“Help your father with the marbling, Jacob, it’s getting late.”
His mother’s voice curdled in the corners of the room, reminding Jacob of his lockdown obligations and that unshakeable feeling of self-denigration. He attributed this feeling to a sense of things falling apart, a slow disintegration of minutiae that spreads to everything or, more likely, though he didn’t like to admit this, it was simply “pure boyish indolence”, as his dad would insist, that was to blame for all his angst.
And there it was, his dad’s military tenor: “Get the hell over here, Jacob, the light’s going.”
Dragging his feet up from the rickety, recently mended kitchen chair, and throwing down his last cherished copy of New Musical Express (committed to memory) with an insouciant flap, Jacob went out into the garden, his boots slapping on the kitchen lino.
The ‘marbling’ was his dad’s latest lockdown project, a whimsical escapade into the world of art, a world he had seemed desperately ignorant of until the time of Corona. In his professional life, Jacob’s dad worked as a property surveyor in Newcastle’s Jesmond district for a student accommodation service. He was constantly on the lookout for the next set of shambolic ruins, perhaps left by a rich, recently deceased widow, that he could snap up and convert to a shining establishment of synthetic-blue carpets and indelible bathrooms. He had been furloughed from this job and complained bitterly of it, but still he felt the need to coat every broken, diminished thing with a thin lick of paint. More often than not, Jacob heard his mum complaining of the TV’s malfunctioning, or that someone had cracked a vase or chipped a plate, and henceforth came Dad with his box of tools, screws, paints and glues.
Now he was making art. This came as a shock to both Jacob and his mum, who had always seen Derek as a father, devoted husband and quick-fix family man. Around the house mending in the mornings, calling for his cuppa at three, up the ladder and pruning the trees at four, ready for his dinner by five. This was the routine they had expected him to keep when lockdown was announced by the Prime Minister, and yet, as the days went on, he became increasingly tense.
Customary phrases punctuated the house each morning and evening: “Derek, get these stupid bits of paper out of my kitchen” and “Stop messing around and fix this” and “Get that boy to turn down his blasted music.” Or, in the softer, tempering tones of his father: “It’s only temporary, Mol, don’t fret yourself” and “Jacob, come out and help me with this ladder.”
Early one morning, his dad had woken his mum whilst hammering in a nail for a hanging plant, having a week or so before announced his suspicion of “this new millennial houseplant obsession”. More recently, Jacob had wandered into the garden tool shed to see Dad embracing an old grandfather clock, the prostrate wooden body carried in his arms like a dead lover. Gazing into its face, at the unmoving hands, he had peered at Jacob and said, “I’m just fixing time, son.”
Last week, his dad had read in The Guardian (before the virus he had only read The Times) about an easy printmaking technique known as paper marbling. He became enthused and quickly sourced some acrylics, buried in the loft from his time at technical college in the early ‘80s. He found some thick paper, arranged a collection of marmalade jars around him, and began in earnest his newfound art practice. Every morning he would go out into the small back garden, dotted with weeds emerging from gaps in the crazy home-laid paving, and set up his work station. Jars, acrylics and paper had replaced hammers, screws and nails. Given his determination and the surprisingly pretty results of his marbling (now pinned haphazardly to the walls like the first masterpieces of an eight-year-old), both son and wife were trying to appease this strange new household hobby.
As Jacob lifted the paper from the pool of oils and acrylics, using the gloves he had resentfully donned, it revealed a pattern of movement and stillness in equal proportion. He thought it was quite beautiful really. He had never been into arts and crafts; he was more inclined to shred his guitar from his bedroom, the window pushed open so the neighbours could hear “every bloody evening”. Looking at his dad’s work now, he thought about how easy it was to make something of quiet beauty, unrushed, abstract to the point where language was unnecessary. It was as if this space of spiralling colour was being filled with all his experience, angry and indirect, under the influence of nothing but chance.
