A loud bang startles me and I almost slide off my stool. I wasn't asleep, though; far from it. My gaze is glued, with barely controlled fear, to a lump of untouched marble. The slab of rock is my Everest and I’m on a futile attempt to climb it wearing Birkenstocks. Between us has been a silent battle of wills. Me desperate to try to create a beautiful and exquisite creation from the gifts of the earth; the marble taunting me with its veined perfection until I’ve been almost frozen into not making a mark along its surface.
“What?” I holler. Everyone knows not to interrupt between the hours of nine and three. When the door shakes on its hinges, I consider it interrupting.
“Faith, open up.”
I groan as I recognise the voice coming from the other side of the door and get off my stool. My back creaks with the unexpected movement and I wince. I walk like an eighty-year-old as I try to unknot the tight muscles along my spine. My fingers push my hair back under the bandana I have wrapped around my forehead. The stretch is good, and I point my fingers towards the high ceiling trying to unknot the stiffness in my spine. The few steps to the small hallway are like wading through thin wallpaper paste. Humidity is turning the air into a cloud of invisible glue. London is unbearable when hot. It’s probably the only thing which makes me long for the sea air of home.
“Coming.” My chisel is still in my hand and I have to remind myself it’s not a weapon.
It’s frowned upon to stab your lecturer, no matter how screwed up you are.
On my way to the door, I grab at a loose white cotton shirt and yank it over my shoulders, buttoning it up before I pull on the handle which I very rarely open during working hours.
I shouldn’t be precious, I’m lucky I got the space to myself.
“Hi.” I force a smile as Gerard darts through the door. Two years ago, my heart would have been in my mouth and I’d have been blushing like a teenager at him being close. Manly and broad with an impressive beard, he once made my heart pitter patter like raindrops on canvas. Then we fucked, and I got over it.
“Ger, I’m kinda busy.” His eyes sweep along the cotton shirt and I know he knows what’s underneath. Now he wants to know if he’s on there, inked on my skin. Another regret in need of a permanent reminder. You’ll never know.
“I know, babe, but I’ve got some news that can’t wait.”
I roll my eyes as he calls me babe, but I don’t say a word. Instead, I point at the untouched Italian marble which is supposed to be my final second year piece—it should not be looking like it’s straight out of the mine. Shit. This is bad.
I leave him to investigate the lump of rock while I grab my packet of cigarettes from the top of the small kitchenette counter. The lighter sparks as I light one and inhale deeply as I turn and lean a hip on the side. I watch him closely as he studies my unimpressive development. “Coffee?” I ask eventually, just to break the awkward silence.
He glances at me and frowns. “Are you mad? It’s baking outside. No one wants a hot drink when it’s like this.” Giving up with my hopeless project—which isn’t a project at all, just rock—he stands and steps closer. “Have you even been outside today?”
I shrug. “Not since I arrived.” I can’t even remember what time I got here this morning. It had been light; the streets were busy, but that’s nothing new. Since then I’d been sitting on the stool, watching the rock; waiting for some form of divine intervention because, apparently, I’m all out of ideas.
Gerard shakes his head and steps closer. “Fresh air’s good, even if it is sticky and humid. You need to take care of yourself; the best artists burn out because they won’t stop.” He puts his hand on my shoulder and pats gently, but I shrug it away and blow smoke in his face.
“I’ll get some fresh air when this is getting somewhere.” My eyes narrow at the rock. Bloody stuff. I should have chosen a different material to use. Glass would have been easier. I roll my head and try to release the tight muscles in my neck. Who am I trying to kid? My last effort at glass was a near on disaster, too. Every piece I’ve turned my hand to in the last five months has been a disaster.
Gerard shifts me towards the marble and I glare at it as his fingers kneed my tight shoulder blades. “You’re blocked, Faith. You’ve got to kick back a bit. Come out for a drink with me and we can chat, see if we can get to the root of everything.”
His touch through the thin material sends waves of warmth along my tired limbs and I begin to soften a little. My body’s always been a traitorous bitch, her reactions can’t be trusted.
I shrug away from his touch. The warm tingle in the pit of my belly berates me. Spoilsport. “I’m fine, this is the last hurdle before the summer and then I can relax.”
His quick gaze slips over my face. “Have you thought about the summer, where you’re going to go?” His unspoken question hangs between us and I shudder. Are you going home?
“I’m going to stay here. Get some bar work, something to get some cash, maybe look at some private jobs.”
“I’m glad you said that.” His face lights up and I know I’ve walked into a carefully contrived trap he’s created.
“I’m not coming to your summer camp.”
He grins. “Have I asked too many times?”
I can’t help but chuckle. “Yes. I’m twenty-four, not an eighteen-year-old fresher.”
Our eyes meet. He thinks he knows who I am, that I’ve shown him. There’s a heavy pause, then he clears his throat. “So, how would you feel about a residential installation?”
