Friday, 27 July 2012

Journey VII – Sodom City

It’s three more day’s travel to the edge of the city and the first thing that strikes us, even from some distance away, crossing the desert is the grey yellow gas that passes for sky here. Sunlight reaches the ground only weakly, as if from a grease-encrusted fluorescent tube on a low nicotine-stained ceiling. The land around becomes increasingly featureless and devoid of life.
Then there is the stink, which is overwhelming. I’ve been unlucky enough to come across large dead animals that have been lying out in the rain on a hot day and recognise the appalling stench of dead meat. Here it is further mixed with the smell of stale urine and other ordure, and some chemical, solvent vapour I half remember from a warehouse I worked in once for about a week. Soon it becomes apparent where the stink is coming from.
Across a vast puddle of human waste we see dwellings built so close to the edge they are almost falling into the water. Some appear to have already done so and yet there are still people living in them, perched on bits of board or corrugated iron, burnt and rusted, strapped with rags to a wooden frame that is itself rotted and tilted, but which supports a clothes line, a TV, a yellow plastic beer crate for a table. Everything is stained a sickly greyish pink. The only bright colour is from discarded plastic items that lie about or float in the sewage. Thank whoever there are no children here. Our wagon rolls on. Only a hundred yards separate us from them on the other side of the lake. Hundreds of bored eyes watch us go by.
Down in the water, if it can be truly said to still be water, stocky orange crabs and gross, turd-like toads struggle and flop about in the warm excrement. Occasionally, huge eels squirm among them. We watch, fascinated as a toad swallows a crab more than half it’s own size. The crab tears a lump out of the toad’s nose with its claws as it is engulfed.
Looking beyond the first rank of shanty dwellings, a solid mass of similar constructions, some unbelievably on two or even three levels, and all strung with cables, aerials and clothes driers, covers the entire hillside and disappears over the top. The smog cuts out any further view of the city itself, which, we are told by Jeb, lies over the next hill. Its towers apparently would be easily visible on a clear day but they don’t have clear days here.

Finally there’s the noise – sirens, shouts, gunfire and running feet over the corrugated iron flooring somewhere close to the water’s edge. And then behind that the more distant sound of machinery, and of fire, and of traffic. We all sit in stunned silence, willing the mules to move faster. And yet, as I say, we are fascinated.

Quite quickly it comes to seem unreal – more like a film or a computer game. We glance at each other but have to look away. We have nothing in common watching this. There is nothing we can say. At one point the lake narrows and becomes a frothing channel and we get a closer look at the locals who wade half way across and stand, expressionless in the diarrhoea. None of them has an intact body. All of them are missing some part or other, or has some sort of rotting scar or gash. Their clothes likewise hang off them in stained rags, revealing damaged and discoloured bellies and breasts. In the water, bodies lay in various states of decomposition, but then we see one move and we realise they can’t be dead of course. The prospect is too horrible to contemplate and several of us throw up – our breakfasts mingling with the fluid before us, and actually looking relatively wholesome by comparison.

Mercifully we roll on over a mound and leave the view of the shanty behind for a while, although the stench and the noise still reach us. We stop for a while and stand about. We look at each other again now. Mike stands bent with his hands on his knees, like he might vomit again. The girls, as Agnes and Muriel have come to be known, sit silent and motionless in the wagon. I look at Shamim and try to think of something to say to her, but it is Nicky who comes over and throws her arms around me and cries. Shamim looks away. Jeb looks on. He has a job to do, that is what his demeanour tells us, and he’s bloody well going to do it. The Sadeghis come over and hug their daughter. Well that’s right. Nicky is my friend and she doesn’t have anyone else to go to. I hope they understand. She smells of peppermint.
I shuffle around, waiting for Jeb to make a decision. I kick something half buried in the ground and realise it is an old congealed pot of paint, and I wonder what it’s doing here. Then I crouch down and look more closely at the ground and realise it is composed entirely of fragments of trash, and there are bits of wire and polythene bags protruding. We’re standing on some enormous landfill, trodden and bulldozed into a hill. It gives slightly under foot, and exudes a smell of rotten garbage and solvents. We go over to its highest point and from there we can see right across the shanty to the desert beyond, but the city skyline is still obscured. Looking down I can see treacle-like fluids leaching out of the mound we stand on into the lake.
