Thursday, June 28, 2018

A quick sketch

Sometimes I find myself hungering to write about nothing - no, that isn't right. Hungering, rather, to write about not something, about a not-topic or an anti-story: to write as an exercise, a stretching of my limbs, or as you might crack out a pretty and insignificant tune on a piano, on a hot summer's afternoon, while waiting for everyone else to get changed into their swimming things so you can set off to the sea in a succession of sun-baked cars. Wanting to write as you gargle water, swilling words around, getting pleasure from their swoosh and flavour, making them bubble, roiling them into a song.

When I was little I used to drink in a funny way, shunting the liquid around my mouth at every gulp before I swallowed, rather than simply sending it straight down like other people do. My grandfather took my brother and sister and me to his Saturday art class once - a parochial affair in a little village hall by a field with a swing and a slide and a roundabout - where a woman with airs trilled, upon seeing us drink water, "Stop! Their magnified faces at the bottom of the glass. I must, MUST paint these children!"

My grandfather took up art - art is too big a word; took up painting - in his retirement, after a lifetime working in a glove factory. He was an intelligent man who had been made to give up school early - at thirteen or fourteen I think - in order to earn some money to help his family along. He was gentle and funny when I knew him, but I gather that he had been violent in his earlier years, and given to rages. Almost certainly he felt a sense of what he could have been, of a potential gone to waste. In his old age, having been a churchgoer all his life, he re-read the Bible cover to cover, and became a devout atheist. His artistic efforts were hilariously poor - dull landscapes; thick daubs of yellow to suggest a lemon in a decidedly still life. He was a small, portly man with quite dainty legs. He had a comb-over of nine hairs, and a Mr McGregor beard.

My mother never won a race against him as a child, even though she would have been faster than him from a very early age, because the sight of him running made her laugh so much that she had to stop running to catch her breath. My father's impression of his father-in-law's way of swimming is still going strong 26 years after my grandfather died: it takes the form of a very slow front crawl, purposeful, face determinedly down in the water, with a heavy arm movement, and a slightly desperate face turning upwards like a great beast to take vast gulps of air at regular intervals. In the mornings, when visiting, we children would get into bed with our grandparents for tea; they had a kettle in the room, and an enormous tupperware box of biscuits, and the whole room was wallpapered over, including the ceiling, in a dizzyingly drab geometric pattern of tiny flowers. My grandfather would entertain us by doing his 'exercises', which he may well have been advised to do by some well-meaning doctor, but which, at some point, had taken a turn for the comical: they consisted of about one press-up, a crouch, and (funniest of all) a puffing-cheeked attempt to jump up and touch the ceiling.

When painting, my grandfather would sometimes get flustered, and, if painting a landscape, would shout, "Bloody greens!"

My grandmother, on my father's side, can paint. At thirteen or fourteen she would already have been painting, and in her adult life she could indulge in it as much as she liked, as a well-to-do headmaster's wife; she occasionally taught a class or two. Once or twice, I think, my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother painted together; and on a couple of occasions that I can remember my grandfather showed her some of his paintings, which she, having studied at the Beaux-Arts, must have looked over in something like horror. My grandmother still draws every day, taking a notepad with her everywhere - a real artist, a true painter, whose hands are moved to sketch, who is happy to spend any minute adding fuller reds and purples to a quickly rendered mountainside. Here, a few pen-strokes to represent a dog nearby; there, a little gouache for the corner of a lake.

I want to write like that sometimes, to carry something with me for jotting down, for seizing a sight on the quick, or a missed connection - a way of pinning down a moment and looking at it anew. This morning on the tube I saw a serious-looking man wearing a t-shirt that said, in white Comic Sans on a tomato red background, "Guatever. Guatemala." That man can't be a character in a book; he isn't the start of an article, but I don't want to lose him. Perhaps he can be someone in a skit, a lightly shaded silhouette; maybe he can just live here for a bit.