‘Bless me, Father,’ I begin quietly after the screen behind the wooden grid slides aside. The confessional is a large structure with beautiful woodwork inlaid with what looks like ivory. There’s an almost-comfortable prie-dieu style kneeler in my compartment and enough space for a man three times my size. The grid in front of my face is carved into an intricate pattern of little ornamental crosses. There’s silence on the other side of the grid, but I can make out the shape of the head and shoulders of my confessor in the dim. I realize I’ve trailed off.
I was waiting under a street lamp on the corner outside the Grand Theatre, where I had said I would be waiting. Above people’s heads, I could see most of the poster advertising tonight’s concert hanging in a frame by the doors. Big, elegant letters spelled the name of the choir and a list of compositions the choir was going to sing. The concert itself made me excited, but I was rather conflicted about everything that was supposed to happen next.
I took out a packet of cigarettes and lit one. A faint cloud of smoke coiled lazily in the air.
I was waiting for my companion. Or, to put it more bluntly, a whore. A male whore.
Maqrudh Brik sat motionless, his elbows propped on his knees, and stared vacantly into the distance. By the wall in front of him three large paintings were drying up – a commission from the city hall. Maqrudh didn’t like to do commissions. Residents of Ni’irqe, on the other hand, loved Maqrudh to do commissions. ‘You won’t make money on personal projects,’ the clear-headed M’Oire would tell him. ‘Not enough to earn a living, anyway.’ But Maqrudh needed personal projects. They had the individuality that commissions sorely lacked. In personal projects, he could let off his creative steam and show what he wanted to show, as opposed to what people wanted to see. He could experiment with style and technique; he could ignore conventional canons of beauty; he didn’t have to worry about propriety or listen to his clients’ absurd remarks (‘I don’t want my receding hairline to show and I’m not paying until you correct that’; ‘How could you, sir, you have shown all grandmamma’s wrinkles!’; ‘I don’t want that drapery in the background after all, please make it a waterfall instead’). Commissioned paintings were all the same: smooth, static, made-up lies. How sick he was of them!
Unfortunately, in the last couple of months he hadn’t even had a moment to devote to personal projects, for apart from a few portraits (portraits were always in demand), he got this gigantic commission from the city hall. A new plenary hall was due to be opened soon, and the mayor requested for one of the walls to be adorned with a monumental triptych, full of pompous allegories and various Ni’irqean bigwigs in pretensional, bombastic poses. The mayor, of course, had put it a little differently.