‘Can we go now?’ says Nicky to Jeb as we head back to the wagon.
‘I’m afraid we’ve hardly begun’ he says and gets back up into the driver’s seat. We all reluctantly get in the back and resolutely avoid looking out at the view. I look at Shamim, but she sits with her parents and looks elsewhere. Her father has his arm around her shoulders protectively. I sink down lower among the baggage and let my mind wander but the images of those diseased and tortured individuals on the far bank won’t go. I decide to look at Shamim anyway, whether she likes it or not. She curls up and closes her eyes. Her mother looks like she might be praying. I wonder who to.

We travel on a little further through a barren rocky landscape, like the floor of an immense quarry until darkness falls, and in this case, “falls” seems like a very good description of what happens. It’s as if a heavy grey cloth is pulled over us and it takes us some time to readjust and make out the patterns of lights around us – tiny, weak flickering violet glows from candles and hurricane lamps in the shanties, and then behind them we can make out the floodlights of what appear to be factories or mines casting their glare onto the fumes, and rows of taller lamps for the roads. The sounds of heavy machinery, of tons of steel crashing and grinding seems louder now than it was in the day, as are the yells and the sirens and the guns. As the night wears on I notice more lights further back still – hundreds of lights, high in the air, some static, others flying about. I realise one of the sounds I’ve been hearing all day is helicopters when one swoops low over the shanties, spraying it with bullets.
Mrs Sadeghi is indeed praying when I go over to them. Shamim is leaning against her father, who is lost in thought, or maybe dozing. It’s hard to tell. I kneel in front of her and startle her a little when I place my hand on hers. She smiles and I ask her if she’s alright. She nods.
‘Do you want to come and sit with me for a while’ I ask, not really expecting her to leave her parents at the moment, but she gets up immediately and we go back to where I was, watching the choppers soar about. Her parents immediately coalesce into a single shape.
‘Why do you think anybody would choose to stay here?’ she says sadly once she’s sat down. I look down at her and smile as warmly as I can.
‘Come down here and be with me’ she says, and I sit behind her, much as her father had, with my arms and legs around her protectively and my face over her shoulder. She turns her head and we kiss for the first time. It’s such a small, soft kiss and yet I feel it run through my whole body on tiny silver feet. I nuzzle into her hair and kiss her ear. She smells of cinnamon. We sit like that and watch. The straffing seems to have stopped but now there’s blue flashing lights and sirens down there, and more gunfire.
She turns away from it and kisses me again but this time more passionately.
‘Good place to fall in love’ she says quietly.
All I can do is smile and kiss her some more.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Voyage VII – Life, the Universe and everything

As soon as I arrive I know something’s up.
‘The point is not that we don’t know all there is to know on the subject’ says Lou, lacking his usual composure. ‘I’m perfectly willing to admit that. The problem is that you appear to be claiming that you do know...’
‘So you admit you don’t know it all’ says Olly, equally ruffled.
‘Gladly. But neither do you.’
‘I never claimed I did either.’
‘Gentlemen...’ says Ned. Lou and Olly look away from each other. They are re-grouping, not backing down.
‘Look...’ says Lou, off again.
‘Oh gawd’ says Keith, turning conspicuously to his book but he’s in no position to complain. He loves the fracas.
‘As a scientist it goes with the territory that there are things we don’t know – otherwise there’d be no more research grants, and then where’d we be?’
The attempt at levity falls flat. Olly is still tense. He feels insulted, I can tell, but he’s still trying to be civil while Lou remains pompous and patronising and doesn’t realise how infuriating he is.
‘I’m sorry...’ says Olly at length ‘I simply cannot accept your view of a world, of a universe without a... a mind, a guiding force. I understand – no wait a minute – I understand, really that you are not wilfully denying the existence of a God you secretly know to exist – no let me finish Lou.’ Lou sits back and crosses his arms. ‘I understand that you sincerely hold your views, and no doubt, when the day comes, God will respect you for that and you will not be “damned for all eternity”. I accept what you say on all that, but you have to accept my belief that...’
Lou can’t wait any longer. ‘But where does that “belief” come from?’
‘I don’t know Lou. You tell me’ says Olly wearily leaning back.
‘I don’t claim to know. That’s just the point.’
‘Well if you don’t know, what are we arguing about?’
