Mr. Knowles Not In Control
Mr. Knowles pulled out of the college car park, and out onto the main road. He drove with intense concentration, hands gripped tightly on the wheel, as though he were a rally driver holding the road by the seat of his pants rather the reality which was a sedate 25 miles an hour. It was drizzling and the wiper, set to occasional mode, swished the rain away and juddered noisily on the return arc.
“So do you live alone, Monica?”
“You’re not from around here though are you?”
“From abroad then?”
“I remember what you said about Mantua. You know back in the English Lit class. I think you must come from Italy - am I right?”
“Yes. I was born there.”
“I went to Italy once. Venice. I took a girl there, we were engaged to get married just before, and it was supposed to be a romantic week. On the third day she went off with one of the locals. I didn’t see her again for a month, then she took all her stuff and moved out. ”
“Yes. Broke my heart. I never found anyone else after that. No-one special anyway. Oh dear, I’ve just told you my life story. Probably bored you to death.” he gave a peculiar laugh.
“Yes," she said again.
“Sorry. I wasn’t really listening. Still thinking about Romeo and Juliet.” Monica lapsed into silence.
Mr. Knowles gave up on the conversation for the moment. The car was stuck behind a milk float, and he wondered to himself why on earth it was out on the streets so late. It was too dark, and he was too timid a driver to attempt to overtake. A queue of cars started to build up behind him. He started to work out an alternative route – if he turned up Station Road, and then left at the bingo hall, he could shortcut through School Lane and then come back…
“It’s my older brother you see.”
Mr. Knowles came out of his road planning coma aware that Monica had started to speak. Having lost the thread of his route change he stayed put behind the annoying milk float and listened to what she said. Her words in that amazing voice were like chocolate melting in his ears.
“He looks after me, he thinks he has to. He and I came to England together from Italy when we were little. Anyway, he’s got this friend, he’s Italian too. Camillo. My brother wants me to marry him. I did quite like him, we went out together for a while.”
The milk float pulled into a side road, and just as Mr. Knowles was about to accelerate away, the car behind zoomed in front of him, and tooted its horn angrily.
“Impatient git, “ said Mr. Knowles under his breath.
“Anyway, I keep telling him I don’t love him.”
“You don’t love your brother? Oh that’s a shame when families don’t get on…”
“No… of course I love my brother. Camillo – I don’t love him. My brother says, give it time, give it time. And now Rinaldo – that’s my brother – he thinks I am seeing someone else, and gets angry that I’m not giving Camillo enough of a chance.”
Mr. Knowles nodded. He turned right into the service road behind the tower blocks. It had stopped raining, and he turned off the wipers. “I see,” he said. “And ... are you seeing someone else?”
“No I’m not. My brother would kill him if I was," she emphasised the word "kill" heavily. "Rinaldo – he thinks he has my best interests at heart, but he’s making my life such a misery that …” At this point Monica burst into tears.
“Oh no, don’t cry, don’t cry. Worse things happen at sea. At least, so we’re told. By sailors, presumably. Look, it’s stopped raining outside – can’t it stop raining inside too?” He was rather proud of that line, pushing back a vague memory that the phrase was from a novel that he had once read. He smiled at her, as he pulled up in a parking space outside the flats, but she did not smile back.
“So here we are,” he said cheerily. “Will you be all right then?”
Monica conjured a hanky from somewhere on her person, and dabbed at her eyes.
“Can you see me upstairs, Mr. Knowles? I don’t really like going up on my own at night. I usually get a lift with Ellen, but she’s not here this week.”
Mr. Knowles was pleased at the chance to stay with Monica for longer – could he dare to ask her out, he wondered.
“Oh Ellen! So that’s who was missing, I knew there was one!”
“Ellen’s got some personal problems. Some kind of bladder infection, and they’ve had to cut out her…”
“Ugh, please spare me the details, Monica,” said Mr. Knowles squeamishly. “Yes, of course I’ll come up to your flat with you.”
