Parting Gesture

Susan paced. The gallery was small, although the previous owner had insisted on describing it using words like “snug”, “cosy”, and even “bijou”, too small for the scale of exhibition she was attempting. So she paced and fretted while her business partner Jason put his feet up on her desk and opened a bottle of something refreshing.

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” she muttered while Jason rummaged in his pockets, “it’s insane.”
“Have faith!” It was Jason’s standard answer to any of life’s little problems and he knew it made her crazy.

To look at them was to see a study in opposites. Susan, at 34, was a businessperson who desperately wanted to be an artist. Dressed in a severe black suit she yearned to be a Bohemian libertine but the necessity of paying for the house, car, gallery and business partner forced her into the role of mover and shaker. Her hair was sensible, presentable and short and that middle tone brown that isn’t quite mousy but not sufficiently dark to be chestnut, restrained in a low maintenance hairstyle that looked good for every occasion. Susan’s skills were all about the movement of money when what she really wanted was Monet. Jason, on the other hand, seemed to be able to get away with attending any event in a pair of khaki shorts and a variety of garish Hawaiian shirts. His hair was unkempt. Not the slightly scruffy chic of a man with an exceptional stylist but the hair of a man who had got out of an unfamiliar bed and couldn’t find a mirror. He knew nothing about money save perhaps how to spend it but he knew everything about art. Ancient or modern, Jason had slept on the floor, or snogged the girlfriend, of every influential artist that Real Money was interested in buying. He had somehow blundered through some of the best schools in England and Italy, fetching up like a dazed castaway in New York. Susan and Jason were destined for each other, at least as business partners.

“Have faith? That is rich coming from you. You’re an atheist!” Susan could feel a nicotine fit coming on, knew Jason had cigarettes (foul, wonderful, evil French cigarettes that would leave her voice husky and raw but were still better than sex, at least in the short term) and knew that he wouldn’t let her have one until she threatened him with violence.
“Agnostic,” said Jason mildly, “I’m hedging my bets. And anyway I still don’t see what the problem is.” He watched Susan pace and fret through lazy blue eyes.
“The problem is that you have managed to secure us the honour of displaying the latest work of Dominic Hayden. He’s so hot right now! People are falling over themselves to buy his work. His last show packed out the Metro. Sotheby’s drool uncontrollably whenever his work is up for auction. It’s obscene how much money that stuff sells for!”
Jason looked confused. All the words that Susan was saying told him that this was a very good thing to have in their gallery but the tone of Susan’s voice said that it was a disaster and very possibly one that would drag them both to hell. Unable to reconcile the differences in content and tone he lit a cigarette and handed it to Susan as she paced past him.
“I quite agree,” he said languidly, “and for that reason we’re going to have a very good night with this. After all, half the punters who come through the door will come to see the Hayden and pick up a little something in their price range on the way out.”
That much might well be true and Susan had to concede the point.
“Besides,” said Jason, “what’s the worst that could happen?”
Susan stopped pacing and looked at him. Her eyes, usually a lively green, were flat and empty.
“Jason,” she said carefully, “what was the last piece of work that Dominic Hayden produced?”
“Oh,” said Jason, “it was a cow. It was a whole cow in aspic, the whole thing encased in glass with an oak and brass surround. Very pretty I thought.”
“And slightly wider and longer than the space we have available” hissed Susan, her words hitting home finally.

