CHAPTER TEN

 

It was not long after his return from Berkshire that Andrew received an invitation from Carol to accompany her on one of her professional visits to Donald Prescott's house.  The prospect of meeting the eccentric photographer in the flesh quite appealed to him, and so he had no hesitation in accepting it.  Besides, he rather liked her company.  For she was certainly more of a kind with himself than Harding or, for that matter, anyone else he had met in recent weeks, including Pauline.

     However, it was principally with a view to meeting the photographer that he set off with Miss Jackson, the following Wednesday morning, to their South Hampstead destination.  When they arrived there, at around 10.30, Prescott had only just got up, having overslept by an hour, and was not yet washed or dressed.  His dressing gown - bright green and of a fine silk texture which suggested affluence - was his only defence against a possible accusation of indecency, but he had taken the precaution to wrap and tie it around his tall, slender body in a manner by no means unconventional.  Indeed, much to Andrew's surprise, there was nothing about the physical appearance of the man to suggest a penchant for eccentricity; though if his face looked perfectly unassuming, it had to be admitted that the entrance hall of his imposing house reflected a degree of eccentricity bordering on madness.  For its walls were covered from top to bottom with thousands of photographs - mostly of young women!

     Still, it was not for Andrew Doyle to ogle them but to extend a hand, necessarily nervous, for Prescott, apologetic on account of his uncivil appearance, to dutifully shake.  Evidently the photographer did make some concessions to the outside world or, at any rate, to social custom!

     "So what have you been doing with yourself since I last saw you?" he asked, turning back to Carol.

     The question afforded a fairly wide solution, but the model answered it in a tactfully compressed sort of way by informing him that, together with Andrew and Robert, she had been to Henry Grace's Berkshire house for the weekend, in response to an invitation which the critic had made them.

     "Ah, so that's it!" Prescott exclaimed, as though he had just received some important revelation.  "And is Robert still there?"

     "No, he returned with us on Sunday evening," Carol replied.  "He's currently at work in his studio on a portrait of Philip Grace, Mr Grace's son, since he received further commissions from Grace senior to paint the family, both separately and, in due course, collectively."

     "Oh really?"  The photographer seemed relatively unconcerned about this, as he led his visitors through to his own studio at the rear of the house where, scorning further curiosity, he instructed them to make themselves at home whilst he attended to his toilet upstairs.  Washing and dressing wouldn't take him long, he assured them with a departing smile.

     With Prescott temporarily out of the way, Andrew proceeded to take stock of the studio, the walls of which were even more tightly crammed with photographs than those of the entrance hall.  "So this is where you pose for his camera, is it?" he said to Carol on a firmly deductive note.

     "It sure is!" she confirmed, smiling coyly.  "If you strain your eyes hard enough, you might even detect a few photos of me."

     "More than a few!" Andrew declared, glancing around the walls at the different-sized photographs, some large and some small, some in black-and-white and others in colour.  Altogether there must have been at least five thousand of them in the room, though he could detect only about twenty of the two hundred or so dedicated exclusively to Carol.  He was partly amused and partly embarrassed, especially by the ones which showed him all or most of her physical charms in a highly erotic light.  He hesitated to look at them, feeling conscious of the young woman's eyes on him as he scanned the walls.  It had brought him into a sudden indirect intimacy with her which was somewhat disquieting in its unexpectedness.  Had she purposely planned this visit in order to seduce him, or was she simply showing off?  He couldn't be sure, but it was difficult to equate the physical presence of the attractive female seated in one of the studio's armchairs with the garish photographs of her on the walls, and no less difficult to equate the person he had spoken to in Henry Grace's back-garden with them!  No doubt, Carol was more detached from the spectacle of her professional life and therefore able to regard it with a cool objectivity.  She was used to men admiring her body.  There could be no cause for embarrassment about it.

     "In case you're wondering why Don's photos are also to be found elsewhere in the house, it's because there isn't any more room for them here," Carol matter-of-factly remarked, while Andrew was still busily scanning the walls.  "The ones in the hall, for instance, are part of the studio overspill, which came into effect some two years ago."

