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It's Just The Beating Of My Heart - sneak preview

Chapter One


The valley is divided by light. The sun etches shapes into its far side, with its thick stands of beech and oak, while our house is already in shade by five o’clock. Our side of the valley is steeper, with open expanses of arable land at the top of the escarpment and a footpath behind our house, leading from the gate at the top of the garden into a copse that forms its natural border. If you sit quietly on the beech-wood bench by the back wall of our cottage when the sun has gone down, you can hear the rustling and rummaging of badgers as they forage for grubs and earthworms, beetles and shoots. Sometimes, the bark of a fox breaks a silence so complete that the stars seem to sing with an eternal static charge in the night sky.

I have been walking around like a ghost. Rooms lose their atmosphere, their warmth, when I enter them. It is as if someone has died. In some sort of endless way they have. My wife is dead to me. She died when she left our house, our home. I cannot stop calling it our house, our valley. There has been no ‘us’ for more than twenty-one months. Bryony was ten when her mother took her away to live in Bristol early on Christmas morning the year before last. Twenty-five miles and a million lives away. A car passes on our lane once every two or three hours. The nearest house is perhaps two hundred yards away; a holiday home that the owners from London only live in for three months of the year.

Bryony, already tall like her mother but with my dark-brown eyes, visits for two weekends each month, emptying the house of its loneliness. Linda leaves Bryony on the wooden bench in Stroud railway station’s quiet ticket office at precisely five o’clock every other Friday evening. She waits and watches until she sees my Volvo pull up in the station car park and knows that Bryony will be safe, then makes her unseen getaway. We never speak face-to-face. I find my daughter clutching her small rucksack to her chest, with her head buried in whichever book she is reading at the time. I return her on Monday morning at eight o’ clock sharp, each of us trusting the other with our daughter without question or hesitation. Linda has always disappeared up the wooden stairs of the bridge that links the two platforms by the time that I walk into the ticket office to collect Bryony, going back to her car in the far car park and her journey on the motorway back to Bristol. We can never cross paths. We trust each other beyond words with our daughter, but cannot trust each other with ourselves.
What happened to us? Even now I cannot begin to explain it to myself; I cannot shape it into words that do not jump around the page like frightened mice. All I know is that I wake up each morning in an empty bed. The pillow beside mine is cold; Linda’s presence has not left its mark there. I want to hit the bottle, to pour vodka onto my cornflakes, to put shots of whisky in my morning’s first cup of coffee. Alcohol was just a way for me to relax after work, a lubricator in stressful social situations, when Linda and Bryony were in my life. Linda had a different take on it and perhaps she was right: it has become my life now. It has been like this since they left me.

Bryony has just turned twelve and likes one of the boy bands whose name I forget and whose members look only a little older than her. She likes boy bands, animals of every kind (she says that she wants to be a vet), and walks in the countryside. She does not like the empty bottles that she finds in the glass-recycling bin outside the back porch. “Dad, you promised you wouldn’t drink between my visits,” she says. “That’s not at all, dad. Why can’t you just drink orange juice or Ribena like me?”
“I had guests round for dinner last Saturday, Bee. We shared a bottle or two of wine, that’s all.”
“Well, I’ve told you before and I won’t tell you again. Mum will never have you back otherwise.”
“My not having a drink won’t make any difference, Bee. Things are a bit more complicated than that. What about going on that walk?”

*

I have not had a drink for almost twenty-four hours, although the drinks I have not had are beginning to add up in my mind. While Bryony watches Saturday-night television in the sitting room, I cook us a simple supper of pasta and tomato sauce and prepare a green salad. Bryony hears the popping of a cork and comes into the kitchen as I pour my first glass of red wine. I roll it around my mouth, over my tongue, like a polluting, intoxicating blackberry mouthwash. I swallow, and a million nerve-receptors begin their dance.
“Dad, you promised me.”
“What did I promise you?”
“That you wouldn’t drink.”
“No, I said I wouldn’t drink between your visits. You’re here, Bee. It’s okay. I’m only going to have one or two glasses.”

Bryony goes back to the television and I go back to my glass, sitting at the kitchen table. Sounds of laughter and lightweight conversation drift in like litter from the sitting room, the tinnitus of contemporary life that is designed not to penetrate the brain, only to numb the senses with the banality of it all. An electric anaesthetic; a static discharge. The wine makes me immune, inviolable, strong. I am not an alcoholic. I have days off drinking and can control my intake. It is just that I really like it. It is just that I think about it a lot of the time. It is just that I do not want to stop the drinking surge that I began when they left me. It is just that I am often frightened that I want to die.

In the meantime, I live alone. Bryony rescues me from loneliness for perhaps five days a month. I keep myself busy working, pushing myself to commute by train to London four days a week rather than finding a midweek room in town; the work itself is always a challenge, even though at forty-five I know what I am doing. The art business has never been tougher: a slow recession does that to you.

