The Insect

The Insect

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.

“Draw it.”

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?

Natalie:  “Wonderful.”

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

Another Story from the Archives:

I wrote this originally in 2012.  It’s is a long one, so I hope you will enjoy it.

NB.    This story was not included in my volume of short stories, ‘Black Crow Speaks’, the icon for which is showing on the right-hand side of this page.  Why not click through to Kindle to see the contents list and the full array of those that were?

The Harp

Delphinia Morgan-Jett was mildly vexed, which would explain her tone as she reached the top of a call centre staircase of numbers and a real voice enquired thinly:

“Can I help you?”

“He is there again.”

A pause at the end of the line:  “I’m sorry.  Who, exactly?”

Mrs Morgan-Jett tutted dangerously.  Acquaintances feared that ‘tut’ as a postman might fear a Dobermann’s snarl.  “Young man; it is not my habit to repeat myself.  I have telephoned concerning this vagrant at least a dozen times.  Kindly deal with it.”

“Ah.”  The thin voice took on a deeper timbre of understanding.  “You’re Mrs…” – a further pause – “Morgan, that right?”

“Morgan -Jett.”

“Yeah, whatever.  And this is about the bloke on the corner of Christminster Avenue – him with the brolly?  So he’s there again, then?”

“Was that not the substance of my initial remark?”

“Right.  Look, Mrs Morgan, is he is actually committing any offence?  I mean, is he doing anyone any harm?”

“He is loitering; he is a vagrant.  He is unpleasant and he is causing an obstruction!”  Delphinia Morgan-Jett was as close to seething as she could ever become.  “See to it that he is removed immediately!”

Sighing, the thin voice capitulated.  “We’ll get someone sent round.” 

Delphinia’s “Please do.” fell on the deaf ears of disconnection.   She carefully wiped her finger-marks from the white plastic of her ‘phone, then, morning sherry clipped between index and thumb, crossed to her ‘bureau’ window; one of two deep casements that overlooked Christminster Avenue.

This view, unchanging with the years, so appealed to Mrs Morgan-Jett’s sense of order and place that she often spent her morning seated here before her desk.  The building facing her on the other side of Christminster Avenue was identical in almost every respect to hers: a uniformity applied to a whole succession of avenues; rows of residential buildings, their stone five-step approaches leading up to polished wooden doors, their dignified porches spoiled only by security buzzers stacked on discreet panels behind an outer arch.  There were few such concessions to modernity – a deli in the basement of number fifty-two that struggled for survival, and the intervention of parking meters which, of course, brought the curse of the motor car – impatient growls and grunts, the bawling of ill-disciplined children desperate for all the things children were always desperate for:  toys, sweets, ice-cream, toilets, the sea.

In rare moments of tolerance, Delphinia might be forced to admit she found music in those discordant street noises.  Sometimes in early morning as she surveyed the deserted road from her high place she looked forward to the business of the day to come, because, for all its cacophony of sound it made a pleasing counterpoint to the draughtsman-like severity of those Georgian architectural lines.

Delphinia’s building,  number three on the east side of the avenue, placed her close enough to the seaward end to permit a corner of aquatic blue in her otherwise urban prospect while sparing her the vulgarity of the Esplanade and the full effect of the elements when winter came.  The sea started where the Esplanade stopped.   At high tide on occasional nightmare days angry waves broke right across the Esplanade, even reaching as far as the traffic lights at the end of Christminster Avenue, where the two roads met.    Those traffic lights, now busy with morning traffic, were the focus of Delphinia’s annoyance.

He was there again.

Tall and hunched beneath a voluminous beige mackintosh reaching nearly to his ankles, with a deerstalker jammed firmly over his long grey locks, thick horn-rimmed spectacles and a smothering brown scarf, this pedestrian was glaringly noticeable.   If anything could add to his ostentatious oddness, it was supplied by the picnic basket which he set carefully down at the corner of the street, and the large, folded, red and yellow golf umbrella he carried in his hand.   Ignoring the attention of bemused passers-by, he opened the basket to extract a thermos flask from which he poured himself a generous measure of tea.  Then he sat down atop his basket to drink. 

