She had a couple of lucky guesses at first. She found his BAD TEMPER early on, in a lucky hit. H9. A three squared block, lying vertical. His eyes glanced up from the game, anxious but belligerent. Was she still smiling? She was. She smiled all through her early wins. INSECURE, kaboom! L2 and 3, a neat little box, tucked away, near to LAZY, a long thin four blocker, stretched like a sleeping cat across the middle of the grid. She took an early loss on EXAGGERATOR, which she’d laid proudly across most of A. No point in hiding that. Then she lost EMOTIONAL and VAGUE in quick succession, and their grids were getting crowded with little crosses and ticks, and the game was in full flow. CRUEL is only a little one, but he found it down near the bottom, and she found TACTLESS in the same place on his grid, a block he was more than happy to have discovered, one he was almost proud of. He found UNSTABLE, she found FUSSY.
And of course they both had the nicer things there, too. FUNNY and GENEROUS, GENTLE and LOYAL, TOLERANT and ORIGINAL, these things were discovered too, with pleasure and in a spirit of serious playfulness. It was a relief, after a time, when the game was finally over. They wanted to be found out. When he at last exposed her block of SELFISH and the game was done, they smiled at each other and went together to put the kettle on, each with a little rumpled map of the other tucked away in their pockets, the job done.
But it seemed that after, the game went on despite them leaving the table and packing the box away. There was a round two, in which they were seeking, not for the qualities one is hiding from the other, but for those qualities they do not themselves know about, those the other sees in them, the ones they discover when fishing around. He, for example, hid her VULGARITY and she his PEDANTRY. She was aware of his KINDNESS and he of her VANITY, he of her COURAGE and she of his ENVY, and so these hazy leviathons formed, deeply sunk and perfectly harmless to the one who hides them. It is the seeker who is at risk, who perceives the looming shape through the gloom of deep water and, if they are wise, takes action to avoid a collision with themselves in the dark.
One year I was sent to the house of a celebrated artist, Roland Mitchell, to take pictures of him standing in his garden with his family. The pictures were intended for a multi-page feature in a Sunday supplement. Roland was in his forties by then, and his rounded paunch hung over his belt smugly. He wore cowboy boots and a coat made of a patchwork of ethnic fabrics. His wife, May, was older. She had long dry yellow hair which she tied up in a chaotic arrangement. She wore heavy kohl and a long thin dress which was dragged between her legs by the wind. She had sandals on her wide, rough-skinned feet. Her toes were dirty.
Roland and May bickered charmingly and arranged themselves in various poses – by a stately tree, sitting on a bench. I got a particularly good shot, in which May stands holding a white chicken, which is straining its wings away from her grasp. She is laughing, about to set it free. Behind her, Roland has one hand reached forward, as if to intervene. May’s hair has come loose, and some has been whipped by the wind across Roland’s cheek. It is a picture full of movement and opposing forces. It made the front cover of the June supplement, accompanied by the title ‘Living Landscapes – How Roland Mitchell gave us back our English Pastoral’.
They had three children, but the youngest, they said, refused to be involved in the shoot. May’s mouth twisted in derision as she related this fact. Hattie, she said, didn’t want her membership of this family on record. Roland laughed at this, and called his two sons over. There was Peter, tall and in his twenties, and Jasper, a slinky boy who draped himself around his mother with a practised affectation. I took some shots of them throughout an hour or so that morning, until the weather defeated us and May ushered us all into the kitchen for soup and rye bread.
“Fetch a chair for our esteemed guest, Jasper!” boomed Roland, and Jasper fetched me a plumply stuffed armchair from another room, which came several inches short of the others at table, meaning that throughout the meal I was slumped below the eyeline of the family, like a child.
“Must be dull, I imagine,” murmured May, “always traipsing around people’s houses, taking pictures. Publicity shots, really, aren’t they? Do you get bored?”
