‘So what happened? Why didn’t you get to college?’
I’ve relaxed a lot with this process now. I sit back and look at the ceiling before attempting an answer. ‘Maybe I had better things to do?’ I suggest.
‘Bullshit’ he offers, levelly and after some consideration. ‘You were scared. Tell me I’m wrong.’
It’s ok. I can take it. I think about it a bit more. ‘Scared of what?’
‘You’re stalling. You know what. At least be honest with yourself.’
‘Ok. Err...’ I stop again. I think he’s partly right but I don’t know what to say about it.
‘Ok’, he says. ‘You were afraid you’d try your hardest and fail. How’s that?’
‘I don’t think so’ I say. I sit and try and work out what it actually felt like to be in that situation. I think about what it was like when I had to try and find a job after I failed my exams – with all those adverts in the paper, all those forms they sent me. I couldn’t imagine what the employers wanted to read about me and anyway I knew what they would think of me even before I started. What was the point? It was just a waste of time.
‘I just couldn’t start – it was too complicated’ I say. ‘I didn’t know where to begin. It was like getting lost... or something like that.’
‘You were afraid of getting lost?’ He looks doubtful.
‘I think I’d have been ok if I thought I was heading in roughly in the right direction but it all felt so – I don’t know – muddled, like a big mess I didn’t know how to get through. It actually felt like, if I’d started something, and tried, even reasonably hard, and done ok, or even if I’d failed, it’d’ve been ok, but I couldn’t even start... do you see...what I mean...at all?’
‘Tell me something that feels like that – something you couldn’t start. No, forget that – is there something you did start, failed at and still felt ok with?’
‘That’s easy’ I say. ‘I was in this competition – they wanted a frieze for a doorway at a local community centre. They specified how big it had to be, colours, materials, cost. Only the subject matter was left up to us. I had this big idea for an underwater scene that fitted perfectly – it was down at the harbour, this building, the sea scouts and kayak club were going to use it. It was a bit of a dump but they were going to do it up. Anyway, I think my scheme was a bit dark for them. They wanted something sunny and bright – yachts, sunshine, mer-fucking-maids, whatever, but the sea there isn’t like that, it’s dark and encrusted and oily and rusty, not ugly, you know, but not pretty-pretty. Anyway – I had all that. I was going to use all these layers of colour – to get the depth of water – like glazes... anyway, they didn’t like it. I could see they wouldn’t get it, although – they had this local historian on the panel and he was really into it, really pushing for it, and I could see he really understood it....’
Joe is watching me, half smiling. ‘Go on’ he says.
‘The thing is, I was a bit pissed off, because I knew it was the best, and I knew these other judges were a bit, you know, tra-la-la, happy birds and flowers, but it didn’t matter. I’d done something I knew was good. It just didn’t appeal to them. But I had impressed the person I could respect. 'Course, I’d like to have won, and I could have done with the book tokens, but it was ok. I didn’t have to win. I was satisfied with my work. It was enough. So...’ I smile at the memory. It had been a good experience, frustrating, but good.
And Joe smiles too. ‘Ok. I get it’ he nods and looks at me. ‘So what did your family say?’
I look down at my feet. I’ve stopped wearing shoes. It’s not hot out, but it’s pleasant. I never wore shoes before if I didn’t have to. People were always going on at me “you’ll catch your death” or “you’ll run something through... don’t come running to me” but I never did. I’m not stupid.
‘I don’t think they were very interested really. Amelia liked it.’
‘Didn’t they talk about it? Didn’t you talk about it with them?’
‘I don’t think there’d have been much point.’
‘How old were you when all this happened?’
‘So what did they say about it at school?’
‘It was the art teacher got us started on it – entered us in the competition.’
‘What did he say – she say about it?
‘She – she was cool, but the school wasn’t really very supportive – I think she was going to retire, and they all thought she was a bit weird...’
‘But you liked her?’
‘No, she was weird – probably should have retired ages ago. Hairy legs under her stockings.’ I shudder a little and Joe smiles. ‘I know, I know’ I say. ‘But it was a rough school.’ I feel a little guilty. I know they thought I was a weirdo too. ‘We should have stuck together, us weirdos, huh?’
‘I didn’t say that’ says Joe holding up his hands and feigning innocence, but I know he was thinking it.
‘But your parents didn’t know about this competition? Why not?’
‘They’d have just said something like “won’t get you a proper job”, or “what about your O levels?” They’d have agreed with the vicar.’
‘He was on the panel.’
Joe smiles, and chuckles to himself and shakes his head. I think he’s laughing at me.
‘What?’ I say.
‘Oh...’ he looks around the room, thinking about how to put it. ‘It’s just... You seem very sure of yourself. No no, don’t get me wrong. It’s a good thing.’
He studies me. I watch him.
‘It’s not a criticism – believe me. It’s just, given the rest of your story, you don’t seem to have had many doubts about your abilities, as an artist I mean. And I’ve no doubt your confidence was well-founded. That’s quite interesting don’t you think?’
I’d never really thought about it. It makes me feel quite proud. Joe looks very pleased anyway. Somehow I always knew I could paint. I wonder where that came from?
I also always knew it didn’t mean anything at all about my chances of success. To get on in life it’s more important to please people, say the right things, wear a tie. It has nothing to do with ability. If you want to be a ‘success’ it’s better to be mediocre, predictable, ordinary, inoffensive. Popular in other words.
He’s still watching me but now looks uncomfortable. ‘So what about your O levels?’ he says after a pause.
‘I did ok. Passed. It’s not exactly MENSA.’
‘And you went on to do A levels?’
‘Only person in my class to try. Headmaster didn’t like to take risks.’
‘Failed. Completely. Couldn’t even get a pass.’