As he swam, Simon thought about windows. He thought about the view from his bedroom when he was a boy, orange rooftops and grassy, tree-filled backyards, swimming pools, tail-lights and driveways; an aluminium frame that slid closed. He thought of inside and outside – his bed, the posters of cars and dinosaurs, the desk with its map of the world. He thought of the walls of windows in his house on the river. How sometimes, when he and Georgia were having a glass of wine after Stellie had gone to bed, he felt that he was inside the frame of a painting. For the first time in years he thought of the window in Lina’s studio. She had taped tracing paper over the bottom half so that instead of the starkness of the building opposite, all you could see was sky.
Lina and Simon had met at art school when they were twenty. In the usual fish bowl of self-conscious style that it was, she seemed utterly unaware of trends or fashion in art or appearance. When the other girls (by second year Simon had slept with most of them) were shaving half their heads or doing Rockabilly quiffs at the front of their shiny ponytails, Lina’s hair was straggly and uncomplicated, her clothes completely without design. Invariably she wore jeans and T-shirts, boots. Her T-shirts weren’t the American ones from the stylish camping shop in the city, but ordinary ones from Kmart or Target. Navy, green, red, no buttons or patterns, the occasional slogan that made Simon cringe but of which Lina seemed oblivious.
During the three years of art school, Simon had had a couple of conversations with Lina – small intense moments that seemed separate from the rest of his life with its boredom and hilarity, its drunken, fumbling sex. Once they had sat in a cheap sushi bar and had cup after cup of tanniny tea and talked about death: their own, others’. Simon had said he wasn’t afraid of it but he knew that what he felt was more an absence of thought rather than a lack of fear. What little experience of death he’d had – his grandfather, an acquaintance at school who had died in a car accident – had left him completely blank. His grandfather had been there one day – a whiskery, pompous old man who cornered him at family events for a tirade about the lax morals of young people, politics, his favourite TV show (The Bill) – and then he was gone. Dead of a heart attack. Simon remembered the painful-looking pimply neck of the boy at school, Tom, in front of him in the tuckshop line. Simon had touched his own neck, reassuring himself that his skin was still smooth. Then the next minute, it seemed, Tom was gone. A sombre service took place in the chapel and Simon was guiltily glad to be missing maths.
Lina’s experience had been very different. When she was fifteen, her best friend committed suicide. Since then she had spent a lot of time thinking about death. She didn’t want to waste her time not living.
Lina had a way of looking at Simon that left him unnerved. Straight in the eye and then, when gathering momentum about what she was saying, she would gaze over his shoulder, as if the answer were out there somewhere. When she looked back at him, her eyes seemed darker, opaque. As if whatever it was that she was thinking about had taken over completely and her interest in Simon had gone.
All the students were given studio spaces at college – small partitioned cells in that 1970s Brutalist building that they complained about constantly. It was perpetually freezing or boiling in there, but most of them would sit around for hours, smoking rollies or Stuyvesant, drinking coffee, beer or cheap red that they hid when the odd lecturer made a cursory visit. ‘There’s some really dynamic stuff going on here,’ one of them would say, as he slid out of Simon’s space, no doubt fingering the cigarettes in his pocket and thinking of a cappuccino.
It was obvious to Simon that even the most disinterested lecturers stayed longer in Lina’s space, with its containers of dirt and broken plastic, its clay and glazes. She ground bits of rock and crushed them onto her canvases. She mixed paint with ash in her palm and smeared it. One whole wall was covered with photos of windows and these were what she painted or assembled. Views into interiors and onto exteriors – all through window frames.
In the final-year exhibition, each one of Lina’s works depicted six windows, three on top and three at the bottom of the frame. She had set up different tableaux: pastoral scenes, cityscapes. In the city scenes she used the earthy materials – crushed rocks, grass, rubbings from bark and leaves – while in the rural scenes she used iron filings, bits of plastic waste and tin. A river was made of soft drink cans cut up and assembled like a mosaic. There were no figures. The frames were made of incongruous materials too: bits of leather, shoelaces knotted together elaborately to look like wood from afar. They reminded Simon of the Surrealists – fur-covered cups and dripping clocks – and they induced the same vague nausea when he looked at them.
For most of the students, art school was purely social. In one studio or other, Simon and his friends talked in ever- looping conversations about the rigidity and commercialism of the art world, about what little hope there was for whatever postmodern endeavours they were embarking on.
