Drawing Lessons

She told me her name was Anna. The big bonfire, on the lawn behind the old house, burned in her eyes. I was dazzled. She had long hennaed curls and a dress sense somewhere between hippie and goth. She didn’t like alcohol, and had only drunk a concoction made from lemonade, lime, soda water and ice – a ‘Bugger Me’, she called it. When some of the party-goers became boorishly drunk, she took my hand and led me away, over the lawn to the hedge, where we sidled through a gap into the trees beyond.

We walked through rattling darkness, her hand still in mine, her tall figure moving gracefully ahead of me. Eventually we came to a road on the other side of the spinney, which we followed until we arrived at a brick-built building, a stable block I thought. She squeezed my hand and led me up wooden steps, at the top of which was a wooden plank door that she unlocked with a key she shook from her shoulder bag.

As she went through the door, she slapped a dimmer switch on the wall. The light revealed a large, one-roomed, studio flat. Kitchen units lined the far wall. The bare floorboards were painted blue, and dotted with rugs stained with tea and paint. A bed, neatly made, was pushed against one wall. There was a small dining table, empty but for a bowl of fruit in its centre. The washing-up was done and stacked in the drainer. Chaos only began as we moved closer to the centre of the room, past an old and worn bed-settee and a walnut coffee table – stained with tea-cup rings, and oils and turps and white spirits – on which sat paints and brushes. Unemptied ashtrays spilled their grey, white and brown contents onto the table and the arm of a ripped leather armchair. At the centre of the room, beneath a skylight, stood an easel. On the floor around it bloomed the tiny flower heads of dripped paint. Finished and half-finished canvases lined one wall. On the floor, on tables, on chairs, lay pieces and pads of paper of all sizes, some containing dabs of watercolour, some pen and ink, others charcoal.

She flopped into the leather armchair and lit a cigarette. She threw the match towards an ashtray and missed. The match joined others on the floor under her chair. She crossed long legs encased in horizontally-striped black and beige tights.

I looked around the white-walled room. ‘This is…’ I began.

‘Quaint?’ Anna interrupted with a laugh. ‘Nice? Interesting?’

‘You took all the words out of my mouth.’

She looked around. ‘It will do for now,’ she said. ‘I would like better light, but I can’t afford a studio that provides it.’

I picked up a pad and flipped through the pages. The pad mostly contained pencil drawings.

‘You’re good,’ I said.

She smiled enigmatically. ‘How would you know?’

‘I’m no expert, but I know what I like.’

She laughed. ‘Do you draw or paint?’

‘No. I’m more practical. I’m an engineer. I only dabble in photography.’

‘A true novice,’ she said. ‘Let me see what you can do.’

She tossed me a pad and a pencil.

‘What shall I draw?’

‘Me.’

I tried my best to draw her, but her essence kept slipping away. Her tartan miniskirt and a tie-dyed, strappy top that she wore over her unconstrained, small breasts I rendered almost successfully. Her pale oval face and brown eyes had escaped me entirely. I frowned at the paper.

‘Have you finished, Mr Engineer?’ Anna asked.

I said I had. She came over, took the pad and knelt on the wooden floor in front of me.

‘It looks like a child’s drawing,’ she mused. ‘More sophisticated, perhaps, than a child. But still…’ She looked up at me. ‘You don’t mind me saying this?’

I shook my head. I knew she wasn’t being unkind. Her assessment was accurate. I had never been able to draw.

‘Everything has thick black lines. You draw like a child,’ she repeated. ‘You shouldn’t rely on the lines. Here, I’ll draw you.’

She stubbed out her cigarette, and picked up a stick of charcoal and a pad. I could hear the black stick scratching on the paper. She was quiet for a few moments, occasionally smudging the charcoal with her fingers. Then, she flipped the pad around with a smile.

It was me, all right. My wide mouth, narrow eyes, sticky-out ears. Her drawing had light lines that defined the shapes, but the form was provided by her shading, by the way she had represented light and shadow.