“Look up, Jacob. That’s it, dip it to the left slightly, and to the right. Purrr-fect! Pass it to me now.” As Jacob gave his dad the marbled paper, his hand slipped, and rows of paint shot across the surface, disfiguring the patterns of chance.
“Bollocks,” Jacob moaned.
“Not to worry,” his dad replied, with a gravelly excitement. “Keep it, there’s always next time. It’s actually a nice alteration you made.”
Jacob was bitter all during dinner time. He had been prevented from going to the Crown and Feathers to kick about with Johnny and Cas, and was incarcerated indoors with his weird, unpredictable parents. His band was about to make it big in Newcastle. They’d just been invited to play at The Cluny down in Ouseburn and were being held back by some stupid men in suits demanding everyone “stay home and control the virus” – whatever that meant.
He wasn’t like ordinary boys, at least that’s what he thought. He had always wanted to stand out in some way, to make something of value. Before the lockdown, he had been obsessed with looking good, impressing others, but now, from his small bedroom overlooking the Shields Road, he felt resigned to solitude. With this enforced isolation and college closed, mornings were spent in the bright glare of Spring, picking through records, thinking of all the things he could do to change the world from his bed.
One afternoon, whilst out walking in the local Heaton Park, he found a bird lying immobile upon the ground. The body of the animal seemed to float above the earth. It was early in the pandemic and people were grasping onto anything that suggested vitality. Jacob saw three recognisable figures but kept his distance. He felt repulsed by death but strangely drawn to the enigma of the motionless bird, its wings in a frozen, flightless display, its vulnerability revealed to the world. Though petrified, the bird was still changing, its body decaying, disappearing like a lost thought. All around him Jacob heard birdsong. Voices such as theirs come from such bodies as these. He had felt a similar amazement when discovering his dad’s old music box. But this bird was unsung, forgotten by humankind and its own, left alone upon the grass, wings open for an embrace. A sadness clung to the scene that Jacob could not shake.
He walked around the park fountain where families and couples engaged in simple acts, compounding the world to one, and in convening pools of conversation that he dipped freely in and out of. Below the arching willows he went, aware of his body moving and thoughts escaping him: common processes of change, loss, gain, just another form of life? He recalled a phrase, something like a thin tightrope we all walk. Just a delicate space, fuelled by courage and faith.
Back at home, Dad was still busy, hanging more paper marbling across a piece of string he had tied from the kitchen cupboard to the window. It was getting in the way of Mum’s cooking, and she was becoming frustrated.
“But why, Derek? You keep making these silly pictures without a thought of anyone else. Where on earth are you planning on putting them anyway?”
“Never mind that, love,” he replied in his gruff, soothing Northern voice. “I’ll find a place for them.”
“But what about the fence that needs fixing, the garden clearing of weeds, the house cleaned? What about that?”
He said, “How much essential work can I do before I die? How many hours have I spent fixing, doing up, making things look better? But not really changing anything?”
She said nothing. After dinner, Jacob quietly went to bed.
The world drops in and out of visibility, and like sleep, forgets and refigures itself each night. A ubiquitous loss that informs the presence in the world.
It was a sunny bank holiday when his dad carried in the grandfather clock from the garden shed. Jacob mostly spent the day indoors, looking up at the ticking hands, amazed that his dad was now a seemingly legitimate clock mechanic. Mum was also pleasantly surprised at this new skill, happy to have her father’s old clock telling the correct time again.
“Now we can count the days properly,” his dad announced, as if this were some kind of otherworldly superpower.
Mum said cautiously, “It’s quite loud, don’t you think?”
Jacob snapped, “And now I have to be reminded how long I have to spend with you.”
With his eyes on the clock’s wooden body, he felt an urge to leave the house and escape the four walls closing in, reverberating with every tick.
