Is there anything you wouldn’t do to stay beautiful? A one-shot inspired by my favourite novel, and the recent UK film based on it.
‘Of course I do. I wouldn’t be in the profession if I didn’t. Now come on, we’re gonna be late.’
Rain plummeted from the sky, drumming on the roofs of the black taxis and red double-deckers of London as the two men stepped outside and ran to the car. It was ostentatious enough, a shining red sports car with tinted windows and a huge engine. It attracted quite a lot of attention as it zipped round the packed city streets. Shoppers, tourists and workers alike paused to shelter from the rain for a moment as the car stopped at the lights, admiring its splendour. But it was nothing compared to its contents. The car held something much more precious than itself; more precious, people might think, than anything money could buy. In comparison, the car was… boring.
Fifteen minutes later and the car pulled up outside a very old, striking building, complete with twisting spires and intricate Renaissance patterns weaving their way up to the dull lead roof. Sliding out of the car and handing his keys to his loyal valet, Joe Trohman walked smartly up the steps and into the building.
The exterior, although striking, was very misleading. Although the outside had kept its archaic charm, the interior had had a complete makeover. As Joe stepped inside a glamorous room, cheerily lit and immune to the gloom of the weather outside, a cluster of colleagues surrounded him with papers and phone calls, and he sighed, taking in the setting he’d had for the past few weeks. A golden lustre covered the walls, with mirrors of all shapes and sizes cluttering them. Tall ones, short ones, warped ones, round, square; even compact mirrors; all framed with intertwined red and white roses. The ceiling was a deep midnight blue, and twinkling lights had been installed, giving the room a decadent, romantic edge.
But that wasn’t what Joe wanted today.
‘Hey! When are these sheets going up, huh? Come on, there’s only an hour before my next booking!’
His members of staff scattered and Joe started across the polished pine floor; but halfway across remembered something, and walked back out to the dim foyer.
‘Hey man, go and put this on, alright? Come back out when you’re done, and I’ll make the final adjustments.’
Joe thrust a plastic bag into his friend’s arms, and then headed back in the direction he was going. It was to be a busy morning, and on a very tight schedule. Since moving to London he’d really been able to kick off his career, the secret talent he’d had since he was a boy, and bookings had gone through the roof… which was why he only had a short amount of time for the morning’s project. It had taken Joe a long time to convince all his staff to come in and cover up the background for his previous project, and he’d have to pay them all overtime. But boy, would it be worth it.
The final sheet had just been pinned to the wall, and the starry lights switched off. As Joe rigged up one final large light he heard footsteps approaching him.
‘Hey, you’re back! Perfect! Now, just go stand over there for me…’
Joe waved vaguely towards the back of the room, not looking up from his light until he’d positioned it just right… perfect. He climbed down from the ladder and strode to his camera, looking first at his subject.
‘I can’t believe you’re making me do this.’
‘It’s perfect. You’re perfect. Don’t you see?’
Pete Wentz sighed as he leaned against the sheets, exasperated. The ravages of adulthood had not yet taken their toll on the smooth olive face. His lips were full, soft and pink; his lustrous brown hair shone warmly under the bright light of the studio; his face was chiselled ever so slightly, creating so much power and sophistication, yet maintaining the soft features of youth that all envy. His deep, dark eyes swivelled to Joe, boring into him with their intensity, and his arms folded around a slim, perfectly toned body. He was everything men wanted to be… everything. No one had ever met a man quite like Pete Wentz. At just eighteen, he was able to give the impression of being a sophisticated, charming, well-read man. No one could doubt how overtly masculine he was. Yet, at the same time, his flawless skin and shining eyes gave the wonderful insight to innocence, and the kind of joy that only childhood holds.
Joe jolted out of his reverie. ‘Mm?’
‘Can we do this? I wanna get some proper clothes back on.’
‘Those are proper clothes!’
‘An ordinary boring white shirt and some black pants? Come on, man!’
Joe stepped forward and pushed up the sleeves on Pete’s shirt, exposing the unblemished skin underneath, free of scabs, freckles or tattoos.
