Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Painter

This painter, a new friend of my husband's, was on his way to our house. He was a bachelor in his early forties, making a kind of pilgrimage to his grandparents' grave – which happened to be a mile down the road from our house – so he was going to stay at ours. He called my husband from the station. He would get a taxi, he said, he'd see us in half an hour.

My husband had only just got to know this guy a couple of months before. They'd met on a long train journey sitting next to each other. Sounds like they hit it off quite quickly. They'd been out drinking a few times together in London since then. One of these times, my husband had missed the last train home and had to sleep drunk in Euston station until the trains started up again. I'd told him he wasn't a student any more, and shouldn’t be so reckless. It did worry me though, the bed still empty beside me at five in the morning.

I was unsure about this guy's visit, the painter. I'd never met him. I wasn't sure what it really meant that he was a painter. He wasn't a painter and decorator. He was the 'arty' kind of painter. A beret-wearing, life-drawing a naked model sprawled on a chaise longue kind of painter. I guessed he'd be wearing a cravat or brightly coloured shoes, perhaps a tiny pair of round spectacles. Maybe even a monocle. This man was coming to stay at our house.

On the train when they met, my husband had been on his way back from a business trip up in Scotland. I don't know what the painter was doing up in Scotland. Painting I suppose. He'd given my husband the sports supplement of his newspaper and they'd got talking. My husband had had a long stressful working weekend. It seems he really opened up to the painter. It was just what he needed, he said, after two long days of clenching his teeth through painfully anxious business meetings: to spill his guts to a sympathetic ear. He works in town planning. I don't know how the painter stayed awake hearing about my husband's work. I can barely do that and I'm his wife. But he did and you know what else? He asked to sketch a portrait of my husband. Not a proposition you usually get on a train journey. But my husband was delighted.

He sat pretending to look out of the window while the painter captured the likeness of his double chin and the wrinkles that town planning has put around his eyes. It's a very good likeness actually. My husband brought it home – he's planning to have it framed. He was so thrilled with the whole affair that he even had a go at sketching a portrait of the painter in return. I didn't see the result of that. I suppose the painter kept it. But the guy must have had a calming effect on my husband because he isn't the type to let his guard down; not the type to try sketching a portrait of somebody he'd just met on a train. Maybe they were drinking.

On our very first date my husband he told me he'd always wanted to be an artist. We were walking past an art gallery. He'd never mentioned it again, until now – until he met the painter. He did do an A level in art, but to my knowledge he'd not made a single drawing or any art since he'd known me. Not once have we visited an art gallery. I don't even recall watching anything about it on the telly. But since the train journey he's acted like he's always liked art. He's been reading a book about the history of art. And I found some odd little scribbled drawings on the notepad by the phone the other day. He'd also said he was going to drop by his parents’ house to see if he could find his old sketch book from school – he's sure it is probably in their loft.

Apparently he very much impressed his art teacher. His biggest project had been a great success. He got thirty blank post cards and painted them all with different pictures – each one had a picture that was somehow appropriate to the person he was sending it to. Then he photographed them for his records and sent them off. He sent them to everyone he knew, everyone he could think of: friends, relatives, teachers, his doctor, his dentist and one for Maggie Thatcher. He wrote a little message on the back of each one saying “
don't be alarmed, it's just an art project” and so on. I haven't seen the photos but it sounded like a nice idea. In fact, it was such a good idea it got him into the local papers – the Hemel Gazette said recipients had better take good care of their cards, just in case this young artist made it big. They might be worth a lot one day.

I think my husband would have kept up art, even just as a hobby, if he hadn't had a run in with his dad over it. He had wanted to study it at university but his dad told him to drop it. He'd said it was time to grow up and be a man, time to study something worthwhile so that he'd be able to pay the bills and raise a family. My husband is vague and cagey about this stuff but as far as I can tell, from hints and passing mentions, I think they came to blows about it - actual fisticuffs in the kitchen. And then the next day when he got back from school his dad had burned all his art materials in the garden. That sealed the deal. His dad had won the argument. Actions spoke louder than words. Well, arson spoke louder than words.

