Friday evening and the city squirmed after work. Suited men and straight skirted women hubbubed at the corner doors of pubs. Restaurants buzzed and sizzled, waiters all young and really something else, and everyone on their way, coming and going. Beer and wine and water all fizzed, and coke went the way of all coke.
The pub had that jaunty nautical thing going on. Brass instruments and ships’ wheels. Booths and partitions. It looked to Harry as if half the company were here. He thought at first she was one of the art department crowd.
She said, ‘And what do you do?’
He waved his hand, ‘Brand stuff,’ he said.
‘You brand stuff?’
‘I find the stuff of brands.’
‘That sounds like bollocks.’
‘What about you?’
She was tall and she was named Vanessa. Dark hair, chestnut maybe, feathered at the fringes. She had very long fingers which she held extended as she spoke. Her mouth was wide, and it quirked at the corners making everything in the world seem a little slanted.
‘Oh me,’ she said.
Office workers broke onto the bar. It was like a war, like the beaches, wave after wave of them, and he and Vanessa in this still place, with her fingers, strangely stiff and her mouth quirked.
‘And really. What do you do?’
‘The stuff of art?’
‘I can show you.’
The word WORK was projected on to the building in a big bold font. An 80s FRANKIE SAY font. Harry looked up at it.
Vanessa stood beside him, very close, and he felt something faintly electric from her. It was summer and their bare forearms brushed. He was a little drunk.
The building was a slab of Regency, porticoed and iced white, its lower windows were hidden beneath poster boards which showed images from previous exhibitions. There was a neat holder for brochures screwed to the wall beside a large, firmly shut door.
A name was projected just below WORK.
‘Vanessa Michaels,’ he read. ‘So is that work as in your work?’
‘It’s work as in the world of…‘ she said.
There was an alleyway at the side of the building. Metal wheelie bins, the smell of piss, and a stubborn drift of last autumn’s leaves. The passage opened out into a mean concrete yard. There were two moulded plastic chairs, and an ashtray between them. There was a door, featureless and cheap, a metal panel around the lock area to make it harder to break in. She pulled a wriggle of keys from her bag.
‘I know Marco,’ she said, as if that might mean something.
Harry crowded her accidentally as she opened and entered. He didn’t touch her, but his body cupped the crook of hers slightly. He had a flash of them fucking in a gallery. That room in the National with the Hogarths — all those syphilitic whores and rakes looking down on them doing it over the cushioned benches at the room’s centre. And, oddly, a bored attendant watching too. No photography.
They walked through offices, a few mismatched desks, old carpets. Little crusts of personality clustered under old-fashioned monitors. A mug with pens in it, a photo of a child grinning beside a summertime boat. A plastic daisy chain. Harry kept his own desk entirely clean. Leaving such signs behind seemed to him a dangerous practice.
And then on out into the gallery proper. It had the illicit, caught-unawares feel of public places in their private moments.
‘Take a look.’
She disappeared into a side room, and he heard the sound of a fridge opening. Glass tinked. A cork squeaked. Fluid gurgled.
Harry stood in the gallery’s central atrium. He could feel the air move in it. Above him were paned skylights, and the floor was a varnished beach, a light sandy colour. Merciless white walls.
The paintings were actually photographs, he thought at first, filtered in a way that brought up their primary colours and made light fluid, everything more beautiful than it should be. But then, he thought, they couldn’t be photographs at all, at least not undoctored photographs. There was a confusing motion in them. They moved constantly but remained entirely still.
A young man stood, solicitous, in a shiny suit beside a barred door. He held keys and a brochure. A teacher pointed to a whiteboard, her classroom blurred behind her. A worker in waterproof coveralls folded his arms and dominated his picture’s foreground, half obscuring a blunt little trawler.
But, when Harry examined the figures, other shapes emerged, or seemed to have emerged, unfolding in memory not sight. And he felt very strongly that each picture was several at once and that several of him looked on.
The teacher marked exercise books, and she held a hand that did not hold hers. There was a hospital bed and the hand she held felt dry and hot and limp, and she’d left her supper when the nurse called and said to her, ‘I think it’s time.’ And the teacher was thinking, now, now, now, now, now. Please.
Vanessa returned. Her footsteps clacked and echoed. She handed him a glass. He sipped. The wine was sharp and crisp. He heard traffic beyond the room. A siren. And still, somewhere, he heard the teacher.
‘Does your head in,’ he said. ‘How do you do it?’
She shrugged. ‘I capture what I can. I look for layers.’
‘Are you going to capture me?’ He smiled slightly, and sipped his drink. The idea intrigued him, but he had no intention of standing still long enough to be caught by anyone.
She looked at him. Narrowed her eyes. Then she raised her eyebrows and inclined her head, indicating a patch of wall behind him. Just enough space for another canvass. ‘Maybe,’ she said. ‘I was thinking of it. You sell things, right?’
