I have always liked a few drinks and especially around the festive period, but a year ago, after Hogmanay, I decided to give up alcohol altogether. However, that Christmas a friend had given me a bottle of Malbec he had brought back from Buenos Aires and also a pack with four sample-sized bottles of port in it. I appreciated the gifts, I said, and announced they would be drunk before New Year - I was going dry. Helen and I were sitting having a Christmas Eve dinner with the friend, Sam and his partner Elly. We (mainly Sam and I) were on our third bottle of wine when we opened the presents, and I saw that my incipient tee-total life would involve still more drinking in the time before it. Elly asked why this change and I said I had the feeling I needed to cut back in my life. They knew had given up meat a couple of years earlier and knew also that I had given up just before Christmas my teaching job in a secondary school. I was still available for supply teaching, but full-time work never left me any time to paint and Helen and I had discussed the idea, sat and worked out our finances, and with an average of two days' supply teaching a week we could still live well enough. I am not sure if I believed giving up alcohol would save very much money, but somehow being tee-total and vegetarian made me feel I was living more essentially. I offered this proposition to Sam and Elly with a little irony on my part but was met with rather more on Sam's. He looked at me as though I was adopting the dangerous language of sanctimoniousness, and said that while he didn't mind that from now on, when I was around for dinner, it would be veggie bake and cranberry juice, he hoped my sense of humour wouldn't abstemiously disappear along with the meat and the wine. Elly gave him a poke and said she was glad I was willing to focus more on painting. While Elly and Helen both enjoyed what they were doing without feeling at all reckless in doing it (Elly taught Yoga and Helen primary school kids) Sam was the one who made it clear that he decided he wanted to make money even if he wasn't incapable of making literature. Some years ago, at the age of twenty-five, he published a novel that managed three of four reviews in Scottish papers and journals but sold only a few hundred copies, and that was enough to convince him to pursue a more plausible path to prosperity. He became an estate agent and in the process of renting other people's properties also bought along the way a few of his own, making more than enough on the rental to cover any mortgage payments, even on fifteen-year loans.
I sensed over that Christmas Eve dinner that Sam didn't know whether to resent me, admire me or ridicule me and moved between the three as though trying to find a position that would stick. He had always believed in what he called the good life and was someone who never seemed to have qualms over anything. When we were at university together if a girl was willing to go to bed with him he didn't at all concern himself with the why, even if on occasion I could see when we were out together that the person he was trying to seduce was acquiescing because she was looking to get over someone rather than get into bed with someone. She needed a shoulder to cry on more than another's bed to sleep in, and the next day, or the next time I saw him, when I asked what happened with the person he went home with, had he seen her again and was she okay, he looked at me with a smile that indicated I should ask her mum or dad, or perhaps a best friend. His job was to pursue his pleasure; their job was to stop him if they wished to do so. He was no pest, never cajoled anybody into a situation that they didn't seem to want as much as he did, and who was I to decide that all the motives had to be entertained as well as the acquiescence he was happy with? What people liked about Sam was that he made things happen and now what he made happen was property development. How could I complain: several years back he rented to me at below market rates, the flat Helen and I still live in?
Sam and Elly's house was on Park Circus and we winded our way down through Kelvingrove Park and towards our flat on Otago Street, I said Sam appeared a bit irritated with my latest decision. Helen thought I should see it from his point of view: there he was giving me alcohol for Christmas and there I was telling him I was soon to give it up. I was surprised; she wasn't usually inclined to take Sam's side, had on occasion expressed astonishment that we were such close friends, and probably wouldn't have been likely to have accepted Sam as our landlord had I not already been in the flat before we had met.
We didn't see them again until after New Year. Helen and I stayed in the city and had half a dozen friends round for a buffet and drinks. It was about as many as we could fit into a flat that had a dining room/sitting room, a kitchen big enough to fit a two-person table in it, and a bedroom that managed to allow room for a desk that Helen corrected homework on. Most importantly for me, it had an attic space that I accessed through a narrow spiral staircase from the sitting room, and that was precisely the size of the rest of the flat, though the sloping walls on one side made it appear smaller. It had two skylights and I got as much sun light as Glasgow could provide. That evening we drank our way through enough bottles of wine for two trips to the bottle bank the next day, but I forgot about Sam's present and there was the wine and the port still in the bag we took them home in.
