CAN I TOUCH YOUR FACE?
A Novel by David Hodgson

  Home Reviews Writer Contacts Extract

Chapter one 

 

Sebastian

Never tell lies, my Granny taught me when I was very young.  It's wrong and you will certainly be found out. Well, I tried to follow her moral and practical teaching until the day I found out for myself that being open and honest was not necessarily such a good idea. This lesson in the realities of life came about one brilliantly clear spring day when I was about six years old. My Granny took me to school as usual and left me by the forbidding iron gates. As I wandered through into the playground an older girl, Kaylie Smith, who must have been about ten or eleven and whose name I still remember, stopped me and asked why my Granny always took me to school and not my mother.

“Granny looks after me,” I explained.

“What don’t your mum or dad?” she asked, her stony, pale blue eyes lasering in at her target.

I shrugged. “They’re dead,” I said, innocently telling her the truth. It would have been better if I had said they were serial killers.

“Dead?” she replied. “What d’ya mean, dead?”

“Dead,” I said, “my Granny told me they’re dead and gone to heaven.”

A small group of older children had gathered around us. Another girl, Julie Plumb, overheard and chimed in. Julie was tall aand thin like a doll made of wire coat hangers.  I still remember the feeling of terror as she loomed over me, her ugly face a few inches from mine.

“Dead?” she queried. “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar. You’re wicked, wicked wicked!”

“I’m not lying,” I protested.  

“Liar, liar, liar!” she screamed and some of the other kids joined in. Of course I burst into tears which only made matters worse. Someone started laughing and the awful cry of “liar, liar, dead mum”, started up. I tried to run but a whole gang of them followed me round the playground chanting the dreadful words. Fortunately, when the bell rang it ceased and we all filed into our classes. Miss Farthing, my class teacher, noticed my tearful face.

“What’s the matter, Sebastian?” she asked.

“Nothing Miss,” I replied. I didn’t want to get known as a tell-tale. For the rest of the morning I found it hard to listen to what she taught us and was relieved when lunch time came. I met my friend Jason and we went out into the sunshine. Like a pair of greedy, overfed cats, Kaylie Smith and Julie Plumb were waiting to pounce.

“Hello Dead Mum,” Julie called. “Have you stopped crying yet, cry baby?”

“Go away and leave me alone,” I shouted.

“Ooh, ooh, keep your hair on, dead mum,” she retorted, “Can’t you take a joke?”

Some of her class mates asked her what was going on. “Dead mum can’t take a joke, can you dead mum?” she sneered.

I swore at her and lashed out with my fists but she was much bigger than me and easily grabbed my flailing arms. Screaming with laughter she pushed me over. I scrambled up and started to run but they all followed me round the playground chanting ‘dead mum, deaed mum,’ the searing words burning into me. I covered my ears with my hands but could not shut it out. Miss Farthing appeared and rang the bell so the chanting stopped but the damage was done. It became my nickname. Someone would tap me on the shoulder, shout ‘dead mum,’ scream with laughter then run away. Eventually I took to hiding in the toilets during playtime. It worked and for a short while I was left in peaceful if foul smelling solitude. Eventually I was spotted of course, and a group of children soon rushed in, hammered on the door making a deafening noise and terrifying me. Suddenly it ceased and I could hear whispering. After a few seconds a single boy’s voice called out: “What the matter, Sebastian, shit yer pants?” They all screamed with laughter and I realised who it was who had uttered those words. It was my best friend Jason. He was leading the appalling chorus. I could not believe he was one of my persecutors. How could my best friend do this? I felt totally betrayed, trapped and helpless as they all jeered and mocked me. The banging on the door started again, this time much louder. I put my shoulder against the door to stop it opening but they burst through and knocked me backwards on to the floor. I kicked out wildly and caught Jason in the face. He fled, crying and sobbing that he would tell the teacher. I screamed that I would kick anyone else who called me names. Later, I was cross-questioned by Miss Farthing about the incident but I refused to say anything and was given a play time detention. Eventually, however, she got it out of me. She gave the class a lecture about bullying but it just made matters worse. I was accused of being teacher’s pet and the name calling just carried on in whispers. I have never forgotten the dreadful feeling of misery and worthlessness I felt. I wanted to die and it still sends shivers through me now to think about it. I hated my mother and father for dying and leaving me alone but I despised myself even more for being stupid enough to tell anybody about it. Was it really as awful as that?  Yes it was. I recalled asking my Granny why the other children had treated me like this. She just said I must learn to stand up for myself. I told her my best friend Jason had joined in. Why did he do that? You’ll understand one day, she told me. I never did and for a long time I felt totally alone. When I told her this she simply said I had to take the world as it was and get on with life. I never trusted any of those children again and it was many years before I had any close friends. If anyone asked me about my mum and dad or any other question I did not want to answer I simply invented some unlikely but hopefully plausible explanation. I had learned a useful lesson in life and a technique for survival in a nasty world that I admit I still employ, perhaps more often then I should.  I grew to become a gawky teenager and retreated into the world of books and computer games where good always triumphs and evil is always punished.