     "Is that so?" gasped the writer, not a little bewildered.  "Doesn't he ever throw any of them away, then?"

     "Not if they're any good, he doesn't!  He's a born miser where they're concerned.  And a born show off, to boot.  He has to have the fruit of his labours right there before his eyes, even if this does mean that just about every damn room in the house is threatened by it.  If he carries on working in this context much longer - and it's difficult to imagine him doing anything else - he'll end-up pinning photos to doors, ceilings, windows, and furniture!  He might even have to resort to floors eventually."

     "You're kidding!"

     Carol smiled in shared amusement at the ludicrous nature of her supposition before saying: "Not as much as you may think.  For he's absolutely obsessed by his work."

     "So it would appear, especially where young women are concerned," Andrew blushingly observed.  "He must have photographed more nudes and semi-nudes than I've had hot dinners, if you'll pardon the cliché."

     "As well as made love to more of them," Carol nonchalantly informed him.  "I told you about his kinky little panties museum upstairs, didn't I?"

     Andrew pondered this point a moment, before nodding affirmatively.  "As also about the 'Rejection Club'," he remarked.

     Carol had to smile anew.  "You can consider yourself fortunate you're not a member of it!" she declared.  "Plenty of wankers are or have been.  Yet, for all his eccentricity, I think you'll have to concede that Don has genius.  His photography is amongst the best of its kind.  And he has such taste!  Just take another look around you, and tell me where else could you expect to witness so many tasteful photos in one place - photos which confirm his extraordinary sense of beauty?"

     Despite persistent misgivings at the spectacle before him, Andrew had to concede that the man had talent.  There was scarcely a model on display who wasn't highly attractive or whose natural attractiveness hadn't been exploited to telling effect.  Moreover, their postures weren't generally vulgar or stupid, the way so many photographs of nude models tended to be.  On the contrary, they were for the most part very tasteful, if at times a little unusual.  "What's this stereo doing here?" he asked, as his eyes alighted upon an expensive-looking midi system not far from where he was standing.  "Does Mr Prescott play music while he, er, works?"

     "Yes, quite frequently, though very rarely in my presence," Carol confirmed, while directing her attention towards the large collection of discs and tapes to the left of the stereo, "since I don't share his tastes.  I'm something of a soul enthusiast, whereas he prefers classical music, and notably twentieth-century British music.  Sometimes he overrules my objections, but mostly he respects them.  He likes to listen to music whilst he's developing his prints as well."

     Andrew had gone across to the record collection and begun to nose through it.  Clearly, there was more to Donald Prescott than first met the eye!  Such recordings as the Berkeley Piano Concerto, Walton's First Symphony, Rubbra's Seventh Symphony, Lambert's Rio Grande, Rawsthorne's Symphonic Studies, Vaughan Williams' London Symphony, and Tippett's Concerto for Orchestra testified to a sense of musical values one wouldn't have suspected from a glimpse at the other contents of the room!  Frankly, it was somewhat difficult to reconcile the music of Walton's First Symphony with, say, the art of photographing nude models.  Yet Prescott had evidently mastered the knack of doing so, perhaps in order to invest his work with a grandeur it might otherwise have lacked?  Bearing in mind the paradoxical nature of some of his other eccentricities, it wasn't altogether surprising that he should have resorted to such a policy.  It could hardly be considered any worse.

     But if it was Prescott's policy to mix business with pleasure, there was certainly no evidential lack of business in his studio, as the seven different-coloured silk-screens, neatly folded together in the proximity of a full-sized double bed, adequately attested, their purpose doubtless being to enable the photographer to transform the studio into different settings as the situation required, thereby granting him a variety of domestic contexts in which to work.  As clearly discernible from a number of the photos on display, however, not all of the models had been photographed here - a good many having evidently permitted him to enter their homes or utilize hotel rooms, as the occasion or context warranted.  Prescott was evidently not a man to be confined to any one location, even though he appeared to prefer his studio to anywhere else.  However, before Andrew could take up the subject of studio settings with Carol, the photographer had briskly returned to the scene and thereupon inhibited deeper inquiry.  He was now more like his true self, elegantly dressed in a pair of light-grey flannels and a pink shirt, with a dark-blue cravat for contrast.

