One of the things about having children is the feeling they give you that they know all about you. It’s like they’ve come from inside you and had a good look round while they were there. My son Ian gives me this feeling. I often catch him staring at me when my back is turned, like he’s reading something private. Then I think, he knows, or he’s found out, even though when it comes down to it I’ve got nothing to hide. I say to him, have I got egg on my face then?—something like that, and when he laughs I see that he’s still just a boy and that I’m a man, even though a minute before it wasn’t clear at all. It sounds a funny thing to say, but it’s easy to forget how much children depend on you. It’s important for them that you don’t lose your authority. My wife said to me, during our bad time, one day he’ll thank you Alan, and in those strange moments that seem to come so close to the truth and then don’t I believe she might be right. When Ian was a baby we had him circumcized. My wife thought it was more hygienic. I didn’t like it, but Sally said to me, he won’t remember, they don’t remember things. That’s the way she is: she won’t let it bother her.
I dream about Ian, not the same dream, different dreams, but they’re all sort of similar. Like, we’re getting on a train, me and him, and I put him on with all our bags and then I get off because I want to buy a newspaper or something and next thing I know the train’s pulling away with me still on the platform and Ian looking at me through the window. Or, I’ll have a whole dream about something else entirely, and then at the end I’ll realize that all the time I was dreaming I was supposed to be looking after Ian and I don’t know where he is. My mother left me on a bus once, when I was just a tot. There were so many of us she was always forgetting one. I went all round London on the number 73 crying my eyes out. You’d think I’d meant to leave you, she says. Didn’t do you any harm, did it? she says. Just like Sally really. I’ve always tried to be different with Ian, but I sometimes wonder whether it was that trying that made things go wrong in the first place, whether if I’d been like Sally or my mum none of it would ever have happened. What I mean is that loving Ian made me expect more from life. It made me think there were better things out there.
It was right after he was born that I started looking at paintings. After what she’d been through with the birth Sally couldn’t bear him near her. His crying made her mad; even if he was at the other end of the house she’d hear him crying and go mad. I didn’t know what to think: it was totally unlike her. In the end I had to take unpaid leave off work. I used to take him out and just walk about with him round London, and that’s how I first went to an art gallery. I was walking past and I saw a big poster for an exhibition and the picture on it caught my eye. It was a picture of a woman holding a baby. I didn’t have a clue what it was then, but just looking at it made me feel things, with Sally at home being the way she was, and so I went in. What amazed me was how many people were in there, at ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning, just looking at paintings when they should have been at work. At least, that’s what I expected myself to think: you know, lazy sods, arty-farty scroungers. But I didn’t think that. I started to, and then I just didn’t. It was something to do with Ian. He was asleep in his pram, but his being there was like some kind of passport, some bridge to another place. It felt right being there with him. It was an exhibition of Renaissance art, but as I say I didn’t have a clue, I just went round and looked at things and kept getting this feeling of another side of life. You could say it was a call. Looking back to that day I can see now that I might have been a bit confused. I was seeing the writing on the wall with Sally: in my mind I think I was consciously separating myself and Ian from her. When I thought ‘we’, it was me and Ian I was thinking about. And I worried about that thought, and when I looked at the pictures they told me not to worry, they told me everything was all right. They were sympathetic, if that doesn’t sound too silly.
That was the beginning, anyway. I met Gerte a bit later, when I signed up for the evening class she was teaching on the History of Art. Ian was three by then. I was a bit stuck. I’d had all these ideas about art, but they hadn’t seemed to come to anything. I was still in my job, even though when I went back after Sally had got better I’d decided to leave. From the first minute back I knew I couldn’t stand it any more, I knew I’d changed, and every day I spent there felt like a day wearing shoes that are too small, that cramp and pinch and torture your feet until all you can think about is getting them off. But I stayed all the same. I didn’t have the courage to leave. I didn’t have the confidence in myself. I just had the dissatisfaction. It took meeting Gerte to give me the confidence to go with it. Once I’d been chosen by her, I thought I could do anything. I looked back at the life I’d lived and thought, how could you have done this and that, how could you have been so ordinary? I was ashamed, ashamed of Sally, ashamed of our house and the things in it, ashamed of our friends and the things we talked about. The only thing I wasn’t ashamed of was Ian. Like I say, he was my passport. He was what made me worth something. When Gerte chose me, inside myself I knew that somehow he was the reason; not because she loved him—she didn’t—but because I did.