Later that evening, Susan laid back in her stress-busting bath and, to the sound of Tibetan chants and temple bells, did some reading on Dominic Hayden. She learned all about his early pieces in England. The two cars – one exceptionally expensive and the other a thirty year old wreck – that he had cut in half and welded together to produce one vehicle, the two Cessna aircraft he had conjoined in a position that suggested they were mating (and which had been dubbed “The Mile High Club”). It seemed that Hayden rarely produced work that you could call small, let alone Bijou. Even more mystifying was how Jason had managed to get the rights to show the artwork in the first place. Susan’s dreams were often haunted by the possibility that Jason owed a lot of favours to the Art Mafia and that one day serious men in suits would show up to make her an offer she couldn’t refuse. Those dreams would always become nightmares, her gallery forced to proudly display the bizarre scribbles of the Don’s untalented and colour-blind four year old which would lead to her being buried in concrete because they didn’t sell.
She continued to ponder wrapped in a silk robe that Jason had given her one Christmas – a gift she still felt slightly guilty about accepting since that year she’d given him socks – and curled up with a glass of wine. It occurred to her that as long as there was only one item to exhibit there wouldn’t be a problem using the gallery. There was room outside for a few tables and chairs; she’d find out if she needed permission to spread the guests outside. The more Susan thought about the problem of space the less nervous she felt about it. Would there be such a problem with hiring somewhere for one or two nights? Surely not. Given time, Susan knew, she could come up with a location and get it prepared. If she were lucky it might even be sufficiently industrial a locale to be considered witty. She smiled, drained the glass and went to bed with the “to do” list for the following day running through her head. In the bedroom, the floor scattered with discarded clothes that she hadn’t got around to picking up, she paused and shrugged off the robe, intending to find a t-shirt to sleep in, and then caught sight of herself in the mirrored doors of the closet. She frowned, pouted, sucked in her tummy and turned to see her own profile. She ran down her usual inventory – she could stand to lose five pounds, her breasts were ok but needed a little help to make interesting cleavage. She didn’t like her thighs. She needed a week on a beach somewhere to get rid of the pasty white colour and she didn’t really want to think about her bum and how much time she’d need to spend in a gym to get it the way she wanted. She huffed, picked up a red t-shirt and slipped into it, turned out the lights and went to bed.

Instead of dreams filled with gallery patrons that were complaining about the show, she dreamed of Jason and the beach. Jason, the beach, sunscreen and a flatter stomach…and getting that ridiculous shirt off him, and then the alarm went off, just as she’d run a finger over abs like steel.

The abs of steel were well hidden beneath something in several shades of yuck when he finally turned up at the gallery. He was wearing his normal slightly bewildered look and Susan was instantly annoyed.
“Was she worth turning up an entire hour late for?” she snapped as he ran a hand through his hair.
“She? Don’t know what you mean, had a few drinks with an old mate last night…” He yawned and tottered off to the back room for coffee. Susan fumed. She was having another in a long series of bad hair days – the bad-hair-day-proof style had failed her and she fussed at it while looking around for something to do. Not that there was a shortage of things to do, she just couldn’t sit still long enough to do them. Jason reappeared. She took the opportunity to close on him rapidly.
“Give me a cigarette, you wastrel” she snarled “or I will…uh…” she looked around for something to hit him with. He destroyed the moment by handing over the packet. She stormed towards the back room where there was a door to the back of the building that she could stand in and blow smoke out of.
“Oh!” said Jason “Nearly forgot! Look, I had drinks with Matt De…whatsit, the Italian guy with the big…you know, the red car. Anyway, he says he’s seen the plinth for the piece we’re showing.” Susan stalked back over to Jason and looked up at him, put her fingertips on his stomach and raised an eyebrow.
“How big is it?” she asked.
He blinked.
“Well?” she demanded. He looked lost for a moment.
“Bit bigger than average?” he hazarded. She frowned.
“The plinth” she hissed.
“OH! Uh, it’s about five by five. Square.”
“I got that” said Susan, realising that she hadn’t taken her hand off him yet. She prodded experimentally. Not steel, but…not bad. She stalked off for the cigarette. Jason remained where he was for a moment, staring blankly down at his stomach.
“Plinth” he mimicked and then shook his head. “That woman is wound far too tight” he muttered and shambled off to rearrange some paintings.

The cigarette made Susan cough but worked its foul magic on her nerves. Five by five was perfect, she decided, and left plenty of room to light it properly, set things around it, make the gallery look like something other than block walls painted off-white. She forced a smile. It would work out. If everything went as she wanted it to, it would work out. She stubbed out the cigarette and went back to the gallery to call a few of her more promising artists, to round up some sure-fire sales for the night.

