It takes a while before I realise that I'm not even looking at the paintings. The paintings are looking at me.
She gives me coffee and presses play. It's Dire Straits, "Tunnel Of Love". I wonder why am I here and how did I get myself into this. I drink coffee like it's orange juice. 'Don't let her paint you', I keep saying to myself. 'Don't let her do that'.
I tell her the coffee is good, which is probably true. It is thick and gloomy and smells of nicotine. It smells of black paint. In the background I pick out Mark Knopfler muttering something about pretty girls. Christ "Tunnel Of Love" is relentless. There must be some world-weary charm to the song, but it's buried deeper than the centre of the earth.
She tells me that all bearded men are wankers.
I say 'What?' as the coffee dazzles my lips.
She repeats it. If they have the effrontery to grow beards, it means their girlfriends either don't care or don't exist. She assumes it has to be the latter, because girls usually do care. I realise that we haven't even started talking about her paintings.
I honestly don't know why I'm here. I'm confused. In fact, I blame Kimberly for that. The exhibition was exactly what I had expected: grapes of human organs hanging from fruit bowls and naked women flashing their anatomy. Expressive adventures of a neurotic mind. Frida Kahlo for the poor. In my defence, I didn't really want to go. It was Kimberly who said I should get out more. Kimberly who hadn't done anything worthwhile in months.
The champagne was good though. A little on the sour side, but it did make me dizzy. It probably helped that I hadn't eaten anything that day and that I'm a lightweight when it comes to alcohol. Some guy in a toga came up to me, stared at the painting I was looking at and delivered a monologue in the vein of Play It Again, Sam. He was serious, too. At some point I noticed her surrounded by a squad of fawning idiots. Among whom was, rather despicably, my dear old Kimberly.
The fool winked at me. She's a witch, he said, and she would like to talk to me. She likes my work. Very few had seen my paintings, so that was flattering. Or a lie. Kimberly introduced us, and that's how I ended up in her studio. 'She's a witch', Kimberly whispered into my ear as we said goodbyes. 'Don't let her paint you. She already did that to me'.
Kimberly's words keep ringing through my ears as the paintings are closing in on me. What did he mean by that? And why are they moving?
Inevitably, we start talking about her paintings. Knopfler mocks me with "Romeo & Juliet". The room is basically dark.
'Have you spiked my coffee?'
'Honestly, I'm not a fan. I think too much about my own work to care for the work of others'.
'Kimberly told me about your exhibition next week. You only do realist stuff?'
'I think you are the only one who got my show'.
I'm flattered, but I didn't get it.
'What did it tell you?'
It told me nothing. Zilch. But let me describe what is happening around me. Dire Straits show no signs of giving up, and the paintings are coming in force. Ugly mess of colours and shapeless figures, they are literally all over me. Opinions are dying, dropping dead, dripping with sweat down my forehead. I say I want some more coffee, wondering how old she is. It's too dark to see. I also wonder what will happen if she paints me.
'Kimberly told me you're a witch'.
She says 'Kimberly is a fool' as she pours me another cup. The paintings are no longer so intimidating and I can even make out the faces and the sites. I take off my shirt either because it's too hot or because I really want it.
'I've painted you', she says lighting her cigarette. It's early in the morning, and the sun is burning her red hair.
'No you haven't!' I scream and jump out of bed.
She stoops down, revealing her wrinkled old body and I have to look away in disgust. She takes out the canvas from under the bed. It's me. Naked, half covered by blankets. My face is disfigured purposefully, but it has to be me.
I dress hurriedly as she ironically puts on 'Where Do You Think You're Going?' which is the perfect sound of sickening hangover. 'Why the beard?' I ask her, 'why the beard?' But she doesn't reply and barely even notices me as I make my uncertain way to the door.
As I'm about to leave, I ask her about my work. She says she hasn't seen it. I think I need to call Damien as soon as I get home. I need to tell him that the exhibition will not happen. Also, Kimberly is right - I should probably get out more.