Journey to the Centre of My Room

Mark-Peter Howe

In the corner of the room above the fireplace, handwritten in vivid oil pastel on the sky-blue wall, is a quotation:

I am certain of nothing
but the holiness of the heart’s affections
and the truth of imagination.

                                                         John Keats

I wrote it there when I moved into the flat several years ago and by now the words are soot-smudged from the wood-burning stove below. I had just completed an art degree, rather late in life, and thought I understood them. A few of my favourite things in one sentence: Affection, Truth, Holiness, Heart, Imagination. But as time went on, their meaning slipped through my grasp, my mind not quite able to cling on to it. At art school I had read books and written assignments about Keats’ words. But how do you make them real in the conduct of your life – not only in your heart and your imagination but in your actions? How do you do that? Sometimes I am certain of only the first five words.

The long room runs from one side of the old mansion to the other, with original Georgian windows at each end rising gracefully to the high ceiling and descending as low as the skirting board. Kitchen-dining-sitting room, it has been the main stage of my life, as well as a refuge: cooking, eating, TV-watching, parties, meetings, play readings, writing groups, early-morning coffee, late-night drinks.

Surveying it now, I try to see it from Bobby’s point of view, through the eyes of a fashion designer. In a few days he’ll be here and I need to make it ready. Before our recent hook-up, we hadn’t seen each other for almost a decade, since we agreed to go different ways. Out of the blue he got back in touch and by coincidence – synchronicity, serendipity, the happy ordering of the universe – we discovered that we are both available. Sebastiaan had walked out on me less than a month before.

The mansion, in which my flat is on the first floor, started life as a minister’s house in the days when Christ’s representatives on earth were essentially honorary members of the aristocracy. Later, it was the residence of successive managers of the Black Country glassworks next to which it stood, and in the twentieth century had been subsumed into the factory as offices. When the closed-down works was repurposed as an arts and crafts college for disadvantaged youngsters, the dilapidated, B-listed building was carved up into training flats and kitchens and a flat for the ‘Cultural Care Coordinator’ – or ‘janny’, as my friends liked to translate my opaque job title. Previous residents told tales of ghosts, inexplicable noises in the night and sightings of shadowy figures. In all the years, I’ve seen and heard nothing, the only nocturnal disturbances being the bumps and howls of my own internal spectres.

What will stylish Bobby make of it – the blue walls in the sitting area, sunny yellow in the kitchen, my pictures and arty arrangements, the floor-length velvety blue curtains? And all I can see is Sebastiaan. I can’t just expunge him from my life – even though that’s exactly what he’s done to me. There he is in the open doorway.

Whenever he visited from Holland, he would pause there for a moment, bag over his shoulder, taking in his new surroundings. Had anything changed since last time he was here? What did he sense about my flat and my life, about me? What would this visit bring? Above all, would he feel safe?

He was an imposing figure, lofty like many Dutch people. A paunch, which he detested, went before his once elegant frame, and a bald dome lamented the loss of its former brown locks. Rembrandt-dark eyes revealed both proud self-possession and an appealing vulnerability. He often talked about how he felt lost in life, from having been shunted as a child between estranged parents.

‘I am the Bear of Paddington’, he said, using the syntax of his near-compatriot, Hercule Poirot, famous for referring to things like, ‘the Palace of Buckingham’ or ‘the Circus of Piccadilly, mon ami’. And from that remark Sebastiaan and I developed a silly lovers’ language of bears:

‘Dutch bears prefer Dutch cheese.’

‘The kind with holes?’

‘Exactly – the holes are the best bits.’

‘Easy to digest.’

‘It means they can eat lots of cheese and still lose weight.’

‘And fly. That’s how Dutch bears are able to fly to England.’

Giggling as only bears can giggle, we explored their needs and appetites, their playfulness and poor navigation, their squashy indestructibility.

Next to the front door, at the kitchen end of the open-plan room, is the fridge. Sebastiaan didn’t actually check the fridge as soon as he arrived but it was not long before he did so. He knew its contents much better than I, who chucked items in and forgot about them until they were long out of date, meanwhile running out of other things. Sebastiaan unloaded fruit, Dutch cheese and salad leftover from the quantities he had packed for his journey. And knowing my attraction to confectionery, he had managed to find an appeltaart in Schippol Airport, while others were stocking up on cigarettes, perfume and drink. Advocaat, appeltaart, Sebastiaan. So many extended vowels, stretching their way through otherwise clipped Dutch sentences: a warning, perhaps, of the extremes and contradictions of the national character.

