a literary and art journal
aerial view

Kandahar

The blue of night meets no resistance with the dawn, going from darkness into faint early morning light. It is a new day. But it is also like any other day, only slightly different. The day he died was like any other, only shorter, thought Carmel. There is no hope and yet I remain the last optimist. There is no hope, and I want to say that hope is overrated. It’s a mug’s game, the domain of sentimentalist, of greeting cards, of school children. The shops in Covent Garden are filled with such sentiments on their stands and wracks. The little curio shop in the Crypt at St. Martin’s in the Field was filled with such things as these sentiments. The last trace of blue lingers just above the pale red at the horizon. The sun rises on the other side of her house. What Carmel gets here is pure light. She sits in her studio, staring out on the Heath. The studio was so beautiful because of this exact north light. Here is to you, Jacques, she said. Here is to your beautiful nature, your wisdom and kindness, your intelligence. The air is touched by a trace of ground fog, already dissipating with the light and heat of day. Shadow and light are her areas of operation. Jacques was a print journalist turned to assignments for television news. He was the best of his lot, she thought. There was no one finer than Jacques.

If this were not the city, one might glimpse a deer or two in the meadow near an apple orchard. A fox darts from this urban scene, rattling the lid on a tipped-over bin, and there is only its after-image to contemplate, as it skids off into the undergrowth beyond the train tracks beyond their tiny garden.

Once, on a safari, Carmel saw a lioness dart from the camp in Namibia in such a fashion, only its long tail visible as it ran into the surrounding grasses, never to be seen again. She was still with Jacques, he was still alive. He hadn’t topped himself yet. He had taken her on safari because she had wanted to go on one. He was just back from Iraq, still a wreck from the war. He said the safari would be good for him too.

Jacques had been a journalist for Channel 4. He had covered Iraq for them when he was younger and had come back from Iraq an older person. He had the eyes of a soldier lost in the distant flares of this particular theatre of combat. The softness of his face had been given over to dark shadows. His smooth face developed deep crevasses. He was less prone to smiling, but when he did, his smile was still radiant.

They had met when students at Cambridge years earlier. He was reading for English; she had her heart set on politics-philosophy and economics (PP & E), and then wound up being a visual artist. Her father was a famous painter, so it was not much of a stretch, only he made his name painting the human figure, and she was an assembler, a montagist, a collagist, putting together disparate things and highlighting the everydayness of ordinary life in some unusual way.

Her mother had been a writer and a great Irish beauty and she had died young from ovarian cancer, which was Carmel’s biggest worry before she fell in love with Jacques. He was so likeable, so smart and down to earth, so devastatingly handsome, compassionate, and committed. When her mother was still alive, she said: “Grab him while you can, dear. He’s a keeper.”

Carmel had laughed.

“He’s not a fish, mum.”

“He’s the one,” her mother said. “Take it from your mother.”

He was the one.

Her mother had been right, not just about Jacques, but so much else. She could not read her mother’s poetry and not weep, it was like her, so strong and beautiful, so hard to imagine it being fragile and gone, the poet if not the poems.

Every time Jacques went off on assignment, she prayed he would be all right.

“No worries,” he said, mimicking the voices from the Irish side of Carmel’s family.

“Go on now,” she called back, sounding like her Galway granny.

It was their routine, followed by an embrace, a long deep embrace, his reassurances, and her tears.

“Oh, Jacques.”

“There, there,” he said, comforting her, and then he was gone until he returned, usually a changed man, though within a few weeks she caught sight of old Jacques again. When he went off down the street to meet his crew, he left behind this after effect, a Jacques-shaped hole that seemed to follow her from room to room in their semi-detached Victorian terraced house on the southern edge of Hampstead Heath. Now she had the Jacques-shaped hole alongside of that enormous hole left by her mother.

Every day Carmel thought about her mother at some point, usually in the morning when she woke, and again in the afternoon when she had tea, and then again at night just before she went to bed. Jacques’ image came into her mind immediately upon waking. He followed her about the house all day, and sometimes she talked to his absence. She would say: “I’m going into the studio upstairs. I want to be alone.” Anti-Jacques disappeared for a few hours. His absence, it turned out, was good for her career because she did her best work when Jacques was away on assignment, pouring her passions into things in the studio on the top floor of their house in Gospel Oak.