‘That’s all the customisation I can give you. Right! Back against that sheet… Dim the light a little –’ he called to his assistant, ‘– and… ah, this just isn’t right. Pete, try and make your face a little more… oh, how would you describe it…’
‘What’s up, Joe...? Oh, I didn’t realise you had an appointment.’
Joe stood with a growl, angry at being distracted from his masterpiece.
‘You always pick the right moment, don’t you, Patrick?’
Pete looked over at news of the arrival of someone else. A short man stood behind Joe, even shorter than Pete (which was quite a feat). He wore tight black jeans (similar to Pete’s, but cut in a much more interesting way) and a loose blue shirt, hiding a slight paunch. From behind a pair of glasses he could see sparkling blue eyes, and from under a black trilby he swore he saw a cutting smile flash across his face, mischievous and wicked.
‘Introduce me, Joe! Who’s this project?’
‘Number 1,263… Pete Wentz, a personal friend of mine. Pete, you just stay looking at the camera…’
Patrick took a few steps towards Pete while Joe fiddled with the camera, inching closer, his head on one side. His curious nature had, once again, got the better of him.
‘So you’re Pete Wentz. The legendary Pete.’
‘Joe’s told me quite a lot about you.’ Patrick stopped, just before he came into the camera’s view, and folded his arms. ‘And he knows what he’s talking about.’
Pete frowned, but kept his eyes on the camera. ‘Would you care to explain?’
‘You don’t know?’ Patrick gave a small laugh. ‘Surely you’ve seen the way people react when you walk into a room, or when they see pictures of you on the cabinet at home? You, Mr. Wentz, are perfect. There isn’t a single mark on you. For all the world knows, you’re still a child. No one knows a thing about you, but… because of your wonderful looks, they assume you live an equally wonderful life. You may not. In fact, it’s often the case that the best of us must find happiness in misery. But anyway, I digress. You know all the women in the streets fawn over you. You know that even men admire you. The reason Joe has you in such a simple outfit, in such a simple setting, is to highlight how naturally extraordinary you are! And we both know that, deep down, there’s a colourful individual waiting to spring out and compliment the body you were blessed with. The power of beauty and the power of youth… With both of these at your fingertips, you could have it all.’
‘Perfect! That’s perfect! Pete, you just stay right there and don’t move!’
Patrick sighed, tired from his little speech, and stepped away to see Joe’s handiwork. But Pete was completely, utterly immobile. He’d never realised. He’d heard Joe’s flattery, and seen the huge number of women who’d batted their eyelashes at him in the streets… but up till now… up till Patrick’s words had sent strange sensations flowing through his mind… It just hadn’t occurred to him how much power he had. And, ever so slowly… he began to feel himself thinking differently.
‘I don’t know what you said to him, man, but these are the best photos yet! This is incredible!’
Joe was ecstatic as he clicked away, marvelling at the look on Pete’s face. His lush lips were slightly open, his cheeks blushed, and a twinkle danced in both widened eyes. He had caught the pure, refreshing essence of youth, right there on a dreary day in a little studio in London. And it would make him rich, and famous, and Pete would love it, become his greatest friend…
‘Pete! Come over and see these!’
Pete walked over slowly, still a little dazed as Joe handed him a photo.
‘There you go! That’s you, right there. That’s who you are. Exactly what I wanted to capture… Hey, fingers off the edges!’
But Pete was oblivious to Joe’s nagging, staring at the magnificent photo in his hands. He knew it was perfect, he knew he was envied by all for his looks. But he just… couldn’t quite believe it.
‘You see? Joe’s right. You have a lot to be proud of.’ Patrick had inched closer again. ‘And, like I say, you could do anything with it, be anyone you wanted, not having to care about other people’s opinions.’
‘But… but Patrick, this isn’t me! I’m not that incredible! I’m just a regular guy!’
‘You, regular?’ Patrick laughed loudly, rushing to the side and tugging on a sheet. It fluttered slowly to the floor, pulling all the others with it, and as the mirrors were slowly revealed it seemed as if the blinds had been pulled from Pete’s eyes. Each mirror exposed to him more and more of what he was; as each sheet fell he became more and more euphoric. It really was him; he had all these wonderful qualities; he was perfection personified. And as the last sheet tumbled to the floor he ran up to the first mirror, twisting and turning in astonishment, moving to the next to see if the mirrors affected how he looked… but no! In every single one he was just as beautiful. He flitted to the next, and the next, and the next… running round and round the room, watching his muscles as they contorted, a smile fixed on his glowing face, feeling as if he were about to take off on silk-light wings into the sodden sky…
Patrick watched Pete with interest.
