The scene: It is almost seven o’clock on a Friday evening in London in mid-October. Dozens of people are still spilling out of the white tent of the art fair into the darkening cool of Regent’s Park. Most are fashionable, some are rich: all are hungry, and somewhat fatigued from a day spent in the brightly lit and slightly unreal atmosphere of the fair. Across the road, a courtesy coach laid on for VIP guests is parked. The driver is waiting for the officious blonde intern with the clipboard to instruct him to drive off across town, to the opening of a dead American artist’s retrospective at the Camden Arts Centre. As the last passengers board, a man makes a phone call to a male colleague, possibly his gallerist.
‘I was just in the talk –’
[inaudible query, something along the lines of – ‘Did you ask her something in the Q & A?’]
‘Yeah, I did actually and she gave me a nice answer.’
[Inaudible response, possibly a comment to the effect that it would be good to get hold of a recording of it]
‘Yeah, I think it was recorded and it’s going to be out on Resonance FM, so it should be easy to…’
[inaudible reply, perhaps checking that everything is in hand for that evening, and that he knows how to get to the place where he will be staying that night]
‘I’m going up to Camden now on this bus. Yeah – I’ll go by the overland to Dalston later.’
While the man has been on the phone, a woman with a heavy accent, either French or Spanish, has boarded the bus and now asks if the seat next to him is free. Silently he indicates that it is, but with a feeling of slight surprise – given the number of empty seats on the bus. The man concludes his phone conversation in a more self-conscious manner. Feeling that it might be bad manners to pass the journey in silence, he now turns to the woman and begins making polite conversation.
‘Are you enjoying the fair so far?’
‘Yes’, she says with a girlish laugh.
‘And you’re here as an artist, or a curator or…?’
The woman gives him a slightly too lengthy rundown of her various art-related activities.
‘So you run a space, a magazine and you’re an artist, you must be very busy.’
Again the woman replies with a simpering ‘Yes.’
‘What kind of work do you make?’
‘Photography, right’. There is a slight pause in which the artist tries and fails to think of anything to say about photography – it is clear that the medium is not his ‘bag’.
Moving on in search of something to talk about with this complete stranger that might interest him slightly more he asks, ‘And what is the journal?’
‘The journal does not exist any more, I am just looking after the archive now, and running the space -‘
‘And is the space…?’
‘Yes, it is new. We are having exhibition programme and events.’
‘What kind of events?’ he asks, perking up, but adopting a slightly proprietorial tone – it is clear that live art is more up his street than photography.
‘Well, all kinds’, says the woman, somewhat bemused. ‘Is boring to just have exhibitions so we have talks, tea parties – events!’ she finishes emphatically as if exhausted by what strikes her as an unnecessary explanation.
‘Okay, I wasn’t sure what you meant by ‘events’ – it’s become a term that used a lot in the art world and I wanted to qualify what you mean’, the artist replies in a reasonable tone.
His phone rings again.
‘Hi’ (it is obvious that it’s someone he is very intimate with, either his long-term girlfriend or wife).
[inaudible question] ‘Yeah, I’m just on the bus going up to Camden’.
[inaudible question: likely to be ‘who are you with?]
The man replies with some hesitancy, as if wary of arousing suspicion, jealousy or irritation in his partner. ‘I’m with –‘, he pauses, ‘a stranger, actually.’ He lets out a small, nervous laugh. ‘She just came and sat down next to me.’ (This last said as if to admonish himself from any wrongdoing).
[inaudible question, likely to be: ‘What is her name?]
‘I don’t know actually – what is your name?’ he asks the woman.
‘Arelia?’ he pronounces the strange name uncertainly. ‘I’m Bob’ he says, and then, something about the strangeness of the situation causes him to perceive the shortened version of his own name as being potentially misunderstood, being a verb as well as a proper noun. An image of apples bobbing in a bucket of water for Hallowe’en floats into his mind. ‘Bob as in Robert’, he adds, laughing again uncertainly at the oddness of introducing himself to this woman while on the phone to his partner. Returning to the conversation with his partner, he responds to a comment she has made concerning the mess he has left in their home (in a Northern city some three hours train ride away) in his haste to depart for London and the fair.
