Devon Prize (2012/13) - Saving The Goss by Ian Chamberlain
Saving the Goss
by Ian Chamberlain
You shuffled the final canvas into the back of the car and pulled a strap across them. At the traffic lights you twisted and checked again. They looked safe enough. Waiting for the green you noticed a man on a bike, looking at your car. No – looking into the car, at you.
Instinctively, you looked away. When you glanced back you found he was still watching you, focused on your face, making deliberate eye contact. You wondered if you’d accidentally cut him up in the traffic, annoyed him. His mouth was open, not showing any particular expression, just gaping as if that was his habit. He was missing some teeth. The lights changed and you pulled away.
The gallery people went through the canvasses, hung them with care, adjusted spotlights, printed off title slips and price lists. They could see how tired you were and sent you off home.
Next day, driving to the launch party – wine and nibbles, past buyers, friends, local bigwigs – you were having trouble parking. Backing into a sudden space you briefly held up the traffic. A bicycle stopped and waited, patient. You weren’t certain, but it looked like the man who’d stared at you yesterday.
As you turned off the engine the cyclist pulled slowly alongside, staring down at you as he passed. Yes, the same wretched man with the open mouth and the black gaps in his teeth, still apparently intent on catching your eye. You watched him pedal unhurriedly away: old-fashioned bicycle clips round his ankles, plain shirt tucked into generous trousers, black hair that straggled damply, a chunky canvas bag dangling from the handlebars. The bike was old; the man sat on it quite upright. He didn’t look back. Strange coincidence, one of those things…
You talked to a woman from the BBC; a photographer from the county magazine took pictures and you wished you’d spent more time on your face. The local rag breezed in and flashed off a barrage of shots, scribbled a few names and rushed out again. Friends talked to you and about you, a man in evening dress uncorked bottles flamboyantly; an unpractised girl interrupted conversations with white plates of bright canapés. Afterwards, drained, you sat with the gallery owners in the wine bar over the road. A lovely atmosphere, they said, genuine interest, three pictures now had red ‘Sold’ stickers; an encouraging start to a four week exhibition.
The nursing home rang next day: your mother had picked up another infection. They were trying a stronger antibiotic but… They thought you should know. You said you would call in as soon as you could.
The Care Manager said she’d seen your picture in the paper, shown it to your mother, wasn’t sure if she’d taken it in – the poor thing had been away with the fairies for a day or two. She spoke fondly, smiling - you had come to know each other quite well, three years now.
You sat with your mother for an hour. Her latest obsession was with the small collection of Goss china in the cupboard on the other side of her room; twice she cut into your news to remind you that the Goss will be yours after she’s gone, that it says so in her will - that you must have it. And each time she talked about it she wandered off into memories: Essex childhood, village life, a wartime teaching job in a school no bigger than a shack, rain on the tin roof, jettisoned bombs landing in the marshes, Home Guard uniforms drying in her mother’s kitchen… Her voice faded sometimes; you had to lean close to hear what she was saying.
Twice more before you said your goodbyes - between helping her with tissues and putting in her eye drops and cutting up diabetic chocolates you knew she particularly liked – twice more she reminded you about the Goss.
It was five o’clock when you left the nursing home. Pedestrians scurried past, preventing you from nosing out of the drive. Then a bicycle swung towards you. That same man! The wreckage of his teeth was unmistakeable. He rode past at walking pace, his face expressionless - no sign of malice or recognition, no surprise at the coincidence, just that wide open mouth and the uninterrupted stare.
You sat there as he pushed steadily away, perhaps a full minute. Hypnotised, you watched the boxy bag swinging erratically from the handlebars. Then somebody hooted and you clawed your way back into normality.
It was crazy. He wasn’t following you - it was too random for that. But three times in three days, the same man... Dressed exactly the same each time: shiny high-waisted trousers which might once have been half of a suit, a long-sleeved dark top with no collar, those bicycle clips, dark socks. This time you had noticed the shoes: black brogues with thin soles, shoes which might once have been fashionable, between the wars or during the revivalist ‘nineties.
You were unsettled, felt threatened – as if there was something over which you had no control.
The next few days were busy but without incident. You cleared up the studio mess. Your daughter texted from the airport: sorry she hadn’t been round but she knew you’d been frantic; she’d catch up with you when she got back, and say hi to Grandma. Your son rang to tell you he’d split with Becky so he was flat-hunting. You bought canvasses and paint, fiddled with montage ideas, made uninspired sketches for an overdue commission, talked to clients sent round by the gallery. Your mother grew weaker.
