Interlude

August 2, 2006

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The House in Pimlico will continue after a short break.

Figure XXI

July 24, 2006

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And dappled light and dark with leaves, and momentary glimpses of the sun through cloud, Nancy bends back bracken from the path, folds away the mossy arm of a pear tree hung with grey and swollen fruit. And as if forgotten, there it sits, as if to say “civilisation has crumbled and I am all that’s left” it bows beneath the tangled canopy, humble, rusting. Its windows are blurred with a veil of green. One of its headlamps has fallen through. Bindweed has torn the bumper to the ground to be swallowed up by dank and light-starved weeds.

And is this all there is? Is this all she brought her out to see?

“It was Henry’s father’s,” Nancy says, clearing nettles to reveal the number-plate but finding that the thing had long since fallen off, “he was in the diplomatic service. Do you drive?”

“I don’t think it’s going to go, Nancy.”

“No, but I mean, can you? I thought I’d sell it, but it rather needs bringing out of all this mess.”

Anita stands disheartened. She watches as Nancy clears branches from around the driver’s door, but the door will not open. Is this what little hope was offered? It is as if she cannot see it, cannot see what a mess the car has become in the years since her husband died. She tells Anita what a good car it was, and Anita listens silently to the stories of trips down to Brighton, picnics on the Downs.

In the air there is the sound of scaffolding being erected some streets away, and overhead the rumble of a passing aeroplane, but here in the garden there is only this; the snap and snare of twigs being broken away from a rusty car.

“What are you doing?” Anita finally asks, “Why are you doing this?”

Nancy continues with her weeding, pulling coils of bramble from beneath the car’s mudguard.

“It’s too late,” Anita says, “there’s more plant than car here.”

“People buy cars like this even as wrecks.” She stops, leaning her arm on the bonnet. “It’s all there is left.”

What Nancy means by this, Anita does not comprehend. It is probably money, but if so the sale of this car will not save anything. Though they live in the same house, they know virtually nothing about each other’s lives, but the one thing they do know, the thing that they can see in each other is their suffering. They recognise it in each other’s looks and movements. Anita cannot deny her hope, even if the act seems ridiculous, its basis is that of change; it is rectifying something so small, but it is something. It is a remedy of sorts.

She gets to her knees and begins to prize a root away from the axel. For the moment, she thinks, this is enough.

Figure XX

July 21, 2006

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In Nothing Happens, Jo has a system. Nothing is labelled with its actual price, but a little paper tag is hung from it, marked with a code of letters: PO, SI, NR, AK, etc. Quite what these letters mean, only Jo can say. Not even Laura is permitted an insight into their complex cipher. For a while she attempted to crack the code. Perhaps the numeric value of the two letters added together… perhaps it merely indicated where the item was bought… but then she realised that when one customer asked “How much is the…” it did not mean that the same answer would be given, when another would ask the same question. So now, as the young man with the shaved head and stubble asks her:

“How much for the figurine of the crying girl?”

She is left with no option but to shout to the back of the shop:

“Jo, how much for the figurine of the crying girl?”

A pause. Laura smiles, flicks her eyebrows upward as if to say “this usually happens”, and finally a reply is shouted out from the darkness

“Twenty pounds.”

The man looks at the figurine more closely. He stoops forward, bending double, inspecting the glaze and poorly executed painting.

“Will you take fifteen?”

Jo appears from the gloom, interested now in who wants to buy the item.

“We’ll take eighteen. For a new customer.”

The man takes the money from the pocket of his jeans and hands it to Laura. She takes it from him with an air almost of apology. “For a new customer” is a common phrase of Jo’s, one that seems to accuse the purchaser of wilfully not visiting the shop before then.

“Do you want it wrapping?” Laura asks him.

“No it’s okay,” he says and puts the figurine into the record bag that hangs from his shoulder.

“What did he want with that?” says Jo once he has left the shop.

“Jo, you could ask that about pretty much anything in the shop, if you had a mind to.”

“But it’s such an ugly-looking thing.”

“Okay, but,” she picks up a framed photograph of a woman reading that had stood beside the figurine on the counter, “I mean this; why would anyone want to buy this?”

“Well it’s pretty.”

“It’s a bit sentimental though. It’s not as if anyone who buys it is going to know who she is, they’ll just buy it because it’s old.”

