Matthew Maddox is an art historian and professor emeritus at the Drayburgh School of Fine Art. Nearing 70, his 3 sons are grown and his ex-wife, Charlotte, has remarried. After a failed suicide attempt in front of a moving train, Maddox attends art therapy classes in order to find new meaning in his life.
Although he is isolated, Maddox does have his champions. Simone, his lover and partner, is returning shortly from an analysts’ conference in Vienna. She has her own baggage, but Simone feels responsible for Maddox. Others who genuinely care about Maddox include his former mentor Daniel Viklund, whose wartime past fascinates Maddox; his older sister, Sarah; and his younger brother, Paul. There is also Eric Taylor, once his most promising student, now a convicted murderer, in whom Maddox sees echoes of his own life.
An unabashed novel of mental illness, As It Happened tells of the prisons in which we find ourselves, the anxieties that exert their hold, and the desperate search for purpose in how we live and how we die.
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As It Happened
By David Storey
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 David Storey
All rights reserved.
Grim day, Maddox was thinking. If I've gone over the edge that's quite all right by me, this place as good as any.
In a space scarcely sufficient to accommodate twelve with their donkeys and easels there were, by his calculation, twenty-one. Although, unlike the previous week, the model had turned up, the instructor's insistence on teaching, rather than an aid to concentration, was proving a distraction: no doubt, being paid, he'd felt obliged to do something, periodically shifting the model so that no pose was held for longer than fifteen minutes, the day, as a consequence, devoted to little more than sketching, a procedure intended, evidently, to prevent the class from getting bored.
Following the line of the breast, he indicated the nipple, adjusted its alignment and pursued the shape of the hip to the thigh; etching in the Venusian slit, his mind drifted on to thoughts of Simone.
How often and how deeply he had buried there – at his age, approaching seventy, less achievement than intention – moving his pencil to the knee, the calf, the model an effulgence, seemingly, of the room itself: the hall of a former primary school, the structure given over to adult classes in calligraphy as well as carpentry, motor-engineering as well as art, evidence, mainly, of the burgeoning of Third Age talents, much of which was displayed, periodically, in the entrance hall below.
Stooped, head bowed, glasses perched close to the tip of his nose, sighting the object over the top of the frame, he pursued his thoughts in counterpoint to the movement of his pencil. To his left, Rachel (Mrs Herzog), widow of a jeweller, posed, legs astride, before her paint-smeared easel, the model's shape achieved by an indecorous use of crayon. A film of coloured dust drifted down her pinned-up sheet of paper and settled on her blue, white-stitched overall: an elderly, short, attractive creature, her breast agitated engagingly by the vigorous movement of her arm.
The Greek came to him.
Thought and feeling so rarely combined – eradicating blankness, supervising space, more dream, he felt, than image ...
In a glass partition, blanked out by paper on the other side, at the end of the hall, dividing it from the landing beyond, he glimpsed his figure astride its donkey, short, stocky, white-haired (cut short), the baldness at the crown invisible from this distance, recalling the suggestion made by Simone – eight years his junior, mercurial, slight of build – that he was about to undergo a 'change' (a 'chance', as she described it).
Mrs Loewenstein (Ailsa) becalmed in widowhood, too, a fragile (sensitised) creature, also standing at an easel: the steady drift downwards of charcoal dust. What had these women and he in common? age, death; a final refinement, introspection – engagement, in his case, with what, after a lifetime, he might, if not instinctively, consistently have avoided (primal: carnal: tethered in a cage): instead of inspection, assessment – retribution – a scoring-out from the blackness of forms – shapes (not unlike the one before him) a perspective on his life narrowed to a focus – this specific focus of appreciation. After a lifetime of exposition he was trying 'it' himself.
Mrs Sutor (Mary), a robust, pugnacious figure astride a donkey, its structure creaking beneath her weight, reducing to miniscule yet frantic proportions the figure before her, a bullet-shaped brow focused on the space ahead: wealth, age ... Simone: his mind distracted, feeling, at that moment (he'd meant to tell her), he had learnt – was learning – a great deal from his sons: something unforeseeable, the distance their minds had come, a perspective from their childhood, he looking through papers the previous night, after she had rung, coming across a photograph of Joseph (Joe!) sitting on his knee, aged three or four, in his arms, Steven, not much more than one, and had to acknowledge that that impertinent, self-conscious look had matured into the circumspection which now characterised the man.
Similarly Charlie (what plain names Charlotte and he had given them) last night on the phone, conjuring commitment out of the air on the strength only of a dream: his view of his chosen profession as 'clerc', as Maddox described it – television presenter and high-liver – questioning him on what he felt and what he thought, particularly re Taylor, now Taylor had made a request to see him, as if it were specifically of interest to him what his father thought and felt, Maddox recalling his son's final question, 'Were you called Mad Ox at school?'
Simone would be back from Vienna by the time he'd told her this: the rumour – from Taylor's lawyer – that Taylor had tried to hang himself (again) in Brixton, had been transferred and was once again the subject of a twenty-four-hour suicide watch.