I mentioned to Helen that we forgot to drink them; she said while she would be happy to drink the wine sometime, the port I could perhaps give as a present to someone else. She giggled as she said this; it was the sort of remark that was out of character and yet it was the second within only a few days and yet on the same subject. I said she understood Sam's feeling of offence and now indicated I should add to it by giving the port away to someone else. She said she was joking and, anyway, that he need never know. Even giving it to a friend who all for of us knew, what would the chances be that Sam would ever know that his Christmas gift had been passed on? I said that I was sure I'd have the occasional drink in the future and might just keep the port and wine for that moment and share them with Sam, proof of a certain type of friendship.
I wouldn't claim that our friendship was based on alcohol, but a lot of it revolved around drinking, even if the booze happened to be a minor aspect of the event. Sure, in our early and mid-twenties, at university and afterwards, we went out most weekends, usually with a few others, but sometimes it was just the two of us it may have been midweek for a European cup game; Saturday afternoon for a domestic match; a summer's afternoon or early evening watching the World Cup or Wimbledon. Here we'd go and watch a football game (or tennis match) rather than go for a pint; the beer was merely an accompaniment. At weekends alcohol was the thing. But in more recent years we'd still occasionally watch a game, and share a dinner with a bottle of wine, but we'd also play a game of tennis and afterwards get a coffee, or go up north and climb some hills, a hot chocolate afterwards as likely as a whisky. Surely it would be easy enough for our friendship to continue in the absence of anything of beer or spirit.
For the first couple of months of the year, I saw Sam only once. I had a flu bug that wasn't so terrible; it didn't keep me constantly in bed but left me reluctant to leave the flat except picking up the essentials. Helen had it too but it lasted only a few days, and Helen was both more robust and a more careful eater than I happened to be, each morning diligently making herself what she called a citrus delight. It usually consisted of a lemon, a lime and two oranges squeezed into a standard 175ml wine glass that somehow never overflowed. She drank it accompanied by a banana and a green tea, and that was her breakfast. Anyway, by the time I recovered, Sam was away again, this time in the south of France, thinking of buying a couple of properties in a village in which Sam and Elly had holidayed the previous summer. When he returned he then came down with a cold, and though he recovered much more quickly than me, it wasn't until March that we met up again.
It was probably no greater a gap of time than during various past summers but it felt longer, perhaps because we usually saw so much of each other through the winter, or because when we met that early March evening to watch a European Cup quarter-final, he was sitting with a pint of ale, and I was drinking a tomato juice, its bitter bloodiness suggesting a vampiric tipple that I couldn't pretend I was enjoying. It was the first time I'd been out to a pub since my renunciation and Sam showed the same disdain, perhaps even sense of offence, that he had shown me on Christmas Eve. As he went to the bar to get another pint he asked if he could persuade me to drink something that would bring a smile to my face rather than a sour expression to it, and I said I'd be okay. I still had half the tomato juice in front of me and I insisted he should just get himself a pint. It seemed that everything was permeated by my sobriety even though the team we supported won and were through to the semi-finals. As I watched our star player remove his top and swap with an opponent, less I felt to show camaraderie with his opposite number than to propose his body as a calling card for an aftershave commercial, so I noticed I hadn't been involved in the game, I was observing it. Afterwards, we agreed to watch the semi-final together but Sam didn't contact me, and I didn't phone or text him. I watched the first leg at home with a cup of tea.
