Sunday, November 17

Study for Homage to the Square

THE STRANGER WAS walking down the street when the wind started to blow strong, its temperature cold, some measly rain smacking down on everything. He lifted his collar up and kept his eyes peeled. It was the middle of Saturday evening; small pieces of life were already wandering down the avenues, taking joy and excitement wherever they went, the jobless day too keen to decorate the next with some kind of souvenir. A pasty yellow light cast a glow over the pavement, the colour of an aperitif; I must get out of this weather, he thought to himself, and he entered the hotel on the expensive street he had been walking down. It was warm in there. A pianist was scrambling all over the board and doing impersonations. There were as many waiters about as punters, all elegantly dressed and sipping sup sipping their ‘O, really?’ cocktails.
The stranger took a cracked leather seat and, his hand waving, ordered a drink. It tasted like ice cream. His hands were cold, so he put them between his thighs and counted to one-hundred. They weren’t cold anymore.
The pianist kept playing contemporary pop songs with the odd seventh thrown in. The rain fell even harder and the lamps behind the bar brewed even brighter; wholesome rich couples canoodled here and there; waiters waitresses came and went carrying glasses full and empty; he squirmed in his chair and observed. All around were old books stacked carefully on shelves—unread, well-dusted. The stranger took a handful of nuts from the complimentary bowl in front of him when a girl walked in and, with no consideration, sat in front of him. He wriggled and considered this intruder, who looked as cold as he had been and had bags under her eyes. Some people want all the space in the world, and he moved his legs away from hers.
To the approaching waiter—‘Navy rum & coke, please. No ice. Thanks, love.’
Find your own table.
She looked around as the stranger had and, not recognising her surroundings, thought that she was in the wrong venue. She waved her hand about as though there was a fly around her, and started to tuck into the nuts, picking out only the almonds.
She beheld the stranger and said—‘I think it’s very sad when someone doesn’t live through the turn of a century.’
The stranger considered this and replied—‘Why do you say that?’
‘I went to the art museum today—the one by the river with its gas chamber architecture—and I noted the nameplates by the pieces … and every time I saw an artist who hadn’t lived through the turn of a century I felt sorry for them.’ Her drink arrived and she took a long sip because she had long been thirsty. ‘I was there when the millennium came and maybe I was too young to appreciate it, but I thought it was a really wonderful event that everyone should live through … I just got lucky with the millennium, I suppose.’
The stranger took her in, then he noticed the condensation on his glass and they were both there: the girl and the condensation; and beyond them the hotel was housing everyone from the cold inhospitable November weather.
‘If you go to that art gallery at the weekends,’ she went on—‘you don’t get the schoolchildren but you do get the couples … couples in love and couples fighting and couples trying to find the spark like they’re on a camping trip and couples trying to make a good impression as if they know what art is besides something that distracts us from cleaning the bathroom or preparing salads.’ When she drank she put her eyes from side to side. ‘The most noxious moment of any relationship is just after you stop going to art galleries … then—I think—everything is doomed … you turn your interest to children and holidays … and those can get expensive.’
Wiping his lips, the stranger paused. All of them people around him were talking very quietly, their little shoulders hunched up, but this girl spoke loudly. The stranger said—‘I went to that gallery a few weeks ago, incidentally.’
‘You did? … what did you think?’
‘I thought that I was going to smack everyone in there around the face because they angered me so … then I saw a lady who had on a tight fitting dress and her buttocks were magnificent … they made me forget about smacking and art.’
‘Was she part of a couple?’
The rain was starting to put off the pianist; he was complaining and apologising like mad so that people would forgive him, wiping his perspiring brow and trying to remember what his grandmother taught him.
‘No, she was there with her girlfriends and they were laughing a lot.’
‘I know what you mean, though … art is beauty, but the human form is above all.’ She had drunk all there was to drink; she nodded at the barman and pointed to the sweaty glass; the barman sprung into action and started preparing another—‘No ice, love! Thank-you.’
And those were the confines of the night: the hotel bar slowly filling with impatient explorers, wetting themselves by the knee-high tables, ordering cocktail after expensive cocktail, the rain—lit up diagonal by the outer streetlight—pattering down and delivering frowns, while arrivals announced their presence with full-beams through the front windows onto the mirror behind the bar.
The waitress—no doubt thinking the stranger and the girl together—brought over another drink for both of them. Putting them down on napkin coasters, she said—‘I see you went to the Plee exhibition … I went there last weekend … very good, isn’t it? … what did you think?’
The girl responded very quickly—‘I loved it … his earlier work didn’t grab me … nor his later work, for that matter … but the stuff in between, the middle—especially during World War I was fantastic … I loved it, could never get bored of it … he does such small pieces, though … I find they don’t work great in a gallery because you have to go up very close to really adore them and then I worry that I am getting in someone’s way.’
The waitress nodded because some words were being taken out of her mouth—‘I agree … on every count … the colours and the humour were fantastic.’
The two of them stood for some time talking about the exhibition.
The stranger did not know what to think. He drank his drink because the rain was still falling, but he did not lift his eyes or ears from the two of them. When will the rain stop? He thought that the beer was full of flavour and not just fizzy, because it was expensive. I hope the rain does not stop soon. The waitress and the girl were discussing something else now (how long they let their cups of coffee and tea cool before drinking them) and being very friendly about it when the weather was anything but. The pianist was playing once more in full flow, his rapid fingers moving jazzy and syncopated. The stranger relaxed his spine, the cracked leather encompassing him. ‘My mother and Nan couldn’t wait a moment from being delivered their cups of coffee to drinking them in one long, scalding gulp … me, I prefer to let it cool a bit … after dinner in restaurants, I would be feeling awkward because my mum had necked her coffee and I was still sat there, waiting for it to cool … I was holding her from leaving … I dunno how she did it.’
‘Yes,’ said the waitress—‘I like to let my tea cool, too.’

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