‘Slavery? In our times? Whoever would have thought it?’ Lady Mary Canongate stared beyond the coffin and into the faces of the rapt, star-studded congregation. ‘Walt went after every link in the chain: the slave masters, the multinational confectioner – you all know who I’m talking about – the Ye Olde Lolly Shop franchise and even “the dairy milk lovers of the world”, as he grew fond of calling the general public. He lost the case, of course he did, but winning was never the point.’
Dennis Canongate moaned, a sound his sister Evelyn mistook for a sob. She whispered in the ear of her Florida-accented daughter, who bounced from her mother’s lap and nailed a perfect landing on Dennis’s gigantic right thigh. A junior gymnastic champion, she trained two hours every morning and two hours before bed: it was child abuse, pure and simple, Dennis thought. He tousled her hair in what he imagined was a paternal way. In turn, she made a show of comforting him by holding his hand. But his fingers fascinated her. She squeezed them harder and harder to see if he had bones in there somewhere.
‘Whatever his legacy to the cause of international justice, more than anything else Walt was a family man: a husband, a father,’ Lady Mary said. ‘Growing up in the Canongate household meant having a plan. And sticking to it.’
‘Here we go,’ Dennis said.
Annie gave his cheek a single stroke. ‘Not today, love,’ she said.
‘Timothy, our eldest, commenced training to take over the family law firm around about the time he learnt to crawl. He achieved this aged thirty-one, which freed up Walter to take extra pro bono cases and to spend more time chasing leopards in Namibia. I used to ask him if he had a woman in Africa. “If I do, my love,” he’d invariably reply, “she’s got four legs, runs like the wind and is due a bullet hole right between the eyes.”
‘Not long after Timothy, James came along. The dear boy set himself the task of climbing Mount Everest, but at nineteen he tumbled off a fell in the Lake District and shattered his ankle. It wasn’t his fault, of course. The girl walking in front of him was wearing a pair of short shorts.
‘James studied medicine. After graduation he joined Médicins Sans Frontières and jetted off to Tanzania to treat kiddies with AIDS. And God knows what else. Walter told the children that if they wanted to make a difference in the world they had to get their hands dirty. He regretted that James learnt that particular lesson far too well.’
Dennis pushed the girl off his lap and shifted his body so that it angled away from his mother and towards a bust that he thought looked suspiciously like George Orwell. Is there no escape, he wondered, from the hectorers and the holier-than-thous? And what on heaven and earth is George doing in a cathedral?
‘Then came Dennis. You’ll have heard the expression “I was as big as a house”. Well, when I was pregnant with Dennis, Walt said I was as big as a hangar at Heathrow. The poor thing arrived in the world needing a shave. Still does. Walt took one look at him and said, “It’s the army for you, my boy.”’
Dennis slumped in the pew. ‘Hold on, love,’ Annie said. ‘Not much longer now.’
‘Last, but certainly not least, came Evelyn. As a child she dreamed of winning Wimbledon but she was such a tiny creature that none of us imagined her succeeding. Except Walt. He paid Dennis extra pocket money to be her hitting partner. Morning and night, for almost a decade, they bashed balls back and forth while Evelyn’s coach, Mr Jenkinson from the village, barked out instructions.’
‘Who cares?’ Dennis muttered.
‘I wanted to record Mr Jenkinson yelling “wrist position” and then fire him because that’s all he ever said. But Walt said that he’d taken Rosewall to five sets in the second round of the Australian Open and that he deserved our trust.
‘As everyone knows, Evelyn never won Wimbledon. The day she lost the final was the only time I ever saw Walter cry. Tears of joy, of pride, of satisfaction, of vindication.’
Dennis’s forehead closed in on itself. He had never understood how Evelyn’s failure in that final had morphed into a national triumph. He found himself back at centre court: Evelyn jagged a thigh muscle in her first service game. Her opponent, a concrete-shouldered Swiss slugger known everywhere as ‘The Hippo’, took full advantage, chipping and lobbing and pushing Evelyn from corner to corner until she could barely stand up. At 2–6, 1–5, Love–40 down, Evelyn was determined to go down fighting. Putting excruciating weight on her left foot, she conjured a sublime, swinging first serve. The Hippo – from that moment known as ‘The Flying Hippo’ – flung herself parallel to the grass. She made perfect contact: the ball cleared the net, swooped like an eagle and clipped the cross-court line. Evelyn dropped her racquet, led the applause and dragged her broken body forward. The Flying Hippo vaulted the net, embraced Evelyn, took her in her arms and carried her to a chair.
When Evelyn spoke to the crowd, grasping a gigantic cheque, she singled Dennis out for thanks. ‘When I got up at dawn, he was already stretching. When I went to the physio with a busted shoulder or a wonky knee, he’d be on a treatment table with heat packs strapped everywhere.’
