This scene takes place in a fictional underground cave situated beneath the old Buckle St Museum, in Wellington, where the main character, Vincent, has found himself living with his ex-lover, Marianne, and a landlord-bully, Walsh. In this scene Vincent is attempting to make a sketch of Walsh in preparation for a portrait of him.
‘Do you like nature, Vincent?’
Walsh snorted. ‘You suppose. What sort of answer is that?’
‘I like nature.’
He flared his nostrils and sniffed, as if capturing some passing thought as a scent. ‘You see, I believe, like many of the great scientists of the nineteenth century, that we can learn a lot about ourselves from watching nature.’
I observed that although Walsh was an ugly man, he was not without a certain charm due to his solidity and confidence.
‘Do you read, Vincent?’
‘Mmm,’ he said, waving his finger at me. ‘But do you read exhaustively?’
‘Ah…’ I tried not to listen to him. I sketched in the place where his ear would be. His cauliflower ear.
Walsh rolled his eyes. ‘Let me tell you what I’ve learned from books. There’s the insect world – the cockroach, the flea – ha! What marvellous survivors. Hard working, gifted reproducers, they live to reproduce; in a way, that’s their only business. And this single-minded focus one must admire – but we’re human, are we not? We have other things we’re driven to do. Non-essential activities.’ He pointed at me, ‘Paint as you do, or read, as I do.
‘Let me tell you, Vincent, my favourite of all creatures is the mole. The humble mole.’
I looked at him then, my pencil poised above the canvas. ‘The mole,’ I said.
‘They’re underground creatures. They have extra thumbs don’t you know. Polydactyl. Which makes one wonder if the mole might be the underground equivalent of the human. Have you ever eaten one?’
‘The taste is said to be extremely unpleasant.’ He shook his head.
‘A mole’s blood is different to ours. You see, the mole has to live with low levels of oxygen for a long time. It is usual that in a lifetime some will never surface. So a mole reuses its own oxygen – imagine that Vincent! The ultimate in recycling. They don’t need to drink water, their kidneys are so efficient. They don’t need sunlight. The other crucial thing about the mole is that it is practically blind. Everyone knows this, probably even you. But, poor misrepresented mole – in stories it is only ever bumbling and nearsighted, as if the mole was a benign old man telling misremembered war stories and stumbling around his living room searching for his glasses. What a disservice to one of the animal kingdom’s most beautifully evolved killing machines. I understand their confusion. The eyes of the mole are practically invisible, as are its ears – tits on a bull. So why even bother to give the creature eyes if it wasn’t going to use them? Could it be that this creature has evolved into something different from what the Great Maker had in mind? Perhaps its eyes are a reminder that it has surpassed God’s beautiful idea into something undreamt of. So it is that the simple mole makes God’s imagination seem a pale, wasted thing, incapable of guessing in which direction an idea would run. Poor God, who made the world, then dumped it in His bottom drawer.
‘Vincent, the mole may have eyes that can’t see, it may not even hear much, but it is acutely sensitive to disturbances, changes in its burrow. The instant something falls into a mole’s tunnel – like a worm – the mole knows it is there, it feels its presence by vibration. And you know what it does? The mole paralyses the worm with its toxic saliva. It doesn’t kill it, just suspends it in time, keeps it so that later it is fresh enough to eat, but not alive enough to crawl away. Clever, no?’
Walsh stopped and poured another glass of his brown liquor, drank it and sat back to watch me. His speech gathered in a fog over my head. I’d kept my pencil on the canvas and drawn his ear. The punctured lobe was in. The wind-torn petals of the ear’s helix and anti-helix.
After a while he said, ‘So has she told you where she goes?’
‘Am I the worm?’ I said.
He ignored me. ‘Are you avoiding the question?’
‘Am I the worm?’
‘Do you think you’re the worm?’
I held my pencil away from the canvas and we looked at each other for a while. He said, ‘We’re all worms, Vincent. The question is: who’s the mole?’
He poured again, gulped. I moved to the nose, a pugilist’s nose, and like his ears, misshapen. A once grand, cock of a nose, evolved to an unevenly bulbous tuber.
‘So if Marianne hasn’t told you where she goes and what she does, what on earth do you talk about?’
