I’ve been thinking about my work at the college. Vincent is arranging his papers, getting ready to start. I feel I need to explain something.
‘To be fair I think they might have been partly right, the tutors...’ I begin. He looks up, a quizzical look on his face.
‘They said my work was dated, as well as parochial. That was the other criticism they had. It wasn’t really surprising. I hardly looked at anything anybody had done since the Second World War – abstract expressionists and pop art and everything. I just wasn’t that interested. Actually I was going backwards – by the middle of the second year I was into the renaissance and such like. Before that I thought they were just a lot of boring old religious paintings but I went to Florence at Easter, and you know you think you know what The Birth of Venus looks like because you’ve seen it loads of times in books and prints? But then you see the real thing and...’ He’s holding his hand up. I stop talking.
‘Today’ he says, ‘I wanted to move on to your relationship with er... Maria?’
‘Mar’ I say, looking at him somewhat coldly I hope. He’s so rude sometimes.
‘Mar. How did you two meet?’
It takes me a while to think. ‘I met her on a holiday I went on the summer I graduated.’
‘Ah. I see. And you fell in love with each other?’
I’m not sure about this. I look back now and I don’t really know how she ever really felt about me. She married me though, and came to England. I suppose that counts for something.
‘Well I fell in love with her. Maybe I was infatuated. I don’t know.’ The image of her furious face and the sound of her shrieking voice come back to me suddenly – an incident involving a plate of curry just missing my head and landing on the pale carpet. Well at least I don’t have to worry about not getting that deposit back now. She’ll have to deal with all that.
But all the trauma later on has contaminated, no, all but obliterated, what went before.
‘What happened when you first met?’ he asks.
I smile and laugh a little at the memory. I don’t know what came over me. It was one of those fiestas the Spanish seem to have almost every weekend in the summer. I was sitting alone at my table, at a bar. I remember I was pretending to read a novel – one of Laurie Lee’s Spanish Civil War books, but secretly I was keeping an eye on what was going on, and sipping my vodka and coke, trying to look sophisticated and cool. The trees were strung with lights and there was some terrible euro-Latin pop playing and everybody but me was out in their Sunday best (I was in my usual shorts and hoodie) and I remember thinking that here was something we had lost back home in England. People there went out clubbing, or to parties, but this was a whole town together, old people and children too, tapping their toes to the music and these magnificent young and not so young men and women dancing the steps they’d learnt when they were babies, and all done up in their neatly tailored outfits. Everyone looked their best, cool and stylish. I felt like a mangy jackal hanging out with a pride of lions. But at least I wasn’t one of those warthogs in their shell suits and Fred Perry shirts down on the coast. I was a traveller after all, not a tourist.
And yet they more than tolerated me. We were far enough I suppose from Benidorm for the men to consider me a novelty and to buy me drinks and to ask me where I came from and what I did, and for the girls to eye me up and get me to dance, which I did, hopelessly, comically, and in a way I would never have conceded to at home. I had a great time.
Mar was also a bit of a miss-fit. She wasn’t local either as it happened – just visiting, and her hairstyle and clothes made this obvious. I remember that night she wore something like a sari in yellow silk but with a broad leather belt. Her hair had flashes of blue in it and a lot of bangles hung on her slender brown wrists and ankles. Silver chains hung around her throat and looped between her lovely brown breasts. She sat, half reclining in a wire chair, side-on to where I was at my table a few yards away and I could see the whole length of her from the sunglasses on top of her head to the rings on her toes. She was magnificent.
I never caught her look at me overtly but I was very aware of her, alone, pretending to read a magazine. Nobody spoke to her. Normally I would have thought, or rather known for a fact, that she was way out of my league. The fact that I was certain she had been looking at me merely confirmed what an oddity I was.
And yet a voice in my head told me to go and say something. So I went and asked what she was reading. It was totally out of character. She smiled up at me and shrugged and told me it was just some trashy article about celebrities and what did I have? I showed her the book and that was it. We didn’t stop talking for three months except to have sex and to sleep. More than anything about those early days – more than the actual adventures we had, the food we ate, places we saw, people we met, it’s that first contact - the fact that I actually went over and did it, made the move, said something, that makes me really pleased with myself now. For the first time, my wish to get to know someone had overcome my fear of demolition. I had arrived. I was a man. After everything else between us had died, I believe I stayed with her because of that.
‘So you travelled back to Spain when the project went “tits up”. Did you like teaching?’
‘It was ok. I liked being in Spain, away from everything. Teaching paid for me to do that.’
‘What did you like about Spain?’
‘Oh – where to start?’ I sit back and look at the ceiling with my hands behind my head and a broad grin on my face.
