Read My First Colouring Book Online

Authors: Lloyd Jones

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My First Colouring Book (9 page)

BOOK: My First Colouring Book
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Shocked by a huge rush of adrenalin my heart shivered: a sparrow's last wing-flutter as the cat's needle-mouth stitched it into the tapestry of death; I came close to madness, nearly dropped to my knees, nearly fastened myself to her perfectly-formed leg, came close to pawing her burnt carmine dress pitifully, whining, making a complete bloody fool of myself in our metal tumbrel. I hid my shame with my hands, wrested my eyes off her juvenile breasts and quelled the uprising which had swept through my head, travelled down my chest, past my febrile heart, a peasant's revolt sounding drums and clarions, firing shots in the air, waving banners, seditious and streaked red as it plunged downwards into the gorge between my legs, mutinous, making me tremble, leaving me with toothless
tricoteurs
in the van, ready and willing
toute de suite
to enact my trial and execution in the pouring rain, my blood spreading along the farmyard floor, watered-down vin rouge running through the hens' talons, through Lucky's sodden and bedraggled paws, into the drains.

Ready to face my fate, ready for the zing of the speeding guillotine, I fingered my neck and prepared a brief but moving farewell speech, referring dutifully to my family and declaring my love for she of the violet eyes. In a calm but plaintive voice I told a seething horde in the, by now, hushed Place de la Concorde that although my love was but a few hours old, and although I was staring death in the face, I was the most fortunate man alive since I had tasted a
coup de lumiere
, a grand passion of the highest and noblest kind, indeed I was happy to go to my death that very day since I could rejoice in the knowledge that no other love, ever, in the history of the western world, had exceeded or could possibly emulate mine etc, etc.

I cast meaningful glances at Violette while I delivered this panegyric to the tumultuous masses as they seethed on the blood-soaked cobbles; they would spare my life forthwith and promote me to the position of the First Republic's chef d'amour, giving me her hand in marriage, as one would expect,
naturellement
.

Thud! would sound the guillotine behind us as we threaded our way through the crowd, towards the Left Bank where I would become an existentialist and she a painter, lovely fingers streaked carmine, burnt umber, French grey, violet, living dangerously and sleeping fitfully under an intense Parisian sky, playing chess moodily by the Seine; we'd drink coffee and share unspoken moments of
tendresse
following endless nights of tempestuous passion, her ardour pinned in butterfly beauty on the rumpled white sheets of our garret bed.

While I delivered my mute speech to the masses a commotion spread through the van and for a moment I thought we had joined a frieze from French history c1789, since everyone had turned to face the back of our tumbrel with excited and flushed faces – as if Marie Antoinette herself was in the cart behind us, clutching an exquisite silk handkerchief to her powdered breast: some of our company pointed, others exclaimed loudly. The air had cleared a little, enough to let us see the road snaking behind us, and a sight of tremendous beauty met our eyes, truly amazing: shimmering masses of ball lightning were descending from the heavens and bouncing off the ground like so many footballs at a pre-match practice session; they reminded me, for a moment, of the torsos of snowmen, made in winter by little boys with snow-encrusted mittens, begun with a snowball and rolled until too large to move; rough-hewn, lop-sided, fluffed all over with puffy snow – and just like fat snowmen's bodies the balls of lightning shimmered down to earth, wobbling, jellies on the run, luminescent, evanescent, space-glowed, alive, frightening, getting closer, threatening, magnificent, unforgettable, and exactly the same colour as Violette's eyes!
Vraiment!

I tugged at her sleeve and when she looked at me I pointed to her eyes and then at the balls of fire behind us – and yes, yes! she afforded me the briefest of Mona Lisa smiles before returning her gaze to Venus, before returning her heart to the icy hospital container where it had lain until now, frozen, waiting for a suitable donor.

We escaped, but only just. It grew darker, we fell silent. All the way home we said nothing, none of us, silhouettes in the tumbrel, returning to the Bastille. We disembarked and petite Violette disappeared from my life for ever. We four musketeers left for home the next day. Our working holiday was over; it was time to return, to live normal lives again. Chris and Jo went on ahead together, heading for la Manche with an eight-inch Bowie knife in Chris' rucksack; a shiny new knife with a mouthful of wolfish, serrated teeth. We looked at it silently for a long time before he sheathed it.

