This is the fourth chapter in the pending Phil/Jeannie thread so be sure to read the others before it so you get it in sequence. That said, most of this chapter will be ending up in the main novel so it really isn’t a “pending” chapter in the way the others are. I am extremely passionate about the messages in this chapter with regards to the artistic process and how difficult it can be to be true to the creative self in light of a whole host of things. It also conveys my vehement belief that as adults, we have a responsibility to foster and support creativity in young people. Beyond that, it conveys my belief in the importance of honouring the creative spirit in oneself no matter what the age.
Phil stood at the window yet again.
Night had fallen on the Heath now.
The window was black, a constellation of raindrops like stardust on the glass, Jeannie’s reflection in the crux of his left shoulder shimmering behind the sparkle. The sight of her floating in the sky like that was mesmerising Phil thought, so mesmerising in fact he wished that someone else could see what he saw. Not just a woman working at her desk. But the projected image of a lovely human being hovering amidst the rainbeams in the nighttime sky.
Yet another wonder of the world, Phil concluded silently, taking a mental photograph of the marvel and adding it to his collection of wonders – all local wonders, by the way – no carbon footprints necessary to reach them, especially as they were nestled in the hemispheres of his own brain.
Perhaps that’s why he’d never felt the need to travel, Phil continued thinking. Because there were so many things to see in his own head. But as he realised this, the sadness came, because he also realised that, on the gazillion mental pilgrimages he’d taken in his brain, he’d always traveled solo, never with a companion with whom to revel in the view. Of course, if his father were around, he’d make some gruff remark about him having missed out on the sixties and other types of trips that didn’t involve a passport and a suitcase. But his father wasn’t around, was he? He was at home, asleep in bed.
And then there was Claire.
The woman with whom he ought to be tripping the light fantastic of his own grey matter.
I mean, she really had no clue. No clue as to the continual carnival illuminating the darkness in between his temples. No clue as to the flurry of activity, sparks and all, stimulating his headspace, making the day-in/day-out bearable.
But then again – until this god-almighty manuscript churned out by Aubrey Holloway – had he even been aware himself, of his own brain’s modus operandi? Or had he, like most, just ambled along his timeline, oblivious to the inner workings of mind? And just like that, he saw himself on a page walking along a thin black line, focussing on the dates at his feet, unaware of the fireworks display in his brain until he reached the end of the line and fell into a drawing of his very own grave. Never having known. Never having loved. Never having cherished the most magical part of himself: the spectacle, private yet moving, of his own imagination.
But he knew there’d been a time, long before, when he had been aware of himself.
Standing at the window now, spellbound by Jeannie’s image shining over Gallows, he wondered if he were ready to face that time. He wondered because he knew it would hurt. And he knew it would cut rather deep, a little too close to his heartstrings for comfort. As a husband, a father and as an officer of the Heath, he’d been taught to stay strong, to keep it together, so together in fact, there’d be no space for light, at least not the type of light he saw – the creative one.
Phil closed his eyes, flinching, for he knew the old moments were coming to haunt him. They were coming whether he was ready or not. And they did – one by one – turning in consecutive order with their small serrated edges, whirring straight for his heart.
“You can’t make a living from stories, Son,” his father was saying, “No more than Richie could’ve made money from her art. Absolute fluff. That’s what art is. Doesn’t pay the bills and has no bloody weight, at least not in our world.”
“That’s not what Sir Winston Churchill said during the war, Dad,” Phil heard himself retaliating. “When it was suggested that we cut the arts’ programs to save money for the war effort, he said that we had to remember what we were fighting for.”
“I don’t give a damn what Churchill said in the forties,” Floyd bellowed, banging his fist on the kitchen table. “I’m raising you to be a man, not Charles fucking Dickens. Besides, those who do make it, have got to be a damn sight more talented than you are. What? I suppose you think that one day, you’re going to be writing for TV?”
“No—no—no,” Phil heard his young self stammer. “I don’t – not yet.”
“Not yet?” Floyd said incredulously. “Not ever, judging by the drivel I’ve seen you turn out.”