Delphinia watched this performance with distaste.   She had been compelled to follow the creature’s routine step by practised step, many times.  First, he finished his tea, then packed away his thermos and its cup.  Next he raised himself to his full height, drew his shabby coat about him, and stepped to the kerb at the very corner of the road.

What ensued was, depending upon perspective, either balletically comical or profoundly irritating.  Delphinia’s vagrant raised a commanding hand to the car nearest to him and stood in front of it.  Oblivious to a squeal of brakes, he turned his back upon its aghast driver to strut to the centre of the road junction where, with sweeping gestures from his furled brolly, he made it clear to the traffic on the Esplanade that he wished it to proceed.   He stood making these arms-length gyrations for some time – long enough to attract a rising chorus of horn-blasting protestation from a growing queue on Christminster Avenue – before motioning the Esplanade traffic to stop, and beckoning to those waiting in Christminster Avenue.

No matter his actions were reminiscent of a graceful dance:  or the order he imposed had a logic of its own, for his directions bore no relation at all to the sequence of the traffic lights.  It is difficult to overstate the importance of this reservation, given that when the lights favoured a certain stream of traffic he would almost always be in its way, and that after a while certain of the motorists under his influence started to obey him rather than the legal control.   The overall outcome was chaos.

This Delphinia witnessed with her accustomed fascination.   She quite forgot her intention to time the arrival of the authorities, waiting as she was for a grinding of metal and stream of obscenities which she was sure must come, but which somehow never did.  Those whose view was closer to events seemed to regard the man with humour and even booed when a harassed-looking policeman in a van turned up.

Normally at this stage of events the man would succumb to a few words of wisdom from a representative of the law and allow himself to be led away: normally, but not today.  He snarled his dissent; he wrapped his arms around the pillar of the traffic lights on Delphinia’s corner, and – she must have imagined it – he looked directly up at her; looked her straight in the eyes!

Delphinia took an instinctive backward step.  Those eyes had found her so quickly they must have known she was watching!   Her curiosity sharpened by unwonted guilt, she moved into view once more.  A policewoman had arrived to lend extra weight to the constabulary argument, a substantial presence in every way, but the umbrella man’s gaze was unswerving.  He stared fixedly at Delphinia’s window with an expression that left no room for misunderstanding: he was seeking her help!

Delphinia made a decision – one which she would be unable to explain to anyone sensibly, and certainly not one she would have confessed to her cocktail evening friends.  Snatching her coat from its stand in the hallway she hastened to the lift, and, finding it elsewhere, descended the stairs.  Spry enough for one of her years, she had no problem reaching the street just at the point when the vagrant was being bundled unceremoniously into the policeman’s van.

“Just one minute!  Officer, wait if you will, please?”

It was not a request.  The policeman, whose day was already becoming something of a trial, glared towards the source of this imperious voice, his right hand still securely clamped to the umbrella man’s collar.  He met the crystal stare of a woman accustomed to being obeyed.

“I shall take responsibility for this gentleman,”  Delphinia clipped her consonants precisely.  “You may deliver him into my care.”

“I’m delivering him to a nice comfy room in our detention suite.”  The policeman responded, although not too brusquely.  Delphinia’s upright bearing, immaculate coiffure and expensive burgundy suit flashed warnings he should not dismiss.  Such attire was consistent with that of a councillor’s wife, or maybe a member of the Watch Committee.

The woman constable was more sympathetic:  “Are you acquainted with this person, madam?”

“We received a complaint.”  The policeman said.  “We’ve had a number of complaints.”

“Yes, I know.  I am the complainant.”  Delphinia brushed this argument aside.  “And now I’m telling you I will be responsible for this – this person.  He will not repeat the offence.”  She fixed the person with her coldest, most incisive stare.  “You won’t, will you?”

The vagrant grinned three teeth from his top jaw, two from his lower jaw.  “No!  No offencing!  No!”

