I'm making a salad because of the vegetarians - no, I'll start again.
I don't know what happened to everything else. Before, there was a house in New Malden and all the possessions of three people. This man, his wife, their daughter. Beds, books, carpets, the walls and pictures that hung on them. Someone in his position, you don't ask where it all went.
It seems that all Vaughan has kept is the contents of the plastic bag despatched to him afterwards by Nottinghamshire Police. The things from the car, carefully collected and cleaned by civilian staff in the Portakabin at the traffic incident compound in Mansfield.
Vaughan is in the kitchen with us to help prepare dinner. I'm making a salad, there will be vegetarians this evening, but not vegans, so eggs can bulk things out. I give him the box of half a dozen, he is to hold each of them for a while to take off the chill from the fridge. Then they won't crack while boiling. Complicated tasks thwart him and he comes to a halt, simple ones absorb him, I've noticed this.
Much of the time he sits in his room or out in the garden, listening to tapes on his daughter's personal stereo. The headphones seem big and clumsy now, when everyone else is wearing those little earpieces. He always holds the Walkman as it plays, I think he likes to feel between his palms the slight vibration of the turning mechanism inside. He got through a lot of batteries until my brother sorted him some rechargeables.
Saul, Nadja, Vaughan, and me. We're making a terrible noise, mess, and a dinner somehow. Vaughan is calm in all this, methodically taking the eggs into his gentle grasp then replacing them and taking out the next two. By the time I've got it together to boil the water he's been through the tray twice over, but still I feel bad about taking them from him.
We got Vaughan off his medication just like we got Nadja off the paki brown and had Saul set up with the church project and I'm not going to talk about me. None of us are in perfect condition now, but we're all a lot better than we were and this going to be a good dinner because we made it.
Eighteen years ago, on the day her father was arrested, Aine's mother bought her some Plasticine. That evening there were many adults downstairs in the front room when Aine opened the packet, peeled the multi-coloured corrugated bars from the plastic and each other, and tried to make shapes.
But the shapes wouldn't come. Within an hour she had worked the coloured material together into a ball, first streaked, then flecked, then a brownish-grey whole. The stuff had a sickly smell to her now and she put it in the drawer under her bed, but for days afterwards it remained with her, the odour of her mother crying and her father being gone.
Now Aine is in another country, sitting by a window in an apartment in a narrow block on a crowded hillside, chain-smoking Sobranies and waiting for her boyfriend to return home. She hears the ascending hum and descending hiss of the funicular and tries not to count each return journey.
Emile, so gentle with others, so privately brutal to himself. Sometimes Aine feels that these characteristics are linked, that if he could be a little rougher and less considerate to those around him then his self-inflicted punishment might be eased. Worse is when his confidence fails. She sees the flickers of uncertainty in his manner before even he is aware of it, and like a spasm it takes him. Aine sees danger in those episodes, but hasn't the facility, the role to intervene.
On Thursdays Emile buys flowers for the kitchen table. Before they faded he would photograph them. Prints of the results he kept in an album of their own. But recently he has attempted instead to paint the arrangement. It hasn't been a success, but unless Aine has missed it he hasn't been photographing them anymore either. Emile had approached capture of this week's bunch with a sense of urgency, discarding successive sheets of textured cartridge paper. He said the colours were never right.
Today, in the department store food hall, Aine has bought Emile a block of halva. Walking home she imagined him eating it with that milky tea of his. Now she curses her own presumption.
The funicular has stopped, the streetlamps have lit, the dinnertime noise of the other kitchens in the neighbourhood now rising. Cutlery and plates and television blare shouted down by gathered families. The small yellow evening bus appears briefly at the end of each street that Aine can see, climbing the hill in determined diagonals. With dusk, the air itself turned pink and violet. She turns the light on, but only to show to herself that she is really at home.
What it is about Emile's head, Aine doesn't know, but she likes to feel the hard skull, soft skin, thin flesh, blood pulsing just beneath, and the fuzz of his cropped hair. So much of him can be held like this between her palms. There's more, but right now this is all that she can think of.
When they first met, Aine had been the more troubled. Some nights, in sleep she screamed, even to her shame wet the bed. Emile changed the sheets for them and still he held her. Whereas her own troubles burst out, he experienced his as implosions, outward tremors of which she could barely feel.
It's quieter now and in the street below Aine sees a man pasting up posters, for the Left or the Right, the Regionalists or the Nationalists she can't tell which. It's only clear in this light that the lettering is too dark and stark to advertise a carnival or religious festival. In the distance, the buzz of scooters. A friend rings, she keeps the conversation short. When she hangs up there is no staccato tone to warn her of a missed call.
