After publishing two novellas last year I’ve been encouraged to serialise another here on the blog. This novella was concocted after one of my visits to Madrid, one of my favourite places. I’ve visited Madrid around a dozen times, and I almost always get the hankering to visit the magnificent Museo Del Prado, especially as its “free entry after 6pm” caters for the after-work crowd. I’ve always been fascinated, repulsed and drawn to Francisco Goya’s Saturn, one of the master works from his black period.
This novella follows a young man who travels to Madrid to drink himself to death, but finds a reason to live. But as the truth, and his sense of reality unravels, it could be that he faces something far worse than death. It’s one of my darkest and weirdest pieces of work, and I have a very soft spot for it. I hope you enjoy it too – please let me know in the comments below!
By now you’ll doubtless be racking your limited imagination for ways in which to weedle the secret hiding place of Great Aunty Baby’s savings from her increasingly dribbling daydreams. I can bear the tragicomic scene in my head no longer; please desist from your fruitless interrogation of the mad old bat. Once I discovered the whereabouts of the great wad of cash I took the whole sorry lot and carted myself away from the dark Satanic skyscrapers of London as fast as public transport would allow. God bless her senile and utterly understandable mistrust of banks!
Feeling the jouissance of the fugitive coursing through me, I stuffed the whole lot in a suitcase, along with my sketchpad, writing sheaf, pencils and a few other essentials, and took it to the Eurostar at St Pancras. As I suspected, the glassy-eyed human automata didn’t take a second glance when I popped it through the scanning gubbins at the station. They remind me, with their perm-agog mouths and proficiency in neither English nor French, of those monsters from that TV show we used to watch, the one about the dead rising from their graves for God-knows-what reason. Christ, but can you imagine the groaning hordes of the jobsworth junta breaking free from the train station and running amok? Another reason to get out of that God-forsaken city. London’s a bloody fire hazard.
Other folks might apologise at this point for the whole abandonment thing, but I’m past that, old girl. I can withhold the reason no longer: you broke my heart, Em, not once, not twice, but in ways too innumerable to count. Don’t blame yourself. It’s me. I’m a damned coward. And more than that, I’ve had it, Em. I’ve had it with being a failure. A foetid, fucked and fucked-up failure. I’ve had it with trying to be a real artist and failing at every turn. I’m done with listening to that voice that speaks to me in a tiny voice at the fulcrum between waking and sleeping at the end of the day, taunting me with insights I know to be true. You’re not all that you could be. You’ve wasted your gifts. Your life didn’t turn out the way it could have, or should have.
A failed artist. What a revolting cliché I am, old bean. But there it is.
And so, rather than have it out with you, I took the money and ran. I know I said we’d spend Great Aunty Baby’s cash on island-hopping in Thailand, and on buying our own Grenache vines in the Dordogne, and on sacks of Pyrenees duck fat so we might make our own Foie Gras and eat ourselves to a hideous, glorious death. But well, frankly the thought of all that now fills me with the sort of singular, existential dread usually experienced by closeted Iranian homosexuals.
I am consumed by a whole gamut of emotions, Emma: grief for what we once had; shame for not fighting for it; rage at being humiliated so many times; and sadness that you never once realised it. And a wicked self-loathing for my worthless attempts to be somebody. Perhaps now I’ve gone you will understand. Perhaps not.
So I’ve retreated to Madrid. That’s the one in Spain, not Alabama. I confess, it’s not particularly imaginative of me, but it’ll do. And despite your misgivings about my being a poor judge of character, I predict I know enough about you that Madrid will provide sufficient time and distance for me to drink myself to death before even you can summon the will to abandon Great Aunty Baby to a slow, unpleasant death of starvation and an unwiped arse. And then, once I am gone, you’ll have no need of the inheritance anyway, as I suppose you’ll have taken up with one of those fancy boys you so like.
So far my desires have not been fully sated. I intended to blow the cash orgasmically, licking Chateau d’Yquem off the nipples of the sort of prostitutes normally found in Saudi oil palaces. Alas, the resources of Eurostar were not commensurate with my aspirations, and I had to make do with a vile bottle of beetroot-coloured limescale remover (apparently grown in the Barossa!) and a packet of oversized cardboard pills that tasted of feet and tragically made me reach ever more readily for the beetroot limescale remover. And that was in Standard Premier! I stayed off the poisonous plonk after that, deciding that if a glorious, bibulous end were to be mine, I should at least procrastinate in favour of something worth dying for. I changed trains at Paris and headed south through a grey France in an almighty, half-sober huff. Tried sketching some of my predictably tiresome and empty-headed carriage companions, but they all ended up looking like Magritte’s Son Of Man, only I was more interested in the apple. Armed with only a pencil, it’s beyond even my ken to capture the soul of an obese financier drinking battery acid on expenses. I may as well cut paper angels out of a copy of the FT.
