The Great Commission
By Carleton Raisbeck (September 2018)
Hotel Room, Edward Hopper, 1931
Hotel Room, Edward Hopper, 1931
“Another wine?” I said, not waiting for her answer, immediately topping up her glass.
Bella was absent minded and would have drank anything. “Yeah, sure,” she said, and carried on as she had been for the previous hour, sitting on her hotel room bed. “I just don't know what I'm doing here. Everyone told me I was intelligent while growing up. They said I could make it if I applied myself. I worked at it, but then it all fell apart. I couldn't live up to everyone's expectations.”
“Heeeyy,” I said, in that reassuring and drawn out way that people say it to try and sooth someone's emotions, “Hey, maybe graphic design just wasn't meant for you, Bella. It is a competitive industry, and not everybody can get to the top, you know. And that's okay.”
She screwed up her face and raised her hand to her brow. Something wasn't making sense to her.
“Besides,” I continued, trying to steer in another direction, “I could think of a thing or two you could be good at,” and playfully nudged her leg with mine.
She was thirty years old and worked as a graphic designer after having graduated from university with a degree in art. She told me she chose it because she liked art and wanted to use her gifts to serve the Church. After graduation, she worked for a Christian company, but didn't stay long, enticed away by more money, and while climbing the corporate ladder she became jaded. She lost her faith at around twenty-seven. About the same time, she lost her virginity, she told me, although not making the connection explicit. But I wasn't surprised. Sex and religion often go together. Some people convert to a religion because of a hope of sex. Others recant for the same reason.
When I met Bella she had just been dismissed from a psychiatric hospital and was staying in a hotel. She was going to use the money her millionaire father sent over to rent a place nearby,
“I've got to get my act together,” she said, “I can't go on like this. I've got ideas about starting a business, a consultancy business where I will have offices upstairs and a cafe for the clients downstairs. It'll be good.”
“A consultancy and a cafe? Those are ambitious plans, Bella,” I said, sipping my wine. I could feel it going to my head, “Is that what you want in the long run? Have you not considered family and children?”
“I don't know,” she said. She said she was in no fit state to start a family. She said she'd forget her head if it wasn't screwed on. I doubt the medication helped in that regard.
“I just want to get back work,” she said, “but I know I'm no good. Everyone thinks I am a rubbish designer, otherwise they wouldn't have fired me. Nobody wants me.”
She lost three design jobs in a row before being admitted.
“I'll tell you what,” I said, “why don't you paint a picture for me? I've been wanting one for the flat for a while.” But she looked at me sceptically. “I'll pay,” I said, trying to assure her of my sincerity.
She consented and then she really started to open up. It was quite wonderful. It was as if my patronage was the key to her positivity. We spoke about the art I wanted browsing google pictures together, looking for inspiration, and each of us making sketches about what it might be. I showed interest in all the artsy things she had to say and contributed where I could.
I didn't care very much about getting the art for its own sake, not really. I just thought it would be helpful for her. I would become her patron, and she would become something more than miserable. And, I'll be honest, it was a bit sexual. She would ask me all these questions about what kind of picture would please me, so that she could do some good work. And I hadn't had sex in over four years.
The last woman I liked I had met a few years previous. I went on holiday to America to a small town in the Midwest, which was known for its guns and its Christianity. To my mind was like the Mecca of orthodox Christianity, the home of the true Reformed, Prostestant, Conservative Calvinists. Unadulterated Bible-lovers, creationism and all. You might be surprised how sophisticated those arguments can get. But that's a story for another time.
Anyway, I met a girl out there. She was kind, funny, intelligent, witty, tall, sophisticated, beautiful—the kind of woman who would suit a Good Man nicely. I was interested, and she seemed interested in me. Problem was I wasn't exactly a Good Man. And, when she referred me to her father to acquire his approval for our correspondence after I returned to England, I frankly failed to live up to his expectations for me as a suitor. I was unproductive, unemployable, useless and weak. He allowed us to speak for a while, but eventually I dropped myself in it. I was unpredictable because I was intimidated by her successes, and too conscious of my failings, which caused me to say the most stupid things.
I broke it off with her. And then out of madness a month after breaking it off I asked her to marry me. But I don't think she ever gave me a straight answer.
'Not suitable' was the way I presented myself, and that's that.
The girl I had now was something different. Her father was rich, but distant. Her family was broken, as mine was, and she was an enigma. She had a lot of ambition and a lot of so-called psychiatric problems, but It was hard to tell exactly where the ambition ended and the problems began.
She warmed to me after I commissioned a picture from her. She was thankful that I gave her something to do, some purpose, something to save her from the oblivion of meaninglessness.
We spent that night together, and all of the next day. But very quickly she went back to not knowing what to do with herself. She spent a lot of time with her head in her hands, talking about how useless and stupid her life was, how much of a failed artist she was. My attempts to reassure her were ignored. I asked questions, I listened, I talked about my own problems, I did everything reasonable I could think of to relate to her and placate her. I even proposed to her, thinking that some commitment might reassure her and give her some hope. She eventually said yes, but the relationship had already become a flaming dumpster of emotional waste.
After another day I was getting quite fed up. We started to argue, and I decided to knock it on the head. I was living in my mother's flat at the time, rent free and unemployed, 26 years old and studying with the Open University. I had no ambitions in particular and no reason to be keeping her around any longer.
She texted me a month later asking if I still wanted the painting I asked for. I said that I would have it, but only if she would accept payment of £20 in two weeks time, because that was all I could afford. She said that she couldn't do it for that price. I said that if it isn't worth your while it might be best just to leave it.
Carleton Raisbeck is a writer from Dorset.
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