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Simon Dykes, the artist, stood, rented glass in hand, and watched
as a rowing eight emerged from the brown brick wall of one
building, slid across a band of gray-green water, and then eased
into the grey concrete of another building. Some people lose their
sense of proportion, thought Simon, but what would it be like to
lose your sense of perspective?
"Disastrous for a painter --"
"I'm sorry," Simon blurted, imagining for a second that he had
"They're disastrous for a painter," reiterated George Levinson,
who had come up by Simon's elbow and now stood beside him,
looking out of the plate-glass window that faced on to the river.
"By that I take it you mean they're disastrous for the painter."
Simon half turned towards George's ruminant profile and swept an
arm to encompass the white space of the gallery, the big oblong
canvases, and the posing private openeers, who stood about in
loose groups, arms cocked, as if they were some tableau vivant
intended to exhibit human social interactions.
"Hardly." George slurped some Chilean wine out of his rented
glass. "Sold the lot. Sold the lot, every one shot with a little red dot.
No, I mean the technique could be disastrous for a painter such as
yourself, this idea of silk screen laid over photogravure. I mean, I
know it isn't that -- um -- remarkable
in and of itself, but you have to admit that the finished result does
have something ... something of the heft --"
"Of oils? Of painting in oils. Fuck off, George. I'll fire you if you
say another word." And painter turned away from dealer to resume
staring out through the ravine of buildings, across at the melange of
modernist apartment blocks and Victorian mansion blocks on the
Battersea side of the river.
The outer eddies from the opening reached the two men, a skirl
of chamber music nouveau, a waft of Marlboro smoke, a couple of
youngsters, who leant against a nearby pillar, the girl's
sateen-hosed thigh gently rubbing her companion's corduroy
crotch, while sheep-like they cropped on one another's faces.
Islanded, Simon and George stood together with the quiet
assurance of men who have stood thus many times before, the
mood that held them unforced.
Another rowing eight nosed out from the brown brick building,
hovered on its glaucous cushion in the masonry frame, the cox at
the back clearly visible -- baseball hat loudhailer -- and then slid into
the grey concrete like a vast hypodermic powered by eight hearty
junior doctors. "No," said Simon. "No, I was thinking when you
came up ... thinking, looking at this" -- he poked a finger at the
square of Thames, the oblongs of building, the garnishes of green to
the side -- "what a terrible thing it would be for a painter to lose his
sense of perspective."
"I thought that was the whole point of a great swathe of abstract
art this century, the attempt to view without preconceptions,
cubism, fauvism, vorti --"
"-- That's loss of perspective as an intellectual assumption. I'm
talking about real loss of perspective, a sort of perspective
blindness where all depth of field is eradicated, where all that can
be grasped is form and colour mutating within a single plane."
"You mean like some sort of neurological disorder? What do
they call it, agnopho --"
"-- Agnosia, yeah, I suppose ... I'm not quite sure what
I mean, but I'm not talking about a Cezanne-inspired
viewing-of-the-world-anew, but a diminution. It's perspective that
provides the necessary third continuum for vision and maybe
consciousness as well. Without it an individual might no longer be
able to apprehend time, might ... might have to relearn time in some
way, or be left in a sliver of reality, imprisoned like a microbe in a
"It's a thought," Levinson replied after some seconds had
elapsed, including himself out of it.
"Simon Dykes?" A woman had approached during this speech
and stood, hovering between diffidence and assertiveness, hand
forward, body leant back and away, as if the latter were the
"I'm sorry to interrupt --"
"It's OK, I was just --" and George Levinson was gone, heading
back across the lack-of-industry white floor-covering, an adipose
wader of a man, dipping his bill into knots of people as he went,
dropping one name here and picking up another over there, amply
justifying a recent glossy magazine article which had described him
as `the most proficient room-worker in the London art world'.
"That's George Levinson, isn't it?" the woman said. She was
round-faced with wavelets of black hair tossed about on the top of
her head. Down below her clothing encased rather than draped her
small, gibbous body.
"Yes, that's right." Simon didn't want to sound as off-putting as he
knew he did, but the opening fatigue was upon him and he didn't
want to be there.
"Does he still handle you?"
"Oh no, no no, not any more, not since we were at prep school
together in fact, then he would often handle me in the locker room
after games. Nowadays he just sells my paintings for me."
"Ha-ha!" The woman's laugh wasn't forced -- it wasn't a
laugh at all, more an allusion to the possibility of humour. "I know
that, of course --"
"Then why did you ask?"
