When I went in the next weekend Nico had painted a jungle around and over the pigeons so you could only see the shape of their bodies and their eyes peering out. For the jungle he’d used a rough, shiny emerald paint. You could almost hear the leaves rustling against each other. He’d moved the two pictures to the end of the gallery so they were the first thing you saw when you stood at the double doors. I looked at his two paintings and then at the other blodges that hung along the walls and for the first time in my life I had some sort of idea what art might be about.
“For the squirrels, I’m thinking of motorbikes,” he said.
“Please, Nico,” I said, “I need this job. Just till the end of the year, then you can do what you like.”
“Don’t worry,” he said, “you’re too young to worry.”
“Yeah, but I am worried. I need this job, Nico. Please. Just another couple of months.”
He sighed. “You’re like an old man, cautious like a turtle. At twenty-one you should be crazy, like that girl of yours. Where is she, the Carly? You didn’t bring her for a while.”
“She got arrested. Like we’ll be if Myron comes back.”
“What did she do?”
“Broke into a research lab and let the animals out.”
He laughed. “And you’re scared of a little painting?”
“I’m not scared. I’m just practical. It’s not the same thing.” It was just what I’d said to Carly.
I kept the double doors of the gallery open all day so I could see Nico’s paintings whenever I looked up. Crazy was the word. They zinged off the wall. The light in the room seemed to gather round them, leaving the long walls to either side bathed in a dusty no-colour. No one at all came in. After a while I put down my book and wandered around the gallery. The more I compared Honey’s paintings with Nico’s the more I saw what he meant. The bland talentlessness of the work that sat on the walls seemed to say that the middle of the road was a fine place to be. I went back out to the hall and flipped through the visitors’ book. Very nice; loved the squirrels; lovely display; nice place to visit on a rainy afternoon; a very hard-working lady. I picked up the pencil and, turning my hand sideways so it looked as if someone left-handed had written it, wrote: The cow and the pigeons leave the rest for dead.
After work I went round to Carly’s house. She’d only got ten days custody so she’d be well and truly out by now. Nerissa opened the door.
“Sorry, Jake, she isn’t here, she moved out.”
“Can you tell me where she went?”
“Sorry,” she said, not meeting my eyes, “sorry Jake, but she’s with Liam now.”
Bloody Liam the urban guerilla. He’d always had his eye on her. Any faint hope I’d had of mending things with Carly dived into the ground so hard I put my hand up to my nose. What chance did a trainee teacher who was too scared to break into a research lab have against a thirty-year-old anarchist with long black hair and a police record that went back to the time I started school?
On the way to the gallery the next weekend I surprised myself by feeling, instead of dread at what Nico might have done during the week, a kind of hope that he might have done the motorbikes. And he had. The squirrels snarled out under enormous helmets, the mudguards of the great black bikes threw off star-shaped sparkles, and from their exhausts streamed chains of daisies. At the side of the road a turtle wearing owlish glasses stood looking after them with one fist to its mouth.
“There you are, Jake,” said Nico, “my turtle friend.”
I should have been annoyed, I suppose, but the turtle didn’t really seem to have anything to do with me. I searched inside myself for the feeling of panic that Myron would come back, but it wasn’t there. I tried to find it.
“Nico, I need this job,” I said, but I was already looking round the walls wondering what could be done with the rose-covered cottage.
to be concluded next Sunday