I still didn't feel I'd quite recovered from the flu that winter and as Easter approached I suggested to Helen that we should get away during the break, saying maybe we could rent the apartment for a week through a rental system that had become very popular and seemed safe. So off we went for ten days to the south of Spain, enjoying temperatures in the mid-twenties, and leaving our flat in the company of a couple of Americans in their mid-twenties who looked like they were unlikely to be giving up alcohol any time soon As we showed them around the apartment, explaining how things worked, they seemed keener to know about the pubs in the area and about the best nightclubs in the city.
We stayed mainly in Grenada, in an apartment that seemed like a crypt: the contrast between the temperature outside and inside was pronounced and at night we slept with the added blanket our hosts left on the chair, a coarse, mohair throw that kept us warm but had a habit of tickling our chin as we pulled it up against our shoulders. But the days were hot and several times we lay in our bathing suits by the river that runs through the city, even once dipping into the shallow water. Over the ten days, the cold eased its way out of my bones, the pain in the shoulder when I would do pull-ups and the phlegm that I'd keep clearing much to Helen's annoyance disappeared. Helen said she had felt that any tight muscles had been warmed by the sun and near the end of the trip as she lay on her front as I massaged her shoulders more out of tenderness she insisted upon rather than a knot she wished me to eradicate, she said letting the flat had been a wonderful idea. I concurred, before thinking: I hope they left the flat in the condition in which they found it.
We returned and everything seemed fine. The sink had a few residues of vegetables and noodles, the cooker had been wiped but not cleaned, and there was a smell of egg when we turned the electric hob on to make an omelette after we got back, but nothing that indicated we shouldn't rent it again, so that summer we went away for three weeks, paid someone fifteen per cent to wash the sheets, replace the towels and give the guests the keys, and went to Ireland for a week before flying from Dublin to Zadar for a fortnight. When I'd given up full-time teaching I worried that Helen might miss the extras but here we were managing still to travel once more, spending on accommodation what we were gaining from the apartment. We were, in turn, staying in flats people were renting out and this saved us money on food as we usually ate in. Apart from the flights we really weren't spending that much more money than when in Glasgow. I was pleased that so soon after leaving the job we'd found a solution to our more straitened circumstances.
A friend who Sam and I had known at university, now teaching in Cork, came to see us in Dublin. He was thinking of coming up to Dublin anyway for a conference; since I'd be there that would be all the better and he then had two excuses to escape a tyrannical two-year-old and a wife who doted a little too fondly on that bundle of overly bustling energy. He had met Helen once before when he was over in Glasgow three years earlier, but only briefly: she and Elly joined the three of us for a drink before the ladies went their way and we continued drinking till late into the night. This time, they got to know each other a little better as Helen and I invited him round to our studio rental accommodation, cooking him a simple meal since we didn't want to use the host's condiments and didn't see the point in buying our own for one meal. The dish was pasta, pesto out of a jar, some lightly roasted pine kernels sprinkled on top and a salad. Declan bought a bottle of wine but when I said I was off alcohol, and Helen said she would only have a drink to be polite, we left it unopened. Nevertheless, the three of us talked till one in the morning, a chat that Helen might have retreated from earlier if there had been another room to retire to, but instead she stayed and I sensed by the end of the evening that she knew Declan better than she knew Sam, or rather if she knew Sam any better it rested on what Declan had to say about him.
Declan had always seemed to know Sam better than I did; they drank together far more often at university, and for years afterwards also before Declan moved back to Ireland. While he wasn't as cynical as Sam he had a much better sense of humour than I possessed, so he could run with Sam's harsh appraisals of others, his belief in an evolutionary psychology that needs to acknowledge our behaviour is just a flimsy excuse for our deeper needs and desires, giving Sam a humorous sense of perspective where I usually offered righteousness and counter-facts. Declan instead would say that since Sam was in the process of making a lot of money then it made sense that he found a belief that was consistent with his philosophy. What better an underpinning ethos than that people were base creatures interested in narrow self-interest, however diluted? A much more sensible take on life than making compassion paramount, surely. That can come later, Declan would joke, when you have made your fortune, as guilt intrudes and old age beckons, then you can become a philanthropist and get your ego stroked all over again. Sam laughed loudly at this while when we argued usually a vein that ran down the centre of his forehead became more pronounced: he would say I may have facts to hand but what is that next to money in the bank? As Declan, Helen and I talked that night I think she understood for the first time what her reservations about Sam consisted of, even if we all acknowledged that his philanthropy came earlier than we might have expected. Wasn't he renting an apartment to Helen and me at well-below market rates, and Declan acknowledged that, as the godfather to his son, Sam had opened an account that he regularly put money into so that his parents needn't skimp on the boy's education?
