‘That would be lovely!’ Anna regretted it the minute she’d said it.
She should have said that she’d check her diary, counted to ten, then said, sorrowfully, that she had a prior engagement, preferably some obligatory family business that Laura could sympathise with, something that, as much as she’d love to, she really couldn’t escape.
The date lurked in her diary under cover of many weeks then appeared, horribly, like a dental appointment.
She had no idea why she’d been invited; they weren’t in regular contact, and when they had worked together they’d never been particularly close. She guessed she’d be making up numbers. And now she was late and lost, driving around a part of town she didn’t know, pointing the car in what she thought might be the general direction and hoping that by some miracle she would arrive in Laura’s street.
It was slush-grey, drizzly and cold; the sort of night you can’t ever get a cab, the sort of night that calls for drinking but drinking will leave you stranded, doomed to walk for miles for a night bus or worse, ending up on someone’s sofa bed, awake all night, hoping you didn’t leave the iron on. By the time she found the place, driving with one hand, the other on her tatty A-Z, she knew that the reason she was having such difficulty was because it was a mistake.
‘Anna! Hi, darling, you look great! Come in, come in!’
The journey had left her crumpled and harassed. She asked for a soft drink. ‘I’m driving,’ she said. She watched as a, what was it, disappointment, irritation? An oh-come-on-it’s-my party-why-didn’t-you-get-a-cab look disturb Laura’s smiling face and felt uncomfortable. Maybe she should relent. Say she’ll pick up the car tomorrow, but she didn’t. What she did do was lie, saying she was on antibiotics, holding her hand to the side of her face with a pained look that said toothache, making her a hero for coming out, putting her discomfort aside for her friend’s sake. Not drinking made her the anorexic at the feast and she wondered whether subconsciously, this is what she’d wanted. A protest, a passive bid for attention, how sad, she thought, how juvenile. But no, she didn’t want to be there, she didn’t want a hung-over Sunday, and her car was on the street, warm, dry and primed for her getaway.
Laura’s home was an immaculate 18th-century town house, grand in its understated finesse, every piece a good piece, wine from an old decanter into their old wine glass collection. These were not glasses that you could break with impunity and was glad that she only had to deal with one, the larger less fragile-looking one for water.
‘Yes, that’s right, a while back now though…’ A man, an old school friend of Giles, single and no doubt in possession of a good fortune had been seated next to her, inevitably. She explained that she and Laura had worked together in Simon’s studio, and stayed in touch when she went freelance. Soon after that Laura was married.
‘Oh yes, of course…’ Anna nodded vigorously as if it all came flooding back when in fact it didn’t; this man, Adam, at the wedding with an incredibly tall girl who ran off with a long-haired Australian who worked in a bar round the corner from his flat in Earls Court. He shrugged.
‘C’est la vie, mon amie!’ he barked into her ear.
Soon Anna heard that Laura was pregnant. And in the space of Anna’s two disastrous relationships, one with an architect who wanted her to do very unpleasant things and another with a session musician whose kitchen wall boasted a simply staggering ‘50p off’ voucher collection, Laura produced two more babies. For her, paper conservation became history, filed away somewhere after school and college.
‘C’est la vie, yes I suppose so, yes!’ Her voice rang false, if it could do such a thing, like her phone voice, or the voice she employed when delivering something to a dealer she didn’t like.
Laura had married well. She had graduated into another world. From famished spinsterhood to matrimonial glut. Giles was a ceramics dealer, the best in the business. Laura looked good on it. Expensively good, like everything else. The meal was faultless. Curls bobbed delightedly and what with the old glass tinkling and the silverware and candlelight the whole thing felt like a costume drama; an adaption of some great classic by… oh, you know, yes, him. Anna started to feel slightly hysterical, enjoying the clarity of sobriety and watching others getting stupid with drink. This is where the chinks appear, she thought. Oh, the relief of booze for the poor dolls’ house folk. At last, they can put their metaphorical feet up and let their metaphorical hair down.
