A Rooftop View

 

Chapter I

The man and the girl walked along the misty beach.

There had once been a day when he had been as young, as ardent and as idealistic as she, but it seemed an age ago. The promise of his youth had been wasted by war, leaving him without virtue, a mere automaton, breathing but without life. A nothing, swept away and pressed under by continuing nightmare. Except that he could paint - and all the lost dreams and hopes, all the ideals that still shone in the girl's bright face, poured out onto canvas in a desperate attempt to stem the tide that he sometimes felt would engulf not only him, but the whole world besides.

Including the girl.

Anona.

She walked a step or two ahead of him, or no, she didn't so much walk as dance, her sandals swinging from her hand and her long slender feet twinkling over the damp sand. She didn't care about mist, it caught in her dark hair like the diamonds he would have liked to give her, twisting it into damp tendrils round her thin, eager face as she turned to laugh at him. There was nothing else that moved on the beach at all, no wind to whip up the surf, no scavenging gulls, nothing alive but Anona dancing in the lacy edge of a flat, pearly, early-morning sea. She was more than twenty years his junior, a century younger in experience. He feared to lose her far more than he feared dying. She had changed his life like an angelic visitation from the first moment that she had entered it.

Or no. Strictly speaking, it had been Giff who had changed it, and was difficult to imagine Giff in the role of an angel. His lips twitched at the absurd thought, Giff with his pin-striped suits and his bowler, and his urban sophistication was certainly a far cry from angelic. At the time, he recalled, Giff had only been an unwelcome interruption...

Nineteen sixty. The war - that was World War II - had been over for fifteen years, but he had still been trying to rivet together the sherds of his shattered illusions, idealistic fool that he had been - still was, if it came to that - trying to come to terms with the way life apparently had to be... with the things that he had done, with the things that other men were still doing. He wanted no part of it, he wasn't a killer and yet he had killed. It hadn't seemed like killing at the time. Only afterwards, when there was time to think... and it went on and on, endlessly and for ever. Barely five years after the end of that holocaust, the Americans had marched into Korea, and the whole obscene merry-go-round was spinning again, only worse, because even in that short time, the means of killing had become so much more sophisticated.

That was enough in itself to sound the death-knell of civilisation and peace, but on top of that there was now the "Cold" War, no flame-throwers to annihilate, but a matter of such bitter intransigence on both sides that there could be no solution. No solution to humanity's inhumanity to humanity, he thought despairingly. And disarmament no more than a pretty dream to keep hope on life support. What sort of world was being built for the future? How much that was beautiful and good was being irretrievably destroyed? Where would it all end, or would it ever end at all? Who would call "Time" on the bloodbath? Or would everyone just go up in one big bang, and that would be the end?

He had been twenty-two the year war broke out, and fortunate. He had talent, everybody said so, and he had a small trust fund from his father that had enabled him to buy the loft in St. Ives when he left art school, and to feed and clothe himself adequately, even if not elegantly, thus leaving him free to paint... and paint, and paint, which was what he had done for almost the whole of one glorious year. Even now, many years on, he could see virtue in that early work, optimism and freshness and promise. And he had enjoyed life, how he had enjoyed it! No ties, no responsibilities, no worries, and a great satisfaction with himself. Not even the sky was to be his limit.

War had put an end to all that, of course. A combination of patriotism and ignorance of what it was going to be like had led him to enlist right at the start, in the first wave of volunteers. It would all be over in a few months anyway, everyone said so, and it was a chance not to be missed. The experience would broaden his outlook, widen his horizons, add depth to his work - but war hadn't done any of those things, except possibly to broaden his outlook - but he thought that had been pretty broad to start with. So it had given him nothing, and it had taken six years of his life, his self-respect, his peace of mind, and the hidden spark that had made his talent burn with that fierce, bright light that had set him apart. It had left him disillusioned, angry and broke - his comfortable independence had dwindled to a pittance during the war years. There remained just the loft, his easel and brushes and a small amount of money, just enough to stave off starvation. He had begun to live on his capital, struggled with odd jobs working on the fishing boats to eke out his diminishing means, until he was often too tired to paint, even if he had the heart for it. Now, after years of sliding steadily downwards, he couldn't even pay the rates, and when the Council got around to him, he would probably lose the loft. That didn't matter. Money, possessions, they were nothing. But his painting... that was another thing.