The mention of the apartment I noticed that night made Helen nervous: we hadn't told Sam we were sub-letting it and he might have been understandably angry that we were making money off the back of his generosity. I am not sure if we hadn't told him out of secrecy or because we hadn't really seen him over those last few months. It somehow seemed too formal, or too subservient, to write and ask his permission. I suppose I might have told him over a pint if I was still drinking, or if he didn't mind my sober company. Helen the next morning wondered if we shouldn't have told Declan that we were renting out the Glasgow flat, or at least told him not to mention it to Sam. I said if Sam found out that way then perhaps it was for the best: I couldn't face writing to him. To do so somehow would have been to acknowledge the end of the friendship and the start of a purely business arrangement an arrangement Sam might then have understandably made a still more business one.
We then flew on to Split, took a winding, early evening bus up to Zadar, going along treacherously craggy roads and through crepuscular tunnels, before arriving at the station, taking a short bus trip to what we assumed was the city, and then crossed a brightly lit bridge that took us into the walled town. It was night time and as we wheeled our suitcases towards our destination, shops, cafe and restaurants came to life in front of us, a mood of relaxed, vacational possibility permeated the faces and places, and I knew we couldn't have been here if it hadn't been for the chance to rent the flat. I would have an occasional lurch in my stomach when thinking this. I was unsure whether it lay in what might be happening in my absence in a flat that was owned by what increasingly seemed like a former best friend, or whether it was an awareness that without letting it Helen and I would be back in Glasgow, spending a summer in drizzle punctuated by sunshine but with never enough of the latter to justify why we shouldn't have tried to go somewhere else. Zadar was enchanting indeed, but I also found myself wondering about the people who were subletting our apartment, whether they were feeling mild anxiety about Paris, Berlin or New York worrying if the people in their apartment were looking after it, snooping around inside it, or understandably just trying to live in it as if were their own place.
The day after we arrived, we drank a coffee in a cafe down a side street next to a square the sun was too strong for Helen and she wanted the protection of more than a cover and felt secure with a wall protecting us from the sun. Later in the afternoon, we walked along the walls of the city, through a park and then walked beyond the city walls and for a couple of miles towards another port, stopping on the way back, now the sun was quite weak, to swim for half an hour in the sea. Afterwards, we found a cafe to watch the sun go down and each night thereafter, as Helen drank her coffee and read her book, I sat and sketched the famous Zadar sunsets. Helen said she could live here; it felt like home. I thought to myself it was a pity we didn't know anybody who might rent it to us at a special rate, and then again felt that lurching response when I now thought about Sam and the flat in Glasgow.
When we returned, the flat was more or less in the state we left it but with about a dozen wine bottles on the kitchen sideboard, and a carrier bag full of empty beer cans. The final guest had left the night before we arrived back, and we'd said to the person who was looking after it for us that she needn't come in after the last guests left; we'd change the sheets and so on ourselves. Helen and I were relieved that there was little tidying to do but wondered whether the final guests had held a party or just drank copiously. Yet the port and the wine were still there.
