Hirst left suddenly, without ceremony.
A final scan of the room. It was time.
He caught his cat, dropped it in the basket, and left it on a neighbour’s doorstep with a note. ‘He liked you more than me. Look after him’.
He had money. There were rooms to rent.
Two hours in a slow stopping train. He could have walked between stations faster. Sensing claustrophobia, he stood at the end of the carriage, gulping breaths of reprocessed air, cursing the buffoon who designed train windows that no longer opened.
He found a modest room in a brick and flint terrace overlooking reed beds. A closeness to water felt right. It promised change. He breathed the brackish air. Yes, a good place to begin again.
Begin what? He’d no wish to begin anything again. Beginnings lead to endings. He allowed the thought to gently dissipate.
The room was unfurnished, so he bought a chair, table and blankets from a charity shop. He’d sleep on the floor. A van delivered them, and he watched the men stare round the still empty room sharing a look of ‘Is that it?’ before clumping back down the narrow stair.
He positioned the chair by the window, but not too close, the table to one side. Sat on the chair facing first the bare walls, then the window.
He felt relief, it had been the right thing to do.
A week passed. Much of the day he peered at the empty walls, sometimes turning the chair to face the street below. He looked without focus, at the stream of tourists, a boat slipping out through the reeds. What was he hoping for? An annihilation of before, of the past, of everything he had walked out on.
He ate meals in a pub, and breakfasted at a cafe along the main street. He took pleasure meticulously buttering his toast, stirring his tea, watching the condensation disperse across the window, disclosing movement, light, colour. When he pushed his plate to one side he sighed. Yes, this was what he needed. It was enough, and no more.
The walls of his room were a reassuring blank canvas, and he allowed his eyes to range across them, enjoying the emptiness. One small mark where a picture had been removed repeatedly drew his eye, and he bought a tube of Polyfilla to patch it. For a day or two his eye was drawn to the repair, the white of the filler not quite matching the white of the wall. For a whole day he struggled not to notice it, willing himself to relax in the still air. Finally the stain faded, and the emptiness of the room became a luxury once again. Here were no years of accumulation, no unsettling shapes of frames and paintings. And no welter of books, their voices calling from distant corners of the shelves ‘I’m your favourite, you valued me once, take me down, open me, read me’.
The chair sank to his shape. The table stayed bare, a surface for his coffee mug. No papers, no piles of books or magazines, no ornaments.
Days passed. He discovered he was never bored. There was nothing to be bored about. Nothing to shake his mounting conviction that all was well. He was eating better, showering every morning, taking his dirty washing to the launderette.
He’d left with just the clothes he was wearing, so he bought a shirt, jeans, and jumper at the charity shop. The volunteer at the till pointed out a hole at the elbow and suggested a fifty pence reduction. He imagined the displacement activity of endlessly fingering the hole, so chose another, a size too large, but lacking a discernible past.
Seated in his chair he told himself he’d won time to rebuild. But he’d make sure the new structure, whatever it turned out to be, was adequate, and no more. Adequate before had never felt adequate, only the relentless desire to accumulate.
Wandering the village street in the afternoons he mentally detached himself from the crowd of visitors, walking amongst them alone, avoiding glances. He took to wearing his father’s old glasses. Looking through them he saw only shifting colour and motion, with nothing to focus on, nothing to detain.
Sometimes he set out along a track to the sea, following the faint roar of the incoming tide, shuffling through long grass, aiming at a distant spot in the reeds. But always turning back before he reached it.
He was done with destinations.
A small worry nagged. Was he turning into a monk? He didn’t think so. He was alone, but didn’t think his room a monk’s cell. Monks were miserable creatures, driven by obsession, the constant yearning for fusion with God. Every moment of a monk’s day when he wasn’t rapt in prayer must be a moment of guilt.
He was done with guilt.
The view through the window: the same elements but always different, unattached life in motion. The shifting people, cars, clouds and sunlight lacked the troubling sterility of his paintings. Like his books they, too, had kept calling to him from the walls. ‘Why did you buy me if you don’t look at me anymore? What did you see in me then you no longer see now?’
Picking at fish and chips one evening, he thought ‘This pub could be anywhere, and that’s exactly where I want it to be.’ Places are best when they’re anywhere, he reasoned. When a place becomes somewhere it brings judgement, possession, desire. You begin to like some buildings more than others, prefer walking this street to that. This insight led him to change his breakfast cafe, and sometimes to not breakfast at all. He took to walking unknown streets away from the sea, finding them no less or more interesting than those seaward.
