The Artist: Full Story.

by | Jul 15, 2023 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

She could have been half way home.

The young woman decided to take the bus. Usually, she would walk the thirty minute journey, but the last of three ten hour shifts had left her exhausted. The nearest Careem was forty minutes away, the Uber, longer. All she wanted to do was slip into bed, pull the duvet up to her neck and sleep. She hated busses. They were noisy, smelly, the drivers were mental, and the passengers unsavoury.

The bus stop was empty and the bus was ten minutes late. She could have been half way home. Her legs ached and she needed to take the weight off them. Taking a seat in the middle of the coach, she assessed her fellow passengers.

Yes, all a bit shady. The smell of sweat mingled with diesel fumes. There was, however, one exception, a young man in a clean white t-shirt, jeans and matching white trainers. In front of him, he held a large faux-leather case around two feet square. The kind of bag that would hold blueprints or artwork. He had his chin on the top as if he was gazing over a fence in the style of “Kilroy was here”… in her direction.

The sight made her smile, a small, tired smile. He caught it and returned it ten-fold, his face opening up like a flower in the sun. He looked about ten years her junior, possibly High School or Freshman. His youthful features held the seeds of a handsome man in future life. There was a dark fuzz clinging above his top lip. His eyes were dark but sparkled in the lights of the coach.

She drew her eyes away and placed her bag against the window. Lying her head on the bag, she closed her eyes. The world melted away with the vibration of the engine and the rocking of the coach.

***

She removed the top from the ink bottle and dipped the nib into the ink. Twisting the screw on the converter, she watched the ink bubble into the chamber like black blood.

***

The bus hit a pothole in the road and she was jerked awake. Panicking, she looked around the alien surroundings. Then, as her thoughts cleared, she checked the display screen at the front. Two more stops, five minutes. Soon, she would be able to sleep for real, in her own bed. Conscious of his continuing stare, she glanced at the boy. His smile hadn’t faded. Had he worn it through her nap? He had an enchanted expression, like a victim of Medusa.

Feeling rather self-conscious, she closed her eyes again, just to rest them, she told herself. She placed the bag on her knee and hugged it close.

***

The warm feeling of sleep drew her back and she began to write. The black ink created swirling shining letters on the page. As she moved from right to left the ink sank into the page, creating the story.

***

Her head flopped forward with the inertia of the slowing bus. Ma’adi, the display showed, her stop. She jumped up and made for the door. Tiny white stars flashed before her eyes, as she emerged into the dark street. Gathering her bearings, she plotted her route from the unfamiliar surroundings of the bus stop.

Once established, she followed the way at a decent pace; bed was calling. She upped her speed and within minutes, arrived at the smart apartment block, inserting the key into the door of its foyer. As she opened the door, someone slipped past her and mumbled, ‘Thank you.’

She couldn’t believe her eyes, it was the boy on the bus!

She closed the door behind her, watching the boy make for the elevator. He pushed the button and stood, holding the case under his arm. She joined him at the door of the lift and turned towards him. For some strange reason, the presence of the case comforted her. Why was this so? She would never enter an elevator with a strange man. Inside, he stood, motionless, not selecting a floor, so she leaned over and selected three. He still didn’t move.

A tiny grain of concern lodged in her brain and she decided to act. The lift lurched upwards and she grabbed the chrome rail.

“Are you visiting someone?” She asked, detecting a faint quiver in her own voice.

“No, actually. May I ask you something?” The boy replied, his huge grin from the bus returning. This time it looked more menacing, as the grain became a rock, setting off a panic attack. She slammed her palm on the one button and backed up against the rail.

“Get out of here, or I’ll scream. There’s a policeman living on this floor!” She gripped the rail behind her and glared into his face, which lost its smile. The boy’s eyebrows jumped and he stepped out of the lift as the doors opened.

“I’m so sorry. I really didn’t mean to alarm you. He reached into his back pocket and her mouth flooded with adrenalin drenched saliva. “Please take this. It’s my card. I’m an art student. I would really like to draw you,” he called as the doors closed almost trapping his outstretched hand. The card tumbled to the floor of the lift as she hit the three button again. The post adrenaline shakes vibrated through her.

She pushed through the doors as they were opening and fumbled for her keys, glancing at the stairwell. The keys dropped to the marble floor just as her mother opened the door.

“Mama! Thank you.” She wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck and held her tight.

“What for? I only opened the door. Is everything OK?” The older woman grabbed her shoulders and held her at arms length.

“Yes, all good Mama. I just had to get the bus. You know how I hate it.” The couple hugged again and walked down the hall to the lounge.

“If you don’t mind, Ill go straight to bed. I’m done,” she said, placing her mother’s hand on her forehead. She kissed it, then left the saloon.

“Of course not. Sleep well, it’s Friday tomorrow. I won’t wake you.” Her mother shouted, but she was gone.

She slept like the dead and it was the bright, Egyptian mid-morning sun that eventually roused her. Suddenly, she recalled the events of the previous night. Had she over-reacted? The tiny card fluttering to the floor of the lift came back to her. She jumped up, put on her dressing gown and made for the lift. She pressed the button and summoned the car. There was the familiar ping and the doors slid open. Lying on the polished steel floor of the lift was the card. She picked it up and read the two solitary pieces of information. A name and a telephone number.

