Sometimes the span of a lifetime is needed to make an assessment of people.
Provincial – that defined Tark’s self-image in the early nineteen-sixties. An insurance clerk with artistic pretensions and a deeply dissatisfied perspective upon his small-town existence, he had convinced himself of one thing; his destiny was to devote his life to art, however confused he was about the direction his artistry should take. A short-lived stint as a junior reporter on a short-lived local newspaper had punctured his faith in his ability as a writer. His capacity for clearing a room when he sang, coupled with absolute incomprehension of the finger-skills needed to master an instrument seemed to eliminate a future in music. Those inclined to criticize were apt to say he lacked even a hint of talent. In his own mind he was a genius waiting to flower – at something.
Blagging being as prevalent in the nineteen-sixties as it is today, if Tark’s parcel of ineptitudes had been wrapped in a more presentable package with a greater sense of style he might yet have passed as ‘gifted’, but Tark’s assets were buried deep, tilthed over by a six-feet-one stick insect’s body and supported on legs so bony even drainpipe jeans struggled for grip. His feet, sized fourteen and shaped like spades, were equally ill-equipped for a generation which saw toes as an obscenity and punished them by thrusting them into ‘winklepicker’ shoes. Tark persevered with a cheap black pair which reshaped with time into something resembling a pair of rearward-facing armadillos, complete with tails.
His appearance was of an under-confident, slightly spotty example of ‘modern youth’. If he was ready to flower he showed very little sign of doing so. The only buds he exhibited were red and topped with white blisters.
Given such ammunition, Tark’s low self-esteem manifested itself in aggressive responses to any number of situations; repressed silence at parties, inarticulate rudeness when confronted and on his rare voyages into the everyday a slouching gait along the pavements of the town, studying his reflection in each shop window as he passed.
Which was how he bumped into Natalie. He wasn’t looking where he was going, nor was she; maybe they were sharing the same shop window, she from one direction, he from the other. Their heads met with a noise befitting a cricket analogy; leather on willow.
“Ouch!” Natalie explored her forehead with tentative fingers. “Why don’t you look where you’re going?”
Terrified she would bleed, Tark launched into a profuse apology which reached crescendo with an offer of coffee, an obvious solution as the next window belonged to a coffee bar.
Natalie conceded. “I was going in there anyway. You’re buying.”
Those two words (‘you’re buying’) Tark subsequently discovered, were intrinsic to Natalie’s survival as a student. It was a habit she never broke.
From such unpromising beginnings, great things are often born. They introduced themselves; he discovered she liked Danish pastries. She was studying Fine Art at the local art college, finishing her course after her parents had moved away, so she was living in digs. Her evenings were in need of filling and she had thought of Amdram – did he know anybody? It so happened he did.
Although he wasn’t aware of it at the time, that meeting was the point at which Tark’s world began to expand. There were few immediate signs; this slightly ungainly girl, not classically good-looking, but with an engagingly expressive face and serious eyes, seemed interested in him at a point when he believed he was the least interesting person on Earth. While they were visiting the coffee bar, she also appeared to be interested in a wild-looking and very hairy student who sat at another table. As she left the coffee bar she crossed to the wild-looking student’s table where money was covertly exchanged for a small packet.
That was one thing Tark wasn’t buying.
Within a week the lump on Natalie’s forehead had subsided, Tark had joined a drama club, spent an evening watching Jacques Tati movies and learned there were things in the world to smoke other than tobacco. Within a month their friendship had become very close – that was Tark’s impression, anyway. One evening he asked her if she would like him to pose as her life model.
She looked at him oddly. “I mostly do landscapes…but if you want?”
Winter came, the Amdram turned into a production, prompting an odd flatterer or two to suggest Tark should go to drama school, but he was vaguely uncomfortable with the authenticity of the praise. Nevertheless he sought some artistic outlet and his typing was still abominable, so he stretched a few muscles and read a bit of Stanislavski. Natalie continued to paint. His uncertainty was not a failing she shared.
For all the increasing security and depth of their friendship, Natalie drew one very firm line: sex was out. Nudity fazed her not one jot, she liked shedding the restriction of clothing and was happy for Tark to do the same as long as he would not interpret that small permissiveness as anything more. Her career, she would insist, was everything. She could not risk the accident of pregnancy, so, although those around them might make assumptions, and though they often spent days and nights together, they maintained an awkward celibacy: awkward, at least, from Tark’s point of view: it fed into his bubbling cauldron of anger.
One spring evening they were sitting in the garden of Tark’s family home; Natalie had her sketch pad with her, doing quick studies of whatever took her eye at the time, while Tark tried to describe his only encounter with a ruby-tailed wasp. He must have failed dismally in the attempt because she suddenly pushed her pad onto his knee.
