by Steve Wade
Another birthday. My thirty-seventh. Somehow, there seemed great significance attached to my being thirty-seven. There were famous figures in history who didn’t quite kick-off their careers till they were thirty-seven. George Barnard Shaw was one of them; that I knew. And there were others too, but I couldn’t think of any. I’d do a Google on them later.
The connection with great men, tentative though it was, had me humming and half-singing to myself in the bathroom. Good acoustics.
The wave of excitement sloshing about in my stomach, as I shaved in front of the bathroom mirror, set off minor shockwaves that worked their way up my arm and into my hand, which trembled and caused me to nick my jawbone. The flesh wound was deeper than I at first imagined, so I pressed a tiny piece of toilet paper against the cut to stem the bleeding. That’s what my dad used to do.
Cleaned up and refreshed, I treated myself to three slices of French toast with fried eggs and sausages before I could get myself down to work. The occasional unhealthy fry-up couldn’t, surely, affect my high-cholesterol. Besides, Bruno ate his usual share of my breakfast.
Bruno, my five-year old Pyrenean Mountain Dog, recognises an unwritten rule in our house: half of everything on a plate set before me is his entitlement. Lately, since I jacked-in my job last month, Bruno’s had more opportunity to exercise his rights. When Margaret’s at home, she insists I put Bruno into the backyard. Margaret can’t stomach the stringy saliva that hangs from Bruno’s muzzle and clings to his fur while the dog begs and we eat.
My mobile rang just as I was shoving the dirty plates into the already cluttered sink. The ring-tone, the latest one I’d downloaded, the William Tell Overture, ignited miniature fireworks in my stomach.
Someone calling to wish me Happy Birthday, I guessed as I fumbled to get the phone from its leather case. Maybe not – the name throbbing on the screen – Tony’s Security Company – told me otherwise. I let it ring another couple of times. Didn’t want to appear too anxious, or have him think I’d nothing better to do on my birthday than take phone-calls.
“Hello,” I said.
“Eight O’clock tonight,” Tony’s heavy voice said. That was it. No ‘Hey Ray, Happy Birthday, Man’. Not even a simple ‘How’s things, Man?’
“Listen, Tony,” I said. “Today’s my birthday.” I left a pause. Silence. “You know I don’t like letting you down -”
“Look!” he interrupted. “You want the hours or not? I’ve plenty other chaps on me books.”
“Sure,” I heard myself saying in a cheery tone that wouldn’t have fooled me. “Can do. So that’s eight till closing time, is it?”
“Double shift,” he said. “I need a man to stay on and work the club as well.”
I accepted. Fuck me, I accepted.
“Shit!” I shouted, as I snapped the phone shut.
Bruno yelped. His offended look pierced me.
“No, not you, boy,” I said to him. “Come here, Bruno. That’s a good lad.”
Bruno slobbered, licked, and chewed gently around my fingers and hands, his doleful eyes locked to mine.
My earlier plan to get down to a bit of work I put on hold. The more pressing need now was to convince Bruno my bad mood had nothing to do with him. And why did I have to have an excuse not to work anyway? After all, it was my birthday, wasn’t it?
The way Bruno whined and bounded about like a giant puppy, because we were going for a ramble at the wrong time of day, injected me with a dart of sunshine. Sure I needn’t worry about the double-shift later, I told myself. I wasn’t due on the door of the hotel till eight, the club opened at eleven and we’d be closing-up shop by two-thirty. By three-fifteen, I’d be on the way home, and by dawn I’d have slipped into bed next to Margaret’s warm body.
I decided to take Bruno on foot to the walkway along the nearby canal bank. That way I’d waste less time driving to the park, a good seven kilometers away, and would be back with time to spare before Margaret popped home for lunch. I might, after all, get some work done, even though it was my birthday.
Once we’d left the busy roads and the anxious pavements, there were few people knocking about along the canal bank. Those I did pass made me feel guilty about sauntering through the morning, while everyone else was clicked into work-mode: operating machinery, driving trucks, and others halfway-up telephone poles, digging ditches or tapping on computer keyboards.
The old men I encountered – as they were mostly old men – I felt like getting into conversation, so that I could somehow slip in that I was an artist, an artist who worked from home. I’d let them know that I was sourcing inspiration. That’s how I’d put it: ‘sourcing inspiration’.