Sunday was a release. You caught an early train, spent the day with a some-time boyfriend in Cornwall. You walked the beach beneath his cottage, photographed rock formations in the cliff, ate supper in a no-nonsense pub, made love under uncurtained windows as the sun inched out of the sea next morning. By the time you’d finished breakfast in the glorious tangle of his garden the day was half-way through. You hadn’t mentioned the bicycle man; you knew perfectly well that - under logical male scrutiny - those three encounters would become no more than a shrugged-off set of coincidences.
You were settling into your seat in the train when you saw him again.
You were going mad, you thought. A single-platform station at the end of a branch line, 150 miles from home, and a freaky guy from the city where you live was standing watching you, staring at you, willing you to meet his eyes through the dirty double-glazed window as your train gunned its engine and began to move.
You sat in a form of shock until your mobile rang. Back in signal range, Vodafone told you there were two voicemail messages. Sunday afternoon the nursing home had wanted to speak to you; this morning they wanted you to call them urgently.
You rang the number. Your mother was not responding to the antibiotics and she was quite confused, probably because her temperature was up. Distressed too – something about the china she kept in her cupboard, but they had checked and nothing seemed to be broken or missing. Could you perhaps come in fairly soon? Yes, you said, you’d come straight from the station, three hours or so.
You tried to read a magazine while Cornwall scooted past, but failed. You called your brother but he didn’t answer. Your son’s phone was engaged and then rang unanswered. Your daughter was in Thailand. You would have liked someone to talk to but the carriage was almost empty.
You changed trains at Plymouth, found a seat at a table. There was a pad in your overnight bag, charcoal sticks in a plastic case. You scratched out a quick sketch: an old bike, a man leaning on it, straggly hair, baggy trousers pulled in round the ankles. The way you drew his open mouth made him look like an idiot. You took another sheet, tried to do the face in detail, how you remembered it: tightly focused eyes under angry brows, big nose, black holes where teeth should be, lips drawn back in a gape which made him less idiotic-looking – made him look as if he had been about to shout and had changed his mind.
You worked on the eyes for some time - the intensity, the focus. It calmed you, setting it down in the way you knew best.
Your mother was weeping, lying back, red-eyed, her skin tinged with grey and yellow. You kissed her and held her hand – cold, and dry as kindling. It was the Goss china, she said in a crackling whisper, she wanted you to know about the Goss, over there, in that cupboard – it might get lost when her things were cleared, after she’d gone.
You tried to calm her but she started all over again, how thinking about it made her so unhappy. You changed tack, asked how she’d come by the Goss. You’d heard the story a hundred times before but thought the telling might pick her up.
There had been an air raid, and by sheer bad luck a farm cottage miles from anywhere had received a direct hit. The only item not totally destroyed was a china cabinet, not a single piece inside it even cracked, a strange miracle of the sort which falling bombs sometimes wrought. The farm labourer and his wife had died. Their son - her first beau your mother supposed, now she came think about it, long before Dad - was found sitting in the lane, hiding his face, unable to speak. Later in the day he had turned up at your mother’s parents’ house, pushing a bicycle on which he was somehow balancing the cabinet, its contents wrapped in a scorched blanket, and had simply left it there. He hadn’t said a word, hadn’t even seemed to recognise her. She had never seen or heard of him again.
When you kissed her goodbye she was exhausted, arthritic hands like small dead lizards on the quilt, skin as thin as last year’s leaves. The Care Manager said she had put so much emotional energy into the last few days that the poor thing had almost nothing left. It was not unusual, once a person knew...
At home you ate a quick supper and left a message for your brother. As you unpacked your weekend bag the charcoal face of the bicycle man slid out of its folder. In the morning you looked critically at the sketch. The stare was frighteningly direct, the face desperate but curiously empty. Despite what it represented, you were strangely pleased with it.
At the gallery they welcomed you effusively - it was going brilliantly, prints were doing well and two more originals had sold. They had emailed you the details of what looked like a lucrative commission.
Your mobile rang. The nursing home said you should come. They were trying to get in touch with your brother. When you arrived they said there was little they could do except make sure she was comfortable. Your brother rang - 300 miles; he would be there by seven.
You smiled hello and your mother responded feebly. Had she told you about the china, that Goss from the farm, which William had given her? It was the first time you had heard the name, ‘William’.