‘That you do claim to know. It comes from God doesn’t it? Or your soul or whatever it was you said – these insights, these intuitions about the nature of life and the universe and right and wrong?’
‘Or from the bible surely?’ interjects Keith.
‘Absolutely, written by people with similar sources for their insights – revelation, meditation, prayer – yes?’
‘If you say so Lou.’
You said so. You said it yourself Oliver. Your faith came to you in meditation and some “intuitions” you had, and of course from reading your bible. But Oliver, how do you know these “intuitions” came from God? Hmm? You... what? just sat there under a tree and thought about it? ...sat in your room and read a book and that gave you insight into the workings of the universe? Does that not strike you as somewhat presumptuous Oliver?’
‘Steady, Lou.’ Ned puts out a hand to calm Lou who is standing up. Olly is looking very tired and hunched. Keith looks like he could get violent with Lou if he doesn’t shut up soon.
‘No Ned.’ says Lou levelly, ‘I’ve been accused of arrogance by this man because I attempt to understand the universe without recourse to God whilst he reads an old book, or sits and thinks about it and there it is. Hallelujah! He has the truth. How silly of me not to have just sat and thought about it for a while.’
I look at Lou. I’ve never seen him like this. There’s something dark and uncompromising in his eyes.
Olly’s voice is low and almost lost in his scarf. ‘I never said I had the truth. God is a mystery...’
‘But you do know, somehow that God exists, don’t you? ...that He made everything, that He wants us to follow His only son and be forgiven for our sins. You claim to “know” those things don’t you Oliver? And it’s not the same as a reliance on the scientific method before you say anything. I don’t think I ever heard a Christian say “Our redemption by the blood of Christ is a plausible theory, given the weight of evidence, but we may be proved wrong in the long run.” Faith is a totally different matter to science.’ Lou looks around. He’s begun to shout and suddenly realises it. He sits down self-consciously and tries to be calm but cannot contain himself. He leans forward at Olly. Olly looks away. ‘Somehow, for you, sitting and thinking or praying, or reading an old book convinces you that you know all these things. I find that extraordinary, no, unbelievable.’
‘But you claim to know’ says Keith challengingly, ‘all about the big bang and evolution and so on. How do you know? You haven’t seen it happen. Nobody’s ever actually seen it happen, so how can you believe in it?’
Lou takes a moment then turns on Keith ‘How does a car engine work Keith?’
Keith isn’t expecting this. Lou has always been the butt of Keith’s good-natured condescension, Lou and Olly both. He doesn’t expect to be faced down.
‘What? What are we talking about?’
‘Tell me what goes on in a car engine – not the gears and clutch and all that – the cylinders and the pistons. You’ve taken an engine apart Keith. Tell me what happens when the engine runs...’
Keith is obviously suspicious. It is obviously a trap of some sort but he doesn’t want to admit that the trap might catch him so he smiles and gives a medium length description of the cycles of an internal combustion engine. He makes it light and jovial and it gives everyone a chance to relax a little. Olly sits up straight. Keith clearly really does know his stuff and appears to be attempting to bury Lou in detail. Finally Keith comes to a halt and takes a swig from his pint. Lou just says ‘U-hu’ and nods his head slowly. Everyone waits tensely to see what will happen next. I notice suddenly that the dark haired girl from the bar is sitting behind Keith. I’d been so caught up in the debate I hadn’t noticed her arrive.
‘And you’ve seen all this have you?’ says Lou eventually. Keith makes a smirk and looks at him as if he’s very stupid indeed. Ned, however looks as if he knows what’s coming.
‘You’ve seen the combustion, the petrol and the air, in the cylinder, exploding.’
‘What?’ Keith wants more to work with but Lou just looks at him, waiting. ‘Well, not as such, but it’s obvious what’s happening.’
‘Noise, smoke from the exhaust, shaft turning...’
‘Yeah, and petrol ignites in air...’
‘It certainly does...’ agrees Lou ‘but doesn’t it strike you as remarkable that you can run your Beemer on, what? Explosions? In a metal box? Doesn’t that seem unbelievable to you? If you’d been, I don’t know, a mediaeval peasant and someone had put it to you that your cart could be run on explosions do you think you’d have listened to them? It sounds ludicrous doesn’t it? Magic.’
