I’d seen him around the college, he worked in Business Studies; big man, late fifties, intense, almost marched along, tweed jacket, un-pressed worsted trousers, the sort of face you wouldn’t want peering through the playground railings of your child’s school.
He had read my parody of Edu-biz buzzwords and phrases in the house magazine, ‘…proactive encouragement of student-centred assimilation of conceptual bridges to facilitate non-arbitrary criteria of recourse-based parameters for… etc.’ and, literally bumping into me in the foyer, had told me how much he’d enjoyed it. I was mildly pleased; he may well have been the only reader not to take it seriously.
Though I had never spoken to him, he obviously knew of me and perhaps knowing I taught an art course to mature students at the same college, and had done so for the last ten years, told me he bought paintings, mainly Victorian, mostly at auctions and would I like to see them. He owned a large detached house in a Victorian estate in East London and lived on his own, as did I, in a small, rather minimalist flat near my workplace.
The next afternoon I went to see him. He lived on a street with an abundance of established trees in front gardens hanging over walls of London brick - the same as the houses, though some of these had been rendered and painted.
His house was large and unprepossessing; scruffy, uncared for, shallow pediments above pseudo Georgian windows - I again wondered why Victorian architects, with the embellishments of colonial masturbation, had enjoyed destroying the perfect proportions of a twelve-paned box sash - and a roll of barbed wire across the top of the castellated garage. It was a sunny day, though the porch was dark, unlit and the maroon door had paint over the original glass from badly cut-in glazing bars. The bell didn’t work. There was no knocker. I tapped lightly on a muntin and the door opened immediately as if he had been standing behind it. He smiled me in with a weary gesture.
It was the kitchen I noticed first; handle less cups on a dark wooden table, ketchup spotted floor, oil bound distemper peeling off walls, the smell of gas and a butler’s sink that was so full of pots and pans and bacon rind that I felt even he wouldn’t piss in. I followed him up the stairs; railings missing from banisters, Napoleonic grotesque glimpsed through a dusty bead curtain, sofa, the back of a headboard, a mahogany mirrored wardrobe perhaps tired of his naked reflections, walls of stripes and roses, a patterned pub carpet, the tinkling crystals of a chandelier.
The paintings were in crude wooden racks in the loft, possibly fifty or more, their frames dust covered. He began pulling them out, looking at each one with a sort of apprehensive wistfulness before replacing it. There were cottages, fields, sheep, town hall faces, smug eyes, snug waistcoats, mayoral chains, nearly all covered in heavy varnish. A canvas fell to the floor, he stared at the back of it, then looking above my head - he had rarely looked at my face since I’d been in his home - muttered nervously that he wasn’t well. He started to stutter.
‘Th-there’s a lot here, they’ll take them. They’ll take them.’
‘People. They’ll get in, they’ll take all of them.’
He looked straight at me. ‘B-Belmayes, I have to go to Belmayes.’
I wanted to press my knuckles into my ears, pretend he hadn’t said those words.
Again he said them, exactly as before, but whispering. Then, louder,
‘Take me there, please, I’m ill.’ He said this last very quickly.
He scuttled down the stairs, through the kitchen and into the long back garden. I followed. The door slammed behind me. He asked if I liked his ‘little plot’ and apologised for it being overgrown. He strode towards the back door of the kitchen, tried to open it and announced it had locked
‘I think the f-front door’s open.’ he said. ‘There’s a ladder here.’
He pointed to a few rungs showing through the long grass. I pulled the ladder up and leant it against the back of the garage; climbed up, and realising I couldn’t drop down from the front because of the wire, dragged it across the roof and slid it down the front of the garage. Awkwardly stepping over the coiled wire I came down and went to the front door again. It was open. I went into the kitchen, unlatched the back door and, following him again, went through the hall, out and around the side of the house where there was an old Citroen, the grass partly hiding its hubcaps. Opening the passenger door he slumped into the seat and beckoned me with a flippant wave to sit behind a mould-splotched steering wheel and drive.
The smell inside was foul, but surprisingly the car started first time. I bumped and stalled along for a while before I could control the vehicle adequately enough to trust myself on the main road. He sat there like a silent scream. I passed my own street ten minutes later; it looked darkly unreal. Two miles or so further on was the familiar chimney in the grounds of Belmayes Hospital. It wasn’t just the chimney that was familiar - that was a local landmark.
I had been in Belmayes as a young man and didn’t expect, nor wish, to return for whatever reason. It was the local Bedlam. I’d stayed months; needle-pierced in early dawns, drifting into insulin-deep sleeps because they didn’t drop you into cold baths any more and playing football by order with a sugar water bottle in my fist, defying instant comas and watching a crazed goalkeeper stopping shots with his face. I dug the hospital allotment without knowing why, watched someone from Ward 4 scrape a pick across a long-stay’s scalp, blood covering his smiling teeth, and the stiff dances in F Ward with glazed-eyed girls were no incentive to leave my glass-walled mind.
Fifty yards inside the gate now I stopped in a small, asphalted space outside an incongruous glass door at the bottom of what could have been a medieval keep and looked across at him. He was frowning and nodding rhythmically. This went on silently for minutes. Quietly I asked him what he wanted to do. He glanced at me, clambered out the car and walked hastily towards turreted psychiatry.
Following him in I saw a stocky Jamaican behind a counter asking if he could help.
‘I want to see a doctor. Could I see him now, please?’
There was no desperation, he had asked his question almost apologetically. He seemed to have stopped stuttering.
