| Respect to Mr Henry James for the title and somewhat of the theme. The rest of it is for a., who bet me I couldn't do it from a male perspective. All love – v.
We didn't even like each other when we first met.
I say that now, but I can't actually remember when we first met. Holly was just always very much around, sitting in the life classes drawing intently and scowling at the paper, stomping around the cafeteria, sitting on the edge of groups and listening to people with a look on her face like she couldn't believe what shit they were talking but hardly found it worth bothering to correct them. She had that look when I spoke, too, except that when I said something she disagreed with she would roll her eyes and click her tongue and shake her head slightly, and I would get annoyed and look at her and say "What?" and she would start laying down the law at me.
She was skinny, nervous, too eager to show off her knowledge, oscillating between feeling that she was the greatest fucking artist in the world and that she was a useless pretender, touchily conscious of being bourgeois and not "street" enough, prostrate with awe at the feet of anyone she admired and violently dismissive of anyone who'd passed from her favour. I'd thought I was a difficult bastard but compared to Holly I was quietly confident. Holly isn't her real name, but I nicknamed her Holly partly because she was prickly as fuck, partly because she had a crush on Audrey Hepburn and partly because I liked it. And partly because I was a smug and superior bastard who liked nicknaming people.
Like me, she didn't have much money, and also like me, she started working as a model to earn spare cash. She was doing it before me. I came into life class one day and Holly was sitting naked on the stool, talking earnestly to the instructor. I had been sweeping up in a burger joint to help pay my rent and it hadn't occurred to me that I could make easier money by modelling. I was immediately pissed off that she'd done it before me, that she'd had the nerve to take her clothes off in front of the rest of us and put her body where her mouth was. I had to admit, though, she was a good model, exceptionally still and focused. I couldn't let her get away with it, though, because I still thought there was a bit of the charlatan about her. I went up to the instructor after the class and asked about what rates the college paid. A week later it was me who was naked on the stool and it was everybody else who was drawing me, and it was Holly who was sitting behind her easel and looking resentful that I'd copied her.
After that class I got dressed, feeling daring and exhibitionistic, and when I went out into the corridor, a group of my friends were there and Holly was on the perimeter. We didn't hang out with the same people, and I was surprised to see her there. It was the end of the day and people were talking about going for a drink. I went along, and Holly came with us. There was a friend of mine there who I fancied, a voluptuous Scottish red-haired sculptress. I had the idea of talking her into letting me model for her. We went to the pub and I blew all my meagre pay on drink, keeping an eye on the redhead. But I found myself getting locked into an argument with Holly. We were arguing about Francis Bacon, of all fucking people. It was one of those you're-full-of-shit-no-you-are arguments that nobody wins (she was pro, I was anti). But Holly wouldn't let it drop, and neither would I. As I stood drinking my lager and listening to her, I found myself thinking that if she would only put on some makeup once in a while, she would be quite cute. But she was still an irritating pain in the arse.
Why didn't we like each other? When you're only a couple of years out of secondary school, and you meet someone else who is as passionate and as inexperienced as yourself, you catch a glimpse of how you look to other people, and it's no fun. You think the other person is a fake, but what you're actually getting a glimpse of is how insubstantial you really are, how little there really is behind the posturing and the theorising and the bullshit. Oh, you might be something one day, but you're already not a Rimbaud, fully formed by twenty, so that's the teen prodigy career option gone down the toilet.
The one thing that kept me arguing with her, though, is that when I finally got a look at her work, it was so obviously miles better than anyone else's in our year that I couldn't just dismiss her.
It was a life class. The model wasn't a professional, probably a student like us doing it for the cash. She was a rangy, fit-looking, black-haired young woman with an oval face and dark protuberant eyes, and I'd just gone for a stroll around the room to stretch my legs and ease my tired hand when I stopped behind Holly's shoulder and looked at what she was doing.
