Peter Murphy

Lit-Mag #37 
Myself & Others

Personal Space

A short story

‘I’m not here to answer the phone.   I’ll be back soon.  Leave your message after the tone.’

‘Hullo, Ann.  It’s me … remember?  You were talking about an artist you knew the last time we spoke.  I saw the notice about your exhibition and was sure it must be you.  I rang ENQUIRIES and they gave me your details … It’s a busy time for you, I imagine.  I rang last night and left a message but perhaps you came back late.  See you at the launch! …

Hallo, Ann. Me again. I’ve been trying to reach you but I always get the message bank. I feel sure it must be you!

I enjoyed your exhibition – and the building too.  Have you been around the grounds?  I spent about an hour in the garden before going in.  I think it must have been a very old property that fell into disrepair before being re-jigged.

I was impressed by the hedge – like two great arms outstretched in front of the house.  Also, the old vine on the trellis, the remains of the tennis court and that charming pavilion – they were all very nice! It’s odd … but there was almost a hunter’s secrecy in my delight, as I sought out the nooks and crannies of the place, in which so much, though probably of the same kind, has happened over the years.  I sat on a bench in a rose arbour and let it all soak in.

At length, regretfully, I got up and made my way to the house. I expected the front door would open onto the event.  When it finally opened, I was surprised at the absence of noise. I asked if I was in the right place and if they were launching an exhibition.

‘Why don’t you know?’ asked a woman, possibly dressed for a launch. ‘You could be anyone.’

She was right.  I could be anyone – and as I’ve never really known who I am or how far I might go in any direction, I’ve always been very polite, so as not to give the wrong impression.  Consequently, I merely observed,

‘It’s so quiet here!’

She told me it was all happening in a far room.

Opening the door fully, she gestured for me to enter.  There was a long, dim corridor, with light and voices becoming obvious at the other end.  I wandered down it with her somewhere behind me.

When I entered the room in question, I was surprised by the large number of people.  Why were they so quiet?

Well, I was ‘here’ – at last – and yet it was all somehow obscure as other people were appearing from the corridor who hadn’t come in before or after me.  It was then I noticed your pictures and was most impressed but I won’t say anything about that now.  We must get together and talk. You’ve got my number from the last call. At least message me!

Who are you? Why don’t you ever answer? I’ve rung a number of times. I don’t like people not being there. I don’t like messages – AND YOU MUST KNOW I ONLY HEAR ABOUT HALF A MINUTE OF WHATEVER YOU’RE SAYING!

I did ring – again and again – but I still keep getting the message bank.

I might be forgetting what you look like.  I saw you the other day in the mall, or I thought I did, but you didn’t say hallo, so I suppose it wasn’t you or you didn’t see me.  Or perhaps you did?

I thought of coming up and saying hallo, even though it mightn’t be you, but there was this space around you – or the person who seemed to be you – personal space, and you seemed so … removed.  If it wasn’t you and I went up to you, or that person, I’d be intruding.  Space is a shield, I thought.  It seemed least effective against the eyes because, while I could look, I couldn’t approach and as ‘you’ didn’t acknowledge my gaze, I felt sure it couldn’t be you.  In fact, I’m still sure – though, naturally, still open to a second opinion.  No, it couldn’t have been you and it wasn’t.

I’d be grateful if you’d ring to say it wasn’t you.

I did like your pictures but it’s hard to find the words for what I have in mind right now.

Upon returning home on the night of your exhibition, I dreamt about leaving it.  In this dream I left the gallery in the late afternoon rather than in the evening, and took a wrong turn.

Instead of going out by the way I came in I veered to the left and approached a long, single-storey building I hadn’t seen before.  Upon entering it, hoping for directions, I heard someone say,

‘We have readings here … but because we’re not part of the other place they think they don’t have to care.’

It was dark in there.  The person who spoke was at the edge of a pool, which virtually filled the whole place and was overflowing down the steps outside.  When I came out none the wiser about where to go, the sun was shining brightly.  I sensed what might be the right direction but wasn’t sure – and kept on going.

I seemed to have been walking forever. Though no more than gently curved, the path seemed to go round in an immense circle.

The foliage around me kept changing.  From time to time I tried to penetrate it but each time, only a few feet in from a dense screen of leaves, I was confronted by a high wire fence that might have been electrified.  Though the foliage was mature and seemed to have been cut and shaped over years, the galvanised wire was bright and there weren’t any flecks of vegetable matter in the joins.

I decided to turn back.

At first I thought this was a mistake but changed my mind when I found myself, almost immediately, back where I’d started.  I felt as if I hadn’t been anywhere – and no sooner had I returned than I saw an exit that hadn’t been there before, or, at least, not for me.

It was a remarkable exit.  I can’t imagine how I came to miss it, unless it was more visible to those approaching than to those passing.  On the right side of the path, there was a block of flats, outside of which stood a large block of numbered letterboxes, neat as bee-boxes.  To the left of these I noticed a glassed-in entrance area through which I could see a glass door on the other side looking out onto a road.

