How could he be eighty-one already? Looking out through his one decent eye, nothing seemed to have changed at all. It was only others who saw the decline, the body marred and blunted from a lifetime of misuse, the virility drained away like the blood of a slaughtered ox. To other people, he was past it – positively archaeological – but looking out from the inside of his raw-boned skull, Giles lacked that credible evidence and could easily purport to be the man he always was, regardless of the facts, despite the commiserative gasps of those a third his age. Doltish neophytes. He was a great artist before they were even born.
The darkened dining room in which he now stood was not his own, rather it was the home of his elderly sister-in-law. Yes, she was elderly. She’d cheerily accepted that appellation and, what’s more, maintained a home that was equally antiquated. He couldn’t imagine living in such stuffy Vic- torian conditions, let alone sharing that poky interior with the handful of mopish guests who were now standing behind him. Giles kept his back to them, preferring to face the ornate mantle on which sat a photograph of his wife at twenty-three. The picture had been placed there especially for this solemn occasion. With one finger, he nudged the chrome-edged frame and his wife, now dead, turned respectfully towards him.
The photo was taken on the lawn outside the Keswick Reception Centre the day they’d married. Fortunately Giles wasn’t in the picture. He hated the way he looked back then, tidy would describe it perfectly: short-back-and- sides, cardigan, pleated trousers, shoes so well shined that you could see, theoretically, right up a lady’s frock. The day of his wedding he’d worn a fawn, three-piece suit, and he winced now at the thought of it, of his readiness to conform. In the distant background of the photo, he noted for the first time, a gardener pushing a wheelbarrow. What was he doing at their wedding reception? The year was 1960 which Giles could readily recall because Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho had just been released, and both he and Helen wanted to catch a screening of it before they dashed off on their honeymoon. Their honeymoon: what a voyage of discovery – and they’d hardly ventured beyond the hotel’s in-ground pool.
The framed picture of his bride was sitting above a fireplace, ostensibly still in use. Giles looked down briefly into the dark, arched recess and noted the blackened bricks, the result of a hundred years of burnt fuel – how many trees had gone up that one chimney? A large vase of flowers now sat in the cavity, a colourful spray of delphiniums and freesias, interspersed with sprigs of eucalypt, a species with round leaves similar to the trees he and Helen used to walk amongst on their land at Eltham. Those were the days: that beautiful woman, now dead, full of vitality and optimism, performing any task with bountiful grace. Giles conjured an image of her lying naked in front of their own big open fire; he recalled the heat and hiss of green timber, the light of the flames licking across her pale, young skin. Now dead.
He was drawn to the present by murmurings behind him and was suddenly aware of the compression of Helen’s friends, old and new, who had come to pay their respects. Yet Giles remained turned away. He assumed a reflective pose and feigned a moment of bereft melancholy which enabled him to ignore them a little longer. Was he being disingenuous? I’m alone now, he muttered reflectively and, as the idea took shape, he felt obliged to grasp the mantelpiece until a semblance of strength returned to his legs.
There were few present who actually knew him though Giles felt sure they’d want to say something, to reassure him that Helen was indeed a remarkable person, a dear friend, a great loss, one of a kind. All true of course. Yes, he would say, yes, yes – and yes. But he would not face that obligation just yet. Instead, he chose an action that was quite opposed to the accepted norm – yet wasn’t that one of his artistic creeds, to act contrary to deadening social dictates? He unzipped his trousers and, while gazing at the youthful picture of his deceased wife, urinated full stream into the fireplace a little to the left of the elegant vase of flowers. The brassy rivulet trickled out onto the Delft blue tiles of the hearth, dust particles rolling with
it and, as if by some unseen force, first one guest, then another, reeled and angled towards the door. Only one among them – a middle-aged collector of Giles’s own paintings – saw fit to do something, and stalked off on glossy-black, high-heels to alert the man’s granddaughter.
Tiffany rushed in as Giles was re-adjusting his trousers.
‘Grandad! Are you mad? This is Gran’s Wake, how dare you play one of your stupid, selfish pranks!’
‘What do you mean, prank? Can’t you see? I’m making a point.’ ‘A point? What point?’
‘Isn’t it obvious? I remember a time when one never had to explain one’s actions, when one could rely on the intelligence of – ’
‘That’ll do, Grandad. That’s enough!’
Tiffany ordered Giles out of the room, and upon reaching the wide entrance hall, she asked a child to stand and unceremoniously pressed her aged rela- tive onto the Queen Anne padded chair, its legs thin and bowed not unlike those of its new occupant. She stood in front of her grandfather, her feet apart, and Giles noted her lean, stockinged legs that disappeared beneath the shortest skirt he’d seen since 1966. She pointed a thin bare arm straight at him, a freckled missile that tapered to a forefinger aimed at his chest.
‘Stay there, Grandad. Don’t go anywhere.’