The woman constable seemed puzzled.  “You realise what you’re saying?”

“Of course I do.  I’m not senile.  You can release him into my charge!”

The two representatives of the law exchanged glances, and within their silent communication were all sorts of unsaid discussions about avoidance of paperwork and use of police time.  “Well, chummy;” said the policeman.  “It looks as if you’ve found yourself a friend.”

Delphinia waited patiently through a number of formalities.   When they were concluded, and the police presence was receding in a fog of exhaust, she said:   “Would you care for a cup of tea?”

The vagrant grinned those teeth again.  “Yes;” He said in a surprisingly cultured voice.  “Yes please!”

Throughout this process Delphinia Morgan-Jett had suppressed a desire to censure herself.  Why, in heavens’ name, was she doing this?  What was it about this eccentric man’s demeanour which drew her to him?  Pillar of the community though she was, such acts of charity were completely foreign to her.  As she guided the umbrella man to her front door, accompanied by muted applause from a small crowd, she wondered what insanities would visit her next?

“I am Delphinia. What is your name?”

“Tom.  I’m Tom.”

In her hallway she persuaded Tom out of his deerstalker and coat, revealing an Arran sweater from better years and grey trousers that were possibly even older.  Delphinia consigned the umbrella and box to a corner.  “You were looking at me as though you recognise me – do you?”

“No.  No, I don’t.”  Tom said abruptly; then, in gentler tone:  “These are nice.”

They were in the corridor which formed the spine of Delphinia’s apartment.  Its walls were lined with oil paintings, detailed landscapes and character studies lyrical in colour and brilliantly executed.  Their creator had a fine hand.  

“Do you like them?  My son was an artist.  This apartment was his studio.   He exhibited at the Royal Academy.”

“Studio?”

“Yes.  He adored the light; the reflections from the sea intensify it:  it inspired him.”

They had reached the kitchen and Delphinia was filling a kettle.   “He moved?”  Tom asked.  “Where’s he now?”

She did not answer at once.  She busied herself preparing a teapot, arranging two bone china cups and saucers on a silver tray.  “One’s children should survive one; that is what I do not understand.  Life is as it is, I suppose.”

“He died?”

“An accident – a complete accident.  In Rumania, of all places.  It is a lot of years ago now.”

“You’ve got his paintings.  You can remember him by them.”

Delphinia smiled sadly.  “Yes, I have his paintings.  Some of them, at least.   Shall we take tea in the drawing room?”

Tom smiled sympathetically in return.  “That would be nice.”  He said.

They sat upon brocade upholstered chairs watching the sun’s patterned progress across the floor; and they sipped at tea from those fine china cups, regarding each other in comfortable silence.  Tom, despite his somewhat unusual appearance, seemed to fit into Delphinia’s elegant backcloth in a way she would be at a loss to describe, but it was true she found solace in his presence. 

“It’s a nice apartment,”  He said.  “You must have a lot of money.”

Delphinia gave a ghost of a smile:  she never spoke of money.  “I have enough.” 

“That piano.  That’s a nice piano.”

“It is a Beckstein.  I believe Menhuin may have owned it once.”

“You play?”

“I do, but not habitually.  My favoured instrument is the harp.”

“Harp, ah.”  Tom nodded sagely.  “Where’s the harp?” 

“It’s downstairs – in another apartment.”

“Ah.  You’ve lent it to somebody?”

“Goodness no!  I would never dream…”  Delphinia bit back on her words.  She was going to castigate Tom for daring to imagine that an instrument so temperamental and so precious could ever be loaned to anyone!  Tom, of course, could not be expected to know such things.  “Harps are so sensitive to alterations in temperature or humidity, you see:  they do not live fulfilling lives with people.    I keep it in a separate apartment at exactly the atmosphere it requires for perfect tone.”

“So you’ve another apartment – like this – just for your harp?”

“Rather smaller actually.  But yes.”

“I think you must be very rich,”  Tom said.  Then:  “I’d like to see it.”