Her lines were sharp and harsh and certain. The paper had the silvery sheen of multiple rubbings-out, and her hands and arms were coated in charcoal dust. Holly seemed to work in a state of controlled self-disgust, bitching at herself in a constant muttered undertone about how fucking rubbish she was, and continually wiping out what she'd done to have another go. She wasn't just doing the life class to get the credit. She was doing it as though her life, or at any rate her ability to sleep that night, depended on it. And there was something truly arresting about the picture. The model wasn't all that striking, but after looking and looking at her I had found a kind of perfect balance in her own ease with herself, the calmness of her strong thighs and sinewy arms alongside her slim torso and shallow round breasts. My own drawing had tried to be about the stillness and equilibrium of an athletic body finding its own gravity. Holly seemed to have seen nothing but the strain and effort involved in getting a body into that shape and keeping it there. There were lines of pain and stress in the arms and legs, and a real tension in the muscles of the neck and shoulders. Only the face had been left barely roughed in, with a few bare strokes for the nose and mouth and blank circles in place of the model's large dark eyes. Looking at her picture, it struck me that mine had really been about a man looking at a woman, but hers was about what it was like to be the woman.
Holly stopped working, blew some charcoal dust off her nose, and seemed to become aware of me behind her. She shot me a cold glance and muttered, "What."
"Nothing," I said.
"No, come on," she said, "what."
"Nothing," I said, getting irritated.
She paused for a moment, put her charcoal down and said, "Show me yours."
"Fuck off," I said.
"Show me," she said. I was getting pissed off, I thought hers was much better than mine. But I walked over to my place and she followed me and looked hard at what I'd done for a long while.
"I prefer yours," I said.
She was silent, one arm folded over her chest, the other one holding it place, picking at the loose skin on her chapped lower lip with her thumb and forefinger.
"Yeah, well," she said finally, "she'd prefer yours."
I was about to tell her to fuck off, that I wasn't doing this to flatter the model, when Holly added bitterly "And she'd be right," and walked away.
After that, there was something between us, I'm not sure what, some sort of mutual respect, or envy. We each thought that the other had something we personally lacked. But we were utterly incapable of working out in a civilised manner what it was.
We couldn't agree on anything. I could sit and stare at a Zurbarán or an El Greco for hours, but she hated what she called "that fascist Catholic sanctimony" and had what was probably a far more mature taste for Rembrandt. I thought that this was because she'd been brought up a Catholic and I hadn't. I thought Anselm Kiefer was a genius, she ranted about his pompous German monumentality. We hung out with each other all the time, and we never did anything but fight and scream and throw things at each other and walk away swearing that the other was a stupid shit and would never, ever get the point.
But we did agree about one guy.
Kinlay was generally considered to be a bit of a Seventies man, but we thought he was brilliant, the greatest living Irish artist and a national treasure. When the Museum of Modern Art mounted a small retrospective we happened to meet, walking down the quays towards Kilmainham, and we did nothing but nod curtly, match step and keep walking. When we got there, we stood for hours in silence. I couldn't get over the way the man had of seeming to make paint sing. The self-portraits were extraordinary, but the big nude canvases of his wives and daughters made you want to hug strangers out of recognition of our common frailty. Shit like that. The man was a monster.
We walked down the tree-lined road afterwards, silent. Then Holly said, as if it were obvious, "We should draw each other."
Neither of us had yet made up our minds as to whether we even enjoyed each other's company yet. But the idea made sense. Nobody else in the year was as committed to drawing the figure as we were, and I privately believed that we were the best of all our peers. And I was pretty sure Holly thought so too.
"You're right," I said.
We walked to her flat in total silence. I had never been there before. It was tiny, and a mess. There were bits of grubby underwear and old pizza boxes everywhere. Holly quite often didn't come into college because she was "ill" and I immediately suspected that it was because she ate all the wrong things. I kept my place neat and I knew how to cook. Faced with the evidence of her absent-mindedness I felt like a dilettante. But fuck it, I thought, I work hard, she works hard, we just have different habits, that's all.
She led me into the cramped bedroom, which was lit with only a skylight. It was hot, her flat was a true garret, in a converted attic. Her pads and charcoals were in a relatively neat stack on the chest of drawers at the foot of her bed. There was a full-length mirror leaning against the bedside table that had evidently been unscrewed from a bathroom wall.
Holly took the only chair and sat on it, reaching for the pad of paper and the charcoal. I sat on the bed and took off my shoes and socks, then pulled my t-shirt over my head and yanked down my black jeans and boxers together. Naked, I got on the bed.
