the subject of British art

A young Pynchon was there. In black tie. I assumed he was going to the Oscars. Another man was very silently giving birth to a succession of babies. Then the cat cried for breakfast and I started to lose them. The art dealer came back to me. His heavy shoulders cloaked in a well-worn waxed jacket. His curls of grey hair, windswept from the Scottish highlands, marked him as outsider on the London tube. I’d snuck into his slipstream just after the ticket barriers. He was using a framed artwork wrapped in folds of bubbled plastic to peel the crowd at the top of the escalator. He was big, perhaps 6’3″. But I suspected, as I watched his gaze in the carriage, that this was becoming a disappointment. The knowledge of ageing, what it does to the body. He had refused to sit down. No one had offered him a seat, but as he leant into the vertical hand rail, his shoulder squeezing against the rectangle of protective glass, I felt his body begging for rest. Shortly before Kings Cross, he’d caught my eye. I had looked up from my book; I was thinking about the links between the holocaust and Stanley; and as I returned to the pages on my lap, he mouthed a word. It might have been two. The skin of his face made me think of the weather. He wore corduroys. I didn’t notice his shoes. At Kings Cross, he turned his back and stepped off the carriage. In moments like these, even I start to believe that we should recognise fully that humans do have a sixth sense. He stepped to the side of the platform and turned to wait for me. What’s that you’re reading? I wondered why he felt the need to demand information. I thought of all the women who’d left him. I held up the book. Ah memory, he said. What’s that? PTSD? I explained that it was a little more nuanced than that. He’s a novelist, I said, surprised by the sympathetic tone in which I had spoken. He relaxed. I hate this sort of transport, he said. Lost my licence, he said. Some fucking Scottish sheriff. I wasn’t in the wrong, but I was the one who was punished. I saw him in his cottage, half-drunk bottles of whisky dotted about the place. I’ve been in Kent, he said. I’m an art dealer. He held up the large package he was carrying. Yes, I said, I saw how you used it to push through the crowds. He laughed. It’s worth fifteen thousand. We were walking at a steady pace now, beneath St Pancras. I told him that I’d spent the day in an art gallery, talking about the black subject. Oh, he said, misunderstanding me, you are depressing. The black subject, I repeated, about the presence of black people in British art. Oh I don’t believe in racism, he replied. Nonsense! I had the chance to buy an 1806 oil of a black man in Liverpool. Dressed like a gentleman. In the background, a hunt was galloping past. He was an estate manager. An estate manager. He thought I hadn’t heard and said, again, but in a bark, An estate manager! You see, there wasn’t even racism then. I grew up in Africa. Tanzania, my dear. There was much more slavery between them than anything we could have done. We came to a halt. He was going upstairs to get the night train to Edinburgh. I was going further, deeper down, far underground. He wanted to know what I was doing. Meeting my husband, I said. He laughed. Damn! You’re just what I could do with. His bottom lip was loosening. Hanging, pink, fat and wet. He stepped back. He didn’t want me to turn first. He didn’t want to see my back, and to be confronted with himself. So I held out my hand. I’m glad we spoke, I said. He held down a smile. Yes, well, have a pleasant evening. And he turned. I stood still and watched him and his painting rising higher and higher and higher.

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