Jason slumped into the bar, which wasn’t exactly a bar because it was rather more upscale and served wine and was a place where people met to discuss business. For Jason, the presence of alcohol registered on his personal radar as ‘bar’ and the further presence of Matte Lipsch – which Jason had decided was the worst business name ever and was therefore probably ironic – meant talking about work. Not art. Matte was a money person, like Susan, but also represented Dominic Hayden’s creative output and was the man to whom Jason had turned to get the showing. Matte affected a German accent, a long black cigarette holder and homosexuality which was quite a performance for a straight non-smoking Bostonian.
“Alright, Matte?” said Jason as he slid into a chair opposite the agent.
“Ich bin fein, mein Fruend”
“Oh come on Matte, either in English or medieval Italian. Not German.”
Matte Lipsch nodded his assent.
“Jayson, zer is ein trifling matter of ze display conditions, ein kliene Sach, which means we must have utmost secrecy. The work must not be revealed until the very night. And the following people must be zere.” Matte handed over a list. Jason took it, looked it over.
“Nice nails” he said. Matte smiled and gazed at them happily.
“Unt now, Jason, how goes it mit you and Susan. Have you…?” Jason looked up.
“Mate, I’d suggest you lay off that. It’s strictly business.”
“For you I think but not so much for her.”
Jason stood.
“So if we don’t follow the instructions we don’t get the piece. Right. Yeah. OK. See you on the night, Matte.”
Lipsch watched Jason leave and smiled to himself.

Susan read the list calmly, looked at Jason and smiled.
“So we don’t even get to see what it is we’re displaying until everyone else does?”
“Nope” said Jason, scratching his head and ambling off across the gallery.
“And you can get all of these people here?” she asked as she watched him bend over and pick up a box of wine glasses.
“No problem” said Jason distantly, bringing the box to her desk. “Some of them would turn up for the opening of an envelope. The rest will come because they want to see what Hayden has done this time. All I need to do is make a call.” He grinned his infuriatingly calm, easygoing grin and set the box down.
“Well, while you do that I need to call the insurers and make sure we’re covered, and then make about a billion other calls to get the marketing moving and about a hundred other things…” Susan looked up into his eyes and sighed. He was having fun. He was enjoying this. Then he frowned.
“I don’t suppose you’d like to…” he began but she sighed.
“And then I have to find a new outfit for the evening and who knows, even a date.” She didn’t sound happy.
“I’ll help,” he offered. She gave him a pitying look.
“Nice of you to offer” she said, brushing his words aside.

She sat bolt upright in bed, gasping for breath, and looked around her. She was momentarily lost, but then found the light switch and was comforted by the fact that she was in her own room. It had been a nightmare. She’d dreamed that the opening night had been a disaster, that the critics had panned the work and that people had walked out in disgust – and when she’d tried to see what all the fuss was about no one had let her look at the art, so she’d forced her way through the crowd of critics and bigwigs to find it was a statue of herself. At which point she’d woken up. She wandered out to the kitchen where she found a clean glass and filled it with wine, drained it, filled it again and wandered back to bed. She sighed as she lay back, and was much relieved to find that when she slept, she did not dream.