"Kneel," she said curtly. "Face away from me. Head lowered." I did as she said. It was weird, exciting, a bit erotic but less so than I'd feared, to be modelling nude for this girl I'd only known for a few months and who I found to be rude, superior and overbearing. But I could feel how she was looking at me. I held the position.
After a while she put the pad down and came over to me. She put a hand on my back and pushed me forward until I was crouched in the foetal position, my arms over my head, my naked arse towards her. Then she sat down and did more. I breathed steadily.
Twenty minutes later she let me uncurl and stretch my legs. She asked me if I wanted a glass of water and I said yes. She left the bedroom. I inspected the books on her shelves: the usual suspects, Berger, T.J. Clark, Robert Hughes. Holly was old school, like me.
She came back with the glass of water, I drank some and then she made me sit up against the pillow, my legs parted, looking at her.
I posed for another couple of hours, as the sun tracked the shadow of the skylight slowly across the rumpled white sheets of the bed, then she put her charcoal down and flexed her hand. She looked up at me, unsmiling. I wasn't smiling either.
"You want a go?" she said.
"Yeah," I said, and got off the bed. I didn't bother to dress. Holly kicked off her runners, shrugged out of her t-shirt, unclipped her bra and dropped it, then slid off her trousers and her dank and tattered red panties. Nude, she got on the bed and automatically lay face down, her arms stretched out over the pillow.
I liked the pose. I sat naked on the chair and took a fresh pad and began to sketch Holly, my eye following her skinny ribcage and her short brown hair and her narrow waist and small round buttocks. The room was close and stuffy and smelled of her. After I'd finished a couple of sketches I made her get up and kneel with her hands thrust down between her thighs, her face tilted up towards the ceiling. Her breasts were quite small but pleasingly shaped, with small pale nipples. She had a white scar on the side of her belly.
"How'd you get that scar," I said, still sketching.
"Fourteen," she said, neither tilting her head down nor opening her eyes. "Pony club trials. Fell on a fence."
I got her to sit with her arms folded on her knees and her head buried in her arms. Then I sketched her splayed out on her back, her arms and legs spread like a starfish, staring at the ceiling – a difficult one, and not very successful. Finally I had her roll onto her belly in a close imitation of her original pose, only with her face buried in her folded arms, the late afternoon sun just illuminating a corner of her naked arse.
By the time I had finished it was nearly seven and we were both tired. She threw on a bathrobe and pointed me in the direction of the bathroom. I had a shower and wrapped a towel around my waist. When I came out into the main living space, there was a bottle of wine open on the table and two glasses. Holly was heating up pizzas in the cheap electric oven. She breezed into the bathroom and shut the door behind her.
If you assume I'm not bothering to report our fascinating fucking conversation, you're mistaken. Apart from what I've told you, and a few small verbal instructions to move this way or that, we had said nothing to each other since agreeing to draw each other hours earlier. I kept an eye on the pizzas and sipped wine. Presently Holly emerged from the bathroom, wrapped in her robe, and we sat down at the table and ate.
I gobbled the food. I was starving. When we were finished she pushed her plate aside and said, "Watch this." We went to the sofa and she crouched by a heap of videotapes, rummaging around. Finally she slipped one into the VCR and turned it on.
It was a sixty-minute documentary on Kinlay, filming him at work in his studio in Galway and interviewing him. The tape was a copy of a copy and the man himself was legendarily non-communicative, but we watched it in silence.
When it was over Holly turned the VCR off and turned to look at me. Then she crawled down the sofa towards me, unsmiling, and opened the towel that was still round my waist. She fingered my cock, watching it grow stiff, and then she grasped it and stood up, taking me with her.
She led me into the bedroom again and pushed me on my back on the bed. Then she took off her bathrobe. I reflected that, all in all, I really didn't like her.