The clouds dissipated as soon as I arrived in Madrid, in more way than one. See, the queerest thing happened to me, which is what compelled me to write to you.
First port of call was the winery at Salamanca, where I relieved the aching burden upon my pockets a few grams by sampling a bottle of 1997 Rioja Gran Riserva, which went some way to dispelling the rank finish of the beetroot limescale remover. I thanked the portly owner of the emporium by parting ways with another hundred Euros for a bottle of Jerez blanca, as dry as a witch’s gash stuffed with woodlouse husks. Decanted it into three hip flasks, and set off to the Museo del Prado. Unlike the Eurostar, the pinch-faced security wombles at the museum collectively formulated the gumption to query me about my hip flasks (as I suspected, the art world seeks a better class of security ape to guard its treasures than the boxcar monkeys attending public transport), and smiled when I offered them a taste of the good stuff. I withered my way through the triptychs of Bosch (always amusing), the frescoes of Fra Angelico (important, but tiresome), and the divine portraits of Raphael, and made merry my way to Room 67.
Ah, Room 67. That dark heart of the museum, tucked away in its southeastern corner, the minotaur reachable only by traversing the one-way system of the labyrinth. Not the rampaging gloriousness of Caravaggio, Velázquez and Rubens in this room. Only Goya’s Black works can survive here, showing his bitterness at the unsurvivability of age, the resentment towards one’s failing capacities, and the lingering stench of death leftover from the brutalities of fascism. Any other work, even masterpieces, would be swallowed whole simply by being juxtaposed by these macabre masterworks. I spent time at each of them – The Atropos, Fight With Cudgels, Two Men Eating Soup, The Dog, Men Reading, Witches’ Sabbath, and the rest. All as wicked and horrific as I remembered them, Em. In fact, in the toxic fug of my own annihilistic whims, they became friendly, seductive even, as though through them the abyss smiled at me, begging me to do myself in and join them in their symphony of destructive insanity. Obligingly, I took a long swig of the Jerez. I saved until last the chance to reunite with that painting that always ensnares me with its accusatory, terrified eyes.
Saturn Devouring His Son.
Oh Em, there’s nothing I can say that I haven’t said to you a hundred times before about Saturn, and I don’t suppose your fatigued brain would be able to cope with it anyway. But I will say this: time does not diminish him, that fallen God. If anything, the terror in his eyes gets worse every time I see him. He lives, Em.
He lives still.
I had to look away, like a dog unable to hold the gaze of a man, and sat down on the bench in the centre of the room to draw. At first I lazily sketched some of the tourists flitting in and out, smiling, stalling, attempting to think. As the Jerez took effect, I began sketching the black space around the tourists; the room itself became my sketch, while the tourists were just blank areas of paper, flitting impressionistically with hints of movement, while it was the room that breathed and lived. I took a moment to blink, pinched the bridge of my nose, and heard a loose, rattling cough behind me.
At first I didn’t react, and continued my sketch, but after a second a voice called over my shoulder, “Es un cliché que negro es el foco de tú boceto en salon 67. Pero, ¿es el negro en el salon, o tu?”
Without turning I gritted my teeth, shook my head and hid a disgusted half-smile at the old fart’s tired and unwanted analysis. “No hablo español,” I lied.
I let out a curt laugh at the old man’s tenacity, turned around to admonish him, and to my surprise found the words caught in my throat. Would it shock you, Em, to learn that standing there, observing my sketches and commenting on the cliché of my work was none other than Edouardo del Bosques. Don’t let sheer envy make you choke on your Capstans, my dear old fruit, but it’s true. Large as still life. I struggled for some words, but – oh, the horror of it! – made a humiliating sort of clucking noise, as if I were the one choking. I felt the tug of the Jerez bottle, but in spite of my compromised faculties, I resisted. Why do you suppose that is, Em?
“It is different,” he said, ignoring my self-afflicted muteness and peering over my shoulder at my drawings. Suddenly to me they looked like the inane doodling of a drunk toddler being humoured by its kindergarten teacher. “It has a lot of…” he clutched an imaginary bag of marbles and wobbled his hand in the air to find the right word in his broken English. “…Lot of movement. Lot of hurt. I like it.”