‘But it does happen. We’ve all seen it Lou. Thousands of times, any street you like.’
‘No you haven’t Keith. You’ve never seen that explosion, in that cylinder.’
‘But it makes sense.’
‘Yes it does. Precisely.’
‘But that rather backs up my point’ says Olly, sitting up straight. ‘It’s physically impossible to see the force working but you know it’s there nonetheless. There is no other explanation.’
Lou takes a moment to think. We take this to mean that Olly has scored a point but I can see Lou’s not letting go.
‘Look’ he says, almost forcibly grabbing Olly’s attention and getting all of ours along with it. ‘Given the evidence – yes, we explain the role of the petrol in the engine but no...’ He looks around at the rest of us getting restless. ‘Can you hear me out? I’m nearly done.’ Everybody has clearly had enough now. This’d better be good. ‘You can look up the designs, read the chemistry, do the physics. It’s all there if you want to, in the literature, and it does make sense, yes’ he says turning to Keith. ‘There’s the maths and the logic and you put it all together with the data and there it is – you don’t need to actually see the explosion. It stands to reason, as you said Keith...’
‘But your theory of evolution doesn’t make any sense does it Lou? I...’
‘Oh? And what is your opinion on epigenetic inheritance Keith? Or sympatric versus allopatric speciation?’
‘What? Patrick who?’
‘I’m sorry, I assumed, since you had such a strong opinion on the subject Keith, that you must know something about it. My mistake. Now as I was saying Oliver, what I want to know is where’s your evidence for God? Where’s your reasoning? All you’ve done, both of you, is discover we haven’t explained everything (as if we should have everything sewn up by now, which by the way would be the ultimate arrogance) and have jumped to the conclusion that therefore God must have done it. You argue that your explanation has the merit of simplicity compared to all the “mental gymnastics” I am “forced to resort to”, but yours is no explanation at all. You’re like the father who is asked by his young son what makes the car go. He doesn’t know the answer so he tells his son it’s the Automotive Spirit makes it all happen. All you’ve done is give the problem a name. You have no evidence for His existence, besides his conveniently filling in all the gaps for you, that and your “deep intuitions”. And you call me arrogant, in that condescending, ecclesiastical tone of yours Oliver, like I’m just a silly boy who hasn’t tried hard enough?’ He stands up and looks down at Olly and Keith. He’s surprisingly tall.
‘Finally’ he says, ‘I don’t claim to know for sure what the universe is like. I have some theories, which appear to work, but might just as well be found to be wrong tomorrow. That’s science for you. But do you know what? I survive. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I manage. And I don’t feel the need to believe a fairy story about the meaning of life, the universe and everything just to make myself feel better...’

And with that he leaves – picks up his coat and smartly makes for the door. We all watch him go, all stunned, except the girl who’s looking in her purse for something.
I look at Ned who shrugs. ‘All academic now anyway’ he says ‘I mean, look at it’ and he points generally about at where we are. ‘Who knew?’ he says.
‘Makes you wonder if the God we thought we were praying to was the God who was actually there’ says the girl from behind her makeup mirror, touching up her eyebrows. ‘That’s if there was one there at all.’
‘You’ve only got God’s word for it’ adds Ned, grinning at her.
‘Could have been anyone. Could have been Thor’ she says, grinning back, putting her compact away. Keith looks profoundly troubled. I’m not sure if it’s because his faith is being challenged all over again or because the girl he’s picked up turns out to be quite capable of thinking for herself.
Olly also looks troubled, but it’s not so funny. He’s almost in the recovery position on the seat. He looks like he may lose it completely and suck his thumb at any moment. He looks about and slowly uncurls, hoisting himself up by gripping the back of the bench. Ned looks at him and raises an eyebrow at me. ‘Fancy a drink old mate?’ he says, bending down to look into Olly’s face but his gaze is far away. Suddenly he looks up at Ned. ‘Yes’ he says. ‘A large one please Ned.’
I smile at Olly. He looks really shaken. ‘Do you think I was condescending?’ he says. I’m not sure what to say. In truth I think he can be. We all can.
‘One for you kid?’ says Ned to me.
‘Calvados please’ I say, nodding. We’re all still half stunned with not being sure what just happened here.
‘I have to go and find Lou.’ says Olly hoarsely.
