Algebra

Tramway

Issue 3

Coeurs de Pigeons

by Ruth Thomas

Ruth Thomas

The private view is being held in a gallery called Space!

Space, exclamation mark.

Ted has magnetised the invitation to his fridge door, and every time he goes to get out the milk he feels a small sense of gloom. His wife Dolly would have phoned and made an excuse: she’d have got him off the hook. She was his help-mate, their friends used to say, as well as his model. She was his receptionist, his personal assistant, his social secretary. Now she has left him, though, he’s let the date slide.

You are invited to a private view of
Max Harper’s magnificent work,
Darkness before Dawn
Friday 20 September, 7.30- 9.00

Magnificent, he thinks, as he stands by the fridge. Well.

He’s only ever really glanced at Max Harper’s paintings. Even though people have sometimes likened Harper’s style to his own.

‘Not that he has your particular way with paint, Ted,’ his oldest friend Dylan soothed recently. ‘He doesn’t have quite your …’ and he struggled to find a word to describe what Ted had, which Max Harper did not have.

‘Splattery quality,’ he said in the end.

‘My splattery quality?’ Ted said, aghast.

Dylan can say things like that. Things that surprise and upset. ‘I saw Dolly today,’ he said, for example, a couple of weeks ago.

‘What?’ Ted had replied with a sudden, lurching hope, ‘Where?’

‘Walking down Greek Street. She was…’

‘Did you speak to her? Jesus! Did you find out where’s she staying? All I’ve got is a phone number she never answers!’

And Dylan had looked a little sheepish.

‘The thing is,’ he said, ‘she looked...’

‘What?’

‘Happy. I didn’t want to disturb her. She had a drawing-board with her.’

‘Oh,’ Ted replied.

*

Dylan drives Ted to Space!, something peculiar having happened to the clutch on Ted’s car. Some seizing or shearing-off of something. Dylan hums as he drives, his left hand tucked beneath his corduroyed thigh. His car is small and black and upright, like a top-hat on wheels. When they get to the gallery he parks it between a bin and a lamppost, switches off the engine, opens the door and flings himself out into the night, to go and meet a friend.

‘Have fun!’ he says as Ted slams his own door shut. Then he scampers, sprightly as an old gazelle, up a dark alley full of wheely-bins and empty cooking-oil barrels.

‘Don’t leave me!’ Ted wants to call after him, like a child left at some terrible birthday party. But he will have to go in now, he will have to go into Space!

There is a smell, walking down the steps, of mops and whitewash and extinguished cigarettes, and as soon as he opens the door at the bottom he sees that all the usual crowd is there; the same people he has encountered at such events over the decades, from Barcelona to the Isle of Wight. This, though, is the first time he has attended a private view without Dolly. He feels like someone peculiar, some transfigured person, like the Michelin Man, or C3PO, or the Pillsbury Doughboy.

He goes to stand beside a wall of wine-bottles positioned on a high table.

‘Would you like a drink, Sir?’ asks a girl standing behind the wine-bottles.

‘No thanks, I think I’ll just stand here for a bit’

‘Not a problem,’ she says.

Should it be? he wonders querulously. And he looks around the gallery. Max Harper’s paintings, large and mainly brown, are ranged around the walls. Beside one stands Peter Treadgold, a Pop Art specialist. He is talking to Carl Stranger, painter of darkly spiritual triptyches.

‘Hello, Peter,’ Ted calls, raising his left arm, ‘hello, Carl.’

‘Ted!’ they both say in big, delighted voices, and then they continue with their conversation.

Not everyone knows, of course. It has not even been two months since Dolly left him. Since she decided: enough! and went to stay with a friend in St Leonard’s. And anyway, what is there to say? People leave people. Maybe Peter and Carl will paint something for him instead, he thinks: a painting of commiseration. Standing in a taupe-brown corner on the other side of the gallery is Miriam Clarence, a woman who knows everything there is to be known about naïve art. And with her is Anthony Chambers, an expert on Gauguin; who once organised a painting trip to Tahiti, which lasted three weeks.

‘Ted,’ Anthony Chambers calls urgently. ‘Stay there. I’m coming over.’

And he remains where he is standing.

‘Would you like some champagne instead, Sir?’ asks the girl behind the wine-bottles. She has come out from behind them now, with a huge tray full of champagne flutes. Ted regards the glasses; the simple shape of them. He thinks of Dolly washing up their own champagne flutes in the kitchen. He thinks of her standing there over the years, wearing her apron and her yellow washing-up gloves.

‘I’m not actually supposed to drink alcohol at the moment,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t mix with the drugs.’

