‘I have a question’ I say to Vincent as I sit down next time.
‘Very well’ he says, putting his papers down for the moment. ‘Go ahead.’
‘If there are people, old souls out there, in life, remembering their previous lives – how come they don’t tell everybody about it, about all this?’
‘It’s a good question’ he says. I wait for more but he doesn’t look about to elaborate. I watch him expectantly. ‘I don’t know’, he says finally as if irritated by my impertinence. ‘It’s a mystery.’
‘But people must have said something about it, when they get back.’
‘I never met one. Anyway – to continue your story.’
I think he’s not telling me everything he knows, but it doesn’t seem worth pushing it right now. I try to think where we’d got up to.
‘So you didn’t really enjoy being a student’ he says.
I think about this. ‘I think it was a really important thing for me to do’ I say finally.
‘That’s not quite what I asked.’
‘It was a roller-coaster to be honest. It was pretty insane. But it was good, all in all. I wouldn’t have missed it.’
‘Oh well, Art students, you know? We’re not the easiest company in the world. Looking back on it, we were all so egotistical, so pretentious, so incredibly full of crap. We had these “deep” conversations about things we knew fu... absolutely nothing about – existentialism and Buddhism and what have you, and we read all these difficult books and listened to some pretty extreme music...’ I drift off a bit, thinking about this guy I knew called Will who read us Rimbaud and played us his Throbbing Gristle LPs. He was really weedy with long lank hair and NHS specks and he seemed very keen to get to know me for some reason. It seems funny now. I was more into Scott Walker and Julian Cope by then and I’d have been reading Milan Kundera and Angela Carter. Happy days.
‘You were, I presume, somewhat older than most of the others?’
‘A bit, but most of the people I hung out with were also mature students. Mind you, that meant twenty-five to thirty five, so not all that mature to be honest. We did our share of misbehaving.’
‘Oh, you know.’
‘Not really. Tell me.’
I feel oddly embarrassed about this, in front of Vincent, looking at me so earnestly, more like a priest than a counsellor. I can’t imagine him misbehaving or understanding why anyone would want to. On the other hand, he keeps surprising me and I think I’m getting quite fond of him as time goes on, despite his off-putting manner.
‘Oh, you know, there were dinner parties, demos, lectures, extra-marital affairs, staying out all night, getting wrecked, throwing up, sexual experimentation, the usual’ I admit, glibly.
‘You did all that?’ he says, smiling.
‘I didn’t do drugs much – they make me paranoid. And I never tried group sex – I don’t do willies.’
He sits back and thinks for a while. I recall his concerns about blasphemy. Oh well, he did ask. He’s only himself to blame.
‘Except your own presumably’ he says. I think it’s his way of calling me a wanker but it’s hard to tell. I give him a silly grin. He chooses to ignore it.
‘You had affairs? Or “dalliances” should we say?’ he says, returning to business.
‘Yes I did. You don’t want details I assume.’ I hope he doesn’t. I’d like to talk about sex actually, but not to Vincent.
‘Not really’ he says.
There’s very little to boast about in all honesty, but I had my moments – like the time I took all my clothes off at a party because this woman I fancied wanted to draw me. I’m not sure why but I never had much compunction about being naked in public and I’d been doing some life modelling at the tech to make a little extra cash. And actually I really liked it. It felt powerfully erotic. I guess I knew I had a reasonable physique, so that helped, but in truth I think I was just an exhibitionist.
As it was she made me at least put a towel over myself before she’d come near me and then we spent the rest of the night there on that sofa, kissing and touching each other up. I remember she was a little older than me, and quite big, but curvy and soft, unlike Pamela who was just big. I had my hands under her dress and worked my fingers round her bra and knickers. Then after a few minutes frustrated with that she disappeared to the bathroom and came back stuffing her underwear in her handbag and, giving me a very dirty grin, we settled back in for the night, pressed together there in the gloom, rubbing and caressing with the party in full swing around us.
