Portraitists 

by Andrew Kauffmann

A ballast, I touch the gallery wall. I’ve felt seasickness before. Repeat ear infections were the official explanation, but it’s not the dizziness troubling me. I no longer write so well. I jumble my sentences. What was it I told my date the other day, as I struggled over dinner, struggling to handle my knife and fork? Something about how, working till late, I drink too many ‘colas of can’. My appointment with an English-speaking doctor is this Tuesday. What can I say?

Looking at my reflection in the toilet mirror, my mental image is of Jorge. I picture him taking a pee at one of the stalls. Back in the exhibition, I jot down what the guide is saying to a nearby tour group. In my notepad I jot down her conveyor belt of words. ‘Seriality, denuded of their individuality, a contemporary of Paul Klee and Kandinsky, abstraction.’ 

I’ve been commissioned to write an article for The Discerning Expat but this month I must file copy. I sketch one of the portraits on display. With her mango-green cheeks and heavily contoured eyes, the subject is one of Jawlensky’s archetypal women, stripped of her story and name. With her Roman nose, she could be my mother, but on my audioguide I hear Jawlensky is searching for what is ‘essential in every person he paints’.

Should I need it, the wall remains within reach. This portrait is of a doleful woman animated with cubist streaks of oil, but I’m not being faithful to what is on display. Holding the pencil I scratch the page. It’s not an automatic motor reaction. In a daze, I draw a cartoon figure instead, me, with Popeye eyes. In a speech bubble, I write the only words that come to me. ‘Better to have Multiple Sclerosis or cancer? At least I won’t end up like Mum.’

In the Fundación Mapfre gift shop with its multicoloured coffee books, I ask someone senior if they know whether Jorge Duque still works here. 

‘There’s the plaque, what more can I say?’ They wave me away. At the information desk, a woman who speaks pidgin English tells me, ashen, Señor Duque died seven months ago, in an accident. She asks, ‘did you know him well?’ 

I rush into a cubicle, clasp my thighs tight with my sweating palms, and cradle my head. Jorge’s pirate beard and coal black eyes catapult towards me, although the other details from that night eight years ago are kaleidoscopic. The memories shifted after Hannah and I resumed our relationship, and once that ended, they morphed when I properly began to date men. 

There were pot plants and slanting rain and a climb up a swirling staircase, and talk of a nightcap. In his smoky living room, there was a series of Georgia O’ Keeffes, featuring New Mexico adobe walls and horses’ skulls. I’m almost certain there was an Ernst Ludwig Kirchner print on his kitchen wall, one of my favourites back at The Slade when German Expressionism was all the rage. The print was of a lichen-coloured girl. She was rueful, as Jorge was when I used to kneel before him, squeezing his nipples as though they were emptied toothpaste tubes. It’s the one reducible element after hearing he’s gone; Jorge’s salted nipples. 

Moving to Madrid that first time was a quixotic idea. My relationship with Hannah was in its last throes, or so we thought. Until that night with Jorge, I’d typically avoided men, even as friends. I’ve always imagined, whatever the vicissitudes since, that one day I could return here. I’d envelop myself in Señor Duque’s generous embrace as he cushions my head to his hairy chest, an older man, a Dad. I’d play the babe, ‘young’ again at last, in perspex at the age of thirty-six. How long did we date again? 

At the doctor’s appointment, I mention I’ve missed deadlines for the magazine. 

‘Go on,’ the doctor says.

‘It’s worse than that, my work’s drying up, what I mean is that I can’t write much. I’m often tired.’

‘How many years are you, Mr Patten?’

‘I’m forty-four.’

‘And what can I help with?’

‘I’ve lost somebody. Somebody close,’ I respond.

‘I’m sorry to hear this.’

‘Family.’

There’s a psychologist – ’

‘I need a blood test.’ 

‘That can be arranged.’

‘To be honest, I was also thinking about a memory test.’

‘It would be, I’m not sure how we say in English. It’s not usual for a man your age.’ The doctor orders an antigen and an antibody test. Results will be with me later in the week. 

‘I’ve been feeling like this for years,’ I explain as the doctor walks me to his door.  

