A mystery really, the colour even of that flame through which it burns. There it is, unnameable when you’re young, a thing outside the hands, that which cannot be touched. Dirt on the neck engrained, mistaken for a birthmark. A clammydamp itch aching like a growth spurt, an erection you don’t know what to do with. Talent is not a vocation of itself.
Lunchtime drinking, the Broadfield as it used to be. A pub cleaved in sinews, no thought of cocktails or pulled pork, those days when you could put Madness on the jukebox and ensure its subsequent unleash. I was by myself, nursing my future when he sat next to me, indeterminance of the daytime drinker, something about his appearance seeming to flicker and wane, as if I might be viewing him through the doublevision of his own eyesight.
I used to do crosswords, he said. Cryptic.
Beyond me that, I said. I mean if I’m with someone who knows the script, but really I, you must be.
No, he said. No it’s not. Have you got a cigarette? No, I can’t roll them myself.
I made a cigarette, set it burning for him.
No, he said. No nothing’s, you’re too young to be thinking that something’s beyond you yet. A yellowness tinged his penumbra, as if he had already lost both livers. No, he said, don’t you be doing that. Work on your core, do your corework. You don’t want your talent to cannibalise itself. No, he said. That’s the last thing you’re after.
Listen to me.
Talent is a garden, he said. It has a foliage which must be tended.
Look at you.
Look at you with your teeth and your skin, that book you read. You think you can put your talent in a vase, leave it on a windowsill and that will be enough.
Respect its nutrients, he said. Be mindful of that soil. Because, he said. You’ve got to look after it boy. When you’re young you’d better water that fucker. Talent doesn’t grow out of comfortable chairs. You’re having a laugh looking for it on the beach at Maplethorpe.
He raised his hands, showed me then his knuckles scrubbed raw and crackling, daubed blue beneath the dermis. CARP DIEM. Seize it, he said. Go fishing, he said, or rather didn’t. Of course not. It would have been nice if that man with cloying breath had sat me down and talked me through it, if that man had happened at all. There would have been something nice about its happening in the Broadfield, the Broadfield as it used to be, in those days when the words DRUGS PIGEON were scrawled above the mirror in the gents, when such words seemed to contain a firm and legitimate sense. But, no. It was all so much afterwards, further years severally into this figment.
A few weeks later I woke up spitting blood, sold my books translated from the Spanish and bought a bag of oranges, but on that day I only coughed somewhat. I was moving house, skint to the bone. For opaque reasons I had spent some thirty-six hours making a collage from lesbian clownporn found clearing the cellar, still now the only artwork I’ve deemed finished by having a wank, and I really needed to eat some food. My last meal had come from coins out the back of the sofa and there was a grubbiness to my psychic as I filched the house for coppers. A gathered quid. I walked down to Abbeydale Road, Abbeydale Road as it used to be, but the one coffeeshop, its pizzas unfired by wood. Rats, you get rats nowadays there still. They’d only just turned on the fryers and my hunger ebbed and rippled when he came and stood adjacent to me at the counter. About your height, with eyes shot through to ruin.
I wear glasses as well, he said.
Really, I said. Have you got your contacts in?
No, he said. I broke them. Fighting.
I fucking love fighting.
It’s not my game, I said.
Fighting, he said. I love it.
I did what I could to catch the attention of the fryer, blinked urgency in its direction.
Make me a cigarette, he said. Actually, make me two.
I handed him the tabs. Look at you, he said. Look at you with your teeth and your skin. You think it’s easy, don’t you just. A carpet rolled at your feet, some fucking massage. Listen to me boy, he said. Listen to me or I’ll knock you down for free. You think it’s easy don’t you, a game to put down when you please. I’m telling you now it’s not. I’ve learnt that me the hard way.
The fryer was not responding to my signals.
You think you can just call it up, he said. That you can just call on your talent and it’ll come a running. Don’t be, he said.
Be naïve as that again and I’ll put you through the window.
Mark these words. Tattoo them in the flesh.
It’s difficult, he said. A proper fucking relationship. You’ve got to treat her right, your talent. Take her places, buy her flowers. Don’t you be forgetting anniversaries boy. Neglect her and she’ll go away. If she wants to go to the zoo take her to the fucking zoo. Go back to it, he said. Rework the thing. No one ever said anything about a painter doing two versions of the same cheese.
I agreed but he didn’t seem to believe me. Above bubbling fat chips glinted the light.
We were, I was going to take it far. Me and my talent we were going places. That much had been discussed. Africa or I don’t know, teaching in Japan in Korea perhaps. Someplace different. The ferry to the Andamans, four days through the Bay of Bengal. We had our plans. Travel writing or poems, an interlinked sequence of short stories. I didn’t feel a novel was in me yet but me and my talent, we were going to see what happened. How things panned out.
It was you.
It was you, he said. It was you, wasn’t it. Turned my back for a second and you fucking took her from me. There we were happy together then it was you wasn’t it, you that came along, took her out in your fancy fucking car. I was something then, you should of seen me with my talent in my arms. You fucker, he said. Where is she? Just, tell her I said hello.
But, I said. It’s a, you must be mistaken. I don’t, never got my provisional even.
Please, he said. Don’t you be leaving as well. Just, say that I said hello.
No matter what it seems there are just some lessons that will not get themselves learnt. I think it was in that book, where the scientifics were explained. Something about receptors or otherwise principles by which pain is felt that means it is not remembered in the same manner as a sunset or birthday cake, the first time ever I saw your face. Atavistic explanations from the savannah, the first man to stand on his own two feet. Even though it should be easy, we never do quite learn. How many times must I have done it now, in hunger close to nausea eaten all too aware that blistered mouthskin takes two, maybe even three days to heal, sustenance outpriced by that greed propelling it onwards. White sores imagined in the maw.
In a few weeks I would start eating oranges, bought a comb to put through my hair.
- David Roberts