On the wall along from the fridge, a large shelving unit extends into the sitting area. I had to buy the biggest of the IKEA range in order to fill the vast space and reach to within striking distance of the ceiling. The centrepiece of the shelves, amongst books, vases and kitsch figurines, is the tin trunk. Metallic green, it is made from sheet metal printed for use as Canada Dry ginger ale cans. Sebastiaan carried it from his home in Friesland, wrapping it in layers of corrugated cardboard and brown paper, with the handle exposed for carrying. On that occasion he was suffering from a fear of flying and travelled instead by car to the station, train, ferry, a taxi across London, more trains and finally my car when I met him at Birmingham New Street, lugging suitcase, shoulder bag and tin trunk. He told me his father had acquired it on one of his archaeological working trips to Israel or Lebanon, where it had been made by Palestinian refugees after WW2.

It wasn’t the only time he brought me a present like this. On another occasion, it was a stone Indian altar which, although not large – perhaps 25cm square – was carved from granite and weighed a ton. A friend in the Friesian town of Leeuwarden imported them for her shop, and to help her business as well as to decorate his home and to give as presents, Sebastiaan had bought eight of them. His generosity spilled over in a relentless tide. I didn’t know that it could just as forcefully be sucked back again.

I heard much more about his father during our nightly phone calls and on my visits to his place in Holland. From the moment he met me at Schippol for the long drive north, we talked. That’s what we did well together. Through the white forests of wind turbines in the south to the green emptiness of Friesland, we talked of mutual friends, art, politics, our families, our histories, spiritual philosophies, and back to people. His father was always the villain of the piece.

His eldest son having been born hemiplegic, he would not accept that his second son, Sebastiaan, was turning out lame in other ways: art-loving, book-loving, boy-loving. He set out to systematically change his son’s personality. Not only was Sebastiaan expected to play sport, talk tough and bring home girls, but he was trained to know that every thought, intention and desire that stirred within him, was wrong, to be replaced by whatever was suggested by his father. If the boy wanted to spend the weekend visiting the Mauritshuis art museum in Den Haag, that could not be right: he should rather help repair their canal boat for spring; if he brought home Narnia books from the library, they had to be returned and exchanged for factual material: science, history, how things work. Spiritual and imaginative notions were banned by the authority of a ruthlessly rational outlook. In the Middle East he had plucked Hittite artefacts from the many-layered soil and had proof that all belief was primitive superstition. He went so far as to kidnap Sebastiaan from school when the boy was in the care of his mother, because her religious influence was having a softening effect. The dispute was eventually decided in court, the mother victorious because the judge was impressed that she had written a book about the Lord’s Prayer. In our talks, Sebastiaan and I would go over and over it, digging down through the layers: a psychological excavation. Somewhere in his history, Sebastiaan had got lost and turned up as the Bear of Paddington. I was only too happy to become the bear’s companion, potentially his saviour.

In his house, a former farmhouse standing next to its own dike in the middle of nowhere, I remarked on the tin trunk. It was not on display but stashed in a large room given over entirely to stored items from deceased family members, including both parents and his brother. He told me its story and next time he came to England brought it as a surprise.

Finding a place for it on the shelf unit, I made it into a kind of installation, filling it with hand-made Chinese wooden flowers springing from its open lid in a burst of yellow, red and white. It expressed how I felt about him, my lost bear, and the relationship we had found when we first met and one of us, at least, had fallen in love.

Self-conscious at being a forty-something art student amongst a crowd of 18-year-olds, I soon learned that none of them cared about age, treating me as a mellow dad-figure if they noticed me at all. Perhaps the intrinsic healthiness of youth had rubbed off on me when, one night, I woke in the small hours. The fairy lights above my bed were still on, arranged around a Leonardo picture of Jesus, Il Redentore (having come out late, I was working hard at being gay). Sebastiaan and I had spoken that evening on the phone for the second or third time, having been put in touch by a mutual friend. His warm voice, dark brown flecked with gold, floated through the ether from the distant polders as if from outer space, from another world, another life – yet from a being with whom I had so much in common.

Eyes opening in the fairy glow, the timbre of his voice still humming in my mind, it happened. My heart moved, something inside it opened: I fell in love.

From that moment I would do anything to be with Sebastiaan: phone, write poetry about him, a diary about us, and visit. As part of my course, I photographed him and the photogenic contents of his house, I videoed and recorded him, wrote John Donne poetry in felt-tip pen on his naked body and filmed him (Licence my roving hands and let them go/ Before, behind, between, above, below). I had found my muse and against the odds a technophobe with a video camera, as my tutor described me, got a first class degree. We were destined to be together and our relationship should aspire to the heights of the great lovers: Alexander and Hephaestion, David and Jonathan, Oscar Wilde and Bosie…although, now I think of it, none of those ended well. David and Elton had barely got going at that time.

Below the quotation on the wall, the wood stove needs to be cleaned out before Bobby’s visit and I kneel in front of it with a dustpan, a small shovel and brush. This corner of the room is always the messiest, ash leaking from the stove, a fallen stack of logs, old newspapers, and an agglomeration of stuff parked here for want of anywhere else to put it: pairs of boots, a box of oddments to go to charity, a stack of magazines that have been read but were too expensive to throw out just yet. When I wrote up Keats’ words, I intended this part of the room to be my ‘red corner’, the devotional place found in Russian homes where there are icons and candles. Instead, it has turned into a kind of black corner, of ash and soot and rubbish.

