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.’
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.’
‘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.
‘...it 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 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.’