Anyway, I was still uncomfortable about a real painter coming to visit. Maybe it's silly but I felt like we ought to have rare olives or expensive wine to offer him – to complement his artiness. My husband had told me the other day that one of the painter's on-going projects was collecting gloves. What has that got to do with paint? I thought. But I didn't say anything. Everywhere he goes, my husband explained, he looks out for gloves. Not in shops but out on the street, single lost gloves, dropped by accident. It strikes me as something you'd only see in winter, I said. But my husband said he keeps his eye out all year round, just in case, and has a big collection now. He photographs the gloves just as he finds them by the side of the road, in a bush, or waving from a railing, as you sometimes see them. Then takes them home, washes them, and adds them to his collection.
Has he got any marigolds?” I asked.
I imagine so,” said my husband, not looking up from his toast, “you see them in the street now and again so yeah...”
Does he wear odd gloves?” I asked, after a pause.
My husband had both buttered and jammed his toast and now he looked up with a confused grimace and shook his head slowly. “You're just jealous because I've made an interesting new friend aren't you?” he said, dropping the knife to the table to make a meaningful clang. Maybe he was right.

Soon enough we heard the thud of a car door outside and then the crunch of footsteps on the gravel. My husband rushed off to let him in.

When the painter walked in my husband was fussing with his bag and coat, trying to be hospitable in a hasty muddle and I had time to observe the new arrival. He did have circular glasses, but not too out of the ordinary. Not strange at all actually, or even eccentric. They suited him, I thought. He had a big forehead, receding hairline, and longish floppy brown hair. But he was youthful. Very youthful and alert. He looked around nervously with intelligent eyes, everywhere but at me. He was dressed smarter than I'd expected. No paint on his clothes. Why would there be? No colourful shoes. No cravat. I tried to imagine him painting a naked woman. He looked too shy and boyish for that. It looked like he didn't know where to put his shoulders, didn't know how to stand in a room. Besides the apprehension, he looked very friendly, a bit like a rabbit. He had none of the wild, arrogant, pretentiousness I had worried about. I was warming to him already. And he'd brought us presents for letting him stay. Expensive looking wine and cheese - a really nice gesture.

He shook my hand and I felt embarrassed. I wanted to say or do something that would impress him. Say something clever or funny, something he'd never forget. But when you put yourself under pressure like that all of a sudden, nothing comes.
It's good to finally meet you,” I said. And I meant it. I hadn't expected to mean it. My husband started talking very fast and led him into the house, taking him on a tour. I went and made cups of tea for us all, relieved that he seemed so nice but slightly sad that I wasn't quite involved.

When they got back from their tour round the house and garden it emerged that the painter wanted to go to his grandparents’ grave that same day, before it got dark – and it was late afternoon already. He asked us if we wanted to join him. I smiled and shrugged and looked over at my husband. He was making similar gestures.
If you'd find it interesting,” said the painter, “It would be nice to go as a group.”
Of course!” we both said at the same time.
And then only my husband said “It would be an honour”.

I'd never heard him talk about honour like that. I know it's just a figure of speech but it seemed very sincere. As we got our jackets on I was gripped by a feeling of discomfort. When had my husband ever thought about honour before? Was he trying to impress the painter? He's usually quite a reserved man, my husband, a bit too quietly macho for public emotion like that.

They chatted nonstop on the way to the cemetery and I walked alongside in silence. The discomfort was wearing off and I was beginning to realise that it might have been mixed with a bit of jealousy. This exciting thing was happening: the visit from the painter, and it was my husband's guest, my husband's event, not mine. I started to feel guilty. But then we were there and all three of us busy searching for the grave. The painter had never been there before. He told us he'd been trekking in the Himalayas when his grandmother died, which was before the days of mobile phones or the internet, and his grandfather had died before he was born. So he'd missed both funerals: the first by not existing yet, the second by being on the other side of the world.

