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Authors: Vincent O'Sullivan

Owen Marshall Selected Stories (8 page)

BOOK: Owen Marshall Selected Stories
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I think the whole thing might have petered out, if Rainbow hadn't come. Even in an all out fight there were rules: you knew that no one would deliberately poke anything in your eye, or hold your head under water longer than you could hold your breath. Rainbow was different. He liked to hurt people, did Rainbow. He stepped up on to the bank by the willows, and halted our forward progress. He had a thick stick. ‘So it's Tech against High,' said Rainbow. His features were gathered closely on his round head, like sprout marks on a
coconut. He held the stick in front of Ken, and Ken stopped. The rest of us did nothing. We did nothing not just because Rainbow Johnston was a fifth former, but because he was Rainbow Johnston. And deep down we were glad he'd picked on Ken, and not on us.

‘I'm pax,' said Ken. It was the best he could think of, and its incongruity set the Tech guys laughing.

‘Pax!' said Rainbow bitterly. ‘We don't have any pax between Tech and High.' He drew back his stick, and speared it out at Ken, catching him on the side of the chest. Ken fell on his back, and as his head hit the soft grass his hair flopped away from his face, making him seem even younger.

‘Ah, Jesus,' said Ken, and he got up and felt his side where he'd been struck. He laughed shakily and picked up his own stick in a show of defiance. Then he dropped his stick again, and began to cry. He slumped down on his knees and held his side. He arched his back and squeezed his eyes closed with the pain.

‘We've won,' said Creamy, before anyone else could think of a reaction to what had happened. Rainbow motioned with his stick towards the rest of us. ‘We've won,' repeated Creamy quietly. ‘You can stay and play in the hut, Rainbow.' Creamy had found the right note as ever. With the fight declared over, Rainbow felt a bit ashamed to be with third formers. He vaulted over the sagging willow trunk on to the riverbed, and slouched off upstream. ‘See you, Rainbow,' said Creamy.

‘Yeah,' said Rainbow.

Ken was still crying. There was some blood showing through his shirt from the graze, and Matthew and I helped him up. We began to go back to the bridge through the fennel. ‘They can't come here again, Creamy, can they?' called out Warwick. ‘It's Tech now.'

‘They can't come here again,' said Creamy. His face was the same, relaxed, and with the upper lip creating the impression of incipient humour. He didn't speak with any special triumph.

We broke down the fennel in our retreat, paying no attention
to the tunnels Creamy and I had made. I was glad Tech had won. I joined in the talk about the injustice of Rainbow being there, but I was glad they'd won. It gave a more general explanation for the end of our friendship — Creamy's and mine. There couldn't be any personal betrayal when it was a matter of Tech and High, a commitment to a cause. Ken was still crying, but with greater artifice as his sense of heroism grew. He leant to one side, and he held his shirt out so it wouldn't stick to his graze. The fennel fronds were like miniature conifers, smaller and smaller, each in the join of the other as marsupial embryos in a pouch. The oddly coastal smell of the crushed fennel was all about us. ‘I don't know that we lost, not really fair and square,' said Matthew. ‘If Rainbow hadn't been there I mean.' They could say what they liked, but for myself I knew I'd lost all right. And it was worse that, as I climbed from the fennel, up onto the road, I could understand what it was I'd lost, and why.

W
hen he went into hospital our newspaper said that Mr Van Gogh's name was Frank Reprieve Wilcox, and that was the first time I'd ever heard the name. But I knew Mr Van Gogh well enough. He came around the town sometimes on Sunday afternoons, and he would excuse himself for disturbing you and ask if there were any coloured bottles to carry on the work of Mr Vincent Van Gogh. Whether you gave him bottles or not, it was better never to enquire about his art, for he would stand by any back door on a Sunday afternoon and talk of Van Gogh until the tears ran down his face, and his gabardine coat flapped in agitation.

Only those who wanted to mock him, encouraged him to talk. Like Mr Souness next door who had some relatives from Auckland staying when Mr Van Gogh came, and got him going as a local turn to entertain the visitors. ‘Was he any good, though, this Van Gogh bugger?' Mr Souness said, nudging a relative, and, ‘But he was barmy, wasn't he? Admit it. He was another mad artist.' Mr Van Gogh never realised that there was no interest, only cruelty, behind such questions. He talked of the religious insight of Van Gogh's painting at Arles, and his genius in colour symbolism. He laughed and cried as he explained to Mr Souness's relations the loyalty of brother Theo, and the prescience of the critic Aurier. They were sufficiently impressed to ask Mr Van Gogh whether they could see his ears for a moment. Mr Souness and his relations stood around Mr Van Gogh, and laughed so loud when it was said, that I went
away from the fence without watching any more. Mr Van Gogh was standing before the laughter with his arms outstretched like a cross, and talking all the more urgently. Something about cypresses and the hills of Provence.

Mr Van Gogh had a war pension, and lived in a wooden bungalow right beside the bridge. The original colours of the house had given up their differences, and weathered stoically to an integration of rust and exposed wood. The iron on the roof was stained with rust, and looked much the same as the corrugated weatherboards. The garden was full of docks and fennel. It had two crab apple trees which we didn't bother to rob.

