Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Now I see him, now I don’t: a May-time mystery for Christmas


I wish I could open, “on a mid-December afternoon, in a grey and grainy light...” But I can’t. It happened on one of this year’s bright May mornings.
And I wish I could say I was feeling particularly whimsical, romantic, suggestible or dreamy. But, tell the truth, in a grim mood, I was trudging to meet an erstwhile colleague to talk about my difficult relationship with a third party in another organisation, a dim-witted brute with an over-partiality for red tape and tight trousers.
So, heading towards Newgate Street, I go through the rose garden in the ruined nave of Christ Church.
On the other side of the road, a man is sitting on a low wooden stool, painting. He is in early middle age, robust and square jawed. He wears wide leather boots, the colour of fresh-shelled chestnuts, with navy trousers tucked into them; a big blue canvas shirt, a tan leather waistcoat and a black leather pillbox hat.
I cross the road. He looks up at me – piercing dark eyes – and I smile. He doesn’t.
Passing him, I glance down (as one does) at his easel. I remember thinking, “hey, that’s clever, he’s painting the church not as it is, but as it was, before the Blitz.” Firm ink lines darting up the page; a light ochre, watercolour wash between them. Above, pale blue sky and some thin clouds.
Six, perhaps eight more paces. I look over my shoulder and he’s gone. I return to the kerb and gaze down and across the street, into the church and around it. No sign of him.
Now, there are three possibilities. One is that he packed up with incredible speed – painting, easel, stool, jam jar of water, jam jar of brushes, box of paints, pens and inks – strode swiftly behind me and passed to my right, so that I missed him as I turned to my left to look back – and then I walked and went on looking the wrong way.
The second, I suppose, is that he packed up with incredible speed and jumped into a taxi.
And the third is difficult.
Sequel one, psychologically explicable: that night I dream we go for the first time to dinner with new friends. In their dining room is the painting, behind dusty glass, in a walnut frame.
“Where did you get this?”
“Been in our family for centuries.”
I unhook and turn it over. There is a faded inscription in a kind of informal copperplate: “The ruins of Time build mansions in Eternity – W.B., 1800”.
I know the quote, although I hadn’t thought of it for a long time before the dream.
Sequel two, less explicable: the following afternoon I’m walking through the beech wood on Hampstead Heath and fall into conversation with an elderly female stranger. She tells me, “do you know what I hope one day? to see the ghosts of some of the poets who came here for inspiration. Coleridge, perhaps, or Keats or Shelley – but the one I’d really like to meet is Mr Blake. Wouldn’t you?”

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