Daniel could feel his desire mounting. The hairs on his body were slowly stiffening, and worse, between his legs something else was beginning to uncurl. The image of a periscope breasting the waves came to mind. Desperately, he conjured up algebraic equations, Archimedes’ Principle, Boyle’s Law, but it was no good. His situation would soon become apparent to the whole class.
“Cramp!” he proclaimed, jack-knifing to hide his privates, and quickly throwing on his robe before heading for the cubicle.
There were groans all round. “Not again!” complained Mr Watson.
“He needs more salt in his diet,” said Mrs Aitchison.
“Poor boy,” said Miss Trentham.
“Okay, settle down,” said Mr Doughty. “Let’s take five.”
“O Miss F!” Daniel sighed in the safety of the cubicle. He was referring to Miss Fairburn, one of the few students not to pass comment on his supposed cramps.
Daniel had only been a life model for two weeks, with two more to go. He was one of two models. The other, Doris Connelly, was his landlady, the one who had convinced him in the first place that he could do this job. She said it would supplement his grant nicely, helping him keep up with his rent. “Money for old rope,” she called it. “And you don’t need to do nothing that you don’t do every day. Just take your clothes off. I mean, you don’t need to look like a page three or anything. Look at me!” She was, Daniel had already noticed, a large lady. There was a lot to paint.
Daniel, on the other hand, was a beanpole, despite the huge meals Doris fed him. They formed a striking contrast, as Mr Doughty had already noted. “Young, tall, dark – you’ll ignite them,” he had assured Daniel.
He might ignite them, but he hadn’t reckoned on being ignited back. It was alright for Doris. She could get as excited as she liked without a little flagpole parading its colours.
The first week had been fine, although he had been highly embarrassed. But he’d taken Doris’s advice: “Imagine you’re getting ready for a nice hot bath. You just strip off and feel yourself being enveloped in caressing bubbles.” Of course, all the nine faces of Mr Doughty’s life class had been new to him then. Miss Fairburn had been among them, looking as attractive as ever, but she had been dressed a lot more demurely that first week.
Sitting there, head in hands, he tried not to think of her, but it was impossible. This was the second unscheduled break he’d called. The first interruption had occurred when he’d become fixated on those legs: so shapely, those rounded, muscular calves, slightly tanned. And, as she went about her painting, her black skirt, short already, had gradually ridden upwards, showing more and yet more leg. Daniel found himself puzzling at how such a pair of legs could possibly meet at the top.
That was one thing about the life class, of course, it was always warm, so everyone dressed minimally – apart from Miss Trentham, in her knitted, plaid poncho.
Daniel had tried to focus on her, to calm him down: Miss Trentham, also wearing a homemade, turquoise woollen skirt and yellow top, with a beret matching her poncho. He’d wondered whether her paintings were as bright and bold as her clothing. Daniel had then turned to Mrs Aitchison, whose legs, he was pleased to note, were encased in slacks. Her legs certainly met, but from the knees upwards!
This image might have calmed him had he not then caught sight of Miss Fairburn’s legs again. She had been crossing them, in slow motion, somehow. Her long, straight femurs slid, electrically, one across the other. This was when he had first declared that he had cramp and brought the class to a standstill. The group was sympathetic then, and several remedies had been suggested, including an offer of a massage from a rather dishevelled man whose name Daniel did not yet know, but who, he thought, always seemed to be paying undue attention to certain parts of his exhibited body.
When Daniel had returned, he was pleased to see that Miss Fairburn was displaying less leg, although he had sworn to himself that, when he re-emerged from his cubicle, he would avoid looking in her direction.
He had been trying to think less salacious thoughts, imagining that the situation was reversed, that he was painting them: trying to capture Mr Watson’s bulbous nose in all its prickly hairiness, or to render effectively the long, lank hair of his would-be masseur. The latter caught his eye and smiled at him. Daniel resisted smiling back. Doris had always impressed this on him, “Don’t change your expression. You never know who’s trying to capture a particular look.”