"Look." The woman's face puckered, and Simon could see in
that instant that petulant resentment was her natural cast of mind, all
the rest a tremendous effort of will. "If you're going to be rude --"
"No, I'm sorry, really ..." He raised a hand, fingers outstretched,
and then tamped down the thickening atmosphere between them,
patted it into the shape of niceness, patted it and even patted her
wrist a little. "I didn't mean to sound so sharp, I'm tired and ..." He
had felt her wrist, the band of her watch, steel, the edge of her wrist
bone sharp as his tone, bird bones, sparrow bones, splintered
His eyes slid to the window even as he patted, and there in the
notch of river swirled a thrown handful of birds -- swallows
presumably -- fusing into flock then fissioning back into individuals,
like thoughts in a disordered mind. Simon thought of Coleridge, and
then drugs. Funny that, like a synaesthesia of concepts, some
people `hear' the doorbell as green, I think Coleridge as drugs, or
birds as Coleridge or birds as drugs ... And Simon thought then of
Sarah, her pubic hair specifically, and only then of the woman
walking into his mind, under his very eyes, in through his very eyes -- no
perspective, you dig? -- and looking over its contents to see if
there was anything to use. "I don't mean to be so rude. I'm tired,
"You must be, what with your new show opening soon. Are you
good on deadlines?"
"No, not really. I tend to be painting the day before an opening,
and then stretching and framing most of the ni --" He faltered. "I'm
going to be rude again. Before I say anything more I ought to know
who I'm talking to."
"Vanessa Agridge, 'Contemporanea'," She flipped her bird-like
claw under his hand and didn't so much shake it as scratch the
palm. "I came to this, but I don't think there's much I can
write about her, so it's a bit of a result for me ... seeing you
here.... out and about -- so to speak -- in the week before the new
show ..." Like a faltering engine, she died. The pause hunched
between them in unequal space.
"Her?" queried Simon after a decent while.
"Manuella Sanchez," Vanessa Agridge replied, tapping him on
the arm with a rolled-up copy of the catalogue in a way she
imagined to be flirtatious. Simon looked at her with his new
perspectiveless vision: blob-shaped muzzle, slashed red, topped
with blackish fur, blackish fur below. It swelled some, slash gaped
to show canines, and she continued. "She's meant to be so outre' -- anyway,
that's what her people said -- but she isn't. Just dull.
Nothing to say for herself."
"But the work, isn't that what you're here to write about, her
"Hngfh'" she snorted, "no, no, 'Contemporanea' is more of a
featuresey thing, artists' lives, lifestyles and so forth. My editor calls
it `Vasari for the venal'."
"Isn't it." She lifted her rented glass to her lips, sipped, and
viewed him over the rim. "So, your show, figurative work?
Abstracts? A return to your conceptual stuff like World of Bears?
What can we expect?"
Simon put on his perspective again and looked afresh at Vanessa
Agridge. Her thickly applied pancake was almost friable when
zoomed in on; her face not blobby, beaky in fact, her eyes rather
on the raw, ducty side. Simon made weird assessments of volume,
mass, weight, alcohol-by-volume, then flared his nostrils and caught
primitive whiffs of her, then with remote sensors traced the webbing
beneath the pouching of her clothes, sent one psychic probe into
her anus, the other into her left nostril. He turned her anatomy inside
out, sockwise, and in the process quite forgot who the fuck she
was, what the fuck she had said up until now, and so told her.
"Certainly not abstract. I think non-representational painting has
finally gone the way Levi-Strauss predicted, `a school
of academic painting in which the artist strives to represent the
manner in which he would execute his paintings if he were by any
chance to paint some.'"
"That's very good," said Vanessa Agridge, "very ... witty. Could I
use it, do you think -- credited, of course."
"Credited to Levi-Strauss, it's his observation, as I said."
"Of course, of course ..." a Dictaphone had appeared in her,
bird-like, prestidigitated, on. Simon hadn't noticed. "So, they're
portraits then, still lifes --"
"Nudes." He remembered smoking a stolen cigarillo in a
marsh, his mother's world-girdle, his father's penis, stubby,
"Are they sort of Bacon-y, or maybe" -- she tittered -- "Freud-y.
You know, peeling away the bloom from a woman's body,
externalising her anatomy, sort of --"
"They're love paintings." Piss-in-pants, piss-on-floor. That very
bilious bead. Piss lives with lino. Or maybe Piss Lives With Lino.
Titlewise that is "Sigh".
"They're what?" Vanessa Agridge had the Dictaphone up by her
pig-like -- crushed, flat, bristly -- the way some other jerks held cellular
"Love paintings. They're paintings that in a quite straightforward,
almost narrative way describe my love for the human body. My
thirty-nine-year affair with the human body."
