“You are much too fat for a young boy. You are as fat as a pig. You are like a blown up balloon on legs. Someday you will rub up against something sharp and you will rush backwards, like a loud, extended fart.”
Tip Martin took refuge in knowing his face must be so red that his grandma couldn’t see him blush. His walk across Clapham Common had been through sun-thick dusty air, the London summer sweating like a sumo wrestler. His grandmother stood, short and straight-backed, on the top step of her Lavender Hill house, the black rectangle of the open hallway behind her merging into her black leggings and long black sleeves, creating the illusion of a limbless white shift floating above him. He walked up the five stone steps. She turned and went into the blackness.
Tip could remember when his grandma had kept the curtains tied back and the windows open, soft air and the sound of London traffic living in the house with her. He could remember when her presence filled all the four floors: the large warm kitchen in the basement, the specially laid dance floor on the first floor, the cheerful, light-filled bedrooms for him and his sister at the top. But when his mother had made his grandmother move her bed downstairs to the bow fronted living room his grandmother had draped every vertical elevation of her new space, including the windows, with long lengths of cottons and silks stitched together from the remnant tables of fabric stores. And then she had stopped leaving the ground floor altogether.
Tip went down to the basement kitchen and pulled a hard salami and a tomato from the fridge. These he sliced onto a small plate. He cut a wafer thin slice of rye bread, no butter, poured a half glass of milk, and set it all on a tray. He added a tiny vase and placed in it a single yellow daisy from the bunch of flowers he had brought from his mother’s garden. He found a larger vase for the rest of the flowers. He did this every weekday, although when he walked over from school in his lunchtime he had to rely on flowers filched from a garden along his route. Sometimes, in winter, all he could find was grimy piece of privet from a hedge. His walk in the summer holiday was much longer, across the common from Clapham South Side, where he lived, in a two-bedroom flat, with his mother. His sister, ten years older than him, had moved to New York three years ago. His father had died of pancreatic cancer two years before that, when Tip was twelve years old.
Grandma was sitting at her table. He put the tray in front of her.
“You not eating?”
“No. I had something earlier.”
“Good, you should eat less. You’re far too fat.”
Before he left home he’d eaten the sensible salad his mother had left for him, and the leftovers from last night’s dinner, and he planned on getting a bag of hot greasy chips from the Chinese Chippy on the way back. He didn’t tell his grandma this. He knew he was overweight. He could hardly not know. People had been telling him, one way or another, all his life. He was tall, six foot, and surprisingly strong for a fat boy who avoided all sport. But hunger was not something he could deal with. Hunger made him morose and tired and stopped him painting. Painting was what he lived for.
His grandma knew this. Before confining herself to the ground floor she had taken him to galleries, bought him charcoal and pastels and oils and quality paper. When he was five she had walked him to drawing lessons after school, and when he was twelve she found him life drawing classes, with a real model, lying about his age. She was still paying for these. He didn’t know if she knew she was still paying for them. His mother managed Grandma’s money now.
“Your father was such a talent with his pencil.”
She pushed her plate aside and stared at him accusingly, as if she suspected him of having hidden his father away, or eaten him.
“His books were always in the shop windows at Christmas. Such clever books.”
Tip’s father had illustrated children’s books, for a well-known writer of sardonic tales enjoyed as much by adults as by children. His spiky figures had danced through the texts.
His grandma’s hand was at rest, curled against the side of the plate. It was the claw of a tiny bird. He was relieved to see she had finished her food and her milk. She lifted her hand and held one crooked finger up as if seeking divine intervention.
“Get the photographs. Get the box two down, third row on the left of the cupboard in here.”
There were cupboards all over the house, stacked full of boxes of photographs. Grandma knew the cupboard location, row and column, of every one. Tip believed she spent her days in her dark room dreaming of the worlds behind and out to the sides of the scenes in her photographs. She had a television, and a radio, but Tip had never heard them play.
“I danced at the Mariinsky. I was in the Corps du Ballet. I was the Black Swan. I was the Queen of the Night.”
“The Queen of the Night?”
“Yes. The Queen of the Night. Mozart. Magic Flute.”
“But The Magic Flute is….” He stopped and turned his attention to pulling photos from envelopes. His grandma was born in 1937, in London. The Mariinsky had been firmly behind the iron curtain, in Leningrad, throughout her professional career.