Dennis wasn’t fooled. He knew she was really only making sure the world understood that it was all his fault.
Benjamin finished his third pint, waved goodnight to the whole pub and headed out into the crisp October night. It was only a fifteen minute walk to the slightly rundown but roomy fifth floor flat he shared with Ron and Kate, friends from chef college. It was still early and Benjamin was tempted to head to the Here & Now, get a little drunk and see if Christina might let him grope her for old time’s sake.
But college started at 8am. Benjamin was determined to stay disciplined. He was going to conquer the food world, but not by opening a restaurant where beautiful people booked tables years in advance and flew in from LA to suck on truffle-infused oxygen. No. He would serve inspired versions of everyday fare, everything from shepherd’s pie to fish fingers to cheesy cauliflower. He was going to revolutionise top-notch normal.
He also wanted to mop the kitchen floor before he turned in for the night. Benjamin and Ron had learned from www.tipsaboutchicks.com that women went crazy for cleanliness: ‘If you want to get into a girl’s pants, wash and – most important! – rinse the dishes.’ But Kate, the object of Benjamin and Ron’s joint affection, had not noticed their domesticity. She was a sloth.
As he walked towards the flat, Benjamin thought about his homework. Chef Jones had told them to write 700 words responding to the question, ‘What does a tomato taste like?’ Old Jonesy was a sad looking bloke whose hair was falling from his scalp in three separate places. Benjamin couldn’t work him out. He could de-bone a quail blindfolded but he was forever asking questions like ‘Does a live lobster dropped in boiling water feel pain?’ or ‘Is it immoral to eat store-bought ice cream?’ or ‘What does a tomato taste like?’
Mind you, tomatoes fascinated Benjamin. Raw, he found them woody, but sweated with olive oil, onion, garlic, a teaspoon of honey, a chopped chilli or two, maybe a dollop of HP Sauce if Old Jonesy wasn’t watching, they became a sweet miracle. It wasn’t just the taste. Benjamin’s Aunty Prue ate pasta three times a day because the doctors had lopped one of her breasts off and she’d read on the internet that Napolitana sauce stopped cancer from spreading. But Benjamin knew that if he wrote 700 words on the medicinal properties of the cooked tomato, Old Jonesy would conjure an Italian accent and scream, ‘Irrelevanto. The taste, boy, what about the taste?’
‘Go for crunch,’ Old Jonesy was forever telling wannabe chefs. He believed – ardently – that diners should hear themselves eat. But ‘Go for crunch’ had taken on a new meaning for Benjamin and Ron. It was the code name for their competition to see who was going to sleep with Kate.
‘Gone the crunch yet?’ Ron would ask Benjamin. ‘Nah. You?’
‘No, but she wants it bad. She just doesn’t know it yet.’ Benjamin thought this was harmless banter.
Truly, he believed women were equals. He’d recently read a couple of chapters of a paperback called The Beauty Myth by some American called Naomi Wolf (he’d come across it when he was spying on Kate in the college library. He didn’t follow her, really he didn’t, they just both happened to be working on Old Jonesy’s essay question: ‘Does bread and butter pudding taste different in the post-feminism world?’).
He’d googled Naomi Wolf and was surprised to discover that she was hot. It was hard to be certain, because Kate was still a little green, but he thought that she might be right up there with Naomi Wolf. If she mussed her hair up and wore less black eye shadow, Kate might one day be everything he wanted in a woman: vine-ripened, top-notch normal.
As his father foretold, Dennis grew up planning to make his mark in the army. He was nimble for his size and in time he became a decent soldier. Although he never went to war, he donned a blue helmet and went to Cambodia as a United Nations peacekeeper. When he came home after eleven months the Canongates held a reception for him, a tuxedoed event at which Sir Walter gave a long speech: ‘You did your country proud. More importantly, you did your family proud.’ Lady Mary saluted every time he passed her on his way to the bar. Timothy clasped both his shoulders and looked deeply into his eyes, while Evelyn, who had flown in from Florida, held him tight and bawled. James appeared via satellite from a refugee camp in the Sudan.
Dennis felt like a fraud. The whole Cambodian mission, he believed, was glorified crowd control. He was tired of pretending he was a warrior.
After Cambodia, he found himself working behind a desk. Technically, it was a promotion. He sat in a building that didn’t officially exist, reading, shredding and occasionally drafting top-secret reports. But Dennis asked himself what sort of soldier went home at night with spotless hands? What sort of soldier needed an Occupational Health and Safety Officer to align his computer screen, keyboard, wrist and knees so that his neck didn’t go stiff?
He resigned from the army to take up a position as Assistant CEO of StepEasy, the landmine manufacturer. The family disapproved. Sir Walter and Tim felt obliged to release a media statement: ‘Canongate Lawyers deplore the global proliferation of landmines. Nevertheless, we wish Mr Dennis Canongate every success in the private sector. We fervently hope that he will be a beacon of honour and integrity, and an agent for change, within the armaments i n d u s t r y.’