He doesn’t say which drugs: he doesn’t say Aspirin.

‘Ah,’ the girl replies, looking unimpressed, and she moves on. She is wearing a hair-clasp in the shape of a butterfly, Ted notices, and something about this touches him. It is a pretend butterfly, of course, but it seems like one of the few real pieces of art in the room.

Only one person, over the course of the next half hour mentions Dolly’s absence. One person: a woman called Wendy whom he once shared a lecture-series with, on the topic of Figures in a Landscape. She approaches him now, and places her hand on his arm.

‘This too will pass,’ she says.

‘She hasn’t actually died, Wendy!’ Ted retorts.

Because he doesn’t know what else to say. And because everything he does say comes out wrong, anyway.

Wendy looks sorrowful for a moment. Then she squeezes his arm, smiles, turns, and helps herself to a bacon-wrapped date.

The girl with the butterfly clasp has, Ted notices, dispensed with the champagne. Now she is carrying around a tray full of small tomatoes. They are probably, he thinks, some sort of statement about something. Something about roundness, or the colour red.

‘Would you like a tomato?’ she asks, approaching him.

‘You don’t give up, do you?’ he says – a statement that is meant to sound jovial and amused – paternal, even - but just comes out rather mean and flat. Possibly also, he suspects, like something a sleazy old man might say.

‘Although,’ he says, to atone for this, ‘a tomato would be nice, actually.’ It would be something to do with my mouth, he thinks, picking one up from the tray and crunching it between his teeth.

It is a Coeur de pigeon tomato. He knows this, because he and Dolly once bought some, at a market in Paris, when they were in their early twenties. And the stall-holder, a small, super-confident man in a flat cap, had told them the name. Celles-ci sont les coeurs de pigeons, mademoiselle, he’d told Dolly. And she’d thought how funny it was, that in France even tomatoes were romantic. She’d drawn a picture of them later, he remembers, in the apartment where they were staying. Pigeon Hearts, she’d called it.

‘These are coeur de pigeons tomatoes,’ he informs the girl now, ‘because they’re shaped like pigeons’ hearts.’

‘Really?’ the girl asks, moving on with the tray, and leaving him standing there.

Of course, he thinks, coeurs de pigeons are commonplace now. These ones probably came from Tescos.

Max Harper, the reason they are all scrunched in a basement in the first place, is not actually there for a long time. But then, shortly before nine, the double doors swing open, and there he is. He is wearing a peculiar hat and a cloak. ‘Ta-daah!’ Ted hears him saying, holding out his arms.

Following in his wake comes a small entourage of meeker-looking people. Two grey-haired men wearing canvas trousers, a big-chinned younger man smelling of TCP, and a woman - Ted realizes with a sudden jolt of alarm – a woman he kissed, almost accidentally, about a month ago. About three weeks after Dolly left him. Oh, God! And now he is not quite sure what to do. How to hide himself: there is nowhere to hide. And he realizes in his panic that he can’t even remember the woman’s name. And as she approaches, he recalls the dreadful, astonishing afternoon, the afternoon of that terrible kiss, in a bistro in Hoxton Square; and a conversation about Picasso.

The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,’ he remembers quoting to her, half-drunk, about ten minutes before he’d suddenly leaned across the table and kissed her. He can’t imagine now what made him do that. Sadness, he supposes. Sadness makes you do odd things.

‘Haah!’ he says now as the woman walks past; and, blushing - blushing at the age of fifty-nine! - he glances up, and out through the gallery’s little window. The moon is out there, a huge distance away and very white in the dark sky. He wants to smash his hand through the glass and touch it. He wants to be out there, up there, with the moon.

‘Hello, Ted,’ says the woman.

‘What?’ he barks, feeling his heart constrict.

‘How are you?’ she continues, smiling. ‘Though I’m not sure I should be talking to you, actually,’ she winks, lowering her voice.

‘Huh?’ Ted croaks, as she picks up a glass of wine from a passing tray and tips some of it into her mouth.

‘It’s OK, though,’ she says, ‘my lips are sealed.’

And she waits for him to reply.

She waits. And he tries: he tries to reply. But he cannot. He is just stricken. He feels like one of Max Harper’s portraits on the wall. Dislocated. Fractured. Suspended. A mess.

‘Sparkling water, sir?’ asks the girl with the butterfly hair-clasp. And now the woman he kissed moves confidentially towards him and puts her hand on his arm.

‘Don’t worry,’ she whispers. ‘I won’t breathe a word.’

And she lets go of his arm again and turns away. 

