Alison makes an impatient expression and says ‘Gabriel, you might think that the rest of your story is unimportant but we have the other versions filed away somewhere and maybe someday someone will want to see what happened next and it won’t be there.’
I sit for a while and look at my hands, wondering where to start. She’s right. I can’t just leave it there like that, although I’d like to.
‘It seems sad’ I begin, ‘to think that the only way I could sort my life out was to cheat’
She raises her eyebrows at me.
‘You know - by knowing what happened here in the afterlife.’
‘On the other hand’ she says, ‘who knows how many other, supposedly gifted individuals, only achieved what they did in the same way?’
‘Well. I’ll leave you to think about that. Tell me what happened next.’
‘Ok...’ I say, ‘um... well, I went to college the following October. Brighton. I could have gone to Glasgow. I nearly did, but then, I don’t know, I love Brighton and I thought “Why not?” Really the main reason for moving away would have been to prove something to someone or other and I didn’t really feel I needed to do that sort of thing any more.’
‘How did your family respond?’
I shrug some more. ‘Pretty much as you’d expect really.’
The day I got my results I remember very well. (I passed three of the four exams and got an A for art, which gave me my place at Art College). It was a Saturday. I was at the breakfast table across from Justine and she was just beaming all over her face and crying at the same time. I just sat there stunned and looked around and I knew I’d done it. I mean, I knew there’d be new things to cope with, but at that moment I knew I’d broken the circle. After she’d left for work I sat there looking out the window, watching the birds in the apple tree and I felt the world shift. I could feel the old me move away, like he was saying “my work here is done.”
I got myself a room in a house up on Montpelier sharing with two Belgian girls and a Nigerian and settled into my Bohemian student lifestyle...
Brighton back then, back in the eighties, was a very good place to be if you didn’t fit in anywhere else, although sometimes it felt like there was this other orthodoxy to adhere to – the right-on, politically correct one. One of the other students accused me of being racist because I didn’t have much black music in my record collection. I once told a guy who fancied me that I didn’t want to sleep with him because I wasn’t ready to come out, rather than tell him the truth, which was that I wasn’t gay.
But there were plenty of places to go, people to meet, things to do. We went to see major acts like the Smiths or The Nukes at the Top Rank or the Dome. This was in the days before a headlining act could only be glimpsed as tiny aliens across a whole solar system of heads at some giant stadium event. I stopped going to gigs in the late nineties, not because there was no one I wanted to see but because it seemed that ‘being there’ had become more important than being able to see what was going on.
There was a certain amount of partying and clubbing and we did our fair share of skiving off, sitting in coffee shops and bars, perusing second-hand clothes and records and trying to get a little cash together working in said bars and second-hand shops. We went up to London to march against apartheid and we occupied the admin block for a few days (I can’t remember what for). The Great Storm of ‘87 was a big deal. We all went down to The Steine next day and looked at the great toppled elms and the multitudes of the dead starlings that had been roosting in them. Then we went to the Green Dragon and drank real ale by candle light because the wind had cut the electricity.
I think back and wonder if my past life experiences taught me anything at all – were there moments when my old self stepped forward and egged me on or warned me off? All I can think of is a perhaps greater than usual sympathy for the homeless guys that were very conspicuous on the streets at that time. I didn’t do anything especially to help (a few coins here and there) but I felt like I understood better than most how an intelligent and talented person could end up that way. Of course in those days, as students, we identified with oppression and poverty wherever we found it. None of us back then had loans, cars, or went back to live with our parents after we’d graduated. We signed on during the holidays, hitched in of a morning and a few of us actually lived in squats. We were not obsessed with being celebrities or getting rich. I suspect we actually believed in what we were doing – egotistical and pretentious though it often was.
Ah the good old days.
Suddenly I feel very aged.
Alison smiles and repeats the question ‘I asked what sort of an artist you were? Abstract? Conceptual? Surrealist? I’m sorry I really don’t know anything about all this stuff. Actually’ she adds, flicking back through her notes ‘you haven’t told me anything about your work at all, besides the pornography.’
I smile and look around at the room. It seems rather dull in here all of a sudden. I say ‘Why don’t we get some drinks and go and sit up on deck?’ She nods and says ‘Alright’ and gathers her papers. I feel the mood should be lifting now but she’s quite obviously still on duty. I get a glass of bubbly at the bar and she asks for peppermint tea. Raz spots us as we head up and gives me a quizzical look. I give her a ‘Duty calls’ sort of expression. Alison and I go up and find a place in the shade. The sky is fabulous with tropic birds swooping high among the cumulus.
I don’t know what to tell her about my work. I like talking about it – don’t get me wrong, but when it comes to it, a voice whispers to me ‘They don’t want to listen to you going on about all this stuff. They’re just being polite.’
