When Brian Cox invited me to his wedding all those years ago, I was unsure what I should get him and his lovely fiancé, Gia, for a present.
After much thought, I decided that something personal would be most fitting for a friendship as deep as ours. And remembering how Brian and his bride-to-be had always complemented me on the paintings that hung in my flat, I wondered if this might be the answer. The paintings were my own creations, and the couple had always expressed a fondness for them that I was sure extended beyond mere manners or flattery.
So, I decided to take a week off work and devote myself to painting something special so I could present it to the newly married couple on their big day.
Well, what an undertaking it turned out to be. The muse struck me with a power I had never before experienced. I barely slept for six days and six nights as I wrestled with each and every detail of the painting. I found in myself a pursuit of perfection that was heretofore unfamiliar. My beard grew long and my studio became increasingly untidy as I tried to bring my vision to life. My emails and phone calls went unanswered. My mind was so focussed on getting this latest piece just right for my two beloved friends that I couldn’t allow myself any distractions. I cannot even remember if I took any food or water.
But I managed to complete the work, and I could not have been more proud of the result. The finished piece was deeply (and deliberately) contradictory. The colour palette was dark and foreboding yet the painting itself expressed ideas of light. To the untrained eye, this was nothing but a painting of the night sky. But to those who looked deeper, there were esoteric meanings that I had been able to convey only through painstaking draughtsmanship and execution.
It was, unquestionably, a triumph. And when it was beyond the improvement of one more stroke, I put my brush and palette to one side and collapsed into my bed to sleep the whole Sunday through.
Months later, the big day arrived.
Brian and Gia were married and my gift was unveiled. The young Professor, in particular, seemed captivated with my handiwork. He talked to me for the rest of the evening about it. “Does this bit here, mean what I think it means?” “The relationship of the colours here, is that supposed to represent x and y?” “Is the spatial relationship between the two stars in the west and the knoll on the terrain deliberate?”
On and on he went.
I explained some of the more esoteric concepts and spatial symbolisms of the work and he became even more impressed.
At the end of the evening, he thanked me with such sincerity that it made me feel a little uncomfortable. He said something about it being the “most beautiful and gorgeous thing the world has ever seen.” This struck me as a disingenuous thing for a man to say on his wedding day. But I was pleased my efforts had not gone unappreciated.
Over time, however, this was to change.
In 2006, Gia called me, telling me how Prof. Cox was becoming more and more infatuated with the artwork. She told me her husband kept saying how “beautiful” and “majestic” it was. She said that he had taken to writing at length about it and what it represented to him.
She asked me to come and talk to him. She wanted me to play down the significance of my work as it was making her feel neglected and alone. “It’s an obsession,” she said to me. “A bloody obsession.”
At first, I wasn’t so sure. After all, the Professor was right to be captivated by the artwork – it really was that good. But listening to Gia’s sobs and listening to her say how much she missed her man made me relent. I decided to play down my genius for the sake of the union of two old friends.
I took the train from Euston up to Manchester (this was in the pre-Pendolino days and quite an undertaking) and paid my old pals a visit. Gia answered the door in a dressing gown. She looked dishevelled and depressed. She gave me a forced but familiar smile and, with a weary gesture, beckoned me to follow her to her husband’s study.
I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. Brian Cox was sat on a beanbag looking up in wonder at the painting. My painting. The walls of the study had been hastily decorated – in what I could only assume was lipstick – with hundreds of equations and formulae. When Brian eventually saw me out of the corner of his eye, he turned and beamed.
“Robbie, my old mate,” he said with a familiar and effete Mancunian whine. “Come in and take a seat, buddy.” He patted the beanbag next to him and I shuffled somewhat uncomfortably towards him to take my place.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” he asked. His beady eyes shone with life and enthusiasm. “Isn’t it the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen?” His gaze was fixed on the painting that hung above us. Gia was right. He was mesmerised.
I responded with as much humility as I could muster, “Well, Brian, to be honest, mate, it’s quite hard for me to comment. I mean, I painted it.”
But if ever there was false modesty, this was it. The painting was fucking fantastic. He knew it and I knew it.
Brian carried on talking as if I hadn’t said a word. “This bit here, up in the top-right-hand corner, you might think that these are simply stars, but there’s more to it than that. They represent ancient Zoroastrian mysteries.”