I stare at him blankly. “Sorry?”
“A residential installation? I know someone who is creating one, and I thought of you.”
I watch his face, my own is still blank. “But I’ve not graduated yet?”
He shrugs again. “So? It’s the summer.”
“But, you must have lots of post-graduate students who deserve that chance?”
Gerard’s eyes fall on my untouched lump of marble. “Maybe, who’s to say?” This is a ridiculous comment. What does he mean who’s to say? I say. He says. People say. “It’s a great opportunity, it will really get your name out there.”
“I don’t know if I want my name out there,” I mumble. Gerard catches my hand and squeezes my fingers with reassurance. I pull away and slide my hand back into the pockets of my shorts.
“You need your name out there, Faith.” His face is serious. Great, I’m going to have a lecture. “Art isn’t for fun. It isn’t just for loaded people who can swan about and pretend to spend time doing things.”
I grin teasingly. “Like you.”
“Hey! I work.” He smiles, and it sparkles. His face warms as his freckles crinkle around his eyes. I remember all too well how he convinced me into his bed and it had nothing to do with vodka. “I teach you, and some other truly awful students who I can’t possibly name.” He shifts away, and I finish my cigarette, watching as he starts picking things up and tidying. He peers into one coffee mug with a disgusted look and I chuckle. Housekeeping has never been a passion of mine. I’m more a 'wreck it and trash it' kind of girl, than tidy it up and put it away.
Gerard Steers is easy to like, and he’s been kind to me. When I arrived nearly two years before, I’d expected all the tutors to be stuffy and old. Gerard wasn’t either of those things. With red hair and fiery freckles, he’d captured my attention, and his lessons had always been my favourite.
Then for a short while, he’d been my favourite everything. Smell, taste, touch. It had been impulsive, torturous, and very short-lived.
Now we are something in between university lecturer and student. Not friends, either, and definitely not lovers.
Ignoring his indiscreet tidying, I step back up to my own personal Everest, running my hand along the pitted and cool surface. “So, the installation?” I prompt, using any excuse I can not to mark the marble with my chisel.
Although I’d be crazy to ignore the possibility of my own exhibit. They are rare and hard to come by. Especially for unheard of students.
“An old friend of mine is drawing attention to his, er, family home.” Gerard fiddles with the cuff of his pale-blue sleeve.
“What, is it some ironic installation in a council house?” I ask. Not that I’m opposed to irony. My life is one long ironic moment.
“No,” he hesitates, “it’s a place called Bowsley Hall in Hampshire.”
“What?” I stare at him waiting for a smile to crack. “Are you kidding? Your old friend lives in a place called Bowsley Hall?” I snort and chuckle as I move around my lump of marble, looking at it this way and that, trying to visualise what it could be—other than a lump of rock.
“It’s not as posh as it sounds. It’s skint. The ceiling is like dry cheese, there are cracks in the plasterwork a refugee family could live in, that type of thing; so he’s opening it up to the public. Well his mother is, and he asked if I had any ideas.”
“And you thought of me.” I narrow my gaze. I could do with another cigarette right about now.
“Well, I figured you wouldn’t be going anywhere, and you could use the money and the exposure, right?”
I nod, meeting his pale gaze. “Money is good.” With a wry smile, I shrug. My art degree is full of different people—lots of them rich, their voices dripping with education and money. Then there are the likes of me. Not rich, covered in tattoos, and so anti-establishment I could be put on display myself. “Any particular themes?” I dab at a bead of sweat as it rolls down my chest under the shirt. His eyes trail across my skin. Not going there again, Gerard.
“Come on, Faith, take a break. We can go and grab a coffee, wine, whatever, and discuss it more.” He fans himself dramatically. “It’s too hot to breathe in here, let alone talk.”
“I’ve got to come back, though.” I’m not so worried about the sculpture still sitting undone, but rather making a statement that I won’t be ending the night in his bed.
I never go back for seconds. Not ever. It’s the only unbreakable rule I have.
He grins. “Of course, I wouldn’t presume otherwise. This is just a lecturer offering his student a coffee to discuss summer work.”
I shake my head. “You make that sound all levels of dirty.”
“You hear all levels of dirty.”
I exhale a deep breath and step away from the gleaming rock. “Come on, I could do with a coffee.”
“I mean you’ve got so much you could use.”
I frown over the top of my wine glass. It had taken no persuading to veer me off the proposed coffee. “Yeah, but there is nothing tying them together… they aren’t cohesive. There is no theme there that can be used.”
Gerard shrugs. “That can all be worked out, though.” He looks thoughtful, his hands linked together as he ponders the erratic collection of pieces I’ve managed to grow. “There’s got to be a theme running there; you’re just too close to it to see.”
An installation? Could I do that? In a stately home?
I shake my head. “Suggest Meg. She’s far more sensible.” I pause before adding, “And reliable.”
