What, you say, is in a name? In mine, Eustace Tamberlayne Costello the Third, are bound up centuries and societies of privilege, predominantly white, and always male. Yet I have another name, a nom du guerre, or de plume, or whatever it is to be named by a lover whom you’ve moved in a particular way, and with whom your experience is so unique as to never be repeated with another because to do so would betray, not them or you, but one transcendental moment, and all the numinous things that unspooled from it.
For me, this other name, this Quill, this Quiller, became an escape from the Charlton Heston determinism of my former life – the dogs, the well-kept cars, bricks, mortar, NRA membership and the steadfast belief that everything was possible to character, as long as that character knew how to wear a sweater, or a tweed jacket, or an ascot. And wasn’t black.
I’d known that these things were grass, ashes, wormwood, and despised them in that peculiar way which is afforded the white, educated, male in possession of a certain wry sensitivity. For Christ’s sake, I studied Anthropology at a University with sprawling grounds and red brick and ivy and a chapel, and a chapel of rest and with several former presidents on the roster, and at least two Medals of Honour. Reality rarely lets you do that unless the making of a living is kind of immaterial, and the indulgences of a second son are a sort of luxury. There was a sort of insulted silence when I told them that I was leaving Ithaca and taking a year out to travel and work in Europe. The year stretched to seven, in the third of which I met Marjolijn and discovered my true name.
Marjolein. A good, solid, Dutch name. When we met she was part of a shared household – a redundant farm on the outskirts of Delft and between it and Overschie – which was divided up among herself, Marieke, Marijka, Marlene and Marjon. They weren’t a cult. At least not that they told me, and all that they had in common was a certain virginality to their names, none of which, I was assured with that frank Dutch straightforward honesty, was at all relevant, not any more.
During that long, hot, summer I learned that way of life, and the language and a freedom I’ve since sought everywhere, usually to be rebuffed.
For the most part the Marys were of a fair, north european sort, being well nourished and blond through redheaded and paleish through suntanned depending on personal taste. Marjolein on the other hand, though decidedly well nourished, was not of the north at all. She had the colour of Spain and the eyes of the Indies and skin that shaded from oatmeal through honey to cigar leaves and spice. She was tiny and broad and had long hair like chocolate and ink, that either flowed down her back like a river or was severely plaited and twisted up on her head like an ebony crown. But the things that drew me to her were her voice, and her hands.
At the Boerderij, English. Not just ‘cause of me, but the wide-flung origins of the various crew, all distributed about the former yard in an assembly of tents and old vans, sheds and barns. English and Yanks and Texans and Krauts, Frogs and Canucks and Swedes, and Eyeties, Paddies and Jocks. All of the Ms, all of the Dutch, spoke English fluently. As did the Germans, Italians, Danish and French. Marjolein though, spoke English like a native. As long as that native came from Newcastle and you consider that to be English.
I’d never considered the erotic power of speech, and there was something delicious about her. Her manner, her voice, her thick accent and the insolent manner in which she delivered it. So dark and exotic and full of music, like the clouds that roll in before a thunderstorm.
She was gloriously earthy, and gave no quarter to anyone. Swore like a sailor, and worked like a beast. But she had an artistic sensibility too. Worked with ink and brushes, in black and red and indigo. On parchment and thick Windsor & Newton paper. That gorgeously silky india ink that’s like varnish, with pigment so dense you can taste it. She was good. Damned good. And for the long months of summer, I was her consort. The means by which she was transported from the farm down to the rivers, those great muscles of life that seethe through South Holland and give it it’s low-hanging sky and those veils of glittering mist that unpredictably envelop the sun.
Thinking of Holland, I see her, stalking the edges of those broad rivers and the infinite stretches of dyke, upon which the unthinkably slender poplars would stand sentinel against the shimmering sky. And there, among the plashy places of the margins, and the voice of the water, she would capture the stilted, teetering heron and the scattering vole and the blunders of water fowl in deft sweeps of brush and pen.
It wasn’t until the stifling heat of late summer that it seemed as if our companionship might mean anything else. It was chance. A flickering mixture of gentle mockery from the others, and the slow touch of her hand on my lower back, given while directing my arrangement of her easels and inks in the trunk of the car. It hadn’t occurred to me ‘til then, that she might mean more to me than an admired colleague would. Or a friend with an enviable talent. But the mockery made me consider if, just if. And the heat of her palm left me trembling for days, imagining. Imagining.