“It’s my mother actually.”

Laura jolts slightly. This has happened before. Quite often objects in the shop would be revealed to have some apparent emotional connection to Jo; her father’s wristwatch, a cameo containing a lock of her grandmother’s hair, all now sold off for a couple of pounds. So she speaks slowly, more carefully.

“Okay… well why would someone…” (she means to say “someone other than you” but it is clear that not even Jo wants a photograph of her mother) “want to buy a photograph of your mother?”

“Well at least it’s not ugly, like that other thing. It’s all going like that. People seem to want to buy tat rather than pretty things.”

“Well it’s ironic isn’t it? It’s kitsch.”

Jo whistles through her teeth, shaking her head. “When did it happen? Pretty thing like that; woman reading in the sunshine, it’s lovely. When did it happen that folks started valuing irony above sincerity? That photograph, it’s felt. There’s real emotion in it. The way she’s sitting, the way the sunshine’s landing on the book. You can sense the feeling between the photographer and the subject–”

“But I guess it’s just a bit ordinary, it’s not immediately clear what it’s about.”

“But it’s real. It’s what really happened.”

Figure XIX

July 20, 2006

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Through streets bordered by London Planes, the morning radio show burbles onward like an electronic stream. Occasionally, the harvestman seated in the back will speak, comment on the traffic, mention the unbearable heat within his costume, but mostly they are quiet, buoyed along by the cheery-voiced weather report and songs from the speakers.
The creature driving – what was it? A grasshopper? A praying mantis? Ernest doesn’t like to ask – is also the convenor of the event, the lead player of the troupe, as he had referred to himself at the audition. Now peeping from the mouth of the enormous insect’s head, he seems even more serious than he had done then.

“You have to imagine that you are a worm, Ernest. Can you do that for me?”

Ernest had nodded. They were standing in an empty room above a kebab shop in Islington, empty apart from the costumes that hung in the corners like discarded skins. This was the audition.

“Are you sure that the pond-skater suit couldn’t be adjusted?” he had asked hopefully.

“The thing is, we need a nematode worm. Can you do that for me Ernest? Can you show me your best worm?”

Now?

“Yes, if you would.”

Ernest had shuffled half-heartedly from one foot to the other. He hoped this might be taken for a wriggle.

“Excellent!”

“Really?”

“Oh yes, excellent… I really see your inner worm.”

“Hell.” Ernest had murmured under his breath.

“You’ve been the best we’ve had all day.”

Ernest was disconcerted by this man’s persistence in referring to himself as ‘we’. He looked nervously at the giant insect faces and hoped that these were not the others in that imagined group.

Now above the line of cars in front, the top of the museum draws its head. Ernest feels his stomach turn over deep within the worm.

Figure XVIII

July 19, 2006

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She finds her in the hallway, holding her coat like an unfolded child.

“Anita?” the ampibrach quivering in the air between them, not caught, not taken, “are you going out?”

She stirs, as if noticing Nancy for the first time, “I’m not sure, I don’t know any more.”

Such connections falter for the moment. Either one of them might smile, or simply turn and the day would progress along its intended course, but here the hesitation is what is felt. Their mutual doubt, uncertain but in being so, somehow concrete. It is seen by both of them in this instant. Neither moves, neither speaks and it is as if this shared commotion of unbeing seems to stretch before them with all its lunatic possibilities, out of the hallway, out through the stained glass doorway and into the gunmetal sky beyond.

“I think I’ve felt like that for years.” Nancy says finally, “Undone. Not knowing. Maybe it’s what happens.”

“I got a letter,” says Anita, putting down her coat, “they won’t be exhibiting my paintings.”

No condolence is given, but neither of them seeks it. Theirs is a matter of fact; a statement of the hopelessness of failing.

“So no plans for the day then?” Nancy ventures.

“No. Not today, not tomorrow.”

“Horrible isn’t it?”

“I don’t know why I do it. I don’t even enjoy painting very much.”

“I think too often it’s easiest to stick with what you know.”

“Even if you hate it?”

“Even if you hate it, and it’s horribly impractical, and the thing’s falling down around your ears. Even once the moment has gone, when the purpose of the thing has long since passed and you’re acting out this masque of an existence as if everything were still the same.”

And suddenly she laughs, as if hearing her own voice and the absurdity of what she is saying.

