Although he owned some twenty nursing homes, Jean-Paul was not personally a great one for touching, but here in the studio, he laid his hand on my forearm.
"You'll be happy here, Butcher."
He gazed around the long high room, then began to brush those rich, perfect feet across the soft surface of the floor. If his eyes had not been so moist he would have looked like an athlete preparing for some sci-fi track event.
"Coachwood," he said, "isn't it something?"
He meant the floor, and it was truly lovely, a washed pumice grey. It was also a rare rain-forest timber, but who was I, a convicted criminal, to argue ethics?
"How I envy you," he said.
And so it went, by which I mean that I was as docile as a big old Labrador quietly farting by the fire. I could have begged him for canvas, and he would have given it to me, but he would have wanted a painting. It was that picture, the one I was not going to give him, that I was thinking of right now. He didn't know it, but I still had about twelve yards of cotton duck, that was two good pictures before I was forced to use Masonite. I quietly sipped the nonalcoholic beer he had brought me as a gift.
"Good isn't it?"
"Like the real thing."
Then, finally, the last instructions were issued, the promises all given. I stood beneath the studio and watched him bounce his rent-a-car across the cattle grid. He bottomed out as he hit the bitumen, and then he was gone.
Fifteen minutes later I was in the village of Bellingen, introducing myself to the blokes at the Dairyman's Co-op. I bought some plywood, a hammer, a carpenter's saw, two pounds of two-inch Sheetrock screws, twenty 150W incandescent floods, five gallons of Dulux jet black, the same of white, and all this, together with some odds and ends, I charged to Jean-Paul's account. Then I went home to set up the studio.
Later everyone would get in a bloody uproar because I had supposedly vandalised the coachwood with the Sheetrock screws, but I can't see how else I could have laid the ply on top of it. Certainly, it could not work the way it was. I was there to paint as everybody knew, and the floor of a painter's studio should be like a site of sacrifice, stabbed by staples, but also tended, swept, scrubbed, washed clean after every encounter. I laid cheap grey linoleum on top of the ply and coated it with linseed oil until it stank like a fresh pieta. But still I could not work. Not yet.
Jean-Paul's prizewinning architect had designed a studio with a high-arched roof and this he had tensioned with steel cables like the strings on a bow. It was a bloody wonder of a thing, and I suspended banks of incandescent floodlights from the cables which pretty much eliminated both the elegance of his design and the green light coming through the casuarinas. Even with these improvements it was hard to imagine a worse place to make art. It was as buggy as a jungle and the insects stuck to my Dulux paint, marking their death agonies with concentric circles. And of course that big wide door was an open invitation to the little fucks. I went back to the co-op and signed for three of those blue-light insect zappers but that was like a finger in the dyke. All around me was subtropical rain forest, countless trees and insects as yet unnamed, unless by me--you cunt, you little shit--who sabotaged the scrubbed and sanded flatness of my hard-won work. In defense I tacked up ugly flywire but the sections were not wide enough and in despair I had a silk curtain made on credit--Velcro running down its sides and a great heavy sausage of sand along its base. The curtain was a deep, deep blue, and the sausage a rust brown. Now the little saboteurs fell into its sweaty silky crotch and there they died in their thousands every night. I swept them out when I cleaned my floor each morning, but some I saved as life models, for no other reason than drawing is relaxing and I would often, particularly when I had run out of wine, sit at my dining table and slowly fill my notebook with careful grey renditions of their lovely corpses. Sometimes my neighbour Dozy Boylan would name them for me.
Excerpted from Theft by Peter Carey Copyright © 2006 by Peter Carey. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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