Looks like I’ve found a new project.
He slowed, and pirouetted into the middle of the floor, landing with a small laugh.
‘Patrick, you’re so right!’
‘Of course I am,’ he smiled calmly.
‘I’m… I’m… I amaze even myself, I…’
‘Calm down, Pete. Come over here and take another look,’ Joe muttered. Somehow he felt… angry. Angry that Patrick had come in and convinced Pete of his beauty, the job that he, Joe, was supposed to do. Angry that he’d made Pete so unbelievably happy in just a matter of minutes. In fact, he was even angry that Patrick had gotten Pete into the pose he’d wanted, looking even more miraculous than ever, after he’d been trying to do it himself for months… but having done so by engraving such tainted, adult attitudes into his still-youthful mind.
He looked over at Pete, realising he’d got his breath back. He was standing silently, still panting a little… but he’d taken on a sad, sullen air. The joyful energy he’d shown only a minute before had disappeared, and he was staring at the photo in his hand with a look of deep despair.
‘What’s wrong? Don’t you like it?’ Joe questioned; worried sick all his hard work had gone to waste.
‘That’s just the thing. I’m in love with it. I’m in love with me,’ Pete sighed. ‘But this picture’s always gonna stay the same. Me in the picture… I’ll never look any different. But me in real life… I’ll get old. I’ll lose my hair, and get wrinkles, my teeth will go crooked…’
He broke off, covering his mouth as tears sprung to his eyes, and suddenly threw the photo to the floor.
‘This is terrible! I don’t ever want to look any different from this!’ he cried. ‘Oh, if only… if only I could stay the same! If only the picture and I could trade lives. I’d stay perfect, while he grew old and haggard… If only that could happen! I’d give anything for it. I’d give up my house, all my money, my friends… God, I’d even give my soul. Yeah, my soul for that beauty!’
Pete laughed, tears still in his eyes, at the prospect. Yet, the moment he’d said it… he felt something else working within him. He wasn’t quite sure what, but everything seemed… clearer. All of a sudden, a sense of calm came over him. He no longer felt upset at the prospect of ageing. In fact, it was as if he didn’t have to age any more.
‘Pete, you’re such an unusual guy. Come on; let me take you for lunch, show you some old haunts, huh? I’d love to know more about you.’
Pete looked up at Patrick’s offer, the tears suddenly gone. As much as he didn’t like to admit, he wanted to know more about Patrick too. The guy had given him such incredible ideas; made him change his outlook on life in one morning. And, in his new-found sense of self-importance… why shouldn’t he go? He was a grown man, a man with an exceptional gift. He could do anything he wanted.
‘Sure, why not?’ He flashed a grin at his new friend.
Patrick smiled back, and headed towards the exit, followed by a curious Pete. And, almost as an afterthought, he stopped.
‘Joe, you coming?’
Joe managed to suppress a snarl. Ten minutes after Pete met Patrick, and he was already being replaced. To make matters worse, he was far too busy to join them and keep an eye on them.
‘Sorry man, I’m booked all day. In fact my next appointment should be along any minute now.’
‘Your loss.’ Patrick shrugged and turned to Pete, and they talked as they left the building. Joe went to the door and watched them as they disappeared into the dark London day, silently observing, lamenting as he realised he’d lost the most precious thing he had. As he watched, he could read the scene like a book. He knew Patrick inside out, the Patrick beyond the shy, innocent exterior; all his deceptive little tricks, the sordid deals he got himself involved in, his repulsive past. Joe knew that, as the pair talked, Patrick’s words were intoxicating to Pete, the beautiful rapture on his face saying it all. And, at that moment… Joe realised the obvious. The innocent, flawless Pete he used to know was gone. Forever.
‘We never get back our youth. The pulse of joy that beats in us at twenty becomes sluggish. Our limbs fail, our senses rot. We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not courage enough to yield to. Youth! Youth! There is absolutely nothing in the world but youth!’ – Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’