Jacques had found the house through an old journalist he knew. The old man wanted to sell the house and move to Spain in his old age. The price was right, and besides Carmel got the money from her now fabulously rich father who joked that when he was gone – because he had fathered so many children with so many different women – there would be no money for anyone. Carmel was one of his favorite children, even though she had not grown up with her father. She only got to know him as an adult. She only knew about half of her siblings, all of whom had different mothers than she did. There were at least sixteen children that Carmel knew of, though newspaper accounts often hypothesized upwards of forty offspring, a number about which both Carmel and her mother were highly skeptical.

Her father’s fondness was really for her mother whom he had adored. She had been too proper for such a life-style, though, and after their brief affair her mother would not see the painter as a mistress and he did not want to divorce his wife. Her mother had briefly been the old painter’s model. There was a painting of her, sumptuously naked, her red hair streaming over her shoulder, in the National Portrait Gallery. It was a great way to impress your teenage friends, telling them that it was your mother, eight feet tall, naked and sensuous, beckoning all viewers. In many respects, it was pure fiction because Carmel’s mother was a modest woman, writing her poems, stories, novels, and occasional plays, though rarely doing publicity or giving readings, staying totally out of the limelight. Her mother’s idea of fun was a long summer on the coast of County Mayo, living in a tiny cottage by the sea.

Her father was a raconteur, a man about town who famously had no enemies, either in the art world or domestically. Everyone loved her father, including her mother.

His work was revered, and he was greatly admired.

He had painted Carmel and he had painted Jacques and he had painted them together, not naked, clothed, proper. Her father loved to paint Jacques. He loved Jacques’ sadness, and once said that “gravity was in a battle for Jacques’ face, and gravity is winning.” It was true. Gravity, instead of aging him, simply gave Jacques more character.

Carmel’s father had given them the money for the house, and they loved their new neighborhood, going into South End Green for coffee and meetings, down to Queen’s Crescent to shop in the outdoor market, or twelve-minute’s walk away to Belsize Park and the Budgen’s there. Her father came by to look at the house and even he liked it, the old bohemian. It’s far enough from Hampstead not to be pretentious, he had told her. He sent her a small portrait painting to put over the fire place in the parlour. He sent her some antiques for the various rooms. He sent an Eames chair for Jacques to read in.

The house was on the railroad tracks between Hampstead Heath and Gospel Oak stations on the overland, and if there was a drawback to the property, the train tracks were it. The trains rattled the building at ten and fifteen-minute intervals, never too loudly, unless it were a day in which noise distracted her. Even from her airy, Carmel heard the trains rattling past. During the night, slow trains passed through once or twice, and there was talk in the neighborhood that one of those trains transported nuclear waste, but Jacques was not able to establish the veracity of that speculation.

What could not be denied was her view out the floor to ceiling bank of windows facing Parliament Hill. Sometimes, in a sentimental mood, she painted that scene, whipping out a small canvas on which to work. Carmel used acrylics instead of oils, to make the experience spontaneous and quick. Once she finished painting, she put the landscapes away in her back closet for posterity to sort it out. Then she read poetry, especially liking a Sylvia Plath poem about Parliament Hill.

Foxes, birds, dogs, cats, rats, hedgehogs, badgers, skunks, and sometimes more exotic creatures filled the borders just beyond her garden and the train tracks.

More than the scene, she loved the light. North London light was different than any other light she had experienced anywhere. Who needed the South of France? North London light had a beauty, a poignancy all its own. It was so British, the light, pearly on some days, radiantly blue on others. She literally looked out her windows, sipping her tea, taking a break from painting, and saw John Constable’s paintings of the Heath coming to life. The same clouds as inhabited his paintings took shape over Parliament Hill.

Carmel would see Jacques into the hallway – the vestibule she called it as her Irish grandmother did – and kissed her man goodbye as he walked down Savernake Road towards South End Green, where he met up with his camera crew, and they would take the hired car out to Heathrow and on to their assignment. Usually they met at Dominique’s café in South End Green, eating a meal because, as Jacques once told her, professionals don’t eat airline food.

“It makes the stomach too bubbly,” Jacques said, holding his flat stomach to illustrate his point.