Unfortunately, his attempts to reverse their respective roles had been undone when he caught sight of Miss Fairburn leaning forward to dip her brush in some flaky white. It was as though time had slowed down for him. He could capture her every move, every gesture and detail. She had reached across to her palette, her bare arm forming a perfect line that flowed with a majestic sweep (he’d been listening carefully to Mr Doughty) from her shoulder to the sable tip of her paint-clotted brush. She’d dabbed vigorously at the paint, like a bird at a worm. Her arm was flecked with golden hairs that formed a contrast with the deeper bronze of her skin. Her strikingly long nails, painted an intense red, remained completely unblemished despite the way she was agitating the white paint. With a flick of her neck she tossed her shoulder-length, auburn hair back over her shoulders. It had a natural, bouncy look, and seemed to dance in slo-mo before his eyes.
And then. And then! As she had carefully lifted the paint-swollen brush back across to her canvas, the yoke of her white-lace top had bagged as she leant forward. Sitting above her, on his dais, he couldn’t help but look. And there, nestled within the stark whiteness of her bra, her tanned breasts visibly shifted and swelled … . It was then that Daniel had had to call the second halt to the evening’s proceedings.
Sitting in the cubicle, he knew he would not be able to settle again. That image of Miss Fairburn – her legs, hair, breasts, lips, eyes, mouth, oh! – plagued him. He stood up and looked at himself in the mirror: a human watering-can. It was no good. He would have to take more drastic action.
Five minutes later, Daniel returned, having made sure there was no evidence of his recent self-abuse: no tell-tale redness, no flaky, white traces. Attention to appearance was one thing this job certainly taught you, he had very soon realised. It really wouldn’t do to have fluff in your belly button, or a piece of greenery stuck between your teeth. Imagine that, captured across nine canvases. “It would be like seeing Mona Lisa with a smut on her cheek!” as Doris had put it.
He made his way back to the dais, ten pairs of eyes following him.
“Cramp better?” enquired Mr Doughty, adding “Good” before Daniel even had time to formulate a response. The class did not quite applaud Daniel’s return, perhaps for fear that it might bring on yet another cramp, but they certainly looked relieved, and attacked their canvases with fresh vigour.
Daniel was himself highly relieved when nine o’clock came and he could put his clothes back on. Though the money was welcome, he had not thought that the job would be so demanding. He returned to his digs, prepared for Doris’s inevitable quizzing about the evening. She was full of good advice, but he didn’t think she’d be much help with his current predicament. Miss Fairburn, O Miss Fairburn…
* * * *
Doris Connelly was actually a distant relative of his mother’s. But for Doris’s offer of accommodation, he might have bottled out of university. She’d certainly helped bring him out of himself, as she’d promised his mother – even getting him to undress in front of strangers! That had never been in his life-plan.
He’d also been out with a girl since beginning his engineering course, the daughter of one of Doris’s neighbours and, of course, the whole thing had been orchestrated by Doris. But Miss Fairburn was in a different league. She had filled his mind ever since that second week. His university tutor had already admonished Daniel for spoiling his orthographic projection of a cantilever bridge by adding shapely female curves in the margins.
While he was half-dreading the next art class, wondering how he’d cope, Daniel never anticipated that the solution would be taken out of his hands by Miss Fairburn herself: she was absent.
Daniel was distraught. He gazed forlornly at her empty chair and easel. Several times Mr Doughty had to ask him to sit up, pointing out that this was a life class, not a taxidermy one. It was no good, though. Daniel felt lifeless and despondent, and every limb of his body seemed to declare it.
That is, until the evening break, when Miss Fairburn appeared, apologising for her late arrival. Daniel perked up immediately, as all the class must have noticed. But this, in turn, led to a recurrence of his former problems. He avoided looking at her for this very reason (it was enough for him to know that she was there), but this only made his fantasies more vivid. He found himself picturing her dipping her brush into a rich magenta, a colour to match her nail varnish, then moving her brush not to her canvas, or, indeed, to her nails, but to him, in person, gently touching him between the legs, coating the very tip of his … .
“Oh dear. I see the cramp’s returned,” bemoaned Mr Doughty, watching Daniel hastily retreat to the cubicle. “Take five, everyone.”
Daniel took immediate action this time, abusing himself mercilessly in order to exorcise the seductive images that crowded his consciousness. He returned, slightly red in the face, but nowhere else, he hoped, and apologised.
“You really ought to see a doctor,” said Mrs Aitchison, “I’m sure it’s diet.”
But Daniel wasn’t listening. Another fantasy preoccupied him: that Miss Fairburn, flaunting herself like that, must fancy him. It was classic, wasn’t it? A mature woman and a tall, young, dark-haired man, quite well equipped (or so Doris had saucily suggested to him).