It’s Wednesday and I have to get the cash for my appointment at the Comisaría. I’m late getting out of bed. Words collided on my laptop late at night as I tried to make sense of Jawlensky’s essentialism, the portraitist obsessed with minimal details; the single-lined noses, and thick oval heads delineated from maroon and burnt orange backgrounds. The truth is I couldn’t concentrate. I sketched Jorge’s sharp cheekbones and alert eyes, and remembered him saying, ‘it’s okay, you’re not the first man who’s ended up crying on a guy’s lap.’

Get your head straight, I say to myself. I walk towards Plaza San Martín with its multiple skips and workmen paving new slabs of stone in what appears to be an attempt to keep the city ticking over. There’s a necessity to keeping busy. Merely doing things: that’s what I need: a list. There’s the bank, and then I’ll go to the Comisaría, but otherwise I’m left with a few scribbled thoughts that wilt like wisteria in my pocket notebook. I’m what Jorge fondly mocked as ‘a slave to a stupid list.’ 

‘Sam,’ he told me close to the end of that first stay in Madrid. ‘Can we get serious here? Prioritise me, and seriously, everything else will fall into place.’

The air recycles dust. The cerezos have lost their cherry blossom. In their stead green leaves canopy me from drizzle as the wind strengthens. My phone buzzes and reading the message, the text flies at me like pollen from one of the trees. The bank. ‘You must be a resident in Spain to access this account so until such time you provide the necessary details, your account is suspended and can’t be accessed.’

I WhatsApp my notary. ‘I can come to the appointment, but don’t have the cash.’ 

She responds, ‘what would be the point, it was yesterday? It was always Tuesday.’ 

Before she’s finished typing, I write, ‘I have to come. If I don’t, I won’t be able to remain in Spain, not legally in any case.’ 

She responds, ‘when I have the payment, and when we can next find an appointment, we can talk.’ 

Where’s my baseball cap? I pat down my pockets and realise it’s my wallet I’m looking for, not a cap. I haven’t worn one for years. This isn’t normal. I’m not acting in any way, ‘normally’. I’ve left my wallet at home. I lug my body past an Italianate mansion with stone masonry and heavy wooden doors. I see that it belonged to the sixteenth century Conde Duque, a Count from the grand Duque family, and again, I’m with Jorge. A man walks past who looks, okay, doesn’t look like him, but he’s bearded and attractive. 

I used to attract a man like him. I was blonder then, twinkish, a good bottom, before they told me I had Crohn’s. Cross past the Monument to Alváró-de-someone-or-other, an Admiral in bronze, there’s more statues, weathered by age in marble. 

Their limbs are like hunks of meat and their clumsy heads appall me. Their eye sockets are empty but lack the fine lined stares of busts and statues we had to sketch at the V&A. A hundred or so heavy steps further, I’m home. I collapse on the sofa and look at the photo of Mum on the window sill. There’s such generosity in her oceanic eyes but her smile is obscured by my portrait of Jorge, framed to the front. 

I search the NHS website for information on Alzheimer’s. How common the disease is, the statistical probabilities of its early onset, whether it gets inherited. Another text message, this time from the health insurer. I haven’t paid the premium this month. There’s no money to do a shop so I could toast bread from the weekend. What use is a piece of bread? 

By evening, the sun returns. My living room windows are wide open facing onto the street. I will try a new angle to complete my article. When you’re experiencing illness, as Jawlensky was at the end, you focus on the bare essentials. It’s a matter of survival. If, like him, you’re an artist suffering with arthritis you apply one slow brushstroke before the next. Perhaps his economy of painting was a matter of placing one artistic foot in front of the other, starting his day at his easel and forgetting all the embellishments? No, Sam, this approach doesn’t work. I get personal instead: ‘Plagued by hypochondria and doubt? Work deadlines and falling in love with a stranger’s eyes might help.’