For it had died, whatever it was that he had once possessed. Faded away into the welter of dust and rubble and spilled blood that lay behind him, buried under the huge black torrent of war that would never end. He was left with a good eye, a neat technique, but no heart. He sold pictures to the summer tourists who were trickling back to Cornwall in an ever-growing stream. He had to sell them, or he would often have gone hungry to bed. But he never signed them in the old way, Sutton. He never signed them at all. The loft grew shabbier, the roof had lost a few slates in a gale and his clothes had worn threadbare. Soon now he was going to have to abandon the struggle - abandon the last glimmer of hope - and go out and get himself a full-time job, if a failed painter was qualified for any job. It was that or destitution. Without money for the rates he would lose the loft, without the loft he had no place in which to paint, without painting he was a hollow sham.

But he hadn't painting anyway. It was already gone.

He hated men who waged wars, not caring who died in the process, he hated the men who devised ever better and nastier ways of killing other men, and he had no faith in a better world. Above all, he hated himself because he was one of them. One of the fighters, one of the killers, cheated by a dream of glory into trading his birthright for a bomber, and deserving no better.

It was when his life had reached this stalemate that Giff had come back into it.

Gifford Thomas was a relic from his war years. He had come into the war only at the very end, as a brash eighteen-year-old rear gunner, and although the survival rate for rear gunners was low, Giff was a natural survivor. The crew thought he brought them luck and laughed at his affected manners when they might have sneered. But that was Giff. He was bomb-proof.

They had become friends in spite of a difference in both age and rank, because they had found a common interest - art. Giff had no artistic talent of his own, but he had an unerring, God-given judgement in the assessment of other people's, almost akin to water divining, which he had every intention of turning to account. He had no particular reverence for rank.

'When this war is over...' he said, with the confidence of one who hadn't realised that it was going to drag on and on into the twenty-first century, until the whole of humanity was either horribly dead or reduced to a uniform grey drab. 'When this war is over, I'll borrow a bit of cash from my uncle, and set up a gallery. Pictures - fine arts. Antiques even, maybe. But I'm not too keen on antiques, somehow. I like the fun of finding something new - the antiques of tomorrow. Like you.'

'Gee, thanks!' had said Matt.

Giff had grinned at him and dodged a flying hand. War or no war, Giff had in those days had an almost perpetual grin on his face. In retrospect, perhaps it had been a defence mechanism, for Giff had been far from insensitive. He had built himself a shell, that was it, and under its protection had remained basically unhurt. Lucky Giff.

But Giff had been right and Matt had been wrong, and the war had ended after all, quite soon afterwards. Giff had gone off to London on a train, looking like a spiv in his demob suit and dragging his kitbag behind him. No doubt he had prospered, the Giffs of this world generally did. Matt Sutton had hung around for a while, uncertain what he wanted any more and not caring much either, but eventually headed for Cornwall and his neglected canvases and he hadn't prospered at all. They wouldn't have been bad years if he had retained his early talent, he didn't mind being poor in material things. But he hadn't, and its loss grieved and depressed him. He needed it now as he had never needed it before. He needed it to make him whole again, and his creative poverty was like a living death. He needed to paint. He needed success, it was the only way he knew to communicate. It was the only means he had to make restitution. He owed the world - sometimes he felt he owed it the entire debt, for everyone.

'Oh, that's nice!' cried the plump woman with the sun-reddened skin and peeling shoulders. 'Look George, isn't that pretty?'

It was pretty, and more than that, the word nice described it exactly. View of the harbour, with boats, seagulls, and obligatory old fisherman mending nets. It should have had the insight of a Stanhope Forbes, but it hadn't. George didn't like it - and neither, for that matter, did Matt.

'That old man looks insanitary,' George remarked, being clever in front of his family. He and his wife and their brood of overheated, sandy children sniggered and went back down the steps and clattered off across the courtyard. Matt shut the lower half of the stable door to discourage other people and flopped down into his sagging old armchair. Across the studio, the insanitary old man mended his nets against the shining background of the harbour. Perspective, proportion, colours, all immaculate. Technically, it was beyond reproach. Where, then, had he gone so far wrong?

