Is this the very café table where we sat? Yes, I think it is. In fact, I'm sure it is. It's as if time has stood still. The café is just as it was nearly thirty years ago-or at least I don't remember anything as different. It's hard to believe that as much as London has changed over the last twenty years, Norwich might not have changed at all. Or so it seems. And so I want it to be. I don't want to have been wrong; I don't want Norwich to have outdistanced me. I left Norwich for London precisely because nothing had been changing in my life. I was in a rut; one of poverty and of unfulfilling dreams. I made sacrifices and compromises-tremendous ones-to change my life.
Do I regret it? Is the possibility of that why I've avoided returning here?
I don't have an opportunity to pursue that train of thought, as the waiter is at my elbow asking if everything is to my satisfaction.
"Yes, thank you. Yes, I'll take another coffee, thank you."
I don't know whether the waiter had recognized me or if it was the cut and material of my suit or the manicured appearance of the body I work hard and spend mightily to keep trim. Or whether it is the patrician demeanor I acquired during the decades in London that is according me such close attention from the wait staff, but it is clear that I am getting more attention than anyone else in the café. It's true that I'm recognized occasionally on the streets of London now-especially after my most recent series of exhibitions and the media coverage of that-but I'd hardly be remembered in Norwich, I shouldn't think.
But, of course they may receive the same magazines here that are sold on the streets of London.
Twenty-six years. It has been that long since I've been in Norwich. I was a struggling art student at the time, bypassing university not only because my family couldn't afford it, but also because I was just busting with the need to create-and determined not to work in the textile factory my whole life. I would have done anything at the time to be given the time and support needed to get on with the painting.
I, in fact, did what was required to get that done.
* * * *
Martin Ashen had been all the rage in Norwich. He had been to London and even to the continent with his art exhibits-not just his painting of seascapes and ships but also with his bronze sculptures. And now he was back in Norwich, mentoring at the Norfolk Art Institute.
He wasn't lecturing or teaching. When he wasn't rendering works of art for his series of life in the textile mills of the city, he was roaming the studios of the institute, giving advice to the students, and picking one or two out for, as he called it, mentoring. Producing art on such a mundane subject as the working-class textile workers in nineteenth century mills was just catching on in England. Surely Master Ashen was at the forefront of this movement, I thought-although I was later to learn that he actually was late to that medium and had come to Norwich to catch up with some of his contemporaries who were riding a social awareness wave and had already overworked more industrial subjects in the country.
"The line is good, but the perspective is off," the rich, melodic voice cut into my concentration from over my shoulder. "Here, I think it can be readily fixed."
I trembled as Master Ashen took the brush out of my hand and, leaning into me close, applied four deft strokes to the canvas I was working on. I could readily see how, with just that, he'd brought the painting under a control I had known was absent but had no idea how to fix.
I was mortified, and that must not have been hidden from him. Putting the brush down in the trough of the easel rather than handing it back to me, he put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed gently.
"All in good time," he said. "I can see the talent is there. It just needs more practice-and perhaps a little closer observation of the work of others."
"I'm . . . sorry," I stammered. "I don't think I can-"
"Never say 'I can't,' young man"-he almost thundered that, causing nearby artists to look around, either startled or with self-satisfied looks that I was being upbraided. This, to my consternation, included Howard, an artist a few years my senior who had taken an interest in my work-and in whom, I must admit, I was taking a more personal interest. "I said the talent was there," Ashen continued-and I think his thought that I was discounting that was more the source of his flash of anger than what I had said-"it is patience and a bit more attention to detail you now need to apply."
He moved on right after that, but my frustration and disappointment in myself lingered. I couldn't concentrate on the landscape I was working on further that afternoon, so I put my tools away and left early. I took my sketch pad with me, though, and walked swiftly to Chapelfield Gardens, a recently opened park near the city center, which was the setting of the painting I was working on. The master painter had criticized my observation skills, so I wanted to take in the perspective of my subject matter again. I wanted to see better what I may have missed in my earlier trips.
My sighting was from just inside the tree line of a stand of trees overlooking a small, circular Roman temple on a hillock with a pond and a line of trees beyond it.