He smiled at me, showing me two rows of pearly white teeth that any gerontion would be proud to possess. And he does look old now, mark me. The lines round his face, carved by hurt and laughter and glorious Iberian sunshine are deeper than I remember, and his hair is a starchy ruff of white now, not the blond tresses of his younger and middling days, but he was still my hero. I realised that I hadn’t seen a photograph of him for years. “Well, uh, uh, thank you,” I stuttered, which seemed to amuse him.
“You are an artist?” he asked.
“Ah, well, maybe once, but not exactly, you see…”
“So you are working in Madrid?”
“Again, not so much as… not working… let me finish…”
“A shame, but good,” he cryptically said.
I gulped, and realised I was damned dizzy. I cast a despairing eye upon the hipflask next to me. I’m sorry, it seemed to say. Take a little swig to steady yourself, old chap. “I’m sorry,” I said, gripping the bench for focus. “I’m all of a tizz, it seems.”
“I can sit down? These old bones are not what they used to be.”
I waved consent, feeling every inch the dullard, and he sat next to me.
He nodded at the sketch, and I almost covered it with my hands. “They’re nothing really, and… and I’m drunk, and…”
“No, no, there is something about them. Something sad, something lost.” He gestured to it. “May I?”
I acquiesced, and handed him the sketch. Then I saw the tragedy of his hands; grotesque knobbled lumps curled almost completely into fists. Edouardo seemed to spot me staring at his crooked fingers, and I looked down out of politeness, or pity, I don’t know.
“Arthritis,” he said, with a resigned shrug. “My tools are broken.”
“You mean you can’t draw any more?” I asked. Perhaps a tad nosy, but drink does that to a man.
“Not for some years now.”
I don’t mind saying that a little lump hit the back of my throat. What a terrible, rancid thing old age is, Em, to steal an artist’s tools like that, Em! The sight of it fortified my resolve to drink myself away from that debilitating drip-torture. I caved, taking a swig of the Jerez and wiping my mouth on my sleeve. He coughed, and pointed at the sketch with the little finger of his left hand, perhaps the most mobile of his digits.
“Look at that pencil line,” he said, pointing to a thick arc denoting the arm of a tourist lost in darkness. “Angry, but controlled.”
I breathed out, rather more composed. “Muchas gracias. Really. But you flatter me. It’s hardly Sketches From An Old Youth.”
He raised his impressive, snowy eyebrows and showed me the whites of his eyes with an overly amicable smile. “You know my work?”
The false modesty allowed me to ground myself a little more and rediscover a smidgen of my old contempt for the world. As if anybody other than a stumbling, stuttering, artistic failure like me would be cowed by his presence, or even know who he was! “I do, yes. I’ve followed your work for many years.”
He smiled, and handed back the paper. “What’s your name, young man?”
He nodded, satisfied, and stood up slowly, creaking like an old piano. “It was nice to meet you, Emmanuel. I like your work.”
And with that, he walked off. One of my idols. They say never meet your heroes, but the chance encounter made me realise how little choice we have in the matter. All at once, the hundreds of questions I could have asked him thundered through my head peripatetically, eluding me before I could pin them down. Thought of chasing him, but he’d already gone. What a stupid, drunken ox am I! To die is one thing, but to die without a little extra knowledge; well, what a terrible thing that would be. I grumpily stashed my pencils into my bag and sat rubbing my eyes. When I opened them I looked again at the sketch. Maybe there was something there worth a damn. Maybe he was just being polite. When I picked up the rest of the papers to stuff them away I caught sight of a little card on the bench, and picked it up.
Had to blink the inebriation away a few times to focus, but made out the words on the card clear enough.
Edouardo del Bosques, Calle del XXXX, Madrid. A phone number, email address and social media details completed the card.
First thought was that he’d gone and dropped it, the crab-handed old legend, but then a stickier thought jabbed me from the back of the brain, Em. Call it hubris if you like, old girl, but part of me suspected he left it on purpose. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Why would such a great man as he do such a thing, but why does anyone do anything? Thought about what you might have told me if you were sitting with me (I always relied on your advice, you know. Despite the rotten things I say about you, you know I’m fond of hearing your thoughts, even if only to dismiss them). It was too much for my addled mind to compute right then and there, so I sat staring at the paintings in Room 67 for a little longer, depressing myself further – what was going on in Goya’s head towards the end? I’d give a good couple of bloody knuckles to know, I tell you – and when my faculties had someway returned, I decided to leave.
It’s late now, though in Madrid late is a relative concept. But I’m too tired to scribble anything more down. I’m drunk again. Still.
I’ll tell you more when the pique seizes me.