It was about a month after our return from Zadar that Helen and I went to see a film at the cinema on Ashton Lane and then went on to a party quite near our flat. The film finished just after ten o'clock, and I said what could we bring now the off-licences were closed? She joked that now I'd given up alcohol there wasn't even anything in the house I could take. It was a teacher friend, Gerry, from the school I used to work in, the only one I'd kept in contact with over the last eight months. She joked that now I'd given up alcohol there wasn't even anything in the house I could take. I smiled at her and said the fact that I'd given up alcohol meant there was indeed some in the house: the bottles of port and the bottle of wine. We walked back along Great George Street to the flat, and then went back out and along Great Western Road to the party. The flat where Gerry lived was a two-floor apartment bought when house prices were cheaper and when Gerry and Jenny had been teaching just a few years. They were now in their early sixties, close to retirement and indicated, in the apartment they owned, the two children they brought up, and the travelling they did over the years, that teaching was not an unremunerative profession. We had been to the flat a couple of time before, but not since I'd given up full-time teaching and I found myself as we put our jackets on the bed in one of the flat's four bedrooms, thinking that Helen might muse resentfully over the choices I had made. I'd sold several paintings since giving up the full-time post, but not really many more than when teaching permanently. Sure, I was painting far more now, but that was important to me; I couldn't pretend that selling the work wouldn't be of import to Helen.
Over the evening I was asked several times how I was coping since giving up the job: were the paintings selling well; was I getting enough supply work? I noticed often anxiety in the asking and occasionally envy in the tone. How many people that night wouldn't have given up their job if they could; how many were more inclined to love their jobs quite as much as Helen did? I knew Gerry and Jenny enjoyed teaching secondary school kids but would they have done so if they were entering the profession now, with low salaries making it harder to get a mortgage, and demands placed upon the teachers much greater than thirty years ago? I talked about some of these things to Gerry that evening as he explained he had always found time to write but now wondered whether he could if he were a young teacher: could he keep a full-time job and still write novels? He had published five and I'd read a couple of them, and before I'd taught with him. One of the books was what you'd call a minor classic a novel about a boy growing up on the West coast of Scotland in a fishing village. The other was far less well-known but impacted on me much more: it was about a thirty-year-old teacher who leaves his wife and two young children to travel and write, returning to them a year later contrite and disillusioned but aware he couldn't have done otherwise. Ever since teaching with Gerry I'd wanted to ask him whether the book was based on fact but never quite found the opportunity, or rather never quite found the necessary impertinence. How can you ask someone about their breakdown, which is exactly what the book explored? As I looked around the apartment, with its sixty-plus guests, its thousands of books, its paintings (including one of my own), its worn, elegant furniture, I saw a life that had been chosen well, but could it have been chosen differently?
As we were leaving, I said I was surprised Sam hadn't come. I'd introduced Sam and Gerry to each other a couple of years back and they became good friends partly on the basis of the fine malts they would drink together. There was a bar in the West End the pair of them would go to every month or so, and they'd get merry on a medley of Lagavulin, Ardbeg and Talisker. They were the names I remembered them talking about but there were probably much finer malts still, yet as someone who's never liked whisky, the names will have escaped me. Gerry said Sam was away. He and Elly had booked a restaurant months ago for a table at a Michelin star restaurant on Skye. He said he was surprised I didn't know, then seemed to have a thought to himself and insisted we take back with us at least the bottle of wine or the bottles of port people brought so much alcohol he said that it would take them a year to get through it. After all, he said to me, you haven't been drinking anything. Precisely why I shouldn't take it with me, I said, but he insisted that I take the wine to the next party I attended in a gesture that seemed to be acknowledging my financial circumstances without at all patronising me in the process. I said he could keep the port and I would take the wine. He admitted he did like a glass after a fine meal.
On the way home Helen said she was a bit worried that people were beginning to look down on us, seeing us as too impoverished to be treated as equals. She said it with more sorrow than anger and I told her the story of Gerry's book, about a teacher who for a year tried a different life. By the end of the discussion, as we arrived at the front door, she kissed me as though we were on a first date, and said that I'd made the right choice not only for myself but for the pair of us.