The crux occurred one evening in early September, with the sun beating the tired rows of fields and long plots of grazing into gold and filling the sky with flakes of light splintered from dry grass and the die-off of reeds. It was dry, hot, and shimmering, the green gurgle of the ditches stifled, the sentinel herons silent under the hazy sky, with the grey smudge of night sidling in from the east. Marjolein and I were clattering jars and tinkering with brushes and watching the evening swell towards dying through the great east-facing window in her gable bedroom and, apropos of nothing I asked
“Could I paint you?”
“I don’t know. Could you?”
I was frozen. Brushes clamped in my fist.
“Alright. Try it. But you buy me dinner.”
And she swiftly undressed and lay down, sprawling artlessly on the meringue-angled tousle of bedsheets and tumbling light. A dark, lithe apostrophe on an unwritten page.
I’ll never know why it unfolded in the way that it did, but I’d a hand full of inkbrushes and the pigment was there and I started with her near ankle and a fairly clumsy design, if I’m honest. A long chain that encircled her leg, crass and cheap, but by the time I got to her knee, I was into my stride, and I knew that she liked it, when, at mid-thigh, her guttural demand was:
And she moved not a twitch as I did so, admiring the celt-cage of inkmarks on her right leg. Naked, and naked with fascination, I proceeded. I covered her with ink from ankle to neck, and to wrist. In long sweeps of black, red and indigo, I found the pictures in her thighs and her hips, her belly and breasts, the casque of her ribcage, the swell of her arse, I found the pictures she wanted to tell. And the poetry I wanted to write.
By nine-thirty every inch of her skin – smudged here and there by turning and shifting and clumsy mis-strokes – was caged in line and colored and blocked in with light and poetic quotes and dense slivers of art.
I’d drawn a long heraldic banner up along the sweep of her last rib, starting at the hook of her right hip, up and along to her sternum and back down to the right, and filled it, to faint mewling protest and subcutaneous shivers, with Donne.
Licence my roving hands and let them go
And the banner curled up and around and down, before, behind, between, above, below. I crowned her muff with a diadem, a Queen’s crown with a band that followed the neat shelf of her springy hair, and set the colour scheme for her inking in its velvet lining. Indigos and blues on her right side, the side of her mind, and cadmium, madder and crimson, for the side of her heart. Little cavalcades of animals and people marched up the hills of her bosom and built tiny towns there, and in the valley between temples and fountains which watered her ribs. A wetland of heron and vole and deer in the mist which echoed the world beyond her bed, the world that was slowly stepping down the day into night.
By nine-thirty the work was complete and the black glossy india made of her a window, its panes filled with colour, a window that moved and rippled with light. I was admiring her in the last of the sun and she was gazing right back, and people, the Female Gaze is a wonderful thing. And she raised a slender finger and pointed, and said:
And I did, I looked at myself and saw my blood-thickened self, not erect, but just full, in its nest of hair and its tight, heavy balls, and from the tip to the edge of the bed was a long loop, a shimmering thread, that caught the dying sun like dew on gossamer and connected me to her in a sudden way that set a hook in my gut, somewhere up under my ribs.
And so, to dinner. She chose a white shift-dress and we stepped out, to the night. In the long walk to the bus-stop, up the ruler straight lane between the dry ditches, it began. Just as she must have intended when she chose her white canvas. Her dress came alive, and where it touched I saw faces and lines and blushes of colour, and her buttocks glowed through it, twin arcs, blue and red. And the evening passed slowly, a dream of brushstrokes and pen-scratches, delivered by eye and the tips of her fingers, the stroke of a toe on my calf, hidden under the table. I was bathed in heat, from the simmering broth and it’s chilli and ginger to the blaze that she showed me from half-lidded eyes. And when we got up to leave, our waitress who’d served us with rapt attention to my painted companion, our waitress collected Marjolein’s napkin, on which she’d been sitting to protect the chair. Our waitress collected this fragment of linen, with its red and blue print of her warm backside, and with a blush that ran red across cheekbone and throat, she carefully tucked it into her apron, with such reverence, as if it were a religious artefact.
The evening passed in a fugue of which I remember little. Small snatches of detail. Marjolein examining herself in the long mirror, naked and touched with gold by the lamplight, idly stroking herself, turning this way and that. The sudden weight of her knees on the bed and her face over mine. The bitter flavour of ink and the sweet tang of salt, the swathes of colour and darkness we left on that sheet.
But most of all I remember waking to another hot day, with the sounds of the wetland and the white lowland light and the sine wave of back and the long lick of hair. Her sitting up and looking down and saying, just before she descended and filled her mouth,
“Well, hello there, Quill.”