Sophia, twenty-one, sat at her mirror and dresser, London’s murmurs rising from beneath the window of her apartment. Dusk had fallen, the room lit only by her lava lamp’s scarlet glow.
‘The light, Sophia,’ she whispered to herself as she leapt to the light switch, returned to her chair.
She looked at herself in the mirror.
Taking some moisturiser on her fingers, she carefully spread its cool liquid over her cheeks, then her jaw. She glanced up at the large print of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting, its darkness contrasting sharply with her bedroom’s cream walls. After running her brow pencil over her eyebrows a number of times, she studied once more the lopsided figure of the artist at work: her right hand raised in what seemed a gesture both hurried and measured, her eyes fixed with languid focus on her work. The sheen on the brow, the dark locks of hair bedraggled and damp with sweat, and beneath, a golden necklace, from which hung a mask pendant.
Returning to her eyebrows, she thought of the incident that brought her here, that led her to swap late millennium Dublin for this teeming metropolis. November, four months previous, her mother throwing her out into the night’s soft-blue quiet, the air’s stiffening chill.
It seemed that, more so than the words, it was the gestures and facial expressions of her mother and sister that she remembered most. Their eyes large with fury, their phrases violently spat. Her father quiet and removed, occasionally offering up a statement of support for the others. It was nothing she wasn’t used to, being rounded on. Her sister mixing the dark clothes with the light yet again, she recalled, when it was her turn to put on a wash. Blue blotches littering Sophia’s new white blouse. Developing then, as it always did, into something a lot more personal, her highlighting her sister’s apparent exemption from parental criticism, her mother lambasting, for the umpteenth time, Sophia’s decision to drop out of college. She had been studying commerce, and hated it – surely it was as simple as that. Ya gonna work in Penny’s for life, her mother had asked, repeatedly, ya gonna sponge off us for life.
The argument rose to fiery volumes, and her mother demanded she leave. It was a power move more than anything; usually she could return in an hour or so. She strode down their terraced street, past the small houses boxed together, indistinguishable from one another, especially in the midnight gloom. And as she moved, a hard, raucous anger rolled round her body, rolling like the sluggish movements of her lava lamp’s red wax.
She watched its slow drift, lost in recollection. After a short time she returned to her makeup, applying foundation liberally. Yet still the memory stayed with her, the way she had paced, how she had not registered her surroundings until she came to a shivering stop at the end of a neighbouring street. She had lifted her head, slowly, to the starless sky above, her anger finally ebbing, and felt it must all be a joke. This life, the way we treated each other. The way we built up resentment for our loved ones, afforded nothing but courtesy to strangers. The way we hurt and hurt, feeling nothing but righteousness in the moment, regret and empathy only later, when ego precludes any going back. How ridiculous humans would seem, she had thought, how absurdly cruel, to any hypothetical band of observers. To a set of deities perhaps, of creators, far away in the dark, watching us try and fail and fail.
She decided that night to get away.
Engines and voices sounded through her window’s dark pane, the city rumbling on its harsh and ceaseless song. Sweeping the brush over her forehead, Sophia considered what her mother might think of what she was about to do. Envisioning the act, her throat became somewhat dry, and yet excited nerves wafted through her warmly. Her mother would think it immature, but more so dangerous. And maybe she was right.
Sophia half-sang, half-breathed R.E.M.’s ‘Endgame’, a quiver in her voice. She examined herself in the mirror. Not for the first time, she asked herself what she was thinking. But the resolve that had been with her since she first decided returned, smoothing over her scruples like water over stone.
Two weeks into her time in London, just before securing her job in a cinema, she had spontaneously gone out for the night, alone. She was bored, brimming with a sort of jagged restlessness that was nibbling at her, crying out for experience. She knew that if she didn’t go out and feel something different, something vibrant, then the restlessness would grow greater, greyer, blacker.
An Irish friend had recommended a gay bar to her. Sophia was bisexual, a fact she had only disclosed to a handful of people in Ireland. She simply wouldn’t feel safe were it known. Not even her family knew. And so, not wanting to throw herself into the company of unknown men in this strange new city, companionless, she went to the gay bar. The first few drinks that night were accompanied by a baffled numbness around her decision to move to a place where she didn’t know a soul. But the alcohol promptly washed this feeling away like waste down a drain, and soon she was mingling with others in the gay bar. Shortly after midnight, she locked lips with a brunette in black. Clutching at this stranger’s sides, feeling her fingers roam her hair, their tongues sashayed warmly in the blind darkness of intimacy.
Two hours later, in the riverside apartment of this woman, they lay in bed on a cinnamon duvet, their pale bodies like slabs of ivory in the half-light. Her name was Tania; she was twenty-six, English. In warm, post-orgasmic repose, they conversed. Slowly, Sophia realised how garrulous this Tania really was. The subject of money and jobs came up, Sophia expressing her concern for her own finances. Tania told her of her side-job, highly paid, with intense but short hours. Daunting but rewarding was how she described it, and sometimes fun.