That wasn't the only reason I went to the park, though. I wanted to know if Howard would follow me here. We had met here earlier when we both were sketching the scene. I believed my sketches were better than Howard's, but of course I would not tell him that. He had been working at the art college three years longer than I had.
But it wasn't only sketching we'd done here. He read me poetry too and we discussed our lives and our ambitions. And we increasingly were becoming more intimate with each visit here. I had given little thought to relations between one man and another-but Howard was opening my eyes to so many possibilities I had not given thought to before. We had not reached the stage of ultimate intimacy-or what Howard had described as a luxury of life that would bring pleasure beyond measure-although I had tasted his lips and seen the glimmer of an opening to the pleasures he spoke of. And his hands had awakened me even more to the opportunities we seemed to be moving to-when and as I overcame my inhibitions to the unknown and the fear of what Howard's world entailed.
I settled under a tree and turned an intense gaze on the Roman temple. Surprisingly details came to me that I hadn't noticed before. Eager at this unexpected confirmation of what Martin Ashen had told me I needed to do, I plucked a pencil from the box I had brought, turned the sketch pad to a new page, and instead of looking at and trying to sketch the whole sweep of the view before me, I concentrated on separate sketches of just a detail here and a detail there of what I was seeing anew.
So intent was I on sketching that I didn't hear Howard approach until he was nearly upon me, and when he spoke to me, it caused my pencil to slide across the page and ruin my drawing of the detail of the cornice work on one of the temple columns.
But I didn't care. Howard was here.
"He can't believe your age."
"Who can't believe my age?" I asked him, looking up and feeling the usual catch in my breath when I saw his well-muscled body in the dappled sunlight filtering through the leaves of the trees overhead.
"The master from London-Martin Ashen. He was sure that you were too young to be enrolled in the institute."
"He asked my age? He wants me to be dismissed?"
"Quite the opposite if I read him right," Howard answered as he flopped down beside me and put an arm around my shoulders. His other hand went to my thigh as I sat cross-legged under the tree. "I do believe he fancies you. And I noted a bit of disappointment in his voice when I told him you were in your majority."
"I guess that's why he said he thought I had talent," I said. "He thought I was younger and therefore not having had time to develop any skill."
"You always belittle yourself, Philip," Howard said. "And when you do that, you fail to see where your opportunities lie. You do not see the main chance."
"Like I do not yet see my subject matter in detail yet?" I asked. ". . . as the master artist told me?"
"Something like that. You are indeed young, Philip. And not just in visage."
I was breathing hard and leaning into him. The hand on my thigh was roaming. It felt hot to the touch. I wanted him to take the next step with me; I could not be the one to take it. But he seemed to be holding back. Before he had moved as boldly as he thought he dared at each of our meetings out here on the verge of the trees. Now I was clinging closely to him in his embrace, relaxed, ready for him, my lips open, my willingness obvious in other ways.
But he was pulling away from me and standing. I could tell from his breathing that this was hard for him to do.
"I am quite sure he is impressed with your talent, Philip. In fact, he has sent me out here to tell you that he wishes you to meet with him in the café by the Wensum River. Now, as a matter of fact."
"And that is pleasing enough to you?" I asked, in disbelief. Why was Howard running cold with me now? He was hinting that the master wanted to meet with me for something more than discussing my painting-or his. Why did this not displease Howard? Even if it was about the art, why was Howard deferring his need and desire to mine?
"Pleasing enough under the circumstances, yes," Howard said, only half turned to me and looking away. "There will be time for us."
Heavy of heart when I knew I should be euphoric, I had risen from the ground, and I walked away from him, without saying another word or looking back.
* * * *
"Model for a painting and a sculpture?" I asked, confused and surprised. I thought we were meeting at the café-at least ostensibly-to talk about Master Ashen helping me with my painting technique.
"I wish to mentor your work, of course," Ashen said hurriedly, placing a hand on my arm. "But you are unusually young looking. I've been looking for the perfect face and form to represent the draw boy in my textile factory series. Come to my studio and sit for me for those works-and, certainly, I will mentor your painting. I will even take you to London with me so you can continue your studies in more advantageous circumstances."