He said how glad he was that we'd come with him; it wouldn't be half as good on his own because, after all, his grandparents were dead, they weren't going to be very interesting company. We all laughed. I looked over at a man on his own some way away, stooping to put flowers by a grave. I hoped he couldn't hear our laughter and think it disrespectful. But it didn't look like he had.

Then the painter produced a small scrunched up ball of paper and slowly unravelled it. He'd written out a poem on it that he wanted to read out. Did we mind if he read out a poem? he asked us. Of course we didn't. How could we mind? So he read it. And I could see the crinkled paper shaking a bit in his hand, even though there was no wind.

I honestly didn't mind but that didn't stop me wincing again a little bit. It seemed a bit contrived. Too earnest to be real. I supposed this was his eccentricity, his being-a-painter eccentricity, finally revealing itself. But what harm was it doing anyone? And it wasn't all that odd really. After all, his grandparents' bodies were right there beneath us, rotting away together. I tried to overcome my discomfort. And the poem was actually quite beautiful as it turned out. Even though my thoughts drifted away through most of it, the last line brought me back to the moment. It was something about “in stone... our love survives forever” but much better than that. I can't remember the exact wording. It was all about the grave of a married couple. It struck me suddenly, quite strongly. I felt a wave of sadness go through me. Or not sadness but emotion of some sort. Empathy? Does that make sense? No, it was like I'd suddenly realised all at once that I was going to die, that all three of us were going to die, but that it didn't matter so much because we were alive for the moment. It was an optimistic kind of sadness. I can't put it into words. I reached for my husband's hand and held it. He gave my hand a squeeze and my optimism seemed justified.

My husband insisted on cooking that evening, perhaps to show that he had a artistic side as well. I'll see your graveside poetry and raise you a well cooked dinner. I don't know. But he wasn't at all bad in the kitchen so I let him. It also gave me a chance to impress the painter. I still felt the nagging need to, somehow. I kept telling myself to ignore it but it wouldn't leave me. So I found myself sitting in the living room with the painter, drinking the wine that he'd brought us. Something about his shyness and the way he held himself meant that although I could see he was a very attractive man, I wasn't all that attracted to him. Still, I enjoyed looking at him and felt comfortable with that. He wasn't flirting with me either, as far as I could tell, which was nice. He is that strange type of person who is shy without being introverted. Shy, but not so shy he wouldn't read a poem in front of two people he hardly knew.

