HE STOOD in the shadow of the doorway on the opposite side of the street, looking over at the White Rose Gallery. It was one of a terrace in a genteel part of the city in which he had been born. The front door was at the top of a flight of shallow stone steps with wrought-iron railings on either side. These had had a new and very glossy coat of black paint. For the fleur-de-lis finials they had chosen antique gold. He took in every detail, for his eyesight remained sharp even as the rest of him dimmed.
The window was quite small for a shop window, but then this was no ordinary shop and the people who now congregated inside, wandering about with their glossy catalogues, scarcely looking at the paintings, regarded themselves as no ordinary people. They were men who guffawed and women who tittered, occasionally even shrieked, with laughter. Folk who could afford to buy paintings at several thousand pounds a time were not embarrassed to be overheard. Every word they uttered must, for the very reason that it was uttered by them, be worth hearing.
He withdrew his attention from them as individuals and instead began to view them as if they were a picture, framed and quartered by the windows; a moving picture, as good as television. Not that he had watched TV for a very long time. On a sofa that is, as opposed to the occasional flickering glimpse through a store window. The last occasion would have been when he was in St Asaph’s. There had been a girl there, Betty, who did nothing but sit in front of the TV all day, from the early morning news, all through East Enders (no doubt that was still going strong) to the late night rubbish about tour reps getting drunk in Ayia Napa, or humourless, round-shouldered young men travelling to Amsterdam in the hope of losing their virginity.
He could just make out on the walls a few of the paintings nobody was looking at; large canvasses for the most part, in muted colours. He had known the work of this artist well, in his past life. The man specialised in peaceful scenes: small boats drifting on a lake, with just a suggestion of rain or clouds; a pond on an August day, with a child dipping for frogspawn; the sea, with distant windsurfers, and people sleeping on the beach, unaware of them.
What had been so fascinating about water, he wondered now, pulling up his collar and allowing himself the luxury of a shiver. Evening was turning to night and the air was chill. He did not remove his gaze from those four bright squares and the figures they contained, with their champagne glasses, their neckties, their loud voices and their money, but decided that if it started to rain, as it threatened to do, he would go down to Castlewall Gardens and stow himself beneath a bench, the one under the trees at the back where it was driest, rolled up tight in his overcoat and newspapers.
Shop doorways might be a bit warmer, but you were too visible in them, too close to those passing feet and the kicks they might aim at you. He had been out of town for a long time, travelling here, travelling there. People were generally kinder in the country; there were apples in the orchards and barns to sleep in. And of course there were views. Views were like paintings, except that you could move in and through them, recreating what you saw with every step.
So this was the Retrospective Exhibition for the late T L Lafferty, R.A, as the poster had said. It had a nice ring to it anyway, made the old boy sound important, if a trifle pompous. As far as he could recall, the late T L Lafferty had been quite an ordinary fellow. People had gone to meet him expecting, presumably, someone in smock and beret with tangled locks, a ponytail, maybe. How could they not be disappointed to find him a small chap with a Dad’s Army moustache, wearing one of the fair-isle sweaters his wife Sylvia had brought home for him from Barnardo’s. She did voluntary work, Sylvia. Money of her own, but liked to be involved.
The pain was worse again, he noticed. He had the tablets the hospital supplied, of course, and had been taking them dutifully, but sometimes they weren’t enough. He fished in his bag for a can of lager. Alcohol probably didn’t mix with the pills, but did it matter? Any port in a storm. He took a swig.
AFTER HE had escaped from St Asaph’s – well, that wasn’t quite true. He was being released into his wife’s care. His wife had in fact been on the way over to collect him; it was only about half an hour’s drive. It was a nice sunny day and they needed to get his room ready for the next occupant, so they said he could go and sit on the bench outside till she arrived. And he had gone to sit on the bench.
And then somehow, the thought of her arriving in her four by four, with that face on her, and the next thing he knew he was not on the bench. He was outside the grounds and walking down the road with a plastic bag. Not this plastic bag, of course, there had been many plastic bags since then, but the one they had given him. It contained nothing but his anti-depressants, a Gideon Bible (Gideons, whoever they were, had left it in his room so he had presumed they would be flattered if he took it with him, in the absence of other reading matter) a tee shirt and some spare y-fronts.
Walking down that road he had been scared. He had been saying to himself, ‘You really are mad now, Lafferty old lad, even if you weren’t before. Mad as a Hatter.’ What is a Hatter? he wondered. Somebody who made hats, presumably. Why should Hatters in particular be mad, and others (Tailors, Shoemakers, Glovemakers and Hosiers) sane? But all the same, the birds were singing; his ears were full of a multitude of songs and his heart sang too. St Asaph’s had smelt of piss, locked doors and despair; out here is smelt of grass, sunshine, melting tarmac and far, far away.
That was what it felt like, his escape from St Asaph’s. Further down the road he had thrown the anti-depressants into a ditch. Further still, and he stole some pairs of socks and a number of other useful bits and pieces from a cottage washing line. The kitchen window had been left open so he reached inside to acquire a couple of bread rolls and some oranges. He felt a little guilty but it didn’t stop him.
To his surprise, he found he was successful as a tramp. He had never really been successful at anything before. Of course there had been a lot to learn, but there was a long summer ahead of him and so time to learn it. He had found food, by the simple expedient of being constantly on the lookout for it. He had found it in the fields, on the trees, by smiling politely at kind-looking ladies in baker’s shops; and this was the country. How fortunate that they put places like St Asaph’s as far away from other places as possible.