“Well, no. I think you can be quite creative really, if you…”
“Ha!”, Roland interrupted. “She emerges at last!”
In the doorway stood a small girl, maybe fifteen or sixteen, glowering from under a hooded sweatshirt. She wore heavy purple boots. She moved silently towards the cooker and spooned some soup into a bowl for herself. Her family watched her and the room grew tense.
“Come and sit with us, Hatt,” said Peter, but she shook her head and left, carrying her spoon in a clenched fist.
Over lunch, and as the rain began to pelt earnestly against the windows, I suggested to Roland that, if he wanted to avoid the whiff of the publicity shoot, I might stay for a while that afternoon and take a series of less staged pictures, of the family going about their business in the usual way. Roland agreed, saying he was going to be up in the studio that afternoon, painting. May also nodded, though she said she thought they’d all be terribly unnatural knowing I was lurking with my camera. Peter was going out, and Jasper had homework to do. As the kitchen emptied, I arranged my lenses and then began to explore the house.
I found Jasper in the sitting room, slumped attractively on a huge settee, stroking a long haired cat. Pre-meditated as this scene may or may not have been, I stayed for a while and took some pictures. The light was marvellous, falling in beams across his face and hands. Later, as I was leaving, I peeped back into this room and saw him, still on the settee, embracing the cat and sleeping deeply.
At the back of the house, May was watering pot plants in the sunroom. She had taken off her sandals, and she padded amongst the ragged leaves with a slightly frumpy, business-like air. Many of the plants were half dead, it seemed to me, though she had a fine display of chilli peppers reddening in the corner. When she saw me she gave me a faintly irritated smile, so I retreated swiftly, and found the stairs up to Roland’s studio.
He is an enormous, self-satisfied man, and he filled the small studio with sweat and charisma and an ongoing muttered monologue. The room was messy and dusty, with mouldy cups and chocolate wrappers and a pile of art and pornography magazines. Roland was fussing around with tubes of paint, wiping colour onto a small piece of paper. He had a pair of spectacles on his nose, with fragile silver arms, somewhat at odds which the rest of his meaty appearance. He tolerated me there for a few minutes. I caught a nice shot of him squeezing a sausage of bright pink paint from a metal tube, his tongue peeking in concentration from within his beard, but it was no use. I told him I was leaving, and he nodded and grunted a goodbye. I made my way down the narrow staircase.
Upon the landing, I saw a door ajar, and heard movement from inside. I peered through the crack, and, as I hoped, there was Hattie, stripped now of her hooded sweatshirt, wearing a thin green t-shirt. She was standing in front of a mirror, flexing her limbs this way and that, staring at herself with dark eyes. She sensed me there, and turned, and I saw that she had a hare lip. There was a shiny scar under her nose, and her mouth was pursed open slightly on one side, with wet fleshy red exposed, only a little, a little.
“I’m sorry.” I said, and backed away slightly from her accusing gaze. She turned away, and tutted.
“You’re going, are you?” she said, and resumed her flexing.
She hadn’t told me to go. I stood to one side and watched her. She seemed to be examining her muscles – she clenched them and relaxed them and watched how they looked as they moved. Her flawed mouth was towards me, and I felt drawn to it. It made her softer, somehow. The skin above the furled lip was like plastic. I quietly lifted my camera, like a birdwatcher, slowly, slowly, and settled it to my eye. I waited until she turned her head to profile, and snapped.
I got the perfect shot. Her squashed and spread lip, imperfectly healed. Her eye, wild with fury and excitement as she saw the flash. Beyond her, reflected in the mirror, her other side, a smooth undamaged face, waxy and unremarkable. Below her clenched fists, like a blurry smear, a cat dashing out of sight, startled by the sudden roar of Roland behind me telling me to fuck off out of it before he got me sacked.
