It was such easy living that summer with so many ships sailing blithely on the calm channel, making their way across from France with their bland cargoes. Who would have thought of preying on them? No other gentleman of my persuasion understood but I knew that the Lords and Barons were biting off each others dicks to get hold of some cheese, if you pardon the image, not that I care if you don’t. That very first time we took our small vessel out there, you would think we were just innocent fishermen, and when we saw a particular cog bobbing across the water, six of the lads lay flat and hid under a sail, leaving just three of us to look as if we were engaged in manly piscatorial pursuit, and then we allowed our little boat to woefully collide with theirs and then, as these fine gentlemen lowered their ladders to offer us aid, we were up and aboard and had them all on their knees begging for mercy. I had to explain to them and left them in no doubt their lives were of no worth nor consequence, what we did want was their cheese. Three mighty wheels we took that day, and should you scoff and say, why Ranulph, did you risk your neck and eight of your mates for a few cheeses, then my answer would be, you sir, do not understand cheese.
There is no escape from the noise, the relentless noise, a noise that contains clocks ticking, motorbikes, aeroplane engines, children playing, the wind, the music of the spheres, the seething hiss of the Big Bang.
You get up and make coffee. You stand with your mug at the open window. The noise follows you there and then out into the street. Perhaps you could trick it. Do a feint, swerve one way and then the other.
I see you there, laughing. I don’t understand why you are laughing. I see you laughing, but I cannot hear the laugh, only the noise, the relentless noise, a concentration of all the sounds I’d ever heard. Pieces of noise break off, a phrase from a guitar solo, the whirr of bicycle gears, the collapse of a Lego brick tower on the kitchen tiles, gulls, cannon at Waterloo.
Were there cannon at Waterloo?
Yes, there were cannon at Waterloo.
You carry on laughing, and I hear waves break on shingle, the shriek of a pterodactyl.
You stop laughing, wipe your eyes, and turn to me. I see your lips begin to shape new words.
I feel like I need a new sort of story, one where there isn’t much happening but everything is ok. People are just nice and maybe a bit bland and boring and they watch a lot of TV and stare at their phones. They grunt when asked if they want some tea. It’s a world of make believe. There’s not much going on in the news, just the thing about the duck in the shopping centre or the boy who wrote to the ice cream company. Blossom appears on the trees. A cat sits on a wall. The tap drips. I feel like I need a new sort of story, one where there isn’t much conversation, because no one has anything to say. Nothing is that important. A tin of tomato soup slips past its sell by date. A banana sits in the bowl going brown.
In the act of memory, of recounting those years, I try to close in on one or two days, be specific, use, as it were, a magnifying glass to inspect the details. With some concentration, perhaps almost meditation, I am able to see more of what happened then, fifty years ago, as we approached that golden summer of our youth. The school rooms smell of varnish in the morning, but, as the day goes on, and the sun streams down on the endless expanse of grey vinyl floors, there is the toxic stink of plastic, and of sweat, as adolescents, flushed after the extended lunch breaks, return to have informal conversation with their teachers. There are just the exams to go, and then that’s it. There are no more lessons. We go to school to revise, to speak to our teachers, to socialise. I see us all, gathered there, our young skin, keen eyes, some of us excited about the voyage of life ahead, others less so. I see the inky scratches on the desktops, initials, profanities. I hear the thwack of tennis balls, the noise of gulls above the school, some perched on rugby posts before dropping to pick at the remains of packed lunches. And as details grow, so memory swells, expands like a balloon, and time now is inflated from inside by time then, and the past begins to squeeze out the present. I hear a motorbike pass the school, and an aeroplane buzz overhead. Across the tennis courts the sun hits a window as it opens, voices pass the classroom, a cool gust of air wafts across the room. It is a breeze that offers the summer, naked flesh, sweet breath, alcohol, a cottage rented by the sea with friends. In the classroom one lad is so hot he has made his sweatshirt into a pillow and has put his head on it, feigning sleep. The teacher sits on his desk, I can see his socks and pale skin on his shin. He swings his legs, just slightly, maybe excited by his six weeks of holiday. He is one of the good ones, a history teacher. He has other fish to fry, and won’t be here long. He asks us what we’re all planning for the summer. Helen, who I secretly adore, says her family are taking their yacht to France. We all groan. I look at William, he grins. He puts up his hand, although this formality is no longer expected. ‘We’re going to Butlins, sir,’ he says. Muffled laughter, sir smiles, Helen knows she is the target of this and grins, putting her head on one side, looking straight at William. She is so effortlessly beautiful. And now memory is all there is, Helen’s hair, a strand comes loose, she tucks it behind an ear, and the way she wore her shirt, two or sometimes three top buttons undone, sleeves rolled up. I almost pass out at the thought of the hours I will spend with her over the August evenings ahead, together on the deep pile carpet on the parquet floor of her parents’ huge front room. Even the future, here, is a memory.