Gerte was from Germany. She taught art history at a university there and she came to England for a year on an exchange programme. She was the opposite of Sally, she was very well educated and delicate and beautiful. Her face belonged in one of those paintings she talked about, a Giotto, a Bellini. Whenever I looked at it I got that feeling, the feeling that everything would be all right. I was obsessed with her from the start. What’s funny is that I never felt I was being unfaithful to Sally, even when I actually was. Gerte was better than Sally; it was as simple as that. I was learning about taste and beauty and value, and learning about these things justified what I felt about Gerte. It was a fact; but there are other facts, which don’t have anything to do with taste and beauty and value. That’s what I didn’t see—I never saw it, even when I was standing at the front door with my bags packed.
Gerte spoke to me at the end of the third class. You look at me so much, she said, you’ll wear my face away. She said that and then she walked away very lightly, like a ghost, leaving the door swinging on its hinges behind her. The significance of that moment, of her words and her look and the swinging door, seemed to reach right down to the root of my life. I felt that my whole existence was the frame for that moment, in the way that a pond exists for the pebble thrown into it and pulses with its rings long after the pebble has disappeared. I shuddered in just such a way; I felt a force pass through me. I thought it signified something, but now I realize it was a careless, idle gesture, a throwaway remark that I failed somehow to consign to the dustbin. Gerte hadn’t yet seen anything in me that she wanted. I hadn’t yet roused in her the desire to win, to possess. When I asked to buy her a drink, the next week, she seemed surprised. I was like some mad compass, febrile, sensitive, vibrating to everything she did and said, while she seemed solid and fixed and decided. At the pub she asked me a lot of questions, in the way people do who are bored. I told her things; eventually I told her about Ian. I remember her face, as if something had suddenly caught her eye, something beautiful and rare, something valuable. You love him, she said. Yes, I said. More than your wife? she said. Yes, I said. More than anything. I thought it would be all right, saying that to her, but a feeling of pressure rose in my chest, like I used to get as a child when I’d done something I knew was wrong.
I got so used to that feeling over the next few weeks that I stopped noticing it, it became the atmosphere of my time with Gerte, became indistinguishable from love. Why can’t you stay, she would say across the dark, when I rose from her bed to get dressed. You know why, I would say. And she would sigh out my son’s name and my heart would pound. Sometimes she spoke about Germany and the life I could lead there with her, and this made me very happy, I made a sort of story of it in my head so that for a while I lived two lives, one actual and one possible. That these possibilities adhered to me filled me with amazement and fear. I felt that without them I would die. How much do you love me, she would say, and because I had the certainty of Ian but not of her I felt that I could encompass him in myself, could speak on his behalf as well as my own. More than anything, I would say.
It’s him or me, that’s how she put it in the end. If you loved me, you would give him up. Then I would believe that you loved me. She was going back to Germany. Can’t I bring him too, I said. If you did I would never know, she said, who you loved more. That’s what love is like, when there are no facts. Sally knows about facts. She booked my cab for the airport. When I left Ian cried and ran out of the house after me and held on to my leg. I had to pick him up and carry him back to the house with him screaming. Go to your mum, I said, but he wouldn’t, I had to force him off me and shut the door on him. When he looks at me now in that strange way, deep down I always think that it’s because he’s remembered that night. He couldn’t, of course: the way things worked out he wouldn’t know any different. I remember Gerte’s face at the airport, lit with pleasure at the sight of me, so that I couldn’t understand what she said, she had to repeat it over and over. I know now, she said. You can go home to your son. Go on, go home. So I did. Sally was still in the hall. That’s when she said that one day Ian would thank me. You’re a good man, Alan, she said.
Image © Lluís Ribes Mateu