Delphinia responded with another of her faintly patronising smiles.  “Perhaps another time?” She said.

“I’d better be going.”  Tom suggested.

“Yes, of course.  Shall I arrange for a taxi?  Where do you live?”

Tom demurred.  “I Don’t get on with taxis.”

So, by fits and starts, began the most unlikely of friendships, a connection the existence of which neither party would accept, yet existed nonetheless.  Now, whenever Tom appeared with his traffic director’s accoutrement at the corner of Christminster Street Delphinia would hasten downstairs to ply him with tea, and Tom would accept, staying long into the morning in that warm, comfortable drawing room.  As time passed he pursued his role as traffic controller less and less:  instead, he would often arrive at her door, standing upon the threshold, his liberally greased hair plastered to his head with mathematical precision.  One  morning Delphinia showed Tom a very special room, behind a door at the end of her apartment.

“This is something of a shrine,” She said.   “It’s rather dusty, I’m afraid.”

It was a large, well-illuminated space, and around walls which had once been cream in colour were stacked canvases – hundreds of them.  Artwork was visible on some, not on others:  completed pictures against primed but naked canvasses, sketches against half-finished works.  Tom stood amazed, his eyes drinking in the profusion of colour and form.

“His studio.”  He breathed.

“His studio, yes.”  Delphinia did not mention that the contents of that room alone included thirty completed canvases, or that her son’s work, if an example ever reached the market, could command sums in excess of two hundred thousand pounds.  She lacked that much trust in Tom, at least for now.

Tom said the right thing.  “You must be very proud of him.”  He said.

Delphinia beamed.  “Yes, Tom.  I believe I am.”

The summer passed.  Tom came for tea once, twice, three times a week; and during those visits little was said, but much implied.    Upon one occasion Delphinia played a Chopin prelude on the Beckstein and Tom sat in a reverie so deep he seemed to be almost sleeping.

Then came a day in autumn when Delphinia, having passed a morning shopping, took her usual taxi home from the town centre.   She had taken advantage of the best of the day, for the last hour of fading daylight, which had been warning of things to come, was fulfilling its promise.  Rain hammered upon the taxi roof, bounced from the pavements.  Caught on the street, soaked pedestrians dashed or cringed beneath umbrellas, frozen moments of their discomfort brought into transplendent relief by sheets of lightning.   There was a queue of traffic building at the corner of Praed Street.   Delphinia’s driver muttered something.

“I beg your pardon?”  She enquired.

“I said, oh no not him again.”  The taxi driver repeated, “He needs sorting out, this one.”

Suspicion darker than raincloud filled Delphinia’s mind.  She strained her eyes against the gloom.   The arc of colour described by a golfing umbrella was unmistakeable.  “Tom!”  She sighed.   “Is he often here?”

“Know him, do you?  Lately, yes missus.  He used to be down your way, didn’t he – Christminster Street?  He’ll get himself arrested again, for sure.  A copper mate of mine reckons if they catch him again they’re going to get him sectioned:  you know, put away?  ‘Bout time, too.”

“Pick me up again at the lights, if I don’t come back to you.”  Delphinia instructed.  Once again in Tom’s case, she would act without thought for the consequences.  Fortunately she had the foresight to pack a brolly in her bag that morning, so she would avoid the full punishment of the elements, but the angry tea-tray shatter of thunder was warning enough as she hastened down the pavement to where Tom’s elegant ballet played to an unappreciative audience.

“Tom!  Come out of the road at once!”

Either ignored or unheard, she watched anxiously as Tom guided an ensnared car deeper into his trap.   Sirens whined in the distance.  The sound galvanised Delphinia into action and a determined Delphinia was not to be ignored, certainly not to be disobeyed.  She snatched Tom’s arm in a commanding grip, plucking him from the traffic and virtually frog-marching him, together with his picnic basket, back to her taxi.   The driver looked doubtful.

“He’s a tramp!  I don’t want him in my cab.”

