If you haven’t already, be sure to read the previous “chapter pending” post as this chapter, called “Colours”,
is Phil’s reaction to that one.
Phil surfaced from the chapter with a heartache, longing for the past – for Richie.
Justine, in speaking of her handicrafts with Sid, had brought back a myriad of memories.
So many memories. But where had they all come from?
‘There have been cases,’ Vic called from the past, on the ready with an obnoxious replay of his ‘layering of lives’ theory, ‘where, through deep meditation, people can remember the day they were born. And I say this with great authority because that happened to me when I first mastered the meditative arts. What an epiphany that was. There I was, squeezing my way through the birth canal into the glare of the hospital room in the Mistwell maternity ward. It took me months of practise to get to that point, mind you. But once I achieved that, I said to myself, ‘Why not go further?’ and then I started to delve further back into the layers of my Complete and Utter Existence.’
“Bloody Vic,” Phil scoffed, imagining baby Vic bursting onto the scene in a pair of tiny trainers, spluttering sea water from his previous life’s drowning on the Titanic.
Yet, while Phil scoffed, he felt like Vic had been on-the-money, because reading, if done properly, was like meditating, wasn’t it? Getting oneself into an alternative state? Slipping into the writer’s realm? But no, not the writer’s realm – but rather the human realm, the place where human beings can relate to paper people. For the more Phil had submitted himself to Aubrey’s manuscript, the more he’d remembered things he’d misplaced in his brain, things that time had cluttered up.
And most of it went back to Richie, his beloved sister.
There were a lot of similarities between Richie and Justine, Phil thought.
Both had been beautiful, exuding sensuality, a sexual-artsy vibe which drew men in. And yet, their lure had been mixed up with playful innocence, an ‘arms-wide-open’ zest for life, a tendency to wonderment and reverie. Their blessing had been their curse, however, as their euphoria came up against the naysayers and cynics who tried to close it down.
And then Phil saw himself at four sitting at the kitchen table with loads of dried pasta which Richie had dyed and sorted into empty yoghurt pots. Balls of wool, coat hangers, brushes, paper, wire snippers, scissors, plasticine, and containers of glue were there amongst the yoghurt pots. Because, in Richie’s world, one craft had never been enough; there had always been a minimum of three.
So, there they were – brother and sister – making pasta necklaces, pasta pictures and pasta people. Phil saw himself, under Richie’s watchful eye, slipping the coloured pasta onto the unwound coat-hanger pieces which Richie twisted together to form little figures. That was heaven then: to be up to one’s elbows in simplicity and powder paint, to know the secret to life is in nothing more than half-made moments at the kitchen table, mishaps with glitter, glue, and plasticine. To be with Richie as she flipped her long blonde hair over her suntanned shoulder to keep it from getting in the way. There she was all blue-eyed and wide-smiled, bringing him into her world of colours and creation. And then –
‘What the devil do you two think you’re doing?’ Beryl was swaggering on the scene, hands on hips and unlit cigarette hanging from between her lips. ‘You’ve wasted three packets of pasta. Three nights’ worth of dinner that was! Richmond Dawn Owens – you should know better. Our coat hangers nonetheless – and, Christ, there’s glitter all over the bloody floor. This is a kitchen for Christ’s sake, not Father Christmas’ workshop! And – my God, Philip – you’ve got glue all over your jumper! Clean up this mess this instant. I turn my back for all of half an hour and this is what I come home to.’
And ‘poof’ went heaven; it was back to canned peas, fishfingers, cigarette smoke and ash piling up in the ashtray. It was back to the red settee with Richie taking refuge in her sketch pad and Phil getting lost with the Wombles while Beryl bloody-helled her way around the kitchen.
‘Why is Mummy like that, Rich?’ Phil heard himself asking Richie.
‘I wish I knew, Phil,’ Richie said sadly. ‘Somewhere along the way, she lost her sense of fun.’
‘She should start searching for it then,’ Phil replied. ‘If she doesn’t search, she’ll never find it.’
‘Well just make sure you never lose yours,’ Richie said, ruffling his hair.
‘Why are you so sad, Rich?’
‘How do you know I’m sad?’
‘Because my chest hurts.’
‘Yes – my chest. That’s how I know you’re sad.’
‘I love you, Phil.’
And in that moment, Phil was sure that he felt a kiss on the last remaining curls on his head.
‘I love you too, Rich.’
With Justine and Sidney still on the page beneath his fingertips, Phil thought of how Anthony had thwarted Justine’s impulse to write in the same way his parents, usually Beryl, had shut down Richie’s instinct to create. The more he thought about it, the angrier he became. How dare these people, albeit loved ones, take it upon themselves to cauterize the flow. Who the hell did they think they were to call the shots? And it only worked one way.
“The fucking gall,” Phil muttered. And then he imagined himself, charging into his boyhood kitchen, plucking the cigarette from his mother’s lips and dumping the ash into the sink, tossing the fish finger packet into the bin, saying, “For Christ’s sake, Mum, make a goddamn salad for once. And stop exposing your children to second-hand smoke.”
But of course, with these narrow-minded architects of other people’s lives, one couldn’t counteract; it was a ‘they-could-dish-it-but-not-take-it’ situation. It was a ‘their-way-or-the-highway’ arrangement.
