IN THIS extract from Philip Miller’s debut novel, an art historian tries to make a new start in life while still reeling from his wife’s death
George Newhouse was in love with his wife.
But his wife was dead.
Now he was starting again. He was on a train, moving north. He opened a folded piece of paper. It was a letter from the Public Gallery.
It is truly wonderful to have you on board. We are all greatly looking forward to working with you. It has been some time since we had a dedicated curator of our Dutch collections. And of course, we wait in great anticipation for your thoughts on Master Pieter.
Hayley White has spoken to you about the visitor’s flat, I am sure. Stay there until you have found your bearings…
The letter was from Thomas Colebrooke, the director of the Public Gallery. Newhouse would already know some of his new colleagues. Rudi, an old friend. And Dr Martinu, his old teacher.
It was brash, big Rudi, a crude man with a head like a rock, who had told him about the gallery position. The Public Galleries had needed a Dutch expert, a Golden Age curator. Martinu had been his reference. A phone interview with a man called Carver had been brief. Carver knew about the Rembrandt letter, and he probably knew, if only vaguely, about The Blue Horse. He had read the articles and seen Newhouse’s papers.
Newhouse folded the letter again and put it back in his coat.
The train had crossed the border. Rain began to lash against it.
He looked out of the wet window at the soaked world. Small white farms glittered like scattered white teeth on brown hills. Low mountains loomed in the rain. Grey and white clouds drifted. Sodden sheep shivered in clumps in hedgeless fields.
The train skirted the black sea. His eyelids closed and he was asleep. His eyes moved over stones and estuaries, smooth rivers and black canals. His heart beat, and his fingers searched. He felt his mind move in shadow, through a veil, a black bead curtain, and into a sudden realm of colour.
He woke up suddenly. The train had pulled into its final station. His head was on the window, wetness around his mouth. He saw a blue night sky and the black edges of a castle on a rocky outcrop, perching over the city. He sat up and felt electric light on his eyes and face. Other passengers were moving. Newhouse squinted and his head felt heavy. The carriage smelled of sweat and cold coffee, damp cotton and silk.
Newhouse waited for people to leave the carriage. He did not want to leave with them. He sat crumpled into his thick black coat until the carriage was empty.
Up above the train station he could see a park, high lithe trees, their upper branches swaying, and a large black memorial. Its gothic fingers were black against the sky. He briefly imagined flames bursting from its spires.
He moved off the train into the cold. People moved and trains shunted and rumbled. In the black rafters of the station, white birds huddled like bunches of pale flowers. A tannoy mumbled as he reached the security barrier and, after finding his crumpled orange ticket, he walked onto the shiny-floored concourse, dragging his cases behind him. There was a taxi queue across the street. He thought of home with a sudden ache. He wanted to turn around, climb over the barriers, and go back.
But there was nothing to go back to. The house, their home, was sold.
I am just hungry, he said to himself, I need sugar. He thought of his sister. She would say: make sure you eat. Make sure you sleep.
He turned on his mobile phone and it slowly came to life. He had a voice message from someone he did not recognise. He ignored it. He had a message from Rudi Hessenmuller. He deleted it. He had a text from his bank. He deleted it. He got in a taxi. An old tune burbled from the cab’s radio.
There was always the work. The contents of his memory, his hands, his knowledge, his experience, his training. He thought of his writing, his folios, his magazines, his catalogues and prints. There was something real there: a game that could be played with colours and words. The taxi moved through the carved ivory streets.
He saw a black figure standing on the street, dark against the crisp stone.
It was a woman, standing on a corner, beside a Belisha beacon. She wore a fur hat and coat. Her face smooth and honed like the back of a spade. She had no eyes, no nose, no mouth. Her hands were black, and held a flex, its plug swinging.
He heard a whisper his head.
Find it, find me. For you, he.
He blinked and opened his eyes but the taxi had moved on, the woman had gone.
I am exhausted, he told himself. My brain is wrong.
The taxi crawled on, and Newhouse looked down at his luggage. He remembered something Ruth’s brother had said:
Tear me into new shapes, God.
Make me into something new.
* * * *
I can hear the sun move, Ruth had said.
It was a good time. She lay on the grass. Her face was white with light, her eyes closed. Newhouse lay his head on her stomach. He looked at her bare feet, the legs of passing people. Light flashed on the windows of trams, whirring as it skirted the eaves of the Vondelpark. People sat in groups. They talked and laughed and ate from picnic boxes, from bags, from plastic bottles and wicker baskets. Couples walked on the grass, between the trees. Children with their parents queued for ice cream.
Newhouse’s cheek lay on Ruth’s stomach, hot and soft. He moved his face to hers, and his shadow fell across her.
She opened her eyes, shielding them with one slim hand.
Hey, she said.