Love for ever.
Hannah (Mrs Steiner) astride a donkey like a horse (her husband, reportedly, in terminal decline) moving vigorously in his direction: the piercing, animalistic, snarling expression with which she perused the model from across the room (drawing him, he assumed, in the background).
Mrs Herzog standing beside him, a tower of strength (the similarity of their ages). All he was conscious of was her crayon torturing the pinned-up sheet before her. How she stormed, alarmed, excited: the spontaneity, the transposition, the generosity of feeling bereft of thought (calculation: doubt) eschewing what, on other occasions, in different circumstances, bereft of such agitation, he might easily have alluded to as common sense.
The longer the course went on – all day Thursday, every week – the more he was aware that it wasn't the model he was observing so much as the women, selecting his position, for instance, with Rachel in mind, a lascivious intent; in reality, an appreciation of an alertness of an uncommon kind – as implicit in her looks as much as the way she held her crayon, consumed by a forcefulness he not only admired but found inspiring, a forcefulness characterised, paradoxically, by probity, sensibility, commitment, he long of the opinion it would have been more fruitful for her to draw in pencil, refinement in her style, her eyes, her manner ... watching her hand, left-handed, the crayon darkening her fingers, aware of the objects – the items, the flesh – she must have held there in the past: the activities of such a hand, the pregnant space between thumb and forefinger, the nakedness which her hand, her cheek, her ear – half hidden beneath her hair (tinted auburn, the grey showing through in flashes) suggested (insinuated, confirmed, evoked).
When they talked – he, Rachel, Mary and Hannah – over coffee in the canteen – the mid-morning and mid-afternoon breaks, lunch in the pub next door – the same discoloured hand, like Ailsa's, was laid before him (unusable, untouchable: a longing to plunge it beneath the kitchen tap, exposing the delicacy and pinkness of the nail), the configuration beneath her smock of a still dynamic figure, carelessly presented ...
He had been so taken up with Ailsa (Mrs Loewenstein), Rachel (Mrs Herzog) and Mary (Mrs Sutor) that he had long neglected Ruth, the most youthful of the women in the room – thirty-five or thirty-six – youthful, apart from the dysfunctional and irregularly attending Sheba: the week, for instance, when the latter's social worker had stormed into the room and called her fiercely, dramatically, sensationally outside: shouts (screams) associated with 'cash', 'missed opportunities', and the plight of her unfortunate baby dumped in the crêche below.
He had – as had most of the women – heard of Ruth's three children, ensconced in private schools, her husband a 'trader' in the City, her car invariably parked across two spaces in the former playground below: her photographs of Martinique, her yacht, her chums (her husband: lithe, close-cropped: expansive, unwavering eyes) passed around the table at coffee time: all the vitality appropriate to her age, a tall, lean figure, despite her three children, a wholesome, innocent, unknowing face, an engaging, infectious gaiety, vividity evident in her ingenuous glances at the model: spontaneous, alert, unperceiving, confirming what she knew already, had seen, registered and digested from inspection of her own remarkable body: the alacrity she brought to what she described as her 'measly efforts', an unexpected sobriety intervening, a moment of hesitation, doubt, which appealed to him immensely, her long, tapered fingers braced to her pencil, the arc of her neck as, standing, half leaning at her easel, she peered round her board at the model: the delicate moulding of her ear in contrast to the stringency, the alertness, the synchronicity of her features, her hips braced inside her jeans, a figure full of potency, fun, irreplaceable, unapproachable, a sombreness rather than a calmness evident in her nature which relied – belying her vivacity – on something durable, solid, unassailable, as if the world, her world, were arrested from time to time and more than carelessly examined.
All of them middle class, except for Mrs Angenou (Maria), ninety-one years of age, seated astride her donkey oblivious, or so it seemed, of the shortness of her skirt: fists like hams, a jowled face, eyes sheathed in horizontal folds of flesh: back stooped, shoulders heavy, a Cypriot background, reducing everything in her sketch-book to matchstick proportions, Neil, their instructor, tall and lanky, standing bemusedly beside her, wondering on the relevance, at this belated stage of saying anything at all stooping, close-focused, denim-jeaned (red sweatshirt: gold chain around his neck, suspended, a tiny filament, from his narrow throat), suggesting the alignment of her figures might be adjusted: the one memorable occasion when 'Harold', their gay Lothario, had fallen asleep in his recumbent (model's) pose and they had watched, with stifled amazement, humour, finally embarrassment, an erection of the most colossal proportions taking place before (specifically Maria Angenou's and) their astonished eyes.