She got astride me and kissed me, her tongue pushing into my mouth, and I kissed her back, hard, not without violence, my hands grabbing her tight hips and spreading apart her buttocks. Then I took my cock in my hand and directed it up between her legs. She wasn't nearly wet enough for me to enter easily, but I didn't let that stop me trying. She gasped and winced, and so did I, because it hurt. But then the body finds a way, and I started to leak pre-come and her juices began to be smeared enough over her labia to let me in, and I drove up into her, making her go "Aaaaah!" in a sharp wince. Then she began to move her hips up and down my cock, balancing herself over me, her eyes closed, her lips slightly parted, her breasts swaying.
There was no affection in it, no coming-together-of-two-people-in-love, not even much real pleasure in it, but there was satisfaction. It felt right, somehow, for me to be fucking Holly (or was Holly fucking me? I wasn't totally sure.)
She opened her eyes and looked down at me, her lips still lightly parted, her face – which was lightly pockmarked with old acne scars – flushed with exertion and three glasses of wine. Abruptly she knelt up, pulling herself off me, and got on all fours, looking over her shoulder at me.
I knelt behind Holly's bare hips and found the angle of entry, sliding up into her pussy once again, and she kept looking at me, even while she was panting with arousal. I was looking at her, too, looking at my cock buried up to the base in Holly's cunt, the sparse black hairs in the cleft of her arse, the knobbly line of her backbone beneath the fragile skin, the muscles at the base of her spine and in her shoulders bunching, her badly cut mop of brown hair, taking it all in, remembering it. Her pussy was warm and wet and tight and I felt myself about to go.
"Are you gonna come?" she gasped.
"Yeah," I said through clenched teeth.
"Not in my cunt," she muttered. "I can't get pregnant. Put it up my arse."
I gave her an inquiring look, and she hesitated for a second and then nodded in confirmation.
I had never fucked a girl in her arse before, but I'd read about it, in a flatmate's copy of Pat Califia's Macho Sluts. Something in Holly's terse tone of voice made me think she had done this loads of times. The idea excited me. I tried to remember what I'd read about the do's and don'ts, without betraying my inexperience.
I leaned over and gathered saliva in my mouth, then I spat it on my hand and pressed my fingers between her somewhat bony buttocks. She moaned quietly and muttered "Oh, fuck," as I rubbed my saliva over the puckered little hole of her anus, then I inserted a spit-smeared finger to loosen her and a shiver ran through her body. I was only seconds away. I moved the finger around and felt her relax slightly, then I pulled my cock out of her and she went "Ah!" in a little whimper, closing her eyes for a moment, but then opening them again, her head twisted round so that she was looking over her right shoulder, and she watched as I touched the tip of my cock to her slippery anus and leaned in. "Uuunhh!" she groaned, closing her eyes tight with the pain, and then opened them again, panting as she took me in, looking over her shoulder at herself and up at me, her arse stretching to receive me. Her eyes were very wide and her mouth was hanging open and she was staring, staring, watching me, watching herself, watching what she was feeling. She looked incredibly young, except for the blank cold aggressive stare of her wide grey eyes, dark rings of tiredness below them. She had a couple of pimples on her chin. I stared down at Holly's face, and I grabbed her around her hips with my arm and pulled her back onto me, which made her whole face contort with shock and her eyes shut tight and her mouth twist as she let out a strangled "Jeezus! Aah!"
She hung her head down and made a shaky, whimpering moan in her throat, her naked body jerking as I pushed my hips into hers, and that was what set me off. I was coming inside her and I stroked her pubis with my right hand as my warm come spread around inside Holly's arse, oozing out of her and trickling down our bare legs.
She gave a choked cry and raised her head, willing herself to come – and then she went "AAAAHHH!" in a great hoarse sigh of relief.
We remained like that, me still up her arse, she on all fours, her head hanging down, naked and sweating, for a few minutes. Then she turned her head and looked at me, with that stare of dislike that I knew pretty well by now, and I eased out of her.
She closed her eyes and winced as I finally pulled the tip of my cock out of her. I looked down – it needed a wash, and there was a smell in the room of her shit.
"Have you done that before?" I said quietly.
"Have you?" she said, looking me in the eye.
I chickened out first and looked away from her. She crawled on all fours down the bed and picked up the two pads we'd been using. She turned around and tossed one to me, then took the other and sat against the wall, propping the pad on her knees and opening it. I sat up supported by the pillows, opposite her. We drew.