She remembered a telly ad not so long ago, for a car, and in this ad there is a dinner party, very much like this one, all soft light and white teeth and exaggerated facial expressions as if playing to the Theatre Royal: the guests are discussing their friends who have gone off to set up a motel in Timbuktu or somewhere extremely hip and shabby chic and involving a great deal of disposal cash, and they are all bitter and jealous as hell and speculating about how long they’ll last without Sainsbury’s or leg wax, while of course we, the viewer, know that they are blissed out and barefoot in paradise, but with, of course, the indispensable new car, the very essence of the world that they, the traitor and his hairy legged wife could not possibly do without. Yes, it’s just like that tonight, she thought, these people are advertising themselves, surreptitiously assessing each other, their zipped up status anxiety starting to bust out. She felt that her arty-ness exempted her from the normal means test while her single status made the wives nervous, her childlessness barring her from that particular club too and her refusal of booze only adding to her exile. It was unbearable. Laura shooed the reluctant Retriever into a back room, and she longed to go with him, to curl up in his basket and dream of licking plates.
Giles has started telling stories, end of dinner anecdotes. He has a client, he doesn’t name names, but raises his eyebrows to imply any number of possibles, an MP perhaps, or a pop star, he says it’s not important who, but Anna guesses that to him, it is, very. This anonymous VIP is a ceramics collector of the highest order. They are his passion, his life; he loans regularly to exhibitions; he owns a seminal piece from every seminal period and place. His 20th-century collection is peerless, Léger, Braque, Dufy, Cocteau, Miró, Delaunay, Chagall, Piper, Picasso, Leech, Rie, and on it goes. Naturally, he owes it all to Giles, to his pointing him in the direction of the right pieces. Dealer as matchmaker. Dealer as conduit, teacher, guide, almost as if it were philanthropic, an act of charity on Giles’ part, bringing these two needy folk together, presiding over the marriage of artist and collector, leading them both out of the darkness. Yes, Giles, you are a genius. Fancy rescuing that Bernard Leech from that old man’s garage sale, where it could have remaining in obscurity, and yes, a hundred pounds to him was a lot of money, yes, it was! Curls bob in agreement; Pouilly-Fumé folds into antique glass like golden ribbon. Giles has the Midas touch, an old pot in a garage turned to gold, his wife’s mousey hair is now gold, his thrown back head roaring with some quip reveals that his teeth are gold at the back as if he had been chewing on bullion.
Yes, it was he, really, who created that collection. But having your name put to it, ownership, well frankly, it could be seen as vulgar couldn’t it, in this day and age? Unless of course, you were going to donate it all to a museum, like whatsisname, you know. I mean you get the kudos of your name over the door, but it is thanks to you that other people get to see the pieces… Anyway, dealing the stuff seemed more honest somehow. Did that sound stupid? Chins wobble and curls bob. No, no, no! Quite right! Quite right! Anyway who’d want the responsibility? Of course, bloody Antiques Roadshow changed everything for the trade. Joe Bloggs suddenly thought he knew it all. Went and got a second opinion. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing for us dealers! Makes Giles all the cleverer for continuing to thrive, attacked as he is on all sides by TV and eBay.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, ‘A bird somehow, through some vent, or down some flue, it beggars belief, it scarcely seems feasible that the chimney was unblocked, a bird, some bird, some damn bird, got into the 20th century room when he was on holiday, the bloody thing managed to avoid the alarm sensors but that was all it bloody well avoided – everything smashed, everything. An effing bomb site!’
Anna pictured the scene, heard the sound of jugs and pots and plates, because that’s what they are, after all, crashing, smashing, she saw them swaying on their plinths in those few catchable moments but most of all she heard the flapping, the hopeless thudding against the cruel illusion of glass, the panic the desperation the…
‘No one knew what the hell had happened – no break in, nothing. Bird shit everywhere. He thought it might have been some girl he’d upset, his wife even, but God can you imagine?’ The table is aghast. ‘NO!’ is its collective howl, ‘NO!’ But… surely… How on earth… When… Why… Wasn’t it in the press… What? Restored? Sold? To whom? Some credulous Japanese? NO! I don’t believe it! Jesus H Christ! The insurance company must have had a fucking heart attack! I don’t know about them darling, but I bloody well very damn nearly did!’ Giles, winking at Anna and saying, ‘Shame you’re not a ceramics restorer eh darling?’