Phil winced as he recalled himself gathering up his papers from the kitchen table and hurrying up to his bedroom, fighting back the very tears that would’ve made his view so beautiful and iridescent, stifling the shimmer only emotion could create. Pressing it down. Bottling it up. So, no one but himself could see it until he became emotionally blind to himself, making a non-issue out of insight.
His mother, Beryl, had at least demonstrated a little more understanding, but used it to her own advantage. “What I’d like to know, Phil,” she’d said, her trademark unlit cigarette hanging from her mouth, “Is where writers get all their stuff from. Because I’ll be damned if you’re going to start milking our family for the rubbish you write. And don’t think you can put anything past me, either. Because, oh, I’ve got a keen eye, Phil, and I’d recognise our dirty laundry anywhere, no matter the disguise. And the second I catch you passing off our painful moments as second-rate fiction, I’ll set the whole damn lot alight, I will. Burn it until there isn’t a single page left in the Heath.”
To the echo of his mother’s words, Phil remembered how, in self-defence, he’d tried to articulate the way in which his mind worked, how his stories flowed from some vast source where everything he’d ever experienced lived. He’d used the word ‘collective’; he did remember that.
“Collective, lad?” His mother had scoffed. “Right, well, as far as I’m concerned, that’s just a fancy word to protect yourself. Because at your young age, what other collective could you possibly have other than what’s occurred with us in this house?”
“You don’t understand,” Phil heard himself protest.
“I’ll tell you what I do understand, Phil,” she’d said, thudding down in her seat and, finally, lighting the cigarette, sending up a puff of smoke. “I understand that if you dig around in that imagination of yours too much and for too long, you might just stumble on the truth. But here’s the thing with that. You’ll be stumbling on your version of the truth. It won’t be everybody else’s truth. It’ll be your own delusional truth. And once you’ve got a hold of that, you’ll convert to it like you would to an evangelical religion. There’ll be no turning back and the whole damn house will come down with it. Mark my words, Son. You get yourself prepared for a good, solid job and leave the soul-baring artwork to someone else.”
“What about Richie?” Phil had said in a small voice. “She was an artist.”
“And it was art that killed her in the end,” Beryl said, tapping the first stack of ash in the ashtray wedged between the HP Sauce and the Ketchup. “Figuratively speaking.”
“How do you me –” Phil started to say.
“I’m done,” Beryl interrupted, quickly getting up. “All I can say is that your sister went following her own pencil lines a bit too much and they led her nowhere good – nowhere good. If that’s not a warning for you, I damn well don’t know what is!”
“I don’t know what you mean! For Christ’s sake, Mum. Talk to me. Explain yourself!”
“I don’t need to explain myself, Phil. I have one living child. And that’s you. And if you end up getting tangled up in your own heart the way your sister did, you might never get out. I’m not going to go through that again, Phil. You’re going to grow up and have a good respectable career doing anything you want, so long as your dad and I approve. Find a nice girl. Give us some grandkids. And we’ll call it a life, shall we?” The cigarette clamped between her lips again, she’d rub-smacked her palms together as if what she’d just said was as good as done, then placed her hands on her hips.
“Find a nice girl,” Phil echoed sadly, aware that yes, he had.
And enter Claire for the many-th time that night: wandering into the forefront of his brain by way of his right temple. As she had been. As she was. Intelligent. Single minded. Self-assured. A woman who appreciated the way things looked, a woman who gushed over a good aesthetic. A woman who was into period pieces and hobnobbed with gallery-goers to admire what she called “proper” art, art worth paying for, art which had paid its dues and earned its place in public.
Then it came: the memory with the sharpest edge.
Phil didn’t want to feel it.
But he did.
It came cutting through his ribcage and straight into his heart.
“What the hell has got into you, Phil?” Claire was asking sometime in the late nineties. “Where is all of this coming from? We have two young boys. We need your job. We need you to work. My job at the nursery school isn’t enough. And don’t even talk to me about our savings. What about our retirement? Have you thought about that? And what about the boys’ university costs? The country isn’t footing the bill for post-secondary education like it used to. We need to save up.”
“I’ve worked hard, Claire,” Phil heard himself saying. “I’ve given everything to you lot. Never let you down. Always provided. And if I can succeed at what I want I truly want to do, I believe I’ll be able to continue pulling my weight, doing my part – but as a happier man.”