Was that a moment of revelation? Did the magic memory of his meeting with that unusual creature transfer itself to paper? When he had finished he stared at his effort and his effort stared back. All his miserable, self-deprecating hostility glared from the fudged lines. At first he tried to hide his abysmal effort, but Natalie was not to be so deceived. She snatched the pad from his hand.
“It speaks to me,” she said.
“It was only an insect,” He replied humbly.
“Oh, it’s much more than that.”
The insect, of course, was Tark; how he saw himself – how he was, very possibly. If Natalie saw that too, she was far too polite to say so.
So, no revelation, then; yet a crumb to tempt him to see through the superficial self-image he had built for himself to something far more genuine. Natalie forced that to happen, not by encouragement, just by her example. Matters had moved forward; if he wanted to be around her he had to conform; he had to contribute. To be with her was to see the world as an artist would see it – as she saw it. He had to add something interesting of his own to earn her approval.
Tark found focus. Every waking moment when he wasn’t engaged in clerkery was filled with things to sketch, different media to try, exploration of methods, foraging for board, or scavenging for paints. Now that he and Natalie shared a new affinity, techniques fascinated him. Although he felt hopelessly dwarfed by her talent, he had found somebody at whose feet he was willing to study. For the first time in his life he had some sense of direction.
They began working together, painting scenery for the Amdram group’s next production. He began to develop a plan for much more, telling himself they might have a life together, sharing a workshop, a studio, perhaps a partnership. In retrospect he might have been better advised to share his vision with Natalie, but he didn’t. Not then.
The aspect of his new companion’s personality that he never fully understood or equalled was the depth of her unswervable determination. She fed it into her work, so every stroke of her brush was a conversation with the medium, and little of her dialogue with Tarq on those occasions had any significance at all. From the most basic exchanges:
Tarq: “Shall I get lunch?
Tarq: “What would you like?”
Natalie: “You choose…”
To the more serious issues:
Tarq: “We could set up a studio together!”
Natalie: “ That sounds like an idea.”
Tarq: “I’ll look into it, then.”
Natalie: “Why don’t you?”
He would get food in and she would ignore it. He was too broke to pursue the idea of a studio, which was fortunate, because she never mentioned it again.
That same vagueness pervaded everything in Natalie’s life other than the journey of paint from brush to canvas, so Tark should not have been surprised when, at the conclusion of her college course she announced that she intended to stay on for another year.
“I’m not ready for London yet. I’ve more to learn.”
What could he deduce from this; should he be encouraged? Natalie was always reticent, never gave reasons willingly, but he believed, poor mortal, that she was staying for him.
Come their second summer, Tarq had convinced himself enough of their relationship to take some first tentative steps towards a life with Natalie. After all, had it not endured for almost two years? They worked together whenever possible and he began evening classes at her college, through which he discovered a penchant for pottery. With determination unusual for him, he persuaded his parents to part with money for a wheel and a small kiln. Given the opportunity he would have discovered the many shortcomings of being wedded to clay – even his own mother kept her distance – but by good fortune or bad the issues of grey sludge spread no further than his room, because a week later Natalie had an announcement to make.
“I’m going to France.”
Tark’s first response was gaping disbelief, “What?”
“Jenna, Toms and Becs are putting a trip together. Toms has a studio down there, near Cavalaire-sur-Mer, I think he said. Oh, and Tazza’s coming – probably.”
Tark’s second response was; “When?”
“Monday, if we can get a ferry.”
“For how long?”
“The summer. We might stay on. I don’t know.” Natalie added, lamely, “Come, if you like?”
A year since, such a move would have been beyond Tark’s comprehension, but his love for this strange, enigmatic girl had altered him enough to reply hesitantly: “Okay.”
“Alright, then, I suppose. We’re all putting in.”
Didn’t it, you might ask, occur to Tark to question Natalie’s willingness to leave him behind? How did he channel the anger he felt? Secretly, in his clay-spattered room; and being insufficiently skilled to express himself by throwing a pot, he banged a board onto his easel and threw paint at that instead, expelling whole tubes of colour, splashing at it with slip clay for good measure. Then he took another board and did the same, and another until he had no more paint, and no more board, and no more desire ever – ever- to become an artist.
Yet he still went to France.
He was broke: paints were expensive, brushes too. So he sold his potter’s wheel and his kiln to pay his passage. He endured an uncomfortable van journey in ever-increasing heat with a bunch of art students he barely knew, because although he could forgo the art, he could not be separated from the artist. His feelings had rooted themselves too deeply.
