All Stories, General Fiction

Arthur Rimbaud in New York by Cathleen Davies

‘Creep, my love, why don’t you photograph me?’

Creep took many photos. Creep had seen a lot of bodies. They were always scarred and twisted because all bodies, excepting those of new-born babies, are scarred and twisted. His models were dirty. Creep liked bohemian grit, the real, as he called it. He liked the street-rats best. He savoured dirt.

Creep saw sweat up close, he smelt it. It was a perfume in its own right, he felt. Creep could tell the difference now between the types of sweat. He could distinguish the BO someone garnered from staying on the streets too long, washing in public bathrooms without soap, from the smell of come-down sweats, chemical and feverish, smells trailing behind sensations which felt like muggy weather and looked like agony immortalised. Then there was his favourite sweat – fresh sweat from heat, which lingered on the skin in droplets above lips and eyebrows; the kind of sweat which indicated later more than photographs would develop. Sometimes, Creep felt dispirited. The moments he encapsulated could only be experienced visually. No one could smell the sweat, touch the collar-bones or taste the lips in the same way he had. Creep only hoped his viewers had imagination.

‘You photograph everyone, but you never photograph me.’

Creep fingered the Polaroids at the end of the ‘dark room’ which was really just a squat with the curtains drawn. Most of the grants his art-group received went towards the chemicals he needed to develop his pictures which now mostly lay in tubs, soaking. The rest were on lines, awkwardly pegged up at their corners. They were coming out nicely as far as he could see. This wasn’t a proper studio and Creep almost missed the dark-rooms of his old university, but only almost. The privacy, the lack of judgement here meant he could develop what he wanted to, could work in his own way without the sneers from those who feared lewdness, who in essence feared truth. In hindsight, Creep realised it was ridiculous to think he would ever have finished art-school. It simply wasn’t for him. This room with the curtains drawn, this was for him.

Creep knew who he was even back before he was called ‘Creep’. He’d known. His father had also known, although that much had remained unsaid. Instead the beatings were supposedly about ‘respect’ and ‘discipline’ and ‘refusing to watch his son grow up soft’. They hadn’t worked, of course. If anything the trauma made him more sensitive, and now Creep refused to eat meat or wear leather for fear of animals having been beaten into submission too. His college had known, which was the reason for his low grades and even lower attendance. Creep much preferred the non-academic side of university anyway. He was a fan of drinking heavily with hippies and misfits. He very much enjoyed the dramatic societies.

‘Creep, I’m starting to get lonely. You’re not paying me any attention. Am I going to have to sit here and entertain myself?’

‘My darling, I can only apologise.’

Creep looked at the photos he’d taken of Joe, some nineteen year old who’d already dabbled in everything but modelling. That kid was a street-rat, alright. He had the dirt, he smelt like sweat, a mingling of all three kinds. He was scarred and burned and twisted more than most. Somehow, inexplicably, he’d managed to keep his face beautiful. His eyes stood out even in black and white. For many of the photographs, Creep had convinced him to wear a hood over his head like an execution victim. Those were the pictures Joe liked the most, his bony knees knocked together, his chest leaning forward. A smiling face was drawn over the sack. These were better than the every-day portraits which had seemed sad and disingenuous. Joe did everything he was told, stood where he was asked to, posed however was suggested. Creep liked to work with people, not with mannequins, but if a mannequin was all he had he’d do his very best to make it work.

‘We have our exhibition coming up, my love. I’m always concerned that things won’t develop quite right,’ Creep explained. He turned around to face his lover, who was lying on the single mattress resting already in the midst of a sluggish and pathetic masturbation attempt. ‘But you’re right, I’m being neglectful.’

Creep’s lover was a poet. He wrote words that no one ever read, because he explained a kind of love that no one wanted to understand. Creep’s lover had spent most of his life being ignored. Really, it was criminal for Creep to ignore him now.

‘Come here,’ Creep’s lover said, ‘and bring your camera.’

‘I don’t want to photograph you.’

‘Then I must continue to masturbate because clearly you don’t find me sexually attractive enough for art, and then how can I be sexually attractive enough for anything?’

‘Not everyone I photograph is sexually attractive, and I don’t photograph everyone I’m sexually attracted to. It’s only those I find aesthetically interesting.’

‘Even worse! I could live with being unattractive, but uninteresting? That’s sinful.’

Creep’s lover was a poet with a square jaw and a soft stomach and eyes that made it look as though he were in pain. He was constantly watching everything around him, scribbling overheard conversations into notebooks, hoping to deconstruct them and find some sense of meaning in the nonsense. Creep’s lover was interested in humanity, but Creep’s eyes were on the bodies. He wanted to see the pain and primitiveness of humanity, the animal needs and wants and desires. His lover’s eyes searched for meaning, the whats, the wheres and whys, reminders of what separates humans from animals like the way in which we cling onto the consciousness of our own existence, the ridiculousness of being born as we are, the unrelenting fears of death. The thing, he argued, that made humanity exceptional was this awareness of life and this fear of death. Creep’s lover’s eyes took in all around him. Right then though, they were only watching Creep while his hand quickened its pace. He exhaled slightly through parted lips.

Creep sat beside him, removed the hand and took the fingers to his mouth. He kissed them.

‘I think you’ve made your point.’

‘And yet I’m still unsatisfied.’

‘Why do you want me to photograph you?’