In the minutes they had been at contraflow with one another the
opening had begun to close. The openeers swam towards the doors
of the gallery, sluiced here and there into little whirlpools of further
sociability. George Levinson floated by them and slowly revolved to
face Simon. "Are you coming on, Simon?"
"Excuse me -- where?"
"To Grindley's first, then maybe the Sealink later."
"I may see you at the Sealink, I have to see what Sarah's doing
Levinson disappeared downstream, flirting with a youth he'd
picked up, a boy like a puma, with slim hips, violet eyes and
a black coat. And, in the wake of seeing George and him go, bobbed
the recognition of what had preceded it. Simon straightened up,
pulled himself into the present. In a life where every third person he
met assumed an expression that showed they recognised him, was it
any wonder that he constantly found himself talking to strangers as if
they were friends?
All of this, and then Simon said to Vanessa Agridge, who had a
Dictaphone -- as he now saw -- in threatening evidence, "You must
excuse me --"
"I just did." She was catching his style -- it happened.
"No, I mean now. I must go. I have to work."
"To meet Sarah?"
"She's my girlfriend --"
"Girlfriend. Look, I'm going." And he started off, out of
"One thing ..." she called. He turned, she was a shadow
now, exiguous, wavering against the summer evening.
"This Levi-Strauss fellow."
"You haven't got a number for him, have you? It's just that I
thought I'd run that quote by him -- if I do the piece, that is."
There was a small rank of pay phones by the main doors of the
gallery. Simon levered his phonecard out of his cardholder and fed it
into the slot. He punched Sarah's number at the artists' agency
where she worked and waited in a virtual aviary with the chirrupings
and tweetings of connection. Then her lips grazed his cheekbone, her
voice breathed into his ear: `I'm not available to take your call right
now, so ...' Not her voice. As close to her voice as the voice of Hal
in 2001 was to a human voice. Not her sparky tone either, but
horrifically measured, every word a spondee.
"Are you there?" he queried after the peep, knowing that she
"Vetting, yeah, I'm call-vetting."
"I dunno," she sighed. "I just don't feel like talking to anyone.
Anyone except you, that is."
"So, what's the plan?"
"A few of us are meeting up --"
"At the Sealink."
"Tabitha, Tony, I guess -- though he hasn't confirmed. Maybe the
"Shiny happy people."
"Yeah." She laughed, very briefly, their shared laugh, a kind of
lip-smacking hiss. "Shiny happy people. When will you get there?
"I'm en route now." He hung up without further ado, then
negotiated a flurry of final `Catch you later's, `We must get
together's and `Next week's -- that ought to have been `Next year's -- before
taking the cast-iron stairs down to the street.
Summer London on the far cusp of the rush hour. The gallery
wasn't in Chelsea Harbour, but it might as well have been, for all
the relevance that the opening had to the world outside. Simon set
off along the Embankment, occasionally peering back over his
shoulder to look at the golden ball atop the central tower of the
development. Someone had once told him that it rose and fell with
the tide, but as he couldn't tell whether it was low or high tide he
was unable to make sense of the balls.
He felt tired and his chest slopped with the sweet phlegm that
comes either at the onset or the demise of a lung infection. Simon
couldn't decide which as he gurgled and gobbed his way past the
cars crammed in the crook of road leading up to Earls Court. The
Braithwaite brothers. Shiny happy people. The Sealink Club. It all
meant a late night of shouting, laughing
and flirting. A production mounted with a shifting cast of nameless
but recurring minor characters. And it all implied getting in at three,
or four, or past five, dawn coming in prismatic beams, the world's
furniture haphazardly rearranged by the clumsy removal men of
Drugs, he sighed, drugs. Which drugs? The crap London
barroom cocaine that managements turned a blind eye to the sale
of, knowing that the only effect it had on its snorters was to make
them buy more marked-up booze? Yeah, definitely some of that.
He could already picture himself chopping and crushing, crammed
into some dwarfish toilet stall. And he could already see how it
would end up, Sarah and he fucking with the dismal
end-of-the-world feel that the crap cocaine imparted. Like two
skeletons copulating in a wardrobe, their bones chafing and
stridulating. And tomorrow morning, disembodied, ghost-like, he
would find himself at the cashpoint, a rim of white powder worked
into the embossed numerals on his credit card.
Or perhaps there would be some of the Ecstasy that Sarah got
hold of, presumably from Tabitha although Simon hadn't asked.