Words cannot express that feeling of melancholy, that sorrow, almost grief, a sort of homesickness, the sense of a lifetime lost, of an era when all was well, when we lived in peace and harmony, when food was plenty and the house was warm and full of children, a time of love and laughter and hope. Words cannot express the somatic nature of this feeling, how it churns in a space below the ribs, in the dungeon of the stomach, or in the labyrinths of the guts. It swirls and pulsates, a creature longing to be free, instead it is trapped, restrained, and would burst out into the world, but it has nowhere to go, its freedom would mean only a stark recognition of the truth: that once liberated it would immediately slither under a cupboard, or into a dark corner. It would not long for the freedom of wide open spaces, as it knows that the glare of the outside world, the noon day sunshine, the heat, the screaming wild, the noise from the hills, the stark brutality of existence would make it cower, and long for its return to that place where it was once safe, secure in its dreams.
On that late April morning, Sasha took an old beach chair into the garden and placed it on the lawn near the shed, where the first of the sun’s rays would find her. After slapping the chair’s fabric with the palm of her hand to rid it of dust and cobwebs, she went to the kitchen, made a coffee and then returned to sit down, closed her eyes for a moment to feel the warmth on her face, the light streaming through a narrow rectangle between two houses further up the street. Maisie, her spaniel, was sniffing around the base of a young pear tree, her tail wagging excitedly, as if nothing could give any living creature as much pleasure as soil and roots.
A wren sang, and in the distance Sasha saw an aeroplane rising into the clear air. She was searching for a moment of serenity, and almost found it, but her thoughts were already on the day ahead. She had work to do, and she had to walk Maisie first.
An hour and a half later, Sasha stepped out into the garden with her second coffee. The chair she had placed near the shed was now in the shadow of a tall cypress that stood several gardens away. But rather than move this chair, she went to the shed and found a second chair, placing it where the she could capture the sunshine. She had hoped to give herself ten minutes, but then noticed Maisie, near the kitchen door, snarling and leaping around, something clenched in her jaws. Sasha sighed, put down her mug and with an uncomfortable impatience strode across the lawn holding out her hand as if this gesture alone would be enough for Maisie to obediently relinquish the object.
It was nothing more than a used up cardboard roll of kitchen paper, now soggy with saliva. Sasha sighed, left the dog to its fun, managed two more mouthfuls of luke warm coffee before she felt an annoying twinge of restless guilt. There was work to be done.
She went back inside to try and focus on the accounts of Henford Botanicals but she found it hard to concentrate. The columns of figures on the huge screen of her computer were a sad exchange for the spring morning.
When it came to her lunch break the sun’s rays had moved to an area under the apple tree. A robin sat on a branch, and Sasha wondered if it was the same one she saw every day. Maisie came out and lay on the grass, they had been for a good walk that morning and the spaniel, if not her owner, seemed happy and relaxed. Sasha saw the two chairs she had placed outside earlier and was loathe to move either. They would be in the right place for tomorrow, and leaving them there would mean more time to sit in the sun. If, indeed, it was sunny tomorrow, but the forecast was promising. There were at least two other musty garden chairs in the shed, and somewhere, maybe in the cupboard under the stairs, were a pair of camping chairs, concealed in cylindrical bags, propped up in a dark, dusty corner. They would need an airing.
Sasha worked part time at the local primary school helping out with some financial administration and auditing, it didn’t pay well, certainly not as well as the accountancy business she ran from home. But she had volunteered there when her children were young and even after they left she continued, enjoying the bustle, infants’ laughter and the comradeship of the staff. Later that week, as she was crossing the playground, she saw the caretaker carrying a stack of plastic chairs to the skip. ‘John!’ she called out, ‘what are you doing with those?’
Sasha brought them all home. Eight of them, green with black metal legs, condemned because they were considered detrimental to good posture. Nothing a couple of cushions couldn’t sort out.
By the beginning of June, an arc of twelve chairs curved across the lawn. The line began near the far end, next to the fence, and here the chairs were clustered together, where the sun’s progress in the early hours was defied by houses, trees, the chimney of the old brickworks and the tower of St Michael’s. As the sun rose to its highest point and unimpeded, fewer chairs were needed, but in the evening, as the line approached the back door of the house, they shunted together once again, as similar obstacles obscured the late evening light.
This rainbow of chairs remained outside all summer and into the early autumn. When Sasha mowed the lawn, she moved each chair one at a time, methodically mowing where it had stood, before replacing it, so the line was never lost. Over the weeks of midsummer each chair left its mark in the green of the lawn: four small yellow suns.
But as the sun’s apparent passage across the sky descended from its mid-summer zenith, so the chairs retreated like a tide towards the edges of the garden, once again positioned to capture the light as it was obscured by neighbour’s trees, the church tower, the chimney. This chair calendar, like a prehistoric monument, marked the Earth’s journey from solstice to solstice, and, when winter came, and the days too cold and dark for the garden, Sasha could at least look outside and know that eventually the tide would once again turn, and the line of chairs would begin to creep back towards the centre of the lawn.
