When we were both undergraduates studying Fine Art, my boyfriend and I thought it would be fun to paint our naked bodies. Not in the life drawing sense, but directly onto our skin. It was actually his suggestion, as were all the more daring things that we got up to, but I was happy to be swept along by his enthusiasm for trying everything in life at least once. We were in the tiny lounge of his rented student cottage several miles away from the university: knowing we’d be undisturbed, he mixed up some thick, bright paints and we drew targets around each other’s private parts. Being female, my private parts were more numerous than his, and he had to concentrate hard whenever my giggling threatened his steady hand.
Just as he was completing the task, there was a loud knock on the front door, only a few feet away from us. I panicked - caught in an act of surreal sauciness in the Welsh countryside! - whereas he simply threw on a coat and went to investigate. It was a farmer asking for help. I couldn’t make out the conversation details, so thought at first that my boyfriend was having me on when he came back and said we needed to stand in the road and stop any through traffic, allowing the farmer to walk his geese and their goslings from the meadow on our side of the road to the meadow on the other. He wasn’t joking. We got dressed, took up our positions in the narrow, winding lane, and watched the man run back to the gated field from where he led the obedient little family to safety.
That single minute of absurdity on top of the strange knowledge that I had wide circles of red, yellow and black paint drying around my boobs made it one of the sweetest moments of my young life. It was also a precursor to the many amusing and wonderful times that my boyfriend and I would share during our nine years together. The plain, painful fact that he died last week from an inoperable brain tumour has yet to align with my memories. That funny and audacious man, ready for anything, couldn’t possibly have been taken unawares and not enjoyed the challenge - and yet his particularly aggressive cancer was in no mood for a contest.
I saw him for the last time in October. Our previous meeting had been years earlier when we’d met up in a café and then had a row about me wanting to change tables, to avoid the cigarette smoke of another customer. Exasperated by my prissiness, he said that I’d end up friendless: “There will be no-one at your funeral!” he declared. I’ve often recalled this put-down, coming to the conclusion that there was some veracity in the remark, but that there would at least be one mourner - him - since he’d need to make an appearance to check that he was right. When I found out a few weeks ago that he was dying I thought, “No! Not before me! Now’s who’s gonna come?".
He’d have laughed at this selfishness, as he’d have laughed at the final, bizarre hour we spent together. The tumour’s pressure on his frontal lobes meant he didn’t know me at all. He looked politely at my portfolio of prints, a collection I’d brought along as a conversation opener since I had no idea how to begin one with a dying man. He asked me if I’d heard of a certain artist whose prints had a similar aesthetic - “Do you know Jackie Martin?” - and showed me my own website on his phone. I thought he was joking, and waited for the reveal. None came. When I said goodbye, he looked at me with the same mischievousness that characterised everything he did. For a moment I thought his eyes were communicating a much more likely narrative than his imminent demise - “Jacks, you do know I’m faking this…” - even though I realise how daft that sounds now. I guess it’s simply what I’d prefer to the real story.
See you in the time rift, John-John.