A VIKING IN MY DUSTBIN. (11) My real Disguise

Having escaped evil mathematics lessons in my first year at Senior School and the fearsome Mr. English, my life as an eleven-year-old professional truant was opening up new and exciting horizons.

In the Art Gallery and everywhere else for that matter, I never took my gaberdine raincoat off, or my school cap, even though it was warm in there. My school uniform was my real disguise. It turned me into an anonymous schoolboy. I was “incognito’, I’d heard that in a film, “Incognito”. In my cloak of invisibility complete with satchel, I was just a kid doing a school project, not a junior conman hiding from the algebra police.
But even with a disguise, I had to be on my guard all the time.
In the Gallery my warning alarm, which let me know if there was someone else in another room or coming up the stairs, was the polished floor. Every footstep made a sound. And I was constantly on alert for floor squeaky noises, I swear my ears which stuck out quite a bit, could move around on their own, (another gift from Grandpa, he could make his ear-lobes go up and down).
After I’d made my first incognito visits I could tell what kind of person the footsteps belonged to long before they arrived in person. I could tell whether they were adults or not, old or young, heavy or slim; mens’ shoes had one sound, squelch, squelch, squelchy, squeak. And women’s, then most often in heels, had quite another a tippy tappy clicky clack squeaky sound.
Then I scared myself by imagining what Mr. English’s shoes would sound like; they’d probably have metal soles and rivets, hob-nailed squaddy boots, with a dagger concealed in the toe of each one.
I’d hear them first gun-shot jack-booting on the floor and stairs, getting louder and louder, before he grabbed me and pulled me screaming by my satchel down the staircase, donk-donk-donk behind him and out the door, to be branded on my bum with a red-hot iron equation in the school hall by the headboy.
So just in case, I avoided him and other visitors if I could.
But I hardly ever saw anyone else. If there was anyone it was usually an old person or a tramp looking for somewhere warm to spend an hour or so. And I hardly ever saw any members of staff, not the woman in the cardy, not anyone. In fact I started to wonder what they could possibly do in the room off the hall marked ‘Curator’. Polish the artwork? Or ‘Curate’, I supposed, whatever that was.
Over months of visits I was approached only once by a lady in a Marks and Spencers’ dark blue jacket, the same as one of my mums. She wore a badge, which said ‘Volunteer’. I just had time to read that before she pounced. She came right out with it when she saw me,
“ And why young man aren’t you at school?” She asked. Inwardly I knew that facing off with Mr. English and telling the biggest fib in the universe, meant I could bluff my way through anything with anyone. So I looked her in the face, took off my cap, very politely and said I was doing an Art Project. I showed her the notes and sketches I’d done for real in my book, copies I’d made of the paintings and sculptures, and then turned the tables by asking her a question.
“I have a question Miss.”
“Oh.” She looked taken aback, she hadn’t volunteered to be asked questions by pimply boys.
“Yes, do you happen to know the origin of oil paints and what were the main colors used in the fourteenth century in the Renaissance Religious palette? Was there a convention on the use of colors or was it defined by materials?” (I’d read something about that in my dad’s Home Encyclopedia, the one with all the body bits illustrated).
That stumped her, she had no idea. I had no idea what I was talking about either, but it worked. She blushed.
“Well young man, “ She said, “That’s a very intelligent question. I think it best that I let you discover the answer for yourself. Self- education is the best in my book. Carry on dear.”
Although I saw her haunting the place, like the Curator lady, she never spoke to me again.
The upstairs exhibitions, the modern stuff, would change every few weeks. I looked forward to that. One month it might be drawings, I liked those because I liked to draw. Then next month, it could change to paintings.
I liked them because of the thick paint and the colors. The labels told you the names of the artists, a name for the painting, though not always and what they were painted on. I sometimes wrote all that down, next to my sketch. Sometimes there’d be a ‘Traveling Exhibition’ that would come to stay for a few weeks. There’d be a poster advertising it, I’d write that down too. I wrote the dates in a little diary a Christmas present from Woollies. I always read the posters in the entrance, and really looked forward to the traveling exhibitions arriving. So as time went on- for Math read Matisse!

“What are looking so happy about?” Said Dad one Sunday night before he went to the pub.
“It’s school tomorrow.” I said.
“You’re not normal.” He said.

Once I recognized another famous artists name, Cezanne. I loved his paintings. Percy Beak had reproductions in his file from his college days that he showed us.
I’d be there alone in the Art Gallery, in our crap town all soot black buildings, smoke and fog, boring shops and a river that smelled like black bleach. When into my secret life came these wonderful pictures of landscapes full of sunshine and olive trees, another world somewhere far off, but so real to me.
Once I spent all of my visit time just sat in the room where the Cezanne paintings were, I imagined I could feel the sunshine coming out of the scenes. I loved the way he painted. I mean how could all those little daubs of colored paint turn magically into a scene. I’d get up close and it all fell apart and then step backwards until the paint mixed somehow in my eye and in my brain, and the birdsong would start again.
I imagined what it must have been like to stand there in front of an easel under the sunshine of Southern France, (I read the leaflet that came with the exhibition so I knew where he lived and painted). I just had to visit.

“Bonjour Monsieur Cezanne, what are you painting today ?”
“Bonjour John, nice to see you again. Today it is the mountain.”
“But you did the mountain last week.” I said.
“Yes but look mon ami, here is the one I did on my last visit and see now how differently the mountain looks today.”
“It’s the same mountain.” I said. I knew because the painting he showed me was next to this one on the gallery wall.
“Yes, Mon Dieu, of course, the mountain has not changed but the light shining upon it has, ici look!”
“So the colors and shadows are different.” They were, and they changed almost as I watched.
“Oui, cest ca, Fascinating do you not think?”

I liked talking with Monsieur Cezanne, but worried that if I spent too much time in the hot sunshine (something we never got in the West Riding),
I would get a tan under the rim of my cap. Try explaining that at home.

“You look like you’ve got a tan Graham.” Mum would ask, “It’s November, have you been standing in front of the cooker?”
“Mum, don’t you know, it’s not a tan, it’s hormones!”

I knew I had hormones, I just had no idea what they were or what they did, but it seemed to cover a lot, including spots and unmentionable things that had started happening in strange places.
Anyway, being a professional truant I had to mentally prepare myself for questions like that.

Spending time with the artists had an effect on me. I started to look at the countryside around where we lived differently and tried to copy Cezanne’s style next time I got a chance to paint. I didn’t tell anyone where I’d got the inspiration.
“Now where did that come from?” Asked Percy Beak one lunchtime when I was up in the art-room painting. (He let me use the oil paints even though they were usually reserved for sixth formers. I loved Percy Beak).
“It’s the fields near where I live Sir.” I said.
“You’re a regular little Cezanne Sunderland.” He said, and he couldn’t have said anything better.

(Copyright John Sunderland 2009)

A VIKING IN MY DUSTBIN. (11) My real Disguise

John Sunderland

New York, United States

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Installment eleven and a chat with a famous artist.

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