The single exception was the burger bar along a side street with its sickening stench of burning fat. He tried looking away, crossing to the opposite pavement, but found he could avert his gaze but not his nose. He tried pinching it as he passed, breathing fresh sea air through his mouth. But this denial of the burger bar’s existence nagged at him. For the best part of a morning he pondered a solution. The next day he walked past the burger bar drawing deeply on the fumes of fat, thinking Tim. His cat wouldn’t mind.
Curiously, he missed Tim. The hollow in his lap as he sat in his chair.
In the days following he couldn’t stop thinking of Tim. Hirst had never thought of him as a friendly cat, let alone a companion. Whenever he had felt the need for blood warmth on the rare occasions when Tim rattled the cat flap and crept back in, he’d scooped the animal up in his arms. Tim shook, struggled as if for his life, before scrambling to the floor. It seemed the thought of giving something of himself to order, forfeiting his independence for a second, was beyond what the animal considered fair barter for his keep. On the rare occasions when Tim made his own decision to seek the comfort of Hirst’s lap they purred in harmony.
Another month passed. He grew stronger, able to compare his life now with his life before. Thinking back, he shuddered at the tyranny of his library, the innumerable books and paintings he’d lusted after and bought. Each to be pored over, treasured, and finally forgotten. The 1802 leather-bound volume of Bloomfield’s ‘The Farmer’s Boy’ he’d found on a dusty shelf in an antiquarian bookshop. Its marbled endpapers, woodcut of a piping shepherd, naive typography, the weight of ink seeping through the pages, delighted him. He’d sit for hours with it on his lap. As time went on the urge to open it diminished, and it became an object to hold, to be valued, cherished as an icon, not to be read.
This inclination spread to the paintings. The first he bought, an abstract from a St Ives gallery, he’d havered over for a whole morning, drinking too many espressos that made him light-headed. You need it, you buy it, the voice in his head told him. And he did. Sitting in his chair, he studied it on the wall, repeatedly tracing its labyrinth of lines and slashed brushwork, pondering unsuccessfully the significance of the title ‘Light in Synthesis’.
His gallery grew. Landscapes, modern and Victorian, portraits of people he liked the look of but would never know, architectural studies, more abstracts. Soon the walls were a patchwork of frames, forcing his eye to range over the wall, viewing first one then another, until he saw only frames, and the grids of white wall between. Rationalising, he told himself the wall was a work of art in itself, a mural, the enhanced sum of its parts.
Then guilt. Had he changed or had they? Had he simply worn his paintings out, extracted every last drop of their juices? He turned them all to the wall. It felt better.
Inspired, he began on the books, turning them all spine in. When he’d worked his way through two shelves he stopped, aware it was irrational. Fearing he was going mad, he turned them all back again.
Here, by the sea, in this empty room, that tyranny was over. Life now consisted of both inside and outside, with no disturbing possessions or accumulations. Everything was equal, nothing the best, nothing the worst.
But he wished that like Tim he was oblivious of environment. His cat was contented, anxious only when hungry. Hirst remembers holding up two tins of cat food to Tim, who sat picking at his anus in the doorway. Tim had always been a fussy eater. ‘This one’s beef and kidney, this one’s turkey and ham. Take your pick, Timmo. How do I know which you want, I’m not opening both.’ Exasperated, he rolled the tins forcefully across the floor causing Tim to skip dexterously out of the way. ‘Make your choice, I’ll eat the other.’
And he did. He swallowing a spoonful and retched. Things rapidly went out of kilter. He remembers clutching his head, choking on a fur-ball of anger and frustration. Tim stared at him in astonishment, flew out of the cat flap, and decamped to a neighbour.
Looking back, he knew this was the watershed.
During the first week his landlady had knocked most days to ask how he was getting on.
‘Only me. Just seeing if you need anything.’
‘I’m fine, thank you,’ he replied without looking round. If she took umbrage she didn’t show it. He knew he was an easy lodger.
One day he got back from his walk to find a tiny framed painting nailed to the wall. He stood staring at it, open mouthed. It was hung ludicrously high and irritatingly off centre, a jaunty penguin with a half-open beak, painted in bright acrylics.
Then a knock. ‘Only me. Hope you didn’t mind, I thought the painting would brighten the room up.’
And you, too, he knew she was implying.
As he sat in his chair the bird grinned at him. It was hung so high it was like being spied on from above.
Unable to endure any longer, he prised the string from the wall and lifted the frame down. Removing the picture hook proved more difficult. By the time he’d dug it out he’d made a sizeable hole in the plaster skim. It was hard flint behind, so he’d never be able to nail it up again without a drill.
He’d had enough. He left a week’s rent on the table, crept out of the cottage, and walked away up the street.