     "Well, now that I'm reasonably presentable, let's get down to business, shall we?" he requested, with an encouraging smile.  "You were saying, Carol, that Robert was busy with Philip Grace's portrait, if I remember correctly?"

     "That's right," she confirmed.  "He was quite a success with his patron.  Or so it would appear."

     Prescott sat down in one of the vacant armchairs and stared across at his favourite model with a cool regard.  "You don't look absolutely convinced of it," he at length commented.

     "Well, as a matter of fact I'm not, bearing in mind what you told me about Mr Grace the last time we met," she admitted.  "You said he wasn't the kind of person to put himself out for anyone, and that he didn't have all that much professional influence."

     "True."

     "In which case, the fact that he and Robert got on so well together leads me to the conclusion that either you were wrong or he must have had some ulterior motive for being friendly."

     Prescott made no comment, but nodded vaguely.

     "Assuming you weren't wrong," Carol continued, "it seems probable to Andrew and I that the ulterior motive may have been sexual, and that Mr Grace was simply flattering Robert for his own carnal ends, acquiring power over the man in order to seduce him at a later juncture, when he felt confident that the painter would stake his career on it.  For the more professionally indebted to him Robert becomes, the harder he'll find it, as a client, to refuse the critic his satisfaction when the demand finally comes, and the more likely it is that Mr Grace will simply exploit him."

     "Ah, so you've arrived at that conclusion, have you?" Prescott responded, smiling cryptically.  "How did you do it?"

     "Simply by taking note of what was going on around us whilst we were at Mr Grace's house," Carol revealed.  "It seems the most plausible explanation."

     There was a short pause in the dialogue before Prescott, realizing that concealment would be of little avail, rejoined with: "Well, it's more than likely the correct one.  I've known Grace to get up to these little tricks before, and with men of his own age as well.  In fact, he's decidedly homosexual, not bisexual, as some people imagine.  His wife barely tolerates him and, needless to say, he can barely tolerate her.  If they live together it's only for appearance's sake, as a kind of respectable facade.  Of course, he has a family.  But that's no more than a thin veneer of convention over his fundamentally unconventional lifestyle, with its retinue of clandestine affairs.  He only comes properly to life outside it, behind his wife's back, so to speak.  At least, that's generally the case; though she is, however, fully aware of the nature of his sexual predilections, having lived with him long enough.  Indeed, when one considers the number of years she has lived with him, I shouldn't be at all surprised if there wasn't something fundamentally lesbian about her.  After all, how many ordinary heterosexual women could possibly stand living with such a man?  He can't be the most ardent or satisfying of lovers - assuming he fucks her at all, that is."

     "Though presumably he would be, where friend Robert is concerned," Carol surmised, the hint of an ironic smile on her heavily rouged lips.

     "Most probably ardent," Prescott conceded.  "But if your boyfriend's not homosexual or bisexual himself, then doubtfully satisfying!  Still, he has battened-on to quite a few men before now who would probably have found him so, including one or two distinguished painters whose names I shall graciously refrain from mentioning."

     "Which leads one to the assumption that he prefers to be the lover rather than the lovee," interposed Andrew thoughtfully, overcoming his reserve in the photographer's elegant presence.

     "So far as I know, that is indeed the case," Prescott confirmed, nodding gently and briefly turning to the writer with a hint of deferential admiration in his eyes.  "All of which goes to prove that there must be something masculine about him, after all.  In sexual matters, he apparently prefers to play the dominating role, as would certainly transpire to being the case vis-à-vis friend Robert.  But do homosexuals actually have sex?"

