My girlfriend has the habit of tapping my hand with her bare ring finger; in libraries, in crowded bars, as we walk through galleries, in bed when she discusses my performance, at restaurants where she asks after my unsophisticated palate, whenever she wishes to emphasise her point, she raps a morse code bruise. In another year, I will be identifiable only through the stigmata she causes. I have said this when out with friends, only for her to tap my palm and tell me I’m not that funny. Each tap implies I am shallow, that I need to listen more, or perhaps simply that I’m lucky she has any time for me at all. Her friend Greta once took me aside to say she thought I was a little more than a mere project, (‘A doer-upper you are not,’ is what she mumbled drunkenly), and that I might do worse than speaking up for myself. Greta said even love might feel like a steamroller somedays.
‘A metaphor,’ my girlfriend decides, absorbed in the photograph, tap-tapping. ‘Not simply a photograph of a carriage in snow.’
I’m distracted. No exhibit in the Sternenpassage outdoor gallery nor the blue comet’s path mapped on the ceiling fascinate me as does the old man standing at the entrance, searching his clothes. His is a suit from another age; his beardless face is thin and his corrugated skin reminds me of desert gullies. He carries two shopping bags in his right hand, and across his back is an easel. He is soaked from the rain that has been collapsing all morning, and each drop takes a second to fall from the hem of his jacket to the gallery flagstones. The gallery has been converted from a covered passageway. It’s as if Vienna has so much art it has to steal every public pathway in order to display its riches. My girlfriend is busy extemporising her views on art while the old man stares across the MuseumsQuartier hof, as if wondering what happened to the Vienna of his childhood, or when the rain will pause and allow him to continue his day.
‘We’re in a passageway. Now a gallery,’ she continues, determined to explain, to illuminate me, though I am quite content in her shadow. As I explained to Greta, it’s not compulsory to want to be the driver of a steamroller. ’This space is like an underpass. We’re all passengers in Vienna. Our tourist train is snowbound.’
I try to be interesting. It’s one of my daily goals, along with drinking fewer cups of coffee, or doing fifty sit-ups. So I say, pretending perspective, ’It is just a photograph of an old carriage shunted into a frozen siding. Someone left one light on. Photography isn’t art–’
‘Literalist,’ she accuses, tap rap pat. ‘It’s more than art. It’s–’
‘It’s a story. Like this gallery–’
‘This pedestrian tunnel–’
‘This gallery.’ Tap tap. ‘Apparently the picture was retrieved from an English institution–’
‘England is an institution–’
‘Cynic. I’ve no idea why I settled with a man lacking imagination.’
I’m staring. The old man pulls from his trousers a carrier bag, wears it as a hat. What to me seems extraordinary is no such thing for him. My girlfriend, caught up in art, sees nothing else.
‘The piece is positioned precisely half-way through the gallery. Meaning–’
This space isn’t a gallery but a cut-through. The old man rolls up his corduroy trousers to the knees. He wears no socks, only brogues. Next, an orange poncho appears from his laden shopping nets. This is accordioned before he takes a moment to stretch its plastic, then he worries the neck, tearing there to make a wide aperture.
‘Why the one light?’ I ask, pretending interest. I turn to her, briefly, my eyes still on the old man, but she’s lost in the beauty of the image. Can’t she sense he is preparing? Her eyes so wide to art they’re shut to everyday life. Some wonderful medicine is being drawn-up – isn’t it obvious?
‘The carriage. It’s dark except for one light–’
Tap. ’It’s symbolic.’
The old man is maybe a magic show. He steps into the poncho, lifts it over his hips as if it is an evening dress. He tucks it carefully into his collar. Perhaps performance art? Origami?
The hof is deserted, all visitors washed by rain from white flagstones. The man laughs, says German words I do not comprehend, strides out into the storm, sings, jumps puddles, strikes a pose, pirouettes. The oldest boy in town scuttles toward the Leopold, dances through the downpour as if he has a date with the ghost of Egon Schiele.
‘We’re all waiting on platforms for the right train.’
‘Maybe,’ she says. ‘Toot, toot.’
She hugs me as one does a clever dog.
And then I feel the colours of loneliness settle in my belly, and the weight of Vienna crush my lungs.
‘I don’t understand,’ I say.
‘You don’t have to comprehend art,’ she smiles, ‘just experience it. Besides, I’m here to explain.’
I want to pull away from her, to follow the old man whose life is more than a picture, to dance into a place that is greater than art, and I think it is not strange at all, her blindness to the man.
Image by Giulia Marotta from Pixabay
7 thoughts on “Sidelined by Antony Osgood”
The characters come alive as do the places in your work. But you have to watch out for people who “understand” art, they are never wrong about anything. Lovely work once more.
Very nicely done & sometimes a photograph is just a photograph – absolutely loved the line ‘ dances through the downpour as if he has a date with the ghost of Egon Schiele.’ Thanks for that!
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Run, MC, run away from your girlfriend as fast as you can! Excellent writing and the theme of some people being so enthralled with their own intellect that they’re oblivious to the humanity and world around them is well-portrayed.
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I totally agree with Dave Henson!!
I think he should run or hire that steamroller!!
You always have such a wonderful turn of phrase and your work is always a delight to read
All the very best my fine friend.
Moving observation of the vulnerable old man whose strong and sweet spirit is anything but, in sharp contrast to the wanta-be art critic girlfriend. The MC’s too polite but you wish he’d tell her to stick her tapping finger where the sun don’t shine lol! Great story!
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Both characters drawn so well, but the girlfriend is particularly vivid in her coy meanness (well, not that coy!). Excellent character exposition.
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Life is what we focus on. There’s a lot of things we can miss. That’s what this story reinforced for me. I can understand the girlfriend, her intensity about the art, and to control, and also the response of the guy and his loneliness.
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