A few weeks ago I celebrated my thirtieth birthday, if celebrated is the right word. The day had been tarnished by an uncomfortable notion that came uninvited into my head. It was that in as many years as I had already lived I would be sixty. I did not like that idea one bit, but it was immediately followed by an even more worrying thought. When the big four zero came around and the answer was eighty, how would I feel about that? On the plus side I reflected that my less than ideal childhood now seemed a lifetime ago. You must be resilient, my Granny had told me. I was, and although I still find much of what happened to me painful to think about I knew my Granny loved me and made me feel secure. So I can’t really blame the undoubted deficiencies in my character and the bad decisions I made and go on making on a desperately unhappy childhood.  The truth is once I had devised my strategy for survival I was left alone, reasonably happy and enjoyed most of it. 

I had moved on. I went to university, obtained a First in Computer Sciences and now enjoyed my life as a college lecturer in a pleasant West Country town. Not that everything since my childhood had gone exactly brilliantly. I married when I was twenty-one but it lasted little more than a week. Hard to believe, I know but it’s a fact. The break–up was not my fault and is another joyous experience I’ve done my best to forget. True, my love life is now a little sporadic and usually tangled, taking care to avoid anything too serious these days, but I enjoy the generally short-lived variety and hey, one can’t have everything can one?  

The First Year Art Show at Waterbridge College where I teach is something I normally steer clear of but my good friend Mark thought he might see something he liked. So I reluctantly agreed to go along with him. It was a decision that would change my life forever.  I met Alice.

 

Alice

“Are you Alice Watson?” asked the dark haired man, pointing to my name on the wall by my paintings. I nodded. He had just walked into the exhibition.  Quite unlike the usual torn, baggy-kneed ones jeans and scruffy T shirt worn by most lecturers, he was dressed very neatly in clean pale-blue jeans and a dark blue shirt with the sleeves buttoned up.  “I’m Sebastian Winter,” he went on, “but most people call me Seb. I teach here for my sins.”

I had seen him around the college. The students called him Gucci because of the smart shoes he usually wore. It might also have been female wish fantasy as he had unnervingly intelligent, soft, brown eyes like an Italian gigolo.

“My friend is thinking about buying a painting,” he said.

His companion was a tall fair-haired man in his late twenties and dressed in a smart, grey, pinstriped suit. He looked like an accountant. ‘He won’t buy anything,’ I thought, ‘he’ll be just like my father – far too careful to waste his precious money on an original painting.’  They studied my paintings and I tried to focus on the book I had brought to pass the time but my nerves fluttered as I tried not to build up my hopes. I risked a glance at the two men but Sebastian Winter looked across at me at precisely that moment. I lowered my eyes in embarrassment and hastily concentrated on the page I was seeing but not reading.  “Buy, buy, buy,” I muttered under my breath. Did he hear me? I hoped not. His look was so penetrating, so disconcerting, it was as if he knew what I was thinking. His friend muttered something that I could not hear - a facetious comment about modern art, no doubt.

“I see your paintings are a series on the six days of the Creation in the Bible. Are you religious?” Sebastian finally asked.                

“No, I just thought they might sell.”  

“I’m not sure I really believe you,” he replied. He was right, of course. I had chosen the subject because I found the Biblical images of the extraordinary myth-like account of how the universe came to be, powerful and fascinating. True I had also hoped the paintings might sell well. Waterbridge was, after all, a very traditional church going place. How wrong I had been! The First Year Show was a chance to make a little cash and I was failing dismally. Most of the students had sold work but there were no red dots by mine. Why not? It was very dispiriting.

“I’m Mark, by the way,” said the fair haired man. “I really love your work. Do you have a price list?”

That was a surprise. I smiled nervously and pointed towards the leaflet on the far wall. They both studied it.

“Which one are you interested in buying?” I asked.

“I wondered about ‘On the Sixth Day,’ ” replied the fair haired man. “It’s very beautiful.” 

“I agree it has exquisite colours,” interjected Sebastian, “and I love all those little animals. I can see Eve but where's Adam. Surely he should be there?”

“I left him out because he spoiled the composition,” I replied. “Adam's not really important anyway.”

“Very droll – it’s a feminist statement then,” replied Sebastian, grinning irritatingly. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Don’t you like men?”

‘I don’t like you,’ I thought and ignored the question.     

“Leave her alone, Seb,” intervened Mark. “It’s just a painting,”

“Yes, but what does it all mean?” his annoying friend asked.