Ecstasy had initially seemed a fraudulent description for the drug, as
far as Simon was concerned. The first couple of times he had taken
it he'd said to Sarah, "If this is ecstasy, then a drug which produces
mild pique could justifiably be called `rage'." But he'd got the hang
of it. Learnt to stop regarding it as a psychedelic, akin to the acid
and mushrooms he had -- more or more -- taken as an art student at
the Slade, and understand that it only worked on the interfaces of
people's minds, their relationships with one another. It was a drug of
vicariousness, of using another person's emotions as a prop, a route
to abandonment. All conversations on E acquired an adolescent
intensity, a titivation of the very possibility of intimacy.
It also had other weird effects. Even with a gut full of liquor and
a few honks of crap cocaine on board, a white dove still made
Simon feel like penetrating every body in sight.
Male, female, whole, crippled, it hardly mattered. What he desired
was a flesh pit full of writhing naked bodies, smeared with
glycerine; or better still a conga-line of copulation, where a
cock-thrust here would produce a cunt-throb way over there.
E-ed up, Simon's body, like some rain-swelled river, breached
its banks and flowed all over the place, all over the people. But
Sarah would take him in hand at this point. Like some proficient
hydrologist she would enact lightning-quick embanking and
canalising work, until he flowed into her.
Yeah, ecstasy. And then they would get home to the
Renaissance, home to the golden bower of her bed, where they
would pluck and strum upon one another's mandolin bodies, until
they eventually, belatedly came. Eventually, belatedly slept.
I don't want to get loaded. Simon thought, turning into Tite
Street. I don't feel exactly hot at the moment and there's a full day's
work to do tomorrow, no shirking. And in the contemplation of the
night ahead, with its slalom of toxicities, he assayed his own body,
its fit between mind and metabolism, metabolism and chemistry,
chemistry and biology, biology and anatomy, anatomy and
protective clothing. His toes scrunged in semi-sweat-stiffened
hosing, and he felt their fungal deterioration, the gritting of their
webbing. His hands felt numb at their finger ends. Simon thought
about peripheral neuralgia, and thought of the half-bottle of whisky
he skulled most nights, but then again considered it unlikely.
Physical addiction to alcohol, that is.
His stomach was inflated now -- as if the Chilean wine were still
fermenting -- so that his walk was counterpointed not simply by the
harrumphing and spitting -- neat that, between the two front teeth,
so that a dash of phlegm hit whichever paving stone he aimed at.
He remembered learning it from lads at school, upsetting his
fastidious older brother with demonstrations -- but also by
poot-pooting from between soft-clenched bum cheeks. Like some
cartoon, Simon, thought, fart-powered, 2-D.
Simon's bum exercised him nowadays, as if his arsehole was
haltingly learning to talk, in order to inform him that his days were
He remembered now the business of getting to know new lovers
as a young man. How intimacy was defined by sexual interaction:
the shared, tacit acknowledgement of the refusal to be embarrassed
by a vaginal fart or a premature ejaculation. And how that intimacy
was then broadened, given further substance, by a willingness to
include the other's shit and piss and furtive secretions. It all reached
a climax with childbirth, with her swollen vagina stretched to
tearing, voiding a half-gallon of what appeared to be won ton soup
on to the plastic sheeting. And the placenta, organ-that-was-hers
and not-hers, maybe even partly his. But no, they didn't want to
fricassee it, on any of the three snacking opportunities, with onions
and garlic, so it was removed for incineration, borne in a
take-away, cardboard kidney dish.
And now he could no longer face that kind of getting-to-know
anyone. He and Sarah had been gasping into one another's napes
for nine months now, but he didn't want to share the bathroom with
her. Not only did he not want to share the bathroom with her, he
didn't even like the idea of her being in the house when his bowels
moved. He wouldn't have minded going to another town to do a
shit. His arsehole was sending him internal memoranda on his own
mortality -- and it leaked. Bowel movements were no longer
discrete, his bowels seemed to move all the time, telegraphing him
fart bulletins, and faxes of shit-juice that soiled the gussets of his
pants in hideous ways. And thinking this Simon paused to hoick at
the girding of his waist, trying to give his persecutor a little more air
Whenever he stopped to contemplate his relationship to this
body, this physical idiot twin, it occurred to Simon that something
critical must have gone wrong without his noticing. He was
bemused to awaken to this insistent reminder of his corporeality.
He seemed to recall -- within the memory banks of the body itself -- those
unconstrained, atemporal afternoons of childhood, twilight playing, parental calls to return home like hooting apes in the suburban gloaming; and
accompanying that memory, suffusing it like the sunset, a sense of
his body as also unconstrained, not as yet inhibited, hemmed-in, by
the knowledge of the future, which became like a thermostat,
regulating any enjoyment or ease of action, ease of repose.