The lad knew his painting, that was for sure. I was impressed. “You spotted that? I didn’t think anyone …”
“And down here, in this thicket of grass,” he continued eagerly,“you can see, in this moonlight, a visual allusion to the limitation of language . . . then here, top left, an wonderful astrological satire of Minoan culture . . . and then over here to the left . . .”
This went on, without pause, for about half an hour. Until he turned to me, sweaty from his enthusiasm. “Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?”
After listening to him reveal to me the secrets of my own artwork for this length of time, his patronising tone had started to grate.
“Brian, will you please calm down? And will you stop telling me what I already know? I’m glad you like my painting, truly, and I’m glad you have deduced its many meanings, but for the love of Christ, will you get a grip? You are neglecting your wife and, to be honest, you are starting to become a bit of a bore about the whole thing. Yes, the painting is beautiful, and I’m delighted that you like it. But it was just a gift, something for you and Gia to enjoy. Stop taking it so seriously!”
There was silence.
“You didn’t paint this,” came the eventual response, maniacal and accusing.
I couldn’t believe my ears.
“What the . . .?”
“You didn’t paint this picture. Nobody did.”
Well, if that wasn’t the final insult.
“Why, you ungrateful toad, that took one hundred and forty four hours’ solid work and you have the audacity to…”
Again I was interrupted. He spoke calmly and with a sneer.
“You can’t prove you painted this. There is no need for you to have painted it. There is so much meaning in it that it justifies its own existence. Nobody could have been creative enough to make something as beautiful and as lovely as this.”
He waggled a long index finger at me and peered at me through half-closed eyes. I walked out and made my apologies to Gia.
I was affronted.
I didn’t hear a thing from either of my two old friends for years. Life moved on and I myself became married. But in October of last year, I received another call from Gia. She told me she and Brian were going to get to get a divorce. There were no tears. She had come to terms with everything.
I was deeply saddened by the news. When we used to ‘knock about’ (as they called it) in Manchester together all those years ago, they were such a lovely couple. Brian with his boyish good-looks and Britpop hair, and Gia with her handsome Mediterranean lineaments. We always knew they would get married and never thought for a moment that they might split.
I couldn’t help but feel I was responsible. It was, after all, my damned painting that had caused their problems.
“Gia, this is all my fault. Please let me talk to him again, I can assure him that he’s reading things into that painting that aren’t there. There must be something I can do?”
“Oh it’s too late for that,” she replied. “Brian stopped believing in your existence a long time ago.”
“Brian stopped what?”
“He’s stopped believing in your existence. Whenever I mention your name, or the fact that it’s your painting, he says I’m being ridiculous. At first he denied you had it in you to create something so ‘beautiful’ and ‘amazing’, but over time gradually he stopped believing that you even existed at all. He thinks I’ve made you up in some bizarre attempt at making his beloved painting less profound.”
I’d never heard anything like it in my life. “Well how the hell does he think that painting got there in the first place?”
“Robbie, you’re not going to believe this, but he thinks it’s always been there. And before it, there was nothing at all. He can’t seem to separate the world that isn’t the painting from the world that is the painting.”
“But this is bloody ridiculous. Of course I exist, I’m talking to you right now. Put him on the phone, immediately.”
“He won’t talk to you, Rob, sorry. He doesn’t think you will answer because he doesn’t believe you exist. He won’t even try because he thinks it would make him look an idiot and would show him to be unsure in his convictions. And since he refuses to leave his study, or be anywhere that wretched painting is not, I doubt you’ll ever be able to see him in person again either.”
Well fuck me.
In the end, I gave up. I apologised to Gia for all the problems I’d caused, and she understood. And we hung up, probably never to speak to each other again.
The thing that made me most angry off most was not that my two friends were getting divorced, or even that I’d lost a very dear friend to some aesthetic lunacy.
What incurred my wrath was that the painting was by far the greatest thing I had ever created. I wanted a little credit for that; a little glory. If I had known the person to whom it was given would start telling me that it wasn’t my work, let alone start denying my very existence, I wouldn’t have bothered.
I put so much work into that painting. It was the thing he loved most in the world. And he didn’t even have the grace to be thankful.