Coffee Stain

He had had three wives and several lives. Yet each one seemed inconsequential. Of no import. As here he was sobbing in his studio, sloped shoulders shaking and face wet with tears, as he would have been, eventually, whether he’d married all three or not. That was the funny thing about marriage. It changed nothing. It changed everything. Names, papers. It gave life a certain shape and colour, different faces to oblige at Christmas with certain habits to adjust to. New cookery skills or lack thereof. But mostly, it had him shovelling dirt in the garden, resetting the electrics when the power cut out, or making various wills. Ever revising the finite division of spoils.

Each marriage had had its own merits, its own composition. Melody and he had created a sort of abstract-realism with vivid flashes of light. Every element was intentional. Each stroke had significance. At the time.

In hindsight, Fiona and he were a post-romantic work, surreal even. Unfinished and un-begun. With frenzied brush strokes trying to bring the piece to life too soon, paint smudged before it had set. Streaks of shade where there shouldn’t have been. A possessive overdose of colour.

Then there was Katrina. A conceptual piece. When he thought of their marriage Magritte would come to mind. Katrina was the apple taking all the focus, and he was the figure in the bowler hat, obscure, hoping not to be seen. Now she was gone too. And, for the most part, he was the only person he saw.


He had known from that first stay at his aunt’s house in Bembridge on the Isle of Wight, that he would be a painter. One of his most vivid memories was of her studio with flattened tubes of oils, life-size canvases of male nudes and paint-flecked furniture.

He left school as early as possible to pursue Art College in Fareham, hair creeping toward his shoulders with rebellious intentions. He had tried, all that time ago, to simultaneously fit in and stand out, shunning his beige Christian upbringing on the outskirts of Portsmouth and extracting himself from his reticent parents.

He wore loud shirts and jewellery, but spoke so softly that people often called him camp. He liked the hippies that his new persona drew to him. They stroked his hair when he was stoned and had puerile attempts at philosophical conversation. It seemed everyone wanted to have sex. Sweat and taste and heat and climax. All the things he used to put into his work.

Art College had been as experimental as he could have hoped for; he spent days decorating large canvases with pieces of driftwood and later packaging labels and Chinese take-away menus, Andy Warhol buzzing in his head. Sometimes he painted using his mouth, paintbrush bared between teeth. The results were chewed and spattered. The problem was, he didn’t know what he wanted to say. His better work, his teacher confirmed, consisted of still life studies and landscapes. Mirroring what was there. Reproducing what was expected in true-to-life detail. He had a talent for it.

“If you can take a moment to connect with reality and what’s actually in front of you Norman, you could go very far as an artist.”

Art College and its mix of middle-class university drop-outs and aspiring dabblers from council estates, had been the beginning and the end of a certain kind of Norman. Before that first band of gold, there had been a time when his profile, his face, had become transcendent. A muse. The inspiration behind a series of clay sculptures, dozens of studies and sketches, a few haphazard oils. And later on, a montage.

The way his forehead descended into the straight plain of his nose was “startling.” His chin tilted slightly upwards and his well-defined jaw, biologically exact, gave his profile “Romanesque and God-like possibilities” – according to Howard Spicer who “absolutely” had to paint him.

“Your face is perfection,” Howard had said.

He sat for him almost every day one winter, topless and shivering in Howard’s flat, the bars of the gas fire turned up high and drank cups and cups of instant coffee. For a time Howard said he was going to make his face famous.

“Beauty is for sharing,” he’d said.

Norman guessed Howard’s orientation early on. He got a thrill from it. It seemed artistic. Bohemian. Liberal. Certain but unconfirmed. He adored the way Howard’s eyelashes curled and admired his elegant long fingers, watching his expressions as he worked.

He found a photograph under Howard’s sofa once. And had kept it, all these years. It showed Howard reclining in a park somewhere, cigarette smoke languidly parting his lips, his eyes looking ahead as though pondering a Big Question. He was wearing nothing but swimming trunks and a smattering of water droplets on his bare chest, seawater lending shine to his blonde hair. Howard was the door to a whole new perspective. All Norman had to do was push against it.

He had been so young then. Sitting for Howard had changed everything. The thought of those nude portraits and afternoons spent reclining in bed together still made his heart lurch in his ribcage.