Monica and Mr. Knowles took the lift up to the eighteenth floor – the very top of the building. It was surprisingly graffiti-free. On the way up he took a surreptitious look at her and was pleased with her trim figure. Her blue jeans hugged her bottom tightly, but her black blouse was loose fitting and did not flatter. He guessed her age at about 25. Too young, he thought. Or was it? Rock stars in their 60's were always dating young women, weren't they? He noticed that the 18 number was the topmost in the selection.
“Oh, you have the penthouse suite, I see!”
“No – it’s just a normal flat.”
“I bet you like being on top. Oh sorry, I should rephrase that.”
“Never mind. I don’t know that I trust these lifts though.”
“It’s a long way up otherwise. And the lift has only just been replaced - that’s why it’s so clean.”
The lift arrived, and the two stepped out. At the end of a hallway, Monica stopped and unlocked the door to her flat. Once inside, a transformation seemed to come over Monica – she seemed to become taller, and more assertive. He realised that part of this was the size of the flat – the height of the room was very low. Mr. Knowles took in the décor – predominantly black and dark magenta, and everywhere was art – broad canvases, some with sweeping abstract statements, and others quite disturbingly realistic oil paintings of naked men.
“Would you like a coffee?” she asked. He nodded assent and went round the room looking at the art, hands behind his back in the manner of someone in a gallery. The flat was open plan, and larger than he might have guessed. The kitchen was through an archway, another room beyond another arch, and there were other doors. The floor was light-coloured wood, with some rugs.
He called to Monica in the kitchen: “These are good – these pictures.”
“Thank you. Milk and sugar?”
“Yes please. Oh – you painted them – well drew them, whatever.”
“Yes. It’s what I do for a living. Mostly.”
“And… Do you always paint men?”
“Not always. But I am fascinated by the male form. I do more ordinary portraits for money of course. That just earns me a living.”
Monica returned from the kitchen and laid two cups down on the coffee table.
“They’re both the same,” she said. “Why don’t you sit down?” Mr. Knowles sat on a leather sofa. It made a faint rude noise, and he found he could not relax on it. Monica seemed to tower above him. She stared at him.
“Something wrong, Monica?”
“Just looking at your body – it seems an unusual shape. Sort of… wrong.”
“Oh, does it? I think everything’s in the right place.” He laughed nervously.
“It’s your shoulders I think. They go down at a funny angle, and your arms seem too long. Your legs seem to be hinged in the wrong place. When you walk, it's like you have.... artificial limbs. Sorry, that sounds rude.”
Mr. Knowles laughed again, with a trace of awkwardness, and took a sip from his coffee.
“Oh don’t worry about what I say, I just find bodies interesting, that’s all,” she said. She moved next to him on the settee and sat down in it and crossed her legs. A smile played across her lips.
“Oh – please call me Melvin – now we're out of the classroom.”
“Okay then, Melvin. Melvin, I was just thinking, I don’t suppose you’d like to do something for me?”
He gulped. “Yes, of course, erm actually you’ve sort of beaten me to it. I was going to ask… That is to say, I was about to ask you…”
“Oh how nice. You were going to offer to pose for me – you guessed what I was thinking then?”
“Oh to pose? To pose. Ah. Hmm. Right, of course. What, err, not like your other pictures. Not… not naked, surely?”
She pulled her head back and laughed, showing her perfect teeth.
“Well of course! You don’t think I’m interested in painting that awful blue suit, with the black trousers that are too short for you, the terrible V-necked red jumper with the egg stains, and the great ugly white tie?”
He felt a little hurt at the insult lobbed at his clothing. “It’s cream, not white. Well, we part-time teachers don’t earn much money, you know, for nice clothes.”
“So you won’t do it then, Mr. Knowles? I didn’t think you would, you are a typical Englishman. Reserved. Stiff upper lip.”
“Well you did catch me by surprise. I was going… was going to ask you out actually. For a meal or something?”
“Oh I see. Okay, why not? But not tonight though. I don't want to go out again and I’m in a painting mood. Your class made me sad, and I need to take my mind off things. How about it? It’s quite painless. My studio is through there.” She indicated the archway which led further into the flat.
Mr. Knowles drained his cup, and thought to himself, “why not? I’m a man of the world. If it makes her happy, that can only be a good thing.”
