Tears in the Rain
The interior surfaces of the exhibition’s final room were so spotlessly white that it was difficult to tell where the walls met the floor, the ceiling or each other. It gave Simeon the sensation of being at the centre of a vast void outside of space-time. The only break in this expansive whiteness was a large mirror, which covered the central section of the wall directly in front of him. He avoided his own gaze as he stared into it, examining the reflections of Rossella and Alex, who were sitting next to him, instead. Both their heads were bowed in contemplation.
Neither woman reacted as he stood up to rub his thighs where the slats of the bench had been digging into them. He paced the length of the room, touching each wall to discover that the void was, in fact, only slightly larger than his living room. He wondered if the gallery had to touch up the paint every few days to maintain the effect — hiding the stains that people like himself made with their oily fingers.
‘Do you have to walk back and forth like that?’ Alex said without raising her head. ‘You’re making it hard to reflect.’
Simeon came to a stop and, without sitting back down, retrieved from his pocket the photograph they’d taken in the booth beside the entrance to the gallery. The three of them were squashed into the cubicle. Simeon was sat on the stool. Rossella was on his lap but had her arms around Alex’s neck, pulling her into the frame, their faces pressed against each other. While Simeon was pulling a silly face and Rossella was laughing, Alex, forever the poseur, looked directly into the lens, holding a pursing half-smile to pull her cheeks in.
After taking a second set of pictures, so Alex would have a photo strip to take home as well, they’d headed into the gallery. It was a former warehouse on the Regent’s Canal and a series of large, irregular windows had been cut into its brick façade to provide views of the green-tinged water flowing past outside.
‘I thought we had a timed entry?’ Rossella had said as they joined the queue for the exhibition.
‘We do but it’s not guaranteed,’ Alex replied. ‘There’s a one-in, one-out rule. They only allow a certain number of people at any one time.’
‘But that’s ridiculous. We could be waiting out here all afternoon if some arsehole wants to get comfortable in there.’
‘But imagine how great it will feel having the art all to ourselves,’ Simeon said.
‘You hate sharing with anyone, though.’ Rossella turned to Alex. ‘He makes us sit in the first row at the cinema because he doesn’t want anyone in front of him.’
He shrugged. ‘I’m just the arsehole that wants to get comfortable.’
It wasn’t only cinemas. He also went to exhibitions when they would be at their emptiest — midweek and early morning. He couldn’t enjoy an artwork if there was anyone else in his field of vision. It stopped him from stepping inside the canvas and becoming part of the scene. He couldn’t forget that he was looking at paint and linen. Blockbusterexhibitions were the most challenging. No matter what time you went they were guaranteed to be filled with people waving their phones in the air.
‘If you dislike people so much, Simeon, then maybe London isn’t the place for you,’ Alex said.
‘It’s not the people themselves I have a problem with. It’s the way they behave.’
Specifically, it was how everyone in London treated each other with such indifference. Simeon did it himself — putting on headphones when he took the tube to block out other people’s conversations or pretending not to see charity fundraisers when he passed them on the street. It was the only way to cope with the sheer mass of humanity you encountered every day. But he found being on the receiving end of it — the constant reminders that you meant nothing to the people you interacted with — more and more difficult to handle the longer he stayed in London.
He’d thought countless times about moving somewhere smaller where the people wouldn’t look through you (if such a place existed) but the opportunity had never presented itself. When he applied to do his undergrad at the Courtauld Institute, it had seemed idiotic to move away from the galleries that had inspired him to study art history in the first place. He’d stayed on to do his MA, because they’d offered to discount his fees, then an opportunity for a funded PhD at Goldsmiths came up, which both his dissertation supervisor and his father recommended him for. After his viva, he worked there for another two years as a teaching assistant, leading seminars during the day and rewriting his thesis into a monograph in the evenings, before he got his current job.
‘Look, a group is coming out,’ Alex said. ‘You were worried for nothing.’
A man wearing a black t-shirt emblazoned with the gallery’s pink neon logo took their tickets and scanned them.
‘Here’s a copy of the programme,’ he said, passing them each a thin, stapled booklet. ‘If you’re posting on socials, the hashtag is TearsInRain.’
Before Simeon had a chance to question the significance of this phrase, he passed through the entrance to the exhibition and found it stencilled on the wall in front of him.