On the morning of our departure I went down to the village café-bar to say goodbye. I don't know what happened exactly, but I think I drank too much strong coffee on top of a bad hangover; in the next few hours I came apart. As I started hitching with Tim, he and I the last two remaining musketeers, I descended into a frightening abyss, bitten by the black dog. I became panicky, shaky, very depressed.

France being France, no-one wanted to give us a lift and we stood at the roadside for hour after hour, dust creeping up our jeans until we had white puttees. Eventually a 2CV rolled up and I breathed a huge sigh of relief: I just wanted to get out of there.

I was about to get into the car when Tim's hand hauled me back. I had just enough time to see what he had glimpsed before I dived into the car's shady interior: a gigantic hulk of a man with long unruly hair, shrouded in a big black coat, straddling the back seat and playing with a flick knife. We moved away from him as fast as we could. I believe that Tim saved my life that day. Had I been alone, exhausted and emotionally vulnerable, I would have jumped in, I would have chanced it. But without doubt we were intended for a shallow grave somewhere deep inside a forest.

The years passed by and our trip to France became a fantasy; when we met occasionally in pubs we talked about the good old days, as you do. About old Bruyes and Lucky, the storm, the cherry orchard, the vigilante hens, the violet thunderballs. We remembered different things. Tim remembered his frequent trips up and down the ladder because he ate too many cherries and they made him want to wee all the time. Jo remembered all the tunes on the jukebox in the café-bar. Nobody else remembered the girl with the violet eyes, nobody except me. But we all remembered Chris' trip to Marseilles to buy the knife.

So it was with an awful sense of fate that we all happened to be sitting in separate pubs, independently, when we heard the news. A man had been stabbed in the next town; he was dead. He hadn't been stabbed with the Bowie knife he'd bought in Marseilles, but it was Chris who'd died. And although he hadn't been named as yet we all thought of him and no-one else, straight away, when we heard the news.

From that day on I have believed in fate – not as something preordained, but as a collection of possibilities and probabilities heaped inside two buckets and balanced on the fulcrum of an ancient weighing machine somewhere just like Bruyes' orchard, see-sawing throughout the duration of our lives. In a matter of seconds only, when the weight of the world tipped one way or the other, it was Chris who was taken down to the guillotine and it was I who was spared.

chocolate

HE remembered the room as rather old-fashioned, even then, dowdy and cluttered and squashed, with frayed seats and dusty corners. People still smoked at work and took their sandwiches with them in tins or plastic Tupperware containers which released personalised wafts of cheesy or fishy smells into the air. Old Tom had died on the job many years previously but his gunmetal sandwich box was still used to hold the tea money – and still it percolated old aromas into the atmosphere. Anwen the older-than-sin cleaner had scrubbed it many times and even kept soap in it for a while, but it continued to exude Tom's spiritual dinners, as if it had been an amphora containing rich wine set aside for Odysseus' long-awaited return. At lunchtime a no-nonsense programme of cheese and tomato, fishpaste, or ham and mustard hit the airwaves. Tastes were simple, exotica rare. Some people were still described as poets or intellectuals with awed reverence. Doctors were saints and politicians were damned clever, to a man. That was a long time ago and he struggled to picture it in his mind. But a few memories lingered on in ghostly isolation.

From the window to his left, glued shut by countless layers of old paint, he recalled a view over slate rooftops aslant, more often than not shining with fresh rain, their purples and mauves coming to life under the constant showers which varnished them. On the windowsill squatted a big brass plant-holder, Victorian and vulgar with embossed nymphs or caryatids rippling the metal and dead flies clogging a dusty necklace of spider-silk inside it. Within this bulbous, Brasso-profundo monstrosity reclined an aspidistra or suchlike, brought back to life periodically after bouts of neglect, its long crooked stems naked without the leaves it had shed during enforced droughts.