She looked at her picture again. ‘You could learn to to do it, too,’ she said. ‘It’s just practice.’

That night we drank Earl Grey, smoked cigarettes, and talked until the morning. I fell in love with her. I hoped that, one day, she could love me too, even though I knew that, in my Levis, trainers, and Fred Perry, I was far too straight for her. We were now friends, at least, and whenever I saw her I tried to draw her. There was no doubt that, with her help, I was getting better. One day, while she was making a pot of Earl Grey for us, I stole a photo of her from a photo album so that I could practice drawing her at home.

I came to love that picture. I studied it day after day as I tried to get the shapes and shades right, cross-hatching here and there, smudging my heavy pencil lines, learning to leave spaces where light should be. In the photograph she sat in the battered leather armchair, nursing a mug that I guessed was full of her favourite Earl Grey. A smile played about her lips, a smile just in the process of forming or dying – I couldn’t work out which – and her brown eyes seemed to throw out a challenge.

I struggled with my drawing. I returned to it whenever I could, applying what I learned from her. I filled pads with attempts that weren’t quite right. Sometimes I would fill a page with only the shapes of her eyes or her lips, or the fall of her curls to her shoulders. Page after page contained my attempts at shapes and textures, light and shadow. But I was getting closer to her. With each improvement, I was shaping a whole. My drawing, when complete, would be an emblem of my love.

Finally, struggle turned to success. I could see it. The image on the page was her, I was sure of it. I was so happy to have captured her at last. I was eager for her to know that I too was now an artist. I ran up the steps to the studio on a cool, grey October afternoon filled with swirling brown leaves. She was alone, as usual. She put the kettle on the hob, laughing at my enthusiasm. Then she sat me in the leather armchair and kneeled on the floor in front of me. She took the pad, and flipped it open. In my excitement, I had torn-out out my drawing and placed it at the very front of the pad, so that she would see it sooner. She studied the drawing for some time. The kettle whistled but she made no move to get it.

Then she looked at me. ‘Is this how you see me?’

I said yes, so excited by what I had achieved that I failed to see the sadness in her eyes. But the tone of her voice I could not mistake.

‘You can go now. Please go. And take your picture away.’

The kettle continued to whistle as I left.

Advertisements

Something for World Book Day

I had cause today to look at a couple of old books on my shelves, and this reminded me that the oldest book on my shelves that I have read probably dates back to 1976. I thought it might be fun to check through all my shelves, and my database of books I have read*, to find out what still sits on my shelves in the edition I read at that time.

I then decided it might be… a lark? an education? nostalgic? to reread all such books. And to keep this topical and relevant, I decided to read only the books I still own that I owned and read before the end of 1977, forty years ago this year.

So, here they are, the foxed, cocked, water-stained and creased books, smelling of mould and cigarette smoke, that I shall be re-reading.

Under Milk Wood — I began an O-level in English Literature at evening classes with my friend and co-author John in 1975 (while he was also doing an A-level!). Dylan Thomas’s lovely radio play was first on the syllabus. But we both had to drop out of the course as his A-levels and my OND took up more time. I mean, come on man, we had skywatches and band practices to attend as well, you know!

The Trial – I remember finding Franz Kafka’s novel a tough old read back in ’76. Partly down to the translation, I think, and partly down to the tiny text. It might be better now I’m older and wiser; however, I also fear it might not.

Darkness at Noon — I bought this because a friend had raved on about something else Arthur Koestler had written. It is, I recall, gripping, and I read it in a couple of days — although during the course of the revolution described in the book, people switched sides so often that I remember being confused about who was on what side. But that was partly the point, I believe.

The Drought — An early entry in J G Ballard’s disaster cycle, it’s short but elliptical, and I remember it being slightly dry (geddit?) and distant, yet with odd and arresting images.

Operation Trojan Horse — This is, thankfully, the only UFO book. John Keel’s slightly nutty entry in this list will at least be entertaining.