Of course, George was entitled to his opinion. You couldn't please everyone, whatever you did. Perhaps it was just in his own eyes that the thing was dead. The fisherman hadn't been dirty, but he hadn't been exactly clean either... views of Cornwall weren't really his field, but they sold...

'They'd be better off with a postcard,' he said, aloud.

'Oh, really?'

He hadn't heard the steps on the stones of the outside staircase. A shadow darkened the square of light in the doorway, Giff leaned his arms on the half-door and looked in. His familiar grin was much in evidence, unchanged with the passage of years.

'Well well, if it isn't my old friend Matt, starving himself in a garret!'

'It isn't a garret,' said Matt. 'Why don't you go away?'

For answer, Giff opened the door and came through, bringing with him the board that read STUDIO OPEN. He leaned the board against the wall and carefully shut the door behind him.

'That's my livelihood you're making free with,' said Matt, pointedly. Giff ignored him.

'So, what's my old mate doing with himself these days?' He paused, allowing his eyes to rove around the loft, and then answered himself. 'Nothing very much, from the look of it. That's what I heard...'

Matt looked at him sourly. They hadn't met since the end of the war, and Giff's obvious prosperity grated on him. The man looked smug, pleased with himself, urban.

'Indeed?'

Something in his voice alerted Giff. He stopped looking round the loft and looked at his friend instead. The grin faded.

'Ye-es. Snowy White dropped in to see me the other day. Said he saw you down here, dear boy, and he thought you were having it a bit rough.'

'Yeah, I remember. He came in with his wife and kids, they were down on holiday. We had a drink together.'

Giff perched himself on a high stool, dusting it carefully first with his handkerchief. He was very elegant in grey flannels and sports shirt, with a carefully-tied cravat at his neck. Matt felt shabby, and as grubby as the fisherman in the despised picture. He also felt prickly as a hedgehog. He glowered.

Giff looked at him pensively for a moment or two without speaking. Matt, he thought, looked ill. He was far too thin and his straight, light hair needed cutting and he hadn't shaved. Seedy. No wonder he wasn't making a go of things, he'd frighten the crows looking like that.

'Same old Matt, I see, hair-shirt and all,' he said, half-mockingly. 'Come on, we're friends aren't we? Smile! You're pleased to see me, aren't you?'

Matt put his hands on the arms of his chair and pushed himself out of it. He didn't want to talk to Giff, youthful and prosperous, about his problems and if they stayed here, Giff would talk.

'Fancy a jar down the local? Since you've closed me down anyway.'

Giff hesitated only for a moment. Then,

'Okey doke,' he said casually. 'Do we lock up this treasure house?' He gestured round the walls, where pictures hung or were stacked in careless disorder. He walked across to the watercolour presently on the big easel, looking at it assessingly.

'Losing our touch a little, dear boy, aren't we? Probably comes of not eating.'

'When I want an art critic, I'll send for one. Anyway, I do eat. Are you coming, or aren't you?'

'I'm coming, I'm coming.'

It was only a short distance to the nearest pub. Matt was hardly a regular - he couldn't afford to be - but the landlord knew him by sight.

'Morning Matt, how's tricks then?'

'Fine... fine.'

'Liar,' said Giff, as the landlord pulled a pint for Matt and poured a gin and tonic for his smart London friend. 'Look, Matt, can't we sit down somewhere, and talk?'

Matt leaned on the bar, smiling.

'It's OK here.'

'Stubborn devil, aren't you? Listen Matt, Snowy said - '

'They called him an observer, but his powers of observation were actually not highly developed,' said Matt, too quickly.

'Oh come on, Matt! What do you think your friends are, stupid? When you dropped out, when the show was over, I thought I'd hear of you at any moment, even if I didn't hear from you - man, you were good, you were the best! So what happened?'

Matt shrugged.

'I get along.'

'Sure, sure.' Giff snorted derisively. 'You were going to set the world afire, I seem to remember.'

'Ran out of matches.'

'Oh, yeah?' Giff stared at him, non-plussed. 'OK, so you don't want to discuss it. Let's talk about something else. What happened to that woman of yours - what was her name? Rosemary, something. She still around?'

'She sheered off,' said Matt. Rosemary had been the least of his problems at the time, he struggled now to remember her face. 'She didn't like the smell of failure,' he said sardonically, and then could have kicked himself. But Giff didn't rise to the accidental bait. He said comfortably,

'Oh well, she's no loss then. Look, there's a table over there, shall we grab it?'