Gerard’s gaze is scorching. “Meg’s not as good.”
I mock gasp and pretend to fan myself down. “I’m better than Meg?”
He rolls his eyes. “You know you are, don’t make me tell you again.”
I grin. I fucking hate Meg. With her long legs, blonde hair, and gallery friendly demeanour.
“So, can I tell them you’ll meet?”
“Meet who exactly? Your friend?” I sound about twelve and take another deep sip of wine to counterbalance the child in me.
Gerard grimaces, much like he did earlier looking at my mouldy coffee mug. “No, his mother probably.”
“And it’s just for the summer?”
“Yeah, just the summer, for four weeks only. I wouldn’t suggest it if I didn’t think it would be great exposure for you.”
“And they’re really paying me five thousand pounds? Just for the summer?”
“Yep.” He nods and drains his glass of beer.
“Why don’t they just invest the money in the property if that’s what it all comes down to?”
“I guess they want to do something a bit better than investing money in a leaky roof.” He glances at my glass. “Fancy another? I’ll walk you home after.”
“Sure,” I pass him my glass, “but I’ll get a taxi, no need for you to walk me.”
He wanders off to the bar which is packed with a Friday night crowd. Conversation is humming loudly, girls laugh, and glasses clink. I love this pub although not so much on a Friday night. Normally it’s filled with regulars and their dogs. But, there is always the after-work crowd drinking pints and drowning the week in Prosecco. I glance up and find a pair of dark eyes watching me. I stare and take in the package containing the dark eyes: tanned skin; light brown hair; plump lips—perfect for kissing. I smile and drop my gaze, concentrating on the bangles on my wrist. When I glance up again from under my lashes, the guy’s moved closer around his edge of the table, ignoring the conversation around him as he focuses his attention on me. Game on.
By the time Gerard comes back, I’m stuck into some serious eye flirting.
I’m not interested in conversation, never have been. The opposite sex are an itch that needs to be scratched.
“What are you staring at?” Gerard slides my glass of wine in front of me, and I watch the flicker of disappointment flash in the dark eyes of the man on the opposite table.
“Nothing.” I grin and shake my head. Last thing I need is a pissing competition between my friend/lecturer and a random in a bar.
Gerard pulls my hand closer and turns it palm up, cradling it in his hand. His thumb traces the lightning strike I have inked on the delicate skin of my wrist. “Tell me about this one?”
I glance at the zigzag with its blurred edges. It’s old now, one of my earliest lessons I marked myself with. Lightning doesn’t strike twice, apart from where you let it.
I smile wryly. “Lightning doesn’t strike twice.” I hold his gaze, making my message clear.
His lips turn down, and a light frown mark wrinkles his brow. “Why do you pull away? We had a fun thing going, Faith. I would never have compromised your position with the faculty or the art board.”
“It’s crazy to stay still too long. Don’t you feel it?” I lean forward and his eyes graze along the opening of my shirt. “It makes you age, the longer you stand still; the more you cling onto things that have already happened. How can we innovate and inspire if we can only see the past?”
The frown on Gerard’s face deepens. “So, you’re never going to have a full relationship because you’re worried about becoming stagnant?”
I shrug. “Maybe.”
His thumb runs along the skin of my palm, and in my peripheral vision, I sense the guy with the dark eyes shifting away, his quarry stolen from under his nose. I don’t want that. I want to scratch the itch burning in the pit of my belly.
“You are an enigma.” Gerard relaxes. He knows I won't change my mind.
“It’s the best way, baby.” I laugh and tilt my head back, a spurt of euphoria rushing in my veins. Half my wine slips down with ease and then I gulp the rest. Sliding off my seat, I pat Gerard on the shoulder and lean down to kiss his cheek. “Thanks for the heads up for the installation. I’ll apply if you think it’s best.” A flap of unsettled butterfly wings causes my stomach to clench.
He sighs. “I’ve already applied on your behalf.”
My hand pauses on his shoulder. “You did?”
His eyes settle on my face. I can’t read his expression. “I won’t let you mess up, Faith. You are too special.”
I don’t know whether he’s talking about my art, my untouched marble, or my life. So I don’t say anything, I don’t know what I’m thanking him for.
I weave through the tables. As I pass by the man with dark eyes, I run my finger across the sweep of his T-shirt covered shoulders. He straightens his back and I sense his gaze burning as I head through the exit. I wait around the corner of the bar, watching a long shadow walk towards me.
“I thought you weren’t going to come.”
The stranger appraises me, eyes drinking in the loose fit of my shirt, the cotton trousers that cover my skin.
Lips meet mine, and hungrily I eat them up, burning with a fire of need, a dart of danger. “You seem like an opportunity not to be missed.” His words come in breathy gasps as he nibbles and nips my throat.
“I live around the corner.” My legs weaken, the pit of my stomach hot and tender. Girls are told not to take strangers home—I’m not most girls.
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