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
— Roy Batty, Blade Runner (1982)
Above it was a blown-up picture of the artist — Tove Ulvestad. A pair of piercing blue eyes, set beneath a blunt pale blonde fringe, stared out at them. A long corridor stretched off to the left of the image and, as Simeon began to follow Alex and Rossella down it, he found that the walls were papered with further images of her. Those at the close end had been taken recently, with Ulvestad appearing as she did in her headshot. There were clippings from a magazine profile depicting her at work in her studio; press photos of her at exhibition openings and giving speeches; printouts from her Instagram account; holiday photos of her lounging in a bikini on the beach looking pale enough to reflect the sun. There were pictures from weddings and nights out with friends and even grainy intimate photos — Ulvestad reclining in the bath reading Anna Karenina in one, grinning at the camera in another and holding an erect penis in her hand, which Simeon assumed belonged to the man with the grey goatee and deep smile lines who appeared beside her in many of the other pictures.
As they moved down the corridor, Ulvestad became younger. Her hair turned long and dark and her face became plumper. The quality of the photographs worsened — the products of now-obsolete camera phones and Facebook image compression. Photos from her own wedding showed her dancing with a similarly younger partner, his grey goatee now dark brown. Once Simeon reached a certain point, the images were no longer printouts but developed negatives culled from family photo albums — Ulvestad camping with her parents, at a garden party as a toddler, blonde once again, on the knee of her grandfather. As he reached the end of the corridor he was looking at pictures of her in a baptismal gown.
‘Can you imagine putting your most intimate moments on show?’ Rossella asked. ‘I would find it so violating.’
‘Or perhaps she wants to feel seen,’ Alex replied. They reached a small, square room from which three more corridors extended.
‘Shall we take one each?’ Simeon suggested. The exhibition may not have been his idea but if he was going to have any chance of enjoying it, he’d need to go round on his own.
‘I think I’ll stick with Alex but you go ahead,’ Rossella said.
He made his way down the passage to the right and was confronted once again by the image of baby Ulvestad in her white dress. He brought his face right up to the photo and studied it inch by inch. It appeared exactly the same — a perfect reproduction of the one in the first corridor. He repeated the process with the pictures of the garden party and this time noticed a difference. Ulvestaad’s grandfather, with his dirty flannel jacket and round little spectacles, was absent. The image had been manipulated so that she was sitting on her father’s knee.
Past these pictures, another corridor opened up and Simeon decided to head down it rather than continue in the direction he was going. The next noticeably different image he spotted was Ulvestad’s graduation photo. Rather than wearing an evening gown like in the first corridor, she had on a traditional Norwegian dress with a red embroidered bodice and white sleeves. The gold-leaf lettering on the picture mount said: Norges Teknisk-Naturvitenskaplige Universitet, whereas he felt sure the previous photo was from the University of Bergen. As he turned down another hall he realised that all the photos depicting her work as an artist had disappeared. There were no pages taken from exhibition catalogues; no photos of her sculpting; no press or publicity pictures. Instead, there was a sole photo of her, in a white lab coat and safety glasses inspecting some industrial machinery.
An increasing number of passages began opening up. Normally at an exhibition there was a set route guiding you round, giving you the opportunity to see everything, but here the choice was so overwhelming that it seemed like an impossibility. Simeon felt as if Ulvestaad were purposefully trying to disorientate him. He picked up his pace and began taking turns at random. The husband with the goatee and smile lines was replaced with a muscular black man in dozens of obscene images — Ulvestad’s face grafted onto stills from a pornographic film. Simeon turned down another corridor and was confronted with pictures of her smiling at the camera clutching a swollen stomach. He decided not to make any other deviations. Each time he turned, the passages seemed to become narrower, as if the weight of each new alternative reality was pressing down on him more than the last. He didn’t want to see an alternative past where Ulvestad’s hypothetical pregnancy became a hypothetical miscarriage.
He marched past photos of the baby growing into a toddler and then finally a boy of around ten with a wide gap tooth smile and piercing eyes like his mother’s — a child that, for whatever reason, had never actually come into existence.