“The title gives you a clue if you really think about it,” I replied, determined not to be put down by this awful man.  It got worse.

“The painting is certainly original,” he pronounced. “It has a frisson of organic minimalism about it.”

“I’m sorry, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about,” I replied. It was bullshit, of course. I don’t know what he taught. It certainly wasn’t art.  

 “Neither do I,” he replied, attempting a disarming smile. “I read it in a newspaper the other day. I thought I’d try it out on someone. I’m afraid you’ve rumbled me.”

‘Smart arse!’ I thought, but hating him even more just smiled.

“It’s marked at five hundred pounds, I see. Is that your lowest price?” asked Mark.

“Well, yes,” I replied, rather feebly. My tutor had also told me to name my price and stick to it but the lack of red dots was undermining my resolve. I was very aware that I was no saleswoman. Mark shook his head looking rather doubtful. I wavered. “I suppose I’d take four hundred and fifty,” I said, without much conviction and feeling the sale was slipping.

  “Candidly, that’s rather a lot for a student work. Will you take four hundred?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, no,” I replied. He turned to go. “I suppose I would accept four twenty five.” I quickly added. He agreed and I told him he could have it on Saturday after the show was taken down.

  “Should I come here to pick it up?” he asked.

Sebastian intervened and said he would collect it to save Mark the drive, explaining that his friend lived at Stowe Minster, about twenty miles away and he was going to see him at the weekend anyway. I gave them both my card. I hoped it looked professional.

“Well, Alice I'll call you on Saturday morning,” said Sebastian. “I could come to your place or meet you somewhere for a coffee. Do you know the Alhambra Cafe?”

I said I did and we arranged to meet there at eleven. They wandered off and I heard them burst out laughing as they left the room. I wondered if I had missed something and watched them go before turning back to my paintings, fixing a red dot on the picture I had sold, feeling much better. I did not have long to dwell on it because my luck really changed. A smartly dressed woman in her thirties, who had looked at my pictures earlier, returned and introduced herself.

 “I’m Sophie Blumenthal,” she said,   “I’m going to open a gallery in London in a few months showing the work of new artists. I’d very much like to show your work. Would you be interested?”

Would I be interested? To be offered a gallery at the end of your first year at an art school was unprecedented. I’d sold a picture and now a gallery owner was interested in my work. Fantastic!

Sebastian

Mark chided me unmercifully about the lousy lines he said I used to engage Alice Watson in conversation, or as he put it, stand on my head and waggle my toes.     

“I look forward to it,” he mocked. “And what was all that organic minimalist rubbish?”

“I just made it up. It's sort of crap art critics come up with,” I replied.

“You don't even like contemporary art,” he said.

“True, but I like to keep an open mind,” I replied.

“I know what your real interest is,” he said. “You can never pass up trying to impress pretty girls like that, can you?” 

Like most people who do not teach in colleges, Mark clearly thought I took advantage of the endless stream of attractive girls he imagined were at my disposal. He was married and lived amongst the almost exclusively male inmates in the Cathedral School in Stowe Minster where he taught. No doubt seeing the temptingly pretty girls here, he might find it difficult to believe that in truth I led an almost blameless existence. Well, I say blameless but that is not entirely true. I enjoyed flirting and the occasional fall from grace. What was wrong with that? We’re all human, after all. Nevertheless, I was always careful not to let it go too far.

We went into the college car park and Mark stopped beside his car. As is the habit of old friends, he thought he ought to give me yet more well-meant but pointless advice.

“I saw the look you had when you said you’d pick up my painting,” he said. “I've seen it before. She’ll give you a lot of grief, believe me. Stay away. Your trouble is you're always looking for the perfect woman. They don’t exist.”

Mark was, of course referring to my estranged wife. I had married when I was twenty-one and it could only be accurately described as an utter disaster. He had been my best man at our wedding, but I had never told him what went wrong. I met Jackie, a year after I left university. She worked for Sky Television as a make-up artist. Incredibly, as I have already mentioned our marriage had lasted little more than a week. The breakup was definitely not my fault. Why not? Well, apart from a couple of frustrating attempts at less than perfect love making, she simply invented reasons to avoid sex. It was the usual excuses of headaches, she did not feel well, women's problems and all that sort of thing. And when I stupidly got frustrated and cross she upped and went back to her mother. Naturally I was deeply upset and very angry about this but eventually they both just vanished out of my life, whence by that time I neither knew nor cared. That was almost nine years ago and I had heard nothing since. Good riddance! Frankly she did me a favour. It may be true that you can't choose whom you fall in love with but you can't choose whom you fall out of love with either. To wind Mark up, I muttered something to him about having to agree that Alice was rather delicious. Unfortunately he took me seriously.

He snapped back wearily: “My advice is to stay away from her. It will end in tears.” 

Did he think I didn’t know that?