You should know about it, she said - that it belonged to you, the Goss, that it was rightfully yours. She tried to sit up in some kind of fervour, made you promise that the Goss would be safe with you. You reassured her yet again but it made no difference.
… it was when the bomb fell on the farm. And there was William, the love of her life, struck dumb, with the Goss on his bicycle. And there it was in the cupboard now, good as new, all this time. Dad such a wonderful man, so lucky she had been, fifty years with hardly an angry word and he never questioned it, the Goss, just accepted it, how it had to be kept and cared for, so precious, the Goss…
You sat in the car for a while, motionless, tears running down your face, feeling yourself unravel as surely as your mother was unravelling.
Your brother was grateful, apologetic, impatient to go to your mother, contrite that he had neglected both her and you. When he went upstairs to change, something made you look out of the front room window.
The man was there, leaning on a wall on the other side of the road, gap-toothed mouth stretched open, just the way you’d sketched it. The bike was propped beside him. He was watching you.
You shouted. Your brother came downstairs quickly, asking what was wrong. You told him - there was this weird man, kind of stalking you.
When you opened the door the man and his bicycle were nowhere to be seen. Your brother hugged you close – you’d been working so hard, were so worried about Mum; stress could do strange things to people. You should both go to the nursing home now, sort this other thing out later. And yes, obviously, if the bloody man appeared you would tackle him together and find out what was going on. You slipped the folder with the charcoal sketch into your shoulder bag; you would show it to him later, to prove it was true.
At the entrance to the nursing home you saw the bike. It seemed to have been roughly thrown into the low shrubs at the far corner of the car park. You pointed, speechless. Your brother said it was just an old bike someone had abandoned. It looked as if it had been there weeks.
The doctor said your mother’s frailty meant there were no options left. She was not in any pain. It was unlikely she would wake again, but if she did you should press the bell. He looked at you both, watching you process what he had said. Your brother looked at you, then at the tiny comatose figure of your mother, desperately grey, desperately old. He nodded, turned quickly away.
A care assistant brought in two cups of tea and you sat down to wait. You and your brother talked quietly, catching up with each other’s lives, both knowing you were merely filling the silence. After a while you took the folder from your bag, showed your brother the sketch. He pulled a face, said it looked like some kind of mad desperado. Were you sure that was what he looked like? You said yes, you’d seen him so many times now.
Towards midnight you needed air and stood in the entrance porch. The floodlight above the door barely reached the corner of the car park but you could still make out the rusty bike in the bushes. A movement caught your eye. Beyond the shrubbery was a single massive tree. Someone was standing at the foot of it. No more than a dim outline, but you were certain who it was.
Feet crunched on the gravel path and you jumped as if you’d been stung. A security guard in a dark uniform said good evening. You asked if he had seen that bike. Yes, he had logged it; the maintenance guy would deal with it. You told him it belonged to the man who was over there, by the tree. The guard looked puzzled – he’d just come round that way and there hadn’t been anyone there. He lifted a huge torch, pointed it; the bare beech trunk was the colour of pewter.
You felt foolish, but you knew what you had seen. You could tell by the guard’s face that he was used to dealing with people in distress. He was sorry, he said, he had to finish his round - everything was timed for security.
Back in your mother’s room the bicycle man stared back at you from the seat where you had been sitting. Your brother must have taken the drawing out for another look.
A different doctor arrived. She was warm and kind and smiled gravely. There was nothing more to be done - nature would take its course.
At three in the morning, desperately tired but determined to show solidarity with your brother, you went to the front door again. The security guard was filling in a form at a low desk. He asked how you were doing. You said nothing, stepped out of the porch. The faint shape of the bike was still there. It didn’t seem so important now, but you turned your back on that corner of the car park.
And screamed. You heard yourself making the noise. Even as the scream came out you were surprised by it - that it should be so loud.
The door behind you clattered and the guard rushed out. You pointed.
On the ground, almost at your feet, starkly monochrome under the floodlight, was a man, sitting. His head was in his hands. Matted hair clung to his neck. He was naked, and stained and streaked all over with blood and black dust.
The guard glanced at the path and scanned the car park. He asked what was wrong. He put his arm round your shoulder and took you back inside. Still holding you he picked up a phone and pressed a button, spoke quietly. A nurse hurried in, then the kind doctor. They sat you in a chair. One of them knelt in front of you, holding your hand.
Your brother appeared. He said, “I think she’s gone.”