“A day with you was the third prize?” Sarah splutters. She’s always hypercritical of everyone around her, sarcastic at other times. I like her but, gods, she’s hard work. You need more forgiveness and tolerance that you’re supplied with at birth.
Sarah is the combative member of this group all squeezed around a beer-stained table and plastic leather seats. Such scenes have occurred in pubs, cafes and taverns since medieval, no: prehistoric times at least. A bunch of people who can’t afford their beer, all huddled, talking.
Alex isn’t here. I miss him but not his concrete. He’s engineering and has studied that stuff for two years. At the slightest prompt he can talk concrete till your head fills with it.
“Yes,” I say, “Well, no. I was third on the list; she chose a day with an arts student. Actually she thought arts meant just art, paintings and so on: not philosophy.” I sigh. “It’s been one hell of a day.”
Malcolm shouts, “I’ll get the next round. Chuck your money in.”
They know I’ve been paid, in cash, and all look to me like I owe them. The twenty quid note is snatched up. I can almost trust Malcolm to give me most of the change.
Sandra, cool, thin and beautiful, gives me her superior stare. “A kickboxing champion chose to spend a day with you as a prize?” She javelins me with her gaze. “OK, I’m all auditory. How was it?”
There’s a beer mat which has soaked up spills. Half of it has grown fat. I poke to see if it feels soft. “She was amazing.”
Sarah snorts. “Kickboxing champion? I bet you had to do everything she said. What did she taste like, all sweaty?” Everything she says is provocative.
Nige says to her, “Shut up,” and then to me, “Well? Tell us about amazing.”
“I took her to the museum and then the art gallery.”
“And…” he lowers his voice to a dramatic growl, “what happened?”
“Stuff, I reply, “actual stuff. Shit went down, the Earth moved, the time came, angels sang…”
Malcolm snatches up the note. “Don’t talk till I come back. Sarah, help me carry.”
Chick and Steve are swapping cards of some sort; superintelligent mathematicians who sell lattes to keep themselves alive between lectures. They use nerd cards so complicated I can’t even begin to understand.
I do fall silent. Malcolm is probably the only person who will understand what stunned me today so I’ll save it till he comes back. Sarah … well, she could do with hearing about it too.
Running today back through my head … what actually happened?
I met Ilse at the museum entrance. I, trying to be a good prize, took her around all the Iron and Bronze Age stuff. I thought she’d like weapons or jewellery. I mean that covers a broad spectrum of tastes.
Actually, she went for Palaeolithic and saw the stone hand axe. It has special place, a plinth and polycarbonate shielding all of its own. The information board says it’s 750,000 years old, made by Homo Erectus and took at least four times the effort to make than a useable hand axe should. Ilse, the kickboxing champion, went back to it twice. She asked my opinion and I replied it was probably a gift, a thing to show how much someone cared about another … or wanted to have sex with them.
I should have shut up. Ilse was staring at it harder than I’ve ever done. Alright, I thought, take me with you. Where are you going? She shook her head when I asked her what was up. She was still working something out. Later, I thought she’d forgotten about it until after the cafe and half way to the gallery. On the bus Ilse flexed her wrists in a weird way, probably some kickboxing thing. She stopped, mid twist, and said, “It was all about perfection and beauty, wasn’t it? No, what lies behind them. I mean, just impressing someone isn’t art is it? It was about something going on inside the person making it … striving for something outside this world, things you can’t put into words.” Then, running up the wheelchair ramp into the gallery she added, without the slightest breathlessness, “All that extra work wasn’t about function. The handaxe was pointing at something.”
Note to myself, after all the questions she asked me about art, this was her first statement: she didn’t need me to answer.
In the gallery, huge and light, she was all questions again and asked me to show her what I thought were perfect works of art. She ate it all up as if a whole new appetite had been discovered. There’s only one perfect painting there, as far as I can see: The Invisibles by Yves Tanguy. Instead I told her about Aidaras Merkevicius’ theory of moments, tiny spots of perfection that just get to you, hidden in works which were meant to impress and sell.
Oh boy did she get that so fast. It became a game, a challenge for her. At first she followed what I said, then found her own moments and we argued too loud. People stared, pretending not to hear. She wasn’t aware she’d become an exhibit and people wanted to listen.
Of course, you can’t leave any of these places without going through the shop. This is where Ilse blew my head off. She wanted postcards to remember the day. She saw a photo of Tracy Emin’s My Bed.
“What the…?” she whispered. “That’s…” Just broken sentences or just single words. She was having mighty conversations in her head and bits leaked out under pressure.
She bought every last postcard of that and we took a taxi back to the museum. We only just made it; they were closing. There were no postcards of Homo Erectus’ hand axe but staff said where you can get them online.
Malcolm and Sarah return, drips already spilling from trays. Shit, there won’t be very much change. I prepare to tell the whole story while drinks are shared out. Alex arrives, and my cash, held out by Malcolm, is snatched away again. He heads back to the bar. Sarah says to Alex, “You mention steel reinforcement, just once, and you’re dead. People aren’t supposed to enjoy their subjects. Do not mention cables and nitrogen: don’t you dare.”
Turning to me she asks, “Why are you so quiet? You’ve fallen in love with your knickerboxer? What was her name?”
“Ilse,” I reply, “and possibly. In one day she worked out what art is. She should be a bloody lecturer. You know My Bed? After seeing that she said something like, “So that’s it? I’m the one who decides what art is pointing to and I can ignore the bollocks you’ve been spouting all day.”
Malcolm returns with Alex’s drink and precious little money. He frowns, asking me why I’m counting it, while Sandra wants to know if I’m going out with Ilse now.
I’m able to answer both, “Just checking I’ve enough to pay for joining the kickboxing club on Thursday.”
©Gary Bonn, 2021