Mr Van Gogh didn't appear to have anything worth stealing. He used to paint in oils, my father said, but it was expensive and nothing ever sold, so he began to work in glass. No one saw any of his artwork, but sometimes when he came round on Sundays, he'd have a set of drinking glasses made out of wine bottles, or an ashtray to sell made out of a vinegar flagon. My father was surprised that they were no better than any other do it yourself product.

Although he had no proper job, Mr Van Gogh worked as though the day of judgement was upon him. He used his attached wash-house as a studio, and on fine days he'd sit in the doorway to get the sun. There he'd cut and grind and polish away at the glass. He would even eat in the doorway of the wash-house as he worked. He must have taken in a deal of glass dust with his sandwiches. Often I could see him as I went down to the river. If I called out to him, he'd say ‘Good on you', still working on the glass, grinding, cutting, polishing. If I was by myself I'd watch a while sometimes before going down to the river. One piece after another, none of them bigger than a thumbnail. A sheet of glass sheds the light, he said. They had to be small to concentrate the light. Some of the bits were thick and faceted, others so delicate he would hold them to the sun to check. Mr Van Gogh liked to talk of individual paintings as he worked — the poet's garden, street in Auvers, or starry night. He stored the different colours and shapes in
cardboard boxes that said Hard Jubes on the sides. Yellow was difficult, the colour of personal expression, Mr Van Gogh said, but so difficult to get right in glass. He bought yellow glass from Austria, but he'd never matched Van Gogh's yellow. He never thought so much of his yellow glass, he said, even from Austria.

Mr Van Gogh wasn't all that odd-looking. Sure, he had old-fashioned clothes — galoshes in winter and his gabardine coat with concealed buttonholes, and in summer his policemen and firemen braces over grey workshirts. But he was clean, and clean-shaven. His hair was long, though, and grey like his shirts. He combed it back from his face with his fingers, so that it settled in tresses, giving him the look of a careworn lion.

Because my father was a parson it was thought he should be responsible for Mr Van Gogh and other weird people. Mr Souness said that it was just as well that my father had something to occupy his time for the other six days of the week. Ministers get some odd people to deal with, I'd say. Reggie Kane was a peeping tom who had fits whether he saw anything or not, and Miss O'Conner was convinced that someone was trying to burn down her house at night, and she used to work in the vegetable garden in her nightdress. Our family knew Mr Van Gogh wasn't like the others, though most people treated him the same. My father said that Mr Van Gogh's only problem was that he'd made a commitment to something which other people couldn't understand. My father had a good deal of fellow-feeling for Mr Van Gogh in some ways. Mr Van Gogh would've been all right if his obsession had been with politics or horse-racing. He wouldn't have been a crackpot then.

Two or three times Mr Van Gogh came to our house to use the phone. He'd stand quietly at the door, and make his apologies for bothering us. He was ordering more yellow glass from Austria perhaps, or checking on his pension. Mr Van Gogh's humility was complete on anything but art. He was submissive even to the least deserving. On art, though, he would have argued with Lucifer, for it was his necessity
and power. It was what he was. His head would rise with his voice. He would rake back his grey hair, and for a moment the backward pressure would rejuvenate his face before the lines could appear again, the plumes of hair begin a faint cascade upon his forehead. He could be derisive and curt, fervent and eloquent, but people didn't understand. A naked intensity of belief is an obscene exposure in ordinary conversation. It was better not to start him off, my mother said.

When the council decided to make the bridge a two-lane one, Mr Van Gogh's house had to come down. The engineers said that the approaches to the new bridge would have to be at least twice the width of the bridge itself, and Mr Van Gogh's house was right next to the old bridge. Even the house next to Mr Van Gogh's would probably have to go, the consultant thought. Mr Van Gogh took it badly. He stuck up the backs of the letters the council wrote, and sent them back. He wouldn't let anyone inside to value the house. He wouldn't talk about compensation. The council asked my father to get Mr Van Gogh to see reason. My father said he was willing to try and explain the business, but he didn't know if he could justify it. The council didn't seem to recognise the distinction.

As far as I know, Mr Van Gogh never let anyone into his house. Even my father had to stand on the doorstep, and Mr Van Gogh stood just inside the door, and there was a blanket hanging across the hall behind him to block off the sight of anything to a visitor at the door. My mother said she could imagine the squalor of it behind the blanket. An old man living alone like that, she said.

My father did his best. So did the council and the Ministry of Works, I suppose. They selected two other houses to show Mr Van Gogh, and a retirement villa in the grounds of the combined churches' eventide home, but he wouldn't go to see them. He became furtive and worried. He'd hardly leave his house lest the people come and demolish it while he was away. The council gave Mr Van Gogh until the end of March to move out of his home. Progress couldn't be obstructed indefinitely, they said. Mr Souness looked forward
to some final confrontation. ‘The old bugger is holding up the democratic wishes of the town,' he said. He thought everyone had been far too soft on Mr Van Gogh.