“All right, I’ll do it,” he said, and stood up. She smiled at him, and held out her hand. He took it, and she pulled him towards the studio. Inside, she turned on the light. Everywhere was a huge disordered mess of half-finished work, spilled paint, with books and magazines on the floor. In one corner was an easel, and facing it a wooden chair.
“Okay here we are. You can use the chair for your clothes. I’ll just do a rough sketch of you I think for today. Just need to find some charcoal. Got some in the cupboard.”
Mr. Knowles regarded her retreating form, instantly regretting his hasty words, and took off his tie. He removed his jacket, placing it neatly around the paint-splattered chair, took off his jumper, and unbuttoned his shirt. Naked above the waist up, Mr. Knowles noticed that many of the magazine sprawled around the room pictured men of a rather superior physique than himself. He straightened his shoulders and drew in his stomach, but his six-pack was more like a multipack of Tizer, and his muscles were flabby from doing no more regular arm exercise than raising chalk to head height.
Monica returned, her heels click-clacking against the wooden floor, holding several sticks of charcoal. She had donned a dirty overall, and had tied her hair back in a rather unflattering way that made her nose look too big. In the harsh white light, Mr. Knowles saw her skin was rather spotty.
"Come on, chop-chop," she said, flipping over to a clean sheet of paper in her sketch book, and putting it on the easel. Cowed by her authority in her own domain, Mr. Knowles unbuckled the brown belt, noticing for the first time that it didn't match his trousers. He put the belt over the chair, and it slipped to the floor. He unclipped his trousers, but as he was about to unzip them, there was a prolonged and angry sounding ring of the doorbell which made him jump. Monica frowned. She went to the front door and looked through the security hole. She tore back to the studio in a state of panic.
"It's Rinaldo!" she whispered. "You must go. Go quickly now or he'll kill you."
"Go? But... but... how. There's only one door.... and..."
"No arguments. He'll think you're up to no good - yes I know it's ludicrous with someone like you, but he'll be in a blind rage if he discovers any kind of man here."
Mr. Knowles grabbed his shirt and started buttoning it up.
"No time for that. There's a fire escape by the balcony. The door slides open... there... Now go, and I'll see you at the next evening class."
The doorbell started ringing, on and off for long bursts, followed by a loud thumping of the front door and the muffled yelling of Monica's brother.
"Coming, coming," shouted Monica. Mr. Knowles fastened his trousers, grabbed his jacket, but left his belt on the floor, his shirt still unbuttoned. He went through to the balcony. Monica shut the glass door, and made movements with her arm to indicate that he disappear. She pulled the curtains closed.
Mr. Knowles looked around. It was not the sort of night to be out on the balcony with a raw wind blowing. "Fire escape," he thought, "There is no fire escape - just this metal ladder down the side of the building." He looked over the side of the balcony, and a long way below, the cars whizzed past in the night. The ladder was affixed to the balcony, so that you would step into it and climb down one level, meeting up with the balcony below. The balconies were designed in a staggered manner, so that the escape ladders only went down one level.
Inside Monica's flat he could hear the girl having an argument with her brother, rapid Italian words being spat between the two siblings. Then the curtain was flung open - luckily to the other side from where Mr. Knowles stood. Inside the flat, the outline of a giant of a man stood, hands on hips, gesticulating. Torn between the two fears, Mr. Knowles stepped onto the ladder, putting out of his mind the height of the building, and went slowly downwards, his teeth chattering, the wind blowing through his open shirt and his unbelted trousers always threatening to drop away at any moment.
"Never again," he muttered. Then he heard the door to Monica's balcony open, and the girl came out. "Of course there is no-one here - you live in a fantasy world, Rinaldo!" He saw something red drop past, as Monica discretely threw his red jumper out of the window.
Out of sight, Mr. Knowles carefully went down a further rung, and Shakespeare's words for Juliet came into his head. "I am too bold, 'tis not to me she speaks," he quoted. He found himself at the balcony of the floor below Monica's flat, and an old woman stood there, arms folded, with an amused look on her face.
"Come on through, love," she said. "You're not the first, and you won't be the last!" she said.
* * *
(c) Geoff Phillips