“So what do you do?” he asked.
“I run a business,” I said, “we make mouth guards. Custom mouth guards. I used to be a dental surgeon but I closed my practice after only a year or so and started a business. Been growing ever since. Ten thousand mouth guards the first year. Nearly a hundred thousand this year, four years on. Exported all over the globe.”
I found myself straying into work-speak, starting to speak in the advertising copy I used in meetings. I looked over at him, his dark, understanding eyes, he nodded for me to go on, putting me strangely at ease for someone I'd just met.
I said, “I was beginning to sound like I was vying for investments with a client, sorry.”
“Not at all”, he said, and took a sip of his wine, “I suppose it’s a clearer window into your job to hear some real talk from it. It was impressive.”
I smiled. Most people, if they said that, would be pushing a lie as far as it could go, just for politeness' sake, but it didn't seem that way.
“Is it just in sports that people wear mouth guards,” he said, “or are there other tooth-risking pursuits where a mouth guard comes in useful?”
“The most dangerous thing you can do for your teeth, besides contact sports, is go to sleep” I said with a sudden surge of pride that I'd said something so witty and mysterious. Then a pang of fear that he'd think I was still trotting off half-remembered lines of ad-copy, which I wasn't this time.
“Really? How is that?” he said leaning forward with an expectant smile.
“Well our main market for mouth guards besides sports usage is for bruxism.” I said
The painter shook his head slightly to show that he didn't know what that was.
“Gnashing your teeth, grinding them together involuntarily” I said, “it's actually very common but most people that do it don't realise they do it. Only the worst cases need a mouth guard. We do a range of mouth guards for it.”
“So does this happen when people have nightmares?”
“Yes, that's often a factor.”
“I thought so. Because my grandfather, the one whose grave we just saw, he could have done with a mouth guard. He ground his teeth really badly. He was a world war one veteran and had horrible nightmares after the war, in fact, for the rest of his life.”
“Gosh. What did he do about it?”
“Well I think more and more towards the end of his life he chose to avoid sleep whenever possible. Tried his best not to. He was a kind of purposeful insomniac. But even so, he did sleep sometimes and when he did he ground his teeth together with the nightmares.”
“Was it noticeable?” I asked “I mean, could you see the damage he'd done to his teeth when he smiled?”
“I think you could. But I never met him. He died in sixty six, one year before I was born.”
Oh right, of course.”
I have read his diaries though.” He put his wine down on the coffee table and became more animated. “He wrote a lot about his recurring nightmares, trying to purge them I suppose, to put them in his diary and leave them there so they wouldn't trouble him at night”
“Did it work?” I said.
“I don't know. I don't think so” he suddenly looked slightly sad and took a sip of his wine. I took a sip of mine too, copying him thoughtlessly.
He cleared his throat and said “I mean I suppose it did work to some extent because he kept doing it for years. The dream diaries go on and on. But then so do the dreams. I think it worked in so far as it stopped any particular nightmare recurring, one he'd written down. But then the dreams adapted and he just had different ones, just as horrible.”
“Did he write about a painful jaw or headaches in the morning?”
“Yes” he said, excitedly, pointing at me and nearly getting out of his seat with excitement.
I grinned and shrugged as if to say,
it's my profession, I know these things.
“He's what we call in the business 'a severe bruxer',” I said.
“Bruxer” he said, trying the word out for himself.

At this point my husband walked in holding the wine bottle. Bubbling and sizzling sounds were coming from the kitchen. He sat down next to me and squeezed my knee, looking briefly into my eyes questioningly, making sure I was all right looking after his guest. I gave a firm nod and he turned to the painter. “Can I top you up?”
“Yes please.” said the painter.
“Me too,” I said
“Right, I'd better get back in the kitchen,” said my husband, having replenished our wine, and off he went.

I looked down at my knee where my husband had squeezed it.