If this thing has a purpose, I am certain it is not this. I have failed, and I have lost my desire to succeed. I have come to feel that my feeling of recognition is neither a real memory, nor a nonsensical emotional attachment. I think it is an indication that you are to have this device. I am tired and have conceded that no version of events places me where I need to be. Try your luck.
I was walking along a coastal path, brushing through brambles and getting a fine dust of salt on my skin, when I was overcome by the urge to fling myself down towards the sea. The idea churned, and at the same time I felt my balance shift and the business of standing upright on such tiny things as feet seemed absurd. So I jumped.
The wind caught me and I was in the air, falling up, it seemed. The light circled me as I plummeted towards the clouds. I was flying, and there’s no point in telling me I wasn’t. It wasn’t gentle. I was pummelled by air on all sides. Keeping my eyes open was a struggle, as all my instincts were to clench up against the swirling forces, but I didn’t dare to stop looking. I saw my clothes flapping around me, my feet swinging wildly about, and the sea below, so grey and huge and cold. I battled there, in extremis, for what seemed like hours, until at last I learned the way to tilt and lean myself at my own volition. I flew, then, towards the shore, exhausted, and tried to will myself down to earth, but I could not. I hung there, in the air, swimming a few feet above land.
It was dusk by then, and lights were popping up across the town. Idly, miserably, I flew this way and that, and sometimes I called plaintively to people I saw below, hoping that they’d raise their eyes and rescue me. None did. As night fell I approached my own home, and hovered by the window looking in at my family as they ate their evening meal, moving around behind the glass. At last the curtains were pulled across and I was alone. Everywhere, darkness fell. It grew colder, and the air was full of dampness and strange noises. I felt creatures moving around me with their black wings. I turned onto my back and hung there, looking at the stars. My teeth were aching in my mouth and my tongue was a weight. I had such a thirst. I seemed banished.
Perhaps I slept, for in any case at last the light began to spread and I could hear birds crying out with joy or alarm. I looked towards the earth and saw that I had drifted in the night, and now I could not recognise the land below. The shining rope of a great river curved towards the horizon, and there was a smear of forest. I could not imagine where I might be. Everywhere there were birds, like swarms of midges. I felt their feathers brush against me and their beaks, at times, pecking at my hands. I lay in the airstream like a baby, and though I had the power, I suppose, to fly anywhere on earth, I found I could not think of one place I wanted to go, and nor could I feel pleasure in this miracle of flight, for already I perceived that it would be light and then dark, light and then dark, and nothing else for all the rest of my life.
One day you will be old and your life will pool out around you like a quilt made from scraps of self. You may sometimes delight in it and see it as a comfort you have earned, or at other times find it not bright enough, or too stifling, or struggle even to make it cover you against the cold night. You may wonder where that person that was you has gone, because silently and hiddenly changes come, written in chemicals, our skins containing the fizz of renewing selves, invisible even to us. Like a snail we will leave our smeary blanket there, evidence of the time we had and how we used it.
My quilt is spreading out too, with stained and glowing and surprising sections all chopped and higgled like farmland from the sky. I was careless in its making at times, and still do not know how big it will grow or what colours I can add to it, but in time I know my old hands will pick with fondness at those sections that were you, the bits that were beautiful and the bits that weren’t, and that, in me, you will be recorded at your most marvellous and alive. Stitched close to your most vibrant patches will be my most vibrant too, because that’s how I feel, and that’s what love does.
It was totally extraordinary, that such a talented boy should come from a woman as lumpen and unremarkable as my wife’s sister. Julie is that terrible thing – a virtuous single parent. Her pantomime villain of an ex walked out when Daniel , (conceived possibly by magic, but certainly within wedlock) , was a babe in arms, leaving Julie with a permanent sheen of gentle indignation and graciously wielded martyrdom. She doesn’t even complain, unfortunately, which denies us all the opportunity to bitch about her. She is nice and long-suffering and well-meaning and oh god. She invited my wife and I to these hideous little suppers, comprised of cheap wine and god-awful baked pasta, and her relative poverty was there on the table with the crumbs and the weirdly light cutlery. Oh, I know you two go in for gourmet, but I can’t get on with all this posh nosh. We keep it simple, don’t we Daniel? Daniel nodding primly, looking like he’d been brought up. You know, consciously. Like it was a job, or more likely a calling. Jesus.