‘But is it safe?’
‘Well, yeah… Always has been for me anyway. The company is good like, the guys are… A bit dense, as you might expect, but in general they respect the job you’re doing.’
‘It’s intense work. But the best thing about it is you can do just a few hours a week and they’re cool with that. It’s great money, really… If you can handle it.’
Sophia, brain still humming from the alcohol, laughed at this with a touch of scorn.
‘What’s so funny?’ Tania quipped. ‘Think you can handle it?’
A few kisses later and Tania offered her the company manager’s number. She took it on a whim, though she didn’t realistically intend on calling.
Sophia lifted her head to the figure’s raised hand in the looming portrait, the shadowed wrist, the brush end fading into the russet background. She recalled how, in the days subsequent to the encounter, the idea of calling the number never quite left her. The money played on her mind, certainly, but there was something else. A desire to live such an experience, to feel the inevitable fear, but also the invigoration, the obscure sense of power. A desire she would never realise, she had assumed.
As she began her new job, received her weekly payments, and made acquaintances, even friends, she came to feel more settled, more trustful in the benevolence of things. The fume-heavy London air carried in it a whiff of the auspicious. The idea lingered, never left, and soon a question formed: why couldn’t she do this thing she never thought herself capable of doing? She was surviving off her current wages, but could add to that significantly with this opportunity, as she had come to know it. She was relatively confident they’d take her on. As for her skills in the area, she could improve upon what she already deemed a solid foundation. The one risk was someone she knew getting their hands on the finished product – or products, if she continued – but she dismissed this worry, reminding herself that no one knew her here anyway. Yet superseding any financial motive was that strange desire, which she sensed most strongly in her quieter hours, having a drink, or walking by the dark and glistening Thames.
And so her decision to ring the number or not, to appease or bury this desire, fell into a greater inner discourse on her life. This she reflected upon, shadowing now her eyes, summoning all the courage she could. Straightening her posture, she remembered the conclusions she had come to recently, conclusions that had filled her with such steadfast vindication, such courage.
What she had always believed, since she had broken from the loose Catholicism of her upbringing, was that there was no path, no fate, just a tumbling down a stairs from birth to oblivion. Things just happened, more or less free from the influence of one’s own agency. Control, independence, freedom – these abstract concepts, thought to be the bedrock of liberal democracies, were nothing but illusions. Nor were things predetermined, but were determined rather on an ongoing basis by flux, change, the consistent intermingling of circumstance and chance, of millions of living beings, animals, humans, bacteria, all, rubbing shoulders, unconsciously and blindly painting the canvas of existence. There was agency, yes, existing not in a vacuum where one had room to manoeuvre, but in a dark and teeming dungeon of scrambling hands and stifled breaths. So she believed. It did not depress her, this underlying outlook on the world, but instead reminded her of the futility of effort, of granting too much importance to things.
But her core beliefs had shifted and repositioned in her first few months in London. Suddenly, her mother’s ceaseless wrath was gone, and with it the tumult of her home. So too the small-minded, suffocating conservatism of Ireland. She felt these light and breezy absences nourish her heart with each passing day. She was free of these things – or rather, she had freed herself from them. This was not a product of chance, Sophia reflected at night in bed, feeling the warm lick of wine on the brain. This was a product of her own decision, her own action. She had effected a change in her life completely of her own volition, unhindered by life’s arbitrary whims. Was it possible, after all, to exert an agency that mattered?
Feeling no answer forthcoming, she had felt surging that insatiable desire to find out, and one night on impulse called the number.
‘Hello?’ A low London voice, male.
She heard Nirvana blare in the background, Kurt’s unmistakable drawl. ‘Hi there, I’m enquiring about the possibility of work with your, eh…’
‘With the company.’
‘OK,’ his tone was interested, professional. She heard the shuffling of movement as the music receded. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Sophia… That’s a great name. I’m Charlie.’
They agreed to meet so he could ‘assess her credentials’ in a cafe three days later. As now, Sophia had gone beyond the usual effort she expended on her appearance, and had fought through the barbed swell of nerves in her stomach to meet this Charlie.
He was early, as was she. In his early thirties, he wore a navy jacket and white shirt, the end of a tattoo revealing itself at the wrist. Though it was busy, he had gotten a table.
‘Sophia,’ he said.
‘Charlie.’ She extended her hand. He shook it, smiling.
‘What are you having?’
‘No, I can–’
‘Just a tea please.’
‘Yeah. Thank you.’