Your grandfather” I said, waving my hand about vaguely to clear my clouded thoughts.
“Mm-hm?” said the painter, laughing a little at me.
“Tell me more” I said, beginning to feel the wine, “I mean, if you want, if you don't mind. Do you mind?”
“I don't mind at all. It's not as personal as it might be. I am fond of him from a distance. But you don't really
know someone if you only read things they've written. Things they've written for nobody to see. I'm sort of eavesdropping.”
Doesn't your dad talk about him? Or didn't your grandmother? Did you know her?”
“Yes, I knew her. She didn't talk a great deal about him except to say he was very brave. She said it a million times. It was all I knew about him until I was given the diaries. And my dad didn't say much about his dad either. Can't remember him saying anything at all about him actually. I get the feeling my grandfather's mind was ruined by the war. It hung over him and everything he did afterwards. I don't think he really paid much attention to his son, to my dad. He was bogged down with his war experiences, traumatised.”
“How awful” I said, annoyed at myself for not having come up with a more thoughtful response.
“The nightmares he wrote down are quite varied but they usually seem to involve watching something awful happen and not being able to move, not being able to stop it happening. The diaries don't ever mention what actually happened to him in the war but I imagine it was something like that. He probably saw a fellow soldier blown apart by a shell or something, unable to do anything about it himself.”
Are all the dreams set in the trenches? If you know what I mean – 'set'
I think set is the right word for it, but no. They're never explicitly war based, though some of them are quite gruesome.”
Like what kind of thing?” I said.
Well actually, the one that sticks in my head is towards the end of the diary, a few weeks before he died I think, where his dreams had calmed down somewhat. But they got craftier, more subtle and sinister. They would start out benign and he'd gradually realise something terrible was happening.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, in the one that haunts me – the one I think about most – he is just in his living room reading the paper with a cup of tea and everything seems to be normal. He reads a review of a new exhibition at the Natural History Museum on butterflies. It's all too mundane to even be a dream. But then he hears piano scales; softly at first so he thinks they're coming through the wall from the neighbours. But the neighbours don't have a piano. Then he realises it's the pianola in the corner that hasn't worked for years. And pianolas don't tend to play scales, right. So he walks over to it, beginning to feel anxious. It speeds up and up and gets louder and louder. It's almost like a horror film. Then he notices that the keys are made of skin instead of ivory. The skin is old, with wrinkles and moles. But it's still alive. It looks alive somehow. Or he just knows it is, as you just know things in dreams.”
“Oh god!” I said, as a shiver went down my spine.
“That's basically it but he goes into it in such detail in his diary. Pages and pages. He was stood there a long time staring at it, wishing it would stop, unable to move, until he eventually woke up in a sweat. I suppose that one stays with me all the more because I grew up visiting my grandmother in that same house with that same old broken pianola in the living room. So it links up with my memories. It's odd because some of the dreams are far more gruesome, but that's the one that haunts me. And I think it was one of the most powerful ones for him too, from the number of pages in the diary that are devoted to it.”
“I was expecting something to explode.”
“Yes, some of his other dreams have explosions, blood and guts, dead or dying bodies, that sort of stuff. But this one is pretty unique.”
“And is he always watching things happen? Never involved in the action himself?” I asked.
“Yes, I think so.” He rubbed his hands together carefully, “Uh - no actually there is one dream where he's having his teeth pulled out,” he smiled, “We're back to your expertise.”
“I reckon his teeth were hurting from all that grinding he did and that influenced the dream.”
“I bet you're right” he said.

I found myself thinking how good it would be if he remained a life-long friend of my husband's so we might have nice conversations like this now and again for the rest of our lives. It was a feeling I was unused to. If men had interested me before this, it had been mixed with sexual tension or flirting. At the very least it had some distant ache behind it. An ache in the body. Since I'd been with my husband I would flinch from it guiltily if I felt like that and try to avoid whoever it was causing it. But this was different. He was attractive, interesting, single and youthful. He was even interested in me, as far as I could tell. But there was no ache. I hadn't known you could talk to a man like this. At least, not an attractive man my age. It was platonic. But I could still see that he would make a good lover. I felt very grown up. I reckon it’s rare for anyone at all to feel grown up. I usually feel like I’m still a little girl, duping everyone around me into thinking I'm a grown up.

After dinner, the three of us returned to the living room. We were all a bit drunk by then. We'd finished the painter's wine and another bottle we had in the cupboard and we were onto the spirits. The painter had asked us how we first met and my husband had told him the story, at length, beginning to slur. It's not all that interesting and I think my husband realised that because all of a sudden he said:
But enough about us, what about your love life? Handsome man like yourself, they must be queuing up.”
The painter looked down and moved his head about, not quite shaking it. He was drunk. For a moment I even wondered if he'd even heard the question. Then he said, slowly, “I can’t love...”
I saw my husband wince. And for the eternity of a few seconds we all sat there looking at the floor, not knowing what to say, too drunk to put on the best of British stiff-upper-lip fa├žade. Too drunk to think of any response at all. I nearly said
That’s a very lonely thing to say, but I thought better of it. I had the sudden urge to look after him - the ludicrous notion that he could move into the spare room. That we could adopt him like a grown up son. He could paint in the garden.

