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Skin - by Roald Dahl

 

That winter was a long time going. A freezing wind blew through the streets of the city, and overhead the

snow clouds moved across the sky.

The old man who was called Drioli shuffled painfully along the sidewalk of the Rue de Rivoli. He was cold

and miserable. He moved glancing without any interest at the things in the shop windows - perfume, silk

ties and shirts, diamonds, furniture, books. Then a picture gallery. He had always liked picture-galleries.

This one had a single canvas on display in the window. He stopped to look at it. Suddenly, there came to

him a slight movement of the memory, a distant recollection of something, somewhere, he had seen before. He looked again. It was landscape, a group of trees leaning over to one side as if blown by wind.

Attached to the frame there was a little plaque, and on this it said: CHAIM SOUTINE (1894 - 1943).

Drioli stared at the picture, wondering vaguely what there was about it that seemed familiar. Crazy painting,

he thought. Very strange and crazy - but I like it... Chaim Soutine... Soutine... “By God!” he cried

suddenly. “My little friend, with a picture in the finest shop in Paris! Just imagine that!” The old man pressed his face closer to the window. He could remember the boy - yes, quite clearly he

could remember him. But when? The rest of it was not so easy to recollect. It was so long ago. How long?

Twenty - no, more like thirty years, wasn’t it? Wait a minute. Yes — it was the year before the war, the first

war, 1913. That was it. And this Soutine, this ugly little boy whom he had liked - almost loved - for no

reason at all that he could think of, except that he could paint. And how he could paint! It was coming back more clearly now. Where was it the boy had lived?

The Cite Falguiere that was it. Then there was the studio with the single chair in it, and the dirty red sofa

that the boy had used for sleeping; the drunken parties, the cheap white wine, the furious quarrels, and

always, always the sad face of the boy thinking over his work. It was odd, Drioli thought, how easily it all

came back to him now, how each single small remembered fact seemed instantly to remind him of another.

There was that nonsense with the tattoo, for instance. Now, that was a mad thing if ever there was one.

How had it started? Ah, yes - he had got rich one day, that was it, and he had bought lots of wine. He

could see himself now as he entered the studio with the parcel of bottles under his arm - the boy sitting

before the easel, and his (Drioli’s) own wife standing in the centre of the room, posing for her picture. “Tonight we shall celebrate,” he said. “We shall have a little celebration, us three.”

“What is it that we celebrate?” the boy asked, without looking up. “Is it that you have decided to divorce

your wife so she can marry me?” “No,” Drioli said. “We celebrate because today I have made a great sum

of money with my work.” “And I have made nothing. We can celebrate that also.” The girl came across the



room to look at the painting. Drioli came over also, holding a bottle in one hand, a glass in the other. “No!” the boy shouted. “Please - no!” He snatched the canvas from the easel and stood it against the wall.

But Drioli had seen it. “It’s marvellous. I like all the others that you do, it’s marvellous. I love them all.” “The

trouble is,” the boy said, gloomily, “that in themselves they are not nourishing. I cannot eat them.”

“But still they are marvellous.” Drioli handed him a glass of the pale-yellow wine. “Drink it,” he said. “It will

make you happy.” Never, he thought, had he known a more unhappy person, or one with a gloomier face.

“Give me some more,” the boy said. “If we are to celebrate then let us do it properly.” “Tonight we shall

drink as much as we possibly can,” Drioli said. “I am exceptionally rich. I think perhaps I should go out

now and buy some more bottles. How many shall I get?” “Six more,” the boy said. “Two for each.” “Good. I

shall go now and fetch them.” “And I will help you.”

In the nearest cafe Drioli bought six bottles of white wine, and they carried them back to the studio. Then they sat down again and continued to drink.

“It is only the very wealthy, who can afford to celebrate in this manner.” “That is true,” the boy said. “Isn’t

that true, Josie?” “Of course.” “Beautiful wine,” Drioli said. “It is a privilege to drink it”

Slowly, methodically, they set about getting themselves drunk. The process was routine, but all the same

there was a certain ceremony to be observed.

