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Authors: A.S. Byatt

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BOOK: The Matisse Stories
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Debbie types ‘new moulding techniques give new streamlined shapes to the most banal objects. Sink trays and storage jars …’ Banal is the wrong word, she thinks. Everyday? Wrong too. The Hoover snorts on the turning of the stair. The doorbell rings. A voice of pure male rage rings out from the top floor.

‘Debbie. Debbie, are you there? Just come here a moment.’

Debbie is torn. Mrs Brown abandons the Hoover and all its slack, defunct-seeming tubes, along the banisters.

‘You attend to
him
, and I’ll just let the doctor in and say you’ll be down directly.’

Debbie negotiates the Hoover and goes up the attic stairs.

‘Look,’ says Debbie’s husband, Robin. ‘Look what she has done. If you can’t get it into her head that she mustn’t muck about with my work-things she’ll have to go.’

Robin has the whole third floor, once three bedrooms,
a tiny room with a sink and a lavatory, as his studio. He has large pivoting windows set into the roof, with linen blinds, a natural cream, a terracotta. He can have almost whatever light he likes from whatever angle. Debbie feels her usual knot of emotions, fear that Robin will shout at Mrs Brown, fear that Mrs Brown will take offence, rage and grim gratitude mixed that it is always to her that he addresses his complaints.

‘The doctor has come for Jamie, darling,’ Debbie says. ‘I must go, he won’t have long.’

‘This bowl,’ says Robin Dennison, ‘this bowl, as anyone can see, is a work of art. Look at that glaze. Look at those huge satisfactory blue and orange fruits in it, look at the green leaves and the bits of yellow, just
look
, Debbie. Now I ask you, would anyone suppose this bowl was a kind of
dustbin
for things they were too lazy to put away or carry off, would they, do you suppose, anyone
with their wits about them
, would they?’

‘What’s the matter?’ says Debbie neutrally, her ear turned to the stairs.

‘Look
, ‘cries Robin. The bowl, both sumptuously decorated and dusty, contains a few random elastic bands, a chain of paperclips, an obscure plastic cog from some
tiny clock, a battered but unused stamp, two oil pastels, blue and orange, a piece of dried bread, a very short length of electric wire, a dead chrysanthemum, three coloured thumbtacks (red, blue, green), a single lapis cufflink, an electric bulb with a burnt patch on its curve, a box of matches, a china keyhole cover, two indiarubbers, a dead bluebottle and two live ants, running in circles, possibly busy, possibly frantically lost.

‘Her habits are filthy,’ says Robin.

Debbie looks around the studio, which is not the habitation of a tidy man. Apart from the inevitable mess, splashed palettes, drying canvases, jars of water, there are other heaps and dumps. Magazines, opened and closed, wineglasses, beer glasses, bottles, constellations of crayons and pencils, unopened messages from the Income Tax, saucers of clips and pins.

‘It is hard for anyone to tell what to leave alone, up here, and what to clear up.’

‘No, it isn’t. Dirt is dirt, and personal
things
, things in use, are things in use. All it requires is intelligence.’

‘She seems to have found that cufflink you were going on about.’

‘I expect I found it myself, and put it down somewhere safe, and she interfered with it.’

All this is part of a ritual dialogue which Debbie can hardly bear to hear again, let alone to utter her own banal parts of it, and yet she senses it is somehow necessary to their survival. She does not wholly know whether it is necessary because Robin needs to assert himself and win, or because if she does not stand between Robin and Mrs Brown Mrs Brown will leave. She does not need to think about it any more; she turns and hearkens to it, like Donne’s other compass half, like a heliotrope.

‘She could see I was painting
exactly
that dish.’

Indeed, there are sketches in charcoal, in coloured chalks, of exactly that dish, on an expanse of grained wood, propped up around the studio.

It crosses Debbie’s mind that Mrs Brown used exactly that dish as a picking-up receptacle for exactly that reason. Mrs Brown has her own modes of silent aggression. She does not raise this idea. Robin is neither moved by nor interested in Mrs Brown’s feelings.

‘Shall I take them all and throw them away in the bin in my study, darling? And dust your bowl for you?’

‘Wait a minute. Those are quite all right rubber bands. I was using that bread for rubbing out. The matches are OK, nothing wrong with them. Some of us can’t afford to throw good tools away, you know.’

‘Where shall I put them?’

‘Just stick them on the table over there. I’ll see to them myself. Dust the bowl, please.’