Jacques had wavy black hair that he combed straight back and a Roman nose, although he claimed that it was not Roman but from the Gauls. He was neat and casual, trim and fit, neither smoking nor drinking when on assignment. Afterward, he liked to smoke a Cuban cigar in the garden after cutting the grass and trimming the hedges and planting new pots of flowers. He might drink a gin and tonic out in the garden. He occasionally had a glass of wine with his meal. His one laddish indulgence was football, about which he was passionate, as well as cricket. If you wanted to know anything about cricket, Jacques was your man.

That first time he went to Iraq in the early Noughties, he came back a mess. That’s when they went on safari in Namibia, and he seemed to recover his personality over time. He worked locally for awhile, going off to Manchester to cover football or to Edinburgh to interview Scottish National Party politicians about devolution and independence.

Carmel had shows in tiny galleries in Shoreditch and Hoxton, and eventually she began to show her work in a Cork Street gallery. It did not hurt to have her famous father in the wings. But the FF, as she called him, was not a known entity in Carmel’s career. Most people knew that her mother was the beautiful, tragic poet from the West of Ireland. They did not know that her father was the national treasure. She had done the hard graft to be shown on Cork Street, creating the work, getting the critics to come to the shows, and then convincing the gallery on Cork Street to take her on. Her gallery actually didn’t know who her father was. The work did not command the prices of the FF, but then again whose work did? Carmel did well financially and with the critics. If her father hadn’t had so many children, maybe people would have figured out the connection. But they hadn’t. The FF was so discreet. He only turned up to her shows when no one was around, never to the opening parties.

Her father had thought that the safari was a great idea.

“If I were younger,” he said, but did not finish his sentence.

Jacques’ spirits soared in Africa. He loved the safari. He loved the guides, their stories, their world. Animals were a great distraction. They were not hunting them, but there to protect them. It was that kind of safari, a green one, their companions a famous South London rapper, an African American playwright, a black dancer from Ghana, an Oxfam official, an Irish former rock star turned politician. They were out there to do things to help the animals to survive in their ever diminishing environs.

“There was nothing sadder than seeing that old, tattered lion alone on the Skeleton Coast,” he said. “It was a metaphor of our time.”

Iraq put Jacques in a state that needed attention, and eventually he came back among the living, a whole person again. He visited doctors and psychiatrists on Harley Street and Hampstead, respectively. He sat in on therapy sessions, and went to an Indian healer. Eventually Jacques got more or less well. Afghanistan was another matter entirely. It was what undid Jacques, and turned him against himself. Men from the West had been undone by Afghanistan from the beginning of history. Very little had changed there. Jacques had not come as the enemy, but it was hard to explain that too many of the Afghanis. It was the kind of place that would have got George Orwell going in a prose sense, a place full of indignation and injustice. When he came back from Afghanistan, Jacques was shaky, irritable, distracted, easily given to tempers. He would wake in the night, terrified, screaming. He slept in a different room than Carmel and kept an American combat knife under his pillow. He slept during the day, usually in a reading chair in the parlour, with the television on, one dead eye open. He did not watch the news, rather game and quiz shows, soap operas and other such programs. But he didn’t really watch anything. He slept or stared.

Carmel put a blanket around him because he shivered.

Jacques gained a lot of weight. He binged on food at odd hours, eating anything in sight. He drank and began smoking cigarettes, one after another, leaving an ashtray filled to the brim next to his reading chair which now had tiny burn marks in the leather. She hoped that her father didn’t come over and notice the chair. Jacques took inordinate amounts of painkillers and drank pot after pot of green tea. He hadn’t spoken a word in weeks, not a single word.

His wife was patient and kind, as she’d always been. In that respect, she was like her mother, only slightly less classically beautiful. She did not have her mother’s red hair of such flaming radiance. She was taller and leaner than her mother, and had a bit of her father’s Teutonic majesty, her head big and long, good on a man but horsey on a woman. People said she was very English looking, but she did not have an ounce of English in her, being half Irish and half her father’s mixtures of middle Europe and beyond.