"You would take me to London too?" I asked. "And mentor my studies. And all I have to do is sit for you to represent a draw boy at the loom in a textile factory?" I knew what a draw boy did. Like many of the local men, I had worked in the textile factories when I was a boy. And I had done it longer than most, because I was smaller than most. The job of perching above the loom and carrying the weft thread through in advance of the flying shuttle and thereby creating the pattern of different-colored threads in the cloth went to those with small, dexterous hands.
"I believe that you understand that there would be more required of you," Master Ashen said.
And I certainly did understand. The palm of his hand had centered between my thighs under the café table. He was making quite clear what he expected in return for his offer.
"I will pay you the regular fee, of course, for sitting for me. And I will take you to London with me and you will become a great artist-because of the mentoring I give you. But you must lie under me as well, willingly. I don't want you to misunderstand what the contract is."
What was that Howard had said-that I was not mature enough to take my opportunities when they came to me? I did want to go to London. I did want to become a great artist. As for the other, I felt I was ready for that too-although I thought it would be with Howard.
I sat for Master Ashen twice for the casting of the bronze statue and three times for the painting. I was posed by a loom, stripped to the waist, to show the heat and strenuous requirements of factory atmosphere, and with my fingers pushing threads into place below a descending shuttle, my close concentration on what I was doing a focus of the art work. He arranged the lighting so that a beam of light fell on my face and chest while, other than that, the scene was in shadows. The painting was rendered in sepia colors.
He concluded each of the "draw boy" sessions by coming between me and the loom, pulling my trousers off my legs, parting my thighs, hunching over me with just his hard cock exposed through the fly in his own trousers, and fucking me to his ejaculation.
"The Draw Boy" is what he titled both of the factory works, and you can visit the painting at London's Harrow Museum of art even today. Ashen kept the sculpture in his own collection after exhibiting it, and it has disappeared into a private collection.
After sex he would take up his sketch pad and do post-coital pencil sketches of me. When he ultimately was forced to depart London-and England altogether-under charges of pedophilia some ten years later, he caused quite a sensation in France by exhibiting these sketches-in a large collection of more young men he "mentored" than just me. By the end of the exhibit all of the sketches had been bought and disappeared into private collections.
On the eve of my own exhibition at the National Gallery in London some years later, I received one of these sketches of me after sex in the post. There was no indication it had been sent by Martin, but I knew it had been. It was his way of reminding me how I had gotten to where I was in the art world. I knew that it wasn't an expression of any desire to have me again because, by then, it was well established that it was only younger-looking lads he was interested in.
I had known that lying under him was part of the arrangement. But still, the first time he fucked me, I was surprised and taken aback. There was little preparation or warning. He just said that I could relax from my pose and came walking at me, his shirt unbuttoned to the waist and his hard cock, held in his hand, thrusting out of his trousers. He was a big man, giving the impression that he was heavier than average. I was to learn, though, that most of that was muscle and that it gave him the strength to do whatever he wanted with me.
I would have wished that the first time would be a little more tender and meaningful and less matter of fact than that. And I would have wished it from Howard.
Martin had the hands of an artist, long, slender, yet strong fingers. His cock was of greater than average size and that it curved up so that while he was fucking me from above, he would move with a pronounced dip and upward thrust. His complexion was florid; his hair the red of an Irishman, and his chest and arms pelted with curly hair.
He was not a handsome man, and while he was fucking me, he showed a visage of cruelty and anger, although after that first time, when I was in considerable pain and begged him to stop or at least to work me more slowly but he completely ignored me in deference to his own need and desire, I came to understand that he was just intense and focused in the act rather than angry.
He sometimes couldn't resist fucking me again after doing his post-coital sketch and when he did so, he took me more slowly and I received more enjoyment from the cocking.
After the second modeling session, Howard asked me to meet him in the park at our usual place and there, with little preliminary steps and with the assurance that I would lay under him too, Howard gently pushed me down on my back, first undressed me and then himself, pushed his knees under my buttocks, and gave me the long, slow, deep fucking that I had dreamed of.