‘Yes, I will have some water,’ Ted says to the girl, ‘thank you.’

You remind me of my wife, he wants to add. You are like my wife when she was young. She should never have served drinks to old has-beens either.

Max Harper is now standing in the very centre of Space! The hat on his head is a peculiar, knitted thing not unlike a tea-cosy. But everybody seems to be regarding it as if it is a rather wonderful piece of art; and listening, spellbound, to what he is saying.

‘…yes, I don’t know where I got that from,’ he is musing in a rather playful voice, ‘it just seemed to come from some magical …’

And Ted, moving his glass of water to his lips, accidentally elbows something perched on the table beside him. It is the tray of tomatoes. The tray of pigeon hearts. Oh! – and now the tray tips - it wobbles alarmingly as he swings his left hand round to steady it. But he is not quick enough, and the water spills from his glass, the tray slides, tilts, flips over the edge of the table, the little tomatoes dropping like round red teardrops and bouncing noisily across the floor.

There is a silence.

‘Oh dear,’ says Max Harper, from the midst of his little coterie. People turn for a moment and look at Ted and the tomatoes and the still-rotating silver tray. And then they turn back and the conversation is resumed.

Ted stands and briefly, very briefly, closes his eyes.

Dolly.

‘Yes, and of course,’ somebody says to his right, ‘the effect of that particular block of colour was to…’

‘…exactly!’

He stands.

He stands and waits.

The girl with the butterfly hair-clasp appears from behind a whitewashed wall after a while, with a red dustpan and brush. It is just like the dustpan and brush Dolly used to use.

‘Sorry about that,’ Ted says to her, as she sweeps the tomatoes up.

‘Accidents happen.’

‘And are you an artist?’ Ted hears himself asking her. ‘Do you paint?’

(‘And who was it?’ he hears somebody uttering, ‘who was it who said ‘Great Art picks up where Nature ends’?’)

‘Yes,’ the girl says, ‘I try to. When I have time.’

‘Well,’ he says, and he is not sure what to say to this. He feels he should say something: something wise and helpful that she might recollect in years to come. ‘Well, keep on painting,’ is all he can think of. And he lifts the single remaining tomato from the table and puts it in his mouth. And then he decides to leave.

For twenty-five minutes he waits in the doorway of a Hi-fi shop, at the top of the gallery stairs. He stands and looks at a display of loudspeakers. Then just after nine thirty, Dylan comes along in his funny car to pick him up.

‘How was it?’ he asks, as Ted gets into the car, all limbs and Weltschmerz, like a trapped Daddy Long Legs, ‘Anything happen? Anything interesting?’

‘Well, I knocked a tray of tomatoes off a table,’ Ted says.

‘Oh dear.’

And I missed Dolly, he wants to add. But he doesn’t say this. He just looks out through the windscreen and up at the calm, white, indestructible moon.

‘Who was it,’ he asks Dylan, ‘who said ‘Great Art picks up where nature ends?’

‘Sorry?’

‘Who was it, who said ‘Great Art picks up where nature ends’?’

Dylan considers, staring out at the blurry night.

‘Chagall,’ he says, after a moment.

‘Of course,’ Ted replies.

And now some invisible set of wheels in the car’s engine makes a terrible shearing sound as Dylan crunches into the wrong gear and turns sharp left onto Ted’s street.

‘Dolly liked Chagall,’ Ted continues. ‘I was always more of a Picasso man.’

And he realizes that he has a tear running down his face: it is skating down his cheek and curling beneath his chin. Quickly, before Dylan notices it, he wipes it away.

‘So,’ Dylan says, clipping the kerb, ‘here we are.’

And he over-revs the car up Ted’s drive, ploughs into the ceanothus bush and switches off the engine.

Ted looks out through the windscreen, at his front door and the peony plants along his path, their dark magenta heads bowing low in the wind.

Dolly planted those, he thinks. They are hearts too, in their own way.

‘I’m glad Dolly was happy when you saw her,’ he says.

‘Spoken like a man,’ Dylan replies. ‘Spoken like a true artist.’

And they both sit for a second, in the darkness. Considering this.

Ruth Thomas

Ruth Thomas was born in Kent but moved to Edinburgh aged eighteen and has lived there ever since. She has had three short story collections published - Sea Monster Tattoo and The Dance Settee (Polygon) and Super Girl (Faber), and her stories are also often anthologised and broadcast on BBC radio. Her first novel, Things to Make and Mend, was published in 2007 by Faber, and her second novel is due to be published by Faber in 2012. She lives with her husband and children in the south side of Edinburgh.