Roald Dahl – Skin, 1952

That winter – 1946 – was a long time going. Although it was April, a freezing wind blew through the streets of the city, and overhead the snow clouds moved across the sky.

The old man who was called Drioli shuffled painfully along the sidewalk of the Rue de Rivoli. He was cold and miserable, huddled up like a hedgehog in a filthy black coat, only his eyes and the top of his head visible above the turned-up collar.

The door of a café opened and the faint whiff of roasting chicken brought a pain of yearning to the top of his stomach. He moved on glancing without any interest at the things in the shop windows – perfume, silk ties and shirts, diamonds, porcelain, antique furniture, finely bound books. Then a picture gallery. He had always liked picture-galleries. This one had a single canvas on display in the window. He stopped to look at it. He turned to go on. He checked, looked back; and now, suddenly, there came to him a slight uneasiness, a movement of the memory, a distant recollection of something, somewhere, he had seen before. He looked again. It was landscape, a clump of trees leaning madly over to one side as if blown by a tremendous wind. Attached to the frame there was a little plaque, and on this it said: CHAIM SOUTINE (1894 – 1943).

Drioli stared at the picture, wondering vaguely what there was about it that seemed familiar. Crazy painting, he thought. Very strange and crazy – but I like it . . . Chaim Soutine . . . Soutine . . . “By God!” he cried suddenly. ‘My little Kalmuck, that’s who it is! My little Kalmuck with a picture in the finest shop in Paris! Just imagine that!’

The old man pressed his face closer to the window. He could remember the boy – yes, quite clearly he could remember him. But when? The rest of it was not so easy to recollect. It was so long ago. How long? Twenty – no, more like thirty years, wasn’t it? Wait a minute. Yes — it was the year before the war, the first war, 1913. That was it. And this Soutine, this ugly little Kalmuck whom he had liked – almost loved – for no reason at all that he could think of, except that he could paint.

. . .

“First,” the boy said, “I shall make an ordinary painting. Then if it pleases me, I shall tattoo over it.” With a wide brush he began to paint upon the naked skin of the man’s back.

‘Ayee! Ayee!’ Drioli screamed. ‘A monstrous centipede is marching down my spine!’

“Be still now! Be still!” The boy worked rapidly applying the paint only in a thin blue wash so that it would not afterwards interfere with the process of tattooing. His concentration, as soon as he began to paint, was so great that it appeared somehow to supersede his drunkenness. He applied the brush strokes with quick short jabs of the arm, holding the wrist stiff, and in less than half an hour it was finished.

“All right. That’s all,” he said at last to the girl, who immediately returned to the couch, lay down, and fell asleep.

Drioli remained awake. He watched the boy take up the needle and dip it in the ink; then he felt the sharp tickling sting as it touched the skin of his back. The pain, which was unpleasant but never extreme, kept him from going to sleep. By following the track of the needle and by watching the different colours of ink that the boy was using, Drioli amused himself trying to visualize what was going on behind him. The boy worked with an astonishing intensity. He appeared to have become completely absorbed in the little machine and in unusual effects it was able to produce.

Far into the small hours of the morning the machine buzzed and the boy worked. Drioli could remember that when the artist finally stepped back and said, “It is finished,” there was daylight outside and the sound of people walking in the street.

“I want to see it,” Drioli said. The boy held up a mirror, and Drioli craned his neck to look.

“Good God!” he cried. It was a startling sight. The whole of his back, from the top of his shoulders to the base of his spine, was a blaze of colour – gold and green and blue and black and scarlet. The tattoo was applied so heavily it looked almost like an impasto.  The boy had followed as closely as possible the original brush strokes, filling them in solid, and it was marvelous the way he had somehow managed to achieve – even with this slow process – a certain spontaneity. The portrait was quite alive; it contained much of that twisted, tortured quality so characteristic of Soutine’s other works. It was not a good likeness. It was a mood rather than a likeness, the model’s face vague and tipsy, the background swirling around her head in a mass of dark-green curling strokes.

“It’s tremendous!”

“I rather like it myself.” The boy stood back, examining it critically. “You know,” he added, “I think it’s good enough for me to sign.” And taking up the buzzer again, he inscribed his name in red ink on the right-hand side, over the place where Drioli’s kidney was.

The old man who was called Drioli was standing in a sort of trance, staring at the painting in the window of the picture-dealer’s shop. It had been so long ago, all that – almost as though it had happened in another life.

. . .

On a sudden impulse, Drioli turned, pushed open the door of the gallery and went in.