“Sometimes that’s easier?”

“Maybe so. Maybe… or it’s the thought that things might right themselves that keeps you going on. The thought that things might one day all fall back into place and everything be good again.”

“So, no plans.” Anita says.

“No plans.”

Nancy turns and walks back up the hallway to the kitchen. She pushes open the door and enters into the cool, damp greyness beyond. The smell of rain and washing detergent broods about the place. Anita follows.

“But there is one thing I’ve been meaning to do for a very long time.” Nancy says walking over to a plant pot on the window ledge. She removes a squat, dark key and unlocks the back door, “Come on,” she says, “you don’t have any other plans.”

Out, into the undergrowth behind the house. Less a garden, more a battle of branches and dripping thorny shoots. Nancy presses on ahead. Suddenly purposeful, she pushes her way through briars that loom in the sable mass of bushes. Occasionally Anita catches sight of something she recognises, a garden plant grown large and strangely wild, unchecked too long, now rampantly feral and scratching at the sky with twigs. She has no idea where they are headed, or what there could be within this growth that Nancy seems so keen to find, but she follows her, beating down the bracken, beating back the years of this woman’s neglect.

Figure XVII

July 13, 2006

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“Did you see? We sold the Pinball machine on eBay at eleven o’ clock last night.” says Jo, her face lit up with momentary enthusiasm.

“Really, wow!”

“Four seven five.”

“That’s great, Jo!”

“We’d have got more for it in the shop, but you know, it’s not bad. They’re collecting it at the weekend.”

“Do you want me to be here?”

“No, it’s okay, I’ll be able to manage it. No interest in the china cabinet.”

Laura checks the item off on her paper list.

“Any of the clothes gone?”

“No, no just the pinball machine.” Jo takes a sip of her tea, “I see the future of course. I see that the shop’s the thing holding me down at the end of the day. Cheaper to hire a lock–up somewhere and do all my sales online really.”

“Do you think so?”

“Oh yes, it’s changing the world, this thing. It’s just down to me to bite the bullet and decide to make the move.”

“Right–”

“It’s okay, it won’t be for some time yet, Laura. But I notice the change. Twenty–five years I’ve been here. I’ve ridden the rough with the smooth, but it’s just not the shop that’s making the money any more.”

A mantle clock deep within the mass of clutter lets out a tiny peel of bells to announce the hour. Suddenly, as if a flock of birds awoken by this shrill alarm call, other clocks around the shop burst forth notes from their roosting spots; boom and cuckoo, boom and cuckoo. Tiny, tinny versions of the Westminster chimes, chorus like anguished blackbirds in the forest of coats and furs, then all is still again, all is calm.

“It’s becoming a different game. Suddenly everyone knows something and everyone’s a seller. I don’t complain; it’s just different. I think of my own parents. Never sold anything. Just bought. Filled their house with stuff. I’d go and visit them and every surface had an ornament. Every drawer filled with the most useless of objects, that just stayed there, just gathered dust. But this–” she says, pointing at the laptop, “It makes people look at the things they have differently. Things aren’t just things to them now, they’re capital. It’s the reinvention of portable property; something you put your money in for a while to free up at a later date. And now, now you can get anything. Anything. Anything you want at the touch of a button, and it’s there.”

Figure XVI

July 11, 2006

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Laura changes trains at Victoria amid the brooding grey suits and pastel flashes of summer cotton; onwards, north up to Notting Hill Gate. Jo has already opened up when she arrives, the metal grills removed from the windows and taken inside to display the ramshackle stock of bric-a-brac and retro fashion. Nothing Happens. She has worked here for a month now, but has never questioned Jo on what the name means. Steve suggested that it was a reference to Samuel Beckett. Laura is not so sure. Jo does not seem given to literary allusions, instead she imagines that the name is literal, a comment on the slow trade that the shop appears to cling to. People rarely seem to need a 1940s cocktail dress, or record player cased in fake crocodile skin first thing on a Thursday morning. Steve thinks that the shop is in the wrong place; that it would do much better if it was in with the other antique and second-hand shops around the market. But Nothing Happens is in the wrong part of Notting Hill.