‘It’s difficult to know where to start’ I begin. ‘I suppose technically you’d call it surrealism because it was all about dreams and the subconscious.’ And I know already she’s thinking Salvador Dali, which is wrong.
‘As I recall I was interested in the way a place in your dream can suddenly become a completely different place but your mind still treats it as if it all makes sense. One person can turn into another and yet it still seems like a coherent story. I read somewhere that linear time is an illusion, stitched together by our memories. I remember trying to capture that in my drawings. Even when I was a kid I was fascinated by my dreams. I went through a phase of trying to paint them, like a visual dream diary.’
My early attempts were rather embarrassing of course – full of evil spectres and torture chambers and scantily clad nymphs but as time went on I understood that the power of dreams is that they are set in ordinary, almost familiar rooms and streets, and feature people you feel you’ve met, but there’s always that something not quite right – something disturbing. Something threatening.
I tried for ages to get that flow – that elusive narrative into a picture.
I realised early on that I needed to master making the scenes and the people more real, more literal – figures and landscapes, so that I could then just subtly alter something and make it feel wrong. And then I discovered I liked just painting real places anyway – down at the harbour – the rusty machinery and the grime and the weeds, the waste ground and the derelict buildings, the railway, the allotments, the edge of town - anywhere where things are coming apart, going back to nature. Mould, dust, discolouration. Things lost or discarded.
My paintings remained somewhat creepy though and there came a time when I didn’t have to contrive the effect. They just came out that way. You’d have this perfectly ordinary scene, a patch of trees in bright sunlight or a girl sitting on a rock but there was always a sense that something terrible had happened or was about to happen – some tiny catastrophe on a sunny day.
‘That was where I’d got to when I started college.’
Alison smiles at me. ‘You got a lot of satisfaction from your work, didn’t you.’
‘I did. I was never one of these tortured artists who frets and agonises over every piece and ends up setting fire to it. I loved it all – even the rubbish.’
‘And it sounds like you’d already achieved a great deal even before you went to college.’
‘Ha! Well don’t lose sight of the fact that you haven’t actually seen any of this stuff. You’ve only got my word for it.’
‘True. But if anything you tend to underestimate your achievements, so I’m inclined to take this at face value. I’d like to have seen some of your work.’ She smiles warmly upon me. It occurs to me that she’d have been an excellent mother.
‘Go on’ she says. ‘How was college? What was it like being taught how to paint?’
‘Ah well. Of course I was an arrogant arse – thought they had nothing to teach me. And the first year was a bit basic – getting everyone up to speed I suppose. I just played about really, if you want the truth. Have you ever been in the studios at an art college?’
She nods and shrugs.
‘There’s always shed loads of junk lying about – bits of fabric and welded steel and piles of paint splattered timber and you’re not sure if it’s an exhibit or due for the skip? You know what I mean. It was like that. I didn’t really know what I was doing there. I’m still not sure. I gave up painting for a while – tried some other stuff – sculptures and prints and stuff. Video. I think I was trying to recreate something I’d done before, but not in this life, something about self-contained spaces, artificial environments, maybe underwater? I don’t know. It was all really gloomy and claustrophobic, and anyway it didn’t work. I just wasn’t like that any more. Isn’t that interesting? All my work was just completely open and full of light now. I couldn’t do the little boxes any more.’
She smiles at me and I can feel that old, confident, maybe over-confident art student in me coming back – passionate, combative, opinionated, totally self-involved, trying to explain about what he does and why it’s so important, and yet at the same time making it clear that he knows full well that it’s all bullshit. I’d forgotten that feeling. It seemed so important at the time. I miss it. ‘Anyway, by the beginning of the second year I’d pretty much gone back to paint and canvas, or paint and boards anyway.’
‘And you were happy with that.’
‘I was. It was exactly what I wanted to be doing. I know it wasn’t hugely ground-breaking but I liked doing them and I even sold a few. I included more figures in the later ones but it was more difficult. Usually it was just a solitary figure, sometimes naked or with just a mask or in fancy dress, in the middle distance maybe, or off to one side, involved in some obscure activity. Often it just made the picture look a bit contrived, but sometimes they worked. I still think the best ones were just deserted though. There was definitely a feeling of suspense.’
‘What did your parents think?’
‘Oh God, I don’t know. They came to my final year show but I think it scared them. I gave them one of the smaller, more innocuous pieces – of the back garden actually but it ended up in the attic. In the end I went up and rescued it because I liked it even if they didn't. I don’t think they even noticed it was gone. They didn’t really try...’
And I still can hardly believe it. They’d say things like “Well if it’s what you like doing...” as if I’d told them I liked sucking worms.
‘In the end I just didn’t even try. It was like trying to get mud to sit up and take notice (irritable, stubborn mud at that). They just didn’t know how.’