Sometimes, without cold climate or fever, Emile will shiver. The shaking, and a certain detachment about him at these times, resembles the symptoms of shock. He tells Aine, it's okay, it will pass soon. And it does.
There are no more cigarettes and at the back of Aine's throat a waxy taste. This afternoon, returning home, she had not been so concerned to find that every flower in the vase, petals and stem, had been painted a uniform cobalt blue. This seemed to her an unorthodox solution, but a means of moving on nonetheless. It was later finding the dish that served as Emile's palette which troubled her, to a physical extent, a feeling empty but weighted. Clearly he had prised his poster paints out of their tray, crushed them and mixed them in a little water. Aine had quickly put the dish in the sink, run the taps, washed it away. The grey sludge puddle had no colour at all.
At the beginning his designs were dense, baroque. The first few years were warped by wrangles with manufacturers, or rather with the raw materials that could not do simultaneously all the things that were expected of them. A little of the detail then left his drawings, intricacies dispensed with between centre and edge. Shading became banded gradation marked by lines of contour.
For a while he comforted himself with colour, the infinity of subtle differentiation within the spectrum. But this sparked a new conflict, the Pantone war that lasted a decade of his life. He raged against the mixers, their errors revealed under his own exacting balance of light. His behaviour at this time was as polychromatic as his ambition. One night he rendered his own face into yellows, violets and blues, finally streaking scarlet into the furniture and walls. His wife took fright at his palette of self-harm and fled.
Then came the white and black, attended by a carefully measured quartet of greys. It was then the fashion for it and he was feted for his fidelity to one ink only. Now he took a new wife, much younger, her features therefore simpler, paler, more capable of contrast.
Soon he forsook curves, and the applause continued. His diagonals coalesced to 45 degrees, then disappeared altogether. Now he produced nothing but concepts and his fame solidified into a style that could be quoted in anything visual, democratically by all.
In spring he renounced uprights and spent a summer of increasingly even horizons. By autumn he had become a flat, narrowing line. One still evening on a dead calm ocean he let himself slip from his raft, falling beneath the waters. He disturbed the liquid pane only briefly with his movement and the bubbles of his wilfully expelled last breath. Swiftly the integrity of the surface returned, now that he was fully below it, gladly defeated by that inevitable single dimension.
He bought the books without checking the prices on the back. It made him feel free. Better yet, they were cheaper than he had expected. That was a good day.
Then the next day he read the first chapter of one of the books. He had chosen well, he liked this one. The volume itself had an unusual flexibility, and a matt sheen to its cover. He put it aside after that chapter, more tomorrow. Few books have chapters now, he thought.
Then the next day he was on the evening shift, so he went to read the second chapter on the river bank. There was a difficult incident a few years ago and now he always kept the receipt with each book as a bookmark. He was careful with this slip of paper as it would have to last him for three. Before starting the second chapter he looked at the words on the receipt and understood now why the books had been so cheap. The man on the cash till had not scanned them all through. He had not been charged for one book, this book.
He left the river bank and went into the town to pay for his book. In the shop he considered what he would say, how he should explain that the book had not been charged for. He found it best to rehearse awkward things in advance. However when he reached the till the words would not come and it was much easier to present the book as if he had just then lifted from the shelf.
The woman on the till held the scanner over the label but the computer beside her could not recognise the barcode. An import, there was no price marked on the cover in local currency. She put the book on a shelf behind her and explained that she could not sell it to him.
He wanted to say that he had already read one chapter, and what about all the rest? He wanted to say. He wanted.
You will need to be patient, especially patient this time. Details have come to me, rather a lot of them, some quite vivid. I must tell them.
Angelo wore a bow tie, a white beard, and an expression of constant wonder. His voice was fine and querulous, he was confined to a wheelchair, his hands quivered as crumpled paper in a breeze. Yet I've met no-one with more vitality since. His tremors were the raw life shaking his fragile frame.
Angelo's nurse had the tight blond curls of a Botticelli cherub. His eyes as blue as his lips red, coloured by nature for tempting. His voice very gentle to the ear, but if you looked carefully he had a cruel mouth. This excited me. During that time I pictured him in atrocity of one kind or another, increasingly obscene and vicious, but never committed it to a solid medium though I was tempted. Angelo was very safe with his nurse, but I cannot definitely say the same for any other person, especially of men.