Sitting for Howard had changed nothing. That Norman had been put into a chest and tossed into the sea during a walk along the promenade, with Melody. Thrown deliberately to the wind as he kissed her pink-stained mouth and got down on one knee. Convention calling.

He didn’t speak to Howard much after that. But he had come to the pub with the rest of his class to congratulate him. Had bought him a pint of bitter.

“I hope you’re happy,” were his parting words.

Coffee made him think of him. So he gave it up. He tried tea for years. Every morning Melody would bring him Earl Grey in bed and he would take a sip and leave the rest to go cold. She said it drove her mad.

She stayed until he said he didn’t want children. She had cried morbidly into her tea then, calling him “a waste of her time.” She had said other things too, but when he recalled them it was a visual memory.

He considered her words as rough stones thrown at him from a distance. As she sobbed he mentally stacked them up. They each had different things inscribed on them. One of them said, “thrown away her better years” another, “robotic approach to love-making,” and others too, which said things like, “strange temperament,” “cold” and “distant.” Her final throw told him to “stop lying to himself, it’ll be less painful.”

After Melody and he signed the papers, he was found by Fiona. Too soon. She was a keen dog walker with a quivering King Charles Spaniel. She would stop and comment on his work when he was sat painting on the beach, consistently unsettling his rhythm, at a time when he was experimenting with a cubist approach to shape and colour. Exaggerating detail and distorting it so that the curve of the sand and the sea meeting each other, became an angular and unnatural event. A slab of orange violent against the zig-zag of blue; a broken black line dividing them like the fissure of an earthquake.

“Apocalyptic,” she had called it when he finally finished.

It never sold.

At first they had found ways to laugh. She was the kind of person that spoke too loudly and had a thousand things to say. It was tiring, but she brought noise and distraction to his coastal cottage and filled the empty spaces with vases, flowers and baking smells. He lent her an artistic flair. She often spoke about her opera lessons or her pottery classes to friends, but they were relics from a past life. More often than not she spent her time on the sofa watching soaps and drinking Rioja, while Norman would channel his creeping resentment into angry block work. Red squares with black holes. Imagined escape routes.

When Fiona left it was for another man. A sad dream come true. She packed her bags in the night and didn’t bother to leave a note. It pained him to be alone. And it had pained him to pretend. But when he looked in the mirror, a single man again, he could only reflect what he supposed people saw. A mediocre painter. A jowly divorcee. An unnamed need.

Katrina was at a similar stage of life. Lost after her husband left her for Parkinson’s and ready to hold onto whatever could keep her afloat. They married out of convention and out of habit. As a reaction to not being married. The echo of their matrimonial history reverberated around their home like white noise, until Katrina abruptly died of a heart attack.

Eight months after her death he started drinking espressos again, at a time when the internet and domestic coffee machines had become an ingrained part of life. He locked himself in his studio and sat inhaling the bitter-sweet aroma of his coffee, ritualistically, before finally typing Howard’s name into the search bar.

That’s how he found the exhibition. That’s when he saw his face. His own. Decades younger. Almost a stranger. Staring back at him from the screen. ‘Howard Spicer: Shadow Play,’ it read. An exhibition of his work at The David Zwirner Gallery.

Norman’s marginal success as a painter was confined to regional art spaces, accidentally visited by the elderly or by tourists asking for directions.

Throughout his entire career, which had felt ever more like a hobby, he had no idea or inclination about how to get his work noticed. Most of his works, like himself, were locked in his studio, leaning against the walls, gathering dust. But Howard and his charm and progressive style had gone all the way to America and into the gothamite galleries which had long become illusory in Norman’s mind; MOMA, The Lehmann Maupin, The Guggenheim. Howard Spicer was art royalty. And Norman’s profile was on the poster. He sipped his espresso and swallowed. Caffeine quickening his heartbeat.

Norman urgently scanned the image results and found his face again. Sometimes rendered in watercolour, distorted in a montage, or pasted together urgently with oils. Unfamiliar versions of himself, as though catching a glimpse of his life in a parallel universe. Realised through the eyes of another.

He clicked onto the poster, accidentally knocking the remaining coffee over the table while a page of pixels arranged themselves and confirmed: It was too late. The poster was from years ago. The exhibition long gone. And Howard too.



This story was published on Story & Picture.



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