     The question wasn't specifically directed at anyone and was more than likely rhetorical, though Andrew, having definite views on the subject, thought it appropriate to offer an answer nonetheless.  "In actual fact they only have a kind of half-sex," he nervously averred, directing his attention at Prescott, "the principal reason being that, strictly speaking, the rectum isn't a sexual organ, since having nothing whatsoever to do with reproduction, so that it can never be other than, er, violated in a sexual context.  That's the plain, honest fact of the matter, irrespective of how unpleasant it may sound to ears accustomed to trendy euphemisms and the degenerately civilized acceptance, as it were, of perversions or subversions of naturalistic criteria.  Thus, objectively considered, homosexuals don't really have sex together; they simply violate each other.  In a sense, a homosexual is a kind of sexual freak, by which I mean that his sexuality is abnormal - not related to reproduction.  An erect penis enters a rectum, and the consequent sodomitic activity is, by natural standards, perverse.  Deny it as much as you like, but it remains a fact nonetheless."

     Denial was the last thing on Prescott's noble mind.  However, no sooner had Andrew said his conventional piece, the product, in part, of a Roman Catholic heritage, than Carol, desiring to tease him, let drop a word to the photographer about his weekend experiences in Pauline's bedroom - experiences which had apparently brought him into intimate relations with the young woman and enabled him to exploit her femininity to the extent he could.

     "Ah, so you gravitated to a little hanky-panky with the homosexual's daughter, did you?" Prescott facetiously deduced, looking from Carol to Andrew in response to the dictates of this fresh piece of salacious information.  "Nothing too unorthodox, I trust?"

     The author blushed faintly as he burst into a gentle if uncharacteristic snigger.  "Absolutely straight," he boasted.  "I broke her hymen."

     "Good for you!" chuckled Prescott.  "I'm sure Pauline appreciated it.  You must have won her over quite easily?"

     "I think she was rather flattered by my status as a writer actually," Andrew commented, by way of partly justifying what had happened.  "It must have been a pet ambition of hers, to be deflowered by the type of man who, for reasons best known to herself, most conforms to her ideal of human greatness.  I was evidently something of a hero for her."

     "How amusing!" exclaimed the photographer.  "Or was it vexing?"

     "A bit of both," Andrew confessed.  "Still, I couldn't very well disappoint the poor girl, could I?  She would never have thought so highly of writers again.  I had to play the Byron - one of her favourite poets apparently.  It was the only way I could prevent her from continuing to bore me with her poems, which she insisted on reciting.  I don't think I acted the part particularly well, under the circumstances, but at that age, and with no real sexual experience behind her, she can't have been in the best of positions to judge, can she?"

     "Probably not," Prescott conceded, allowing himself the luxury of an ironic smile.  "I expect you felt slightly intimidated, what with her parents lurking around.  But, tell me, do you think she'd be worth photographing?  I mean, would she make an attractive model, in your considered opinion?"

     Andrew couldn't very well say no, so after a moment's reflection he said: "Frankly, I think she would.  At least she's very mature for her age.  A good-looking girl, by any accounts."

     "Yes, I'd be prepared to endorse that opinion," Carol declared, bringing a little professional judgement to bear on the subject.  "She might be a shade shy or self-conscious in front of your camera lens at first, Don, but I'm sure she'd lose her inhibitions, not to mention knickers, after a while."  She gave the photographer a knowing wink, the significance of which he could hardly fail to appreciate.

     "And do you suppose you might be able to lure her along here?" Prescott tactfully inquired of his other guest.

     "I suppose it might be possible," Andrew somewhat tentatively replied, "though whether or not she has any ambitions to be photographed, I don't honestly know.  But I guess, being young and attractive, she wouldn't decline her services if a suitable opportunity were to present itself.  Despite her apparent predilection for intellectual matters, she's not altogether devoid - with due respect to Carol - of feminine vanity.  I'm sure she'd relish being seen in a tasteful magazine."

     "Well, if that's the case, invite her over here as soon as possible, using such charm and influence as you evidently have, to persuade her to keep it to herself," Prescott requested.  "When will you be next seeing her?"

