Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Breaking Dawn

It came as a shock that Avian Influenza was back in the breaking news.  It was the day I made a visit to the National Gallery not far from where I lived in London.  I wasn’t entirely sure whether it housed ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ and, if I had a computer, a computer that actually worked, I could have looked it up I suppose before I went.  One fact of which I was sure, however, was that ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ was not the painting’s correct title; it had been christened that by some future Victorian lady.  Its eyes (or, rather, his eyes) not only follow you around the room, they also follow you, perhaps, through time itself.  A knowing, smirking look that told each one of us something. Something like: trust in me and I’ll save you. Or: I am nothing but chemical pigments, so despair!

Dawn was breaking, like a Turner, before I reached Trafalgar Square. The taxis looked as if yellow yolk had spilled all over them. It made me think this wasn’t London at all, but a  different city that did not otherwise exist. I was driven by some unknown purpose. Taken a sickie from work. It was almost as if I then thought that ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ was a form of lucky charm, a talisman in tangible form, to ward off the onset of doom.  Whatever else it might have said with its eyes. 

I imagined a chicken soul. A tiny spirit of existence that was obsessed with eggs.  The dawn by now had become slugs of orange marmalade crawling along the roof-ridges and draping the top of Nelson’s Column (i.e. Nelson himself) with pithy residue from God’s lemon-squeezer.

I cursed. I could see the Gallery was not yet open. Foolishly, I imagined everyone else had, like me, been up for hours.  It felt like lunchtime to me.  I asked a passer-by whether the Gallery contained ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ because, if not, I would be able to kill time with a task satisfyingly useful: like tracking it down elsewhere. I was ignored as if I were considered 'persona non grata'.  With some dismay, I suddenly realised the painting might not be in London at all. But in some upstart city like Amsterdam or Madrid. Upstart. The word had ‘art’ in it! I laughed with self-mockery as I opened my earlier packed lunchbox while sitting near the stone lions and the fountains.

Swarms of pigeon-life swooped around in synchronised patterns because some tourists illegally scattered breadcrumbs for them in the square. That reminded me that the news had only broken late yesterday, the news about the re-awakening of Avian Influenza or H5N1 as some called it. Many of these torurists may not even have heard about it. I liked the expression Bird Flew. I laughed again. This was no laughing matter. When you eventually read this and see how I spelt ‘Flew’, you won’t laugh, either. Unless you never  get to read this...

Eventually, I saw the doors of the National Gallery being opened. Dawn, had, by now, finally broken.  And the oranges and yellows were slowly fading to grey.  Like a painting that had sat too long in the sun. Hung in a window that got too much exposure to the prevailing heat of a long hot summer. I replaced the uneaten Marmite sandwich in my box and I called across to one of the Gallery wardens standing on the outside with a cigarette in his mouth.

“The Laughing Cavalier?”

“Wallace Collection,” he shouted back.

I shrugged.  At least the wings’ communal shadow might protect this painting of the city from the desiccations of light. Its moving column of darkness following wherever I looked.

(written today and first published here)

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