In the end it worked out pretty well for the council people. Mrs Witham rang our house at teatime to say she'd seen Mr Van Gogh crawling from the wash-house into his front door, and that he must be drunk. My father and I went down to the bridge, and found Mr Van Gogh lying on his back in the hallway, puffing and blowing as he tried to breathe. ‘It's all right now,' said my father to Mr Van Gogh. What a place he was in, though. For through that worn, chapped doorway, and past the blanket, was the art and homage of Mr Van Gogh. Except for the floor, all the surfaces of the passage and lounge were the glass inlays of a Van Gogh vision. Some glass was set in like nuggets, winking as jewelled eyes from a pit. Other pieces were lenses set behind or before similarly delicate sections of different colours to give complexity of toning. The glass interior of Mr Van Gogh's home was an interplay of light and colour that flamed in green, and yellow, and prussian blue, in the evening sun across the riverbank. Some of the great paintings were there:
Red Vineyard, Little Pear Tree, View of
Arles with Irises
, each reproduced in tireless, faithful hues one way or another.

Mr Van Gogh lay like clay in the passage, almost at the lounge door. I thought that I was looking at a dying man. I blamed all that glass dust that he'd been taking in for years, but my father said it was something more sudden. He pulled down the blanket from the hall, and put it over Mr Van Gogh to keep him warm, then went down the path to ring the ambulance. The blanket hid Mr Van Gogh's workshirt and firemen's braces, but he didn't look much warmer. His face was the colour of a plucked chicken with just a few small veins high on his cheeks. Very small, twisted veins, that looked as if they didn't lead anywhere. I stood there beside him, and looked at his work on the walls. The yellow sun seemed to shine particularly on the long wall of the lounge where Mr Van Gogh had his own tribute
to the man we knew him as. In green glass cubes was built up the lettering of one of the master's beliefs — ‘Just as we take the train to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star' — and above that Mr Van Gogh's train to Tarascon and a star rose up the entire wall. The cab was blue, and sparks of pure vermilion flew away. It all bore no more relation to the dross of glasses and ashtrays that Mr Van Gogh brought round on Sundays, than the husk of the chrysalis to the risen butterfly.

My father came back and waited with me in the summer evening. ‘It has taken years to do, years to do,' he said. ‘So many pieces of glass.' The fire and life upon the walls and ceiling defied Mr Van Gogh's drained face. He'd spent all those years doing it, and it didn't help him. It rose like a phoenix in its own flame, and he wasn't part of it anymore, but lay on his back and tried to breathe. All the colour, and purpose, and vision of Mr Van Gogh had gone out of himself and was there on the walls about us.

Both the St John's men were fat. I thought at the time how unusual it was. You don't get many fat St John's men. They put an oxygen mask on Mr Van Gogh, and we all lifted him on to the stretcher. Even they stood for a few seconds, amazed by the stained glass. ‘Christ Almighty,' said one of them. They took Mr Van Gogh away on a trolley stretcher very close to the ground.

‘What do you think?' asked my father.

‘He won't necessarily die,' said the St John's man. He sounded defensive. ‘He's breathing okay now.'

Mr Van Gogh went into intensive care. The hospital said that he was holding his own, but Mr Souness said he wouldn't come out. He said that it was his ticker, that his ticker was about to give up on him. Anyway there was nothing to stop the council and the Ministry of Works from going ahead. People came from all over the town to see Mr Van Gogh's house before they pulled it down. There was talk of keeping one or two of the pictures, and the mayor had his photograph in the paper, standing beside the train to Tarascon
and a star. But the novelty soon passed, and the glass was all stuck directly to the walls with tile glue. The town clerk said there were no funds available to preserve any of it, and it was only glass anyway, he said. Someone left the door unlocked, and Rainbow Johnston and his friends got in and smashed a lot of the pictures. Mr Van Gogh's nephew came from Feilding, and took away the power tools.

My father and I went down to the river to see the house demolished. With Mr Van Gogh's neighbours, Mr Souness and the linesmen who had disconnected the power, we waited for it to come down. There were quite a few children too. The contractor had loosened it structurally, and then the dozer was put through it. The dozer driver's mate wore a football jersey and sandshoes. He kept us back on the road. Mr Van Gogh's place collapsed stubbornly, and without any dramatic noise, as if it were made of fabric rather than timber. The old walls stretched and tore.

Only once did my father and I get a glimpse of Mr Van Gogh's work beneath the weathered hide of the house. Part of the passage rose sheer from the wreckage for a moment, like a face card from a worn deck. All the glass in all its patterns spangled and glistened in yellow, red and green. Just that one projection, that's all, like the vivid, hot intestines of the old house, and then the stringy walls encompassed the panel again, and stretched and tore. The house collapsed like an old elephant in the drought, surrounded by so many enemies.

‘Down she comes,' cried the driver's mate, and the driver raised his thumb and winked. There was a lot of dust, and people backed away. Mr Souness kept laughing, and rubbed his knuckles into his left eye because of the dust.

‘All the time Mr Van Gogh spent,' I said to my father. ‘All that colour, all that glass.'

‘There'll always be a Mr Van Gogh somewhere,' my father said.

BOOK: Owen Marshall Selected Stories
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