‘But … what about the bird?’
A tinkle of silver on china.
The chorus of incredulity is pure music hall. The tinkling ceased, the curls fell still. There was a deathly hush, broken at last by one man’s roar of laughter.
‘Good one Anna! The bloody bird! …Actually, Giles, what did happen to the damn bird?!’
Everyone joined in. Anna tried to smile, to force a laugh, ‘Ha, ha, ha.’ She felt sick.
The bird the bird the bird the bird the bird ringing in her ears as air kisses and thank-yous and lovely evenings flutter into the London night. She is set free with her old coat under her arm, tears stacking up behind her mascara, the cold tentacles of the night reaching out, home so far away, through so many streets and past so many lives, so many dinner parties and banished dogs. The bird the bird the bird the bird the bobbing curls turn into judges’ wigs, the jelly chins accuse. She leans her head against the steering wheel for a minute before turning the key in the ignition.
So what is value? Why is something inanimate worth more than a living thing? She wondered why she hadn’t ever really thought about it before. What gave something made, manufactured, something which could be restored or replicated, more value than life itself? That mystifying force, that thing that no dissection could ever reveal. Was it that, or rather the lack of it that made a man made object something to treasure? Because it could be treasured, understood, possessed, forever? Or because it’s the best we can do?
Objects, old glasses, things, had achieved the ultimate – they were immortal, whereas the sparrow can die, can be free and then die. Life itself is beyond us; we cannot make it, it’s out of our league, priceless, therefore we have to devalue it, sometimes even make it worthless. Until we can recreate it, it’s beyond value. Not human life of course, not your own flesh and blood, we all know that, but small life, animal life, life that lives on this planet in a way we cannot, surviving in a way we can’t… We turn away from it shrugging our shoulders. We just can’t go there. And why could she be more moved by the death of a bird, or a chained up bear on TV than the news of yet another humanitarian crisis? Did this make her a bad person, someone whose values were skew-whiff? Or whose development had been stunted, stopping round about Walt Disney? Or was it that animals symbolise innocence, purity, creatures whose world we humans have disrupted so completely, building chimneys to fall down and roads to cross. It’s our fault, ours, not theirs, and yet we too are only doing what has come naturally to us, or are we? Or was it her own innocence she grieved for? Her own expulsion from paradise?
Then, near Regent’s Park, as if to illustrate her thoughts, she saw it run out in front of the cab, try to change course, but it was too late. The cab drives on, as merciless as death. At first, she thinks it’s a cat, no, it’s a fox, a young one, not a cub, just old enough to be alone. She brakes, pulls over and sees the animal trying to drag itself back to the roadside. She runs back to find it collapsed, half on, half off the kerb, its foreleg at the wrong angle, a dent in its young head and blood seeming to come from its velour ear. Its chest is pumping; its eyes wide with shock and terror, she sees it see her, and knows it can do nothing to escape her, as it would, if only it could. Like a fish yanked from the canal by her brother and his friends, gasping helplessly on the bank as they clapped, laughing at her pleas to, ‘Put him back! Put him back!’
She’d never been this close to a real fox. The hunted and reviled thing, swung dead around her Great-grandmother’s shoulders in a stern sepia photograph, tatty, stuffed and faded in a provincial museum’s display, amateurishly poised to pounce. She put one hand beneath its lower back, one under its shoulder. Its head lolled as she lifted; blood dripping onto her wrist, onto her old coat. She heard some voice in her head tell her to leave it but she couldn’t, not there to be pressed flat like a wildflower and picked over by pigeons. She carried it in the half-light to the turnstile exit of the park, squeezed through the gap, the arms of the thing poking and prodding her like a reproachful crowd. She took him to where there were some shrubs and laid him down, near the sweetness of exposed earth. She moved away and sat down on the dampness; a white plastic bag fluttered in the bush behind the creature like surrender as she waited for it to die. It didn’t take long. Life flew out in a breath like a trapped bird finding an open window, leaving the room shocked by stillness, an intensity of absence, pieces of pottery rocking in shock.
Photo: Paulo Brandao