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I’d been given detailed instructions on how to get there from Chalk Farm tube station, but it was all too easy to tell which had been Astrid’s flat: it was the one on the ground floor with the soot marks around the windows. The front door had a temporary padlock attached to it, but it was hanging loose. I was wondering whether I should take advantage of this when the door burst open and a man wearing a hi-visibility jacket and orange wellies came out carrying a couple of bin bags. He dumped the bags on the ground between us and eyed me up and down.
[private]“Can I help you, mate?” he said.
“I’m looking for Astrid Gordon,” I said.
The man gave a rueful smile and jerked his thumb back towards the flat. “If you’re talking about the bint who lived in that place, there ain’t much left of her,” he said. “And what there is got taken to the morgue last week.”
Oh God. Too much information. He was looking me up and down again. Then he tilted his head on one side, and gave me a more sympathetic look.
“You next of kin, mate?”
“Sort of. Well, not really. I … used to know her. A long time ago.”
“Ah. I get the picture.”
“No … good Lord, no … it wasn’t like that at all … I mean, we weren’t … well, only for a short while … and even then – ”
He looked into my eyes and nodded slowly. “’s all right,” he said, “You don’t have to say another word. Come on. I ain’t supposed to do this, but seeing as all this stuff’s going to be chucked out, you might as well see if there’s anything you want to keep. Souvenir, like.”
“Gosh, well, thank you –” I began.
“Don’t thank me, mate. I just fancy a bit of company. Gets a bit depressing, this kind of thing. Just do me a favour: watch out for any sodding needles. Don’t want health and safety on my back.”
“Oh, I’m sure she wouldn’t have –”
“You reckon, mate? How many places like this have you been in?”
I was wearing wellies when I first met Astrid, at some festival or other back in the seventies. She was standing next to me, swaying in time to the music. Actually, that’s not quite right: she was swaying in time to some internal music of her own making, waving a vast spliff in the air as she did so. When she first noticed me, she took one look and started laughing.
“What … are those?” she said, in an incredulous tone.
“They’re wellies,” I said.
“Wellies. Wow. Did your mummy tell you to wear them in case you got your little toesies dirty?”
I looked down, embarrassed, failing to think of a witty rejoinder. Her bare legs were absolutely filthy, right up to her knees. She tried to pass me her joint, but I waved it away.
“Ooh, aren’t we a good boy?” she said. I felt stupid. I’d come to the festival in search of wild women and wilder sex and now I’d fallen at the first hurdle. But for some reason, she hung around with me for the rest of the day.
“You looked so lost,” she said to me later, as we settled down for the night in her tent. “Like some poor kid who’s been abandoned in the middle of the big city.”
“I’m not quite as innocent as I seem,” I said.
The flat was dark and still damp from the fire hoses. There was a lingering smell of smoke and something that I very much hoped wasn’t burnt flesh.
“They found her in that chair, there,” said the man from the council. “Like one of them human spontaneous combustion things.”
“except in my experience –” He looked thoughtful. “– in most cases, human combustion is anything but spontaneous.”
“What do you mean?”
“When you get to a certain point in your downward trajectory, like, things can happen. You gets careless.” He bent down and picked something up. He showed it to me.
“Maybe … maybe she was diabetic?” I said.
“Was she diabetic when you last saw her?” He looked at me again. “When was the last time you saw her, anyway?”
“It was a few years ago.”
That wasn’t entirely true. I was pretty certain that I’d seen her only a couple of weeks back. I’d had to visit a client on this estate – one of my rare attempts to salve my conscience by doing some pro bono work – and I caught sight of a woman on the other side of the street that looked like her. She was dressed in a filthy tattered dress, holding a half-empty bottle of cheap sherry and hurling obscenities at passing cars.
I crossed over, and walked past her, sneaking a sideways glimpse at her as I did so. She smelt of piss and patchouli.
“Whaddya lookin’ at?” she said. “Piss off, wanker.”
I don’t think it was personal. After all, she was shouting pretty much the same at everyone else who came near her, and I doubt if she recognised me at all.
“Guess who I saw today?” I said to Janine that evening.
“Astrid,” I said. “You know, the one –”
“Oh, the one who painted that ghastly picture. Horrible thing. Hope you don’t mind, but I took it to Oxfam last month. They’ve still got it as far as I know.”