مَروان

Marwan

She wandered back to the apartment, all the while, staring at the card.

Later that day, she picked it up and plucked up the courage to call the number.

“Hello?” She recognised the youthful voice of the young man, his tones alternating between boy and man.

“Hello. May I speak with Marwan please?” Why did she ask that? It was obvious she already was.

“Marwan speaking. You got my card then?” His answer threw her as she was preparing her next sentence. He knew who she was.

“Erm, yes I did. It was on the floor of the elevator.” It was all she could say. She was lost for words. An awkward silence ensued.

“Have you reconsidered my request or will you report me to your neighbour?” A longer, more thorny silence followed. Then, his comment triggered something in her head and the words spilled out.

“The former. Which university and which faculty? Shall we say tomorrow? Saturday?” She closed her eyes tight and gripped the phone. What am I doing?

“October 6 University, Giza City. Faculty of Fine Art. Say, ten am?” His voice raised an octave and he sounded more childlike.

“See you there.” She hung up and began to shake uncontrollably.

***

That night her dream from the bus returned . She had written page after page of the story and was reading it back. Because she was looking down at herself, she couldn’t see the words. Only her own reaction to them. It was that of sheer excitement as she flicked through the pages of the book. At the end, she held the book tight to her breast and closed her eyes, smiling broadly.

***

Saturday morning came and she got ready with a heavy lump in her stomach. It seemed that she was not in control of her own actions. Some other force was propelling her and she was just a passenger. She ordered a Careem for Giza City. The cab dropped her off at the faculty and she made her way to reception. She held out the card to the receptionist who smiled warmly.

“You’re Marwan’s new subject. Excited? He’s a genius,” she gushed, a hint of pink appearing on her cheeks. She was about twenty, heavily made up in the style of a young Arab woman looking for a husband, a paradox to her tightly fitting hijab. She tapped in a number with a shocking pink nailed finger and waited. She gave a giggle and her voice changed to that of a teenager.

“Your ten O’clock is here Marwan. Yes, I’ll aske her to come up.” She pointed at the lift while still hanging onto the phone and drew an number two in the air, mouthing the number also. “So, how is Giza’s most talented artist?” She continued, totally forgetting the other woman’s presence.

The young woman entered the lift, selected two and recalled her last meeting with the boy. She still couldn’t work out how she’d got from that elevator to this one. The boy was waiting as the lift opened. He had the same wide smile, but this time it was edged with confidence. It gave him a more mature appearance, perhaps early twenties, she contemplated.

“Hello, I don’t even know your name. Thank you for coming, erm,” he said, ushering her into a small studio a couple of doors up the corridor.

“You’re welcome. It’s Wish. Thank you for inviting me.” She questioned her last comment, why was she grateful?

“If you please, Wish. Lovely name by the way.” He indicated a chair that had been set up to look like a seat on a buss. A tall Perspex screen stood to one side, left over from COVID, she thought. “Could you, if possible, assume the pose of Thursday evening? Remember, when you slept?

She shot him a brief puzzled look at his strange request. However, similar to her decision to come, she obeyed without question. As she took her seat, a drowsiness overcame her immediately, much the same as the evening in question. She rested her head against the Perspex.

***

Cameras flashed and clicked, and hands were raised by the crowd in front of her. Wish’s name was repeated over and over in a crescendo, accompanied by indistinct questions. She managed to catch one in particular, a high pitched woman’s voice, that cut through the din.

“What’s it like to win the prize, Wish?” the smartly dressed European woman shouted.

She followed the woman’s gaze to the object on the table. It was familiar to her from years of watching the ceremony on television.

***

She heard her name called again but this time in a clear, familiar voice. Opening her eyes, she was greeted by that grin again.

“All done. You must have dropped off, a perfect subject. Better than I ever imagined,” he enthused.

“May I see it?” She asked, shaking off the remains of sleep.

“Of course, be my guest.” He turned the easel to face her.

The drawing was the most beautiful object she’d ever laid eyes on. No mirror could have captured the essence of the woman like that picture. It was as if he’d seen inside her soul. In the bottom right corner, the word again.

مَروان

“Let me show you to reception. safe journey home,” he said, opening the door of the studio. Again, she was powerless to resist his simple request, despite the fact that her head was crammed with questions.

She sat in the shade waiting for her Careem, the image on the paper etched in her mind. She would never forget it.

Five Years Later

“Baba would you like some tea? I’m just about to make it now,” the young woman called from the kitchen.

“Yes please. Can you bring it in? I’m watching the news. Bring yours too, I think you’ll be interested in this,” her father replied from the saloon.

She made the brew in the usual way two tea bags, one spoon of brown sugar, a clove, and cardamom powder. After a couple of minutes she poured two cups then added a spoon of powdered milk to her own.

When she entered the saloon she nearly dropped the tray at the image on the TV screen. It was a drawing of a young woman sleeping, her head against the window of the coach.

The subject of the interview was a handsome young man in a white t-shirt, jeans and white trainers. His muscular arms were adorned with intricate tattoos. His features still held the innocence of the boy he’d been.

On the bottom right corner of the picture was one word.

مَروان

The caption on the banner below read, First Egyptian winner of the Turner prize reveals his inspiration, Girl on the Bus.

“Thank you Habibti,” her father said, taking the cup from the tray. “Does she look familiar to you?” He continued, taking a sip from his tea.

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