Carmel had dinner with her father at his favorite restaurant in Mayfair. She did this at least once a week when he was in London, which was almost always lately. Despite being one of many children to this Famous Father, he always ate with Carmel alone, although lots of her siblings and their children showed up towards the end of the social event. By the very end of the meal, his friends and associates would show too, and then it became more of a party, a national celebration, than a quiet evening meal. What amazed Carmel was how everyone respected her father’s routines, not showing up until they had eaten their meal, which her father paid for. That was the tradition. Well, he didn’t pay for the meal. He signed for it or at least he used to sign for it. Now it was tallied up, shown him, and if he nodded all right, it was logged on his monthly bill. She couldn’t imagine how costly all this was and once asked him if he had an arrangement with the restaurant to discount the costs of these meals.

“Don’t be silly,” he said. “I pay just like anyone else.”

That evening they spoke about Jacques exclusively. Her father told her what a likeable fellow Jacques was. He did hope that Jacques recovered from Afghanistan.

“Poor Jacques,” he said. “Be sure to give him my best.”

She did, but Jacques didn’t respond. Carmel took him to a doctor on Harley Street who specialized in treating post-traumatic-stress disorder, and some progress was made. The doctor got Jacques off the pills, got him to eat better, to take walks on the Heath with their Jack Russell, and things were looking up.

Carmel prepared for a major show in Hoxton at a new museum of contemporary British art. She may not be English, but she was certainly British, she liked to say. This show was only the second one mounted at the museum. By now, everyone knew about her FF and that connection too. She had delivered the pieces to the museum and daily she visited the space to work out what she called “the order of battle” for the work.

On one of those days when Carmel was at the new museum in Hoxton, she left Jacques alone in the house. She had hired someone to care for him. But it was the carer’s day off, and when she asked Jacques how he felt, he had spoken monosyllabically that he was all right. “Fine,” he said, slurring his word. She hopped on the Overland at Gospel Oak to get her into the general area of the museum. She had to buy some last-minute items in Hackney, and from there, she took a cab to Hoxton. There were a few hours when Carmel did not think about Jacques, which was good, because he had been on her mind too much lately. She concentrated on hanging the show, working out last details before the critics and the public descended upon the exhibition.

After she went to the museum, her husband wandered out the door, leaving it open to the world, and walked to the foot bridge onto the Heath. He spent the day on his favorite bench just below Parliament Hill and the tourists. From his lower perch, he could view the back of their house. When evening came, he walked to a nearby pond, stepped into the water in his desert boots and khaki pants, and kept waking until the water was above his black waxed cotton Barbour jacket, and approached his ears.

Being a literary man, Jacques had loaded the pockets of his trousers, his shirt, and his multi-pocketed Barbour jacket with a variety of stones, weighing him down as he sank into the water. As he walked, Jacques wondered if the pond were deep enough for his enterprise. Was it deep enough to accommodate his desires? He soon discovered that this particular pond was deep enough to accommodate his wishes, if not his desires. Jacques sank below sea level and was gone.

Several days after the show opened, Carmel received a telephone call about Jacques. The details were unclear about how they found him, but the police seemed to think that they had their man, the one who went missing a few days earlier. The clothing was exactly right, although the body itself was bloated beyond all proportions. Carmel called her father and told him the news, knowing how fond her father had been of Jacques.

“Poor Jacques,” he said again, as he had been saying for weeks and weeks, sounding older and older each time he said it to Carmel.

“He was such a good man,” Carmel said.

“It was Afghanistan,” her father said.

“Yes, it was Afghanistan,” Carmel answered.


Photograph © Satellite image: precision bombing

About M. G. Stephens

M. G. Stephens is the author of eighteen books, including the novel The Brooklyn Book of the Dead (“a great, great book,” says Roddy Doyle), and the essay collection Green Dreams, which Joyce Carol Oates picked as one of the notable nonfiction books of the 20th century in Best American Essays of the Century. He recently completed a cultural history/memoir about downtown New York in the 1960s.

About M. G. Stephens

M. G. Stephens is the author of eighteen books, including the novel The Brooklyn Book of the Dead (“a great, great book,” says Roddy Doyle), and the essay collection Green Dreams, which Joyce Carol Oates picked as one of the notable nonfiction books of the 20th century in Best American Essays of the Century.He recently completed a cultural history/memoir about downtown New York in the 1960s.

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