‘Not like him,’ he nodded over at the business man. An estate agent, he guessed. And then he knew. The man called his clients yourself, and bowed slightly when he met them. He wore patterned shirts and, one Wednesday afternoon, had sex with a potential customer in the back seat of his Mondeo. ‘Now that’s what I call a commission,’ he said after he’d come on her blouse, not caring that he’d left her neither satisfied nor happy. She’d not been a serious prospect anyway.
‘You don’t sell things?’ said Vanessa.
‘I locate desire.’ He waved at the estate agent. ‘He wants status. The teacher wants love, comfort, and the world a better place. That sort of thing. It’s easy to see because the research is out there. The categories tell you what people want. So I take it, the idea of it at least, and I bundle it up into badges and labels.’
He stepped closer to her. She swayed a little towards him. Just a dip.
‘And what about you?’ she said, ‘What do you want?’
He shrugged and grinned. ‘Right now?’ He wondered where they might go. There was probably a couch somewhere. This was almost the moment. He could feel it.
‘What do you want from your life, I mean.’
The question irritated him. People spent too much time worrying about their lives, and they were too easily satisfied with emotional cement, pre-chewed pap squeezed like paste into the gaps that opened up between themselves and their ideas of themselves. Lucky for him. Really there is only now. And not falling off the edge. Not ending up selling newspapers in a stupid hat, or calling some shift supervisor sir. You drive a nice car. And you know the secret. He wanted to undress her. He wanted to run his hand up underneath her skirt. He was very close now. He leaned in.
She lifted her arm and touched his cheek, checked his movement. ‘You’re sweet,’ she said. Her pupils had dilated, he saw. Only thin bands of blue iris left.
He felt his breathing stop. Strangely it didn’t panic him. He rocked. And sank. It was not a collapse. It was a folding. He was glad to feel the floor smooth and cool beneath his palms. It tilted.
‘Think about your job,’ she said. ‘Start there.’
He thought of the Costello account, their diamond swoop logo, and how he’d made it ring. Effortless affluence for middle income strivers.
‘We’re aiming at people who want, John,’ he had said to the MD. ‘We want people who want to get beyond wanting, but never will. They’re anxious and the Costello label will prove they’re not.’
‘Keep going,’ said Vanessa. He could feel her hand now, cool on his forehead. As if he had a fever.
There was the day of the golf shoot, when he saw it would work. The grey eyes of the model, and the No-no-no-ing of the director. And Marianne, who managed the catering and wanted to change careers, she said. Sulky faced gofers, and the course manager hovering around the crew.
‘It will be over by four, won’t it? As agreed?’
And the diamond swoosh just everywhere, on the leather gloves, the sunglasses, discreetly badging the pastel sweater. The sun glinted on the model’s watch. Harry felt certain then. It was a moment of security, of a life well navigated, a death distant, invisible, never coming.
And later, drunk, he had sex with Marianne in the closet office the course had let them use. Piles of manilla folders. Old golfing magazines.
‘That’s right, what else?’ said Vanessa. ‘What else have you got for me?’
It was hurting now. Like peeling a scab and finding it unready to give. Arguing with Laura not about one anniversary but an anxious constellation of them. First date, first fuck, first holiday. And her friend Sandra who sulked in his presence and made clipped comments about patriarchy and told Laura he was a pig. He had put his hand on her arse, Sandra’s that is, standing on the stair when she’d come up to use the bathroom after him. And she’d regarded him with such loathing. She hadn’t had to slap him, or say a word. That look made her electric. He saw it wasn’t a pose or a come on. He saw he truly disgusted her.
And all along as this slid out of him, as she pulled it from him, he was thinking: some private view. Not the view I expected is it? Not my view. Her view. And he was almost grateful to be taken this way. It nauseated him, but that too he almost liked.
Vanessa pulled on. But nothing more came. It was like when lust dries up on you without warning, leaving sex a chore.
‘There,’ she said.
And she let the room back in. He was sitting on the floor with his legs stuck out straight. She crouched above him. He wondered confusedly if they’d just had sex. But they were both dressed. Very wide eyes, he thought. Set too far apart. In fact, there was something wrong about all her dimensions. Nothing you could prove. Her fingers. Very long fingers.
She led him to the front door.
He got as far as the top step then turned, intending to say something to punctuate the night. To make him feel less like he’d failed a test he hadn’t even asked to take. But she had already shut him out.
He half expected to see her again. He drank in the nautical bar on Friday evenings. He began a half-hearted affair with an accountant who insulted him when she came. It turned out he liked that. The stark honesty of her contempt all tangled up in the lust. It made them sort of even.
One day, long after the exhibition had opened and the critics had finished with it, he went for a look. On his patch of wall, though, there was only a fire extinguisher and no painting. Nothing there at all.