Total Man — A very long exposition by Stan Gooch on the two-sided nature of man, with his A and B personality types, and how these need to be integrated to become… yes, Total Man! I’d like to think that Gooch was using “man” in the old-fashioned sense of mankind, but fear this actually was only about men. Probably the longest and heaviest book I’ll be re-reading. (This turned up for 50p in a sale in W H Smiths. Ah, those were the days.)

Stranger in a Strange Land — Heinlein’s sci-fi epic might out-page Total Man, but one hopes it will be somewhat lighter than Gooch’s opus. I have a horrible feeling, though, that Stranger… is a book best read by 17-year-olds, but we’ll see.

The Private Future — Woolworths used to have a bargain bin of remainders, and very odd things used to turn up in it. This, I seem to recall, was one of them, a short-ish work of popular sociology/cultural studies that envisaged a future in which the world became more private because of electronic media. The author, Martin Pawley meant private in the sense of social physicality and proximity rather than the kind of connections or sociability we might maintain through media now. And yet, given trends such as the decline of the pub, Pawley might have been onto something. This one will be interesting to revisit.

There are three further books that should perhaps be given consideration. It’s possible that Orwell’s 1984 should be on this list, but my copy has my brother’s name in it. And although he did like 1984 it’s difficult to imagine him paying good money for a mere book when he was 15. So, part of me thinks he might have been simply fulfilling his role as an annoying younger brother, and thought it hilarious to put his name in my book. However, neither of us is going to remember the course of events forty years ago with any certainty, so I’ve left it off the list.

Also on the list should be two UFO books, The Warminster Mystery and Warnings From Flying Friends, which relate the ufological events that occurred in Warminster in the 1960s. However, in the course of writing In Alien Heat, my own critical and historical examination of that mystery, I read both books more times than any human should. I have no desire to read them again.

—-
* Yes, I’m one of those sad people who has a database of books he’s read!

Memory Traces

I surfed the Web, randomly entering into Google the words I found in the notepads that were scattered on the desk. The desk was a mess, I noted. Scraps of paper contained notes and doodles, yellow Post-it notes yelled imperatives and reminders, and the rings from coffee mugs stained A4 sheets and the desktop. The ashtray was full to overflowing. The bottle of scotch was empty. Had it all been downed in one sitting? I worked around the chaos, carried on entering words. Pages were displayed. I scrolled and followed links. What I was discovering, what I was creating, was like a picture, a map, a simulation, a metaframework, of a mind.

I displayed pages about Devon, train timetables to Leeds, a Google map of Bristol. I zoomed in, found Montpelier. A page in one notepad contained only the words Flickr and Wiltshire. I searched Flickr for tags, looked at pages of photographs of beautiful, soft, green, Wiltshire hills. I read essays about reality, quantum physics, red rain, ghosts, and post-structuralism. As I worked, I saved all the pages to a folder on the computer. I printed out pictures and texts that took my fancy, and placed some of them in a physical folder. Other pages I placed on the cream walls of the office using the pins and Blu-Tac I found in the desk drawers. I made connections between the pages using the coloured ribbons I had also found in the desk. I used as clues the scribbles I had found, the Web pages I had read, and my own intuitions. A ribbon linked a Google map of Dereham to a photo of a UFO, then a Google map of Roswell. One blue ribbon stretched from a map of Banbury to a picture of Leeds University. The link was one made from intuition, as Banbury had been a station my train had stopped at on a railway trip I had once made from Reading to Leeds. From that picture, a yellow ribbon stretched across the wall to a photograph of Middlesex University. The ribbon was pinned and then turned 90 degrees, ending at a picture of Meg Ryan. I believe that Middlesex University once had a performance arts course, and Meg is, of course, an actor. It made sense. It made sense. Of course it did. I felt it in my gut. I searched around the desk, the Web, for another link, looked in the notebooks, at the scraps of paper and Post-It notes. Soon, I had found the connection and pinned it to the wall. It was, of course, Jim Morrison. I printed the photo and placed it on the wall, added more ribbon from Meg to Jim.