Debbie does as he asks, abstracting the cufflink, which she will return to his dressing-table. She looks at her husband, who glares back at her, and then gives a smile, like a rueful boy. He is a long, thin, unsubstantial man in jeans and a fisherman’s smock, with big joints, knuckles and wrists and ankles, like an adolescent, which he is not. He has a very English face, long and fine and pink and white, like a worried colt. His soft hair is pushed up all round his head like a hedgehog and is more or less the same colour as one. His eyes are an intense blue, like speedwells. A photographer could choose between making him look like a gentle mystic and making him look like a dedicated cricketer. A painter could choose between a haziness at the edges, always light, never heavy, and very clear sketched-in features,
bones, a brow, a chin, a clearcut nose, in a kind of pale space.

‘You
have
managed to make her understand about the fetishes.’

‘It took long enough,’ he grumbles. ‘I even gave her lectures on tones and complementary colours, I just
stood
there with the things and showed her.’

‘I should think that was interesting for her.’

‘She should know her job, without all that fuss. Anyway, it worked, I grant you that it worked.’

‘I must go, darling, the doctor’s here. Do you want coffee when he’s gone, shall I bring you a mug?’

‘Yes please. That will be nice.’

He is not apologising, but the ritual confrontation is over. Debbie kisses him. His cheek is soft. She says,

‘Have you heard from that girl from the Callisto Gallery, yet?’

‘I don’t think she’ll come. I don’t think she ever meant to come.’

‘Yes, she did,’ said Debbie. ‘I talked to her, too. She really liked that blue and yellow plate picture Toby has got in his loo. She said she didn’t think much of Toby’s
taste in general, but that was exquisite, she said, she said she just sat there staring at it and caused an awful queue!’

‘She was probably drunk.’

‘Don’t be
silly
, Robin. She’ll turn up, I know. I don’t say things I don’t mean, do I?’

Debbie doesn’t know whether the girl, Shona McRury, will turn up or not, but she says she will, with force, because it is better for her, as well as for Robin, if he is in a hopeful mood. Deborah loves Robin. She has loved him since they met at Art School, where she studied Graphic Design and he studied Fine Art. She wanted to be a wood-engraver and illustrate children’s books. What she loved about Robin was the quality of his total dedication to his work, which had a certain austere separateness from everyone else’s work. Those were the days of the sixties, in fact the early seventies, when much painting was abstract, washes of colour and no colour, geometric patterns, games with the nature of canvas and pigment and the colours of light and their effect on the eye. Robin was a neo-realist before neo-realism. He painted what he saw, metal surfaces, wooden surfaces, plaster surfaces, with hallucinatory skill and accuracy.

He painted expanses of neutral colours—wooden planks, glass table-tops, beige linen, crumbling plaster, and somewhere, somewhere unexpected, not quite in a corner, not quite in the centre, not where the folds were pulling from or the planks ran, he painted something very small and very brilliant, a glass ball, a lustre vase, a bouquet of bone china flowers (never anything alive), a heap of feathers. It was just this side of kitsch, then and now. It could have been turned into sweet prints and sold in folders in gift shops, then, for its wit, now for its nostalgic emptiness containing verisimilitude. But Debbie saw that it was a serious attempt at a serious and terrible problem, an attempt to answer the question every artist must ask him or herself, at some time, why bother, why make representations of anything at all?

She said to him, seeing her first two of the series, a hexagonal Chinese yellow box on a grey blanket, a paperweight on a kitchen table, ‘They are miraculous, they are like those times when time seems to stop, and you just
look
at something, and
see
it, out of time, and you feel surprised that you can see at all, you are
so surprised
, and the seeing goes on and on, and gets better and better…’

‘Is that what you see in them?’ he said.

Oh yes. Isn’t that what you meant?’

‘It is exactly what I meant. But nobody’s ever seen it. Or nobody’s ever said it, anyway.’

‘I expect they do, really’

‘Sometimes I think, it just looks—ordinary—to other people.
Unprivileged
things, you know.’

‘How could it?’ said Debbie.