The following morning, she shopped. Not wanting to do so alone, she spent the early part of the day calling the various phone numbers of various friends and acquaintances, ending with a positively gushing acceptance from Mandy.
Mandy, known to the press as Amanda Margaret Tewksbury Royes and known to her parents as “whatever has she done this time”, was one of those indispensable people without whom nothing could be opened or considered a success. Young, rich, utterly fashionable and considered one of the more desirable women on any given scene, she and Susan were friends because every wild child needs someone sensible in their lives to listen to gossip and help them with life’s little difficulties. Mandy turned up at Susan’s apartment in a swirl of something terrifyingly expensive and red hair threw her sinfully curved self onto the sofa and looked up at the slightly non-plussed Susan archly.
“Well?” said Mandy with obvious impatience, “have you shagged him yet?”
“What? Who?” Mandy rolled her eyes.
“Oh come ON! The only man in your life worth taking for a ride around the block! Jason!” Susan frowned.
“He’s a colleague, nothing more than that. And he’s not my type at all.” Mandy favoured her with a knowing look.
“If you say so, darling. Now. What are we hunting for today?”
Susan sighed.
“I’ve got a really important opening…”
“Haven’t we all? Jason can help you with that.”
“Can we forget Jason for a moment? I’m talking about an exhibition, an important artist. I need to look fantastic without looking obviously fantastic.”
Mandy seemed to focus.
“I know the very man,” she said, standing in one lithe motion “and his name is Julio. He’s got a little place about half an hour from here. Come on. I’ll have Raymondo drive us.”
As usual, there was no arguing with her and as Raymondo drove Mandy made calls. The one to Julio was particularly specific and strident.

Julio turned out to be English and rather masculine. On arrival in his store – which was tucked away just off a rather expensive street – he introduced himself with a firm handshake and an appraising look. Susan was rather cowed by his presence at first – Julio was well over six feet tall, had the build of a rugby player and short, grey hair topping a tanned, chiselled face. His blue eyes were cold, calculating and hard. Susan actually felt scared.
“Right!” said Julio “Women come here for one reason and one reason only. They want to make an impression. That means style. That means confidence. That means working from the ground up.” Susan drew breath to interrupt and he glared.
“Now, the disaster you’re wearing right now has got to come off. So go through that door and strip to your underwear.” Susan drew a rather sharper breath. Julio locked eyes with her.
“Don’t.” he said, simply, and pointed. Susan did as she was told. A few minutes later she stood in the middle of the room – which was white walled, well lit and empty save for a place to hang clothes on the wall and a chair. The door opened and Julio marched in, looked her up and down, sighed and shuddered.
“Dear me. Mandy? There’s a nice white towelling bathrobe on the back of my office door. Fetch it, would you?”
Susan offered him a glare and he ignored it.
“The underwear has to go too. I would betray everything I hold dear if I let you out of here in…” he pointed at her knickers “… those”
“What’s wrong with them?” Susan asked.
Julio enumerated their faults, ticking them off on his fingers.
“They’re the wrong size, the wrong style, the wrong cut of the wrong style, the wrong material and the wrong colour. I’m being charitable when I assume that your mother still dresses you and don’t admit to me that these were your choice because then I shall have to be cross. The bra,” he paused and frowned, ” is even more of a disaster than the knickers. All in all, it could only be worse if you were actually on fire. Lose the undies too.”
He turned and left, stepping aside to avoid Mandy who arrived with a “isn’t this such fun!” grin that Susan wanted to slap and a white fluffy bathrobe. She handed it to Susan.
“Well?” said Mandy.
“He’s not like the other gay guys I know,” said Susan, trying to find a way to strip without displaying herself to Mandy, not an easy task in a room surrounded by mirrors.
“He’s not gay” said Mandy. She leaned against a mirror and sighed, eyes half closed in happy remembrance, a faint but mischievous smile playing about her lips, “definitely not gay. What makes you think he’d be gay?”
Susan lost control of her fingers and inadvertantly pinged her knickers across the room.
“No reason!” she said, trying hard to avoid blushing “I just thought that men who were into women’s fashion tended to be…you know…”
Mandy shook her head vehemently.
“No, darling!” she said “Julio likes to make women look striking and sexy. Since when have gay men known anything about sexy women?”

She sat, in the robe, trying to make it cover as much of her as possible, in the changing room while somewhere in the shop Julio bustled about and rattled things. Eventually he reappeared.
“You plainly understand nothing, so I shall tell you, ” he said as he placed hangers containing assorted clothing on hooks around the walls. “We start with underwear because it is the foundation of everything. If you feel sexy, you feel confident. You feel a certain amount of power. Whether or not anyone sees your underwear is frankly immaterial, but if someone happens to when you’re not intending they should, better it’s something intriguing rather than something your great grandmother would approve of.”
He paused in the middle of the room.
“You don’t have to tell me your size, but you do have to be completely honest about one thing. When you imagine yourself being stripped by the man of your dreams, what do you hope you’re wearing under your clothes?”
Susan blinked furiously and blushed.
“I don’t…honestly, I can’t believe you…never so…my god, the cheek of…”
“Mandy has burned your knickers, dear, so you’ll need something to wear home.”
“Burned?!”

