Theft, by Peter Carey
I don't know if my story is grand enough to be a tragedy, although a lot of shitty stuff did happen. It is certainly a love story but that did not begin until midway through the shitty stuff, by which time I had not only lost my eight-year-old son, but also my house and studio in Sydney where I had once been about as famous as a painter could expect in his own backyard. It was the year I should have got the Order of Australia--why not!--look at who they give them to. Instead my child was stolen from me and I was eviscerated by divorce lawyers and gaoled for attempting to retrieve my own best work which had been declared Marital Assets.
Emerging from Long Bay Prison in the bleak spring of 1980, I learned I was to be rushed immediately to northern New South Wales where, although I would have almost no money to spend on myself, it was thought that I might, if I could only cut down on my drinking, afford to paint small works and care for Hugh, my damaged two-hundred-and-twenty-pound brother.
My lawyers, dealers, collectors had all come together to save me. They were so kind, so generous. I could hardly admit that I was fucking sick of caring for Hugh, that I didn't want to leave Sydney or cut down on drinking. Lacking the character to tell the truth I permitted myself to set off on the road they had chosen for me. Two hundred miles north of Sydney, at Taree, I began to cough blood into a motel basin. Thank Christ, I thought, they can't make me do it now.
But it was only pneumonia and I did not die after all.
It was my biggest collector, Jean-Paul Milan, who had designed the plan wherein I would be the unpaid caretaker of a country property he had been trying to sell for eighteen months. Jean-Paul was the proprietor of a chain of nursing homes which were later investigated by the Health Commission, but he also liked to paint and his architect had made him a studio whose riverside wall opened like a lube-bay door. The natural light, as he had so sweetly warned me, even as he made his gift, was perhaps a little green, a "fault" produced by the ancient casuarinas that lined the river. I might have told him that this issue of natural light was bullshit, but again I held my tongue. That first night out of gaol, at a miserably wine-free dinner with Jean-Paul and his wife, I agreed that we had tragically turned our backs on natural light, candlelight, starlight, and it was true that the Kabuki had been superior in candlelight and that the paintings of Manet were best seen by light of a dusty window, but fuck it--my work would live or die in galleries and I needed 240 reliable volts of alternating current to do my stuff. I was now destined to live in a "paradise" where I could be sure of no such thing.
Jean-Paul, having so generously given us his house, began immediately to fret that I might somehow hurt it. Or perhaps the true alarmist was his wife who had, long ago, caught me blowing my snotty nose into her dinner napkin. In any case, it was only six mornings after we first arrived in Bellingen that Jean-Paul burst into the house and woke me. This was a nasty shock at almost every level, but I held my tongue and made him coffee. Then for two hours I followed him around the property as if I were his dog and every stupid thing he told me I wrote down in my notebook, an old leather-bound volume that was as precious to me as life itself. Here I had recorded every colour mix I had made from the time of my so-called breakthrough show in 1971. It was a treasure house, a diary, a record of decline and fall, a history. Thistles, said Jean-Paul. I wrote "thistles" in my lovely book. Mowing. I spelled it out. Fallen trees across the river. Stihl chain saw. Grease nipples on the slasher. Then he was offended by the tractor parked beneath the house. The woodpile was untidy--I set Hugh to stack it neatly in the pattern Jean-Paul preferred. Finally my patron and I arrived at the studio together. He removed his shoes as if he meant to pray. I followed suit. He raised the big lube-bay door to the river and stood for a long moment looking down at the Never Never, talking--this is not made-up--about Monet's fucking Water Lilies. He had very pretty feet, I had noticed them before, very white and high-arched. He was in his mid-forties but his toes were straight as a baby's.
Excerpted from Theft by Peter Carey Copyright © 2006 by Peter Carey. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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