Thursday, February 5

Interesting

ROBERT TURNER WAS sure, all these years later, that as a young man he had been most interesting. When he had been a teenager and into his twenties, he was interesting, most interesting in his thoughts on life, politics, art, his spontaneity, his laughter & jokes, his love-making, his romance, and all those in his presence enjoyed being there. He waltzed through youth without any trouble, exceptional and always interesting. In the middle of his twenties he stumbled into Elisabetta Aldridge, a black haired, pale skinned beauty with startling eyes who was only a receptionist in his office, recently appointed, and captivating from her very first day. The pair fell in love, got married and never got around to finishing that talk about having children.
‘Is it cold out there?’ he asked her from the hallway, looking at a few of his coats and contemplating each.
From another room—‘It’s all right!’
‘Are you going to wear your gloves?’
‘Mittens!’
‘Mittens.’
‘Yeah.’
‘Then I’ll wear my thick coat…’
In the first few years of marriage, he believed he was still interesting. The couple got their first dog, a grey whippet, and he decided that he would teach the dog commands in French, finding it most unusual and interesting. The dog, Flash, soon learned the French words and phrases and Robert often took her for walks and was especially proud of his achievement, calling out in French for the dog to respond promptly and accurately, holding her chin high and Robert smiling for all to see, as though it were nothing for a dog to know French, and how interesting! One Sunday Elisabetta accompanied him and the dog on a walk and upon his call in French for Flash to heel, she blushed crimson with embarrassment and he never called to the dog again. For the first time, as he stomped the park mud from his shoes on the pavement, he worried that—‘I am not so interesting after all!’ and was very sad for it. He walked home in silence, the whippet obediently by his feet.
After the affair he was determined for things to get better, but when they sat down to talk about it – adults over a bottle of wine – all the reasons she gave to him he could not absorb because he could not understand them, so he was wracked with terror that she would flee into another man’s arms again, and the fear dulled him further still, so that by the age of fifty-five he had grown tired and Elisabetta was as beautiful as ever. As he retired in middle age into that fatigue we see in the strangers who pass us noiselessly in the street, she became more alive, seizing on life, always suggesting things to do, firing up conversations and debates, and having more friends than he could count, while he spent his evenings alone as she was entertained around town. He felt at once lucky and terrified to still be with her, and the fragile ring over her delicate finger shone in the light from the candles.
The art gallery was by the river and towered over it in bricked wonder. It was a chilly day but busy; everywhere one looked were crowds enjoying the city, which Robert struggled so hard to do since he worked there and work bored him so, but he hadn’t the courage to quit. Elisabetta noticed his cheerlessness as they passed by the river, against the current, and held his hand – the affection from her showered his spine with warm shudders and he felt happy that he could be seen in the city with this wonderful woman.
When they first met, it was Elisabetta who was charmed by Robert. She doted on him. All the excitement that Robert felt by her side back then he muted, drawing her closer into him. All of his friends were envious of her affection for him, but they understood why Elisabetta – all her beauty but little else – was attracted to such a handsome and interesting man, with so many prospects within the company where they all worked and got along.
‘What’s this exhibition, then?’
He tried to stir up a conversation, to show some interest.
‘It’s by this London artist! A local boy, only young. He’s a photorealist painter… so all of his paintings look like photographs. Very skilled.’
Robert did not like those kind of paintings. They reminded his of cigarette advertisements from the eighties—‘Why not just take a photograph?’
She pretended not to hear him and carried on looking out over the great river, which tossed and tumbled, powerfully out to sea, and somehow not making a peep, even when it brushed against the shore.
He had believed that he was interesting, truly, because he saw all of the songwriters and authors and artists he cared about in youth and imitated them when he could, feigning eccentricity or liberalism, pinching points of views as his own, though as he grew up this became tiresome and he could no longer maintain it.
The art gallery smelled strange, a smell he remembered from long ago, musty, filled with air that one experiences – in neither temperature or humidity – nowhere else on the planet.
She led the way, after they bought a cup of coffee – always men sneaking views – and he followed dispassionately. One had to pay to enter the exhibition and he shelled out, grumbling to himself as Elisabetta flew into the entrance with its writing on the wall and visitors midway through reading it.
So these are the people, Robert thought. At art galleries, one wanders through the various rooms and passed the various pieces with the same group of visitors, some looking at one piece more than others, but always together, always in each other’s way. So these are the people. Indeed Robert found more amusement watching the other visitors than in the massive canvases hung on the wall. He stared at a child, at a couple, at an old lady as they took in the exhibits in their own way; the child distracted, the couple smiling at quiet jokes, the old lady squinting and taking notes in a tattered pad. He saw the bloodshot right eye of the child; the long neck of the young woman; the silver wristwatch of the old lady. They stood out to him, not the paintings on the wall. They very much looked like enlarged photographs. Their colours, too, were unenhanced and too realistic for comfort or appreciation. He discovered in numerous glances that Elisabetta was unconscious of him and it made him emit small sighs around the room. Each painting was of an ordinary scene, the dullness of life, blown up into magnificent proportions, near drained of colour and given to the world without apology. As Robert looked at them he became morose and eventually despondent. He found himself lingering, waiting for Elisabetta to finish reading the descriptions and captions, to finish taking in the enormous canvases, and then walking tediously slow, one foot over the other, toward him and the next room with a gentle smile over her face.
In the next room Robert received a shock. The large hall was occupied only by one piece and it drew quite the crowd. The painting was at first quite difficult to make out: a crowd of businessmen, blurred almost in movement, wearing brown coats, carrying briefcases, and all going in one direction. Everyone before the canvas got stuck there. The men were detailed, each one of them, but the background was grey, almost black, drained to nothing and nothing given. He walked up close to it: finally sure that, without a shred of doubt, one of the men in the painting was he. Robert gazed, checking, double-checking, moving closer whilst trying to avoid arousing suspicion. It was him. His face and his body in a brown coat holding a briefcase. His face was a remarkable likeness. So this is where he had ended up, in this silly painting, of businessmen, practically faceless and moving together, uniform, indifferent, alone! It cemented his position in life. When nothing else of him remained, this painting would be hung on the wall. It terrified and tore him! He started shaking and stumbled back to a bench to sit down. He must regain his breath. The air rushed down his throat but he could no longer smell it. Had Elisabetta noticed? All her husband had amounted to was anointed on that canvas, for the world to see. She must have seen! must have spotted him, for there was no way she could have missed his face peering out! He hid his face and breathed heavily.
They finally got outside of the gallery and he rushed to the edge of the river, where the water bashed and throttled. The wind stung his eyes.
‘Are you OK?’
‘Yes… yes.’
And once more she stared out over the great river and saw it moving, tossing and tumbling, the river carrying itself out to sea, silently, and the two of them at its shore.

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