It was a long room with a thick wine-coloured carpet, and by God how beautiful and warm it was! There were all these people strolling about looking at the pictures, well-washed, dignified people, each of whom held a catalogue in the hand. Drioli stood just inside the door, nervously glancing around, wondering whether he dared go forward and mingle with this crowd. But before he had time to gather his courage, he heard a voice beside him saying, “What is it you want?”

The speaker wore a black morning coat. He was plump and short and had a very white face. It was a flabby face with so much flech upon it that the cheeks hung down on either side of the mouth in two fleshy collops, spanielwise. He came up close to Drioli and said again, ‘What is is that you want?’

Drioli stood still.

“If you please,” the man was saying, “take yourself out of my gallery.”

“Am I not permitted to look at the pictures?”

“I have asked you to leave.”

Drioli stood his ground. ” He felt suddenly, overwhelmingly outraged.

“Let us not have trouble,” the man was saying. “Come on now, this way.” He put a fat white paw on Drioli’s arm and began to push him firmly to the door.

That did it. “Take your goddam hands off me!” Drioli shouted. His voice rang clear down the long gallery and all the heads turned around as one – all the startled faces stared down the length of the room at the person who had made this noise. A flunkey came running over to help, and the two men tried to hustle Drioli through the door. The people stood still, watching the struggle. Their faces expressed only a mild interest, and seemed to be saying. “It’s all right. There’s no danger to us. It’s being taken care of.”

“I, too!” Drioli was shouting. “I, too, have a picture by this painter! He was my friend and I have a picture which he gave me!”

“He’s mad.”

“Someone should call the police.”

With a rapid twist of the body Drioli suddenly suddenly jumped clear of the two men and before anyone could stop him he was running down the gallery shouting, “I’ll show you! I’ll show you! I’ll show you!” He flung off his overcoat, then his jacket and shirt, and he turned so that his naked back was towards the people.

“There!” he cried, breathing quickly. “You see? There it is!”

There was a sudden absolute silence in the room, each person arrested in what he was doing, standing motionless in a kind of shocked, uneasy surprise. They were staring at the tattooed picture. It was still there, the colours as bright as ever, but the man’s back was thinner now, the shoulder blades protruded more sharply, and the effect, though not great, was to give the picture a curiously wrinkled, squashed appearance.

Somebody said, “My God, but it is!”

Then came the excitement and the noise of voices as the people surged forward to crowd around the old man.

‘It is unmistakable!’

“His early manner, yes?”

“It is fantastic, fantastic!”

“And look, it is signed!”

‘Bend your shoulders forward, my friend, so that the picture stretches out flat.’

“Old one, when was this done?”

“In 1913,” Drioli said, without turning around. “In the autumn of 1913.”

“Who taught Soutine to tattoo?”

“I taught him.”

“And the woman?”

“She was my wife.”

The gallery owner was pushing through the crowd towards Drioli. He was calm now, deadly serious, making a smile with his mouth. “Monsieur,” he said, “I will buy it. Drioli could see the loose fat upon the face vibrating as he moved the jaw. ‘I said I will buy it. Monsieur.”

“How can you buy it?” Drioli asked softly.

“I will give you two hundred thousand francs for it.” The dealer’s eyes were small and dark, the wings of the broad nose-base were beginning to quiver.

“Don’t do it!” someone murmured in the crowd. “It is worth twenty times as much.”

Drioli opened his mouth to speak. No words came, so he shut it; then he opened it again and said slowly, “But how can I sell it?” He lifted his hands, let them drop helplessly to his sides. “Monsieur, how can I possibly sell it?” All the sadness in the world was in his voice.

“Yes!” they were saying in the crowd. “How can he sell it? It is part of himself!”

“Listen!” the dealer said, coming up close. “I will help you. I will make you rich. Together we shall make some private arrangement over this picture, no?”

Drioli watched him with slow, apprehensive eyes. “But how can you buy it. Monsieur? What will you do with it when you have bought it? Where will you keep it? Where will you keep it tonight? And where tomorrow?”

“Ah, where will I keep it? Yes, where will I keep it? Now, where will I keep it? Well, now . . . It would seem,” he said, “that if I take the picture, I take you also. That is a disadvantage.’ He paused and stroked his nose again. ‘The picture itself is of no value until you are dead. How old are you, my friend?”

“Sixty-one.”

“But you are perhaps not very robust, no?” The dealer lowered the hand from his nose and looked Drioli up and down, slowly, like a farmer examining an old horse.

“I do not like this,” Drioli said, edging away. “Quite honestly. Monsieur, I do not like it.” He edged straight into the arms of a tall man who put out his hands and caught him gently by the shoulders. Drioli glanced around and apologised. The man smiled down at him, patting one of the old fellow’s naked shoulders reassuringly with a hand encased in a canary-coloured glove.