Four months after Dennis started his new job, StepEasy went bankrupt. Dennis was mystified. He’d understood that the world had a limitless appetite for mines, and that he was set for life. ‘I tore down something that was rotten to the core,’ he told his father.
Dennis moved to a cottage in a village. He read military histories and political biographies, watched soppy romances on his DVD player, and fished for trout. He embraced the conviviality of the local pub, the Gone & Forgotten. His stomach became vast and rock-hard on a diet of fish and chips and Old Faithful lager. He felt permanently short of breath. He told himself that he had never been happier.
Then Tim offered Dennis the position of Manager of Operations at Canongate Law. Dennis was insulted by the salary and by the idea that Tim pitied him. ‘Can I start Monday?’ he said.
Keen to raise standards, Dennis set about bullying Canongate Law’s junior lawyers and administrative staff. On his second morning he bailed up a paralegal called Annie.
‘I’ve a good mind to send you home to change. You must not – MUST NOT, I say – wear red shoes to work.’
‘Why ever not?’ Annie said.
Dennis grabbed her wrist and shook it. ‘I’m in charge around here, little missy, and don’t you forget it.’
Fifteen minutes later, Tim summoned Dennis to his office.
‘What on earth were you thinking?’
‘I was instilling discipline. I thought that’s what you wanted.’
‘But you manhandled her. You assaulted her.’
‘What? I most certainly did not … Did I?’
Tim sent Dennis to Annie’s apartment armed with a personal apology, a bunch of roses and a box of chocolate-coated ginger. Annie took pity on the obese, red-faced fellow who appeared at her door. She invited him in and gave him a glass of riesling and a bowl of chicken and broccoli penne. She returned to work the next day wearing her red shoes. That Friday, when Dennis asked her if she’d have dinner with him, she was only slightly surprised to hear herself say ‘Oh yes’.
Tim sent Dennis to see the Canongate’s financial advisor, who did his sums and announced – taking into account Dennis’s army pension, his part-share in the law firm, his portfolio of oil and natural gas and bank shares and a generous separation package from Canongate Law – that aged forty-six years of age he need never work again. What an achievement, Dennis thought, and what an opportunity. ‘I’m going to become a man of culture,’ he told Annie. ‘A patron of the arts.’
As Benjamin climbed the stairs he heard Kate scream. He sprinted to the landing and burst through the door. Ron stood in the centre of the room, naked and glistening with sweat. He cried out ‘Go for crunch’ and shouldered the bathroom door.
‘Piss off,’ Kate screamed from inside the bathroom.
Ron fiddled frantically at the door hinges with a butter knife then gave up and head-butted the wood instead. He staggered around the room on jelly legs. Benjamin, who’d never been in a fight in his life, punched him once, a glancing blow to the jaw. Ron collapsed on the floor whimpering.
The police coaxed Kate out of the bathroom. She emerged nursing a bloody nose and missing a couple of buttons from her shirt. The paramedics decided she didn’t need to go to hospital so the police drove her to her parents’ house.
The next morning, Kate arrived at the flat with her mother.
‘Are you all right?’ Benjamin asked. ‘I mean, I know you’re not but–’
‘Nothing happened,’ Kate said. ‘He didn’t…’
Benjamin wished that Kate would reach out and touch his arm, give him a wink, squeeze his hand, do something, anything, to show that they were in this together. But she went into her bedroom and shoved clothes into a backpack.
‘You’re coming back, aren’t you?’ Benjamin asked.
‘We’ll be in touch, dear,’ Kate’s mother said.
Benjamin wanted to hug Kate, partly as an act of solidarity, partly out of guilt, and partly because he’d always wanted to. Maybe if they touched she might experience the fizzing sensation that www.tipsaboutchicks.com went on about. But under the circumstances he supposed a cuddle was inappropriate.
‘Ring me if there’s anything I can do,’ he said as they left. ‘I really want to help.’
Kate’s mum kissed him on the cheek.
Soon after they’d gone, Ron’s father turned up, ashen- faced. He shook hands with Benjamin for a long time. He stood at the bathroom doorway muttering ‘Terrible business’ over and over. He hurriedly packed Ron’s belongings and Benjamin helped him lug the bed, the chest of drawers and the boxes down to the street. Benjamin’s father shoved an envelope into Benjamin’s hands.
‘Three months’ rent,’ he whispered, and fled.
The painting confused Dennis. Was it supposed to be spiritual? Did it represent the human soul, the artist’s inner turmoil? He knew nothing about this man except that he didn’t appear to paint portraits or landscapes – although who could really say for sure? – and that one night he had swallowed a bucket full of tablets, slashed his arms with a razor blade and bled out on the floor of his studio.