‘Yeah, I’m sorry I left in a bit of a panic and just left a big pile of clothes on the floor…’
[inaudible question, likely to be ‘what are you wearing?’]
‘I just put on my leather jacket.’
[inaudible question, probably concerning his plans for the evening.]
‘Yeah, I’m going up there later. I’m getting a bit nervous actually, it’s going to be packed.’
[Inaudible statement, likely to be ‘I love you’]
He replies, ‘Yeah, me too’ – the classic response when unwilling to say aloud in a public place ‘I love you’.
[inaudible statement – probably ‘I miss you’]
Having only left home a few hours earlier, he replies with a trace of irritation, at having this rare free time interrupted, ‘I miss you too’.
[the imagined reply, perhaps slightly frosty in tone: ‘I can tell you’re busy, give me a ring later if you have time.’]
He says (with some relief),‘Okay, yeah, I’ll phone you later.’
Turning once more to his companion, he says, by way of explanation, ‘As you’ve probably gathered, that was my partner, we’ve got a young son and she was just putting him to bed (a slight pang enters his heart at the thought of his son in his pyjamas, fresh from the bath with his hair tousled and his face rosy, clutching his favourite story book, ‘How do dinosaurs go to bed?’ But a second later, his thoughts turn back to the evening ahead in London, and he says brightly to the woman, ‘I’ve got a couple of nights off!’ Then, unable to resist a small boast, he says, ‘I’m going up to Dalston later to do a performance at this Dada event.’
‘Oh’ says the woman, clearly about as interested in performance as the man is in photography.
Changing tack, the man says, ‘I went to the talk about [inaudible]. It made it all seem really important – sometimes I don’t know how important art is – so it’s good to feel that it is.’
‘The woman, who clearly suffers from no such misgivings about the importance of art, offers nothing in reply. Gallantly, the man asks, ‘What is your work about?’
‘Mostly I am taking photographs of funerals around the world, as an expression of individual and community.’ This is said in a slightly prim and self-important way, with the subtext ‘my work is far more worthy than your silly performances’.
The man is left gobsmacked by this response – thinking silently, her work sounds awful – and really out of date.
A silence descends for a few moments in which the artist thinks, God, I am so tired. His son had woken him up at 6am that morning, and his partner, extracting the last bit of co-parenting available before he fled to London, had said, ‘Can you get up with him please?’ and then turned over in a way that suggested she was not asking, but telling. The man cannot draw up the strength to discuss the woman’s terrible photographs of funerals – and thinks, a bit petulantly, I didn’t ask her to come and sit next to me. He wishes he could be alone to mull over the events of the day and to think ahead to his performance that evening – to enjoy the strange tinselly feeling of nervous excitement that being in London at night brings. The coach has now stopped at some traffic lights in a leafy street in St. John’s Wood.
‘It’s so dark’, the woman says.
He, mistaking her comment for self-congratulation relating to the profundity of her own practice assents blandly, ‘Yes, it must be.’
‘No, I meant –‘, she gestures towards the night outside. ‘It is quite scary, especially if you are a stranger’, placing emphasis on the final word as if piqued at being described in this way to his partner.
‘I’m sorry about that’, he says, ‘I didn’t know how to describe you as you’d only just sat down beside me.’
‘Ah –’, says the woman, and then muses, ‘What is the difference between foreign and stranger?’
‘Well -’, the artist says, with a spark of sudden interest, being a man who likes to pin down the specifics in life. ‘They are similar words, but you use them in different contexts – you would talk about a foreign language for instance, but not a strange one.’ He is conscious suddenly of the race issue, and how describing the woman as ‘foreign’ might even be worse than describing her as a stranger. Suddenly, and with blessed relief, he thinks of Albert Camus and offers, as if he had been complimenting the woman all along, ‘Stranger sounds better in French…’
‘Yes’ the woman agrees, giggling again girlishly.
Silence descends once more, broken by the arrival of the coach at the gallery. The man and woman disembark, the woman immediately encountering some friends approaching the gallery on foot. She embraces them warmly and begins talking to them in fast and excited French. The artist, who has been forgotten, walks towards the bright lights of the gallery and the slender flutes of champagne sitting fizzing on the counter inside, just waiting to be drunk.