Between September and Christmas, I had never been more productive, producing work after work, even if I had little idea of where I would sell it, when I got a call from Sam. I hadn't seen him since March, but Helen and Elly began meeting every few weeks for a coffee and Helen must have said I had been very busy. Sam said to Elly, who said to Helen, who said to me, that he knew some people who were interested in purchasing contemporary work by little know artists painters who had a bit of a reputation but weren't at all established. They had built up collections over the years on this basis, and had work by six or seven now well-known Scottish artists whose work they had bought at what would now be considered a bargain. I knew Sam wanted to help and supposed also that this was his way of trying to reinvigorate the friendship, but when I phoned him, and as he talked, all I could hear on the other end of the line was a businessman who had no interest in the art in the least. He didn't ask what I was working on, whether I'd changed my approach at all, whether I was working in oil or acrylics. He said nothing about the craft and technique. Yet he wanted to help, I was sure, and so I agreed to meet the two art collectors, and himself, in the apartment, one afternoon the following week. The three of them arrived and while I expected the two men to be as extravagantly comfortable as Sam happened to be, dressed as he was in what a better eye than mine would have been able to call a suit by a particular designer, the two collectors, who were at least well into their sixties, seemed to have no interest in the sartorial. Their appearance suggested their interest in the aesthetic was about canvases in front of their eyes, not their appearance in front of a mirror. I liked them more than I expected, and they asked all the questions I had hoped Sam would have asked when we talked on the phone. In my mind, I was going to show them the paintings quickly, offer no hospitality and be pleased when they left. But instead, I insisted they must have something to drink and when I looked around the flat the only bottle, of course, was the one Sam had bought me the previous Christmas and that I had brought back from Gerry's. Would he be pleased or insulted if I were to propose it? Instead, when I did, he said he should have picked up a couple of bottles himself, and that we really ought to keep the Malbec for just the two us when I finally decided to have a drink again. It wasn't an especially great bottle but it had accumulated sentimental value, he joked. The two men looked a bit puzzled, insisted that a cup of tea would be fine, as they continued looking at a dozen canvases I had laid out in the dining area and the sitting room. Sam gave me an unusual look that suggested we needed to talk later, and I smiled, seeing in his face one of concern that sometimes reveals the presence of friendship far more than any gift.
By the end of the meeting it was clear they liked the work I was doing, and between them asked me to put three aside they wished to buy. I hadn't priced any of them and Sam said that I wouldn't sell a painting for less than 2,000 and that within a year or two that would seem very cheap indeed. They said that wasn't unfair. They asked if I had more work to show them and off we went up the narrow winding staircase to the attic. I put on the studio sidelight, the switch next to the stairs, and, watching as they negotiated the small, steep steps, I saw that they were probably well into their seventies and it moved me that they were interested enough in art that they were willing to look a little ridiculous in their determination to witness it. I followed them up and turned on the overhead lights that I used when the sunlight had faded. There were canvasses backed against canvasses and they bent over, determined to look at everything in the room. At that moment I felt I would have given them paintings for free if they wanted them. I felt moved almost to tears that two men who might understandably have been fretting about their mortality instead continued their search for immortality in the form of art. That they regarded my work as part of this search was as great a compliment as I may ever receive.
That afternoon they left with six canvases and I made 12,000. They paid in cash, insisting that I send them an invoice, and both also gave me their business cards, took my number and said that they wanted to follow my progress. After they had gone, Sam said that surely this was the moment for a little celebration; that finally we should open the bottle he'd given me the previous Christmas. I couldn't easily disagree and didn't wish to; I was relieved that he wasn't too upset that I had proposed we share it with the dealers: it was the only alcohol I had in the house. Not at all, he said and so we unscrewed the lid and poured the liquid into two wine glasses. Sam sat there waiting for me to take a sip first and, on doing so, I spat the contents straight back into the glass. Instead of looking startled that I seemed to have such an aversion now to booze, Sam smiled, aware, somehow, of what happened to be in the bottle, and knowing, by my reaction, that I didn't. It was stale, cold coffee that I had tasted, and I asked how he seemed to know what was in there. Had he tricked me at Christmas, as if aware I was giving up booze and making a little joke of it by putting in coffee instead? At that moment I thought of the port I'd given to Gerry; was there coffee in the four miniatures as well? Sam, as though reading my mind, said that yes there was coffee in the port too. But why, I asked, why the trick? He said it wasn't a trick he had played on me but that someone else clearly had. Confused, I asked him to explain.
