I wake up confused, indeed even unsure if I have woken. The bed feels different, familiar and strange at the same time. It brings back the childhood feeling of falling asleep at my cousin’s house then waking in my own bed. Comforting and disappointing at the same time. I lie under the heavy blankets and looked about the room. It too is both familiar and strange. Like a strange unusual colour light is coming in through the window, making me dread trying to find out what is wrong, did the curtains hide a post-apocalyptic death scene that caused the strange light? It is strange how easily the mind throws up end-of-the-world scenarios when it might just as well be calima dragged out of its usual path by unusual formation of high and low pressures. I choose to ignore all possible explanations instead i carry on lying in bed. My head hurts. I have a massive toothache. And pretty much every part of my body below the covers throbs as if the blankets are too heavy for my body to bare. It was strange, usually I use a duvet.
I must be in a hotel.
That is why everything is strange. It must be a work thing or a wedding and I must have drunk a bucket too much now my merry is shot. It will come back to me if I just lay here quietly under the blankets. With my eyes closed.
Oh, the pain is so bad. A glass of absinthe would sort it out but they won’t let me have any. Not here. I have a strange feeling that I know exactly what is going on, but that I am not really me any more. Like in dreams, it must still be a dream. I am going to wait here under the covers until I wake up.
“Monsieur, time to get up. It is a beautiful outside. We will bring your breakfast to the veranda.”
She is less matronly than the usual nurse. She had a kindness in her voice that is reflected in her actions as I watch her lay out my clothes. I could see each muscle tense and relax, I could see her skin curve and change, I could see her clothes flow with her movements. I could see everything about her from the shadows and shades streaming through the window. My attention is drawn back to the window. There is nothing strange about the outside the window. The nurse looks at me, she seems to have genuine affection in her wide eyes. Her best look is head cocked, concerned eyes looking directly at me, body facing towards the door ready to leave. Yes, I should capture that moment of concern while leaving then the viewer a dichotomy: is she leaving someone who worries her or is she worried about leaving.
I am alone again. I didn’t see the nurse leave. It is not just that everything looks strange, I am seeing everything differently. Almost like seeing things for the first time. Almost like I am not seeing anything at all. Almost like I am someone else.
I dress. It hurts. If this is a dream it is very consistent. My dreams are normally quite flaky, like this for a while then like that, then I am falling until I realise I can fly, then I am drowning until I realise I can breathe underwater. It is an amazing moment, realising I can breathe underwater. Not like this strange day. Consistent pain is not an amazing dream.
A small stack of paper, a pencil a thick piece of charcoal and three chalk pastels are waiting for me with my croissant and coffee. I sit, pick up the stack of paper. Picture after picture of the circus. They are beautiful, they are mine. They are me. All this discomfort and still I am better than them all. They think I am beneath them but I have beauty. I have life. I have risen to a higher level than them, and here is my proof. I pick up the board to start drawing but something is wrong. I know there is a picture that I want to start on today, I can see the picture but it is a little unclear. Like someone hung it on the far end of a long corridor. I still know all the things that are in the picture: the clown, the elephant, the dog; but I can’t quite make out exactly where the lines are. Like everything today it is strange.
I stare out across the gardens. There are a few people dressed for dinner walking about slowly in the gardens. Beautiful gardens with willow trees and a magnificent pond filled with waterlilies. If they don’t let me out of here soon I might have to paint the lilies.
The nurse. I start sketching her with her from that frozen moment when she was leaving my room earlier. The charcoal, with white and blue pastels flow onto the page and I am lost. My mind is moving slow.
It is only after I finish a second sketch, a sketch that I am happy has captured the dichotomy, that I realise time has gone by and I haven’t felt any pain while painting. It is nearly as good as absinthe, it will have to do until I have absinthe again. When they let me out.
My croissant is just crumbs on the plate and my coffee finished. I must have consumed them when absorbed in painting.
I stand. God it hurts on my short deformed legs. I just need to move for a minute. I lean on the table. I edge to the window. I try to stretch my body but it is all too painful. The nurse comes again, she says something, probably something about the drawings, but I don’t hear. Or I hear and don’t listen. All I hear is my body crying out to me, crying out the pain like a choir of demons laughing at my efforts. I shuffle back to my chair. The nurse helps me. I am breathing heavily. I lower my head to recover.
I start sketching again, I am sketching the nurse again but this time I have taken away her clothes. I am taking away her clothes. I sketch her lifting her shift over her head, her dress is lying in a crumpled pile at her feet. I undress her with my pencil as I know when she sees it she will undress for me. They always do. Men and Women. Everyone wants the great Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to immortalise them on canvas. Or on paper. It was always about what they would do if I asked. I get off on it, as near as I can. I can’t fuck them now with my body so I fuck them with my pencil. In the beginning it was almost all about artistic honesty and only a little bit about power, now, somedays, it feels like it is the other way around. It is like being in this place, it is mostly because of the absinthe and the syphilis, but it is about the obsession too. And the anger. As it gets harder just to move, as I get angrier, so I make them debase themselves more. When the nurse comes back I will make her recline on the chaise lounge and do a Corbet Origins.
I will throw it away.
They must think I am just sketching the circus, a healthy obsession.
I must have fallen asleep as the next thing I know it is nearly dark. I have a soup, some bread, some meat and some cheese next to me. I am very hungry so I eat. I push the food in too quickly and wash it down with the watered down piss wine they give me here. Even though I know it won’t save me I still drink it with anticipation. I am sitting with my head back, my eyes closed, when the nurse comes back. She talks, some sweet chatter about me eating my food. I don’t listen. She wipes my face with a damp cloth, I can smell her scent and feel her body heat as she leans up to me. I imagine she moistened the cloth between her legs, wet with excitement of my sketch of her. I point to the sketch and say I want to check if I got it right. Within minutes she is reclining on the chaise lounge and I am sketching. I hardly want to draw, but I let the drawing take the pain away from me.
I let the shades flow across the paper then dismiss the nurse.
I feel like the dreamtime I am having as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is coming to an end so I fold up the sketches I made as him. I write a note, address it to my banker at Comptoir national d’escompte de Paris, requesting he keeps the enclosed sealed for future collection. Within the note I seal the sketches and address them to myself, Jules Artvan. I have no idea if the bank has any facility of keeping letters for over a hundred years, or if this dreamtime is a real day or a mirage, but when I wake again I will make a plan for a visit to Paris. Maybe you will have heard about me in the news, discovering three lost Toulouse-Lautrec sketches.