Delphinia was in no mood to be diplomatic.  “He’s my guest, and I insist upon it.  Who should I report you to?”

Mouthing darkly, the cabby conceded.  “Keep him quiet.  I don’t want no trouble with the law.”

Outside, sirens were evolving into blue flashing lights.  A quick-thinking Delphinia thrust Tom’s signature brolly out of sight on the cab floor.  “Now remove that ridiculous hat!  It’s soaked anyway.”

To clear the pandemonium Tom had created took a little while, during which he twice tried to exit the cab and offer his assistance, each time to be restrained by Delphinia’s surprising strength.  Eventually the threat of police detention was behind them and the taxi got under way.

“Where do you live?”  Delphinia had never asked Tom this question before.

“Oh, not near here.”  Tom replied.

“He don’t live nowhere.”  The taxi driver had overheard.  “He gets into hostels from time to time, but mostly he sleeps rough down by the stock sheds, don’t you, mate?”

Tom said nothing.  Delphinia scowled.  “Is this true?”  Tom said nothing.  “Very well.  Take us to Christminster Avenue, driver.”

For once, Delphinia was disposed to tip heavily.  As he unloaded her bags, the cabby warned:  “Don’t you let him take advantage of you, lady.  Be careful, alright?”

It was well-meant, but ill-received.  “My good man;” Delphinia snapped back; “do I look as if I am to be taken advantage of?”

By the time Tom had helped her to and from the lift with her bags, and she had helped him out of his dripping mackintosh, Delphinia had come to a decision. 

“I have ample room.  You must stay here, with me.”

Thus her relationship with Tom entered a new phase.   She never once questioned the motives which led her to buy him clothes, cook meals for him, or use all her powers of persuasion when he seemed disposed to return to his former traffic-organising life.  Although with time he became a trifle more erudite, they conversed very little.   It was as if she had found a role she was always meant to play; and whether memories of her deceased son had a part, or if she was motivated simply by loneliness, was a matter for others to question, not her.

Others did, of course.  Her friends were slow to accept the apparently retarded man with his unruly appearance.  Many stayed away, a few became true confidantes:  interested in Tom, concerned about his life, concerned, too, for Delphinia.

Tom kept pace with change without effort or eloquence.   He seemed to move easily whichever way the wind blew and always ended up ahead of events; untouched by them and splendidly untouchable.  The taxi-driver’s warning had been needless:  although he accepted kindness when it was offered, Tom never sought favours or money.  For large measures of his time he sought nothing at all:  he could be happy for hours just sitting on the edge of his bed staring at the wall, or in Delphinia’s drawing room gazing out upon the Avenue and its peepshow of the sea.   There was only one request he had to make, one which took a month of agonising to put into words.

 “The harp.  I want to hear you play.”

Delphinia looked into the eyes of her sanguine companion, who even in the most expensive clothes managed to look ill-arranged and dishevelled, and sighed.    “Very well.”  She agreed.  “This afternoon.”

 Several locks defended Apartment 3A, each of which Delphinia opened, using keys from two separate rings.   She led Tom inside:  “I had this temperature and humidity control system fitted,”  She explained, indicating a control panel in the lobby.  “Come through.”

A plain panelled door opened upon a light and airy room.  Thin hessian matted the floor, mint-coloured walls were hung with further examples of her deceased son’s exemplary art.  An intricate plaster frieze ran around the room at cornice height:   a crystal glass chandelier hung from a rose of immaculate design in a white plaster ceiling.

“My builder – Mr. Baxter – worked wonders: he disguised the soundproofing so effectively one would hardly believe it was there.  The acoustics leave a little to be desired, I’m afraid, but still…   Won’t you sit down?”

An accommodating blue sofa beneath a shaded window suggested itself, but Tom had missed Delphinia’s invitation, for his eyes were devouring the room’s centrepiece – a harp, tall and serene.

Delphinia saw the enthusiasm in Tom’s gaze.  “American, a Lyon and Healy.”  She took his arm gently.  “Sit down, won’t you?  I will play for you.”