Arthur the only other man in the room, apart from Duncan, the actor who had told them on more than one occasion he was asexual ('a sexual what?' Ruth had enquired), looking, he, Arthur, for a companionship which couldn't be shared in any way other than the one he and Maddox shared with the women – 'artists', as Neil inappropriately (democratically) described them, he, Maddox, finding the intensity of Arthur's application, as well as the evidence littered around his feet, intimidating to a degree. 'Do you think you could draw less and concentrate more?' he had asked him, Arthur's grizzled, bearded head, with its long, white hair and balding brow, his massive, excessively muscled figure dominating the room ('not an ounce of fat on him': Duncan) as might Moses' on his descent from the mountain, the tablets, like Arthur's, tucked conspicuously beneath his arm: his boots, his robust legs, his shorts, his 'tropical' top, reeking of sun and sweat: was it essential to get down to art as if it were an expedition, swathes of charcoal-ingrained paper strewn around his feet, his easel, those adjoining ...?
He had attributed 'Genius' to Arthur's performance – a nickname picked up and adopted by the women – but how oppressive, putting his and their own work in the shade: seventy-five, he'd told Maddox, and never been ill, apart from when he had been shot at Arnhem, the evidence vividly revealed whenever, frustrated by his output, he opened the front of his shirt, mortality, at his age, a frightening thought: the blistering of the flesh in the crematorium flame – likened to his description of a German tank with its cindered crew intact inside.
So how did his insistence on 'reality' help someone who had come, as they say, to the end of the line? Arthur's size, domination of the room: how could something so enhancing be embracing 'art', as he was inclined to call it, as 'a final answer', a 'last, redeeming feature', particularly when he, Maddox, had embraced it as a theoretician all his previous working life, not least before he knew anything about it, those intoxicating teenage years alive with Fra Filippo Lippi, Signorelli, Uccello, Cimabue? Genius's wife, Genius had reported, having died the previous year ('if only she could see me now'), he not inclined to look for another, potency, he had suggested at his age, out of the question, 'mind' all that mattered – imagination, he'd described it, stretched beyond its resources (fear, its inevitable corollary, Maddox reflected).
Mrs Samuels (Susannah) a plain, high-breasted woman with the arms and the shoulders of a pugilist, jeans too tight, arthritic feet, positioning her easel beside the wall on which she leant from time to time, a tree-trunk of a woman with a decorous intent: leaf-like extrusions on her paper, a scarcely discernible figure shaded in as if in defiance of her stoical if occasionally groaning nature, Maddox reflecting on himself, the morning light already fading, weariness evident before the coffee break, stretching his legs on either side of his donkey ...
Glancing down at his effort, Rachel returned her gaze to her own as if, in him, she had found a marker, a comparison which enlightened as well as, going by her expression, dismayed. So much, Maddox thought, for being here, amidst an activity which, only a short while before, he would have had no time for: the women, too, children and husbands (mostly) gone, succeeded by a generation where these things counted less, if anything at all – Mrs Angenou excepted, time an element to ignore ...
his gaze moving to the ceiling, spattered here and there with paint ...
eschewing the past, resistant to it absorbing the present, reducing it to what could only be described, distorting it by what could only be imagined
senses tuned to what might have been recalled
as to what might have been discarded ...
scrutinising something which he would never touch, the obscurity of its source,
its subtlety, its light
its nakedness, its charm, its
vulnerability and, in posing there at all, its thoughtfulness – above all, its vulnerability, ashes to ashes in another form.
His gaze turned not to his drawing – the detritus left on the paper by his moving arm, the carbon held between his thumb and finger – but to the skin on the back of his hand, blotched, the veins conspicuous.
Genius, as always, was hauling them along, his booted feet, the toe-caps glistening, laces tight, the bulbous, wool-stockinged calves overlooked by the robust, sunburnt knees, the lower extremities of his sunburnt thighs ...
Maddox's mind slipping into abbreviation (parentheses included), the light angular from the former schoolroom windows: Jeanette, the diminutive Scotswoman, a pale sliver of a face – a past written there as libertine or slave – a schoolmarm with a lifetime's dedication forfeited to rooms no doubt as resonant as this, an angular figure astride a stool, heel sportively tucked into a strut beneath, half sitting, half standing, a remarkable conjunction between eye and hand, as if not drawing but writing, a fiction inscribed, in its casualness, for all to see, a riposte to something omnivorous in the other women: cvc's, so named, by Genius: 'cultural vacuum cleaners' sucking up all sorts of rubbish, 'mine, not theirs, I mean'.
That endowment of flesh, good humour, grace, the unconsidered, postmenopausal flourish leaving carbon in lieu of child here to think, not draw
Maddox surprising himself, once absorbed, by humming hymn tunes, a rhythmic exhalation, stanzas learnt fifty or so years before.
Why now? Why here? he living along the street (or two) from the institution, Genius and Duncan the only other men in the queue on enrolment day, following the latter's account of his acting career in The Dreaded Beacon at the corner a few hours later (all morning queueing to sign on), from a 'vagabond on the road at twelve' when he allegedly ran away from home, joining a circus 'with no questions asked', his benefactor-cum-patron-cum-inductive-lover paying for him through acting school at the age of nineteen, 'seventeen years in rep' before parts in television, in film and finally, 'on the West End stage', progressing to a life he described as 'a suitable occasion for indiscretion' ...
Excerpted from As It Happened by David Storey. Copyright © 2002 David Storey. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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