‘It’s none of your business.’
‘I think she knows the truth, deep down I think she knows.’
‘It’s not for me to say, Vincent. It’s none of my business. You should just carry on with your painting. I’ll talk to myself because I get more out of that than I do from talking to you.’
He hummed and little and I sketched. He was contrary, his face full of changing weather, and soon enough a cloud came to pass over his eyes, casting them in shadow. He breathed, sharp and laboured. And then, because he was a man whose thoughts needed to be formed out loud, he spoke again.
‘Haven’t you ever considered why humans need these myths and fables about our origins, indeed about the very place in which we find ourselves? Why do we make these up stories, and then remake them over again, constantly, like we only know three different songs? What are we trying to do by replaying them? What do we want? Or could it be that we’re being driven by want, that we don’t have a particular quest in mind, just a relentless force in us that blindly pushes us on as if there was some promised gold. Vincent – where does all this longing come from?’ He stopped and took a breath. ‘You paint because you want to understand something – and you’re so naive that you’re not even sure what it is you want to understand, but you do it anyway, because you feel you have to. What’s driving you to paint, Vincent? What’s pushing you? Where is the end in all this? Where is the fucking end?’
Underpinning his monologue was a despair that I recognised. Walsh was talking about the imponderable problem behind the art of the world. What was the point of making these marks?
‘It doesn’t matter what we think, what fresh bunch of shit we might posit about our origins, it’s pointless don’t you think? This idea that a painting might tell us something about this cunt of a world?’
‘That’s not why I’m painting you.’
‘Why are you fucking painting me?’
‘Because you told me to. And you’re a big man.’
He laughed. ‘I am a big man. And sometimes Vincent, you can be a funny guy. I like you best when you’re being funny. But you misunderstand what it is you do. You’re painting to find out something, why else would you, would you…’
He was slurring now, making nonsense. But he stayed in his seat, continued to be my subject and I worked on him, which is all I knew to do down there. He didn’t talk. Then, he stood up, fell back down, stood up again and came towards me, one hand on the edge of his desk to steady himself. He waved a finger in my face.
‘I’m not bloody sitting any longer.’
I lifted my pencil. The face was almost in, enough to start painting.
‘We’re almost there.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘Another time.’
‘You asked me to do this.’ I was frustrated, dangled and flung by this puppet master.
He came over and stood beside me swaying, surveyed his face so far. He threw his hand in the direction of the canvas. ‘You’ve missed a bit.’
‘Don’t judge it yet, we’ve barely started.’
He was facing me now, unsteady, with that giant map of a face in mine.
‘She doesn’t know does she?’
‘But you do.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘Marianne. She doesn’t know she’s dead.’
I recoiled. He was so blatant.
‘The sooner she faces up to it, the better.’ He made it sound like it was a debt she’d been ignoring.
‘She’s too…’ I stopped. I didn’t want to talk about her to him. The whole thing was too fragile.
I didn’t speak.
‘Oh come on! Don’t be afraid. Nothing you say will change it. Dead is dead, Vinny-boy.’
I stopped sketching. It is an impossible task to represent a man using only a pencil.
We became silent and as if a pause button had been hit, utterly still, facing each other. Such a scene might stretch on for a long time. Then the sound came, slowly at first and I wondered whether I could actually hear anything. I caught the echo of it and I saw him tilt his head so that his ear was to the ground. We knew we both could hear it, a hum, a rumble, a vibration that seemed to come from deep beneath our feet, that was held within the rock, as a soon-to-be-released energy, as a gaseous core that was approaching a kind of birth, as the roll and roar of a far-off train coming closer, coming to us through the black night. Walsh raised his eyebrows and nodded and straightened himself, as if he had just woken. He sang soft and low.
‘I hear that train a coming,’ he sang. ‘It’s coming round the bend,’ he sang to me, ‘And I ain’t seen the sunshine, since I don’t know when…’
Then he trailed off, shook his head and pulled himself upright. He was steady on his feet now, as if the drunkenness had been an act. He pointed at me.
‘That’s the sound of your own doubt. You ask her about it. Despite what she says, I know she hears it too.’
Then he turned from me.
I packed up my box and left.