank.  They weren’t subtle tools, never intended for light and delicate work.

     He finished the whisky, and sighed.

     Slowly, calmly, methodically, Daniel hammered away at Sophia, smashing and splintering her buttocks and face and breasts.  The carefully sculpted lips and eyes disintegrated under his blows, the rounded stomach fragmenting into so many rounded shards of marble.

     Surrounded by the remains of the Form, he collapsed to the floor, and wept.

 END

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