THE MODEL

Chris R-1-227 Image by Christine Renney

If the model had been bigger it wouldn’t have survived, someone would have destroyed it years ago, taken a hammer and smashed it to smithereens. But the baseboard was a little less than a metre square and it fitted easily into the back of a small van or a large estate car and so moving it from place to place hadn’t ever been that difficult, not too much of a task. When it outstayed its welcome there was always someone able to transport it and somewhere else willing to take it. And so the model had survived and it had languished in little museums and dusty civic centres and draughty village halls. Over the years people had looked at it and a lot of them had been impressed. But no-one had really, really looked at it, not in the way he did. Jacob was the first to study and scrutinise it and to recognise just how delicate, how intricate and extraordinary it was.

The model was a sprawling cityscape of high-rise towers, a section of a much larger metropolis. It wasn’t a re-creation of a particular place, not New York or Singapore or Chicago or Hong Kong. This city was the model makers’ invention and no attempt had been made to conjure anything futuristic or other-worldly. No, this place was representative of the here and now, a city that had once been high-tech and ultra modern but was quickly fading, losing its lustre and its glow.
The model was constructed from molded plastic and the paintwork was exquisite. It had been the model maker’s forte, the masterstroke. At first glance the tower blocks appeared identical and it was only when you looked closely that you noticed the subtle differences and could see the wealth of tiny detail and Jacob couldn’t stop looking.

As he moved around the model that first afternoon and gazed down into it and it snatched the hours away from him, he wracked his brain for an analogy. The best he could come up with was that it was a little like staring at a computer generated image on a screen. A scene from a game perhaps or a video installation. A mid twentieth century city that has become jaded and has somehow lost its way. A place where no-one wants to be, certainly not somewhere that Jacob would want to go and yet he couldn’t stop looking.

Squinting in the bright sunlight, Jacob felt giddy and disoriented. Stumbling he managed to reach the bench in front of the community hall and he sat. Gradually he began to focus again and, looking up, he realised that it was a beautiful evening. After standing for so long in front of the model he needed to stretch his legs and started to walk.
Jacob had lived in this small town since he was a child and he couldn’t remember ever being anywhere else. But, as he walked through the narrow streets and alongside the rows of Georgian and Victorian houses, it began to dawn on him that he had not looked properly at the place in years. Moving out across the market square he felt like a stranger but no, not a stranger, like someone returning to their home town after a long journey and discovering it anew. It felt good and Jacob considered himself to be lucky, lucky to be here and yet he knew that, in the morning, he would re-visit the community hall and look again at the model. That he would look at it as often as he could and for as long as he was able.

HERE

Chris R-1-77 Image by Christine Renney

Even after so long it seems strange that I managed to find my way here. I didn’t suddenly become interested in art and start to visit galleries. Nevertheless, in this small town, the town where I once lived and where I still work, I found myself drawn here.
At first I sat outside and it was weeks, possibly months, before I ventured in. I would sit on a bench and while away my lunch hour. Why, during the course of my not so busy day, did I feel the need to escape? I live alone and only whilst at work am I able to interact with others.
Nevertheless there I sat, day after day, and from the safety of my bench I watched the visitors. They were almost exclusively couples and most middle aged or older.
The young rarely come here. I suspected that the paintings inside would resemble those who came to look, that they would be comfortable and safe. In a word respectable. Despite this, as the days turned to weeks I became more intrigued but I wasn’t ready to enter, not yet.
The visitors were sparse, few and far between, and I had started to linger (nobody at the office seemed to have noticed my continual absences) and, determined, I awaited the arrival of the next couple. They would walk briskly along the path and after I had watched them push through the doors and disappear into the gallery I would feel compelled to wait until they emerged. Blinking in the direct sunlight they would gaze out across the grass, staring directly at my bench, but they couldn’t see me. They weren’t able to find me or at least not at first, not until they were able to take a little time to readjust.
For the most part the gallery remained empty, deserted, apart from a woman who sat behind a counter just inside the front doors, residing over a makeshift shop through which, when I entered, I had no choice but to pass. If the visitors hardly noticed me she was all too aware of my presence. How could she not have noticed me on my bench where I sat so often and for so long?
I hadn’t done anything wrong. It was a public space but I began to feel guilty and under her scrutiny I began to act furtively. When I did enter it was under cover. I dogged the steps of an elderly couple and as one we moved across the foyer.
I had been seen of course and the woman abandoned her counter to follow us in. She studied me from afar and I found this most disconcerting. I was unable to concentrate and couldn’t focus. But slowly a picture, one of the paintings, began to take shape and form. I could see and when I did, when I looked, I realised what was possible. The woman continued to glower but I didn’t care. I could outlast her. The painting was of a garden, wild and labyrinthine and I wanted in, no matter how much effort or how long it took.

And from here, without fear of rebuke and reprisal, I can now watch the art lovers, all of those couples, and occasionally I glimpse a man on his own gazing into the bright sunlight.

