‘And you keep trying to tell me that you’re not vain.’
At the sound of England’s voice, France looked up from the display case he was inspecting of a solid silver hair brush and vanity set, which once belonged to a noble lady now long since forgotten.
(France remembered. Lise, her name was Lise. She had four children, laughed like a braying donkey and had died at forty-one).
England had wandered further away from where France had last seen him amongst the crowds, happily analysing a collection of porcelain figures as if they had personally offended him. Now, he was inspecting a large painting of a dinner scene from the fifteen hundreds and scowling at one of the diners in the far bottom hand corner- a young man dressed in fine, rich clothing and leaning languidly in his chair.
‘I’m not entirely vain.’
‘We could have been doing many things today but instead we are here, admiring you.’
‘We are not admiring me,’ France told him, coming up alongside, ‘Just my people and history. Which you can argue is me, but it is not really.’
England gestured at the painting with his head, ‘That’s you.’
The diner in question was in profile but it was easy enough to tell, from those who knew him well, that it was France himself. A habitual way of draping himself on a chair and the same loose, wavy hair as today. Half grin unchanged, a connection through time via the almost direct look at the painter through the fourth wall.
He looked so much younger.
France smiled fondly, ‘Ah, so it is.’
England snorted and shook his head, ‘You already knew that.’
France hoped that he looked surprised, ‘Did I?’
‘I did not.’
‘I fail to be convinced.’
‘That sounds like a problem with yourself, my dear.’
England didn’t answer, only continued to gaze at the painted version of France seriously.
‘Admiring me after all, are you?’ France nudged his shoulder against England’s, prompting him to loosen his hands from where they were hiding in his coat pockets only to swat France away.
‘Not a chance.’
England stepped back to suddenly to walk away and then into the next room. France followed him, skirting around a gaggle of tourists who refused to part for him.
It wasn’t an impressive museum. Nothing large or fancy about it at all compared to some that France could boast about but it was surprisingly thorough nonetheless. Especially considering that it was in a small, coastal town. The town’s history made up the bulk of the displays but there were other artefacts and exhibits there from neighbouring towns and regions- the age-old borrowing and swapping of local stories.
Through an arch of stone and into the new exhibit, England immediately made for the paintings covering the walls, stopping to gaze up at them and rove his eyes about the canvas with an inscrutable expression.
‘Looking for me?’
England tilted his head slightly to one side; the sharp cut of his jaw made all the more apparent. There was a bite on his collarbone that France knew was there, put there by himself and carefully hidden under his clothes.
‘Do you do that on purpose?’ he asked.
‘Put yourself in paintings.’
France shrugged, turning back to the work in question. He wasn’t in this one but he didn’t want to stop England from looking, ‘Not intentionally. I have known a lot of artists over the years and occasionally they’ve asked me to sit for them. I’m never sure exactly where I’ll end up, in some cases it’s only sketches. Sometimes, nowhere at all.’
England made a small noise in the back of his throat to acknowledge the reply but didn’t say anything more, continuing to take in the busy scene. This one was a landscape of his southern countryside: purple fields of lavender and brilliantly blue sky. People dotted the path running through it all like wayward flowers.
‘Do you not?’ France asked him.
‘What? Sit for paintings?’
‘Yes. Or artists.’
England considered this, ‘Not intentionally. I know I’m in a few as part of the background but I’ve never intended to be.’
‘You’re missing out.’
‘I can’t see how.’
France looked his arm through England’s and began to lead him away, ‘Oh, you know, it’s the process itself. To be seen like that. To have someone look at you and see you for your individual parts- your eyes, their shape. How your mouth sits when it’s relaxed, the way light looks on your skin. Your colours and tones. Like carving you out of marble bit by bit.’
England tutted, ‘I again remind you that you keep trying to convince me that you’re not vain.’
‘It’s not vanity,’ France insisted, ‘It is art. It is. It is not only for beauty, although admittedly that is a huge part. But even beauty is subjective to the artist and to be captured in such a raw way is a very liberating feeling, even if you don’t agree with or like the end result.’
‘All the more for you than me.’ England stopped their progress to look into a display case of jewellery: old and once well-loved pieces polished to an almost forgotten shine. They looked fake now, after so many years and decades of accessories minimising and dulling- vibrant colours and elaborate designs now reduced to mere fine gold chains about necks or delicate, slim rings on fingers. Plain linen instead of painstaking lace, quick zips instead of expensive, fiddly pearl buttons.