Natalie took to the South of France with alacrity, Tark stuck to her like a second skin, at first. There were necessary changes. Toms owned their apartment, so rent was not a consideration. Food though, and materials; they had to be paid for. Toms mysteriously popped up with both from time to time, though not reliably: the company had to earn money, if only to eat. Becs spoke French fluently, and with the tourist season in full swing, quickly found work. Toms found evening jobs for himself and Tark at a local supermarche. Natalie painted obsessively, Tazza sat in a corner and played guitar. Jenna? Well, Jenna found hotel work, but Jenna was ‘with’ Toms.
With the resilience of the young, the group adapted to their new situation, which on the surface seemed idyllic. Toms was one of the Art College tutors and Jenna was a student, so the others were there to lend some propriety to a very inappropriate relationship. Becs, a darkly introspective girl with pretensions as a portrait painter, spent most of her days sketching any tourist with a wallet, Tazza, who declared himself a musician, did no work at all, predating on whoever had food available, while Jenna played with a canvas she had insisted on bring with her in the van. Everyone shared freely in her work and no-one understood it.
Of the group, only Tark and Natalie painted assiduously, whenever they could. Tark’s work reflected the outlier he felt himself to be, apologetic, almost desperate. The heat disagreed with him, almost everything that could bite bit him: he had never travelled abroad before, only possessing a passport by chance because his parents had once considered going on holiday to Madeira. Those around him were all friends; they had a level of communication he did not share.
He worried Tazza. “Tark, mate, you should get out more! Get down on the beach a bit, yeah? Get some sun, man!”
Their apartment had a terrace, so Tark wondered at Tazza’s logic and anyway sun was the last thing he wanted. His paintings, half-completed dashes of sorrow, the work of a day, sometimes less, piled up. Although he shared a room with Natalie, he scrupulously observed her celibacy rules, and they hardly spoke.
Then one day, about four weeks after their arrival, Natalie said: “I’m pregnant.”
Tark knew he could not be the father, of course. At last he found a voice for that well of anger that he kept so repressed. “Who is it? And do you want to tell me when? I mean, before you dragged me down here, obviously.”
“I didn’t drag you anywhere. Tazza’s the father. If you must know. We were doing it at my pad. You kept leaving me to go to night classes. So don’t try to put the blame on me. ”
“They’ve been seeing each other for months,” Becs said at breakfast, “That’s why she didn’t go to London. We thought you knew.”
Tark had one more exchange with Natalie before he left, when, with a commendable absence of bitterness, he wondered why she had felt so free to put her career at risk with Tazza, rather than himself.
“I like him. I needed you, for the support, that was all. Somebody there, you know? We could never have stayed together, though. You’re not a real creative, Tark. You must see that.”
That might have been the last Tarq heard of Natalie. He returned home, found a new job because work was plentiful in those days, and he almost, but not quite, resumed his self-conscious, self-isolating life – with just this difference: in his chosen solitude, in the peace of his room and for reasons entirely different to before, he continued to paint.
A year would have to pass before the doorbell announced a visit from Margo, the lady who ran the Amdram club.
“Can you paint the sets for our next show? The chap we used last year tries, but he can’t really do what you do.”
“Natalie isn’t with me, now.”
“So I was told. I never really liked her contribution, anyway, to be frank; too fussy. I’d prefer if you did it on your own.”
This surprised Tarq, but he agreed. He painted the sets. By a stroke of fortune that wasn’t really a stroke of fortune because Margo set it up, someone from the regional opera company came to see his work and asked him to do their sets, too. Soon, a wider audience began to express interest in his paintings.
And there, I suppose, the story rests. You will probably have guessed by now that ‘Tarq’ is a pseudonym, not our hero’s real name. Even in this day and age, few painters gain notability and wealth in their lifetime, but ‘Tarq’ has certainly achieved this. Nowadays his signature on a painting is worth millions. To this day he remains an artist of note, although his genius has never exceeded that of the group known as the ‘Avant Cavalaire-sur Mer’ triptych, with their unique blending of paint and clay.
The last time I saw him, I asked if he ever got in touch with Natalie again. I knew that she had never reached Art College in London as she planned, electing instead to follow a rock band on a tour or two. Tarq knew where she was, he said, because she had written to him asking if he would like to paint with her again. He told me he refused her request.
He remains a very private, and to strangers, a very lonely figure. His face is not well known, but should you be in Sacramento, in the area, say, of the K Street Mall, and should you notice a gaunt, septuagenarian beanpole of a figure who lopes rather than strides, with his eyes fixed on his own reflection in the windows of the stores, it is likely to be him. Lately, I am told, he is seen sometimes in the company of a woman who has the hands of an artist. They walk together but they never talk.
I like to think that she is Natalie.
© Frederick Anderson 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content
Image Credits: Featured Image: 5598 375 from Pixabay
Artist with Easel: Bridgesward from Pixabay
Cavalaire-sur-Mer: RD LH from Pixabay