Morgan had started as a junior in that office, indentured. Now, in the conservatory of his rather grand home, he chuckled to himself and said the word over and over again.
Indentured
. He sat passively with his useless legs tucked under a crimson rug, under strict orders not to move.
Indentured
, he said again to the plant by his elbow. A contract of employment – a thing of the past, like him. He tried to formulate a pun about dentures, for his own were loose and hurtful, but his mind refused to grapple with the words. He toyed with the crumbs in his lap, feeling their texture under his fingertips, and then he returned to the past again. After his indentureship he'd qualified and gone on to consolidate his career in the little office at the top of the stairs – the only room in the world for him then.

Mags brought him a fresh cup of tea and busied around him, tidying his newspaper. He'd been ordered to drink plenty of fluids, so she sat in the wicker chair opposite him, across the table, nagging him silently into taking a few sips. Time slipped by and when he next looked up she'd dropped off to sleep under the heat of the glass. He studied her, dispassionately. Again, he went back to that office where they'd met for the first time, more than fifty years ago. He tried to recover the pungent smell of the printer's ink and the hot lead, fresh white paper and beery masculine smells in the compositing room. When she was taken on suddenly – the firm was going through a period of prosperity – there had been nowhere for her to sit so she'd been given a spot on his table, after he'd been consulted in the corridor outside by his boss, in whispers. He knew he had no choice, though he was used to having the table to himself. It was a large but surprisingly light affair made of ash with a square section of inlaid baize in the centre. A typewriter had arrived on it one Friday afternoon, and the following Monday morning Mags had been ushered in to sit behind it. He'd bumbled to his feet, as was the custom then, and stammered a welcome. Small talk wasn't encouraged, so he glanced at her whenever he thought she wasn't looking in his direction, as subtly and indirectly as he could manage. As the days passed into months the paraphernalia of office life gathered around her, partly obscuring her from his gaze. She became a fixture at the end of his green baize table. He was able to study her in the soft slatted light which lit up the aspidistra and wove a delicate pattern of blind-slats and green plant-shadows in her chestnut hair. She took responsibility for the plant immediately and it prospered; she was quickly popular, and he sometimes felt envious of the easy rapport she shared with the other staff. One day it occurred to him that the distance between them across the table was somehow too formal, almost ceremonial – just as configured as a boardroom table, or even the round table at Camelot.

One damp Sunday afternoon, fresh from chapel and inspired by something the visiting preacher had said, he decided to make a scale map of the room where they worked.

He went in early on the Monday morning and measured the place as accurately as he could with his feet, planting his shoes one after the other in a slow caravan across the desert of the office floor. The preacher had talked about dimensions: in particular, the cubit as the distance between the elbow and the tip of the middle finger, an ancient measurement quoted in the Bible as it described Noah making his ark. The preacher had pumped himself up and hit a state of
hwyl
-inspired excitement delivered in a singsong voice, his spade beard waggling with emotion. He'd finished off with the fathom – the six feet or so between fingertip and fingertip when the human arms were outstretched. Nowadays, thought Morgan, he'd have mentioned the Angel of the North. Why did the human race have to fathom everything out, the preacher had asked, why couldn't people leave everything in the hands of God?

After pacing out the office Morgan had taken his measurements home, inside his lunchbox. On his way from work that Monday evening he'd bought some graph paper at WH Smith and pushed it under his coat hurriedly, while he was still in the doorway, damaging it slightly. In pencil at first, and then with coloured pens, he'd drawn out the floor plan and added (in black) each arc and interstice. Once this was done he'd noticed that his own seat fell on an interstice while hers didn't, lying outside any of the black lines which connected all the other points of the room. Armed with this information he studied her avidly, day by day, watching the shafts of light criss-crossing the room and meeting in sunny places, doubling the yellowness where they met. He watched the sunshine as it candyflossed her hair, or threw her profile in shades of peach and butter. Sometimes the sun made her eyelids luminous, finely webbed with her bloodlines. At such times she seemed scented and feminine and vulnerable. On other days the soft down on the back of her neck glowed and burred in the summer light, and during those moments she seemed vigorous and robust. Then she was gone, leaving for another job as suddenly as she came.

BOOK: My First Colouring Book
5.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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