After we had both come, I sobbed silently into his shoulder as he held me close, and still buried inside me, rocked me back and forth in his embrace.
"I didn't hurt you, did I?" he asked, the concern in his voice evident.
"No. This was how I dreamed it would be," I murmured. "Why didn't you give me this before I went to Martin Ashen? This was what I wanted the first time."
"I'm sorry, but it was part of the arrangement."
"He wanted to be the first with you. He said he would take me to London too if he was first. I didn't think it would matter to you. It doesn't, does it, after all?"
"No, of course not," I whispered into his shoulder. But of course it did matter to me. It mattered very much. It just wasn't something that could be changed.
Ashen did take us both to London, just as he promised. And he did mentor my talent and skills into my becoming a renowned artist. His taking of me continued for a brief time in London-and I let him do whatever he wanted with me in exchange for the opportunities he was giving me in the art world. His interest was only brief, though, as I grew and matured. I no longer looked young to him, and his interests turned to ever-younger men-and then boys, before he was cornered and exposed for his proclivities and was forced to go abroad.
Howard was only with us for a month in London. As I feared, his talent was not up to the larger art community. And, having already gotten what he wanted from Howard, Ashen's interest in mentoring him was never complete.
I let Howard go more easily than he thought I would. His loving was good up to the end, but I never could be completely comfortable with the choice he had made for me.
* * * *
Ah, the memories of twenty-six years ago. I haven't been back to Norwich since-until now. I was afraid of what I might find-that I would learn that my life here as a child and a youth was one of squalor that I barely escaped, even though the cost was high. Or worse, I have been afraid that I'd find that there was something noble here and clean that I sold cheaply.
What I found, though, was that it was difficult for me to remember the city at all-or much of my life or of what I did here or dreamt here. Sometimes I try to think of Howard as the first love of my life. But I find I can't picture him at all. And I have no idea what happened to him. A big fear of mine is that perhaps he returned here and is working at the Norfolk Art Institute. And that he will think I should remember him or, heaven forbid, that I should fall under his spell again.
I wouldn't be here at all if it wouldn't be remarked that I had left Norfolk-the shire of my own upbringing-out in this portfolio of art I'm putting together for the National Museum on the regional characteristics of people in Great Britain.
To my shame, I had to have researchers develop themes on a unique personality for Norfolk as much as I had to do for Devon. It was only the shires immediately bordering on London that I felt I could handle in my own imagination.
I do remember this café, though. And the longer I sit here, waiting for Neil Hampton to show up, the more snippets of my mentor, Martin Ashen, come back to me. Was I really that anxious to rise above Norwich and to become someone in the art world to have gone as docilely as I did? Was the price worth it?
"Mr. Barkley . . . Philip. I'm sorry I'm late."
I look up and see the young man I met at the art institute earlier in the day. He showed such promise and I told him so. The canvas he was working on exhibited talent and imagination; it just lacked a few strong brushstrokes to bring the perspective into control. And he, he himself. So sultry of looks. Dark curly hair, like an unruly crown, and the violet eyes and the artfully sported brush of a five-O'clock beard, giving his strong facial features exactly the look that my researchers told me would reflect the seafaring folk that settled the Norfolk coast and beat off the invasions of the Danes and merged their DNA with the French aristocrats fleeing here from their revolution.
"It doesn't matter," I answer. "You're here now. Please have a seat. Coffee or something stronger?"
"Coffee is fine."
As he sits, I lean over and place my hand on his thigh. I wish to know immediately what he is willing to do for me.
"Have you thought of my proposition? As I've said, you show promise and are, I think, wasting your talent here in Norwich. I would be happy to mentor you-if you will come to London with me."
"I think I do want that, yes," he answers.
I move my hand higher on this high and more to the inside, placing an index finger on the bulge of his crop.
"You do understand what I am proposing, don't you? For me to be able to work with you, the relationship will have to be total. I must know you fully. You will have to lie under me. And I will sketch you after sex-for my own uses."
"Yes, I understand." He has said that with a clutch in his throat, but I look into his eyes. So young; I had to recheck his age to be sure. But, yes, he has that look of wanting London.