The rot started when Sebastiaan came to stay eighteen months ago. Perhaps he had already begun to notice that my actions didn’t always match up to the holiness of my affections and the truths of my imagination. What was he feeling, that time I wanted to film on a dam overlooking the Ijsselmeer, attracted by the twin desolations of grey sea on one side and green polder on the other? He stood patiently in an east wind that was literally Baltic while take after take went wrong: a plane flew over, I missed my step and the camera jolted, a couple walked through the shot, the tape ran out. He would have forgiven these inevitable trials of the artistic process. But what did he think as I stamped, swore, jumped up and down, confusing a tantrum-like expression of frustration with the lack of inhibition necessary for creation? Sebastiaan was never critical; he just went quiet.

His visit this time was to coincide with the performance of a play which involved myself and a group of friends and was directed by Zak, who ran the college arts centre, and with whom Sebastiaan had already formed a friendship. At their first meeting, I had barely introduced them when Zak, enthralled by the Rembrandt eyes following him round the room, said to Sebastiaan, ‘I need to speak with you.’

They met, exchanged life stories, and both came away referring to their meeting as ‘karma’. Yes, I was jealous, not of Zak for befriending my beloved, but of Sebastiaan for getting closer to Zak in an instant than I had in years of working together.

The arts centre was staging a series of workshops and events, which included our play, and this was in addition to my already overwhelming job. As was my habit, I was allowing work to dominate life. I collected Sebastiaan from Birmingham Airport as by this time he’d decided to try flying again. Back at the flat he stood once more in the doorway gauging the emotional temperature. He pulled out the present he’d brought me this time: a tombstone-sized art book, St Sebastian, full of paintings and drawings of naked young men tied to stakes and trees with arrows penetrating their abject but extremely fit bodies. After we’d eaten, I had to leave him alone and go off to take part in our dress rehearsal.

The week passed and the play went off successfully, even though it confirmed that I was no actor: it’s not sufficient to think it in your head – you have to make it visible for the audience. There was little time for being together until the return drive to the airport, when he was unusually quiet.

By the time of our phone call the following evening, the tide of his outpouring affection had been sucked back. In a voice as dark as the eyes, he announced that he wouldn’t be phoning for a while, that he wasn’t happy about travelling to England any more, that his life was complicated, and that he needed time to think about us. After a week I sent an email, to which he replied that he still needed to think and he would write when he was ready.

Nearly eighteen months later he had not replied. I had been through the five stages of grief: Denial—he would get back to me soon; Anger—he was a confused foreigner with a personality disorder; Bargaining—further emails suggesting we talk; Despair—I went off work with depression.

One morning, Zak ran up from the arts centre to my flat to check how I was. ‘You realise he was hurt?’ he said. ‘He told me that when he arrived, his room wasn’t ready, the bed not made up. You had to go off to work and there wasn’t even milk in the fridge for a drink. The whole time he was here, you were unavailable. He felt abandoned. Lost…’

I shake the last of the ash from the dustpan into a bin and, still on my knees, look up with an urge to wipe bloody Keats off the wall. The lettering has survived surprisingly well. Touching it now would only create another smudged mess, just when I’m expecting Bobby.

The Fifth Stage: Acceptance—within a month of Sebastiaan disappearing, Bobby had got in touch after years without contact, a coincidence which would be unbelievable if it weren’t a repeating pattern in my life. I’d originally met Bobby a few weeks after my marriage ended. And after Bobby and I parted, it wasn’t long before Sebastiaan appeared. Sometimes you sense a ‘higher’ something gracing your existence…or at least sending you the next challenge on your distance-learning course in how to get through life.

This time, I visited Bobby in Scotland and we took up, not where we’d left off nearly a decade ago, but newly, as middle-aged people who’d lost much and learned much. I have to get it right this time. I’m in my fifties. How many chances do you get? I can’t fuck it up yet again.

I would like my affections to be pure, and to live up to the truth of what lives in my imagination. But the fact is, they’re not, and I don’t. I’m not a perfect romantic ideal; I’m human. It doesn’t mean Keats was wrong, that idealism is an illusion and that life, after all, is a bitch and then you die and there’s not a lot you can do about it. It means I could have said:

‘Oh, Sebastiaan, I’m sorry my darling, I’m so busy but I will not abandon you; I will make your bed if it kills me, and get you milk, and if I have to leave you on your own, I will still think of you—you will live in my heart; I will imagine you—and when I’ve finished work we will find time to talk and talk and talk for ever.’

Oh, Bobby, my first and always love, I will try to be different this time; I am becoming human.

Mark-Peter Howe

Mark-Peter Howe is a writer based in Glasgow, UK. Highly Commended in the Bridport Prize for Flash Fiction 2012, twice short-listed, and long-listed in the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award 2020.

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