Only when she sat, drawing the knee of her instrument to her shoulder did the import of this moment dawn upon Delphinia.   For so many years she had played her music alone here, in this soundproofed, closeted space.  No-one had heard, no-one had seen until now, and all at once an auditorium of years ago yawned dark and deep before her, the sounds of settling people, the suppressed coughs, the murmured words that always followed that first, polite applause, returned to her.  She played.  She played as she always did, her head lost inside the song, her eyes closed to all but the fleeting touch of the strings.

And Tom?  He listened in his own private rapture, solemn and deep, letting the sweet, quiet insinuation of harp music envelop him like a warm blanket.  Kessner, Parry and Pachelbel flowed over him as gently as sleep.  He did not know for how long she played, or the titles to all of the pieces he heard, although he knew many.  He only knew he was in the presence of hands of faultless eloquence.  He did not want it to end.

“Yes, I was a soloist, many years ago.”  Delphinia admitted as they ascended the stairs.  “When my husband was alive we travelled frequently, so it was not possible to pursue a career.  I was forced to give up eventually.”

“But you kept your harp.”

“Yes, I kept my harp.”

“You should go back to it again.  You play very well.”

Delphinia laughed a little musical laugh she had been cultivating of late.  “Oh, Tom, one can’t simply ‘go back’.  Anyway my dear, I’m too old.  I like to practice, though.  I enjoy the discipline.”

True friends who remained in Delphinia’s circle noticed a new intimacy in her manner, a softening of the autocratic glare.  She seemed well, she seemed happier.  This was attributed to Tom’s influence and by some to a very much closer relationship than was the case.  If Delphinia got to hear of this version she did not show it or resent it; and Tom?  Resentment was not part of Tom’s makeup.

Over years fast friendships must inevitably spawn a form of love.  More unlikely companions would be hard to find, yet Delphinia opened her life to this rumpled man, and he responded with unique sensitivity.  The balance between them was perfect; so much so that those around them quickly forgot Tom’s dubious past.  Delphinia quietly sequestered his golf umbrella and his picnic basket, hiding them from view.  When he discovered their absence, Tom paced the corridor mouthing his distress for a while, but he did not otherwise complain.

On a morning just before Christmas of their first year together,  Delphinia’s brother and his family appeared bearing gifts.  Geraint Morgan eyed Tom up and down.

“Who is he?”  He demanded.  “What’s he doing here?”

Delphinia’s response was icily controlled.  “Tom is my friend.  He is here by my invitation.”

Tom ambled forward with his best attempt at a smile much improved by Delphinia’s insistence that he visit a dentist, offering his hand.   Morgan deliberately ignored it.   “It’s strange time of day for him to be visiting, isn’t it?” He said.

“Tom isn’t visiting.  He is my companion.  He lives here.”

Rachel Morgan made her first contribution to the conversation, in the form of a derisive snort.

“Well!”  Said Geraint:  “Whatever would Robertson think of this?”

Delphinia pursed her lips:  “It has been many years now, Geraint.   If he was here, though, I believe he would thoroughly approve.”   The reference to Robertson Jett, her deceased husband, made her bridle.  “My decisions and actions are scarcely your affair, now are they?”

“We want to see you kept safe;” Rachel chipped in.  “We don’t want you taken advantage of by some dirty old man.”

“Tom is neither dirty nor particularly old!”  Delphinia snapped back.  “And I insist you stop referring to him as if he was not in the room!”

The visit was as brief as it was acrimonious.  Tom retired discreetly, only re-emerging after they had left.

“Don’t concern yourself, Tom.”  Delphinia soothed him. “My brother’s family always rather lacked the social graces.  They come once a year; I never hear from them otherwise.” She unwrapped the present Rachel had thrust into her hand and stared at it disparagingly.  It was a book.  “I find this woman such an uninspiring author.  Do consign it to the kitchen waste, there’s a dear, will you?”