He looked up at her, his one good eye small and rheumy, a pale halo surrounding the grey iris. Tiffany stared back, daring him to defy her. In the ex- cellent light coming through the front door that stood open to welcome new arrivals, Giles’s face was clearly illuminated, a crazed mess of spots, lesions and dirty pores. His ears were large, his nose somewhat bulbous, testament to a truth about aging: all that is left to evolve is the size of those three perfectly adequate appendages. Through long, wispy hair that floated down almost to his collar, his sun-ravaged cranium was clearly visible, an index of all those years painting en plein air. His lower eyelids hung heavily, a glassy film at their rim which now spilled down his pock-marked cheeks.
‘Really, Grandad. Peeing in the fireplace?’
‘If Jackson can do it, why not me?’ he said miserably. Tiffany had the dis- tinct feeling he was not only referring to the famous American painter’s bad behaviour but also to his achieved fame. It was the lament of all aging artists, she imagined, that the accomplishments of people like her grand- father were not being adequately acknowledged. No doubt Giles believed he deserved more, considering his six decades of dedication to the subject.
She went straight out into the backyard in search of her great-aunty Dawn. It was she who had turned over her lovely Camberwell home for this spe- cial gathering. Tiffany spied her father across the lawn, leaning casually against a wrought iron gazebo, a few white roses hanging down so close to the top of his head that he appeared to be wearing some sort of unusual women’s millinery. Predictably, he was talking to a youngish woman in fishnet stockings and a black dress half a size too small, her pale chest having no alternative but to spill unnaturally from the stressed fabric. She held a cigarette at arm’s length, and in the other hand, pinched the stem of a champagne flute between three astonishingly long, red fingernails. Inap- propriately, she released a barking laugh and Tiffany’s father reciprocated with a generous presentation of his new, dental veneers. He stood favouring one leg, four fingers of his right hand inserted into the pocket of his grey jacket, his thumb hooked clownishly on the outside. He cocked his head a little; such a shame to interrupt them.
‘Dad, you need to attend to your father. He thinks he’s Jackson Pollock.’ Tiffany did not look at the woman. ‘He’s just pissed in the fireplace. The dining room. I’ve cleared the guests but someone has to clean it up.’
Lawrence frowned. ‘What? Where’s Dawn?’ He craned his neck, scanning the immediate vicinity without appreciably altering his pose. He suggested they should find her, after all it was her house; who else knew where to find the cleaning equipment?
‘Is your grandfather alright?’ The woman with the black dress and compacted chest addressed Tiffany. The younger woman assessed her, noting the vivid scarlet of her lips which had been transferred to the rim of her glass, to the white filter of her Karelia Blue, and to her father’s dimpled cheek, missing his lips by millimetres. She went to speak but her father interrupted.
‘He’s alright, the least of our worries.’ Lawrence looked at his daughter. ‘Do you want to find Dawn, or shall I?’
Tiffany strode off in the direction of the side gate. No doubt her great-aunt was out on the footpath still greeting arrivals. She wasn’t. Instead, Tiffany found her on the garden path instructing one of the caterers. The young man held a neat stack of cloth napkins, jewels of perspiration poised on his incompetently shaved lip. Tiffany ignored him and explained the situation to Dawn who was visibly dismayed. ‘Where’s Lawrence?’ she groaned. ‘Can’t he attend to it? I’m rather caught up right now. Could you do it love?’
And so it was that Tiffany went full circle, back to the dining room via the laundry, with a bucket, gloves and a large roll of paper towel. On her hands and knees she dealt with it, holding her breath and distracting herself with recollections of a single event: the day her grandfather had raced her across Lake Ruby, freestyle swimming. Clumps of sodden towelling came up ashen brown. As she dumped them into the bucket, she recalled again that bright spring day when the pair of them had chopped through the water side-by-side, the whole family cheering them on. He was so agile.
Giles noted an irregularity in the wallpaper opposite him, a patch worn through to a different pattern underneath, probably caused by the handles of walking sticks that had once been placed in a mahogany umbrella stand, now empty, still positioned against the wall. The raking light was catching that worn patch beautifully, a whole universe right there in Dawn’s hallway.
Park him in the passage would they? Well, it so happened, that it suited him nicely, qualifying him to stay well away from the disagreeable proceedings. Visitors, many uninvited, passed right in front of him though he refused to raise his eyes above the procession of scissoring legs. As each passed, he kept his good eye fixed on the worn region of the flocked wallpaper and decided that his own assessment had brought that tiny universe into being. On the other hand, perhaps it was always there and it didn’t require the attention of an old abstract artist to justify its existence any more than he required the attention of this endless parade of –
‘Hello there, nice to see you.’ Some garrulous fool paused right in front of him, blocking the view.
