The story about Alf & Picasso

A day off at last.

It’s pouring with rain, though, so the early morning dog walk is delayed. Instead I have a cup of coffee and take a gentle stroll around Twitter & Instagram, taking the air with my virtual boots and my virtual dogs and my tablet cocked on my arm, before I put the cup in the sink and turn myself reluctantly towards the stairs, ready to go up and write.

The rain has stopped, though. I can take Lola out after all.  Lola doesn’t seem that keen, but it’s good to get it over with. Maybe it’ll freshen me up and help get my thoughts in order.

Turns out, Lola was right. The break in the weather is actually the eye of the hurricane. It’s exhilarating, in an annihilating kind of way, but we both get thoroughly soaked. I stand at the kitchen sink wringing water out of my pants.

It takes a while to dry off. Whilst I’m doing that, I notice the extractor fan over the oven is really greasy and horrible. I think it needs cleaning right away. It takes a lot of scrubbing, but after an hour I have to say it looks pretty incredible. I did a good job there. And so finally, with nothing else to do or say about it, I drag my bare and sorry carcass upstairs to the bedroom, and the monk-like wooden chair and table where I write. Lola follows me, throwing herself down on the rug to steam while I flip the laptop lid, rest my hands on the keys, and prepare.

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Facing me above the desk is a cork board I hung in a faraway and more innocent time when I was at grave risk of buying something like that. My plan was to cover it with things that might resonate with whatever project I was working on: photos, pictures, cuttings from magazines. I could pin up a sequence of cards to map out the structure of the book. Needless to say, the board is still bare, just the drawing Jess made of a little purple ghost I use for my avatar, a friendship band, a Sergeant Pepper pin, a Jack Skellington pin, a pen pin with the word ‘mightier’ down the middle, a business card with a typewriter motif (not mine), and the label that fell off the cat carrier (see fig 1.)

Sometimes I stare at the empty cork and try to see visions in the speckles of light and dark, but the truth is I don’t need cork for that. The bare wall’s just as good. I’ve had a lot of practice, being the sort to stare at nothing in particular quite happily for long periods of time. Maybe I should volunteer for a deep space trip. So long as there was a window, snacks, stationery, and a reading light for the sleeping shelf, I’d be more than happy. I wouldn’t mind a robot, too – who’d be bad-tempered but dry & hilarious. The misunderstandings we’d have, all the way to the Kuiper Belt. Oy Vey!

I take a breath to try to root myself in the moment, and in doing so realise  I haven’t done my morning meditation. I launch the app, do a ten minute session, followed by some exercises, press-ups, scrunchies (crunches?), stretches, etcetera, then a shower, then a cup of tea, then lunch, and when all that’s done and cleared away, drag myself back upstairs, flip the laptop, rest my fingers on the keys, wriggle them expectantly, and prepare.

The first thing I do is review how much progress I’ve made with the book. I play with the table of contents, trying to decide whether something I intend to write should be in bold and what I have written in italics. Make the change through all the documents. Then go back and undo it. Widen the margins. Enlarge the font. Then I take a breath, rest my fingers on the keys – and immediately realise that the single most important thing I have to do is Google Cubism.

The thing is, (and I admit, there is always a thing), I want to write up a little story I remember about Fred’s dad, Alf, something that happened to him in the war, and Cubism is a part of it.

One thing I do know about Picasso was that he had a Blue Period. To be honest, I’d rather he called it a Blue Phase. Blue Period just makes me think of those sanitary towel adverts where they demonstrate the absorbency of the pad by pouring windscreen wash all over it. The fact that Picasso also had a Pink Period doesn’t help, either. His Cubism Phase came immediately after and lasted a surprisingly long time – from 1907 to 25 – although I’d guess he was producing other, non-Cubic stuff at the same time, like ceramic hats and so on. The one thing I know about Picasso was that he was prolific as hell; the only thing that could distract him was a corked bottle of wine, or maybe a bull breaking free of the studio.

In this Cubist Phase, around 1910, Picasso painted the portrait of a guy called Ambroise Vollard. Ambroise was a French gallery owner who promoted a lot of artists early on in their career – Van Gogh, Gaugin, Renoir – so he ended up being one of the most painted men in the history of French art (although judging by the portraits, not the happiest).

It’s a brilliant study. Ambroise comes across as a brooding presence, simultaneously wide awake and profoundly asleep (a condition I sympathise with). It’s more than just the effect of looking at someone through a distorting prism; it’s as if Picasso’s taken a stack of angles and changes of light and perspective, and painted them into one dimension, so that you’re looking not just at a man sitting for his portrait, but at who he was, and thinks he is, and who he’d like to be.

So what does this have to do with Alf?

Alf was the hardest man I ever met. He was a pitiless, dessicated old Cockney, exiled to the Fens, bruised and bitter. He had his schemes and his dodges, his nice little earners, one of them being to work as a rose budder for six weeks every summer. He had a scarred face, flat and uncompromising, with a nose rolled so flat the nostrils were like two finger holes jabbed in a pie crust. His eyes were cut-in, ice blue. He smoked spitty little fags, talked out of the corner of his mouth – when he talked, that is. Mostly he just worked, trampling the roses down with an East End curse, brutally efficient, getting the work done, making progress.