THE BAR

Max found himself in a bar. He had only just pushed through the doors and entered the room and yet it was all a little vague.
He remembered standing out on the street and that the bar had seemed familiar. He had stepped into the foyer but the doors on either side of him were locked or at least he hadn’t been able to open them, and so he had climbed the stairs and there he was, standing on the threshold as the doors behind swung to.
When younger, Max had often stopped off on his way home from work for a drink or two. But he hadn’t done this in years and he hadn’t any memory of this particular bar.
He wanted to turn and scurry away; return home to his wife who was waiting and would, if he lingered here, begin to wonder and worry about where he was.
The barman, hunched over a newspaper, straightened up and looked across at him. Max moved into the room and not until he had reached the bar and placed his hands on it did he order his drink.
‘A Stella, please,’ he said.
The barman nodded and Max watched intently as he poured the drink and then placed it on top of a plastic drip tray. He continued to stare down at the glass, shuffling on his stool making himself comfortable. Readying for the moment when he would lift the glass and take his first sip.
As Max reached for the drink he glanced along the bar and noticed for the first time the old man sitting at the far end. He was watching Max with a look of amusement on his face. The face was pockmarked, his nose bulbous, a drinker’s nose, and his grey hair was long and greasy. He was wearing a white shirt and black shiny trousers. He was smoking a cigar and drinking whiskey and beer straight from a bottle.
The man laughed, a gruff but not unfriendly growl, and turned away to concentrate once again on his cigar, on the whiskey and the beer.

The old man had unsettled Max but when he looked across at him again Max saw he hadn’t any interest in him, that the moment had passed. Max was shocked by the sudden seething he felt inside.
Perched uncomfortably on his stool with a drink he didn’t want and trapped for as long as it would take to finish it in a place where he didn’t want to be, Max realised that he was envious of the old man. He appeared so at ease, belonging in a way that Max couldn’t. Fleetingly, he wished that he could feel how it felt to sit hunched over a drink with a cigar and for that tiny square of bar to be all that mattered.
The old man was moving. All of a sudden he was pushing himself up from the stool. His jacket was on and the cigar clenched between his teeth. He was set for the street and disappeared through the doors. For another bar, Max supposed, and for a moment he was tempted to follow but he quickly crushed this ridiculous notion.
‘Who was that?’ he asked.
The barman didn’t answer but studied Max warily and he didn’t need to say it, it was written there bright and bold. It was written there in neon – why should I tell you and why do you care? But at last he did speak.
‘I don’t know.’ he said.
‘Is he a regular?’ Max pushed.
‘Yeah,’ the barman laughed. ‘Yeah, a regular, you could say that.’
Max hung on grimly that night and tried to make sense of his obstinacy. It wasn’t that he expected the old man would return, but the barman had reignited his anger and he felt that in the space of less than half an hour he had twice been belittled.
It was ridiculous, he knew, but to simply get up and walk away, to go back to his wife and his life would have seemed to him like giving in. And so he stayed put and sat quietly sipping at glass after glass of ice cold Stella.

The next night the old man didn’t show and the following week he still didn‘t show. In fact it would be months before he re-appeared but it didn’t matter; Max realised that this, whatever it was, wouldn’t be resolved quickly, that it would take time.
He supposed that there were other bars like this one, places set apart from the everyday. Places that were almost forgotten and where only the lifers hung out but places that were lonely and ultimately lifeless.
He thought about searching for the old man, seeking out these other places, trawling through the bars and clubs scattered across the city. But no, to go to so much effort didn’t feel right, it wasn’t the way. And so he waited and as the weeks progressed and he settled into it in earnest the waiting seemed apt, felt right.

Max stared into space, he didn’t interact with others and nobody tried to draw him. He hardly needed to speak. Whenever his bottle was empty the barman would replace it. There was no acknowledgement between them and after a month or so Max suspected he had forgotten entirely their encounter on that first night.
He started to bring a newspaper and wrestling with it at the bar he quickly became adept at turning the pages with barely a rustle, folding and refolding it, hunched over it, intent on the newsprint, soaking it all up. He was still interested at least but beyond the bar he felt numb and couldn’t function.
His work was suffering and his wife, who at first had been concerned and confused, was growing angrier every day. He could lose her, Max was all too aware that he could lose it all if this didn’t end. An adventure without incident, this story that he wouldn’t ever be able to tell needed a conclusion.

When the old man did reappear it was without fanfare. Max glanced up from his newspaper and there he was, standing alongside him. Max looked down again but in that instant he had noticed just how much the old man had changed. He looked younger, healthier, his face was less florid and he was dressed differently, in a bright Hawaiian shirt, baggy chinos and comfortable shoes.
The old man turned and Max watched openly as he moved along the bar, reinserting himself, finding his place.
Max supposed that a woman was involved and that the old man had quite happily allowed himself to be remoulded a little and why not? He hoped that she hadn’t deserted him yet, that they still had some time.
Max pushed up from the stool and lifted his bottle. He had just a mouthful and for the first time in months he was eager to leave.

Chris R-

Illustration by Christine Renney