He joined the queue. When he returned, they made small talk, before Charlie asked some routine questions. As they spoke, Sophia relaxed, and observed him. His hair was dark, his eyes calm though faintly inquisitive. His mouth was never completely shut, even in moments of silence, seeming to betray to Sophia a suppressed fervour of sorts.
‘So everything looks good Sophia. We’d be happy to offer you a trial.’
‘Great,’ she said, smiling mildly, her nerves dancing, concealed. ‘That’s good news.’
‘It is,’ he said, putting his notebook away. Again, that debonair smile. ‘So…’ he clicked his tongue, studying her excitedly. ‘We actually have an opening next week.’
He held her gaze, and she held his, bearing its weight stubbornly.
‘And what is this opening?’ she asked, reclining in the seat.
‘Not your typical debut. A sort of… Leap into the deep end.’
Around them, the crowd murmured on. He resumed:
‘But… If it goes well, you’ll be guaranteed further work.’
‘And if I wait?’
‘Well,’ he grinned. ‘Then you’d wait.’
She looked away, considered this. Knew he was watching.
‘And what does this opening entail?’
He told her. Fear and exhilaration travelled through her, travelling quickly from stomach to throat, exiting her mouth in agreement.
She could do it. There was no reason she couldn’t, she told herself now, swiping the powder blush over her cheeks. No reason. She stopped for a second, sighed, looked at the painting. The figure toiled with the ease of one held rapt by a singular purpose. The popular idea that the figure was Gentileschi herself appealed to Sophia, and she thought now of this seventeenth-century woman’s acts of defiance, surpassing all expectations of her sex, shaping the history of art.
And yet, and yet she was made suffer. She dismissed this thought.
In bed, lately, she had often lain awake, her beliefs unravelling and reconstructing in the tangled shapes of darkness before her. Her eyes had frequently gravitated towards the print above her mirror and dresser, certain that, despite the darkness, she could make out Gentileschi’s tilted form, painting there in the monochrome silence, painting still. She was painting also in the darkness of Hampton Court Palace, where the original stood, not an hour’s drive from where she was. Painting as well on the dark or well-lit walls of thousands worldwide. Painting, because she had painted herself.
And in bed those nights she had seen things anew. All was not prey to chance – so much was, but not everything. She still had agency, she still had power in this disempowering mesh of circumstance. She had escaped the negativity of her home, the homophobia of her birthplace, and had cultivated a better life. She had empowered herself. What awaited her now was the next step – not in mere defiance of convention, or simply because she could, but because it would be real. More real than nights alone spent lamenting the past, or dreading an unknowable future. Her move to London, her night with Tania – these exploits, these decisions on her part were real, vital experiences in life that had called to the true essence of her self. And she knew she needed to answer, to continue forging her own experiences amid life’s implacable chaos, with whatever power she had. To take her brush in hand, know herself, truly see. In this was freedom, pure as a thousand summers.
London’s dissonant noises rattled on indifferently below her window. She imagined the hordes she could not see, speeding or sauntering on. Freedom, to climb up and out, she told herself, into the light of choice. Her finger and thumb rubbed the black mascara tube on her dresser.
She observed not Gentileschi now but herself. Her eyes were darkly ringed, her nose angled slightly off centre. Her shoulders were strong and rounded, her red hair full, healthy, flowing. But flowing also now was fear’s slow tide. Embrace it, she told herself. She could manage the deep end. She would.
Turning, she regarded the lava lamp, its restless inertia, ascent and descent.
Words spoken over a year ago came to her suddenly, her mother’s words. Pale winter light in the kitchen. An argument was winding down, centred on Sophia’s impending decision to drop out of her course. Her mother assuming a more placid demeanour, telling her ruefully not to make the same mistake she made, to place importance on money now while she could, while she was still young. Sophia responding, not for the first time, that money was a means not an end. And her mother, strangely fatigued, had merely shrugged and looked out the window at the light that revealed her age, telling her, ‘It’s your choice.’
Sophia waited in the penthouse living room, alone. Charlie had stepped out for a moment to take a call. She was early; the others had yet to arrive. Outside the wall-length windows the city’s lights peppered the darkness. The room was sparsely furnished, the walls cream, the couches leather. It was impeccably clean, she noted, as her nerves frayed the edges of her mettle. Occasionally she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, laying a hand on her knee. In the other, she held a black, satin gag, stroked it softly.
A knock sounded on the outer apartment door. She heard Charlie’s footsteps, laid the gag gently aside. Men’s voices droned in the hallway.
‘Calm,’ she whispered to herself, straightening her back, adjusting her sky blue blouse.
The door opened. Two men carrying a camera, tripod, and other equipment entered with shy hello’s, followed by Charlie. And after them, two large men in white t-shirts, their hair glistening with gel, approached her with cool, warm smiles.
This was them, Sophia knew. She smiled suavely, her heart thumping, rose to greet them with careful grace.