By the end of the evening, Daniel’s passions were rising again, although he managed to avoid another attack of the cramps. He rushed off and dressed quickly, anxious to intercept Miss Fairburn before she disappeared.
* * * *
It was a chastened Daniel who attended the final class. Miss Fairburn was also there, although dressed far more decorously. In fact, it was hard to tell that it was the same woman. She had her hair up, severely knotted, exposing her neck, but apart from this, she was almost completely covered, wearing a long-sleeved, pale blue blouse and a long, darker blue skirt with black calf-length boots. That evening she seemed to paint Daniel without looking at him once.
There was a distinct change in the class’s mood that night, perhaps because it was their final meeting before the exhibition, about which Mr Doughty was giving the class instructions: on how to present their work, on who would judge it, and the various prizes. “And next term,” he rounded off, “we’ll be covering landscape.”
“No problem with cramps then!” someone shouted, and the class giggled.
Daniel certainly didn’t suffer any cramps that evening. He felt quite dejected, and a bit of a fool. Last week he had followed Miss Fairburn out of the class, intercepting her in the car park. He’d grabbed her by the arm, suggesting they go for a drink. The severity of her reply had taken him aback. “Young man, the art class has finished. Unhand me!”
At the end of the final class he was presented with a book token, much to his embarrassment, as he felt that he had often let the class down. Most of them were off to the pub, but he declined, complaining of a headache.
“Cramps and headaches,” said Mrs Aitchison. “You need to take yourself in hand, Daniel.” Was that a wink she gave him?
Daniel had not intended to go to the exhibition, but Doris insisted. She was the star of the show, and nothing would keep her away. Daniel didn’t know if he could bear to look at paintings of himself in the buff, especially as he now felt so disconsolate about the whole experience. He cheered up when he got there, though. The class gave both models a warm welcome. The artists had clearly had a few glasses of wine before the official opening.
Daniel recognised himself in a few of the pictures, but in others he was unidentifiable, thankfully. Then he saw a group of four paintings, mounted in a square around a central canvas that was completely blank. The four paintings all featured him, but in each his pose and expression were subtly different. The first, entitled “Innocence”, was certainly that. He recognised the shy, pre-art class Daniel of old. In the second, “Desire”, he had a slightly different look in his eyes, and a more open posture, leaning forward, expectant. But this was also subtly different from the third canvas, possibly the most disturbing of the sequence. “Obsession”, it was entitled. Here his eyes looked distracted, less than human. There was a furtiveness about them that was reflected in his posture, which looked altogether more aroused and twitchy. Daniel didn’t like this at all, partly because it captured his mood so accurately. He turned to the final picture, “Dejection”, which showed a chastened figure, downcast in posture, appearing decidedly older, with eyes that had a worldly-wise look.
Daniel was still trying to get to grips with these canvases when Doris came up. “Ooh, aren’t you the lucky one? There’s nothing like this of me.”
Mr Doughty, who had been talking in the background for a while, now came up with a few other officials, and announced that Miss Fairburn’s sequence of pictures – which, of course, they were, albeit currently unattributed –had won first prize. A rosette was pinned alongside them. Miss Fairburn was duly applauded and she thanked everybody, but especially Mr Doughty.
“Wonderful,” Daniel heard a voice say, “especially clever they way they are framed round that blank canvas, showing the emptiness within. She’s really captured him.”
“‘Obsession’ is perfect,” said another, “I always thought he looked shifty.”
Daniel faded into the background. He felt cheated and humiliated. She had manipulated him all along. After wandering aimlessly round the rest of the exhibition, he made for the door.
A hand tugged at his sleeve. “Leaving so early?” He turned back. It was Miss Fairburn – or Shirley, as he’d just heard her called.
“Yes, er, a headache. Congratulations, by the way. Sorry about, you know … .” His voice petered out. He was back at week one.
“But you can’t go now. There’s still the blank canvas to paint.”
Daniel suddenly felt angry. “What’s this one going to be – ‘Humiliation’?”
“No, silly. ‘Consummation’.” She touched his arm.
Daniel’s anger drained away; his body started to tingle. “Cramp!” was his automatic response, but then he remembered he was safely clothed.
Once again, Mrs Aitchison winked at him.