Origins of the Artist

Origins of the Artist, a book by Emma BairdSometimes you just can’t let go of a character. Two years ago, I created a young man, aged 18 and in denial. I made him go through a horrible ordeal when his best friend died, then I charted his coming out. I added him to the background of a story about another of his friends, then decided I wasn’t quite finished with him yet…

Now’s he’s in his late 40s and yes, yet again I’m making him suffer. 

Even when John turned up in Kippy’s dreams alive and very much well, he always knew it wasn’t right. As the sequence played out, the dream Kippy would eventually say, “No, you’re not really here. You’re dead,” or some such.

He wasn’t conscious of John suddenly disappearing, a ghost who said, “It’s a fair cop, guv,” and vanished now he’d been fingered, so to speak. But the John of his dreams was there one minute, gone the next. Kippy didn’t wake up and relive his partner’s death over and over again.

It didn’t stop him from crying most mornings. He was forty-seven years old, far too young for widower status. Granted, John had been fifteen years older than him, but even so. A man dying at sixty-one was rotten, rotten luck. Especially when that man was so fit and healthy your average insurer would be hard-pressed to quote over-the-top premiums for life insurance.

Take his lifestyle. Some years ago, John announced he was giving up the sauce as a fiftieth birthday present to himself. He’d never been a big drinker, anyway. Brought up in a small town and having spent many years hiding his sexuality, Kippy was the one who put away the pints and downed the whiskies.

John, though, decided he didn’t like the after-effects anymore. He’d been a nice, non-nagging teetotaller too, never minding Kippy having a pint too many and becoming maudlin and soppy, in your typical West Coast of Scotland man’s way.

John exercised regularly, and his diet had been exemplary post a high-cholesterol scare. It was he who’d introduced Kippy to the joy of salads and vegetables, foods that Kippy always regarded suspiciously. Rabbit food, right? John’s Italian momma and her Scottish husband were exceptionally good cooks, and their talent rubbed off on their son. He believed in home-cooked food made with passion and garnished with love.

And yet bowel cancer struck anyway, its diagnosis so late John was beyond saving. At the hospital, they made him as comfortable as they could, agreeing reluctantly in the end that he could go home to die.

Kippy found the world’s kindest and most compassionate palliative cancer care nurse who split her support equally between the two of them, helping prepare Kippy for those last few moments when your partner finally leaves you.

The peace of it was what he remembered. Pain takes everything from you, even a kind and wonderful man like John ends up with little reserves of love and patience left. Kippy needed something from him—a dramatic statement or gesture that raised them from the everyday mundanity of death.

“Bereavement is ordinary and extraordinary at the same time,” the nurse told him. “We all go through it, but we experience it quite differently, which is why it’s so hard to explain to anyone else.”

He’d willed John to use his gift with words. His partner was the man who’d spent years using his rapier wit to persuade judges and juries that the wee nef stood in front of them deserved a second chance. He’d torn apart police statements, making juries laugh at the same time as everyone loved the public putting down of authority figures.

A man of such talent should be able to summon forth words that Kippy could store in his mind’s vault, taking them out from time to time to polish and cherish their beauty. But there was nothing left in John. He muttered that he loved Kippy and those dark eyes welled up. And then one morning, Kippy woke and took in the deafening silence that told him his life partner was dead. He walked into the room and felt the stillness of it. There were no ragged breaths, no creaks from the bed of a man shuffling in a vain attempt to get comfortable.

Oh, the relief.

They’d celebrated their 25th anniversary six months before John died, an occasion that later became known as one of the BC events. Before cancer, everything seemed careless and overly optimistic. An anniversary almost always prompts the words, and here’s to the next ten, fifteen and even twenty-five years.

The date marked their 25th year together, rather than a formal wedding or civil partnership anniversary, though that took place too. What a day it had been. Neither of them fancied flamboyance or even more than one or two guests, but the celebration was taken out of their hands.

“You must make it a big event!” Lillian declared, her excitement far more visible than theirs. “It’s symbolic. Please let me help organise it!”

By ‘help’ she meant, take over completely. They’d both given in to her, partly because she’d been moping her way through a bad break-up at the time. On 31 December 2006 just over a year after the law came into effect, Kippy and John registered their civil partnership, both wearing Lillian-designed suits. She insisted on lots of photographs and posted them all over her website and Facebook. She intended to position her business as the go-to for civil partnerships, she announced. Kippy raised his eyebrows at that. Wasn’t high-end fashion inherently gay? She didn’t need their help to make it more so.