“Oh, you’d be happier, all right,” Claire snapped in the memory. “Sitting at your computer all day with a line-up of ale and crisp packets on hand. Typing yourself into a frensy until you fucked off with some other impractical artiste to some sort of literary conference. Oh, I can see it now. Me coming home from a day filled with toddlers, dealing with the demands of parenting solo while you’re off discussing your imaginary friends with like-minded people who’ve also ditched their family responsibilities to zizz around the literary circuit with their own invisible entourages. Well, let me tell you, Phil, I married a police officer with a strong sense of responsibility to his family. I did not marry an author who’s first allegiance was to his bloody characters. And if you choose to follow your heart on that one, I don’t know if I’ll still be here when you get back.”
And here came the kicker – Claire’s echo of his father.
“And what, in God’s name, makes you think you could even pull this off? It’s not like I’ve seen you writing when you come home from work or hammering out a story or two on your days off. You’re out of practise to say the very least. But I know you. You’re probably already a best-selling author in your own head.”
“Well, I didn’t follow my heart in the end,” Phil murmured to the memory, fast-forwarding to a few years later when he was sitting in the doctor’s office being told his blood pressure was far too high, his heart seriously compromised. “Too much stress,” the doctor had said. “I highly suggest you take leave from your job and rest, that you do something you enjoy in order to recalibrate.”
“Which I didn’t, of course,” Phil muttered.
And, with his compromised heart lodged somewhere in his throat, Phil came to the conclusion that the whole thing had been a harrowing joke because, in the end, James and Nico hadn’t gone to university and Claire was making the most of their retirement savings all by herself because, as a wife and a mother, she’d sacrificed so much. So much, Phil. I’ve sacrificed so much. This is my time now. My time to rediscover myself because I’ve been so lost; I need to get out in the world and find myself, remember what it’s like to feel alive, to be vivacious, to reconnect with the rest of the human race.
And then he heard her droning on about the boys.
They need to follow their passion, Phil. They need to follow their dreams. Vegan cooking is all the rage these days and they could make a killing with their supper club. Now that they’re not attending university, we can invest that money into their new business, buy them the equipment, renovate the garage, even install a little kitchen. They’ll be set but more importantly, they’ll be fulfilled. They’ll be complete, well-rounded men because they’ll be following their dreams.”
Just like me, thought Phil with a tear in his eye.
The first tear in ages.
In absolutely ages.
Turning and grabbing his mobile from his desk, he scrolled down to a song which was very far down on his list – so far down in fact, it was almost a secret, like this wonderful grotto tucked away from all his hard rock treasures.
Yes. He dared. It was time. Long overdue.
And he pressed PLAY.
And the song began in Italian.
It was Andrea Bocelli singing If Only – with Dua Lipa joining him in English.
And it may have been written as a song about two lovers, but as Phil listened to it, he envisioned himself singing to the one great love he’d abandoned: and that love, excruciatingly unrequited, had been the love of his life; it had been the collection of stories born in his imagination and abandoned for a lifetime dealing with other people’s dramas. That was the moment when Phil saw all those tales to whom he’d said, through action, “I don’t love you. I’ve never loved you.” when really, underneath it all, he’d loved them with all his heart, a heart which had dearly paid the price.
Standing there, adrift in Andrea and Dua’s voices, Phil suddenly realised that he was crying. And there. It came. Finally. It came. The blur. That oh-so-missed iridescence. That divinity, rapturous and cathartic, that can only come from intense emotion set free from the source.
When the blur began to clear, Phil saw that Jeannie was standing right behind him with her right hand on his left shoulder. He’d been so lost in the moment that he hadn’t noticed that she’d entered the office and come up behind him.
Saying nothing, she brought her arms down around his waist and hooked her chin over his shoulder where her hand had been.
They stood there like that for a while, watching themselves in the glass.
Eventually, breaking the silence, Phil asked, “What do you see, Jeannie?”
Pulling back slightly and kissing his shoulder, she whispered, “I see you, Phil. I see you.”
“Yes, really,” Jeannie replied. “And just look,” she added, coming around beside him and gesturing to his image glittering beyond the window in midair. “How wonderful you are.”