Orange Pekoe in the morning, suffuses the shop with a dim glow of reason; sitting bright as marigolds in the steel leaf-strainer, then red as blood against the cups’ delicate white. Putting her bag down, Laura sits aside Jo at the Formica table salvaged from a motorway service station outside Stevenage, one staring into the cup as if it were some spy-glass to another world, the other glancing first to the window at the blotchy grey sky, and then across to her friend, awaiting a response. Neither of them speak, but there is something in this act of sharing tea, the simple stillness of their being that suggests unity, agreement, something understood; but nothing happens.

Figure XV

July 10, 2006

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In the history of evolution, the nematode worm never adapted itself to the crossing of roads or the opening of car doors. Though a million such species formed themselves on the earth, each suited in their separate ways to aquatic or subterranean life, the creature’s conveyance across an inner city street never came to light as a necessary specification until this moment in time. Neither had Ernest in his 76 years of life adapted himself for hurried progression whilst entombed in such thick rubber casing.

How curiously things turned out. He had been up for the role of Serebryakov in a touring production of Uncle Vanya the week before, but his agent had worried that he might have found the work tiring at his age. Might he not prefer this job instead? Just a small company, no lines to remember, just a bit of improvisation, only a few days work but the money wasn’t bad. He had auditioned for the role of pond–skater, but had been too tall for the costume.

His whole life was diligently spent on the margins. A lead star in radio light entertainment on the Home Service, there had once been some talk of him getting his own show, but he took to the theatre instead. He once shared a taxi with Lawrence Olivier. And now this. Spending every moment regretting one’s past, watching others succeed and going in fear of death –

Figure XIV

July 7, 2006

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Between heat and thunder, the progression slower than those on foot, Rupert’s van draws forward in the commuter hour cortège. Behind the dull throb of the motor, growling like an animal caged before his feet, he imagines himself with purpose amid the hurly and din of the quivering city, still waking, still falling into place.

Outside a florists, galvanised steel buckets are arranged for the display of flowers. The unfurling eyes of Westminster, a thousand metal shutters rolled skywards in this thunderous dawn of cars, and buses, and the burrowing trains beneath the pavements; it wakes him also, stirs him from his stately passage through the world.

In the back of the van sit twenty disembodied heads, twenty blank and expressionless polystyrene faces, each with perfectly coiffured, unstirring hair. He catches sight of them in the rear view mirror, the face of his mother amongst them, nodding in that way she had, that way that simply said: That’s what I thought. That’s how I expected things to turn out. Quivering with the vibrations of the engine, trembling just as it had all those years she spent in bed, balding and thinning at the cheeks, simply nodding at the wallpaper when the acknowledged silence had become too much. But he was the one who had stayed home for her. He was the one who knew when she struggled for the words:
“Da bnt… Da bnt…”

“Do you want me to find you the pink one?”

No answer. No smile even; but the slow sedate nodding would return as if equilibrium had been restored to her, and he would go to the dresser and draw her out the pink cardigan, the exact one she had been meaning, and he would help her on with it and he would tidy up her hair.

And yet that look was always there. He could see it in her dying face once all others had gone from her repertoire. That look, not of gratitude but of admission: I knew it would be you. I knew you would be the one left with me.

Figure XIII

July 6, 2006

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“So what are you up to today?” Laura asks putting her things into her bag.

“I thought I might go down to the library, maybe see Richard in the afternoon.” replies Steve from over the top of his book.

“You will ring about that job?”

“Yes, of course.”

“It looks good, doesn’t it?”

“Yes–”

“Right up your street.”

“Yes, probably.”

“I think it looks great.”

He puts the book down in his lap and smiles at her. “It’s okay, I am going to ring them.”
She smiles too.

“Do you want me to drop you off some lunch in the shop when I’m done at the library?” he asks her, picking the book up again.

“If it’s not a problem.”

“It won’t be. What would you like?”

“Oh I don’t know… you pick. You always know better than me.” She laughs, it has become a running joke between them, but there is truth in it too. Sometimes she feels that Steve knows her far better than she feels she knows herself. “Right… I’m going to be late.”

She walks over to where he is sitting and kisses him on the forehead glancing down to see what he is reading, and then she is gone, out of the room leaving him alone in the quiet attic. He sits there for some minutes, having listened to her feet descend the staircase, the front door slam, the words on the page not moving, not making sense. Then he lays the book down on his lap and gets to his feet and prepares to leave the house himself.

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