He was moving away as he spoke, and after a brief hesitation, Matt followed reluctantly. He didn't like the feeling that his old friends were seeking him out to pity him, discussing him behind his back. If Giff offered to lend him money, he'd punch him in the face and let friendship take its chance. Even if it meant being banned from his favourite pub.

But Giff seemed to have no such intention. He lounged elegantly in his chair, relaxed and at ease.

'You take things too personally, Matt,' he said. 'Lots of fellows have it hard, as well as you. Civvy Street ain't no bed of roses.'

'You smell pretty good.'

Giff preened himself.

'Oh, I don't do so bad. Nice little gallery, in almost the West End, doing pretty good business. New talent mainly. Rising young stars.'

Matt's mouth twitched. He couldn't help himself.

'And would you handle my work?'

Giff answered him with gentleness.

'No, old mate. No, I wouldn't.'

Well, he had asked. And anyway, Giff was only... No, damn it! Giff was only a natural. Giff had a nose. Giff...

'Oh hell!' said Matt. 'Look here, I'm sorry I put you on the spot like that.'

'Don't be. I didn't mean I never would, I simply meant I wouldn't now, at this moment. You're spinning into a pancake landing, dear boy. Granny watercolours! Where are those lovely vibrant oils of yours, for God's sake?'

'Paper is cheaper than canvas,' said Matt, precisely.

They were silent for a while. Matt stared into his beer, his lips set, and Giff watched him thoughtfully.

'Why don't you give it a rest?' he asked, unexpectedly. 'Get right away from it, earn a bit of cash, freshen up your slant on life.'

'Doing what? House painting?'

'Tut tut,' said Giff, shaking his head. 'There's no need to go that far. You could teach, for instance.'

'Teach!'

'Why not? You did some good stuff during the war. People remember that.'

'They do? You could have fooled me.'

'Oh they do, dear boy. Of course they do.'

'Listen, pipsqueak,' said Matt. 'I am not your dear boy. And it's your shout.'

'In just a moment, dear b - ' He laughed. 'No really, Matt, I mean it. You were Grade A.'

'Were.'

'And will be again. Give yourself a break. I saw some of your wartime work, remember.'

'Escapist stuff.' Clouds, he remembered, you got to know them pretty well from the air. And sunlight, and green countryside, like an intricate bedspread, precise to the finest detail. It held his concentration, blocked out a grim reality. It kept him sane. He couldn't do it now that the need was gone. The formula didn't seem to work for poverty and failure.

'Nobody can help you if you won't help yourself.' Giff gathered the glasses in his hand and stood up. 'Don't go away - I haven't finished yet.'

But I didn't ask for help, Matt thought, resentfully. He watched Giff threading his way through the crowd towards the bar, willowy and graceful, a smile for everyone. Patronising bastard! He was angry with Giff. What did he know about anything? He made his living, and a good living too from the looks of him, on the backs of other people. A parasite. A middleman. Taking his percentage and smiling while others sweated blood to make him rich.

From the bar, as he waited to be served, Giff watched Matt in his turn. Poor old Matt, he had always taken things badly and he had obviously let life get on top of him, but he still had it, that hidden core of... yes, genius was possibly the right word. Giff could feel it, as he had always felt it, vibrating like a muted chord of music. Almost, he could hear it. He had always known that Matt was special, had waited, and waited... in vain, as it turned out, until Toby White had come shambling into the gallery that day, like an amiable and over-friendly mongrel, wagging its tail and looking for a pat. And old Snowy had talked and Gifford Thomas had listened, and when the talk came round to Matt he had laughed, and said lightly,

'Artists need to starve, dear boy, it's part of the ethos. Matt will be resoundingly successful in his old age, an old master after he's dead and gone. Hopefully, I'm sufficiently younger that I shall still be here to cash in.'

'Cynical devil!' had said Snowy, admiringly, and Giff had deftly twisted the subject away from Matt. But not forgotten it, and now he was here, and there was Matt, no longer the inspired leader with the charmed life but a down-and-out artist trying to make ends meet. How are the mighty fallen.