“Listen,” Drioli said at length. “I have a tremendous idea. I would like to have a picture, a lovely picture.

... It is this. I want you to paint a picture on my skin, on my back. Then I want you to tattoo over what you

have painted so that it will be there always.” “You have crazy ideas,” the boy said. “I will teach you how to

use the tattoo. It is easy. A child could do it.” “You are quite mad. What is it you want?” “I will teach you in

two minutes.” "Impossible!” “Are you saying I do not know what I am talking about?” “All I am saying,” the boy told him, “is that you are drunk and this is a drunken idea.” “We could have my wife for a model. A

study of Josie upon my back.” “It is no good idea,” the boy said. “And I could not possibly manage the

tattoo.”

“It is simple. I will undertake to teach you in two minutes. You will see. I shall go now and bring the instruments.”

In half an hour Drioli was back. “I have brought everything,” he cried, waving a brown suitcase. “All the

necessities of the tattooist are here in this bag.”

He placed the bag on the table, opened it, and laid out the electric needles and the small bottles of coloured

inks. He plugged in the electric needle, then he took the instrument in his hand and pressed a

switch. He threw off his jacket and rolled up his left sleeve. “Now look. Watch me and I will show you how easy it is. I will make a design on my arm, here. ... See how easy it is ... see how I draw a picture of a dog

here upon my arm ...” The boy was intrigued7. “Now let me practise a little - on your arm.” With the buzzing

needle he began to draw blue lines upon Drioli's arm. “It is simple,” he said. “It is like drawing with pen

and ink. There is no difference except that it is slower.”

“There is nothing to it. Are you ready? Shall we begin?” “At once.”

“The model!” cried Drioli. “Come on, Josie!” He was in a bustle of enthusiasm "- now arranging everything,

like a child preparing for some exciting game. “Where will you have her? Where shall she stand?"

“Let her be standing there, by my dressing table. Let her be brushing her hair. I will paint her with her hair

down over her shoulders and her brushing it.” “Tremendous. You are a genius.”

“First,” the boy said, “I shall make an ordinary painting. Then if it pleases me, I shall tattoo over it.” With a

wide brush he began to paint upon the naked skin of the man's back.

“Be still now! Be still” His concentration, as soon as he began to paint, was so great that it appeared

somehow to neutralize his drunkenness. “All right. That's all,” he said at last to the girl.

Far into the small hours of the morning the boy worked. Drioli could remember that when the artist finally

stepped back and said, “It is finished,” there was daylight outside and the sound of people walking in the

street.

“I want to see it,” Drioli said. The boy held up a mirror, and Drioli craned his neck to look.

“Good God!” he cried. It was a startling sight. The whole of his back was a blaze of colour - gold and

green and blue and black and red. The tattoo was applied so heavily it looked almost like an impasto9.

The portrait was quite alive; it contained so much characteristic of Soutine’s other works. “It's tremendous!” “I rather like it myself.” The boy stood back, examining it critically. “You know,” he added, “I think

it’s good enough for me to sign.” And taking up the machine again, he inscribed his name in red ink on the

right-hand side, over the place where Drioli’s kidney was.

---

The old man who was called Drioli was standing in a sort of trance, staring at the painting in the window of

the picture-dealer's shop. It had been so long ago, all that - almost as though it had happened in another

life.

And the boy? What had become of him? He could remember now that after returning from the war - the

first war - he had missed him and had questioned Josie. “Where is my little painter?” “He is gone,” she

had answered. “I do not know where.” “Perhaps he will return.” “Perhaps he will. Who knows?”

That was the last time they had mentioned him. Shortly afterwards they had moved to Le Havre where

there were more sailors and business was better. Those were the pleasant years, the years between the

wars, with the small shop near the docks and the comfortable rooms and always enough work.

Then had come the second war, and Josie being killed, and the Germans arriving, and that was the finish

of his business. No one had wanted pictures on their arms any more after that. And by that time he was

 

 


Date: 2015-12-11; view: 1321


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