We thought we were very daring, and of course we were ‘artists’ and unshockability was part of our image, but it really hadn’t been that sort of party. The power of it was extraordinary, the vulnerability and lewdness, and everyone around us, aware of what we were doing, probably pretending not to watch but secretly having a good old gawp.
I didn’t see her much after that unfortunately. She smiled sheepishly at me when we ran into each other in the corridor, but I think she felt it was all a bit too much in retrospect. I suppose she was right, her being on the staff and all, but I’d have been more than happy with something more conventional from her. She was a very sexy woman. Actually I think everybody avoided me for a while after that little display.
Otherwise I think there were three or four women in all over those five years. Who am I kidding? I know exactly how many there were – there were six, which actually isn’t many by the standards of art students generally, and two of those were not really women I would have chosen if I’d been in full command of my faculties – it was like Pamela all over again. (I didn’t like to disappoint them – how lame is that?) The others though... looking back on it I just want to bang my head on something.
Victoria springs to mind (a different Victoria, not mad, Scottish Victoria). Her friends called her Tori but she preferred to be called Vikki. I haven’t thought about her for ages. I really liked Vikki, and I don’t know why I didn’t stay with her. She was so completely different – older than me by a couple of years and tall and slender in a soft, warm kind of way, and not beautiful in a classic sense but intensely sexy. If you’d met Vikki you’d have thought she was a bit too posh and silly and she used to wear these ridiculous outfits – all cerise and sequins, but she was actually a bright and sensitive woman, training to be a masseuse at the tech. In bed she was just so – what would you call it? Rude? Shameless perhaps? Pornographic certainly. She loved to be watched. This was early on in my student life, long before that night of debauchery at the party and I think it was the first time (at twenty-seven) that I’d ever really had proper sex, as it’s supposed to be. Vikki was extraordinary to watch – swivelling and grinding and dripping onto me. She had an antique leather Moroccan riding crop hanging from the bedstead (which left little heart-shaped smacks all over her bottom) and a Polaroid camera in the night stand.
In retrospect I wasn’t ready for it. It sounds stupid but at the time it seemed too raw, too messy, and a bit scary and I’m ashamed to say I was embarrassed by that accent. The other problem was that I was sleeping with her whilst still seeing one of the more ‘motherly’ types at uni so I gave myself a hard time about that and went for the safe option out of guilt. What a prat! Within weeks I was writhing with regret. I still can’t believe I let her go.
I look over at Vincent. He’s doodling again.
‘I don’t know...’ I say, exasperated with myself. He looks up. ‘I was just obsessed with getting myself a woman but I still didn’t really believe that anybody half decent could possibly be genuinely interested in me. Honestly, sometimes I think back and some woman I spoke to comes to mind, and I’ll recall something about something she said and it suddenly occurs to me – She might actually have been interested in me! And I didn’t even realise at the time, or maybe I suspected it but couldn’t really believe it and didn’t want to make a twat of myself. Stupid huh?
‘I can’t believe I’m telling you all this’ I say, ‘like these are my greatest regrets – not screwing up my marriage or my career but missing the opportunity to have more sex. Pathetic isn’t it.’
‘I think it was Betjemen...’ he says slowly, seriously, laying down his papers on his knees. ‘When they asked him what he would like to change if he could have his life again, he said “I’d have more sex.”’
‘Seriously. So you are in excellent company. Did your work suffer from this “obsession”?’
‘Hardly. I was in the studio every opportunity I got, at the college and at home. I never stopped. Working off my frustrations I suppose. I rather fancied myself as the latest in a long line of English visionary painters – Blake, Gill, Spencer. I worked incredibly hard – all night quite often, and then couldn’t sleep with all the ideas buzzing around in my head. I don’t know how I kept it up.’
‘And they liked your work, the tutors.’
‘Well, that was the other thing.’
‘They said it was too “parochial” Hah! – too “English”. How stupid is that? I mean, I am English. I mean I’m sorry but it’s my culture. It’s where I come from. I love other countries, and I have a lot of complaints about England, but it’s where I grew up. It’s my home. I can’t think of any other place in the world where that would be considered a bad thing. I mean look at what the Mexicans and Russians are doing – it’s all about their landscape, history, traditions... Anyway I just kept on doing what I believed in, what I’d been doing as long as I could remember.’
