When I first saw him he was standing by a long table loaded with entirely black food and drink. Fat black grapes and caviar and Guinness and cakes smothered in black fondant icing and dotted with glistening black cherries. Rachael was working at an art gallery. She had arranged the black feast to publicise an exhibition of dark tonal paintings and photographs, the works of a depressed artist the gallery was promoting then. I remember the exhibition was called Black Art.
‘This is Richard,’ Rachael said. ‘He seems to be interested in the catering, so I thought he’d better talk to you.’
Richard doesn’t drink Guinness so he was holding a large glass of Cahors, the darkest wine we could find. He looked affluent and sleek, with fair hair which glistened against the black drapes and gloomy paintings and he looked unreal: a blond Bacchus, or a smiling vampire. He said he sometimes bought pictures and was once involved in catering. I didn’t hear a warning voice.
‘A black feast! I think I could be interested in something like this soon. For a funeral.’ And he grinned at me.
‘It would be original, anyway.’
‘May I ask whose funeral?’
‘Oh, a friend’s.’ And he smiled again, as if it were funny.
I drank my Coke and smiled back, because he seemed to expect it, but I thought planning a funeral in advance was in bad taste. Yet when he took me out to dinner I found him beguiling, because I was eager and impressionable then. He did mention someone who was unwell, but not anyone close to death. Perhaps it was a joke; but Richard believes in long-term planning.
I don’t paint any more. Sometimes I pull open the drawers of the chest where I keep my old art things. I take out my long oil brushes and run the bristles along my fingers, the coarse and the fine. The easel I never use is folded away in a corner by the window.
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