At long last my husband said
Oh mate, I'm sure you just haven't met the right one yet – that all it is – she's out there.”
The painter nodded, looking unconvinced and glum.
Then on came the TV all of a sudden, my husband wielding the remote, and I clawed my way out of the big sofa onto my feet, “Who wants a coffee, I think we've drunk ourselves down into the dumps.”
The painter put his hand up like a school boy, “Meee” he said.
Yup, and me,” said my husband.

When I came back in with the coffees there was a programme about astronomy on TV and the boys were ignoring it. The painter was saying “... that’s the trouble with art. You've got to watch out you don't become one of those artists. I mean, I think every artist is one of those artists, but you've got to keep it in check.”
Keep what in check?” I said.
The painter turned to me with a renewed twinkle in his eye, as though he'd already had his coffee. “The tendency to hide behind your art and turn away from the real world. To seek out fame and fortune in art.”
You mean by becoming a famous artist?” I said.
No, no. I mean in the art itself. In the fantasies you put on the canvas. You know, even if it's abstract art with just blotches of colour, there's a process of fantasising that went into it that only the painter is aware of, or only partly aware of. But painting yourself as a hero doesn't make you a hero. It's just socially acceptable daydreaming.”
That’s why so many artists end up drinking themselves into the gutter” said my husband, slapping the painter on the shoulder manfully and laughing.
Exactly, yeah, you're joking but that's exactly it. The fantasies just don't deliver. Because they're like an imaginary meal, it might taste good but doesn't stave off hunger. So in the end they need something to deaden the disappointment.”
Drink and drugs,” said my husband.
Or suicide!” said the painter, still in twinkling good cheer, his coffee untouched.
So how do you avoid that disappointment?” I said.
I don't know.” said the painter, “Maybe by telling you two about it like I am now. Keeping things in the real world. Not losing myself in the fantasies of art.”
Or becoming a famous artist and making the fantasies come true?” said my husband.
Yes, that might help...” said the painter with a kind of bitter smile, “but success is no guarantee of happiness. The stereotype of artists suicide or drinking themselves into early graves is not just from the ones starving in their garrets, unable to sell a single painting. Lots of them do it after they've become rich and famous. That's how we recognise the stereotype at all. The success can be a burden. Or it can leave them feeling as empty as they did when they were unsuccessful. Or even emptier.”
But I reckon,” said my husband, “it doesn't matter how much you try to persuade yourself fame and fortune is not all it's cracked up to be, you'll still want to have a crack at it!”

I was enjoying this drunken philosophy session. My husband had his coffee in one hand and a tumbler half full of whisky in the other. He began to swirl them both in little circles together, peering into them thoughtfully, and he went on “I mean, it's like when people say money doesn't make you happy... we all agree on that but it doesn't mean we wouldn't fancy winning the lottery all the same. Just to make sure.” The painter and I laughed. Even with all that drink in him, he had a point.

It suddenly seemed to me that what we all want isn't so clear at all. I had often felt like I was just a few steps from total satisfaction, ticking things off a vague list of desirables; love, sex, money, marriage and a three bedroom house with a garden. Ingredients for a good life. But it's not that simple. You might get all those things and still not be satisfied. We're never satisfied. But here's the thing: I was satisfied that night and it didn't feel how I'd expected it to. It was like that feeling I'd had at the cemetery earlier that day. Like the evening would go on forever, slowly, and I wanted it to. I felt like we had time to say anything, everything, and that there was no hurry. The seats were comfortable. The house was warm. I can't explain.

The television was still on, still showing a documentary about astronomy. I stood up and walked over to the window to look for stars. It was a clear night and I could make out a few. Then for some reason I thought of teeth. I thought the stars might be giant glowing teeth in the sky. It doesn't make sense but I didn't care. It seemed totally true.

© 2013: William Kraemer.

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