I continued to do this for half a day. I trailed ribbons around the walls of the office, connecting by inference and reference, induction and deduction, intuition and knowledge. I stood back and looked at the walls, at my fully-realised network, my wall Web. At that moment I should have been proud of that Web. I wanted to be. I wanted to admire its utility, its coherence, its completeness. But all I could do was shake my head in dismay. I sat down heavily in the black leather office chair, rested my arms on its leather arms, and continued to look at the wall. It was obvious to me now. I had been such a fool. I should have used the colours of the ribbons to also present information, to indicate particular types of connections and relationships. Although dismayed, I am by nature, dogged, persistent; some might say obsessive, although I think that is too strong a word.  It didn’t take me long to work out a system I could use that would could convey the additional information. The ribbons were only available in a limited range of colours – less ROYGBIV, more RGBY. I made a note of the colours and the information each colour would represent on a scrap of paper, and then set to work again, stringing the ribbons from photo to map to document. I hardly needed to refer to the key I had devised. Unsurprising, I suppose, when you have a mind like mine.

I sat down again, leaned back in the leather chair, my hands behind my head, satisfied, proud at last of my labours. I lit a cigarette. It was a shame the whiskey bottle was empty; my throat was dry. Researching, making connections, following trails through the evidence, was thirsty work. I thought about making myself a mug of tea, but I didn’t really want to leave the room. For a moment, my world, the world I was constructing, the world I would shore against my ruins, was in this room, and only in this room. The picture was not yet complete. That much I knew. I closed my eyes and relaxed.

 *

 Now, I open my eyes and turn to the computer on the desk. My attention is drawn to the photograph on the wall above the monitor. She is a pretty woman, there’s no doubt. Blonde, slight, laughing, her arms outstretched in front of her, ready to catch something, it seems. A ball, perhaps, or a frisbee? There is blue sky behind her, and trees, heavy with full, fresh, green leaf, lean into the photograph from the side of the frame. Her summer dress, long, maroon, has been arrested by the act of photography, but I can imagine its movement continuing, twisting the dress around her. I wonder what she would think if she knew that I was still here, in her house? The house was quiet. I knew she wouldn’t be coming into this room today.

I am going to enter into a database all the Web pages I have so far saved to the computer. I shall also scan the documents and photographs and also enter those into the database. I can then cross-reference all these motes of information programmatically. The database will not be as visual as the map on the wall, will not so instantly conjure for me fragments of memory. Yet, in time, the database will offer up more interconnections, intersections and permutations. I will add more documents to the wall, more ribbons that show the all-important connections.

My hands are warm inside the latex gloves. I remember this – I had found these gloves, earlier in the day, today I think, in a drawer in the kitchen. I allow myself to turn my head and glance through the open door to the hallway. I will later clear away the bodies that still lie there so obscenely. Death has created a vacuum in my head. I am blanked, black, blocked, all empty, nothing. First, I must reconnect these fragments from my notebooks, my desk, My Favourites, My Documents, rebuild my world, rebuild my self, rebuild my identity, rebuild, rebuild, restructure, reframe, cross-reference – reconstruct me.

Only then, perhaps, can I know to whom those bodies once belonged, and why they are in my hall.

Simon and Julie – The Beginning – Fragment

[Simon and Julie is intended to be a long short story (perhaps a novella), involving various characters from the two as yet unpublished novels The Ethical Hitman and Raven of Dispersion. The story (and those novels) are set in and around the long, hot summer of 1976. The protagonists and antagonists are at that happy stage between A-levels and Uni (or A-levels and work ) – technically young adults, but these are not YA stories. As I work on this story, I will throw odd fragments here in the blog.]


Simon walked along Goldfinch Drive towards home. The sun was hot, the sky cloudless, a pale hazy blue, pearly towards the sun. The road was inclined slightly, and at the brow there was a shimmer above the asphalt. On both sides of the shimmering road were neat, semi-detached houses with well-tended front gardens. He had left Nick and Mark at The White Lion, sitting in the beer garden. Simon couldn’t afford another drink, and found sitting in the hot sun stifling. He had wanted to move, to stretch his limbs, so decided to walk home, where he would read a book, perhaps, in the shade.