“These are the photos from 1913,” she said. “These are when I danced The Rite of Spring with Diaghilev and Niijinsky.”
He had laid a hazy black and white print in front of her. It showed a row of rather bulky looking women leaning their cheeks onto the backs of their hands and dressed, as it seemed to him, like Red Indians from a politically incorrect Western. Their eyes were hollows, deeply shadowed, as if they didn’t get enough sleep.
“The audience hated it you know. Audiences were not so polite in those days. They booed if they hated the music. There was a riot. The music was thumping, beating, dark rites. I did not like the dancing. It was ugly. In the story the girl dances herself to death. That is not right. Dancing should be beautiful.”
She stood up, straight and tiny. Her hands above her head, fingers perfectly expressive, arms architectural, bare feet firmly planted on the floor. He pulled out the sketchpad he always carried in his backpack and drew.
Tip was sixteen and had reached the summer that, in England, divides compulsory education from life. That school term before the long summer holiday the way forward had not seemed easy. Tip wanted to prepare for Art school. Specifically, he wanted to go to the Slade. It was where his father had studied. If he stayed into the sixth form at his school, near to Grandma’s, there was only one Art course he could do: Art and Design. That meant choosing other subjects. The ones his mother and the head of the school suggested, like English and History, were ones where Tip would have to write, which would take time from painting. What’s more the sixth form involved compulsory Outward Bound courses. Tip couldn’t imagine anything more awful. He considered leaving school. There were colleges in London where sixteen-year-olds could concentrate on Art.
Then his art teacher pulled him aside after class and said Geography and Chemistry had less compositional writing than many subjects and held more interest for an artist. She undertook to demonstrate just what that interest might be. She said she’d talked to the Biology teacher about possible courses in Anatomy. She said she’d been a graduate student at the Slade. Tip wondered if she’d known his father, but surely she would have said so if she did. Tip’s father had been famous.
“And,” the teacher said, “I will take you as a single pupil for History of Art if you can come to me at lunchtime two days a week and spare some Saturdays for trips to museums and buildings.”
Tip said, “I have to go home for lunch.”
The teacher said nothing. It was bizarre, a sixteen-year-old going home at lunchtime. Tip knew that. She probably thought he was avoiding bullying. Tip, after all, had always been an easy target. This same teacher had confiscated cartoon sketches, some of them quite good, of Tip’s fat arse bulging over his baggy grey trousers. Tip usually ignored his tormentors, unless they got too close. Then they discovered just how easily a big person could push a smaller person over. And Tip stuck around safe people. Once, while he waited for a bus, a group of four boys had stood in the street behind him sniggering and passing comments about lard buckets. Only, next to him in the queue, had been this self same art teacher, a lady with hips of generous proportions. She had turned to face his oppressors, holding a mobile phone in one hand, and what he had assumed was a can of Mace in the other. That’s what she’d said it was.
“Get your four skinny little rats’ arses out of here before I call the police. You ain’t the only ones with mobiles, and I’ve got Mace too. And I’ve got you on my phone video.”
“Fuckin’ pepper spray fuckin’ illegal, lady. And we not talking about you, lady, know what I mean?”
“I’m talking about you. Get out of here. Them cameras up there will get you if I don’t.”
She nudged Tip and whispered, “Don’t turn around, honey-bun.”
As the 88 bus drew up she’d said, loudly, “I reckon that’s our bus, darlin’,” twisted the stem of the ‘Mace’, and applied soft pink colour to her lips.
Now, thinking about her offer, Tip smiled and said, “I look after my grandmother at lunch time. If I wasn’t there she wouldn’t eat. My mother is at work.”
“I put Grandma to bed.”
Now he knew he sounded surreal. Going to bed at four thirty was Grandma’s world. He let the silence drift.
The teacher said, “If you are a caregiver to your grandmother, then I would say there is no possibility of you being able to spend two weeks away doing outdoor activities in Snowdonia. After all the school would not want to put your family in a difficult position.”
Tip said, “I s’pose Grandma could wait an hour after school. I would like Art History. I think she would like it too.”
The evening of Monday, August 8th 2011 followed another day of diesel fumes pinned down to the ground by the humid London air. At ten o’clock Tip’s mother was standing on the platform at Clapham Junction, two carriages further towards the exit from where he was getting off the train with his paint box in hand. Her sleek black hair gleamed as she turned her head from side to side. Tip had often thought that, while his father had been as thin and straight as a pencil, his mother was as curved and generous as a watercolour brush. A squirrel-hair quill mop brush, he thought, fresh from his evening watercolour class.