He was told to wait. I think he was crying, his hands rigidly flat on the top of his legs. Quietly he told me to go. He’d be alright, he said.
The man put a phone down and said someone would be with him soon. I didn’t know what to do or say. Tentatively I put my arm around his shoulders, not really wanting to touch him. Then a young doctor appeared, gently took the elbow of his potential patient and both turned into a narrow corridor and were out of sight.
Driving back I wondered why he hadn’t packed a bag with some washing stuff, toothbrush, pyjamas, for surely he wore those. I put the car in his garden, churning the grass. For a while I sat, noticed there was still a small patch of mould on the wheel, then looked down between my legs and saw a smear of blood on my sock. The barbed wire must have cut me. Sunset suddenly silhouetted the house. I got out of the car and walked quickly away, as if fleeing childhood.
The next day he rang me in the staff room. He was speaking from home. He wanted to sell his paintings and wished me to be executor. There were forms to sign.
I looked around the room, usually a chattering chorus of pedagogy, a communion of roles across coffee spilt desks. At this moment there were only three of us; Colin, lording it over his empire of three desks, grin legitimating his loveable crassness, Durham accent ruling okay as he gleefully repeated how lucky we were that evolution had got it right by giving us thumbnails so we could scratch our arses, and Alan, head of our department, provincial man, established victim, cold wife, colder kids, a Co-op ceilidh the highlight of his month. It was ordinary, familiar, almost incestuously so. Now, here was this strangely authoritative voice telling me that I must take official responsibility for the sale of an art collection. I told him that I had no classes and could get to him about two. I’d mentioned yesterday to no one.
Stepping off a bus and turning into the long street I could see a cream coloured pantechnicon parked some two hundred yards away. I slowed, almost stopped, and then thought of him a few hours ago inside that square half mile of Neo-Gothic dismay.
Moving more purposefully along the street and getting nearer to the vehicle outside his house I saw two men in brown smocks leaning paintings against the rear nearside wheel, then returning to the house again to get more. On the side of the van was written ‘John Baines, Art Auctioneers, Cotteshall, Essex.’ The front door was wide open and a dustsheet thrown over the porch step and part of the hall. I went inside the house a little way and waited hesitantly. One of the men came down carrying a large painting of several sheep in the lea of a hill, the burnished gold on the tops of their heads and backs shouting second-rate Pre-Raphaelite. I asked if the owner was in the attic and receiving an affirmative nod went up the stairs, the second man passing me on his way down.
He was looking at me through the open loft door, his eyes wide, greying hair sticking up as if it was gelled.
‘Do you think they’ll take them to Baines’s? They could take them somewhere else, couldn’t they? They could take them to another auctioneers and do some sort of fiddle.’ He seemed frightened.
I asked him if he had spoken to the firm’s office, he said he had, and I tried to reassure him that his paintings would get there. I didn’t inquire about the previous night.
I gestured to him that I’d help take some of the paintings down. He pointed to a few of the smaller ones. I took them outside and leant them against the others. After bringing a few more down and realising how hungry I was - lecturing, or rather the way I proselytised, burnt up a lot of energy - I asked him if he’d mind if I went to a café somewhere for a quick bite. I didn’t want to eat where I was. Nodding, he said,
‘Don’t be long.’
I hurried to the other end of the street to the main road, but didn’t see any cafes. I wandered around asking people. Someone told me of a place near the Flats where I used to play as a child. I found it, ordered something. It took a long while to get to me. I ate it quickly, had a coffee.
I walked back along his road, looking at privet hedges, scrolled gates, the black and white diamond tiles of front paths, and then looked up. There was no van. I stopped, feeling self-conscious. I wanted to run to the house, but couldn’t. I stood outside; doors and windows shut, the long grass, the car at the side where I’d parked it and the ladder still against the front of the garage where it had been all night. Neither of us had noticed it. I laid it alongside the car, went to the front door, knocked tentatively on one of the coloured glass panes, then harder. There was no sound from inside. I waited ten minutes or so, not knowing what to do. Remembering I had a class that evening I walked slowly back to the bus stop. Looking back along the street the air seemed dense and hard. I didn’t phone him. I think I was frightened to.
I wondered about him for a week or so. Had he gone with the men in the van? Had he decided to trust them and, maybe, gone back to the hospital again? Was he strong enough to get well in that place? Where were the forms for me to sign, did they exist?
My interest in answering these questions gradually waned and after a while the episode faded away.
Six days ago in a café opposite Liverpool Street Station I saw him. He was munching a meal and staring steadily at a far point just above my head. I had been there, eating and reading, for at least twenty minutes and hadn’t noticed him. I also hadn’t realised just how big he was. He looked well, was wearing a raincoat, tie and was well groomed. I was tempted to speak to him, give him a casual grin and ask coyly if he remembered me. Instead, I got quietly up, walked past him and crossed the road to the station.
Leaving the train before my usual stop I went to his street and stood outside the house. I wasn’t quite sure at first if it was his - it had been four years - until I saw the rusting barbed wire.
I sat on his front wall, my back to the road. I started swinging my heels rhythmically into the bricks, felt bits of pointing crumble away, kicked harder, wanted to smash the wall down, to pull the gate off its hinges, rip the grass from the garden, kick the side of his car in - though it wasn’t there anymore - wanted to put my foot through the front door, rip the wire away until my hands and arms bled. I don’t know why. I walked quickly along the road, started running, fists clenched, till I felt my fingertips would push through the palms of my hands. I was weeping.