France didn’t even know what he himself preferred anymore. Would he ever wear his own old things again, or were they now nothing more than a museum exhibition in his own home, a shrine for a life he had lost?
‘It is not just for art though, or beauty.’ France continued, noting that England had kept a hold of his arm even as he bent down to get a closer look, ‘It is also about being captured and placed in time- a record of your presence in the world.’
‘We have left more than enough of that already,’ England muttered.
‘You know that’s not what I mean.’ France folded down a lapel on England’s coat that had curled upwards, ‘You take a lot of photos now, do you not? I’m assuming to remember the moment.’
England made a noncommittal noise, ‘More for the children than myself.’
‘And you draw or paint yourself sometimes. Or, you used to.’
‘Yes, as a hobby.’
‘But also, to remember what you had seen. You haven’t done anything abstract, to my knowledge.’
‘Would you not have liked more likenesses of yourself throughout time?’
England shrugged, ‘Not much I can do about it now, is there. We can’t get those times back and there’s no point in mourning for them.’
He straightened up fully, gazing about the room for something else to catch his attention and France moved to quickly kiss the side of his neck and whisper in his ear, ‘I could paint you.’
England’s cheeks burned and he dropped their arms, stepping away to give himself a respectable distance, ‘Not a fucking chance.’
An older woman who had also been gazing longingly at the same display next to them looked up startled and quickly shuffled off.
France grinned, ‘Oh Arthur, you didn’t think I meant dirty things, did you?’
England scowled, blush creeping down his neck, ‘Only through sad and unfortunate repeated exposure to you.’
‘Well, I didn’t mean that. I was proposing something entirely child friendly.’
‘Of course. Still no.’
‘It doesn’t have to be about now either. I could paint what I remember of you.’
England gave a sudden laugh, ‘That’s even worse. Lord knows how I’ll turn out but your interpretation will hardly be accurate.’
‘Or are you worried that it will?’
England’s face fell, expression closing and France immediately recognised that he had gone too far.
‘Of course not,’ England said, hands back in his pockets, ‘Do as you will, I can’t stop you.’
France pressed his tongue against the back of his top teeth, biting at it gently, ‘No no,’ he said eventually, ‘It’s not the same if you don’t agree. Your irritation will mar the paint and my handiwork, even if you’re not there to spoil it physically.’
England looked suspicious, ‘I’m surprised you’ve not already done one.’
France had at least seven. All tucked away in different places, only coming out when France felt nostalgic. Two full bodies, about a few centuries apart, and five portraits. England unaware, face open and unguarded enough to let physical youth bleed over and hide him.
‘Never. You’re not a very good muse. You don’t inspire much in me.’
England shook his head and huffed, seemingly satisfied with that answer, ‘Maybe you’re not a very good painter.’
‘We both know that’s not true.’ France reached out for his arm again and, despite a slight stiff reluctance and his hands still in his pockets, England let him slip his arm through his elbow once more, ‘Come on, I read that there are some weapons in the next wing which I’m sure your brutish personality will find much more appealing.’
England allowed himself to be led onwards, a suspiciously quiet hostage as he and France moved to a lower floor. The first display was that of some longswords, fanned out like a metal peacock’s tail.
‘Here we are,’ France said, releasing him, ‘a more familiar record of our presence on this planet.’
England appeared to chew the inside of his cheek, regarding the swords passively.
‘I’m in some journals,’ he said, eventually, ‘A few poems too. I’ve only ever found them by accident.’
‘And you’re sure they’re about you?’
England gave a quick small, silly smile, ‘The ones I recognise.’
‘Trust you to prefer that, of all things. And you call me vain.’
England rolled his eyes, ‘It’s different. Those are people’s memories of me, or their perception. Nothing at all to do with my outward appearance.’
‘It is still vanity to be pleased with how oneself is seen,’ France walked around behind him to go further into the room, ‘Regardless of what is captured.’
‘If you say so.’
Ahead was a small armoury, the painted brick walls canvassed by metal spears and shields, and glass cases keeping ancient bullets and arrows and daggers like ancient coins.
The two sides of them, France thought as he stopped amongst it all to wait for England to catch up. A constant swing between soft and steel depending on what they chose to show. Depending on what one searched to find and chose to remember. Soft silk trousers, carefully stitched shirts. Aching arms and heavy swords, the stale sweat and dried blood that collected under unforgiving armour. Eiderdown and bruises, gold filigree to chainmail.
‘Francis. This is a terrible display. Good lord, a toddler could have dated these better.’
‘Arthur, leave it.’
'I am not going back over there.’