Dancing on the Tables
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It was that strange time of year when summer is sputtering out and autumn has not fully asserted itself so you can almost miraculously hit on a day that you might call summer and be both amazed and thankful. It’s the sort of time to sit alone among trees perhaps, observing the changing colours and the quality of light. It was in such a mood that Collins turned up.
Collins was an artist friend I had known from years back; a little scruffy as artists tend to be, in faded and torn jeans and an old reefer jacket. He was around sixty now, but wiry and still young-looking. His first name was Bertie, a name he loathed, so he preferred to be called by his surname. He was one of those painters who devoted virtually every waking hour to his vocation, well except when he had a woman on the go or was drinking a little too much. I think you could say he was pretty committed to his art. Sadly it had not brought any material success or serious critical recognition. Granted he made a modest living but was ignored by the trendier galleries, the media and of course his pet hate that well-known public body - the Arts Council. He would sometimes say testily: ‘What did the Arts Council ever do for me?’
So he remained on the fringes of the art world, getting the odd commission or selling a few of his landscapes through obscure galleries whose owners liked his work or could make a fair profit from their sales. They could see that Collins had talent and at his best was excellent. His landscapes showed imaginative flair and a deftness in execution without being slavishly representational. They were original without being avant-garde. When it came to painting woods and rivers he was second to none.
‘Hi Steve,’ he said with that broad winning smile of his, ‘communing with nature?’
‘Hi Collins,’ I said standing up from a bench in the grounds of the museum to shake his hand. I often went there for walks and solitude. ‘Just watching the leaves and the light.’
‘A laudable pastime’ he said. ‘Heard you had retired.’
‘A slight exaggeration, semi-retired. When you get to a certain stage of life you like to have more time to yourself: time with friends and family, time to look about you.’
‘I wouldn’t disagree there. Hey, I’ve got a couple of paintings to show you. Would you like to take a look?’
‘You know my apartment is a shrine to your art. I wish I had the space.’
‘Look, I’m not trying to sell them to you,’ said Collins stroking his grey, untrimmed moustache. ‘I know you have a good eye, an artist’s eye, even if you can’t paint to save your life. I would just like you to see them.’
Collins owned one of those tall Victorian terrace houses in the tree-lined streets near the university. It had seen better days and many of the rooms were dusty and disorganised, filled with canvases, drawings and artist paraphernalia. It formed a kind of warehouse for the artist’s work. The studio was on the top floor allowing in generous light. The late afternoon sun was filling the room as we entered.
‘How about a beer?’ said Collins sociably. ‘Or wine? Don’t tell me you’re on the wagon.’
‘I don’t think I was ever on the wagon though my medical advisors might have recommended it more than once. I’ll take a beer. I can see you keep busy.’
‘Ever since Alice died…. I like to keep occupied.’
‘How long has it been since she passed on?’ I said trying to spare his feelings by the usual euphemism.
‘Two years. She used to model for me until she got cancer and had a mastectomy. She said after that it would not have been the same. I said it was alright but she refused.’
We drank some beer and Collins put a record on his old player. It was one of those traditional New Orleans jazz numbers that gets your foot tapping and your mind in a happy, carefree frame. I didn’t know he was into jazz.
After about an hour had passed in lazy chat and drinking I reminded Collins about the reason for my visit. He smiled, put down his beer and produced two medium sized canvases and set them down on the floor facing me. I immediately sat up in my armchair. I had been expecting some beautiful and accomplished landscapes, but these were different.
For a start they weren’t landscapes. Both depicted a young, attractive lissom woman with a swirl of thick auburn hair in a wide knee-length scarlet dress with her hands cast dramatically above her head while she danced vigorously on a café table. She was surrounded by happy upturned faces and a vivid café backdrop a bit in the style of old Impressionist masters. Collins had caught the vibrancy and the passion of the dancing figure. All was colour and movement verging on the abstract. I found myself just wanting to stare at the paintings and feast on the glorious images. They seemed to capture a wonderful moment in time.
‘Fantastic,’ I said open-mouthed with surprise and delight. ‘You must do more of these. They’re fabulous.’
Collins looked at me enigmatically.
‘Do more?’ he said. ‘I don’t think so.’
‘But they are the best things you have ever done?’
‘You don’t think they are juvenilia?’
‘Of course not. They are brilliant. I’m sure you could sell these for big money.’
‘Big money,’ he said. ‘Now what would I want with big money?’
‘That’s crazy,’ I said. ‘This could be your break. It’s what you’ve been waiting for.’
‘Is it? I don’t think I could ever paint like that again. I could imitate, replicate, but never in the true sense paint it again.’
I took a mouthful of beer to help gather my thoughts.
‘Look I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘This is your new work….?’
Collins took a seat and stared at the two paintings as if newly appraising them.
‘These paintings,’ he said slowly, ‘were painted twenty-five years ago. Alice and I were in Larry’s Piano Bar in Bedford Street one evening. You know Larry’s?’
‘Oh you mean Harlem,’ I said. ‘It’s called Harlem now.’
‘Well,’ said Collins a little irritably, ‘it was Larry’s then. There was a great little band playing that night, the place was heaving and some of us got on the tables and danced. Of course we had drunk quite a lot and everyone was enjoying the music. It just seemed the natural thing to do. And no one came to harm. Try doing that today and you would get arrested!’
‘And the woman?’ I said.
‘That was Alice, the night she danced on the tables in Larry’s Piano Bar…. Have another beer.’
‘So these were painted years ago?’
‘Yes. I was doing some cleaning up and clearing out a month ago and I discovered them. I had completely forgotten about them. They were dashed off in an afternoon I think. But as soon as I saw them again it brought it all back: that night and Alice…’
I could see Collins was getting emotional as he recalled Alice and I really didn’t like to intrude.
‘Would you like to sell the paintings?’ I said.
‘I don’t think I ever could,’ he said, ‘and I could never paint them again. As I said you can’t paint but you have an artist’s eye. I just wanted to see your reaction.’
‘We had a wonderful night in Larry’s,’ he said with a thoughtful smile.
I could see by the look in Collins’ eye that the paintings were definitely not for sale, and never would be for they were too precious, reminding him of both Alice and a forgotten moment of genius.