Wagner asks Nietzsche if he wouldn’t mind going out to pick up a parcel for him: an order of silk underpants. Nietzsche is a little embarrassed, but happy to oblige the one person in the world he idolises. Wagner says Nietzsche can use his coach, so Nietzsche puts on his coat and scarf, braces himself for the journey into Lucerne. The day is bitterly cold and he would rather sit by the fire and read, listen to Wagner, who, shut away, is composing at his piano. But Wagner has been kind to him, allows him to stay at Wahnfried whenever he wishes, and Switzerland is good for his health. He loves the clarity of the air, a sense of the sublime. Having to procure Wagner’s silk underpants is a small price to pay for such proximity to his genius, this comfort, for this peace of mind.
Nietzsche is in the coach, his hands in his lap, looking out over the countryside. He sees people on the streets, trails of breath condensing in the icy air. A delivery boy with a parcel overtakes a women with a basket, a pair of men in cloaks walk side by side. The morning light is frail, Christmas is only a week away.
I am Frederick Nietzsche, he thinks, and even if I am going shopping for Wagner’s silk undergarments, I remain one of the most radical thinkers of our time.
Wagner strides across the globe like a colossus. And yet, when Wagner goes out with the dogs he allows Nietzsche to play his piano, the same piano on which he composed Der Fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin. It is 1869 and the god has invited Nietzsche, as their only guest, to spend Christmas with the family at Wahnfried. Wagner says he is working on something which will surpass all artistic creations, he must be left alone to complete it. He promises to tell Nietzsche everything when he returns. Wagner is twice his age, a father to him. Being sent out to collect his undergarments is a service to great art.
‘We usually deliver to Herr Wagner,’ says the assistant. ‘But perhaps his need is urgent.’ Nietzsche scrutinises the woman’s face for a trace of amusement. She stares back, slightly contemptuously. The neatly wrapped item under his arm, Nietzsche climbs back into the carriage.
I am Frederick Nietzsche, he reminds himself, and the world will soon be shaken out of its complacency.
What I do is a biological necessity, is formed by instinct, ultimately it is simple mark making, leaving a trace that I was once here, at this moment and is no more or less sophisticated than the art of stone age cave dwellers, or the claw marks of a long extinct creature, there is no meaning, no message. It is what it is. Proprioception is involved as is muscular memory, a similar muscular memory used in lifting a spoon to the mouth, or sitting down without looking. When I paint I am almost unaware of each brushstroke, just as I am unaware of swallowing or digesting and when I look at paintings which use similar gestural brushstrokes I see someone else’s muscular act, and in seeing it, recreate that movement, I become a dancer, but one who moves only in his head, little twitches maybe, of the forearm, or the fingertips. I have studied Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, those marks are so uninhibited and free, but I know the effort involved, the preparation, concentration. Before the mark is made the head must be clear, the body relaxed, released from all tension. The preparation is like meditation, the ego has to evaporate leaving the mind unencumbered by stray thoughts, by language. Sometimes there’s a sense of something primeval, like fight or flight, or reaching for food, a first instinct, but more often there is nothing, no thought, just the body and materials working against or with gravity, and the brushstroke is a record of that, and only that.
We watched the swallows skim the lawns before the Museum of Modern Art. We were on our way to see the Escher exhibition, but the swallows absorbed us. We’d crossed the city on foot, through the Botanics, up the cobbled hills, over the high bridge above the Waters of Leith. And now we followed the swallows’ swooping excursions from nests high up inside the columned portico, as they dived and circled the lawns, twisting through spray from the fountains. Two Americans, from Colorado, came up to us. He had a trimmed grey beard, round glasses and was pushing his disabled partner in a wheelchair. She was a woman with copper coloured hair and she watched the swallows intently as they dipped and swerved across the lawns, then returned to feed their chicks.
‘We’ve come all the way from Aspen to visit the city,’ he said.
She looked up at him and smiled, then she turned to us and nodded. ‘And this is what we found.’
And there we were, sitting on the balcony of your new house, the one you bought with the proceeds of your chance discovery of the chalice.
‘Look,’ you said, gesturing across the river to the meadows beyond. ‘Look at those cows. So many different colours.’
You’d searched for decades, located old maps of the area, spent a fortune on excavations, all in vain.
‘See how some are brown and others orange,’ you said, pointing towards them with your glass. ‘More champagne?’
You’ve told the story many times. You’d been staying at a bed and breakfast in Stroud, convinced the treasure was buried nearby.
Yes, I thought, without saying it aloud, you’re right, the cows are different colours. Brown, rust brown, orange, but not the orange of the fruit, nor the orange of a roadworker’s fluorescent bib. And watch as the setting sun hits them, how the rust brown is burnished and the ebony glows.
The bed and breakfast, you said, it was next door to a Chinese take away called the Golden Bowl, and this you took as a sign. It was a sign as well, of course, red letters on a yellow background.
And since the discovery you have wanted for nothing. Your new home, the views of the fields and hills, and the days you sit out here, staring at the cows across the river, trying to find the right words to give those colours names. Those different coloured cows, the champagne.