Monday, 12 March 2012

Vincent III – The wilderness years

‘So, why did you not start earlier, this career of yours?’ He flicks through his notes, holding the upper ones daintily between index and middle finger. He’s very cool about everything. It’s impossible to work out what he’s thinking. It puts me on the defensive.
‘You began your degree, when? When you were about twenty-seven?’
I nod. ‘About then.’
‘What happened between school and college?’
I really don’t want to talk about this. It was a fairly crap time in my life – unemployment, living at my parents when everyone else had gone to university or went travelling. Most of them had careers by the time they were twenty-three.
‘Did you travel? Work? Come on. I can’t help you if you won’t talk to me Gabriel.’
I decide to start with something positive ‘I did some courses – life drawing, art history, Spanish...’
‘For... er... nine years? All that time you “did courses”? What else were you doing? You had no ambitions hmm? No hopes, dreams?’
I look away. I can’t stand the way people can only think of ambition in terms of work and money. I had ambitions. I wanted more time to spend painting and reading and walking in the country. I wanted to be left alone to get on with it, not worrying about what the boss thought of me. Hope? What the hell does he know?
‘I was unemployed a lot’ I mumble eventually through my teeth, defiant and ashamed, glaring at the floor between my feet.
‘I’m sorry, I can’t hear you’ he says, bending down, peering irritably up into my face.
‘I was unemployed’ I repeat, too loudly.
‘Ok’ he says smiling. ‘Ok. No need to shout. You were unemployed – so what? It was the eighties – everyone was unemployed or so I gather. It was your Maggie Thatcher. It’s nothing to be ashamed about is it? Actually I understand it was quite fashionable at the time...’
‘Not from where I was standing.’
‘All those punks and anarchists – the Sex Pistols and The Clash. It was quite cool – no?’
I smile and wonder where he was at the time.
‘No’ I say, but at least smiling ruefully now, not so disgusted with myself. It had been an interesting time. In some ways the music had kept me going, up in my room with my half-finished drawings and collages everywhere (although I was more into The Cure and New Model Army myself.) But it hadn’t been cool, not at the time. I’d lost contact with everyone I knew from school and somehow never made new friends afterwards. The worst thing was my parents coming in from work. They never said anything, or nothing much anyway, but I knew from the silence what they thought of me.
‘I wasn’t really part of the scene to be honest’ I say, feeling a bit sorry for myself, as usual. ‘I didn’t really know anybody...’
‘Did you try?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well’ he shrugs, ‘go out, meet people, make friends...’
‘Yes, sometimes...’
I think about those times I hung out at the Electric Grape or The Old Vic, sitting at a table or leaning on the bar. I’d lean in and ask someone what they thought of the band or whatever, but half the time I couldn’t really hear what they said and the conversation tailed off. I didn’t get the impression anyone was particularly keen to get to know me anyhow, and nobody else ever tried to start a conversation. So generally I ended up down the by the stage, dancing wildly, or drinking too much and being sick, then spending the rest of the night sat on the floor at the back. I could never really work out what was going wrong. Surely this was how people met up and made friends – bars and clubs and gigs? I shake my head. ‘Nothing’ I say. ‘Not really.’ He frowns at me, like there’s something I’m not telling him. Maybe another time.
‘But you must have been doing something?’
I tell him about all the time I spent in my room, drawing etcetera. ‘And I had a few shop jobs and so on.’ He looks encouraged by this. ‘I worked for a landscaper for a while – my dad knew him, put in a word for me. That was god-awful – lugging rocks and bags of cement around in the rain or strimming all day in the heat with a hard hat on and protective clothing, with the fumes and the noise and the dog turds flying around. Not my idea of “getting outdoors and doing something healthy”. And why do they insist on starting so f’king early? What is it with this bloody work ethic that says you must start before it’s light or you haven’t done a proper day’s work? I don’t get it.’
He looks at me doubtfully.
‘Look’ I say, ‘it’s just that whole stupid protestant working class thing where you have to “work all the hours God sends” even though you’ve got sod-all to show for it at the end. Like my parents were always making out that if I worked really hard and saved up I’d have the money for things I wanted, but it never worked for them – they always slogged and slogged on their crappy wages and it never made any difference – there was always something came along to soak up any extra they made, some unexpected repair or household expense and they’d be back at square one, but having wasted all that time at work on top of that, so they didn’t even have the time to do ordinary things – either that or they ran around at the weekends, frantically trying to fit everything in. I was fucking exhausted just watching them. Amelia was the same with her kids – always off to some class or club or other, and keeping up her career. I don’t know how often she actually spent time with them.’