I did not, however, initiate any conversation with them. Only if they greeted me first, did I respond with an absent-minded, ‘Oh. Good morning to you’.
As one of these men, being led by his dog, drew near, I adopted what I figured would come across as a dreamy, fascinated air, as I regarded the shifting clouds, the swaying reeds and the bending light playing over the canal’s surface.
“That’s a grand morning be times,” the old man said. The same thing he usually said about the evening whenever I’d encounter him.
“Oh,” I said. “Good morning to you.”
“As long as it keeps up, says you,” he said. His congenial, round face, crowded with good-fellowship and wobbling with laughter, was irresistible.
We might have been conspirators in a practical joke against all of humanity the way he and I laughed together at nothing.
“Max!” he then called over my shoulder. Serious now. “Max, get out of it!”
I twisted round to see the old man’s dog, a black and white collie, attempting to mount Bruno. And Bruno, like a great oaf, just stood there like he didn’t know what he was supposed to do.
“Come here, Bruno!” I called to him.
But Bruno jerked his head behind him at the other dog, as though he was afraid to insult him or something by bounding off to me.
A good thirty paces up the bank, the old man and I started back towards the dogs.
“That little bugger,” the man said. “Always at the same game. Your fellow’s not a bitch, is he?”
“Nope,” I said, creasing my eyes and shaking my head, searching for something to say that might diffuse the awkward situation and lessen the jangling feeling in my teeth.
“Get out of it, Max!” the old man repeated when we reached the dogs. And he kicked his dog into its ribs. The animal yipped and left off its misguided advances on Bruno, and then stood there, shuddering, regarding its master with a raised eye and glancing at Bruno with the other. Its black lips trembled.
The old man apologized while I was snapping the lead onto Bruno’s collar.
“Nothing,” I said. “Don’t worry about it, sir.” I gave him a kind-of wave and started to push off, but now he was ready to really talk. I could tell.
“Lie down, Max!” he commanded his collie. “Charlie Cosgrave,” he added, extending a wizened, purple hand for me to shake.
“Nice to meet you,” I said, taking his hand, except he somehow withdrew it so I was just left gripping his shiny fingers. An instant, unfocused anger bounced about in my head.
“What’s this you said your name was?” he said.
Resisting the confrontational and obvious retort, I didn’t, I told him my name.
“I knew a fellow be that name once,” he said. He pursed his lipless mouth and shifted his watery eyes to something in the canal waters. “Up in Guinness’s, you know, back in the days. The fifties. I used to work there meself, you know. Way before your time, mind you.”
“Well, Listen,” I said, twisting my wrist to look at my watch. “I’d best be pushing on anyway – ”
“So, nothing on the work-front?” he said, as though we’d been engaged in that topic.
“I’m an artist,” I said. “I have my own studio. Work from home. I do commissions, I lied, landscapes, animal portraiture. That type of thing.”
The old man was shaking his head and making this tisk-tisk sound. “It’s hard these days,” he said. “My youngfellow’s the same. Only he’s not that young anymore. “Thirty-eight. Has a family. Three boys and a girl.” His head continued to shake and his compressed mouth put me in mind of an ape behind glass in the zoo.
“No,” I said. “Painting. Painting pictures is how I make my living. I’m an artist.”
“Plays whatdoyoumecallit all day? Computer games,” he went on. “If, that is, he’s not – what’s this they say? – Loading down them blue movies and the whole lot.”
I told him I really had to be pressing on. He didn’t move. I left him standing there on the canal bank, lamenting the good old days and shaking his head and repeating that he just didn’t get it. He shouted after me that he was sorry for my generation and the whole lot.
When I reached the seventh lock, the place that is usually my turning back point, it occurred to me that I’d be sure to bump into the old guy again should I return the same route as I came. So, instead I cut through the valley that sliced through two housing estates. The journey would be longer, but there was no other way of avoiding old Charlie Cosgrave, as he called himself.
The valley arced along a walled-in tributary connected to the canal. It led, I knew, to a neighbored I’d only ever driven through. It took me longer than I’d anticipated.
With the hill up ahead, minutes away, that took me up onto the bridge and into the streets, I decided I’d better get in touch with Margaret and let her know I wasn’t going to make it home before she went back to work after lunch. That’s when I noticed Bruno wagging his tail good-naturedly at something or someone hidden in the long grass about twenty paces away.