“You got rid of it?”
“Of course, darling. Well, it’s not as if we’ve actually had it on display, is it? And it was simply hideous.”
I didn’t argue with her. Deep down, I knew that Janine was right. She always is. But at the same time, I decided that I ought to try and pay Astrid one last visit – for old times’ sake. It had been unsettling, seeing her like that, and I wanted to make sure that she was all right. I felt guilty, I suppose. So I spent several weekends trawling the London markets where she might have had a stall, until I found someone in Camden Lock who’d had a pitch next to hers for a time. He hadn’t seen her for a few months, but he had an address. But by the time I’d tracked him down, Astrid was already dead.
One of her paintings had escaped with minor singeing, but from the other side of the room, I couldn’t quite make out what it was. For a moment, I thought it was a picture of a phoenix, but that would have been just too good to be true. When I got closer, I realised with a sinking heart that it was a unicorn.
“Cor, that’s something else, innit?” said the man in the orange wellies, hefting another black bin bag past me.
“Isn’t it just?” I said.
“Was she an artist, like?”
“You could say that. She tried her hand at a lot of things. Painting, sculpture, pottery. You name it. She did a nice line in tie-dye, too. Can’t imagine she ever made much money out of it.”
“So d’you want to take it, then? I’ll only chuck it in the skip.”
“Well … I don’t know. Can’t say my wife will approve –”
“What’s she got to do with it, mate? Go on, it’s lovely, that.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah. Bleeding magic. I used to paint, meself, when I was at school. Would’ve gone to art school if I’d had the chance. Don’t do it no more, mind.” He looked me in the eye. “I’m guessing you’re not the creative type,” he said, “Am I right?”
“You need to learn to let go a little,” Astrid would say. “And you need to make up your mind if you’re going to join the machine or if you’re going to fight it.”
Sometimes she scared me. I was scared that she would give up on me, and at the same time I was also scared that shewould suck me into her world. It was only after we’d finally split up that it occurred to me that she was might have been just as scared of that world as I was. She was just a bit braver about engaging with it.
I spent the whole of that summer with Astrid. She would spend the day painting strange, outlandish pictures full of bright colours and populated by wild, sensual men and women. When she’d finished, we’d sit on the floor of her flat drinking Laski Riesling, listening to John Martyn.
After we’d been hanging out for a few weeks, I plucked up the courage to get out my guitar and play some of my own songs to her. Amazingly, she didn’t laugh.
“You have a gift,” she said, nodding slowly. “And you should never ignore a gift. It’s been given you for a reason. That’s why it’s called a gift.”
I blushed. I wasn’t used to this. So whilst she was painting, I spent the day writing songs and practising the guitar. It would have been so easy to let go.
Janine laughs at my guitar playing and makes fun of my reedy voice. So I’ve given up songwriting. Frankly, it’s no great loss, and in retrospect, I’ve come to realise that Astrid was a pretty lousy judge of talent. But maybe that wasn’t the point. After we’d split up, I saw her a couple of times on the South Bank outside the Festival Hall trying to sell her pictures. I even bought one once – it wasn’t so much because I liked it, it was more a way of striking up a conversation with her.
“You’re looking smart,” she said, taking a drag on a roll-up.
“So you made your choice.”
“I suppose I did.”
“You’ll regret it one day,” she said.
“Maybe I will.”
“No, you definitely will.” It was almost as if she was trying to convince herself. She looked at the painting. “Why this one?”
“I don’t know. I like the colours.”
She laughed bitterly. “Once upon a time you would have told me what you thought it represented. Or was that just to try to impress me?”
“No, I … oh, I don’t know, Astrid. I just don’t know. Look, I’m late for the concert. Janine’ll be waiting for me – ”
“Welcome to the machine, baby,” said Astrid, wrapping the painting up and taking my money. “Welcome to the
I wonder if the people who shop at Oxfam like the colours. I’m guessing that they don’t. And I wonder if I ever really knew what any of it represented.
So all I’ve got left of Astrid is a picture of a unicorn. And when all’s said and done, not a particularly good one at that. I’m not sure where I’m going to hang it. Somewhere out of sight, I guess. I can’t see Janine being too pleased about it. I need to find somewhere to practice my guitar, too. My fingers are pretty stiff, but I think I can still pick out a tune. All I need now are some words.[/private]