A saga of everyday life in the Big L and a wry look at contemporary culture
By Tony Carden
Adrian walked slowly. At his side, Quinn matched his steps. As they went along Apsley Way a cloud momentarily hid the sun before it passed, its shadow scuttling across the ground. Then the sun came out again. He was partially blinded as a passing car’s window reflected the sunlight. They came to Wellington Arch and continued underneath without pausing. With the light green, they crossed the road and entered Hyde Park. Once inside, they passed under some trees before heading for the path along the Serpentine. It could be seen in the near distance. A light breeze ruffled its waters. The lake glimmered in the sunlight. In front of them floating on the lake was a huge sculpture made from oil drums.
Adrian pointed. ‘There it is—the London Mastaba.’
The brightly coloured art work dominated the landscape, its pink, red and blue speckled colouring giving it the appearance of a pointillist painting.
‘Quite something, don’t you think, Quinn?’
She stopped and stared at the sculpture. ‘I had no idea it was so big.’
‘It’s enormous. After seeing it for the first time, I read up on the artists. It seems Christo and Jean-Claude like to work on a grand scale.’ He gestured at it. ‘I’m not sure if this isn’t their biggest sculpture to date.’
‘I’m overwhelmed.’ Still keeping her eyes on the work, she made for a vacant park bench and sat down. Adrian sat down next to her.
‘You like it?’
‘I know you said it was impressive but until you see it…pictures just don’t do it justice.’
‘Don’t you think it’s a bit out of place?’
‘Not at all.’ She paused a moment. ‘It makes a statement.’
‘You’re glad then I persuaded you to come and see it?’
She turned to look at him and smiled. ‘What with everything that’s going on in my life right now, I’d probably not have made the effort to see it. Except you nagged me to come.’ She patted his hand. ‘Thank you for persisting.’
‘Well, given you interest in art and all that…’
She grinned. ‘And what does an economist think of it?’
‘I’m totally stunned by the invention. It’s amazing. I mean, how did they think it up? Who would have imagined?’
‘That’s how artists work. But do you think it’s art?’
He gazed intently at the floating mound. ‘I really have no idea whether it’s art; or great art for that matter. I suppose time will tell.’
Quinn laughed. ‘Anything can be art, but great art takes time to become great. My father says it’s like wine—it takes time to mature into a good vintage.’
‘Oh. Now I’ll think about art every time I have a glass of wine.’
‘I wouldn’t worry too much about it.’ She gave a dismissive wave of her hand. ‘Modern art is challenging. I guess when Constable painted, no one had to wait thirty years before his paintings were declared works of art. Times have changed. Artist and public don’t share the same language.’
Adrian pointed at mastaba. ‘And you studied these kinds of things at university?’
‘Of course.’ She paused briefly. ‘Do you think I’ve wasted my time? My father thought so. He was completely against me studying art at uni.’
‘And yet he still paid for you to go?’
‘When I insisted that it was what I wanted to study mother threatened something dire if he refused to cough up. Having a Cambridge degree counts for something, even in History of Art. Besides, I think he thought I’d grow out of it and get some useful skills that would further my career.’
‘Like working as an intern at Number Ten?’
She giggled. ‘You bet. He’s quite pleased I’m there. You know, he keeps asking me what’s going on. I think I’m his spy in Downing Street.’
‘A bit obvious, though, surely?’
‘It does seem farfetched, doesn’t it? I’m convinced that’s the whole idea. I’m such an obvious spy that I couldn’t possibly be one…or I am one and it is a double bluff…or am not. How many layers can it go? As with a le Carré novel, it’s wheels within wheels.’
‘So, are you?’
She got up. ‘Come on, we’ve got to see the sculpture from all angles.’
She led him along the waterfront towards the exhibit. It grew in size as they got closer. At the nearest approach, it blocked off quite a bit of the skyline. The sun went behind a cloud. The shadow passing across the mastaba as it remerged acted as if a curtain had been opened. The colours blazed up as the sun returned.
Quinn took his hand and led him away past the sculpture and towards the bridge. Every so often she would stop and look back at the exhibit. Then she would lead him on. The passed the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. Kids were splashing in its waters and each other. One was dancing.
They moved on and Quinn lead him onto the bridge and they crossed over, but not before stopping and gazing at the mastaba. At a distance it looked quite small against the skyline.
As they got to the other side, a sign announced the exhibition at the Sackler Gallery. Adrian gestured at it. ‘Would you like to visit the show?’
‘I think it’s called an exhibition.’ She pulled Adrian after her and went over to examine the board. ‘It’s Tomma Abts.’ She turned to him. ‘If you like Christo and Jean-Claude, you’ll like her.’
‘You think so?’ He gazed at the announcement. ‘What if I don’t like her? Is that a black mark?’