I heard their nasally tones before I saw them: three youths, hunched up at the edge of the worn track. They wore tracksuits with the hoods pulled over their heads. Two of them had white plastic bags in their hands, while the third, also clutching a white bag, was making sucking and blowing sounds into the bag, which was pressed to his face.
“C’mon, Bruno,” I said, trying to avoid eye contact with the youths.
Bruno obeyed, bounding on in front of me, until, responding to a sneery voice behind me calling after him; he shot by me and back to the glue-sniffing trio.
“Bruno!” I shouted. No use. One of them had grabbed hold of Bruno’s collar and was patting his head.
Bruno, I could see, was torn between enjoying the attention of strangers and obeying my command. Either way, he couldn’t break loose. Not even when he tried out his favorite trick of crouching down on his front legs in a display to show that he was anxious to take off and be chased.
Not wanting to antagonize the solvent-sniffing trio, I greeted them with a “How’s it going lads?” but I made sure to put a swagger into my step and push out my chest.
“Does he bite, Mister?” the one hanging onto Bruno’s collar said. His eyes were half-lidded and the eyes themselves seemed to look at me without reference, the way the eyes of a diseased animal might, too sick to flee and to frightened to stir.
“Only when he’s angry,” I said, snapping the lead in place. “Let’s go, Bruno,” I said. “C’mon, boy!” But one of the other two had now also grabbed onto Bruno’s collar.
The fuzzy thought about the effects of solvent abuse on the nervous system wove its way into my instinctive impulse to lash out at these scumbags. The chemicals deadened their senses – that was it. They wouldn’t feel a thing.
“Ah hold on there, Mister,” the second one said. “We only want to ask you a question, like.” He pronounced ‘ask’ as ‘axe’, which somehow disturbed the hell out of me.
“Hurry up then,” I heard myself saying. “I don’t have all day to sit around like some people.”
“Now listen here,” the first one said as he got to his feet. “Don’t be bleeding smart.”
“Yeah,” the third one chipped in. “There’s no need for that. Alls we want is your odds, is all.”
With two of them now on their feet, their outstretched hands, gaunt features and pale pallor transforming them into diseased demons, and the third one struggling to steady himself onto his haunches, my body overrode my reservations.
I struck out and caught the taller of the two a good one between the legs, and with the end of Bruno’s lead, I lashed the other across the face.
The quick sprint I then made towards the hill and to safety, Bruno cantering next to me on his lead, the air filled with the nasal and guttural snarls coming from the sickly creatures hounding and yet far from closing, all combined together to infuse me with a completely enervating bout of nausea when we made it to our destination.
Ensuring they’d definitely given up the chase, I leaned forward, my legs bent, and rested my hands on my thighs and threw up.
“No, Bruno!” I said, dragging him from the mess that had flushed from my insides. Weakly, I pulled him clear. We shoved off for home.
Except, I soon realized I wasn’t going to make it home. I felt rotten. My decision to call Margaret and get her to take the rest of the day off – it was, after all, my birthday – and come and collect me was stymied on account of my mobile lying somewhere along the valley between the exit and the point where I assaulted two miserable looking kids who probably weren’t more than sixteen.
A drink. I needed to sit down somewhere and have a drink. And poor Bruno too, his long pink tongue flapping in the warm breeze, was more likely even more in want of liquid than me.
My lucky day – that’s a joke. The first pub along the road for home had a space for chairs and seats outside. A customer leaving the pub very obligingly listened to my story. He’d look after things, he said. He knew the manager. He returned to the pub and came out with the manager.
The manager, a small man with a bald, pinkish plate and an impressive grey moustache, insisted on serving me personally. He complemented Bruno’s handsome looks, gave him a long drink in a bucket, and fed him leftovers from the lunch menu.
After a bit, my dizziness left me, but my thirst wouldn’t abate.
“Cider is what you need, brother,” a chap who’d invited himself to sit with Bruno and me advised. “Cuts right into the thirst.” He made a sawing gesture with his hand and whistled the way the wind sometimes whistles.
Turns out this chap was also on Tony’s books. He needed the extra few bob to pay the mortgage, he said. By day, he worked for the telephone company.
“No way,” I said. “Tony? That bastard. You work for him too?”