I had scarcely looked through it than I was walking out by it.  When I was out on the other side I thought of you.  There was one thing about your exhibition I wasn’t going to mention: you were late for the launch.

When I became aware of this a number of possible reasons occurred to me – one, in particular, being that you might wish to dramatize your presence by first making people aware of your absence.  Indeed, in the growing anticipation, some who knew you partially compensated for your absence by exchanging details about you.  A subtle haze of gossip began to fill the room just as, about fifteen years ago, cigarette smoke might have, and, out of this, at some unexpected point, you emerged – in the flesh.

It was your night and you were a creature set apart, the artist.  As people pointed to or spoke about your work, they looked in your direction, or half-looked, almost covertly, as if the link with your presence created by such glances gave a peculiar force to their comments. ‘The artist’ was clearly of much more interest to some of your guests than your creations.  Indeed, for them there was something electrifying about you – you, the darling of the evening.  I thought of the lives of the saints – and the faithful, who only wanted to touch the hem of their garments.

I considered having a word with you before I left but as I thought you might not recognise me and, in any case, would be engaged in promoting your work, I left without saying hallo.

Thanks for the interest in my paintings.  It can’t have been me you didn’t think you saw. If I know you, I would have known you – whoever you are!

You’d know me, Ann. You know me. Me!

Anyway …  I’m pleased it wasn’t you.  I can’t believe how well you’re doing.  Yesterday I was on my way to a concert at an old church hall when I noticed a gallery a few doors down was launching an exhibition.  I decided to drop in and was astonished to find it was yet another of yours!

So many images in so short a time – but what are they saying?  I suppose I like to know this because my life is bound up with words.  Of course, they don’t have to mean much and you only need a little meaning – but you do need that.

The empty glasses and the trays with just a few nuts or cubes of cheese announced that the speeches had ended before my arrival.  I listened to what people were saying about you and your work.  Why is it always words with me, pictures with you?

It was with this in mind that I slipped out of the gallery and made my way to the concert – only to pause, like a number of other concert-goers approaching the entrance, at the sight of a girl in her mid-teens staggering about outside.  She bumped into a group of three who, caught up in their conversation, brushed away her arm without noticing.  She slipped and fell towards me.  Catching her in a reflex action, I held her for an instant, shocked by her white lips, which might have been trying to say something, before my grip slipped and she fell forward, colliding with someone coming out of the hall, and hit the ground.

As I stepped back instinctively it occurred to me that I could do something … but what?  As this thought temporarily checked me other concert-goers paused also and hung around and stared down at the white, apparently lifeless face, till the person selling tickets stepped out to see what was happening, coming up short when he saw the girl.

Swearing briefly under his breath, he hurried to the girl and, signalling to someone inside, went into First Aid mode like a professional.  There must have been a protocol in this matter because the ambulance couldn’t have appeared more briskly if it had been parked around the corner and, in the twinkling of an eye, the girl disappeared and the ambulance with her – and everything returned to normal.  At a similarly fluid and swift pace, the ticket salesperson rose from the ground and retreated through the entrance like a moth sucked into a vacuum cleaner.  Then, as if released from a spell, the concertgoers broke out of their freeze and followed him into the hall.

Still a little beside myself, I followed them, but couldn’t really concentrate on the concert.

It was a relaxed performance put on by the music faculty of a nearby university, combining the efforts of staff and students.  This was followed by a brief and enthusiastic history of the hall and a call for donations for its restoration by a lively, middle-aged woman in a green dress.  She spoke as if the place had gone missing and had only recently been found and venerated once again.  Looking up at the vast, ugly chandeliers, far away in the ceiling, I sensed the paradoxical nature of treasuring and preservation.  On either side to the stage, two huge electric fans confronted and bore down on the audience like an emblem of what had come very close to destroying the place.  The great wire visors that came between humanity and the blades were redolent of medieval armour.

Without doubt the chief feature of the place was the pressed metal cladding – lurid and extravagant – over the ceiling and the balcony, the general shape around the balcony suggesting a woman’s breast.  The impact of all this was unsettling on account of its scale. From where I was sitting, it hit me like a slap in the face.

Strange as it was – indeed, because it was so strange – I was temporarily bewitched by the scale and mystery of the place. Looking above me at metre upon metre of pressed metal that might have seemed sumptuous once, I felt something of the urgent pursuits of previous times, and thought about how my own activities might appear in the eyes of others – before dozing off as a kind of brief respite from the troubling sensations of the evening.

I seem to be in a vacuum here, Ann.  I still haven’t really heard from you, to say nothing of speaking with you face to face … in the same room … together.  If I don’t hear from you soon, this will have to be my last … communication.

Whoever you are, DON’T, repeat, DON’T ring again! I’m sure now. I DON’T know you! And my name’s not Ann! And I never had another one!

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