Lina took part in none of this. She didn’t go to the pub with anyone. All she seemed to do was work. And despite the fact that no one much liked what she was doing – at least not the students – she kept at it. When Simon knew Lina was in her studio and he was in his, he always turned music on, a futile attempt to block out thoughts of her.
Simon was doing things with dolls. He’d found half a dozen or so in various op-shops and he placed them in murder scenes and orgies (not easy), and showed them (as best he could) drunk and vomiting. Then he took photos of them, got them processed and hand-coloured them. It was art-lite and he knew it. He could draw – if he’d bothered – but really he was bereft of ideas or any real drive. Max, Simon’s father, had laughed out loud when he told him he was going to art school (‘Don’t come to me for money, that’s all I can say.’)
Max was a businessman and Simon had inherited something of his practical, mercenary nature. Max had a nose for successful new ventures and was democratic in his approach to them: bungee jumping, solariums, plastic light fittings and sports drinks all engaged him with equal fervour. When Simon lived at home, it was a given that Max would be on the phone doing some deal or other, no matter what hour, dressed in his dark-grey suit and his shirts made to order. Talking loudly but ingratiatingly. ‘Maaate, come on, give me a break.’ His smile switching on and then, quickly, off. ‘Forget it, mate. Call me when you’ve actually got something to say.’
Max and Pam, Simon’s mother, had split up when Simon was fifteen. She left as soon as she got her psychology degree, moved into the inner city and found, to Max and Simon’s disbelief, a gay lover, Genevieve, while Max stayed making money in his compound in the suburbs – the swimming pool, the rolling grassy lawn that he never stepped on, the staff. Simon would visit Pam in her inner-city terrace with plump Genevieve hovering around too eagerly with herbal tea. He’d stare at the walls of books – Jung, Winnicott, Miller and the rest of them. It became impossible, after a while, to imagine Pam had been with Max in the first place.
Meanwhile, Simon’s interest in his own work had been replaced by an interest in others’. He got an intern- ship at an art magazine and soon they were letting him write bits and pieces and he was reviewing most of the new shows.
Simon married Georgia, they had Stellie and bought the big house on the river with the money they got after Georgia’s father died. They loved Stellie, though at fifteen she was becoming frighteningly precocious – all sullenness, blank eyes and long brown legs. Sometimes when Simon looked at her, he felt uneasy. She reminded him of the photo of Marianne Faithfull when she was arrested all those years ago, dressed only in Mick Jagger’s fur coat.
Georgia had been a publicist for a well-known gallery when Simon had met her. It was her poise that had attracted him. Abusive artists, crazy clients, a sarcastic boss: nothing seemed to affect her equilibrium or her unflappable beauty. These days, it was she, not Simon, who charmed the artists and who seemed to have no doubt that they were living life as it should be lived. Occasionally Simon wondered who she was, what she was about, hoped for more. Sometimes he yearned for the kind of conversation that he could think about for days, years afterwards. But there were parties, openings, affairs, occasional despair, writing, more openings, travel, a lot of money. And Georgia was there, creating dinners using porcini mushrooms and quinoa, organising holidays to Laos and New York, ferrying Stellie to her tennis and cello and art classes, when she wasn’t spending hours on Facebook.
Simon saw Lina again when he went to the opening of a group show. He had arrived with Georgia, who had immediately started chatting to some conceptual artist whose work was getting attention – an irritating young man who called himself, for no explicable reason, Grant E – and he was desperate to get away. He was looking around for the champagne and there was Lina. She was wearing a more sophisticated version of what she used to wear. Good plain pants, a monochrome top elevated above her old T-shirts only by virtue of its finer material, a silver necklace with a green orb that surprised him with its beauty. Her hair was loose and shoulder length, still a dull brown but now streaked with grey. Simon had heard from someone that she had changed her name when she got married: Lina Cosimo had become Lina Rennie. He had pondered this, in the way he always did when considering Lina, and in the end he had decided that Lina’s choice was part of the same impulse or lack of it that had her in the utilitarian clothes; her very obliviousness rendered her compliant to convention.
They stood awkwardly, trying to talk. Lina seemed as socially disinterested as always. Simon asked her about her husband and she told him he had been a history academic who had died recently.
‘I’m sorry,’ Simon said. He was slightly disappointed but not surprised that she hadn’t heard of his magazine.