‘He’ll be alright.’ says Keith, but I can tell he really doesn’t really care. He looks at the girl over his shoulder but it is obvious nothing is going to happen between them now. She gets up to go and see if she can find her ‘posse’.
‘No’ says Olly ‘I have to go and find him.’ And he stumbles out, taking his coat with him.
I look at Keith. He shrugs and picks up his glass. ‘Your very good health’ he says dourly.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Vincent V – Acceptance

I’m quite excited about getting back to my story when my next session with Vincent comes up but the tosser is late. I can’t believe it. I stand outside the door waiting for what seems like half the session. I’m just about to go and get a drink when he appears and opens the door to let me in without a word of explanation or even making eye contact. We go in, we sit down. He arranges his stationery. I sit with my arms crossed and look out the window. The weather has definitely improved although it is still bloody cold out.
‘So’ he says at last ‘Where were we?’
‘Waiting’ is what I want to say, but I say nothing.
‘Ah yes - Art College’ he says, consulting his notes. ‘I want to ask you what made you decide to try again?’
I think about this for a while. I still feel like making him wait but can’t be bothered. It doesn’t seem to be working anyway. He seems oblivious of how I feel.
‘I don’t think I did decide as such, not consciously’ I say. ‘It was always there, in the back of my mind – that I hadn’t gone when everybody else did.’
‘You were a failure.’
‘I mean you felt you were a failure.’
‘I felt...’ What did I feel? ‘I felt left out, mostly. I felt I should have been able to go. I knew I ought to be able to...’
The truth is I always believed, despite everything that happened, that I could be someone remarkable, someone exceptional, and above all, someone desirable. I don’t know where that came from. I think back to how I was back then and it occurs to me that life would have been a lot easier if I’d been able to just accept my lot – get a normal boring job, a normal boring wife and some normal boring kids, but I never could, even if it meant ending up frustrated and alone.
‘And yet you did not go’ he says. ‘We must come back to that. What made you try again?’
‘I don’t know, I think one day I just was looking at all the work I’d done – my room was just stacked high with it, and I’d got a couple of A levels along the way and I just realised one day I could, in theory, apply. I didn’t think I ever would. I just liked the idea that I could if I wanted to.’
‘You took more A levels. Why?’
‘Not for the bits of paper. I was interested in the subjects and then I just thought I might as well take the exams.’
He looks unconvinced but it really had been like that. I really hadn’t been thinking realistically about going back to college. I don’t think I’d have done as well as I did if I had. I don’t work so well under pressure.
‘It doesn’t sound as if you were taking all this very seriously...’
He’s very disgruntled today – even more preoccupied than usual. I know what he’s thinking. He thinks I should have been grateful for the opportunity to study – been less blasé, more committed – got my self a solid routine – a work ethic. But the fact is, I didn’t want to do it at all unless I was enjoying it, and actually, it was easy. I didn’t have to work ridiculously hard because it came fairly naturally. I think that pissed my family off more than anything – like I should change courses and do, I don’t know, chemistry or something, just so I would be seen to be doing the requisite amount of slog. I bet Vincent feels the same way. I tell him I was taking my painting very seriously. I hardly did anything else. By this stage I’d moved out and got myself a place in Hove. It was a draughty, dusty room at the top of a huge old house near the sea front with enormous windows looking out over The Channel. Hardly anybody even knew I was up there. I’d given up on making any new friends, far less finding a girlfriend (all the others at the evening classes had been middle aged ladies) and was rather enjoying being this tragic rejected figure /misunderstood artist in his garret. I’d broken up with Pamela a little while before, after I met a girl called Natalie at a Woodentops concert. Natalie seemed a bit more my type – younger, smaller and altogether less possessive. We had a couple of steamy nights in her room in the halls of residence at Sussex but she lost interest in me after that (I think she still had a boyfriend back home anyway). After that I was celibate for a couple of years. This wasn’t a matter of choice - the Natalie experience gave me fresh hope and I went out more and tried even harder, but it turned out to have been a one-off and soon I was back to my room again, painting and drawing furiously – mostly rather contrived nudes and interiors (I was into Francis Bacon at the time). By the time I moved out there were boards stacked so thickly around the walls of my room that there was only enough room to walk from the door to the bed to the little clearing at the window where my easel was. The carpet was ruined.
