He says, I don’t do that any more.
………I’m sorry, I wouldn’t have asked. Only … I’m sorry.
………Who is this apologetic woman at his door? Not at the door, not now. He has invited her in, with a gesture more than with words. She is inside, in any case, in the kitchen. He fills the kettle. Because that’s what you do, isn’t it? When visitors call. It is what he does, although it has been some time – two years at least – since he has had a visitor here.
………So who is she?
………Not a stranger, exactly, although they have never met. He has seen her, many times, around the shops and on the rec, between the pitches and the children’s playground, with the others. He has never wanted a dog, himself. He has witnessed their owners being dragged into conversation with each other, each dangling a small green plastic bag of lukewarm shit. It’s not the shit, it’s the company he can live without.
………She knows him, though. At least, she knows who he used to be. The knock at his door was not random. Which means he has a name, a name you might recognise, a claim to fame. What passes for fame, here, in this village. In his case, though, it is real enough, if limited. So you might as well know that for more than thirty years – until a couple of years ago – his political cartoons appeared more or less daily in the pages of the national press, in left-ish journals of one sort or another, and, latterly, on their websites, where the impact, he thinks, was much diminished. First the pages got smaller, then they became screens. Which wasn’t a problem Gillray or Rowlandson ever faced, was it? Then again, they couldn’t finish a cartoon in the morning, scan and upload it to the paper before lunch, all from a cottage in the country, could they? He was no Luddite, just tired.
………She has come from the organizing committee, she says, from the community centre. The village is large enough, and wealthy enough, to support a community centre, along with three shops, a café and two pubs, one of which he visits frequently enough to be recognised as a regular. He has a usual pint there, and a usual table. He speaks to the bar staff, shares a few words with one of the other regulars, perhaps, before retreating to his table in the corner with a paper or a book. They were sorry to hear about his loss, the year before last. One or two of them remember his wife’s parents, too, from years back. It is their house he lives in now; his wife’s house; now his.
………Who is she, again? This woman he has just given a mug of tea? She must have a name. She has introduced herself, after all. All he caught was Beth; we will never know her second name. Short for Elizabeth he supposes, or possibly Bethan. A touch of Welsh, perhaps, in the way her intonation falls and rises? Or is he imagining it?
………Beth says they’re making posters, Facebook posts, Twitter memes, you know the kind of thing. Drawing attention to some injustice, some protest against injustice. The committee thought perhaps one of his caricatures? The Home Secretary perhaps? It would be up to him, of course. It would catch the eye. Attract attention.
………He has told her he doesn’t do that any more, but that isn’t entirely true. Each morning, after his walk around the village, he sits at the huge drawing desk he has set up in what was once his in-laws’ bedroom, along with all the paraphernalia of his trade. You can picture him for yourselves, an old man curled in concentration among the pencils, brushes and inks, the rulers and protractors and other nameless geometric instruments you’ve had no use for since you left school; the bright ungainly desk lamp angled like a heron on a riverbank; newspaper cuttings and inked-in scraps clipped to the edges of his steeply sloping desk, or pinned to the walls, littering the floor; a framed Hogarth sketch – a real one, not a print, a present from his wife on their fortieth anniversary – which takes pride of place, facing him, between the two windows that overlook the garden, gone to seed now, and the new estate beyond.
………Old? He is not so old as you might think. He is about the same age as Beth, which is to say that they are both in their sixties, although neither is yet eligible for a state pension.
………Each morning he starts several drawings, and finishes at least one. What he no longer does is sell them, or give them away, even to good causes. It is not a protest, Beth explains. It is a campaign to support housing a refugee family in the village. We want to show that refugees are welcome here.
………And are they?
………He’d like to think she’s right, but thinks there’s no “of course” about it. If there were, the campaign would be unnecessary. He does not say so. It is not his fight.
………Beth must have a motivation. Several, perhaps, but here’s one she introduces at this point: her grandfather, of whom she was very fond, came here from Czechoslovakia in 1937, for the usual reason.
………Here to the village?
………To London. Bethnal Green.
………I lived in Bethnal Green for years.
………And there you have it – a point of connection. They could talk about the East End; Brick Lane and Cable Street; Poplar and Shoreditch; Grodzinski’s in Whitechapel, the Lahore Kebab Shop. They could share memories of places, if not people, they both left long ago; but they don’t. That is, she tries; he doesn’t. He offers her a refill of tea. She confesses she does not know his work: she and her husband have The Times delivered.
………That’s a relief, he says. He couldn’t abide a fan.