Once he reached the outer edge of the exhibition, he knew he’d no desire to venture back in. He couldn’t deny how impressive the scale of the work was, but he struggled to conceive the depths of self-obsession needed for driving someone to create a whole exhibition based around themselves — imaging alternative versions of their life again and again — and considering that a topic which others could engage with in a meaningful and substantiated way. He followed along the boundary wall until he found the white room and had sat there for ten minutes before Alex and Rossella arrived.
The two of them still had their heads bowed. Simeon wondered what they were thinking about. Perhaps Rossella was considering the succession of events, stretching across more than two decades, which had brought her and Simeon together. Her early interest in learning English so she could understand (and taunt) the boys she beat playing video games online; her English teacher who had studied in London and made it sound like the most exciting city on earth; her realisation, after finishing her undergraduate degree, that she had no desire to work in Italy after discovering quite how patriarchal its workplace culture was; her preferred Master’s filling up much faster than she’d anticipated, forcing her to choose a course she was less sure about; a friend dragging her to a party that Simeon also happened to be at.
She’d caught his eye, as he made his way to hide in the kitchen, and followed him.
‘Ciao,’ she’d said.
For a moment, he was convinced she’d mistaken him for someone else. ‘Hello?’
‘I’m Rossella.’ It was a galley kitchen and she filled the narrow space between the two counters, blocking his way back to the party.
‘Simeon,’ he replied.
Without taking his eyes off her, he placed the orange Sainsbury’s bag he’d been carrying on the worktop behind him, knocking over several empty bottles in the process.
‘Would you like one?’ he asked, pulling out a beer.
‘Thanks.’ She took the can from his outstretched hand. ‘I’ve lost my friend and I don’t know anyone here.’
She was wearing a striped Breton top. A large necklace hung around her neck with an image of a woman wearing a huipil on it.
‘It’s Frida Kahlo,’ she explained, noticing him staring at it.
‘Yes, I know,’ he replied. ‘I was just thinking that it’s funny how commodified her image has become in recent years. She was a committed communist so I’m sure it would have horrified her.’
At the same moment that Simeon realised she might have found what he’d said insulting, Rossella had pushed down the tab of her can, causing lager to spray into her face.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Simeon said, passing her wads of wetted kitchen towel, amazed that he’d blown his chance quite so quickly. ‘I should have warned you that they’d been shaken up on the bus.’
It amazed him to this day that she laughed it off, wiping her face with the tissues he gave her and then acting as if nothing had happened while they spent the next two hours talking and working their way through Simeon’s carrier bag of beers.
Simeon often felt unsure how to act around people. Even those he knew well. With Rossella it was different. She was at ease with herself — unafraid to express her opinions or the random thoughts that popped into her head. At one point in the evening, as they discussed how improbable it seemed that in a few years some of their friends would start having children, she had suddenly said: ‘But pets are no replacement. I can’t see any point in having a cat. Why care for a creature that doesn’t love you back? And as for dogs, well, there’s something off-putting about how prominent their genitals are, have you ever noticed?’
Her confidence infected him. He stopped worrying about the person he might be projecting and felt content to be himself.
‘You’re a serious guy aren’t you, Simeon?’ she said. ‘Normally when you speak to someone at a party it’s all blah, blah, blah.’ She made a quacking gesture with her hand. ‘That’s actually one thing I’ve found that I dislike about Brits since I moved here.’
‘You’re very fake. The whole show of politeness is just to hide the deep indifference you have to each other.’ She reached out and touched his elbow. ‘You’re different. You say what you mean.’
Simeon could feel a warmth from her hand emanating up his arm.
‘The problem,’ he said, ‘is most people live shallow lives, working jobs that don’t mean anything to them and then blotting out the misery of it by spending their evenings going to the pub or sitting in front of the television. So all they have to say is blah, blah, blah.’
She tilted her head back and drained the last beer can. ‘I’m hungry and I don’t see the point in trying to find anyone else at this party who won’t blah, blah, blah. Shall we get out of here?’
They went to a Caribbean takeaway and she told him about the house she shared in Earl’s Court with six other Italian students. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing there. We’re supposed to be immersing ourselves in the culture but instead we’ve set up a little ghetto. One of my housemates can only speak a handful of sentences in English. He thinks you can say everything you need to with the words: make, take and do.’