I come to a halt and look at Vincent. I have no idea if he was listening or not, but I felt like having a good old rant anyway.
‘And your mother found you some work at a nursing home?’ I nod. ‘How did you find that?’
So he isn’t interested. Ok whatever...
‘It was ok, for a bit. Better. I didn’t mind. I mean it was fairly revolting now I come to think about it – putting old ladies on the commode and changing their wet pants and so on. It was ok though, but I just got so bored, you know, with the routine and the stupid pointless conversations. Mum said I was “work shy” but I don’t think that was true. I just always had other things I wanted to be getting on with. I suppose in the end I just thought I could do better. It sounds arrogant I know...’
‘Not at all, not at all...’ He nods with satisfaction and writes something down. What I haven’t told him is that I managed to make myself entirely dispensable everywhere I worked. They were ok at first, these jobs, but pretty soon I was just so totally bored out of my skull. I don’t think I was alone in this. Everybody was bored, but the others seemed to be happy to just look busy, and spent most of their time chatting to each other. For most of the staff it was more a part of their social life than a job. I would have actually preferred to get on and do something useful, but for them the actual work was frankly a bit of an inconvenience. I didn’t really fit in. The landscapers were all typical blokes, and the care workers were either middle-aged women or gay. I didn’t fit in anywhere. I just made them feel uncomfortable. Generally they’d find a reason to lay me off sooner rather than later and it was always a real relief when it came to that, even though it meant I’d have to face my family – again, and go and sign on again, and look at the situations vacant pages every Thursday again, and write all those sickly sucking letters about how much I wanted to work in their shop/office/factory. I look over at Vincent. He’s still writing. I take a sip of water.
‘So you became bored with the routine and long hours and wished to move on, follow your dream. I am not surprised. But what I don’t understand is what took you so long.’
I look at him. I like the way he tells it – makes it look as if what I did made some kind of sense. It didn’t feel that way at the time.
‘It wasn’t really planned’ I confess. ‘I’d pretty much given up on going to college when I left school. I didn’t have any ideas what to do next.’
‘But you knew you could do something, something better.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘No?’ He clearly doesn’t believe me. ‘And yet you kept on with your art and you did do something with it... eventually.’
I think about this. I think about my frustration back then. Sometimes I used to get so furious. Sometimes I smashed things up – nothing important, mostly my things. I never hurt anyone (although I’d like to have done sometimes.) Sometimes I’d just break down in tears in the street on the way home, if I’d had a bit to drink. That’d be the worst times. Alcohol never agreed with me. I try to think back, unravel it.
‘It was like, it didn’t matter what I thought of what I was capable of, or what I wanted. It wasn’t up to me.’
He looks at me, as if straining to understand, and failing. ‘But it is always up to you’ he says, ‘to make choices. No one else can do that for you.’
I shake my head. ‘I don’t think so, or at least, that’s not how it seemed. At the time, it felt like everyone else was in charge, and I couldn’t do anything unless they let me.’
‘And they would not?’
‘I gave up asking.’
‘But you thought you could do something better, nevertheless.’
‘Yes, but that was irrelevant.’
‘But you did believe in what you could do. You believed what you created was good – even before that – and you never really gave up. Am I correct?’
‘I suppose so...’
‘Look’ he says, ‘I’m not saying that anyone can simply do anything they choose. Clearly that is not true. Many things come in the way – your sex, your age, your nationality, the place you are born, how you are brought up and so on and so forth. Or simply bad luck. Some things you can overcome, some you cannot. I am not a naive existentialist but...’ and here he leans forward and looks intently into my eyes. It’s a bit uncomfortable. ‘...but we can all choose for ourselves what we wish to do, and we can all try. That is all. We may fail in our ambitions, but not to choose, and not to try – that is true failure. Surely you know this.’ I look at him. It’s a bit scary. I’m not sure I really tried very hard. Mostly I just felt overwhelmed. I feel like a fraud.
‘Anyway’ he says, leaning back and clapping his hands together. ‘Next time we will talk about why this happened – see if we can’t speed the process up next life and achieve even more. By the way – did you have a girlfriend all that time, I’m sorry, forgive me. You might be a homosexual.’ I shake my head. ‘So, you had girlfriends?’ I nod. He’s getting up, collecting his papers together. I notice as he does so they’re mostly covered in doodles. ‘Ok’ he says. ‘We will have to talk about that too. Next time.’ He opens the door for me. I don’t know what to think.

No comments:

Post a Comment

A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.