Alfie looked like he always did while painting. He had red dye on his lips, some powder and rouge on his face and his curly hair in a bun on his head. He had thrown away his waistcoat and jacket and unbuttoned the top of his shirt, and sat on an oblong white table with a canvas on the easel in front of him and his feet hanging just above the floor. In one hand he held a brush, and the other alternated between a glass of red wine and an opium pipe.
He was too occupied to do more than cast Jimmy a quick glance when he heard the door open behind him, then he had to turn back to the painting.
“So it’s here you’re hiding”, Jimmy said.
Here was the studio, oblong in shape and spanning well over ten metres. It had sloping ceiling, white walls, and bare, light brown wooden planks for floor. On the other end of the room was a ceiling-high window, and the way there was filled with canvases – some on easels, others on the floor or leaned against the wall, some in various degree of becoming art, others empty – mannequins, chairs, tables and half-finished sculptures.
“The question is where you’ve been hiding”, Alfie said, trying to sound disinterested. “I thought you’d show up here again.”
“I’m sorry.” Jimmy appeared beside him. “I’ve just been very preoccupied lately.”
“Yes, I heard about the robbery.” Alfie patted on the table with his brush-hand. “Sit. It must have been frightening.”
“No one was home.” Jimmy put his hands against the table and brought himself up to sit next to him.
Alfie kept painting while he drank some wine. Jimmy looked at the canvas in silence for a few seconds.
“Isn’t it too dark to be painting now?” he asked then.
“It’s a dark painting.” Alfie pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes in concentration.
“It’s a doll”, Jimmy said with a confused glance at the object on the small table next to the canvas.
It was that the painting was of, but it was a dark painting of a doll. It lay on its side, dark in colour and with complete darkness surrounding it.
“The girl who owns it just saw her father hit her mother”, Alfie said. “I call it Loss of innocence.”
Jimmy frowned. “That’s horrible.”
Alfie looked at him and smiled.
“It’s the painting, Jimmy. Mabel owned that doll.”
“Oh.” The wrinkles on Jimmy’s forehead smoothed out. “And she didn’t-“
“No, Jimmy. She didn’t.”
Alfie laughed, and it did not take a second for him to join in. He only stopped when Alfie did, which was because he needed to take another sip of wine.
“Speaking of Mabel”, Jimmy said. “I talked to her downstairs. I don’t think she likes me.”
“I’ll put in a good word for you”, Alfie promised solemnly.
Jimmy smiled and put his hands around the edges of the table beside his legs.
“Do you mind if I ask?” he said.
Alfie redirected his attention to the painting and put the brush back against the canvas.
“You”, Jimmy said with an embarrassed smile. “I mean, you are- in a relationship?”
“Depends on how you define a relationship”, Alfie said. “But do you mean if I love her? Then yes, immensely.”
Jimmy furrowed his brows and bit his lip as if he had gotten too much to process and did not understand any of it.
“But she, she sleeps with other men, doesn’t she? And you sleep with other women?”
Alfie hummed and nodded.
“What’s-“ Jimmy shook his head in confusion. “How does that work?”
“Have you heard of the concept of free love?” Alfie turned back to him. “Lord Byron was an advocate for it.”
“Lord Byron”, Alfie said hesitantly. “Didn’t he-“
He made a twitch with his head to the side, expecting Alfie to understand. He pretended not to and showed it with his face.
So Jimmy lowered his voice and said, as if the ghost of the long-dead poet would burst into the room if he heard it, “Sleep with his sister?”
Alfie pointed at him with the brush. “That’s never been proved.”
Jimmy shrugged innocently in an I-just-thought-I-would-mention-it gesture.
“And both me and Mabel are only children”, Alfie said. “So don’t go getting any ideas there!”
“I wasn’t thinking anything of the sort.”
He looked out over the studio for a few quiet moments, as Alfie continued painting and splashing his wine when he was not sipping on it.
“It’s just a strange concept for me”, Jimmy said quietly after a while.
“I think it’s a perfect situation”, Alfie replied. “I don’t own her and she doesn’t own me, we’re both free to do whatever we want and we never cheat on each other.”
“But don’t you ever want to get married?” Jimmy asked.
“Well, then there’s the problem with the money.”
“Problem?” He repeated in incomprehension. “She has money and you don’t, but if you marry her you get hers. How is that a problem?”
“Exactly.” Alfie put down the glass on the table and picked up the pipe instead. “I’d get all her money, and neither of us wants that.”
“Why would you not want that?”
Alfie scoffed and took a puff of opium. He was used to having to explain it, but he did not think he had ever met anyone as stubbornly persistent or unwilling to understand as Jimmy.
“It’s her money”, he explained patiently. “Understandably she wants to keep it.”
“I want to make my own money. I’m going to make a name of myself as a painter, and I don’t want to lose my motivation by becoming rich by marriage.”
Finally Jimmy nodded slowly. “It makes sense”, he said. “But still, it’s a lot of money.”
Alfie laughed out some smoke.
“That doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen”, he said. “I’d love to marry her one day and I think she’s been hinting at it lately, but I need to break through first, and I don’t think Loss of innocence will make me famous. So that’s still in the future.”
Jimmy looked at the painting with the face of an art expert.
“Yes”, he agreed. “It does seem unlikely.”
“Hey!” Alfie exclaimed in faux offence, punching him jokingly on the shoulder with his brush-hand.
“You’re flicking paint at me!” Jimmy squealed, trying to squirm away.
So Alfie started doing it intentionally, and black spots flew through the air to land on him. Trying to hide under his jacket, Jimmy started laughing, and such a contagious laughter it was that Alfie could not help but do it too, albeit under the influence of wine and opium.
But in a split-second he grew quiet and froze, looking back at the door behind them.
Jimmy peeked out from under his jacket with suspicion. “What is it?”
“I thought I heard something”, Alfie said.
He listened carefully, but now there was nothing but the music from the ground floor. For a second though, he had been convinced he had heard his name.
Jimmy straightened out his jacket again and started inspecting what damage the paint had done to it.
“It’s probably just that.” He nodded at the opium pipe.
Alfie sharpened his ears even more, but still nothing. Hesitantly he pulled his gaze away from the door and forgot about the incident altogether.
“Probably”, he agreed. He looked at Jimmy. “Would you mind if I painted you?”