Why did I finally move out? It was like everything else – because I suddenly realised I could. I had some regular night shifts at an old folk’s home where they didn’t bother me and I got all my meals, so that was the money side of things taken care of, and really, I had nothing else to stay home for. I burnt most of my work in the back garden the weekend before I left and packed everything that remained into a rucksack and a holdall.

I really loved that place in Hove. It was a real Paris loft – vast windows and bare boards – rough plaster walls that I could draw on or blu-tak things up on. I guess it must have been servant’s quarters and hadn’t had any attention since Edwardian times. There was a little burner for my coffee pot and my pan and a huge saggy old double bed in the corner and a feeble shower on the landing downstairs. I got in some pot plants and put up shelves and arranged my books and other bits and pieces and I had my music of course and made the place smell of sandalwood and linseed. All that was missing was a naked woman posing among the sheets.
Actually, I recall I took great trouble arranging all my ‘found objects’ and pictures and records and books around the place. I had postcards from the Tate, and some, I thought, intriguing second hand books on nature and anatomy and architecture that I thought I might have a use for one day, and some driftwood and stones and rusty metal, and some of my old toys. I had this idea that my room might one day be regularly frequented by all sorts of exciting people. I thought they might, during a lull in the scintillating conversation, peruse my shelves and be struck by what a strange and interesting young man I was. Of course it never happened. What was I thinking?

The other thing was that it was absolutely perishing in winter and I got dad to come over in the Lada with extra bedding and another heater. I remember lying in bed looking out across the roofs and watching the weather change and the seagulls shrieking and squabbling among the chimney pots. I was there for five years almost...
Vincent is waiting for a reply.
‘Sorry. What did you say?’
‘They were impressed with the work you were doing.’
‘Sorry. Who?’
Vincent shakes his head and tidies his papers. ‘I am very sorry Gabriel. I cannot help you if you will not concentrate. I’m not convinced you even want to be helped...’
‘Excuse me – you’re the one who couldn’t even be bothered to turn up on time today.’
He sits silent and still for a while. I hadn’t planned my outburst. Now I don’t know what comes next. ‘There was an emergency...’ he says, quietly and with restraint. And suddenly I can tell by the way he looks at me, by his whole demeanour, that something terrible has happened, that he’s been struggling the whole session and I’ve been a selfish, oblivious moron again. I want to ask what happened but don’t feel I can. I sit and look at him for a while.
Even so, I think, it’s not just today. There’s been a problem all along. I decide to say something.
‘I’m sorry...’ I begin. He nods but he clearly doesn’t think it’s good enough. ‘...but it’s not just today is it? I feel like you’re not that interested, and then...’ I tail off. He’s looking at me expressionlessly. ‘Of course. My problems must be trivial compared to... some of the people you must...’ I’m getting nothing. He’s just looking at me, then at his papers. ‘Look, if you don’t want to do this...’ I say, ‘it really doesn’t matter that much...’ There’s a long silence. It’s very uncomfortable. ‘I’ll leave’ I say, beginning to get up.
‘Stay. I’ll be alright’ he says. ‘Give me a moment.’ I sit on the edge of my chair and wait. He doesn’t take long. ‘Now... where were we?’
I let out a long pent up breath and relax a little. ‘I can’t remember’ I say. ‘Er... Interview – they were quite impressed I think.’
‘Ah yes. They liked your work.’
‘They did.’
‘What was it like?’
‘Um... well, pretty conventional mostly – I took some of my older stuff – collages and stuff, and some mock-ups I’d made for a mural commission.’
‘You were commissioned to make a mural?’ he says brightening up.
‘ was rejected, but I was pleased with what I’d done. It just wasn’t quite what they had in mind I don’t think. Some of the judges liked it. Anyway, I took that along, and some self-portraits, life studies from my classes and views from my window of the sea and the rooftops. I was very into Lucien Freud.’
‘Fairly famous English painter. Ziggy’s grandson I believe. He’s still working I think... wherever “still” is, in relation to here.’ Vincent smiles and nods and I feel better immediately.
‘And they accepted you, even though you were... twenty-seven wasn’t it?’
‘As a mature student, yes.’
‘You must have been very pleased.’
‘God yes – oops. Sorry.’
‘No matter. And your parents? They must have been pleased for you?’
‘You’d think so wouldn’t you.’