The guest list, one that needed cutting many times, numbered almost 150 in the end. Kippy muttered about the expense repeatedly. John tended towards sensibleness far more than he did, but the wedding-like whirlwind seemed to deafen him, and he waved away Kippy’s concerns about the bills. Covers on chairs? Why not? Kitsch, handmade favours? Of course. A reception in Glasgow’s most expensive hotel. Nothing else would do.

He remembered the cheers when the registrar said that in the presence of their friends, family and witnesses, it gave him great pleasure to declare they were now both civil partners to each other.

John’s momma managed to source a gay priest to confer blessings on the couple that day. As an elderly Italian, she’d only recognise a partnership that had some stamp of authority from the Catholic church, no matter that her son and his partner had lived together for more than ten years by that time.

The priest was known as a firebrand in religious circles and he had to dodge the odd death threat online, but he charmed Francesca assuring her that God smiled kindly on her son and he delighted in the union.

“Love is all,” he told the gathering, “and that is it.”

The post-ceremony celebration had gone on for hours. John stumbled off to bed at 1am, and Kippy partied with their extended family and friends, knocking back enough whisky for him to end up dancing, something he never bothered with unless he was paralytic.

He’d later woken up John to tell him all about it, seeing as that was how they’d first met. Kippy, a young and just-out art school student, had been at a party and drank too much of the punch. He asked John to dance with him to an Erasure Abba cover and John had taken him home afterwards. That hadn’t been their beginning though. As someone who’d been ‘out’ for far longer, John thought Kippy wasn’t right for him.

“I thought you would break my heart,” he told him when they’d finally got together. “Young, gorgeous… One of those gays who needed to sow his wild oats.”

It had been sort of true. Kippy grew up in a small fishing village in the 1980s. He’d kept his gayness a secret, even dating girls to appear normal to the outside world. When he’d won an art prize, he’d been able to leave Kirkinwall behind and his first year at art school had been heavenly, all the wall-to-wall cock and no-one to horrify with your lusting after it…

He’d done the classic thing, shagged everything that moved for months but the memory of John’s eyes and how his gaze felt on him was always present. Every encounter Kippy experienced was tinged by the warmth of that stare. It took a life-threatening beating to bring the two of them together, finally.

Finally, and forever—or at least until death do us part.

The funeral was to take place tomorrow, and Kippy found himself trying on different suits to find one that fitted properly. He’d lost so much weight over the last couple of months, they hung off him. Clinging to your stylishness was his survival mode of choice. His long-ago civil partnership suit still fitted, but was it fitting to wear an outfit of celebration to an occasion of mourning?

Lillian would say ‘yes’, but then she would. He’d be promoting her clothing and he wouldn’t put it past her to photograph him surreptitiously in it and then post it online. He longed to ask for her opinion. “Do I wear the suit, or buy another one?”

He hadn’t told her in person about John’s death, unable to face that complication, but someone would have passed the news on. John had been an old family friend, and he was…something Kippy tried not to think about too often. Lillian would come to the funeral if he wanted her to or not.

And he found he did. She could even bring her too if she wanted.

Still stuck on the question of appropriate funeral gear, he went out. Fraser’s had come to the tail end of the January sales and the gentlemen in Menswear pounced on him, razor-sharp radars detecting gayness and a liking for decent clothing at first glance.

When the guy asked what the suit was for, Kippy avoided the truth. Sympathy from someone who hadn’t known John would have been too hard to handle. He couldn’t bear to hear condolences trotted out in fake sincerity. He’d lost weight, he said, and nothing in his wardrobe fitted.

Dan, the salesman, eyed him enviously. He was what John would have called deliciously plump, and Kippy described as fat.

“How did you manage that over Christmas and New Year?” Dan’s voice had slipped, resentment replacing the usual customer cultivation tones. “I ate my bodyweight in chocolate.”

Kippy said he’d been ill, smiling to himself when Dan slipped back into obsequious mode.

He managed to find Kippy a gorgeous suit. It was more flamboyant than anything he’d usually wear (and ludicrously expensive), but it fitted beautifully. Kippy had been a skinny young man who’d turned into a slim older bloke. The weight loss had turned him skinny again and the new burgundy suit looked as if it had been sewn on. The sheen of it would have been tacky on anything less expensive. He handed his card over and tried not to wince.

At least he’d been able to resist Dan when he’d tried to steer him to new shoes as well.

Now, all he had to do was get through the next day.

You can follow the story’s progress on Wattpad. 

©Emma Baird 2018

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2 thoughts on “Origins of the Artist

  1. You know how much I loved John and Kippy, esp John!!! You’ve broken my heart, missus, you’d better have something good up your sleeve! I love the books in this series so much, can’t wait for you to publish them.

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