Hey, he said. He kissed her dry lips.
Nothing, she said quietly.
Honey, what time is it, she said. He kissed her neck, moving up to close his lips on the bell of her ear.
The sun warmed his back. His hand held her waist.
That morning, before his meeting, they had made love at the hotel. They had lain on the floor, exhausted, silent like pebbles scoured by the sea. Two smooth, perfect stones, moving together forever under the ocean.
George? she said. His mind returned to the present, the park.
Mmmm. His mouth was still attached to her ear. Her hair tickled his nose and eyes.
Come on, she said. She began to stir. She moved her head to one side, and his face dropped to the grass. He groaned. Their short holiday was over. She had to leave Amsterdam, and he had to work. He had to go to the Rijksmuseum archives and meet Gilda, his assistant. They were working on his first exhibition. It contained most of the surviving works of a minor painter of the Dutch Golden Age, Pieter Van Doelenstraat.
He and Ruth had eaten with Gilda the night before. They’d drunk wine and eaten good food and watched the cobwebs of light shimmer on the canal. They decided on a title for the show: The Missing Mind of Pieter van Doelenstraat. Missing, that is, Gilda had said, from history. Many of his works were now lost and missing, too. And the title, Ruth suggested, suited the mood of the paintings from Doelenstraat’s chilly, elusive Absent Period.
The Absent Period: dark paintings of empty rooms, abandoned kitchens. Empty beds and solemn, silent instruments.
It sums it up, Gilda said. Authoritative, mysterious, decisive, she said.
And it’s far better than Van Doelenstraat: Lust for Glory, Ruth had said.
I was never going to call it that, Newhouse laughed.
And anyway, he said, I wasn’t entirely sure of the seriousness of your own brilliant suggestions. I like the title now. It is nice and snappy.
Gilda had raised an eyebrow. What was your first paper called?
Pieter Van Doelenstraat: The Harmonious yet Distinctive Palette of an Evasive yet Fascinating Minor Dutch artist of the first Dutch Golden Age, Ruth said, before theatrically running out of breath.
That was unfortunate, he said. It was a little long-winded.
Nice and snappy, Ruth said.
Gilda laughed. I’ve read far worse.
No-one cared anyway, Newhouse said. Not the editor, not the blessed f***ing peer reviews. It shows how few people read these masterpieces of prose. We all look inwards, not out.
You’re shocking, Gilda said. Plenty of people care. Dr Martinu does.
Well, he would. He virtually wrote it, Newhouse said.
Ultimately, only about four people cared about that: me, the editor, Hans, and the ghost of Van Doelenstraat, may he rest in many pieces.
George, you live in a constant state of denial, Ruth said, and poured Gilda more wine.
Humanity had vanished from Van Doelenstraat’s Absent Period. But more was missing from the painter’s biography. Not much was known, and much that was known was not defined or confirmed. Even some of his monographed works were disputed. And then there was his Blue Horse, lost forever.
Not even God can change the past, the priest had said. That is why the past exists, to humble even the Creator. As soon as time was born, God knew he was imprisoned, too.
Now, around them, in the summer heat, pouring from a flat blue sky, the park buzzed: cycle bells rattled, cars and trams wheezed and groaned, and on the canals, boats buzzed and slurred their way through the thick green water, the ale-brown expanses.
Stay for another night, Newhouse said. Ruth was looking into her purse, one arm out of her jacket, dark glasses pushed up on her forehead.
George, she said. No. She stood up and brushed tiny flecks of grass from her skirt. She reached into her bag and found her pack of cigarettes and opened it. She pulled a cigarette out and placed it in her mouth.
I would just prefer it if you stayed, he said.
She looked at him. Jesus. What’s the matter with you?
He stood up. They walked to Central Station. Her train was waiting to depart. On the platform he kissed her forehead and held her body tightly.
Be careful, he said.
What’s the matter George, she said. You’re being strange.
Let’s enjoy this moment.
You’re really hung-over, she said, and hugged him hard. She pulled on a small woollen hat and stepped onto the train. With a turn of her shoulders she was gone. Newhouse watched the train haul itself into movement and leave the station like a slow, heavy injection.
He’d turned and walked back into the city. Pulled his phone from his pocket and rang Gilda.
You’re late, she’d said.
I know, I’m sorry, he said, and quickened his step.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Philip Miller is an award-winning journalist and writer. He has been Arts Correspondent for The Scotsman, the Sunday Times Scotland, and the Herald, and has twice been named Arts Writer of the Year. His short stories have been published in the Herald, Gutter Magazine, the Island Review and Head On. His poetry has been published in Gutter, Valve Journal and the 2014 Fish Anthology. This is an extract from The Blue Horse, his first novel, which is published by Freight Books. He lives and works in Glasgow.