‘They didn’t really say anything much. I think they were relieved they wouldn’t have to make a contribution to my upkeep since I was over twenty three.’
‘I’m sure that’s not true.’
‘Why what?’
‘Why are you so sure?’
‘Well, had I been your father... I’d have thought they...’
I look at his discomfort – let him flounder. Somehow I can’t quite imagine him as my father, let alone being proud of me going to Art College.
‘But they are your parents’ he continues, apparently perplexed. ‘I think you underestimate them. They must have said something, surely...’
Still I sit and look. He doesn’t believe me. I think back, hard, trying to remember what my parents did when I told them what I was doing. Nothing. I can’t remember any reaction whatsoever. Justine was very happy I remember but she wasn’t about much at the time. Amelia bought me a beer. I remember that.
‘If it had been my daughter...’ he says, and then pauses. He’s inadvertently revealed something personal here – I can tell he didn’t intend that, but clearly he feels strongly about this and presses on. ‘If my Anna had come home and told me she had a place at college, to do a fine arts degree we’d have had a party for the whole street, the whole family. I wouldn’t have been thinking about money.’
‘But I was twenty seven...’ I say. ‘I knew they saw me as a bit of a waster by then and this was just my latest fool scheme.’
‘But all the more reason to be proud – the prodigal son returns and all that. There should have been rejoicing and welcoming. You had been in the wilderness, but you came good and you would be a credit to your family.’
I look at him. He is suddenly animated – excited for me. I’ve never seen him like this. I try to imagine my family like this. It’s impossible.
‘I think they just saw it as another opportunity I’d probably waste – like all the other jobs – get fired or forced to leave...’
‘But they were not for you, this landscape gardening, this nursing auxiliary’ he says, as if he’s been served up some scummy grey hairs, pulled out of a plughole, in a sandwich. I am amused at the contempt in his face. ‘These were not the careers for you. Surely they could see that? They saw your bedroom full of paintings.’
‘They complained about the carpet...’
‘So take the carpet up’ he says.
‘I think they thought I’d never get a proper job with...’
‘But did they know that? No. Did they try to find out? What did they know? You must have been furious with them.’
‘No. Not really. I suspected they might be right to be honest. There aren’t many painters out there making money.’
‘But that isn’t the point. You get your degree, doing what you love – maybe you are never a famous artist, but it is a degree – you can teach, or work in the media. The media are crying out for good illustrators. Or you can work in the arts as a restorer, a curator, a librarian, and all the while, in the background, you work on your paintings, and maybe one day... Oh come now Gabriel. You know this is not about having a job. Surely they could see this?’
He’s furious. And he’s right to be furious. I should have been furious. I can see that now, but I, even, didn’t understand, not at the time. At the time I was just doing the one thing I was good at, and these people at the college were going to pay me to do it for three years. I wasn’t really thinking much further than that at the time. It was only later on I began to understand what I was capable of.
‘It wasn’t really like that. I don’t think even I really took it seriously, back then, as a real career. I didn’t know anyone who made a living at anything except ordinary jobs – factories, labouring, domestic, secretarial. I don’t think it seemed very real. You have to remember we were all very working class, and my parents were about sixty or so by then. It was a completely different world they grew up in.’
‘They still should have been proud, or they should at least have been hopeful. It is unforgivable, this, pessimism, this narrow mindedness.’ And he is suddenly so angry. It’s shocking. ‘I was up on deck earlier’ he says.‘I shouldn’t be telling you this. There was a young woman, one of my... clients, threw herself overboard, because she had no hope in life, because she didn’t believe she could be different, because her family told her she was good for nothing. That is why she felt that way, and now she is lost, for all eternity. That is why I was late by the way. You assumed I couldn’t be bothered with you...’
I am such a wanker I think. I don’t know what to say. ‘I am so sorry’ I say, eventually, ‘but you could have told me.’
‘Yes, I wasn’t thinking’ he says quietly. ‘I am sorry too.’
‘Don’t apologise.’ And now I feel sorry for my self-centredness.
‘Well let this be a lesson to you’ he says, with mock sternness. He smiles and presses my knee. ‘We have to learn to have faith, don’t we, even without God. We have to learn to trust in each other, and hope for the best. Do not make your parents’ mistake Gabriel. The world is as good as we choose to make it.’

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.