“I was doing you, them and attractiveness in general a favour. Are you going to answer my question?”
“There isn’t anyone! There isn’t time for anyone!” Susan looked away, half fuming and half mortified. There was silence for a moment and then Julio drew a long, slow breath.
“Look, love, ” he said as if he were having to explain shoelaces to a child “I don’t give a stuff if there’s a bloke, a woman, a collection of battery operated devices or just some dodgy fiction and some wishful thinking. This isn’t about shagging. It’s about confidence.”
“Stripping people and insulting their underwear drawer isn’t the best way to fill people with confidence” hissed Susan.
Julio grinned from ear to ear.
“We’ve got to start somewhere. You’ve got a decent pair of boobs, a frankly lovely arse and a killer set of legs complete with thighs any man would rejoice to be between. You’re driving a Porche, it’s a shame to pretend it’s a Ford. Shall we get on?”

The time dissolved into being pulled, pushed, prodded, measured, denied cigarettes and being tutted at. She tried things on, only for Julio to whisk them away again, apparently unsatisfied. All in all, she thought, it wasn’t doing much for her confidence.

Jason looked at the man in the flat cap and the long brown storeman’s coat with “Barry” written on the lapel in marker.
“The what?” he said. Barry, at the head of a small team, looked at his clipboard and then at the gallery door.
“Plinff” said Barry “for a exhibit. We’re here to set up.”
Jason nodded, opened the door fully and was gently but firmly moved aside as the men bustled in and started moving through the gallery with the purposeful scurry of a SWAT team.
“Empty!” said one.
“S’good” said Barry and, as a man, they pulled tape measures, spirit levels, instruments incorporating lasers, and went to work. Jason stood back and watched as they bustled. He wandered off a few minutes later, then wandered back to find them writing out calculations on sheets of squared paper while one – labelled “Darren” – used a smartphone app to check some stellar alignments. There was a consultation. Then Barry approached him.
“That back wall,” he said “do you need it there?”
Jason thought about this carefully.
“Well, it might be load bearing. I think the neighbours might be unhappy too.”
“Can you check?” asked Barry, and Jason dutifully did so.

The neighbours turned out to be an independant coffee and artisan shoe repair shop. They weren’t happy to have the back wall disappear, even in the name of Art, and even after Jason had downed some coffee and eaten an ethically sourced empanada. He went back to Barry to discover they’d installed it.

The “it” was hidden under a vast red sheet that pooled on the floor. The shape beneath was a box some eight feet tall and more than that Jason could not tell. Barry handed him an envelope.
“Final instructions, guv,” he said “no peaking now.”
“At the instructions?”
“At the installation” said Barry as his team exfiltrated the gallery.
Jason looked over the envelope. He looked again, and lacking instructions to the contrary he opened it and went through the contents.
“Oh” he said.

Julio had presented Susan with three bags.
“Shoes,” he said of the first.
“Underwear, several sets in several colours.” The bag seemed to weigh nothing.
“Little black dress” he said. Susan frowned.
“I have one of those” she said.
“And last saw serious action on New Year’s Eve 1999” said Julio. “Don’t dare wear anything other than this. Go now.”
Mandy insisted on paying for everything. Susan, defeated by her enthusiasm, stopped fighting.

Later, she and Jason looked at the contents of the envelope and spread them over her desk.
“It’s….everything…” she said, picking through the documents. “…wine list, menu, even a playlist. He’s sent invitations already.”
“He was a notorious control freak and perfectionist” said Jason.
“Me too,” said Susan “so get yourself down to the printer and sort us out some flyers and posters. Then you can make sure we have doormen for the night. I’m going to call a wine merchant, a caterer and my hairdresser. Move!”
She kicked him none too playfully in the ankle and picked up her phone.