‘Well, we’ll just have to find out, won’t we?’ She and set off in the direction of the entrance, pulling him along. ‘See?’ She pointed at the sign at the door. ‘It won’t cost you a penny.’ He shrugged his shoulders. They went in.
The paintings were thinly spread and seemed lost against the huge swathes of the white of the walls. But the geometric and patterned canvases stood out boldly against the plain background. Some because of their geometric design seemed to move and shift.
Quinn surveyed the hall. ‘What do you think, then?’
‘Interesting.’ Adrian moved to place himself in front of a colourful patterned work.
Quinn came up close behind him. ‘Don’t you think they give you a sense of timelessness and intimacy?’ She rubbed his shoulder. ‘Abstract but recognisable. It’s as if she’s extracted a piece of something and shows it to us without references.’
They stood together and examining the picture for several minutes in silence.
Eventually, Quinn squeezed his arm. ‘I could do with a drink.’
‘I was thinking the same thing.’
They headed for Chucks and Adrian whistled when he saw the undulating nature of the new extension. It was almost as if it had come off the set for Hook.
‘It’s an interesting design, isn’t it?’
He gestured admiringly. ‘I come through Hyde Park quite regularly but hadn’t noticed this.’
‘It just goes to show how London has its surprises even when we think we know it.’
They ordered coffees and, collecting them, found a seat at an empty table facing each other.
Quinn gazed around the café approvingly. ‘This is a real treat coming out like this. A warm day, first the mastaba and now the gallery.’
‘I would have thought, since you are an art expert, you’d know about these exhibitions?’
Quinn played with a strand of her hair. ‘Dancy isn’t interested and, besides, is too busy when he’s at home to want to visit an art gallery, and what with the work at Number Ten, I don’t have much free time…So visiting a gallery is a real treat.’ She sighed. ‘It’s like old times. You know, I used to visit all the exhibitions when I was a student. How things have changed.’
‘There’s no reason you can’t start again.’
‘I need someone to go with.’ She patted his hand.
Adrian took a sip of his coffee. He then pulled out his phone and checked it. ‘It’s 5:12. The gallery closes at six. Shall we continue our visit?’
‘You’re willing to put up with more? Who would have guessed?’ She beamed at him. ‘I’ve got to make the most of this pleasure.’ She downed her coffee. ‘Come on.’ She got up and stood watching him. Adrian finished his and stood up. She took his hand and led him back into the gallery.
They were ushered out at closing time.
Adrian blinked as, hand-in-hand, they emerged into the sunshine. ‘Well, that was something.’
Quinn turned to face him. ‘You really enjoyed that, didn’t you?’
‘It was an eye-opener. It really helped when you explained her paintings.’
‘Sorry about that. I got carried away. I really love what she’s trying to do.’ She gave him a mock slap. ‘You should have told me to shut up. You didn’t seem to mind my prattling on.’
‘Oh, I’m not complaining. I don’t think I would have appreciated the show without you talking me through it.’
‘I’ll take that as a complement.’ She tugged at him. ‘We’ve got one more thing to do.’
She led him back along the north side of the Serpentine towards the mastaba. Quinn stopped regularly to contemplate the sculpture until they came opposite it.
‘It is something, isn’t it? You think you understand it and then it escapes you.’
‘What I find fascinating is how the artists have taken an everyday industrial item—oil drums—and re-used them to create something completely stunning.’
‘I’m sure you could be equally creative.’
He groaned. ‘I doubt it. I don’t think like that.’
‘Don’t be silly, everyone has a bit of the artist in them. With a bit of encouragement…’ She squeezed his hand. ‘Perhaps paintings more your thing.’ The sun vanished behind a cloud, dulling the colours around them. Quinn looked up. Grey clouds were moving in from the west. She pointed at them. ‘That looks threatening.’
Adrian nodded. ‘We’d best get under cover.’
Still holding hands, they headed for Hyde Park Corner. Even as they walked, the sky darkened above them. The first drops began to fall as they entered the tube station.
Passing through the barriers, they descended into its depths. ‘What’s your stop?’
‘Angel. I’ll Change at Kings Cross.’
‘Same for me. I’m heading for Kentish Town.’ He grinned. ‘We’ve a little more time together, then.’
As usual, the train was packed. They squeezed in and were pushed together in the crush and stood facing each other. ‘We should do this more often.’
Quinn laughed. ‘I do this every morning on my way in. But usually with strangers. By the time I leave, it’s less busy. ’ Adrian cocked an eyebrow at her. There was a squeal as the train rounded a bend before a buffeting caused them to grin at each other. ‘That could have been interesting.’
The train entered Kings Cross station and ground to a halt. The doors opened, and half the passengers disembarked. They were swept along.