At the top of Goldfinch Drive, just before he would turn into Magpie Road where he lived, Simon found Chris and Gray leaning against the front wing of a mustard-yellow, 1968 Triumph Vitesse. The car was Gray’s, and was in the drive of his parent’s  large detached house. Chris saluted as Simon approached.

Simon slowed. “Hey guys. What’s happening?”

“Nothing,” Chris said.

“Nothing yet,”  Gray added.

Yet? You have a plan then?”

“Could be, could be,” Gray said. “We’re thinking of going for a drive.”

“Where?”

“Anywhere,” Chris said.

“So why are you still standing here?”

“Petrol,” Gray said. “We only have enough petrol to get us to Southleigh and back. And we don’t want to go there.”

“Put some petrol in then.”

“Ah, well, now there’s the crux of the matter, the very rub if you will. We have no money.”

“Well, I do have about fifty pence in my pocket,” Chris said.

“I want to move,” Gray said. “It’s hot, I’ve got a convertible, I want the wind in my hair and a breeze in my face.”

Chris nodded along the road. “It’s Julie,” he said. Simon and Gray turned to look.  A young woman approached them along the road. Her hair was shoulder-length, blonde, straight, parted in the middle. She wore jeans, jesus boots and a tee-shirt.

“Can’t you borrow some money from your mum and dad?” Simon said.

Gray shook his head. “The kiddies are gone away. On holiday. Torquay.”

“Oh great,” Simon said. “When’s the party?”

“No chance,” Gray said.

Julie drew level with them. “Hello there. There’s a party?”

“No,” Gray said.

“His parents never forgave him for the last one,” Chris said. “They told him they’d sell the car if he did it again.”

“I love my car.”

Julie looked at Simon. Her eyes were very blue. They sparkled in the sun. “I thought I saw you down town with Mark and Nick.”

“You did. But they wanted to drink some more. I was too hot. I met these two on the way home. They were idling.”

“Do you have money, Jules?” Grey said.

Julie put her hand in her pocket and withdrew two ten pence pieces, a five pence piece, and a couple of coppers. “Not even enough for ten Number Six.”

“Here, have one of mine,” Chris said. He offered Julie the cigarette, and lit it with a match.

“So where’s Tim?” Gray said.

“We’ve fallen out,” Julie said. “I haven’t seen him for a while.”

“How long is this separation going to last?” Simon said.

Julie blew smoke into the blue, tilted her head back, smiled. “Don’t pretend to be interested. I’ll talk to Sarah about it later.”

“Thank god for that,” Chris said. “We have important matters to think about. So how much have we got between us? Si, you said you had about fifty pence. Julie, you want join us? Put your twenty-eight pence in the pot?”

“Sorry, I need my money,” Julie said.

“And I need mine for a class,” Simon said.

“Oh, come on,” Gray said. “Why go to a class in the summer when you don’t have to?”

“It’s kung fu.”

“Oh yes,” Gray said. “Forget I said anything. Ahem.”

“Haven’t you two got any money?”

“I’ll need another packet of fags,” Chris said.

Gray shrugged, pouted. “And I have some money, but I need to make it last for the week.”

“Have your parents taken their car?” Simon said.

“No,” Gray said. “It’s in the garage.”

“Has anybody thought,” Simon ventured, “to siphon some petrol from the Mini?”

Gray looked at Chris. “Well, you’re the mechanical brains of this outfit. Can we?”

“Well, yes, we can. Simon, that is brilliant. If you smoked, I’d give you a fag. Julie, give him a kiss.”

Julie dropped her cigarette on the floor and scraped it across the asphalt of the driveway beneath her sandal. She leaned over and kissed Simon on the cheek. She smelled of tobacco, scent, soap and sunshine.