‘You’re still doing the windows?’ he asked and Lina nodded, though immediately he was aware of the idiocy of his question. He turned to look and there they were, six of them, windows and more windows. The ones he was standing in front of were smashed – at least they were made from a variety of media to look like shattered glass. He thought of Kristallnacht in Berlin when Jewish businesses had been smashed, the beginning of all that pain. He thought of snowflakes and the intricacies of the human brain. And he wondered what had happened in Lina’s life since he had last seen her. They struggled to make small talk. Did she have
children? (She didn’t.) What had each of them done in the intervening years?
‘I lived in Rome,’ Lina said. ‘My husband got a job at a university there. I found it hard to work. It was too picturesque and all that history was distracting. I was glad to come back.’
Lina looked at Simon and he nodded and avoided her eyes. He was devoid of speech. His mouth was dry and he wished he had a drink. He glanced back at the lines in Lina’s forehead, and her neck, which was smooth and light brown. A few minutes passed and he was relieved when someone came up to greet her and he was able to make his excuses and move away.
Going into the next room he saw that Lina’s other windows looked inward. Interiors – chairs, a table, an unmade bed, food, half-eaten plates of things whose details were unmistakable: fish and meat, various vegetables and salads, fruit, red wine in a glass. Lina had used all kinds of materials. Oil paints, metal filings, cut-up foam, mud, leaves, crushed berries and what looked like petals, browned and then glazed with something like lacquer. Everything was static and weirdly placed, as if floating in the space. Four rows of four: sixteen of these made up one work. One interior revealed a pig, a cow and a horse, arranged as if in a religious scene. When Simon looked at them he felt pulled in, claustrophobic.
One night, when they were still at art school, he had come into Lina’s studio. It was late and the middle of winter – no one around. She didn’t register any particular surprise, although he had never come to see her before. Their few meetings had been accidental – in the library, in a cafe, in the grotty student lounge. Lina stopped her work and they sat on the floor drinking the beer Simon had brought. She talked about her work, about what she was trying to do, about how she loved it. Simon was excited by her intensity, her willingness to talk about things that actually meant something to her. Beside her, he felt tepid. He talked about how his father thought his art (or maybe everyone’s) was a waste of time, but that it didn’t matter because really he had nothing to say. How his mother paid no attention at all.
‘You should give up,’ Lina said. ‘I know,’ Simon said. They sat there until two or three in the morning,
talking about the artists they liked. After the beer ran out they got crappy coffee from the machine in the hall. Some time later they kissed. Simon remembered Lina’s dark eyes and her smooth face under his fingers. He shut the door and they had sex on an old blanket. The floor was arctic and the scratchy wool of the blanket marked the back of Lina’s thighs.
They hardly talked afterwards and they parted with little affection but a strange lack of embarrassment too. Simon dropped in to see Lina a few times afterwards but when she seemed bemused, he stopped. Then he started the job at the art magazine and didn’t see Lina anymore. He heard, though, that she was working harder than ever.
In the taxi home, after the exhibition, Simon sat next to Georgia and looked through the frame of the window. Rain, girls tottering and laughing in ugly shoes and strappy dresses, exhaling steamy breath, restaurants with small glowing lights. He imagined looking in the window of Lina’s house – orange and red colours, a brown leather armchair, books, her studio with its ordered clutter, a portable CD player emitting something nondescript – probably one of those ABC compilations someone had given her for Christmas and she’d just stuck on because she had it. Music to inspire.
Later, he couldn’t sleep. He turned away from Georgia’s warm silky back, forced himself out of bed. He walked to the kitchen and turned on the light and looked at the shining bench top, the coffee machine and the one horizontal abstract painting. He made tea, went to the study and turned on the computer. Here, more windows. Outside the animal shapes of trees, blue-ish city buildings ahead, the faint outline of Stellie’s school on the hill. He started to write the review.
Simon made eye contact with the woman at the pool, as planned. Her name was Vanessa, a student. She had short dark hair and dark eyes, a red tattoo on one shoulder and black bathers that hugged her white skin. Simon looked at her and she looked at him. It was dusk and they went to their respective change rooms and got dressed. They met outside and Simon drove them to her house. It was messy and filled with bikes and dirty dishes, ashtrays and a damp smell, but they knew her housemates wouldn’t be there.
Later he washed Vanessa’s smell from his body, then had dinner with Georgia and Stellie at the new restaurant. He looked in the window at their reflection – Georgia’s cheekbones and green dress and Stellie’s blonde hair, and him in the middle, his dark jacket and the glint of a glass in front of him. Outside the window a tram shunted past and the bookshop across the way cast light in a circle. A busker whacked a tin drum and someone laughed. Simon thought of Lina and whether she would read the review. He thought she would not.