He made a shushing gesture with his finger to his mouth, and then laughed as though it was the funniest thing in the world. I thought so too, so we ordered some shorts, and laughed some more.
“Are you married yourself?” he said, although we hadn’t been, I didn’t think so anyway, talking about women or marriage.
“Whoa! Back up there, man,” I said. “I have a wife and a child.” I squinted at him to see his face better. He was all blurred.
“What?” he said. “No, no, no, you got me wrong, brother,” he said, working himself into a bout of laughter again. “I have a missus too. Malaysia. You want to see her.”
He went on to explain that he’d recently got hitched to an Asian bride. Paid her fare over from her own country. She was back home in Malaysia now for some festival or other, some crap, he wasn’t sure.
“Just wait until I get her home on Friday,” he said. “Whump! She won’t know what hit her.”
Broken images of the old man’s dog with Bruno earlier that day wavered across my unfocused vision. Tumbling through those distasteful images came the faces of the solvent-abusing teenagers.
“I’m going to be sick,” I said.
My new friend told me to hang in there, brother, and staggered off for the manager.
The manager insisted on driving me home. It was his break-time anyway, he said. As for Bruno, he had a dog of his own. Wasn’t a problem. So long as Bruno was housetrained, or car-trained, he quipped.
He got me back home a good hour or so before Margaret pulled into the driveway. In the meantime, I fixed myself a double espresso.
“You’ve been drinking,” she said when she stuck her head into the small back room I’ve commandeered as my studio. She always says this. I ignored her. She ushered Emmer upstairs. She doesn’t like Emmer seeing me drunk.
“How was work?” I said, turning from the blank canvas. My head was splitting.
“How could you do this to us?” she said. “A perfectly good job and you just walk away from it.”
I parried that I had work; the security work in the evenings.
“A few hours three or four days a week isn’t going to keep this family going,” she said.
“I have pictures to paint,” I said. “My portfolio wasn’t going to get itself together if I stayed on in that kip.”
She slumped into the broken armchair and cupped her face in her hands. Here we go.
“You’re a lush,” she said. “Nothing but a lousy lush.” Margaret’s American. The first time she called me a lush, it sounded sweet. We laughed long and hard. Neither of us was laughing now.
“The odd glass helps me concentrate,” I said. “Gets the muse going.”
She was blubbering now. She emerged from her hands.
“Emmer is afraid of you,” she said. “Your own child.”
Something beat at the inside of my head and my scalp felt itchy. “Could be worse,” I said. “Gauguin left his wife and kids and took off for Tahiti to paint.”
“What?” she said, and stared at me like I was mad.
“Paul Gauguin,” I said. “A friend of Van Gogh.”
“Didn’t he cut off his ear?” she said.
“What?” I said. “Nobody’s cutting their ear off. You’re the one who’s crazy.” She lost it then. Rushed upstairs and screamed herself to sleep in our bedroom.
I called up Tony and told him I wasn’t, after all, going in that night. I needn’t a break. Tony said that was ‘game ball’ with him. But he added that I could have as long a break as I wanted, from his company anyway. He closed the call.
When I checked in on Margaret later, she and Emmer were asleep together in our bed.
Back downstairs, I tried to remember that quote by Van Gogh. Something about how, one day, people would pay more for his paintings than he did for the paint, but that wasn’t it exactly. I knew what I meant.
Misunderstood. That’s what I was. For a while, I contented myself with this self-affirmation. As a misunderstood artist, I was entitled to indulge in what others regarded as eccentricities. I was above their pettiness, their misguided take on behavior they deemed unacceptable, that didn’t conform to their banal understanding of how to be and what to say.
I lay on the couch with these thoughts, flicking from channel to channel, until I hit upon something to get the juices flowing: a little soft porn.
While watching the TV screen, I unconsciously scratched my chin, which reopened the nick I’d given myself that morning while shaving. Working my way round the coffee table to the mirror over the mantelpiece, I tilted my thirty-seven year old head sideways. A beautiful, zigzag line of blood, already congealing, ran down my neck.
It came to me then, as my intense reflection stared back at me: Van Gogh was another of the famous thirty-seven year olds. Van Gogh, or Vincent, as I like to call him, was thirty-seven that bright, sunny day when he got himself into one of those glorious, yellow hayfields he had so often painted, placed a rifle barrel against his chest, and squeezed the trigger.