‘I want you to think that I’m beautiful.’

‘I already think that,’ Creep said, truthfully. He stroked the downy hair lining his lover’s stomach, lightly kissed his moonlight chest.

‘Am I more beautiful than the boy you’re developing?’

Creep faltered. The answer was no, but it was horrible to say so and Creep detested lying. He lived in this way, on dirty mattresses developing his pictures with the curtains drawn, dropping out of middle-class, white, academic existence, all because he abhorred dishonestly. He could have been comfortable, but he would have had to lie. It wasn’t worth it. Most art was often dishonest. Painting, drawing, sculpture, these were all forms of lying. Life was not Picasso, not Davinci, not Dali, no. Life was a photograph of a boy in a hood with his knees knocked together, developing in the dark room of a dirty, one-room flat – a glass crunching underneath feet, smells like sewage kind of flat – with the curtains closed.

‘He’s practically a child,’ Creep settled for instead. This was the truth. He was happy with this response.

‘You captured him so beautifully.’

‘He hates the beautiful photos,’ Creep said, moving on top of his lover, kissing his shoulder, his neck, his chest. ‘As do I.’

Creep saw his lover’s crooked body. He smelled the sweat. They always loved so intensely: this photographer, this poet. What they created between them deserved their full physical attention. It was art, so beautiful it could not be real, and Creep only photographed the real. Afterwards, they held each other on the single mattress. They had no clothes and it was getting cold. Their body heat was not enough, but they held each other’s shaking bodies because letting go seemed unthinkable. Creep kissed his lover’s neck.

‘You know that we will die soon,’ his lover said. Everything that reminded him of life reminded him of death mere moments later.

‘What makes you say that, my dear?’

‘People like us rarely live long.’

‘You mean queers?’

‘And misfits, and poets, and troublemakers.’

‘Oh darling, please,’ Creep scoffed. ‘I hate it so much when you get philosophical, especially when you’re wrong. I know thousands of misfits and poets nearing their senior years, and they’re far too busy rolling up fishnets and painting on fruit-bowls to die.’

‘We’ll die soon,’ Creep’s lover nodded with assuredness. ‘I feel certain that we’ll die soon.’

‘I’m very sorry to hear that.’

‘But we’re stopping it,’ Creep’s lover said. ‘We’re taking photographs. We’re writing. These will last even if few people notice them. The people who search for them will be the right people, those who deserve to know truth.’

‘Yes. We’re making truth.’

‘But poems are so open to interpretation, and so often misunderstood. I don’t think I want to write anymore, my love. I think that it’s time I finished with this parody of truth-telling. I want to be immortalised before I die. No one could make a picture of me in the same way you could.’

Creep felt the body he held shivering. He stroked down the torso side. He thought. No, he pondered. He abandoned integrity. Creep was an artist with a pathological need to show the real, but more importantly Creep was deeply, deeply in love.

Over the next few years, he took pictures. Thousands of pictures, his lover, sitting, standing, outside, inside, naked, clothed, young and healthy, young and sick, the same sad eyes that wandered and tried to take in all of humanity stared out from a million black and white shots. Film paper curled and crinkled around the edges. This was life. Everything about Creep’s lover was life, life cut short, but life lived exceptionally. Creep photographed him in the hospital. He photographed the gravestone. He kept these altogether, and he kept them to himself, and then eventually, when he had the guts to share them, people said that they were only portraits. They did not hold the same intensity as his other work. Really, critics argued, Creep’s artistic career peaked during his youth in the 70s. Creep’s lover’s photographs survived in niche art-circles amongst those who found them sentimental yet visceral. Creep loved them because they were real. Creep was not a street-rat. Creep was a middle-class, failed academic, and in his life-time he loved openly and painfully sincerely. This, more than anything else, was his truth.

In a fantastical dark-room in a dirty squat lying naked between crumpled painting sheets and stolen blankets, Creep’s lover stared at the camera for the first time.

‘Should I smile?’ he asked.

‘Do whatever you want.’

And so, Creep began to make art.


Cathleen Davies



4 thoughts on “Arthur Rimbaud in New York by Cathleen Davies”

  1. If beauty is only subjective, then, if given enough minds, there is no such thing as complete, objective ugliness. Rimbaud was one of very few artists who was able to get his poetry across the storms of youth. In so many ways he was very old and spent at twenty.
    This little season in hell is very well written and Creep made me awfully uncomfortable. I commend you for your ability to Show this thing rather than Tell it.


  2. Hi Cathleen.
    I don’t understand art but I do understand that every thing we look at, listen to or read is open to our own interpretation and preference. No-one can slate us for what we get out of what we enjoy or see merit in no matter what form. (Hah – As long as its legal!)
    Your story is two-fold as we are left with our thoughts on the art but we are also wondering about Creep.
    Maybe the line ‘He very much enjoyed the dramatic society’ said it all, or was there more underlying than his ‘painfully sincere truth’.
    Contradictions in stories are never well received. But when the writer tells us one thing and we consider another – That is all good!!
    There is so much in this and every bit is excellent!


  3. I liked the part describing sweat, quite vivid. Creep’s name was appropriate, he loved decadence, or at least, acted like he did. I think he was a phoney, as Holden C. from Catcher in the Rye might say. That was the major theme, perhaps, the Creep wanting the Rimbaud type character photographed with a bag over his head kind of told it. Intriguing.

    Liked by 1 person

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