‘I’ve been told to stay here,’ Giles declared, and glanced up long enough to identify the man’s haloed visage: he used to be an art critic for one of the newspapers. Giles tried to remember whether the monster had ever penned a kind word about him. Probably not. Critics criticise just as plumbers plumb, he’d once told an auditorium full of undergraduates.
He heard glassware clinking in another room and a cork popped – a distinctive sound that more typically signified festivity. Giles huffed. He could hear the polite chatter; acquaintances catching up when otherwise they would have no intention of it, a chance for them to drink good wine guilt- lessly in the middle of a hot day. He looked down to see a big glass of red in his own hand – who had put it there?
Dawn came through the front entrance attended by a small throng and dis- appeared down the antique passageway. Ah, Dawn, what fond memories. He often thought that, one day, he’d tell Helen about his liaison with her sister, just to clear the air. But in the end he couldn’t imagine anything meaningful arising from such shared information. In truth, he wished he hadn’t been told about his wife’s own brief affair. The beauty of the past
must remain with those who’d experienced it, he’d decided, or with those who were never there, nothing in between.
His sister-in-law shot past a second time, her haste clearly identifying her as the host for the day. She did not seem to notice Giles. They still enjoyed each other’s company yet, oddly, neither had ever raised the subject of that sudden infatuation of 1963. Exactly fifty years ago he realised now, the year Lawrence was born.
Dear Lawrence; now out in Dawn’s backyard chatting up Brandon’s ex-wife. Giles’ only child. We should have another, Helen had tried to insist. Let’s not ruin the planet, he’d countered, but now he wished he’d been a little more circumspect. He’d once said that if a species was to survive, it had to reproduce itself and one other, especially true, he added, when it came to artists. He and Helen hadn’t quite managed it, popping out just the one. But a conceptual artist? Why couldn’t Lawrence have been another Abstractionist? No doubt his son was a product of his times just as they all were – in another era he’d have been a cubist or a neo-romantic. But at least his son had produced a daughter – what better reason for having one’s own child? Where the hell was Tiffany, anyway?
He suddenly focussed on a pair of rather unusual knees and looked up to see Rebecca Maine, the owner of the gallery that represented him. She beamed down benevolently and began with all the appropriate phrases – sorry for your loss, wonderful woman, we’ll all miss her – before moving on to the subject of art. Giles gulped his wine and swirled the sediment in the big-bottomed glass. What ever happened to claret? Rebecca suggested they should do another show of his work, soon. That soon might very well have been a polite qualification to cheer him. Or it could have been the generic soon: some bloody indeterminate time between now and his im- minent death – though it wouldn’t surprise him is she didn’t wait for the latter, a time when he was just dust blowing off the cliff at Portsea. That should make the show profitable. Giles sighed. Nothing wrong with a bit of cynicism.
Rebecca Maine continued her reassurances, going on and on about the importance of gestural painting at a time when digital technology was so mainstream and Giles could feel a fart approaching, a neat bubble of gas working its way purposefully along his colon. He decided to allow its progression and, as she emphasised the importance of his perseverance at this difficult time, he released it in small increments, deftly, silently and to his olfactories at least, without the slightest hint of malodorousness.
Helen would have laughed. What a gift to share a life with someone entirely relaxed about bodily functions – a kind of intimacy rarer than one might think, Giles believed. What about the day they’d stood side-by-side and urinated off the seawall at L’Escala! It was to honour the spectacularly good luck of having found each other, and a defiant gesture towards a fu- ture when nothing at all could dislodge their shared happiness. Pissing with the wind, they declared at the time.
And now, today, in the fireplace. Well, what of it? I’m an octogenarian widower, he could have protested, and if Helen was here, no doubt she’d –
‘You ok, Grandad?’ Through a watery film, Giles looked up at the lovely young girl standing before him. ‘We’re all going into the garden now,’ she said. ‘You might like to say a few words. Feel up to it?’ Tiffany placed a hand gently on her grandfather’s shoulder. ‘I’ll leave you to collect your thoughts,’ she suggested and abruptly disappeared.
Giles looked again at the floor. Say a few words. Of course he would. When was he ever short of words? He’d been called upon to explain the entire history of art, the theory of postmodernism, the workings of the existential mind. Though what words could possibly convey the beauty that had just recently disappeared from the earth?
He swiped his face, conscious of the loose skin that slid compliantly be- neath his palm. With his vision cleared, Giles was surprised to see a tiny infant crawling along the empty passageway, thumping its pudgy fists on the patterned hallway runner. It raised its bobbing head, too heavy for such
a frail neck, and fixed its gaze upon him. Its eyes were of the clearest blue Giles had ever seen. A string of saliva suddenly fell from the baby’s pouting lip and connected to the worn carpet which caused the sunlight, refracted from the bevel on a hallstand mirror, to touch it with such astounding el- egance that it moved the man, once more, to tears.
This is the winning story of The London Magazine’s Short Story Competition 2014, which was judged by Polly Samson and last year’s winner, Harriet Kline.