When forced to enter a town he found extra clothes at charity shops. He helped out with the sorting and pricing (upstairs, out of sight), even ironing newly-laundered stock, in exchange for a few bits and pieces. He managed to keep himself more or less clean by washing in streams when in the country, in gents’ toilets and courtesy of the Salvation Army when in the town; in the sea when he happened to be at the seaside, in a charity shop ladies bathroom, once, and once in a public fountain, though briefly and after midnight, and he’d kept his y-fronts on so as not to embarrass himself or anyone else who might be passing.
At Christmas he was surprised to see a picture of himself on TV, in a chain store window. He pressed his ear to the glass and listened. The TV informed him that the corpse of a man had been found in a drainage ditch not far from St Asaph’s Hospital. It had not been possible to make a positive identification, due to the length of time the body had lain there, but it was thought to be that of the missing artist T L Lafferty. He wondered who it actually was, this man who had accidentally gifted him his freedom. He looked up at the starry sky and said a little prayer to Nothing in particular, for the soul of whoever it had been. Tomorrow he would observe the direction of movement of the sun. It was possible with the moon, of course, but she was more fickle. Both crossed the sky from east to west, but the moon varied considerably, both within its twenty-eight day cycle and with the seasons of the year. He had decided to go to Cornwall: it would be warmer.
He was happy, but after a while his new life started to feel ever so slightly unsatisfactory, as if something was missing. He found himself building piles of stones on the beach, and then arranging them, this way, that way. One autumn, in a wood near Peterborough, he sat in his home-made shelter and for something to do began to weave broken branches and vine. Then he plaited other things into the framework he had made; acorns, dead leaves and grass. He stayed there several days and added to it. At last he discovered he had made some kind of dragon, a wood dragon. He was happy. He had made something out of his surroundings; the dragon had not been there before, and now it was. But it was time to move on. He left the dragon behind.
Because it had made him happy, he did more of it. On Beachy Head at midnight he carved a modest skull-and-crossbones by hacking away at the turf with a broken dinner knife to expose the naked chalk. He did quite a succession of chalk sculptures, but when he came to the Long Man of Wilmington braced between his two sticks, which might perhaps be staves or crutches, he stood in awe. A sacred place, he decided. He would return here once a year, to give thanks. Everyone should have a place to go to, once a year, where they could know themselves to be alone in the universe and feel how small, and how vast, they were.
But he was not destined to return to Wilmington. He got sick, and when the pain began to get to him he realised it was time to return to the city of his birth one last time; the proverbial falling leaf. He had not stopped making his objects, but as time went on and the pain got more debilitating he began to limit himself to those small, easily obtainable objects, beer cans. He had watched a black kid doing it in London, cutting the cans with a strong pair of scissors and then peeling back the light steel fronds, twisting them. You could make anything out of a beer can, and it was a good excuse to keep drinking. He obtained, in fact, to be honest about it, he stole from a hardware shop, a couple of pairs of tin-snips, one straight-cutting and one right cutting (right cutting had red handles). It didn’t seem such a bad thing to do; they were only cheap ones.
He experimented with beasts of all kinds; went through an arctic phase for some reason, making polar bears and seals, and then a spell of elephants and tigers before settling on swans. He had no idea why swans, except that they were intricate, and beautiful; a real challenge to the beer can artiste. They could have their long necks lowered, or raised in a triumphant ‘S’; they could have wings spread as if for flight, folded for serene swimming, fluffed to carry cygnets. He had realised that he loved swans. He had never known it before, but had loved them, even before. He made them better, and now he made them exclusively. His life was narrowing to its final point: the city, cans and swans.
AT LAST Sylvia appeared in the top left hand pane, the missing piece in the jigsaw. He had guessed that she would be there. Her hair had become blonder, and he noticed that she was a little lined now about the face and neck. Why did this make him sad? Maybe it was the fact that even Sylvia, that most determined of women, could not by force of will alone keep herself young.
He drained the tin, shaking the last few drops onto the pavement. Removing the snips from his bag and gently unwinding them from the oiled rag he kept them in to protect them, he set to work. The laughter and the chink of glasses continued from across the road. Night fell in earnest and yellow light from the Gallery cast itself onto the road in four neat squares, slightly elongated. Somewhere in there Sylvia would be enjoying herself as the widow of the Late T L Lafferty, RA, the value of whose work, in the five years since he had died, had soared. She would probably marry again. Maybe she had done so already.
The swan, when he had made it, was his best ever. He wondered what should be done with it. He could take it with him, of course, but he didn’t have far to go now, and where he was going they would take it from him anyway; throw it away along with his plastic bag and the precious tin-snips and the spare y-fronts. And more than that, during his time on the road he had realised something about art, which was that you had to leave it behind. You made it and you loved it and you left it behind, knowing that the world was infinitesimally different because of you. Art was love, in the end, whether it had been made out of oils and canvas, from bronze or stone or from beer cans with tin-snips.
HE STRUGGLED to his feet, clawing at the wall for support, and walked across the road to place his last, and finest, swan on one of the antique gold finials of the black wrought iron fence outside the White Rose Gallery.
It was love, most powerfully of all, when you left it behind.