She ran towards him, her phone in her hand.
“Christ, Tip. Are you the only teenager in London who doesn’t look at their messages every other minute? There’s only a riot going on. We’re going to Grandma’s. We’ll have to walk. The buses aren’t going through.”
As they turned out of Clapham Junction station and towards Lavender Hill the screeches and bangs of the departing train faded and other sounds took over: the bruising thumps of a helicopter, the anxiety-ridden cries of burglar alarms, and the tinkling diminuendos of falling glass. Amplified words of authority drifted across the ragged noise: Move On; Get Out Of The Way.
There was no easy way to Grandma’s end of Lavender Hill. The back streets all ran too far in the wrong direction. They had to face the dangers of the main shopping street.
Tip said, “It’s so quiet.”
His mother put her arm through his and pulled herself into his side. He knew it had been a stupid thing to say. It wasn’t at all quiet. But it was unearthly, because there was no traffic. The street was filled with people. Some were running along the frontages of the shops, attempting to smash the windows, but many were standing around, photographing or videoing with their mobiles. Strangely most people seemed to be staying on the pavements. Tip and his mother walked down the middle of the road.
His mother said, “God, I hope your grandma’s O.K. I hope they’re only looting shops and burning buses.”
The road was littered with broken things, like the aftermath of a festival. Tip felt exposed and guilty. His paint box was really a travelling easel that folded into a wooden carrier. It was awkward to carry. It banged against his leg. It looked stolen.
A group of three young men walked across the front of them, too close, as if Tip and his mother were invisible. Their arms were full of multicoloured clothing, the hangers falling behind them, like animal droppings. Tip watched them go down a side street, load up a car and turn back. He turned to look the other way, embarrassed. They were people he knew.
Tip pointed to the other side of the street. “See that lot over there, Mum. All them in the hoodies and the scarves. They’re part of gangs. Their gangs all have different coloured scarves. Looks like they’ve given up fighting each other tonight to have a go at the common enemy.”
His mother said, “ For God’s sake, Tip, don’t stand and stare! What common enemy?”
“I don’t know. The government, the police, anyone who owns a shop. Anyone who disrespects them. They don’t know either.”
“ You know, Tip, Mark Dugan was gunned down in the street. That’s disrespectful in anyone’s language. The police carrying guns into people’s streets is disrespectful. How can you be on equal terms to someone who carries a gun?”
Tip stopped walking again, this time from surprise. His mother had never spoken to him like this before. Did she speak to other people like this? Who was Mark Dugan?
He saw a girl he knew step out of a broken shop window. She was a beautiful, slender black girl, with a long black and white scarf tied around her neck. In her arms were six, or eight, or maybe more, shoeboxes, all she could carry. She grinned at him. He frowned. He knew she had a mouth like a sewer. Every second word was fuck. She was one of a little group of girls who mocked him, talking loud enough for him to hear, but not loud enough for teachers to also hear. He didn’t know how to deal with the girls.
He said, “I hate this place. I hate them all. They’re so fucking stupid. All they care about is their shoes and their phones. It’s all they ever talk about: shoes and phones.”
They passed a parked police car and crossed a road. The shopping street was behind them and there was a little traffic. Then they were into the residential part of Lavender Hill. People were standing close to their houses, ready to retreat inside. Nobody spoke.
Tip thought about all the You Tube videos and Flicker pages that would be up by tomorrow, all that vicarious fame. He’d seen a man with a camera standing so close to a boy smashing a fire extinguisher into a window that he could have reached out, taken the fire extinguisher, and returned it to its intended purpose. It was as if the violence had been a show and the broken glass and the makeshift weapons props.
Lights shone out into the road from the upper floors of Grandma’s house. The windows were wide open and the curtains tied back. Cello phrases fell into the night. His mother let go of his arm and ran. He followed her, puffing up the steps, through the open door and up the stairs.
His grandma was in the middle of her dance floor, legs splayed, head bowed, arms draped in an elegant curve, wrists crossed. She was the swan, dying. The music stopped. Grandma stood up, turned to the open window and curtsied perfectly.
“That is beautiful dancing,” she said. “That is how I danced at the Mariinsky. What are you doing here?”