“Listen, my friend,” the stranger said, still smiling. “Do you like to swim and to bask yourself in the sun?”

Drioli looked up at him, rather alarmed.

“Do you like fine food and red wine from the great châteaux of Bordeaux?” “ The man was still smiling, showing strong white teeth with a flash of gold among them. He spoke in a soft coaxing manner, one gloved hand still resting on Drioli’s shoulder. “Do you like such things?”

“Well – yes,” Drioli answered, still greatly perplexed. ‘Of course’

‘And the company of beautiful women?’

‘Why not?’

‘And a cupboard full of suits and shirts made to your own personal measurements? It would seem that you are a little lacking for clothes.’

Drioli watched this suave man, waiting for the rest of the proposal.

“Have you ever had a shoe constructed especially for your own foot?”

“No.”

“You would like that?”

“Well…”

“And a man who will shave you in the mornings and trim your hair?” Drioli simply stood and stared.

“And a plump attractive girl to manicure the nails of your fingers?” Someone in the crowd giggled.

“And a bell beside your bed to call a maid to bring you breakfast in the morning? Would you like these things, my friend? Do they appeal to you?”

Drioli stood still and looked at him.

“You see, I am the owner of the Hotel Bristol in Cannes. I now invite you to come down there and live as my guest for the rest of your life in luxury and comfort.” The man paused, allowing his listener time to digest this cheerful prospect.

“Your only duty – shall I call it your pleasure – will be to spend your time on my beach in bathing trunks, walking among my guests, sunning yourself, swimming, drinking cocktails. You would like that?”

There was no answer.

“Don’t you see – all the guests will thus be able to observe this fascinating picture by Soutine. You will become famous, and men will say, “Look, there is the fellow with ten million francs upon his back.” You like this idea, Monsieur? It pleases you?”

Drioli looked up at the tall man in the canary gloves, still wondering whether this was some kind of joke. ‘It is a comical idea,’ he said slowly.  “But do you really mean it?”

“Of course I mean it.”

“Wait,” the dealer interrupted. “See here, old man. Here is the answer to our problem. I will buy the picture, and I will arrange with a surgeon to remove the skin from your back, and then you will be able to go off on your own and enjoy the great sum of money I shall give you for it.”

“With no skin on my back?”

“No, no, please! You misunderstand. This surgeon will put a new piece of skin in the place of the old one. It is simple.”

“Could he do that?”

“There is nothing to it.”

“Impossible!” said the man with the canary gloves. “He’s too old for such a major skin-removing operation. It would kill him. It would kill you, my friend.”

“It would kill me?”

“Naturally. You would never survive. Only the picture would come through.”

“In the name of God!” Drioli cried. He looked around aghast at the faces of the people watching him, and in the silence that followed, another man’s voice, speaking quietly from the back of the group, could be heard saying, “Perhaps, if one were to offer this old man enough money”, he might consent to kill himself on the spot. Who knows?” A few people sniggered. The dealer moved his feet uneasily on the carpet.

Then the hand in the canary glove was tapping Drioli again upon the shoulder, “Come on,” the tall man was saying, smiling his broad white smile. “You and I will go and have a good dinner and we can talk about it some more while we eat. How’s that? Are you hungry?”

Drioli watched him, frowning. He didn’t like the man’s long flexible neck, or the way he craned it forward at you when he spoke, like a snake.

“Roast duck and Chambertin”, the man was saying. He put a rich succulent accent on the words, splashing them out with his tongue. “And perhaps a soufflé aux marrons, light and frothy.”

Drioli’s eyes turned up towards the ceiling, his lips became loose and wet. One could see the poor old fellow beginning literally to drool at the mouth.

“How do you like your duck?” the man went on. “Do you like it very brown and crisp outside, or shall it be…”

“I am coming,” Drioli said quickly. Already he had picked up his shirt and was pulling it frantically over his head. “Wait for me. Monsieur. I am coming.” And within a minute he had disappeared out of the gallery with his new patron.

It wasn’t more than a few weeks later that a picture by Soutine, of a woman’s head, painted in an unusual manner, nicely framed and heavily varnished, turned up for sale in Buenos Aires. That – and the fact that there is no hotel in Cannes called Bristol – causes one to wonder a little, and to pray for the old man’s health, and to hope fervently that wherever he may be at this moment, there is a plump attractive girl to manicure the nails of his fingers, and a maid to bring him his breakfast in bed in the mornings.

Roald Dahl, 1916-1990.  Skin, 1952  (Someone Like You, 1954)

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space - creator of art projects - writer on art

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