Anyway, Darling Daniel had been having music lessons for years on the quiet, it seems, because over Christmas, out comes a ukulele and we all have to listen to him playing In the Bleak Mid-Winter. I poured a large port and tried to sidle away, but my wife’s grip told me she wasn’t about to go through this particular ordeal alone, and anyway Julie was standing by the door, saying Michael, I’d appreciate your opinion on this, I really would. So we sit politely in a line on the sofa, and Daniel fiddles with the strings and puts his leg up on a chair like he’s in Peter Paul and Mary, and then off he goes. It was intricate, original music. His own arrangement. After my hurried gear shift, from pained suppression of dismay to an astonished attention, I found myself gazing first at his fingers, flat tipped and deft, and then his eyes, as he regarded his hands with a serene and motherly air. A Christmas Madonna, all long lashes and lamplight in his hair. Intelligent. Moving, even. After he had finished, while the family twittered around him, Julie took me aside and said So I’m right, aren’t I Michael? I thought he was special, but I couldn’t be sure until I checked that you weren’t sneering. Yes, I said. Julie, let us help you get that boy a proper musical education. I will, she said. I need help.
So my wife and I set up an account and have paid for lessons, and I will cover his school fees when he goes to music college in September. That’s all irrelevant. I honestly don’t mind in the least. Money well spent. And it’s been a pleasure, over these last months, to see, as it were, a return on the investment. Daniel now often came over and played for us – sometimes arrangements of old tunes, but increasingly his own compositions. At times, I have been brought to tears by the surprising pureness of it. So unequivocally good. Good quality, of course, but I don’t mean that. I mean morally good. It’s difficult to explain. Of course, the boy’s still a bore. Musicians often are, I think. Play music full of delicate passions, and then, in conversation, reveal an emotional life that is as disappointingly conventional and prosaic as the Radio Times. But he brought some comfort to us both. My wife was getting ill, as you know. I was glad to see how much she looked forward to his playing. She held my hand as she listened, all that malarkey.
And then she got properly sick, in bed, and my world became pills and blankets and night-long vigils. She’s dying, Michael, said Julie, and I realised that the family thought I was in denial, or some such psycho-babble. Maybe I was, I don’t know. She was so thin and old, all of a sudden. I saw my own plump, middle-aged face in the mirror and was astonished by the life in it. Her wedding ring was too big for her, all that. The family tried to help. Julie was around every day, bringing milk and soup and newspapers. Brought me some flimsy little razors and told me to have a bath. Kindness, I know. And she spent hours with me, in the bedroom, watching over Sarah as she slept. Our two large sweaty bodies there, in close proximity, in the half gloom, as my wife breathed. And then, as it was clear that there would only be days left, she said that Daniel would like to come and play. Tears in her eyes. Would that be alright, Michael?
He’d written a composition for her, called Sarah. I suppose one thinks that, as in a film, she should really be roused in her final moments by the music and smile upon her doting family one last time, but nothing of that sort happened, of course. Sarah was beautiful and difficult. Just like my wife, really. I could see what an appropriate and respectful gesture it was. Daniel was solemn and stately, silhouetted against the pale window. The polished wood of the ukulele was rich and warm in his hands. I could see the family there, gathered around her bed, all shiny eyed and exquisitely sad, and suddenly I wished Julie and Daniel and the whole brood of them would fuck off and leave us alone. But I said nothing. I sat and let that marvellous music swirl around me like poison in a cocktail, and Sarah didn’t come to life, and she didn’t die, not that day, not till several days later, when they’d all gone and my beard was in full grey bloom.