Matt could be a legend in his lifetime if he so wished it. It followed, therefore, that for some reason he didn't wish it. Of course, he had begun to have some queer notions towards the end - too many missions, too many narrow escapes, too much responsibility and not enough sleep, and that bitch Rosemary tearing him up with her tantrums - but the war was over long ago, and Rosemary, apparently, with it, so what had gone so permanently wrong? Once, Matt had possessed vision and certainty and depth. Now, he painted picture-postcard views for tourists. He had to be stopped, and started off again in the right direction. It seemed perfectly simple to Giff.

Matt wanted to talk about Giff when Giff got back with the refills. He wanted to hear about the gallery and Giff's uncle, who was also now his partner. He wanted to know if Giff was married, and was unsurprised to hear that he was not. He had always wondered about Giff, and he hadn't been alone.

'I'm not the marrying kind, dear boy,' said Giff, mischievously. 'Not for me, the luscious charms of such as Rosemary - so dreadfully butch, all this he-man stuff. I prefer cats.'

'Cats!'

'Such graceful creatures - and so clean. And self-sufficient, too, which I admire. They belong to themselves.'

'Sure, sure.' Laughter lurked behind Matt's eyes, and affection. How had he ever been afraid of what Giff might say or do? Giff was a lightweight only, with a nose for good paintings. He would never bestir himself to interfere in what didn't concern him.

So that they parted on good terms, and Matt went back to his loft thinking that it had been good to see old Giff again after all. He hadn't offered to lend money of course, he hadn't even offered to buy lunch. He was the same selfish hedonist that he had always been, just visiting out of curiosity in case there was a buck in it for him. Matt smiled. Giff never missed a chance if he could help it. Pity he had given himself a wasted journey.

It would take a couple of months, he calculated, before the Council realised that he wasn't going to pay the rates. He had that long. He would give it one more try - and if he still couldn't recapture whatever it was that he had lost, then he would throw it up. Better nothing at all than second-best. But he wouldn't teach. He could think of nothing worse.

An odd thing happened the other day, wrote Giff. Remember what we were talking about in that pub? I said you should take a break, get a job teaching or something, and you looked at me as if I'd crawled out of the woodwork. Well, perhaps teaching a lot of grubby kids isn't quite your sort of thing, you know yourself best after all. But just in case you feel like changing your mind, if you're interested, I could put something in that line in your way. A pal of Uncle's is the principal of the Embridge College of Art - I daresay you may know of it, it's reputed to be not at all bad. Pretty good, in fact, if truth were told. They're looking for an assistant lecturer - oils, primarily, general painting and drawing, maybe a bit of anatomy. Thought it might be up your street. At least the kids you'd be teaching would have some talent, or they wouldn't be there in the first place. I'm told the place is quite hard to get into.

I mentioned to Uncle that I might know of someone. If you're interested, drop a line to the principal (his name is Abbott, and between you and me, he's a bit of a pompous ass) and mention Uncle's name (Wilfrid, alas!). No hard feelings if you don't want to bother, they'll get someone else easy enough. Just thought it might tide you over for a while. You can try too hard, you know.

I saw old Snowy White again the other day, he's begun to haunt me...

Matt wasn't interested in old Snowy, he had never much liked the man, and liked him less since that summer visit and his talebearing. He put the letter down on the table and walked over to the window to stand there, looking out. Below him, the grey slate roofs of the town tumbled away towards the harbour. There were clouds piling up out to sea beyond Godrevy, the gulls were screaming inland, sensing wind coming. He loved this place. If he was honest, giving up the loft would matter to him a lot. It had been his dream, all through those awful years, to return here to this quiet little town, this beautiful county. It had sheltered him through the past, hard, decade... and he was going to lose it all... painting, Cornwall, his own self-respect. There was no market for superannuated war heroes, not so long after the event. Maybe not at all.

You can try too hard, you know...

Damn Giff! He could twist and wriggle how he would, but he had come here to say all that, and gone away without saying it, knowing that if he wrote it instead it would be impossible for Matt to argue with him. Once the words were written, they were immutable, there was no going back from them. If he took this job - always supposing he was offered it - he could keep the loft. And perhaps, if his own gift had flown like the gulls before the rising wind, he would find someone in that college of art to whom he could pass on the torch, a flame to burn forever as his own little flame had failed to do.

But now he was being maudlin, and that, he despised.

 

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ISBN 978-0-9554508-1-5

 

   

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