     Andrew was far from certain, not having any definite plans to continue a relationship which had suddenly and quite unexpectedly sprung-up between them at the weekend.  It was still rather a surprise to him that he had actually got on intimate terms with her.  Consequently he hadn't quite woken-up to the reality of what this might now mean - the possibility, for instance, that Pauline might wish to see him again before long.  Not having said very much to her on Sunday, he had no clear idea exactly where he stood with her at present; though it was all too probable that she would be itching for a chance to renew their intimacy.  Her feelings for him would doubtless be stronger than his were for her, on a number of counts, including the fact that he had recently taken her virginity.  If he was to see her again he would have to face-up to the consequences of his actions, even if he didn't really want to encourage further intimacy, given the fact that she was Mr Grace's daughter and not exactly on his intellectual or literary wavelength.  If he had made love to Pauline partly in order to avenge himself on her for all the tedium and humiliation he had suffered at the hands of various people that day, it had not been with a view to subsequently becoming her victim and being obliged to continue a relationship which would almost certainly lead to unforeseen complications.  Yet he would have to see her again in any case, if only on Prescott's behalf, and the most suitable time would probably be during her forthcoming visit to Harding's studio, to have her portrait painted.  In other words, the following week, after the artist had completed his work on Philip's portrait.  For Pauline was next on his list, which included one of Mrs Grace.  About this Carol had been in no doubt.  And so it was left for Andrew to provide a provisional date.

     "Next week would be fine," Prescott confirmed, visibly gratified.  "I look forward to making her acquaintance.  But don't let Robert know anything about it, otherwise he might try to dissuade her or inform her father or do something equally undesirable.  As it happens, he doesn't know all that much about me, since he takes hardly any interest in Carol's modelling activities.  But I incline to the assumption that his professional ambitions, and correlative desire to remain on as good a standing with Grace as possible, would influence him against encouraging Pauline to take off her clothes for me, particularly if it were known to him that her father was ignorant of the matter and couldn't be depended upon to endorse it.  He would certainly not wish to be implicated in anything Grace could take umbrage at, if you see what I mean."

     "All too clearly," Andrew admitted, with a faintly ironic smile in accompaniment.  "Though it's rather doubtful, from the opposite viewpoint, that Mr Grace would be put out by or displeased with Robert, as Carol and I learnt to our cost at the weekend.  I'm sure he wouldn't object to his daughter being photographed by you, Mr Prescott, if he realized that his future relations with my next-door neighbour were at stake."

     The photographer cast Carol a vaguely conspiratorial glance.  "Probably not," he conceded.  "Yet he wouldn't be too happy if he knew I was involved."

     "I'm afraid I don't quite follow you," Andrew confessed.

      Prescott smiled drily and said: "Well, to put it bluntly, I was a Robert to him at one time, but a Robert who didn't give him what he was after.  Our relationship was duly terminated on a fairly hostile footing, each of us vowing never to set eyes on the other again.  Now that was a little under eight years ago, when Pauline was about ten, and since then we've kept to our respective vows.  So, one way or another, he wouldn't be too happy to learn that I intended to photograph his daughter.  Naturally, he couldn't categorically prohibit her from doing what she wanted, since she has come-of-age, as they say.  But he might stir up trouble for me through friends or acquaintances - as he threatened to do when I broke with him on the homosexual issue.  Had I been an artist, matters could have become more complicated, inasmuch as I might have fallen under the sledgehammer of his journalistic criticisms and accordingly suffered a professional defeat.  But my status as a photographer precluded him from wielding any great influence over or against me, as should be fairly obvious."

     "What isn't so obvious, however, is why, in that event, he should have got involved with you in the first place," Andrew commented, feeling distinctly puzzled.  "After all, you weren't dependent on him for the realization of your artistic ambitions, were you?"

     "No, quite true," Prescott admitted.  "He simply took a fancy to me, considering me an indispensable ingredient in his happiness."  At which point the photographer felt obliged to laugh, before continuing: "He was more idealistic in those days than now, less dependent, you could say, on using his professional influence to secure him what he was after; though I've little doubt that it still served his purposes from time to time, when the right artist became available.  Had I not been obliged to go out of my way to photograph him for some book a friend of mine was writing about him at the time, our paths would never have crossed.  But, alas, circumstances favoured our becoming acquainted, and in due course the homosexual in him got the upper-hand of the friend.  He became what is commonly known as too demanding."