We would sit in the afternoon under the awning at the side of Drake's Hotel, Angelo, his nurse, and myself, all tinted rose by the sunlight through the crimson canvas above. It was at this hour that my wife would apprehend one or other of the youths loitering on the quays and be with him in the villa that we had rented for the season. Once the pavement was fully in shade she would return, flushed, buoyant, with a waft about her of that citric soap she used. We were happy then, happier than at any time before in our union, and Angelo and his nurse sensed it. I could tell our balance and contentment pleased them.
In the morning my wife and I would swim, or climb the hills and go prospecting among the dry ruins for fragments of this or that. At such times we might see Angelo and his nurse, from the water silhouetted at the pier railing, or from the outcrops as a conjoined shape crawling slow on the esplanade.
In the evenings I would paint. I had found a girl from the postal bureau to be a particularly rewarding subject. As I worked my wife would talk to the little telegraph operator of what the girl's life would be in the future. It seems to me now that at each sitting she planned for one more child than the last. And so my model would soften before me and suggest to me new tones and hues with which to represent her. My wife had always been useful to me in this way, for in her interactions with each girl she teased forth their character in a way that I could not. A shy model she would embarrass, one of spirit she would flirt with, a tigress she would bait, with the telegraphiste it was a wistful lulling and crooning. It is rather like bruising fruit to bring forth the flavour.
I remember clearly the atmosphere, but could not describe for you the room's interior. The odours remain with me: acid tang of the previous week's London newspapers grilling in the sunlight, the vernal reek of my wife's hashish cigarettes, the warm spiced sweat of the telegraphiste. Now there's a thing. Each person has a complex and distinctive signature and that is something I want to show on the canvas, so that those who are not with her, this lady in an afternoon, can share it too. Take two women of identical appearance and I will paint them quite differently according to that invisible emanation. There was always perfume and soap, but with a little time and proximity, one's nose, or perhaps some organ further back in the skull, would find a person's natural smell. Hygiene, or people's excessive interpretation of it, gradually washed the life out of the commission of portraiture for me. It happened quite slowly at first, but now my models take showers once, twice a day. They are little better than mannequins. It was the greater part of my inspiration.
Angelo and his nurse would play backgammon in the lounge of the hotel or attend the weekly dinners at the consulate of their homeland. They did other things too, about which we did not enquire so far that they should become coy or evasive. We understood, my wife and I, as did they us.
We were happy there and it was a great pity we were caused to depart so suddenly. The circumstances were certainly unfortunate, I resent that they so taint an otherwise pleasant memory.
One of my wife's boys somehow suffocated. There was a terrific fuss in removing him from our villa, his family arriving en bloc all shrieking and spluttering, and then the prefecture wanting to investigate. I could not see bruising on his neck and nor could my wife, but once the authorities of that region get a thing into their heads only expense, rather than reason, can prevail. Angelo kindly assisted with temporary funds and so we were able to ensure that the outcome of the autopsy was correct.
Then the telegraphiste would not visit us again, nor would any of the others. Even the bordel barred its stable to us. At that time my painting was all to me and in the town I had found a rare conjunction of subjects and circumstances that I had never before enjoyed (nor since). It was hopeless. These towns are smaller than one at first appreciates. They may have half a dozen squares and scores of bars and bath-houses but everyone knows each other. They talk.
We had to leave for, other than Angelo and his nurse, no-one would talk to us. The mayor snubbed us on the avenue, the boot-black child shrank away from my shoe in the passage. No-one would serve us. The owner of the villa sought to repay the balance of our lease at terms conspicuously disadvantageous to him. But there remained the matter of my unfinished canvasses, which I could not bear to simply abandon.
What contrivance Angelo's nurse wrought in pursuance of it I do not know, but on the evening before we were to leave he delivered the telegraphiste to us. She was, he explained, now quite fully ours, on the condition that we left the town and took her with us. Angelo's nurse spoke more with my wife than with me - I had taken a pacifying treatment that night - but I recall some reference to a broken engagement. Inconstancy was no less a characteristic of the young then than now.
Our consul, with some unnecessary melodrama, had provided us with an armed guard for the short downhill journey to the port. His manner rather suggested that this phalanx of troops was less for our protection than to emphasise his desire to be rid of us. We parted from Angelo and his nurse at the dock, of course we said we would write and naturally we never did. I last saw them waving to us, or rather Angelo waving to another couple at the rail, mistaken for us with his failing eyesight. With this as with many things I noted that his nurse sensitively did not correct him.
My wife and I set up for a while in one of the coastal cities on the mainland, but really the summer was over for us. The telegraph girl became somehow opaque to me, her expression now had an intractable quality, nothing like what I had before read in her face. Evidently she did not travel well. With further bad luck, she fell pregnant. I had been so careful and in any case only done the thing for my wife's entertainment - the painting itself being more my pleasure, as you know. So the best we could do was to leave her with the convent, for a girl in her position it was the best available option.