He said that a couple of weeks ago he met up with Gerry for their monthly whisky evening and Gerry said that something very odd had happened. He had decided one night to have a port after dinner and opened one of the four that I had left him with at the party Sam had missed. As Gerry drank from the first, his mouth spluttered back out the viscous liquid and he then checked the other bottles. All four had been filled with coffee. Had I hoped he would never get round to opening them, Gerry wondered to Sam, well aware that he had enough booze in the house to last him a decade? Gerry couldn't imagine any malicious intent on my part and credited it to my recent impoverished situation, saying to Sam that while he knew he and I hadn't been in contact much in recent months, that clearly if he could find an art dealer who might help out just a little that would be wonderful.
I didn't quite know how to react: there I was wondering who put the coffee into the bottles, and whether Gerry, this older teacher whose friendship I appreciated and whose work had been important to me, no longer had any respect for someone who could give him a gift with stale coffee instead of port. And what of Sam; was he doing me no more than a pitiful favour popping round to my flat with a couple of art dealers? Had he hired two old men to find a means by which to bung me a few thousand without hurting my pride? As I said the latter aloud, Sam said I could check the two men were rather more legitimate than my wine and port. Over the next twenty minutes, after Sam and I popped out to the supermarket and picked up two bottles of red, opened one of them and I realised my taste for alcohol returned and wondered if my love of coffee would disappear, so I worked out what must have happened. Presumably, one of the guests staying in our flat in our absence had run out of alcohol one evening, when the off-licenses and perhaps even the pubs were closed, searched the flat and found the wine and the port, polished them off and then maybe the next morning, ready to vacate the flat, made a big pot of coffee and filled the bottles with whatever happened to be left over after the requirements of their hangover was met. But of course, how could I reveal this hypothesis to Sam without at the same time making clear that Helen and I had taken advantage of his generosity in renting the flat cheaply from him but exploited him to by sub-letting it to strangers? What the guests happened to do was so minor a misdemeanour as to be perverse but they might as well have broken windows, damaged tiles, ruined floorboards.
I was left with Sam thinking the worst of me just after he had done the best for me. It was at that moment a remark Sam made years earlier came to mind when he explained why he wanted to make money rather than make art. He said that the immense freedom he felt in front of the page able to push characters around, change their names, allow them to marry, have babies, become successful, was never going to be as satisfactory to him as doing something similar in the real world, with real people and real money. Looking across at him now, unable to tell him the whole truth, aware I probably would have to lie to Gerry as well, I knew that I could no longer stay in Sam's apartment, and hoped that the contacts he helped me make might also mean I could rely on strangers rather than friends. After Sam left, having drunk a bottle and a half of wine and saying he was going to get a taxi and leave the car outside, I sat at the kitchen table, the twelve thousand pounds in four neat bundles lying there, and awaited Helen's return. She would walk in and see a very dejected figure, as unhappy as anyone is likely to be having sold several of his paintings and with a stash of cash on the table to show for it, and he would have to tell her this might turn out to be the financial high point of his artistic career and the low point in his life. I would keep painting of course, and perhaps continue to make money from my endeavours, but knew that not only would we soon need to vacate the apartment, but that any future one we were living in (bought or rented) would have to feel like our own and not anybody else's. I knew Helen would agree. Hadn't she always insisted feeling uncomfortable renting from Sam and hadn't the temporary rentals been my idea? But I am not sure what will leave her more perplexed: the disillusioned man sitting there with bundles of cash next to him, or the story I will then tell her: that someone had put cold coffee in wine and port bottles after being so determined to have a drink as I'd spent the last year avoiding one. Perhaps I would in time tell the full story too to both Sam and Gerry, but there are moments when I think I would prefer to be a writer rather than a painter, and I suppose this might be one of them.
© Tony McKibbin