‘All those sunburnt English tourists?’ he says, ‘Watney’s Red Barrel on the beach?’ I can’t tell if he’s mocking me.
‘You have to go a little way inland’ I reply evenly. ‘The English don’t go more than two hundred yards from the beach.’
‘And where were you?’
‘A little town in the Alpujaras.’ There’s nothing I can say about it here that will do it justice. It was paradise. That first trip I’d never been so pathetically happy in my life. It was like I’d come home.
‘So you fell in love’ he says again.
‘With everything – the heat, the music, the women, the food, the... everything. I went back and did some teaching while I was waiting for the post grad thing to start and then she came back to England with me.’
‘And she married you then – when you came back.’
‘I see. Can I ask you why you married her? It seems to me that you do not seem very sure she loved you. She did not need to marry you to move to the UK, so...’
I don’t know the answer to this either. I’ve been over it time and time again. I take a sip from my glass – time to think. I’d been mad about her – possibly literally. I’d have done anything for her. Here was this classically exquisite raven haired, doe eyed, fragrant woman who apparently quite fancied little old me. I couldn’t believe my luck. It hardly seems real now.
‘She came from a quite traditional background I guess. She wanted children... She wanted to come to England. I suppose it made sense.’
‘But she could have chosen another man.’
‘That’s true, I suppose.’ Why did she choose me? I can’t imagine.
‘Perhaps she did love you after all’ he says, quite tenderly it seems. I look at him. The look in his eyes is sincere. Why does that surprise me?
‘It was very good, at the beginning. We did everything. We never stopped talking. Her English was better than my Spanish so I didn’t learn much. And I loved her family – they were all really good to me.’
‘She liked your art?’
‘Yes. Very much. She put my paintings up everywhere.’
‘And the other pieces?’
‘Not so much. She knew why I was doing them though, and she was extremely excited about the video project – that was when she proposed to me.’
‘She proposed to you?’ he says with a smile.
I grin at him. ‘That’s the kind of woman she was.’
‘So how did she react when you gave up your project?’
I sit back, look about. That part wasn't so funny.
‘She tried to be supportive.’
‘But you noticed a change.’
‘I think she was more upset than I was. She didn’t really understand I don’t think.’
I think back to that horrible time. The bewildering change, the terrible surprise. When you fall out of love with someone, suddenly everything shifts. It’s like one of those optical illusions. All the time you’ve seen it as an elegant vase and then all of a sudden it becomes two faces snarling at each other and somehow you can never see it the way you did ever again.
‘You think maybe she loved the idea of you as the great artist more than the more humble reality.’
I think he may be right. I think at first she liked me naïve and sensitive and strange, but then she just came to see me as immature and unrealistic and difficult. I knew at the end that on one level she hadn’t ever really tried to understand me at all but then on another level I was still my father’s son and I hated myself for my stupidity, throwing it all away in a tantrum. I didn’t really think I could expect anyone to understand.
‘I think she saw it as cutting off my nose to spite my face, if you know what I mean.’
‘But if thy nose offend thee...’ he says with a smile.
I look at him and arrange my thoughts. ‘I think, maybe, for her, as a Spanish woman, she would have done anything to get on in her career. A successful career in a male dominated world was still something unheard of for her, whereas for me – a middle-class, white Englishman... maybe I just didn’t want it badly enough. I guess you’d maybe understand her point of view more.’
‘You think just because I’m black I would be content to put up with any amount of shit from the boss, just to make a career in England?’
Now I really am embarrassed but he smiles at me like he thinks it’s funny and leans back.
‘You are proud’ he says, standing his papers on end and tamping them into a neat pile. ‘But it is not always a sin. It inflicts certain limits on your options, but it is not always something to be ashamed of. Some things are very hard to do.’
And it occurs to me quite suddenly why that simple phrase means so much to me - about things being hard. It’s the way he says it – with sadness and understanding in his voice – and with compassion – because he too has had to deal with these things and I am not alone. All my life that phrase just meant ‘Stop whingeing! Put up with it, like we do.’ And all my life I had taken these words as a kind of punishment – to make me ashamed of myself – a lesson from those around me – the business-like, no nonsense adults, looking down on me – just a weak, lazy and self-indulgent boy. And I had rebelled – because I knew people were petty and vindictive and it couldn't all be my fault.
And now here is this man saying ‘Some things are hard’ and I can tell from the expression on his face and his tone of voice that he’s been there too. He is on my side. It’s not just me. We all have trouble. Sometimes things don’t work. It’s not necessarily anybody’s fault. Some things are hard. Some things are complicated. It’s not always about blame.
And suddenly I feel very light and tranquil.
I think we have maybe two or three more sessions to go.