Opening my window, I let in the late spring breeze. The hourly chimes of the Iglesia de San Nicolás fade and in their echo emerge the competing Latin beats of bachata and merengue from neighbouring apartments. There’s a familiar laugh. A mirthful chuckle. I look at my framed portrait of Jorge, who I’ve dressed in a silk tanguero shirt. Next I hear the sliding scales of instruments. The students are tuning their strings at the nearby Superior School for Musicians. I hear the laugh again, and in an instant, I’m thirty-six. I remember the slanting rain; the Google Maps I couldn’t consult on my way to Jorge’s fourth-floor apartment. Like everything that first night, the rain was horizontal. 

I search for news. There’s proof. Jorge was in a motorcycle accident on his way to the Opera, on the night that Mum died, it turns out. There’s an online obituary in El Pais and glowing tributes in varied industry journals. I click. Scroll through. I see photos of him with glamorous women at charity balls, and a photo which I keep tracing with my cursor. It’s of him, upright, dressed in a tuxedo, holding a model’s hand. His face is turned, but his partner’s elfin face watches the camera as if to say, ‘I got this man’. 

A third peal of laughter, deeper and guttural. What’s this? It’s Jorge. He’s walking, outside on the pavement with his arm around a blonde. He’s passing by. I approach my window and watch myself from his position, and then step back, because it can’t be real.   

I fixate on the online photo of Jorge and his model girlfriend. The medical centre rings. I don’t have Covid, and it appears I haven’t had it in the past six months. Opening the tab containing the photo of Jorge with his partner, I spill water over the laptop. Fuck, bloody hell. A local internet cafe is still open so I jog in my sandals, pay for a couple of hours’ online, and zoom in and out of the photo. I input a new search term: JorgeDuque-bisexual. A photo of a Finnish woman is the third highest search result. 

They were engaged. 

I expand her pixelated photo, return with the image printed, and pin it to my living room wall. Step back. Glance at what else is familiar. What else will accompany me at dusk? There’s my cheap prints of the O’ Keeffe horse skulls and Kirchner’s rueful, green faced girl, and on the window sill, there’s my photograph of Mum, together with my sketch of Jorge. I scrutinise what the pictures truly contain. A heavy stab of recognition. Letting both portraits assume their space, in Mum’s oval face it’s not Jawlensky’s archetypal eyes I see, but at last, I observe Jorge’s waiting smile. 

Groups of party-goers assemble close to my flat for cañas of cheap beer and at last, I submit my article. It’s titled Jawlensky’s eyes and this time, a few spell checks completed, I’m confident. A jobbing journalist brief, nothing exceptional, but a few lyrical things here and there about how Jawlensky’s painted pairs of eyes take us to places of profound spiritual connection beyond the canvases; something about my own lust, my need for eyes to stare at and commune with. 

To celebrate, there’s a place close by to dance. The bags no longer seem indigo under my eyes, my shirt tucks into my size 34 trousers, and in that club, in that cavern, I see the Finnish woman. Her belly shows she must be close to her due date. There’s a dark, bearded guy at the bar and he’s wearing a smart dress shirt and pin-striped trousers. He could be the guy who passed my apartment. 

It turns out he’s with the Finnish woman. They’re business partners. 

I nod, flirt, and let him place his hand on the back of my neck. A Spaniard, he speaks with intent. He’s older, not so unlike Jorge, and she seems to have traded Jorge; so too can I. His eyes contain the sea spray, if you look hard enough. 

‘Sam’, I say to myself, ‘it’s time to get serious.’ 

Back on my sofa, as I spoon and tease the craters of his nipples, he reaches out, tells me, ‘wow’, this is good, and as I refuse to slow down, he knocks Jorge’s and Mum’s photographs off the window sill, his hands in rapture. 

‘My ever-changing family’, I think to myself as Jorge, his face foreign, stares at me from the floor.


Andrew Kauffmann is a teacher, writer and coach whose queer prose has been published by Untitled Writing, Mechanic’s Institute Review, Streetcake Magazine, Clavmag, The Lumiere Review and Stone of Madness. He is a genealogy geek and is currently working on a number of non-fiction projects. A recent memoir, ‘Bathtime’, appears in Polari Press’s new anthology, ‘Creating in Crisis’. He blogs on storytelling and wellbeing at www.andrewkaufman.co.uk and follow Andrew on Twitter and Instagram.