I was terrified of him.

The story, then.

Alf was a despatch rider in Italy during the war. One day he was following a convoy of American trucks when they were ambushed. He ended up losing control of his bike and crashing face-first into a tailboard. Luckily, there was a young American surgeon travelling with the convoy. Ever since medical school, this surgeon had been reading up about maxillo-facial reconstruction, hoping to start his own exclusive practice after the war. He took Alf on as a project, using as his guide the photo of Alf from his military identity card.

‘Are you sure it weren’t a picture of one of them Picasso paintings instead?’ someone said.

And whether Alf smiled, or sneered, or did both at the same time, it was impossible to tell.

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large caliber

‘Shall I take my shoes off?’
‘Oh no!’ says Rita. ‘This is a real home – not a show home!’
I’m conscious that my shoes are sopping wet, though, so I slip them off anyway.
‘I do it at home’ I say. ‘I’d feel bad otherwise.’
‘This is a real home, not a show home!’ she says, repeating herself – whether because it’s a catchphrase of hers, or because she likes the sound of it, I’m not sure.
‘Follow me!’ she says, and leads me through the house.
It certainly has the feel of a show home. Or even a gallery, given the number of paintings of stags on snowy crags and jugged hares lying among bunches of grapes, all in heavy gilt frames. Ernest, Rita’s husband, sits in a chair at the far end of the house, like a decrepit attendant who dozed through his lunch break and on into his nineties.
‘Darling? There’s a nurse to see you!’ says Rita. She waves me over to him, then lowers herself very correctly, debutante-style, into a Louis Quinze chair, her legs angled to the right, her hands folded in her lap.
‘What happened to your shoes?’ says Ernie, peering at me over his glasses.
‘They were soaking wet. I didn’t want to make a mess on your carpet.’
‘I said to him, darling,’ says Rita. ‘I said to him: This is a real home. Not a show home!’
‘Hear that?’ he says. ‘So now you know.’

* * *

All Ernest’s observations are within normal range – his blood pressure, temperature, heart rate and so on..
‘What were you expecting?’ he says. ‘I’m perfectly fine. It’s this damned back.’
‘Let the gentleman do his job, darling,’ says Rita, absentmindedly playing with her wedding ring, slipping it off, then on, then off again. ‘He used to be a sniper, you know. In the war, of course,’ she adds, hurriedly, to clear up any misunderstanding.
‘A sniper?’
‘What of it?’ he snaps.
‘No. Nothing. It sounds fascinating.’
‘Hmm,’ he says, and watches me closely as I fill out his obs chart. To cover the silence – and to find out more about his sniper years – I dig deep for some personal story I could use.
‘I had a go at skeet shooting once,’ I say. ‘It was a work’s outing. I really liked it.’
‘Skeet shooting?’
‘Yes. Clay pigeons.’
‘I know what skeet shooting is.’
‘It was really good! That bit where they chuck the clays along the ground, and they bounce around all over the place. That was fun. You know. Picking them off.’
‘Fun?’ says Ernest, horrified. ‘Fun? If by fun you mean waving your weapon around like a lunatic, blasting in the general direction of where you think something’s going to end up, well, then, perhaps. But I’m not talking about some random spread of pellets. I’m talking about the precise placing of a single, large caliber bullet. I’m talking about controlling one’s breathing, slowing one’s pulse. Taking a clean shot.’
And he glares at me over his glasses again, eyebrows quivering, drawing a bead.
‘It’s my second marriage’ says Rita. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

the truth about john

“A guy who loved his family”
says the vicar, smiling amiably
getting through the service as best he can
because really he’d never met the man

“I’m told John was captured in Italy”
(checking notes surreptitiously)
“but demonstrating the bravery for which he was known
escaped the camp and made his way home
after six months fighting with the partisans
living on bread and parmesan”

it was a nice touch
but I didn’t believe it all that much
the accepted family version?
Ollie was told he was killed in action
her grief short but pronounced
until John turns up unannounced
skipping down Marsham Street
with – weirdly – nothing on his feet

it was a miracle
caused quite a spectacle
you see – Ollie had moved on, of course
KIA being a brutal kind of divorce
she was engaged to a GI – one Flight Sargent Ridge
Who climbed on the parapet of Lambeth Bridge
and threatened to throw himself into the Thames
when she kissed him once and hoped they’d be friends

So John and Ollie tied the knot
and over the years moved around quite a lot
but they’d come down to visit us now and again
in a Zephyr Zodiac with a fancy trim
bags of sweets, a dog called Rusty,
Ollie in furs, huggy, busty
John with his laugh and essential tremor
joking about whiskey, racing, the weather

Some years later, when I visited Ollie
I asked her about that partisan story
no she said, that’s a load of old crap
he was shacked up with this fruit farmer chap
John took a fancy to the eldest daughter
so he’d stand there, drunk, holding the ladder
We’ll fight them in the streets? We’ll fight them on the beaches?
Do me a favour! He was harvesting peaches