He ran his fingers through that last little patch of hair as if to find Richie’s kiss.
Why was it that these brutes of the world felt they could slap their modus operandi on everybody else without taking a good fucking look in the mirror? And why did the Justines and Richies and hims of the world bend beneath their pressure?
Conjuring up the image of Richie and himself again, Phil decided that children, dependent on their parents for food, shelter and love which came with apron strings, kowtowed to bullying parents because they were afraid to be cut lose. But what about Claire? Why had he, Phil, allowed Claire to keep funneling him into the same old comfortable role? Surely Claire, the mother of his children, former nursery-school teacher extraordinaire wasn’t a bully, was she?
And there she was packing the boys into the car with their buckets and spades, looking sad and saying, ‘Another trip without you, Phil. Don’t mind us, eh? We’re used to it now. You enjoy a day filled with beer and TV. Maybe you could be a modern man and put a load of laundry on for once – in between your programs – or do the washing up at least.’
At least Phil understood where Claire was coming from more than he’d ever understood his parents. Claire had grown up with the rug perpetually pulled from under her. And straight from the get-go, she’d said, “Stability, Phil. That’s what I want more than anything else and it’s what I need to give my children. It’s not a matter of wanting to give it. I need to give it. I can’t be with a younger version of my father, the type of man who drifts where the whim of the month takes him. I need someone reliable, firm, unwavering.’
At the time, in the back seat of his parents’ car with Claire’s bra on the floor and his shirt undone, it all seemed like such a good idea, a feasible plan.
‘I can do firm and unwavering,’ Phil heard himself say.
‘You most certainly can,’ Claire said, slipping her hand inside his trousers.
‘In more ways than one.’
But now, his Philamorphosis nigh, Phil realised he’d made a promise albeit years ago, which he could no longer keep. Back then, high on the tangerine scent of Claire’s Body Shoppe soap, he’d been losing his senses one by one until he hadn’t seen anything other than their rock-solid future and her pretty face.
Always grounded. Always anchored. More often than not, on the sofa, gripping the remote. Watching the dream, eh, Phil, he’d think. Watching the dream that got away. But hey, he’d add with a sniff of indifference mustered, at least you’ve got Claire and the boys and a mortgage. Just the mortgage tonight, though, mate. But you could’ve gone; you made the choice. To be alone.
The sadness he felt overwhelmed him.
To no end.
And then he thought of Justine’s words.
‘And when Anthony was at work and Sidney was at school, I allowed myself to wear the boots, the corset, the necklace, the ribbon and let Greg’s ghost possess me fully. And every, single time, I felt him fill me with invisible tears which coursed through my receptive system. I bled my iridescence for him, let it gloss the recollection of the fiddle, maypole, spindle that I’d teased once.’
At least Justine had had a ghost to which to turn, a real-life lover from her past. And whether Greg had been there or not, at least he’d been there in her mind, so she hadn’t been alone in her hallucination.
But he? What had he turned to in the boredom?
There’d been no former lover and there wasn’t a present-day crush.
So, what did he have?
Surgically perfected people, that’s what. Marathon-fornicators pumping each other half to death on the internet, caterwauling at such decibels, in real-life, they’ve would’ve woken a hell of a lot more than the neighbours up. I mean, seriously, even Justine and Gregory hadn’t had sex like that. No. There was only one person alive who could rival the human aphrodisiacs on his computer screen and that would be, bless his testicles, Vic – and – just a sec – wasn’t his surname Cummings? That couldn’t have been a mistake. Vic truly was living up to his name.
Thinking of himself erasing his browsing history, Phil ached with the aftermath of solitude. Perhaps he’d been experiencing what he’d overheard James and Nico referring to as post nut clarity. For, truth be told, in his opinion, there was nothing more sobering than knowing he’d got off as that figurative fly on the wall to fornicating strangers who looked like Ken and Barbie, sometimes with another doll thrown in.
God, it was all too real, this manuscript, Phil thought.
Justine beside her bathtub with her oil – him, a gazillion years later, wherever, so long as there were tissues – pleasuring himself, making up for other people’s absences.
Loneliness. That’s what this was all about.
Filling in for people who had fallen short.
Fallen short in what? With what?
With sex and art, he thought, recalling Seymour Higgins.
Those were the things where one lost track of time, where one was timeless.
How could he, Phil, connect to Claire when she’d curtailed his dream? How could Justine lose herself in Anthony’s body when he didn’t allow her to write? Anthony and Claire, so many years apart, stopped the art→sex flow and were too numb themselves to know they’d even stopped it.
What was that thing Claire always said post sex?
I’m done. That’s what she said these days. I’m done.
As if she’d been going at it by herself – which, truth be told, she had.
Hanging his head in his hands, Phil ached like crazy for his two pasts. The one where he was Sidney rolling out the dough for Christmas ornaments to paint. The one where he was Phil, glittering everything in sight. Before admonishment. Before curtailing. When everything was filled with colour. When everything was art. He wanted that again: the simple act of making love with life, the self-forgetfulness of living with an open heart, unmindful of the hours, the cost, the mess. If he could be like that again, unhindered, and creative, the ecstasy would come again. The sexual playfulness would run-and-tumble back.