‘But you did change later on.’
‘Yes. Well, to be honest I’d started on the 3D pieces in the studio at the college already, just to do something different, free up my thinking a bit, so it wasn’t the end of the world. I mean, they said my painting was “technically excellent” and that I certainly had my own voice (which I took as a great compliment) but I know they thought it was all a bit conventional. Anyway I didn’t want to go for abstraction, so I went the other way – “found art”, installations and so on. It kept them quiet, and I was quite good at it, and...’ and I shrug and sit back. ‘... the rest, as they say, is history.’
‘But you feel you let yourself down?’
I think about this. I’m not sure really. Actually I think they let me down, for going for novelty and kitsch instead of what I think of as real art but mostly I’m angry with myself for giving in to them. There’s a thin line between originality and novelty. A lot of people these days don’t seem to be able to tell the difference.
‘At the time I thought “Ooh, big impressive career in the media. Look at what I’m doing” but it wasn’t really me. It wasn’t anything like what I wanted to do. Maybe I was just trying to prove something.’ I look at the floor and fiddle with a scrap of paper.
‘I sold out’ I confess. ‘Anyway, it all went tits up in the end.’
He looks at me, perplexed, but I think he gets the picture.
He sits and leafs through his notes for a while, considering something. The sea feels quite rough today. I can see the tops of waves occasionally through the windows above his head. I wonder where we are. I wonder if there’s a map. He puts his papers down and looks perplexed at me.
‘How did you feel after you gave up the post grad project Gabriel?’
‘Oh, I don’t know. Relieved? Vindicated? Like I was well out of it.’
‘Well, yes, of course.’
‘You didn’t see this as a major set back at all.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘To your future as an artist.’
‘Um... I suppose so.’
‘How did you see your future at that stage?’
I sit blank minded. I can’t think. I haven’t a clue. ‘I suppose I thought I’d manage, you know, sell some pictures, have a private exhibition. There were loads of galleries in Brighton at the time, and there was London.’
‘And you would have been content with that.’
‘Well, it wasn’t what I’d hoped for exactly but it’s not the end of the world. It’s like what I was doing before really, what I’d imagined I might do before...’
‘Before what? Before your degree, or before you began the post grad project?’
‘Before everything. It was like going backwards. I don’t know. Like I said, a lot of what I did later on did seem like a sell-out, like it wasn’t really me, but then...’
‘Well, it was good that it wasn’t really me. I wanted to do something different, to be something different, reinvent myself or something. I was really stupid enough to think I could do that.’
He sits silently, waiting. He knows I have more to say.
‘It was ok for a while. I could enjoy the freedom, but then... I didn’t know what to do. The project had given me a new route, maybe not exactly what I wanted but it was a stepping-stone. I knew there was something not right about it but I thought maybe something real would emerge eventually.’
‘But then it was all gone.’
‘So how did you feel after you gave up the post grad project Gabriel, really?’
‘Like shit. Like I was shit. Like I’d never be anything else, ever again. It was all gone, everything. My parents were right about me.’
‘And how did Mar help?’
‘How did Mar try to help you?’
I can’t think of anything to tell him. I just remember her bustling around, “having to do everything”, while I just sat, and watched her. I shake my head.
‘She didn’t help, but I still can’t convince myself that I deserved any help. I just think, maybe, if I’d tried harder, no, if I’d just shut the hell up and done as I was told...’ But I know even as I’m saying it that I couldn’t have. ‘I just couldn’t bring myself to just kow-tow like that. I just couldn’t. Is that intolerable? Is that just too bad a way to be? Could I expect anyone to love me when I’m like that?’
‘I think you know the answer to that already Gabriel.’
‘We need to continue this later. I’ll see you next time.’
I stay sat down for a moment as he gets up. He stands and looks at me, waiting. I can feel the tears in my eyes and I look away.
I say. ‘You know, I knew Mar couldn’t be in love with me, almost from the start. It just didn’t seem very likely.’
And I get up and leave.