Sex makes everything shine, even if it is not privileged, and Debbie made Robin happy and their happiness made his pictures seem stranger and brighter, perhaps even made them, absolutely, stranger and brighter. When they got married, Robin had a few hours part-time teaching in a college, and Debbie, whose degree gave her more marketable skills, got a job doing layout in a corset-trade magazine, and then a subordinate job in
A Woman’s Place
, and then promotion. She was good, she was well-paid, she was the breadwinner. It seemed silly for Robin to go on teaching at all, his contribution was so meagre. Debbie’s head was full of snazzy swimsuits and orange vats of carrot soup with emerald parsley sprinkled in it, with lipsticks from grape and plum to poppy and rose, with eyegloss and blusher
and the ghosts of unmade woodcuts. Her fingers remembered the slow, careful work in the wood, with a quiet grief, that didn’t diminish, but was manageable. She hated Robin because he never once mentioned the unmade wood-engravings. It is possible to feel love and hate quite quietly, side by side, if one is a self-contained person. Debbie continued to love Robin, whilst hating him because of the woodcuts, because of the extent of his absence of interest in how she managed the house, the children, the money, her profession, his needs and wants, and because of his resolute attempts to unsettle, humiliate, or drive away Mrs Brown, without whom all Debbie ‘s balancing acts would clatter and fall in wounding disarray.

Left to himself, Robin Dennison walks agitated up and down his studio. He is over forty. He thinks, I am over forty. He prevents himself, all the time now, from seeing his enterprise, his work, his life, as absurd. He is not suited to the artistic life, in most ways. By upbringing and temperament, he should have been a solicitor or an accountant, he should have worn a suit and fished for trout and played cricket. He has no great self-confidence, no braggadocio, no real or absolute disposition
to the sort of self-centred isolation he practises. He does it out of a stubborn faithfulness to a vision he had, a long time ago now, a vision which has never expanded or diminished or taken its teeth out of him. He was given a set of gouache paints by an aunt when he was a boy, and painted a geranium, and then a fish-tank. He can still remember the illicit, it seemed to him, burst out of sensuous delight with which he saw the wet carmine trail of his first flick of the brush, the slow circling of the wet hairs in a cobalt pool, the dashes of yellow ochre and orange, as he conjured up, on matt white, wet and sinuous fish-tails and fins. He was not much good at anything else, which muted any familial conflict over his choice of future. With his brushes in his hand he could
see
, he told himself, through art school. Without them, he was grey fog in a world of grey fog. He painted small bright things in large expanses of grey and buff and beige. Everyone said,
‘He’s got
something,’ or more dubiously, ‘He’s got
something.’
Probably not enough, they qualified this, silently to themselves, but Robin heard them well enough, for all that.

He could talk to Debbie. Debbie knew about his vision of colour, he had told her, and she had listened. He
talked to her agitatedly at night about Matisse, about the paradoxical way in which the pure sensuousness of
Luxe, calme et volupté
could be a religious experience of the nature of things. Not softness, he said to Debbie,
power
, calm power.

Debbie said yes, she understood, and they went to the South of France for a holiday, to be in the strong light, la-bas. This was a disaster. He tried putting great washes of strong colour on the canvas, â la Matisse, â la Van Gogh, and it came out watery and feeble and absurd, there was nothing he could do. His only successful picture of that time was a kind of red beetle or bug and a large shining green-black scarab and a sulphurous butterfly on a seat of pebbles, grey and pinkish and sandy and buff and white and terracotta, you can imagine the kind of thing, it is everywhere in all countries, a variegated expanse of muted pebbles. Extending to all the four corners of the world of the canvas, a stony desert, with a dead leaf or two, and some random straws, and the baleful insects. He sold that one to a gallery and had hopes, but heard no more, his career did not take off, and they never went back to the strong light, they take their holidays in the Cotswolds.

Robin has ritualised his life dangerously, but this is not, as he thinks it is, entirely because of his precarious vocation. His father, a Borough Surveyor, behaved in much the same way, particularly with regard to his distinction between his own untouchable ‘things’ and other people’s, especially the cleaning-lady’s ‘filth’. Mr Dennison, Mr Rodney Dennison, used to shout at and about the ‘charwoman’ if pipe-dottle was thrown away, or soap-fragments amalgamated, or scattered bills tidily gathered. He, like Robin with Mrs Brown, used to feel a kind of panic of constriction, like the pain of sinus-fluid thickening in the skull-pockets, when threatened by tidy touches. He, like Robin, used to see Mrs Briggs’s progress like a snail-trail across his private spaces. Robin puts it all down to Art. He does not ask himself if his hatred of Mrs Brown is a deflected resentment of his helplessness in the capable hands of his wife, breadwinner and life-manager. He knows it is not so: Debbie is beautiful and clean and represents order. Mrs Brown is chaotic and wild to look at and a secret smoker and represents—even while dispersing or re-distributing it—‘filth’.

BOOK: The Matisse Stories
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