As he walked through the maze of streets from the tube station he wondered just how long it had been since he had last visited this tall red-bricked house. For so many years it had been for him a pied à terre. Those years when the care of infant children dominated his days, when coming up to London for 48 hours seemed such a relief, an escape from the daily round that small people demand. Since his first visits twenty years ago the area bristled with new enterprise. An abandoned Victorian hospital had been turned into expensive apartments; small enterprising businesses had taken over what had been residential property of the pre-war years. Looking up he was conscious of imaginative conversions of roof and loft spaces. What had seemed a wide-ranging community of ages and incomes appeared to have disappeared. Only the Middle Eastern corner shops and restaurants gave back to the area something of its former character: a place where people worked and lived.
It was a tall thin house on four floors. Two rooms at most of each floor, but of a good-size. The ground floor was her London workshop, but as always the blinds were down. In fact, he realised, he’d never been invited into her working space. Over the years she’d come to the door a few times, but like many artists and craftspeople he knew, she fiercely guarded her working space. The door to her studio was never left open as he passed through the hallway to climb the three flights of stairs to her husband’s domain. There was never a chance of the barest peek inside.
Today, she was in New York, and from outside the front door he could hear her husband descend from his fourth floor eyrie. The door was flung open and they greeted each other with the fervour of a long absence of friends. It had been a long time, really too long. Their lives had changed inexplicably. One, living almost permanently in that Italian marvel of waterways and sea-reflected light, the other, still in the drab West Yorkshire city from where their first acquaintance had begun from an email correspondence.
They had far too much to say to one another - on a hundred subjects. Of course the current project dominated, but as coffee (and a bowl of figs and mandarin oranges) was arranged, and they had moved almost immediately he arrived in the attic studio to the minimalist kitchen two floors below, questions were thrown out about partners and children, his activities, and sadly, his recent illness (the stairs had seemed much steeper than he remembered and he was a little breathless when he reached the top). As a guest he answered with a brevity that surprised him. Usually he found such questions needed roundabout answers to feel satisfactory - but he was learning to answer more directly, and being brief, suddenly thought of her and her always-direct questions. She wanted to know something, get something straight, so she asked - straight - with no ‘going about things’ first. He wanted to get on with the business at hand, the business that preoccupied him, almost to the exclusion of everything else, for the last two days.
When they were settled in what was J’s working space ten years ago now he was immediately conscious that although the custom-made furniture had remained the Yamaha MIDI grand piano and the rack of samplers were elsewhere, along with most of the scores and books. The vast collection of CDs was still there, and so too the pictures and photographs. But there was one painting that was new to this attic room, a Cézanne. He was taken aback for a moment because it looked so like the real thing he’d seen in a museum just weeks before. He thought of the film Notting Hill when William Thacker questions the provenance of the Chagall ‘violin-playing goat’. The size of this Cézanne seemed accurate and it was placed in a similar rather ornate frame to what he knew had framed the museum original. It was placed on right-hand wall as he had entered the room, but some way from the pair of windows that ran almost the length of this studio. The view across the rooftops took in the Tower of London, a mile or so distant. If he turned the office chair in which he was sitting just slightly he could see it easily whilst still paying attention to J. The painting’s play of colours and composition compelled him to stare, as if he had never seen the painting before. But he had, and he remembered that his first sight of it had marked his memory.
He had been alone. He had arrived at the gallery just 15 minutes before it was due to close for the day. He’d been told about this wonderful must-see octagonal room where around the walls you could view a particularly fine and comprehensive collection of Impressionist paintings. All the great artists were represented. One of Van Gogh’s many Olive Trees, two studies of domestic interiors by Vuillard, some dancing Degas, two magnificent Gaugins, a Seurat field of flowers, a Singer-Sergeant portrait, two Monets - one of a pair of haystacks in a blaze of high-summer light. He had been able to stay in that room just 10 minutes before he was politely asked to leave by an overweight attendant, but afterwards it was as if he knew the contents intimately. But of all these treasures it was Les Grands Arbres by Cézanne that had captured his imagination. He was to find it later and inevitably on the Internet and had it printed and pinned to his notice board. He consulted his own book of Cézanne’s letters and discovered it was a late work and one of several of the same scene. This version, it was said, was unfinished. He disagreed. Those unpainted patches he’d interpreted as pools of dappled light, and no expert was going to convince him otherwise! And here it was again. In an attic studio J. only frequented occasionally when necessity brought him to London.