She tried not to spend any time in the same space as the installation. The very lack of detail that should have rendered it safe made her worry all the more. The last work of Britain’s most deliberately controversial artist, already more valuable than his best selling piece to date, made her nervous.
“What if it’s terrible?” she mused while the wine merchant’s hold music annoyed her. “What if he knew it was awful and that’s why he chose to have this happen at a tiny inconsequential gallery instead of the Louvre? Oh god, it’s shit…no, no, James, the Claret isn’t shit! I just want…where’s the list?”
Later, she sat by the fire escape and went over her itinerary for the following day. Hair. Nails. Dress. Gallery for six. Doors open at seven. Play the music, distribute cheese and wine. At eight, the big reveal. At nine, therefore, it would all be over and she could console herself with leftover Bollinger. Bollinger and maybe Jason. She giggled at herself and locked the gallery before going home.

The next evening, she dressed. Her hair, makeup, nails, all were as good as they ever got. She opened the bag with the underwear in it.
“God” she said, examining the delicate material “is this it? Is this all of it?”
But when it was all on…
Susan looked at herself in the mirror and wondered where the other woman had come from. She had curves instead of mounds. She had a figure instead of a shape.
“I could quite fancy you, if I was that way inclined” said Susan and grinned. She put on the dress, which was like putting the last jigsaw piece into a puzzle. There was a feeling of slight resistance as part of her insisted she’d be better off in slacks and a blouse, but then with a soft woody click everything was in place.
The reflection looked nothing like her.
“Cinder-fucking-ella, you shall go to the ball” said Susan.

Because nothing ever goes quite to plan, the doorman and the serving staff hadn’t been told who she was. Susan was therefore gratified to see Jason’s jaw hit the floor when he recognised her and made frantic gestures for her to be let in. He tried to talk to her, and his voice was about an octave higher than normal. She smiled at him and he stopped talking altogether. The invited guests had started arriving, so she went to meet and greet them. One by one the great and the influential filed into her gallery and stood around examining the lesser bits and pieces on the walls, drinking the wine and talking to one another in little cliques around the cramped space. The invitations had specified black tie, but you could tell who carried serious weight in the art world because they wore what they wanted. Susan was gratified to see there were no ironic 70s tuxes.
A man in a crown corduroy jacket, who could break artists with almost no effort, smiled at her.
“A charming space,” he said “intimate.”
“Small,” she said “and occasionally cramped. Do you think he’s playing games with space?”
“I couldn’t say,” said the critic, eyeing the shrouded final work.
Oh god, she thought, they’re nervous. They’re all nervous. They don’t want to be the one who doesn’t get it.

Dominic Hayden had prepared a short address, to be read before the reveal. It was, to Susan’s untrained ear, cryptic and evasive.
“In Hayden’s words, ” she said, with a slight smile “the final work is, and here I quote, a final parting gesture from the artist to the audience. From the maker to the onlooker. To make of what they will, to value how they see fit, to celebrate the relationship between the working artist to the critics that they cannot work without.”
She looked to one side at the man in charge of the shroud.
“Now, please” she said, and turned her gaze to Jason. Who was starting at her. There was a noise, a swoosh of material, and a collective gasp. She walked over to Jason and took his hand. They stared at one another for a moment.
“We did it” she said, and realised the room was entirely silent. They looked.

It was a rectangular glass tank, five feet at the base and eight feet high. It was entirely full of liquid. Suspended in it was a figure. A man, neatly bisected down the middle, each half perhaps a foot apart. The figure was wearing evening dress. Even through the slightly cloudy liquid you could make out the trademark sarcastic smirk. The artist himself, arms extended, hands palms up, middle fingers extended.
“I’ve booked us a hotel room” said Susan.
“We should go now” said Jason.
The silence continued.

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