The following morning Delphinia found a policewoman standing at her door.  Geraint Morgan had voiced his suspicion that ‘a helpless old lady was being victimised by a confidence trickster’, and although she was quickly able to allay those fears she took heed of the warning Geraint’s behaviour implied.  She went to see her solicitor.

For five years Tom and Delphinia pursued an idyllic existence, he a devoted audience for her playing whether upon the piano or the harp, she often bemused, sometimes amused, but always stimulated by his stilted conversation, his unpredictable ‘ways’.  Theirs was a very private life, one in which they rarely ventured out beyond the usual demands of shopping or a limited social round, though exceptionally in their second summer they spent a month in France, renting a small house Delphinia had visited in her younger days.  But she fretted when she was deprived of her instruments and Tom understood this better than any.

To all things must be an end, and the end came to Delphinia one spring morning.  Sitting opposite Tom at the breakfast table with a soft sun shining in at the window she suddenly leaned towards him:

“Dearest Tom…”  She began, trying to utter a sentence she would never complete.

A stroke.  That was the doctor’s verdict, when Tom found the presence of mind to call him.   Mercifully quick, was his medical opinion – she would have known very little about it.  Tom, he had his own opinion, and he grieved for Delphinia in his own, very silent way.  Then he went and recovered his box and his brolly (he had always known where Delphinia had hidden them) and he made for the door.

Cynthia Braithwaite met him on the stair.  Cynthia was Delphinia’s most intimate acquaintance outside her companionship with Tom, and she had readily agreed to take care of him if anything happened to her.  Tom was not to become homeless; he was to continue to live as the new tenant in Delphinia’s apartment, on condition he looked after her harp.  In the events that followed, Cynthia honoured her promise.

At the funeral (he was the only one of the solemn gathering to be kept dry by a brightly coloured umbrella) Tom wept; and at the reading of the will he showed very little emotion when he learned he was Delphinia’s principal beneficiary.  An annual income in trust and tenure of the apartment for life, with an additional allowance for the harp.  Cynthia was bequeathed twenty thousand pounds as a remembrance of her friendship and ‘patience with a cranky old woman’.  The Morgans were left three paintings of her son’s collection; they were to be allowed to choose which three.

The Morgans were outraged, of course, because they had seen the entire inheritance as rightfully theirs, and Tom had, in their view, stolen it from under their noses.  Without Cynthia’s Rottweiler-like tenacity Tom might still have been legally bullied out of his entitlement, but with her help he stood firm and survived the legal challenges which followed.

Finally, there came a day when Geraint and Rachel Morgan arrived at the apartment to select their choice of canvases.  Cynthia met them at the door and Tom was nowhere to be seen, but as they examined the pictures on the passage wall the gentle strains of the Leibestraum wafted out to them from the drawing room.  So well-known a piece might have passed them by, yet it had a divinity even they could not ignore.

“That’s a fine recording.”  Geraint commented.  “Wonderful tonal quality.  Who is the artist, do you know?”

Cynthia was standing at the end of the corridor, next to the kitchen door.  “Yes, I do.  This…” she waved towards a substantial canvas hung to take full advantage of the light; “…is his portrait.  I think it’s a true Jett masterpiece.  It captures a virtuoso at the height of his powers, don’t you agree?”

Geraint Morgan stared at the picture.  Cynthia went on:  “He would have been performing the Brandenburg at the Albert Hall that September:  the end of a triumphant world tour.  Then one day he just stood up and walked out of rehearsals.  He was never seen again – a nervous breakdown, maybe?  No-one knew.  Delphinia was the only one who did, and she found out just a few weeks ago, going through the paintings in Clarence’s old studio.  I’m sure she had a premonition.”

Rachel Morgan had joined her husband.  She read the appellation at the foot of the work aloud:  “Thomas Brabham DeVere, pianist.  Oh my god!  Isn’t that…?”

Geraint nodded.  Wordlessly he walked back to the drawing room door and opened it.  Tom looked up from the Beckstein, but he did not stop playing.

© Frederick Anderson 2014.  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.

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