………She has a husband, then? She has. Unlike his wife, her husband is not dead, but you must assume he is abroad, or professionally absorbed, or in some other way emotionally unavailable. She does not say so; not in so many words, but the clues are there, if he would only look. Nonetheless, this is the twenty-first century – even if the realization still sometimes surprises her – and if she does not have a flying car she has at least had a job, a career, something in the line of good citizenship: a charity, perhaps, an NGO of which she became the Chief Executive, in a sector where, even now, she sits on the boards of more than one organization you will have heard of. She is nobody’s fool, least of all her own.
………She asks to see some of his cartoons and he repeats that he does not do that any more. It is not true. He draws every morning, after his walk. It is true that the walk has lately become longer, or slower. It seems less and less important that he be at his desk at nine. All the same, he’s there by ten, and for the next three hours or so. It is enough. If he did not draw he does not know what he would do. It clears the mind. Afterwards, in the afternoons, he can read; in the evenings a glass of wine, or a pint in the pub, before supper. Newsnight. Sleep comes.
………There must be five hundred finished pieces upstairs in his studio, his wife’s parents’ bedroom. He has never counted them.
………You must have some you could show me, she says, from before you retired?
………He shakes his head. You won’t want to see old cartoons, he says.
………I do, she says.
………He shakes his head again. There’d be no point, he says.
………She thanks him for the tea, apologises again for troubling him. She asks him if – when they have a design – he would display one of their posters in his window. He does not say yes, but he does not say no, either.
Closing the door behind her, he hears the soft pad of footsteps on the wooden stairs. It is nothing. His wife. Her dog. He puts on his coat and his cap and walks down through the village to the pub, carries a pint of the usual to his usual table.
………So what happens? Not much, to be honest. He’s never been one for narrative. Single panels, not comic strips. There will be no romantic encounter, not even a rueful epiphany of the opportunity he could not bring himself to seize. He is not unaware of her half-concealed invitation to start the whole business all over again but his lack of desire is real. It is not a mask for some vulnerability, some past wound. It cannot be ripped away, or lifted gently, tenderly, to allow a glimpse, or more, of new love. There is no self-deception here, no ironic distance between him and us. It is true. He has no desire to touch her, to talk to her, to discover her dreams and fears, or to share his own. He is not curious about the body beneath the clothes. He has not the energy to start all that again.
………I have not the energy.
………The following week, she shows him a copy of the final, amateurish, poster and asks him to display it. He agrees, but lays it on the table as he makes a pot of tea. He does not lead her upstairs to see his studio. He does, however, tell her about a picture he once drew.
………I called it ‘Tolstoy’s Mice’, he says.
………Did Tolstoy have mice?
………In his Confession, he explains, Tolstoy tells the story of a desert traveller who hides in a dry well to escape a savage beast – only to find a dragon waiting at the bottom. I thought it would make a good cartoon, he says. An allegory for something that was going on at the time. Half way down, the traveller grabs hold of a bush that’s growing from a crack in the wall, then watches two mice, one white, one black, begin to gnaw away the roots. Whether he just lets go or waits for the mice to do their stuff, he’ll wind up falling to the deadly dragon. Knowing this, he sees, on the leaves of the bush, some drops of honey, and licks them off. The question is: why? Why does he bother?
………To enjoy the honey?
………Ah, but he doesn’t enjoy it. All he can think about is the dragon, the beast, and the mice, gnawing away. Why cling on? Why live?
………Is it a riddle?
………It’s a confession, I’m afraid, so the answer is God. It always is. But what if you aren’t willing – or able – to suspend disbelief? What then?
………She has never believed, or felt the absence of belief. If the answer can be God, she thinks, it could just as well be love, or compassion, or humanity, even, but she does not say so.
………He says, It’s a trick, don’t you see?
………She doesn’t. She begins unobtrusively to gather her things.
………Like an optical illusion, he says. You just need a change of perspective. I realised that while drawing the mice. From the mice’s point of view it’s obvious: they’re to supply the dragon with a steady diet of passing travellers.
………She thanks him for the tea, and says goodbye.
………A day or two later, passing the house, she is surprised to see that he has put up the poster in his window.
Guy Ware is the author of three novels and more than thirty short stories, including the collection ‘You Have 24 Hours to Love Us’ (Comma, 2012). His stories have appeared in numerous magazines, including ‘The London Magazine’ and anthologies. He won the 2018 London Short Story Prize and has been short- or long-listed for many other competitions, including the Bridport, Edgehill, Frank O’Connor, Galley Beggars, Fish and Bristol Short Story Prize. His most recent novel, ‘The Faculty of Indifference’, was published by Salt in 2019; his next is forthcoming in 2023.
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