Dennis wondered if he was missing the point. He stepped closer to the brown and grey rectangle that took up most of the wall. Was the point that the layers of paint made the picture simple yet terribly complex? Was he supposed to dive into its murky waters, swim about and emerge enlightened? He suspected that the artist was conning him, and that the swarming crowd, full of reverence and wonder, was in on the joke.
He wanted to explain his misgivings to Annie, but she was anchored in Room 2, a narrow rectangular space housing a single painting that ran the length of a wall.
Dennis peered into Room 2. Annie stood transfixed, leaning over the rope nose first. This was a pose Dennis himself adopted from time to time, and in normal circumstances he would have been delighted to see Annie so engrossed in a work of art. But today he found it disheartening, insulting even, for her absolute stillness implied that she had grasped something essential about the image.
Maybe, he thought, he would understand why the art world lauded this man if he had more information. He wanted to know the exact dimensions of the paintings, the medium used. Did it take the artist days, weeks, years to finish each one? How much paint was on the canvas? What brand of brushes did he use? Did he wear a smock when he worked? A hat? Underpants?
Benjamin had come to the exhibition hoping for distraction. According to Old Jonesy, the artist was a tragic genius, a twentieth-century icon, and his paintings were profound and inspiring and melancholic: ‘If Mark Rothko was a plate of food, what would he be? 850 words.’
Benjamin hoped that a stroll amongst art might help take his mind off Kate and Ron. Instead, heaviness flooded through his body. He stopped in front of one painting and stared at it. He felt as if he’d slit himself open and was taking in the view of his innards. He wondered how Kate had felt, watching the light that snuck under the bathroom while Ron panted and salivated and clawed at the hinges.
Benjamin fought his way through the throng into a room where six paintings hung. Huge things. The artist had done them for some swanky restaurant in New York, a place that turned out to be so up itself that he had returned their advance and kept the paintings for himself. Nice one, Benjamin thought. He tried to imagine these paintings on the walls of his dream restaurant. Would they spook the diners, he wondered, or were they top-notch normal?
Dennis approached a security attendant, a young woman who sat on a stool holding a walkie-talkie.
‘This is ridiculous, I tell you. Absolutely bloody ridiculous.’
‘What’s that, sir?’
‘It happens time and time again, but I’m obliged to tell you that this place is by far the worst offender. You’ve taken absolutely no care and I for one am sick of the arrogance. Sick of it, I say.’
He drew close to the attendant. She put her hand on his shoulder and gently pushed him back.
‘What I want to know is what are you – yes, you – going to do about it?’
‘Sir, could you explain your concern?’
‘Don’t use that tone with me, young lady. That’s exactly the point I’m making: to not know is to not care. It’s not good enough, do you hear me?’
‘But sir, what–?’
‘I can’t read the signs. That’s what. They’re too small and I can’t get closer because you’ve put these damned ropes ever y where.’
Dennis’s voice carried all the way to Room 2. Annie blinked, registering that Dennis was on the rampage, and regretfully backed away from the painting. She walked quickly through Room 3 and stood in the archway to Room 4, where she watched Dennis harangue some woman who, to her credit, seemed unperturbed, even as she ducked and weaved around Dennis’s flailing limbs. A torrent of words poured from him but the content had long ago ceased to matter.
Annie peered around with professional interest. Everybody in the crowd had turned away from the paintings to watch Dennis’s performance – except for one young man, dishevelled in a deliberate way that Annie found endearing.
Dennis stamped his feet. ‘I want to read the signs,’ he cried. ‘I want to want to want to read the signs.’
Annie turned her attention to Benjamin, who, oblivious to the commotion, stood mesmerised by the painting in front of him. He stepped over the rope, got right up close to the painting, laid his palms flat against it, opened his mouth wide and gave it a long, slow, thoughtful lick. He rested his forehead against the canvas for a moment then came to with a start and jumped back over the rope. He looked around and saw that a woman dressed completely in black stood watching him, a half-smile on her lips.
‘If Mark Rothko was a plate of food,’ Benjamin said, ‘he’d be a bowl of soup.’
‘Just soup? That’s it?’ Annie said.
‘You can’t see it unless you know it, but soup is everything.’
Annie patted Benjamin’s shoulder as he went by. He was shocked to experience a fizzing sensation. Maybe he didn’t need to wait for Kate to ripen. Maybe he could go straight to Naomi Wolf.
Annie sensed Benjamin’s eyes running up and down her body. She hurried towards Dennis, who had beached himself on the floor and was wheezing heavily. The security attendant crouched down, squeezed his hand and murmured into her walkie-talkie.
Patrick Allington’s fiction, essays and critical writings appear widely in newspapers, magazines and online. His novel, Figurehead, was published by Black Inc. in 2009.
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