We eat in silence, Bryony engrossed in the talent show that has now taken over the screen; while I am too tired to demand that she comes to eat at the table at the other end of the room. She is growing up: it seems barely any time at all since I was giving her baths with rubber ducks, washing her fine hair and reading her bed-time stories. Now she will not even let me into her bedroom.

What I do for a living is a little like watching a child grow up: I find young artists fresh from art school, having learnt the rudiments of their craft for three or four years, but with little sense of how to make a go of it in the uninterested ‘real world’. Reality bites, the bills come in and they have no way of paying; they get fed up with surviving on a diet of roll-ups and builder’s tea, and they come to people like me for advice, support and ─ that elusive word ─ success. I am not a public relations guru or a marketing man. I am an art historian, or at least that is what I try and tell myself. I tell prospective buyers in my small gallery in St. James’s, just south of Piccadilly, that I have learnt from the past and seen the future. The future is contemporary art. But it is not true, of course. The future is the future and art has very little to do with it. Art is not reality; it is not even a version of reality. Art is a luxury good, a necessary evil. I make a living, I used to make quite a good one, out of the venality of collectors and the vanity of artists. Or should that be the other way round?

The successes came regularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s: Jake Andreiou, Corinne Carr, Sandra Langdon, Max Jones… . The trouble has always been that success makes artists stray to bigger and more famous galleries: Gagosian, Haunch of Venison, Marlborough. The ones with real clout. I am just a bit-part player on the art stage in the Capital; my gallery is like a nursery for tender seedlings that have been left wilting in dark obscurity and need plenty of light and constant watering to bring them round. Suddenly, with no apparent reason or obvious talent for life, some of these etiolating milk-saps spring to notoriety or sudden acclaim, while others see their talent shrivel in the full glare of the sun and fade away, back into the topsoil of the welfare system. Let’s put it this way: the supply of needy seedlings seems to have dried up lately. Perhaps they are taught business management at art schools these days. Perhaps success is on the curriculum now.
I survive on past achievements and a reputation for a golden touch that is, uncharacteristically for gold, beginning to tarnish. I am no metallurgist and certainly no alchemist these days. My base metal stays base. A few of my artists have remained faithful, however, Jake being one. Since he started making sculptures out of refuse, garbage found in skips and on weed-strewn building sites, his career has begun to wilt. No one wants this rottenness in their homes. Jake will just not go back to painting the canvases that made his name. Nothing seems to stop this inevitable death from setting in. Out with the old and in with the new. It is ever thus in the art world.

The cheap red wine is having its way with me and I like what it is doing. It softens the edges of reason. It makes me feel as if I am packed in bubble-wrap; a cocoon that renders the world incoherent. Bryony’s programme is in garish colour, almost Technicolor, and I do not like what it is doing to my eyes.
“Bryony, it’s time for bed,” I say, without slurring. “We’re going to have an early start tomorrow, if we’re going to meet Helen and Clare at Burford.”
“Da-ad, I’m nearly thirteen. Mum let’s me stay up to ten on weekend nights. It’s only nine o’clock,” she says, looking at her luminous plastic watch.
“You’re not nearly thirteen, you little liar, you’ve only just had your twelfth birthday. We’ll make a deal: you can stay up till half past nine, then bed. No reading; lights out.”
“Da-ad, I’m going to tell mum that you’re depriving me of my education. Mr. Troughton says that we should read whenever we can.”
“Mr. Troughton doesn’t have to get you up on dark mornings when you’re in a grump. Mr. Troughton doesn’t argue with you about bedtimes.”

After Bryony has gone up to bed, I move over to one of the two plain, off-white sofas that Linda and I bought when we were first married. I wash the covers quite regularly, but they never really come clean now. I sit on the sofa nearest the television, next to the indentation that Bryony’s body has left behind. I could pretend that I am as alone as I feel, but there is another presence in this house that needs me.

I wake up lying awkwardly on the sofa and the green display on the video is showing two twenty-five. The wine bottle is empty and a man on the television is attempting to explain gravity to his audience of drunks, insomniacs, night-porters and, perhaps, the odd Open University student. One long, brown collar threatens to take off between the aperture of his beige v-neck and his pale throat, with its bobbing Adam’s apple. It attempts to undermine the point that he is making about gravitational pull.

I need to get to bed. It used to be a time that I loved: after the apartness of the day, coming together again with Linda as if we were twins that had suffered an enforced separation. We had our own language; our own way of holding each other at night.

When I take the empty bottle out to the bin by the back door, I hear a sudden movement and see a flash of eyes in the undergrowth at the top of the garden. It is a fox, perhaps hoping to find food in a bin full of glass.