As the endless draughty days of lockdown went on, he felt his formerly safe and stable surroundings crumbling. The wind whistled around street corners, peeling paint, lifting the lids of dustbins and breaking milk bottles, turning newspapers over and over and pulling at the bunting displayed outside front gardens. And even though the seven pubs dotted along the mile-long road were now closed, the street was filled with bits of floating litter.
His parents were keeping up an effort to keep the house spick and span, but Spring had come and the townsfolk were still nestled away from the threat of the virus. To Jacob, only the park felt alive in some way – the wide sweeping grasses and arching trees hissed with life. He’d been there every season, and now forms coalesced as loved ones carrying their beloved; a community caught in this paradox, to give, but not to give up.
It was the VE day anniversary. Flags and deckchairs dotted Heaton’s front gardens and people sat in the sun sharing conversation, trays of drinks tinkering away into the long afternoon. Jacob’s mum was ironing whilst singing along to Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’ that was being played on the BBC. His dad was decorating, adding another lick of paint to the front door. Together they had chosen a garish shade of purple. Reading in the kitchen, Jacob could hear his dad complaining.
“Oh, blasted thing! Why can’t this roller paint in a straight line for once?”
He thought his dad should maybe go back to marbling, relinquish all to indiscriminate chance.
It was a bright afternoon, and the clouds were shifting and reforming overhead, all the light on the pavements hurrying onwards to a hidden destination. Jacob looked outside, and in drifted the voice of Vera Lynn from the garden next door. ’Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away…
He went into the shed to pick up his bike and jumped over the saddle, desperate to move. Cycling out past hung flags, feeling the town’s mass move with him, he rode down to the banks of the Tyne, the river carrying its inhabitants without complaint. Each boat drifted with the stream, the years buttressing years, towards a present where history paraded as one.
Oblivious to the shores and the quiet audience of onlookers, barges were still carrying freight, coal and timber to mysterious locations, levitating their earthly products upon this natural highway. On adjacent tracks, a commuter train, destined for the South, rushed over the river, the metallic clanging of five thousand tonnes travelling across the emerald green bridge. The river lay untouched, hurried and swirled, and never grew old.
Jacob listened to the unrestrained tones of conversation. Gusts of wind buffeted him further down the river, and it seemed the veneer of his town was reshuffling to show the roots of houses, the people within perhaps sharing and gifting things. Jacob didn’t feel in possession of that same capacity. He didn’t know how to germinate or put down roots. He wanted to fly freely on the wind like a seed, lay his head in whichever field it took him.
He cycled past old warehouses and shipyards, past scrapyards littered with steel, fringed by humps of grass mottled with dandelion clocks that caged the evening sun. In Heaton Park an old windmill stood abandoned. Jacob knew it well; he walked past its tranquil blades every morning on his way to college. His father always said it was haunted by an old miller’s son who had died lifting a barrel of grain up to the millstones on the second floor.
That evening, under millstone-grey clouds, Jacob saw the blades of the windmill through the trees. If only he could see them turn. He walked up the hill, bereft of people, and the wind, a cool whistle, hummed around its blades. The grains of age had been ground down to this moment: a different kind of time taking over from the constant sweeping of its cycle. He imagined the mill in motion again, grinding all this difference to dust, each seed a sapling for a mother’s touch. He recalled a line from college English:
Hark the wind and lark-natured time
That hears, and yet is forever wild.
Then, as he decided on where to go, and the rain started to descend from the outstretched sky like a damp canvas tent, he thought he saw the blades shudder and quiver, and the air around each wooden mass stir. Couldn’t he see the rain twist with them? And there, on that secluded hummock, the birds began their evening song.
© Ross Fraser-Smith
Ross is a freelance editor, writer and occasional poet. He recently edited the second edition of John Holten’s experimental art history book, The Readymades (2019), and is the founding editor of Factory, a new student-run literary magazine and small indie publisher of poetry and fiction. He is also a keen gardener and musician. He lives in Essex and South London.