When the coffee and fruit had been consumed it was time to eat more substantially, for he knew they would work late into the night, despite a whole day tomorrow to be given over to their discussions. J. was full of nervous energy and during the walk to a nearby Iraqi restaurant didn’t waver in his flow of conversation about the project. It was as though he knew he must eat, but no longer had the patience to take the kind of necessary break having a meal offered. His guest, his old friend, his now-being-consulted expert and former associate, was beginning to reel from the overload of ‘difficulties’ that were being put before him. In fact, he was already close to suggesting that it would be in J’s interest if, when they returned to the attic studio, they agreed to draw up an agenda for tomorrow so there could be some semblance of order to their discussions. He found himself wishing for her presence at the meal, her calm lovely smile he knew would charm J. out of his focused self and lighten the rush and tension that infused their current dialogue. But she was elsewhere, at home with her children and her own and many preoccupations, though it was easy to imagine how much, at least for a little while, she might enjoy meeting someone new, someone she’d heard much about, someone really rather exotic and (it must be said) commanding and handsome. He would probably charm her as much as he knew she would charm J.
J. was all and more beyond his guest’s thought-description. He had an intensity and a confidence that came from being in company with intense, confident and, it had to be said, very wealthy individuals. His origins, his beginnings his guest and old friend could only guess at, because they’d never discussed it. The time was probably past for such questions. But his guest had his own ideas, he surmised from a chanced remark that his roots were not amongst the affluent. He had been a free-jazz musician from Poland who’d made waves in the German jazz scene and married the daughter of an arts journalist who happened to be the wife of the CEO of a seriously significant media empire. This happy association enabled him to get off the road and devote himself to educating himself as a composer of avant-garde art music - which he desired and which he had achieved. His guest remembered J’s passion for the music of Luigi Nono (curiously, a former resident of the city in which J. now lived) and Helmut Lachenmann, then hardly known in the UK. J. was already composing, and with an infinite slowness and care that his guest marvelled at. He was painstakingly creating intricate and timbrally experimental string quartets as well as devising music for theatre and experimental film. But over the past fifteen years J. had become increasingly more obsessed with devising software from which his musical ideas might emanate. And it had been to his guest that, all that time ago, J. had turned to find a generous guide into this world of algorithms and complex mathematics, a composer himself who had already been seduced by the promise of new musical fields of possibility that desktop computer technology offered.
In so many ways, when it came to the hard edge of devising solutions to the digital generation of music, J. was now leagues ahead of his former tutor, whose skills in this area were once in the ascendant but had declined in inverse proportion to J’s, as he wished to spend more time composing and less time investigating the means through which he might compose. So the guest was acting now as a kind of Devil’s Advocate, able to ask those awkward disarming questions creative people don’t wish to hear too loudly and too often.
And so it turned out during the next few hours as J. got out some expensive cigars and brandy, which his guest, inhabiting a different body seemingly, now declined in favour of bottled water and dry biscuits. His guest, who had been up since 5.0am, finally suggested that, if he was to be any use on the morrow, bed was necessary. But when he got in amongst the Egyptian cotton sheets and the goose down duvet, sleep was impossible. He tried thinking of her, their last walk together by the sea, breakfast à deux before he left, other things that seemed beautiful and tender by turn . . . But it was no good. He wouldn’t sleep.
The house could have been as silent as the excellent double-glazing allowed. Only the windows of the attic studio next door to his bedroom were open to the night, to clear the room of the smoke of several cigars. He was conscious of that continuous flow of traffic and machine noise that he knew would only subside for a brief hour or so around 4.0am. So he went into the studio and pulled up a chair in front of the painting by Cézanne, in front of this painting of a woodland scene. There were two intertwining arboreal forms, trees of course, but their trunks and branches appeared to suggest the kind of cubist shapes he recognized from Braque. These two forms pulled the viewer towards a single slim and more distant tree backlit by sunlight of a late afternoon. There was a suggestion, in the further distance, of the shapes of the hills and mountains that had so preoccupied the artist. But in the foreground, there on the floor of this woodland glade, were all the colours of autumn set against the still greens of summer. It seemed wholly wrong, yet wholly right. It was as comforting and restful a painting as he could ever remember viewing. Even if he shut his eyes he could wander about the picture in sheer delight. And now he focused on the play of brush strokes of this painting in oils, the way the edge and border of one colour touched against another. Surprisingly, imagined sounds of this woodland scene entered his reverie - a late afternoon in a late summer not yet autumn. He was Olivier Messiaen en vacances with his perpetual notebook recording the magical birdsong in this luminous place. Here, even in this reproduction, lay the joy of entering into a painting. Jeanette Winterson’s plea to look at length at paintings, and then look again passed through his thoughts. How right that seemed. How very difficult to achieve. But that night he sat comfortably in J’s attic and let Cézanne deliver the artist’s promise of a world beyond nature, a world that is not about constant change and tension, but rests in a stillness all its own.