This was all perhaps fifty years ago. Not long after the war at any rate. The town is different these days, I am told. The native women go about in veils, bombs detonate from time to time. The former stock of Europeans have left, replaced by those visitors not like ourselves who are restricted to a resort where the beach used to be. You will have seen that now I have a nurse myself, some kind of Slav and she does not steal.
I relate all this recollection to you because I recently came across mention of a biography of Angelo in one of the literary supplements. My nurse bought the book for me using the computer. I had to have it translated for I have no facility for Angelo's language, we always conversed in French. There are some unpleasant details that I do not entirely believe and for this I blame the biographer. It seems improbable to me that Angelo died, as is claimed, in such sordid circumstances. He was too correct for that. I read that his nurse inherited his estate, which seems right. I wonder if his nurse is still alive.
Now, to the point of all this. I do appreciate your patience, I have presumed upon it so. This is something I have been postponing and deferring for too long. I must write my memoirs, and soon if the doctors are to be heeded. I have all my diaries and in strong light I can make them out. I am no egoist, but I think it important to place on record one's own account. Into a vacuum rushes speculation, smearing grubbiness all about it and before one is aware of it there is a new memory to be known by.
I try to write with a pen and my fingers feel too fragile for the task, hollow glass tubes in the meagre flesh. I can still sketch a little but the infirmity in my grasp informs the picture I draw, my curves run wider. The critics think my imagery is freer now but that is not true, I can no longer take the line sharply, by surprise. Writing, no, those deliberate tight curls of script are beyond me.
My nurse is at Smythson's buying paper and ink. You will do this for me. I know you will. We both know the importance of past lives, so many, and that only some should be chosen.
He interviewed many for the post, seeking someone with whom Bella might be trusted. A happy girl, a clever girl, a light, bright girl, while he works there is no knowing what his wife might do with her. Someone witty, someone energetic, as their child sleeps in the afternoons his partner will be at her.
Marthe is cumbersome, slow to understand and move. When they meet in the corridor she shuffles backwards and awkwards as he stands aside to let her pass. In the night he hears her sobs, baleful lowing above the murmur of her portable television. Bella remarks that the new girl is like a miserable heifer and Isaac is content.
Business detains him in Basel, Zurich, Munchen, for five days, now eight to bridge the weekend. When Isaac returns he senses discontinuity. A shift, a break, with the turn of his key. As he opens the door it is as if the house has fallen silent. The women are at opposite ends of the house. Now the kitchen and dining room whisper and the hallways are suppressing laughter.
The child is in his bed, unreachable. In the daylight, what does he see?
Of Sandrine, Bella said: 'Can't you see, she needed support?'. About Elka: 'Don't be silly, Isaac, it was just playing.'. As to the last, Lisette: 'You set the central heating so low. We were keeping warm.'.
Then the compensation to the value of the contract, accommodation, removal, visa costs. Sometimes tears.
At supper there is a quickening in Marthe, she steps more on her toes now than her heels. Bella leans back, too comfortable by far for the wooden chair. Together, separated by the length of the table they smile at Isaac.
Isaac knows it, Bella has been kneading Marthe's doughy pliability. Folding fresh air into her as she does so.
How little do we know each other, thinks Isaac, reaching for the bread and wincing at the fresh scars on his back that pull taut and rub against the dressings.
Nevertheless, Anton has lifted this volume, old but in the pristine condition that betrays a book's opacity, from the shelf, opened it at the beginning of a randomly chosen chapter, and to his surprise found it penetrable. More than that, it makes sense, a perfectly compelling sense. This is a moment to savour and elongate, Anton does not want to do anything that might break the spell. So he sits by the bookcase, barely daring to draw breath lest some disturbance to the current state should disrupt the delicate alignment of factors that have brought about this flukish phenomenon: that he, Anton, should find himself understanding and in accordance with Hulssman's ideas immediately and at the first attempt.
At the end of the hallway Beatrice, Anton's sister-in-law sits at the table, facing the window. Carlo, Anton's brother is fumbling with a packet of processed cheese slices with a repetitious picking motion thwarted by heat sealed plastic. Beatrice's hands fly up from her lap, startled white birds that tangle in her hair.
A page turns, there is a cry from the kitchen, soft-soled shoes scuffing the tiles and cutlery falling. There is something Anton must do, something expected of him. But not now, not yet. Hulssman was right, Hulssman was right.