     "I am surprised that anyone should want to write a book about him," Andrew declared, a look of astonishment clearly discernible on his thin face.

     "Well, in those days he was slightly more of an intellectual celebrity than at present," Prescott smilingly explained.  "He was still one of the foremost art critics in the world, and not just a critic but also a poet, like Baudelaire, André Breton, Edward Lucie-Smith, etc., with an established reputation."

     "Henry Grace a poet?" exclaimed Andrew, unable to contain his very genuine surprise at the mention of it.  "Perhaps that explains his daughter's predilection for verse?  Curious how she made no mention of it to me."

     "Probably because he stopped writing poetry several years ago," Prescott opined.  "Old-age seems to have put a halt to his versifying tendencies; though I dare say his homosexual frustrations had a part to play in the matter, too!  No, he was essentially a youthful poet who lost his taste for verse as he grew older and became a man - like, for instance, Aldous Huxley, James Joyce, and even Oscar Wilde, notwithstanding the very excellent Ballad of Reading Gaol.  Indeed, most of the younger generation of artists have little or no idea that he was ever a poet at all.  But that's really beside-the-point.  Let's just say that a book about him was justified, if only on account of his more creative past."

     "A pity he didn't have the sense to abandon art criticism as well," Andrew sniggered.

     "He could hardly be expected to do that, particularly where people like Robert are concerned!" Prescott sternly averred.  "No, he stuck to his guns there, even if they're somewhat out-of-date and consequently a good deal less powerful than formerly.  Now his principal target was and, so far as I'm aware, continues to be modern art, as I think you realize."

     "Unfortunately so!" Andrew confirmed, offering Carol a profoundly meaningful glance.  "And I realize, moreover, that Robert Harding could serve Mr Grace as useful ammunition.  For the more reactionary his work becomes, the better the critic will like it - even with reduced firing power.  If they can, between them, cause some confusion in abstractionist ranks, they'll regard it as almost a victory, their chief intention apparently being to disrupt and impede the progress of transcendentalism in art to the extent they can, in order to prepare the ground for a return, via Harding's own work, to representational painting, with its dualistic balance between form and content.  Their aims are distinctly retrogressive."

     "That may be," Prescott conceded, frowning slightly; for he thought the matter a good deal more complex than that, even without a proper definition of painterly transcendentalism.  "But they won't succeed in getting very far, believe me.  The age won't be hoodwinked by them.  On the contrary, they'll find themselves exposed to a lot of ridicule.  Granted, some people will encourage them in their reactionary designs, but not the most enlightened!  Only such as are, like them, dedicated to thwarting artistic progress."

     Andrew sighed in exasperation.  "If only there were something we could do to thwart them, how gratifying that would be!" he averred

     "Yes, indeed!" Carol seconded enthusiastically, anxious to reassure both men that, despite her sexual attachment to Harding, she was essentially on their side in this matter.  "Andrew and I discussed this problem at the Graces' house on Sunday, and we're determined not to lend them any support."

     "Well, we can't very well murder them or prohibit them from doing their thing," the photographer calmly declared.  "And I doubt if preaching to them would get us very far, either.  We'll just have to wait and see what comes of their relationship.  Besides, we're not altogether in favour of allowing friend Robert to fall into the critic's sexual clutches, are we?"  He directed his attention specifically at Carol, since she was obviously the person who would be most affected by such an eventuality.

     "No, I guess not," she replied after a moment's hesitation, during which time she directed an uncertain look at Andrew.  "He ought at least to be spared that fate!  Although it would serve him bloody-well right and perhaps teach him a thorough lesson if he did fall into them, the self-serving prat!"

     "Yes, I suppose I'll have to agree with you," Prescott murmured.  "Ambitions like his can be very dangerous."

     "And foolish," Andrew opined.

     "Quite!" concurred the others simultaneously.

 

 

Bookmark and Share