Afterwards, they walked together to the tube and exchanged numbers on the platform. ‘By the way,’ she said, holding up her necklace as she stepped onto the westbound train. ‘This isn’t mine. I borrowed it from one of my housemates.’
Within a few weeks she announced she was abandoning her Italian exclave and moving in with him.
According to the exhibition, if either of them had made a single decision differently — if Simeon had decided to stay in and catch-up on his marking or Rossella had caught someone else’s eye that night — they might now be living their lives oblivious to each other’s existence. If Rossella hadn’t dropped out of her course to fly home to Italy and look after her father when the pandemic hit, they might not have needed to get married so that she could move back.
He wondered if, like Ulvestaad, Rossella fantasised about the alternative realities she could have had. Who she might have met instead of Simeon if she had got into her preferred Masters’ the first time round. Perhaps someone more animated and impulsive? Someone that understood how to be in the world rather than taking refuge in archives and paintings? Someone successful who wasn’t at risk of bouncing from short-term contract to short-term contract for the rest of their life?
A T.S. Eliot passage came to mind — What might have been is an abstraction, Remaining a perpetual possibility, Only in world of speculation. The historian within him rebelled against the what if. It was difficult enough to establish what exactly had happened in the past, never mind what might have. He and Rossella had met and therefore will always have met, and, arguably because of cause and effect, would always have met. It wasn’t just true of his relationship but every element of his life. Each action, everything that happens, is caused by something that has happened before it which, in turn, has been caused by something happening before it — a chain of events stretching back to the beginning of the universe. There was no evidence to suggest that the electrical impulses transmitted by neurons in our brain were in any way exempt from these laws of causality. We were so often pulled along by events that we rarely stopped to examine our lack of agency in them. In all likelihood, no matter how well Simeon had performed at school, at the Courtauld, at his PhD, he would always have found himself in the position he was in now. What was it Cyril Connolly had said? Whom the Gods wish to destroy, first they call them promising.
Rossella lifted her head and turned to look at him. ‘Shall we get going?’
He felt as though a weight had been lifted off him as they emerged from the labyrinth back into the wide-open space of the gallery’s main hall. They walked over to the café and ordered coffees then headed outside to a table on the terrace beside the towpath.
‘This is better,’ he said. ‘I needed some fresh air. I found it claustrophobic in there.’
‘I’m sure that was part of the intended effect,’ Alex replied, sitting down. ‘I’m not surprised The Guardian gave it five stars. It literally blew me away.’
‘What did you think?’ Rossella asked him.
‘Well I do wonder how the artist’s husband feels — her fantasising about having a child with another man.’
Alex sniggered. ‘I think I must have missed that corridor. You could spend hours in there. It’s such a huge amount of work. It must have taken her years to put it together.’
‘Yes, but for what? Art should renew your appreciation for the world. It’s hard to engage with someone’s work when they’re only looking further and further into themselves.’
‘But the exhibition isn’t really about her, is it? It’s about choices, about how we make them everyday and how they have an irrevocable impact on our lives. Perhaps Ulvestad waited too late to have children and now she regrets that choice or she might have fallen in love with a man who’s infertile and then made the decision to be with him even though it meant she wouldn’t be able to conceive. Regardless of what they were, the types of choices she’s had to make in her life won’t be so different from the choices we all have to make and that’s what makes it universal.’
‘Sorry, micino, I agree with Alex,’ Rossella said.
Simeon took a napkin from the dispenser sat on the middle of the table and began shredding it. ‘If that’s her intention then it might be conceptually interesting but I don’t think it’s enough. There are paintings hanging in the National Gallery more than five hundred years old that still captivate people because the artists that created them used their skill to express the beauty and value of human existence. Once you’d been round the whole of Ulvestad’s exhibition once do you think you’d ever be compelled to return — to look at, what, her old graduation photos? I don’t think so.’
Rossella smiled at him. ‘It can be very hard work going places with you sometimes, Simeon. I’m sure you know that.’
Simeon decided not to reply that he often felt the same way about her.
Patrick Christie’s writing has appeared in Litro Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Storgy Magazine, the Mechanics’ Institute Review and elsewhere. He holds a Creative Writing MFA from Birkbeck, University of London. You can follow him on twitter @pd_christie.
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.