And now, turning into the King's Road, past the Duke of York's
barracks where mobile artillery stood immobile, Simon wondered if
he could pinpoint the moment when it had all gone wrong. For now
his bodily awareness was one solely of constraint, of resistance, of
a missing fit between every ligament and bone, every cell and its
neighbour. How could it have happened? He thought again of acid
trips -- they were still there, salient in the three-minute memory defile
he was traversing. He remembered the contrived astral trips he and
other psychic venturers had taken under its influence. Perhaps in
one such he had departed his physical body, but on reentry failed to
achieve an exact fit, leaving the psychic and the physical ever so
slightly out of registration, like a badly reproduced photograph in a
magazine. That's how it felt, at any rate.
There was that lack-of-fit, and there was the amputation of his
children, which had caused another confusion in bodily perception,
another more profound discorporation. When his marriage to Jean
had collapsed in on itself, like a tower block demolished with
carefully placed charges, his children had been five, seven and ten,
but his physical relationship with them was unbroken; conscious
cables plugged their snot noses and wipeable bums directly into his
nervous system. If they nicked or cut themselves the pain was
grossly enhanced, amplified, so that Simon felt it as a Sabatier to
the intestines, a scalpel to the tendons. If they swooned in babyish
fevers, hallucinating concepts and visions -- `Daddy, Daddy, I'm
Iceland, I'm Iceland' -- he hallucinated with them, climbed alongside
them the shoddy Piranesi of the nursery wallpaper, hoicking up a
leaf to gain a toehold on a flower.
No matter how much he saw them now, how many times he
picked them up from school, how many times he made them oven
chips and fish fingers, how many times he petted them, kissed them,
told them he loved them, nothing could assuage this sense of
wrenching separation, their disjunction from his life. He may not
have snacked on the placenta, but somehow the umbilici still trailed
from his mouth, ectoplasmic cords, strung across summertime
London, snagging on rooftops, car aerials, advertising hoardings,
and tied him to their little bellies.
Simon pulled up by a newsagent's on the brink of Sloane
Square. Shiny unhappy girls walked past clad in tabards, chaps,
and yokes of leatherette material. He thought briefly of a woman he
had fucked in Eaton Square. Fucked in the dead zone between
Jean and Sarah. Jean and Sarah, so silly, the caesura:
JeanandSarah. Anyway, this woman appeared to Simon now, in
Sloane Square, the ghostly set of her flat arranged on the
Big divan, glass-topped coffee-table, abstract paintings and their
two bodies, each selling the other figurative insurance. Touching one
another up, in the same sense that a stretch of land might be sung
up, created by allusion. Here are breasts, here are hips, here is a
cock, there a cunt ... Simon wormed her out of her leggings, the
leggings like worms pulling away from her shanks, the ankles
cheekily rough with stubble, hers and his. He buried his drunk head
in the folds of her white belly, the folds slack, skinlaps. They
giggled, honked coke, half-naked, his pants round his ankles. They
swilled vodka, warm and nasty. When he came to fuck her he had
to poke his cock into her with his finger, but she didn't seem to
mind, or didn't have a mind. One or the other.
Simon struck the set and looked to his right where a freestanding
rack of newspapers stood. He scanned the headlines: `More
Massacres in Rwanda', `President Clinton Urges Ceasefire in
Bosnia', `Accusations of Racism in O.J. Simpson Trial'. It wasn't,
he reflected, political news, it was news about bodies, corporetage. Bodies dragged by thin shanks through thick mud, bodies smashed and pulverised, throats slashed red, given free tracheotomies so that the afflicted could breathe
There was some fit here, Simon realised, between the penumbra
around his life, the darkness at the edge of the sun, and these
bulletins of disembodiment, discorporation updates. His
imagination, always too visual, could enter into these headlines
readily enough, but only by casting Henry, his eldest, as Hutu;
Magnus, the baby, as Tutsi; then watch them rip each other to
Simon sighed. "It's a lack of perspective ..." and then coughed as
a face inclined towards him, for he had involuntarily spoken aloud.
He thought of Lucozade, but lacked the energy to broach the shop.
He thought of sending the kids a postcard, but all there was on
display were cards depicting chimpanzees in humiliating poses,
dressed up in tweed jackets, carrying briefcases, with captions
underneath reading `In London, thinking of you'. So, instead, he
fingered out the joint he had rolled earlier from the breast pocket of
his jacket. Simon held the thing in the palm of his hand; it was
wrinkled and curved like the penis of a paper tiger. Then he lit it,
hoping to fumigate his mind, send the visions scuttling away.