Moments later, they came to the point where their paths diverged. They found an eddy in the crowd. They faced each other.
‘Thank you for a wonderful afternoon.’
‘I really enjoyed it.’
Quinn stepped forward and kissed him on the lips. She then quickly turned and disappeared down the tunnel. Adrian watched her leave. When she was out of sight, he headed for his platform.
* * *
Adrian climbed the stairs of the escalator at Kentish Town station two at a time. He presented his card at the ticket barrier and emerged onto the main road. He looked both ways. The traffic was at a standstill. Someone nearby was honking their horn at a white van that was blocking the road. He ignored the snarl up. He looked at the dark clouds above. But it had not yet rained. The ground at his feet was dry.
He headed northwards before turning off onto a side street. Unlike the main road, this was quiet. He wove through the parked cars as he crossed over to go up an adjoining street. At the junction, he rounded the corner only to spot a group of clapstains ahead. From the loud noise, they seemed to be arguing. He eyed them warily. He noted one in particular was gesticulating in a perfect radge. He hesitated about approaching them. He crossed over to the other side to bypass the group.
As he got nearer, the commotion reached a crescendo. Several started fighting and then there was a scream. One of the youths dropped to the ground. As if a signal, the rest broke and ran. A number headed in his direction. Adrian took refuge between two parked cars. The fugitives ran past. One flashed him a V-sign. Then they were gone.
Where a small crowd had been there was only the guy on the ground with another one crouching down next to him. He spotted Adrian. ‘Get a f**king ambulance.’
‘Is he hurt?’
‘Shit. He’s been shived.’ The youth ran off, a look of terror on his face.
Adrian glanced at the prostrate youth. His tee shirt was bloody. He pulled out his mobile and dialled nine-nine-nine.
‘Which service, please?’
‘What’s the nature of the emergency?’
‘Uh? Oh! A guy’s been knifed.’
‘Where are you?’
Adrian sought to orientate himself. ‘Not sure. Give me a moment.’ He accessed his map app. ‘Dunollie Road.’
‘An ambulance is on its way. Don’t hang up. Tell me about the casualty.’
Adrian gazed down at the youth. ‘He’s covered in blood.’
‘Is he breathing?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘See if his chest is rising and falling. Don’t hang up. Help is on the way.’
‘Yes, it is.’
‘Good. Now if you can, put a compress on his wound. Anything will do. A handkerchief or shirt. Don’t hang up. Help is on the way.’
‘I’ll try.’ In the distance, he could hear a siren. ‘I hear a siren.’
‘Don’t hang up. An ambulance is on its way. How is the casualty?’
Adrian knelt down and inspected the bloke. He nearly gagged at the sight of the wound and the blood. He tore off part of his shirt and balled it before pressing it to where he could see blood coming out. It quickly soaked his makeshift compress. Blood covered his hand.
The siren was now nearer. Then there was a flashing light. Adrian glanced up to see a first responder motorcycle stop a few metres away. The paramedic removed his helmet, jumped off the bike, pulled a kitbag from the top box and rushed over. He inspected the casualty. He gripped Adrian’s shoulder. ‘Keep pressing while I get my kit out.’
The first responder opened his bag and pulled out an emergency dressing. He crouched beside Adrian and showed him the compress. ‘At the count of three, we’ll switch to this. One. Two. Three.’ He pulled Adrian’s hand away and slapped the dressing on the stab wound. He pushed Adrian’s hand back onto the dressing. ‘Keep pressing.’ He turned back to the kitbag, pulled out and then started to assemble a drip.
In the distance and fast approaching, Adrian could hear more sirens. The paramedic fiddled with the youth’s arm before sticking in the needle. He held the drip up. ‘Hold this a mo.’ Adrian now had one hand on the youth’s chest and the other clasping the drip bag. The paramedic slipped an oxygen mask over the youth’s face.
A police van turned the corner and screeched to a halt in the middle of the road. The two occupants jumped out. One of them ran over. He took one look at them before turning and surveying the road in both directions.
At the same instant, an ambulance turned the corner at the other end of the road, drove down the street and came to a stop facing the police van. The two paramedics quickly got out. The nearest rushed over.
The first paramedic gestured at the newcomer. ‘Take over from…’ there was a pause.
‘…take over from Adrian.’
‘Will do.’ He slapped Adrian on the shoulder. ‘When I say so, remove your hand from the casualty.’ The paramedic knelt beside him. He quickly inspected the victim before nodding. ‘Now.’ Adrian withdrew his hand. ‘Now the bag.’ He felt the man’s hand take hold of the drip. He let go.
The first paramedic looked up. ‘You can relax Adrian. We’ve got it from now on. You’ve done a good job.’
Adrian got to his feet.
One of the policemen accosted him. ‘What’s your name?’
To be continued…
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious.
Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.