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Tom Vowler

Tom Vowler is an award-winning novelist and short story writer living in south west England. His debut collection, The Method, won the Scott Prize in 2010 and the Edge Hill Readers’ Prize in 2011, while his novel What Lies Within received critical acclaim. He is co-editor of the literary journal Short Fiction and an associate lecturer in creative writing at Plymouth University, where he’s completing a PhD. His second novel, That Dark Remembered Day, was published in 2014.




At the Musée d'Orsay




They made their way, four of them, through the glass awning and into the cavernous belly of the museum, its lavishly carved stone walls rising to a barrel-vaulted glass ceiling. He watched as Brett and Lottie ploughed through the crowd, leaving him and Sally to offer apologetic smiles in their wake. Earlier, in a rare moment of privacy, when the two couples were separated crossing Pont Neuf, his wife agreed they’d outgrown their once-friends, how visiting had been a mistake, but that it was prudent to make the most of the stay, neither having visited Paris beyond a school trip or to make a connecting train.

The two women had met a dozen or so years ago at art college, losing touch briefly when Lottie took a job at the National Gallery, where a few months later she happened upon Brett, a hedge fund manager turned art dealer from one of the smaller Channel Islands. When Sally was offered a teaching post in the South Downs, their relocation saw the emergence of regular social encounters between the four, scores of dinner parties he tolerated for his wife’s sake. Brett immediately struck him as the sort who yearned for times an Englishman could keep a snow leopard as a pet, or could flounce around the globe drawing deference rather than contempt. The man made no concession to small talk, which seemed to pain him, and did little to hide his boredom when others spoke. Despite this they were able to occupy conversational ground that offended neither, riding the contrails of whatever topic the women initiated. Occasionally, when the two were left alone, Brett would offer him supposedly privileged advice on investments, which he politely observed, though in truth there was rarely anything left at the end of the month for such speculation.

‘Get on board early with this one,’ Brett would say conspiratorially, as if they were discussing an affair one of them was having. ‘Just don’t sit on them forever.’

His own job, interviewing candidates for social housing, was often rewarding, but presumably its remuneration belonged to another realm entirely. It also left him feeling inferior whenever art, fine or otherwise, was discussed. Sally, however, clearly regarded the friendship as worth prolonging, citing the importance of keeping company with more than one manner of person.

The matter, though, was taken out of their hands when Brett and Lottie, appalled by the prospect of, as they termed it, another socialist government, had a year ago exchanged a flat just off the Thames for a luxury apartment overlooking the Seine. Occupying the third and fourth floors of an historic building on Quai Henri IV, the property, reached by a gilded elevator, had been decadently renovated, its showpiece a wrap-around balcony overlooking the city. The furniture was antique, the art exclusive.

‘Eleven-hundred square feet,’ Brett had said when they arrived, as if he’d counted all of them. There was air conditioning for each of the seven rooms and a security system to embarrass a head of state.

After unpacking, Sally had asked if they might take a boat trip.

‘Don’t be silly, Sal,’ said Lottie. ‘Those are for the tourists.’

By way of compromise they observed the Catacombs at Montparnasse before hanging out in the boutiques and bars of Rue Oberkampf, allowing their hosts to drizzle proceedings with what smattering of French they’d bothered to learn. Later Lottie bought Italian ravioli and a large wedge of Comté from the fragrant stalls of the Marché des Enfants Rouge, using the latter for a fondue that evening. The dinner, although overly rich, was pleasant enough, and once he’d resigned to taking a minor role in exchanges, it seemed a certain enjoyment might even be had during the stay.

The following day, after coffee and croissants on the sun-kissed balcony, they had cocktails in the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz, before spending a boozy afternoon sampling Burgundies and Pinot noirs in a nearby caviste, where Brett spoke endlessly of terroir and his dislike for New World reds. Later, after their hosts argued and Brett followed a tearful Lottie back to the apartment, he and Sally took a cruise down the Seine with the other tourists.


The crowd in the museum had thinned now, their hosts suggesting they have a drink as it was still early, the four of them taking the stairs and then the escalator to the restaurant on the fifth floor. They had been due to attend the ballet that evening – Brett having complimentary tickets for La Sylphide – but a phone call to the apartment after lunch elicited in him a state of barely contained excitement. If they didn’t mind foregoing the ballet, a marvellous opportunity had presented itself. A show – one-off and strictly invitation only – was to be held in a private room of the Musée d’Orsay after closing hours.

            ‘What sort of show?’ he had asked Brett.

‘Nothing you’d see at home. This guy is going to be huge. He’s pushing all the boundaries of performance art.’

‘No one really knows who he is,’ said Lottie. ‘Viennese they think. Oh, please say you’ll come.’

They found a table beneath a majestic, outward-facing clock, a relic, according to Brett, from when the building had been a railway station. Beginning to feel lethargic from all the excess, he ordered an espresso, picturing himself climbing the chalk hills of home, watching the sun slip behind Linch Down, not a gallery or bar in sight. Did people here live like this all the time, flitting from one cultural gorging to another, or had they been subjected to a particularly rarefied tour, a condensed version reserved for impressionable guests? He wasn’t ungrateful for such hospitality; he just couldn’t keep up any more.

Brett was speaking of England.

‘Country’s gone to the dogs. We should have moved years ago. You guys should come over, buy somewhere.’ By somewhere, presumably he meant a cupboard in the suburbs.

‘We’d miss Sussex too much,’ said Sally.

‘Yes, I expect you would.’

There was something in Brett’s eyes now, perhaps the anticipation of whatever spectacle they were about to witness, or just an air of superiority – a look that reminded him of the stag weekend he’d been obliged to attend after Sally and Lottie resumed their friendship. At the behest of Brett’s best man, they’d convened, half a dozen of them, at a cottage on the edge of the New Forest, the others, he assumed, fellow denizens of the Square Mile. Within an hour of his arriving they accounted for a bottle of Jura and several lines of cocaine, some future version of himself no doubt appalled but helpless to intervene. By way of preparation, he’d vowed the only way to get through the occasion was to indulge whatever forms of destruction were on offer, while promising Sally he’d do his best to return unscathed. Being resident in the countryside, he reasoned, would at least ensure their non-attendance at some lap dancing lair or worse. Instead, much of the weekend was spent in sporting combat – archery, racquetball, a little golf – which considering how much they drank was to be commended. He fared badly at most, yet didn’t disgrace himself. The pièce de résistance, though, was held back until the Sunday evening, just as he was thinking no more could be endured. A land owner had been paid some obscene amount to permit a few acres of woodland be given over for a nocturnal paintball mêlée, last man standing and all that. There followed some of the worst hours of his life, as they spent half the night stalking each other in the rain, every now and then discharging spheres of florescent paint at a shifting shadow or ambient noise. Only later did he discover Brett and the others had night vision scopes on their weapons, leaving him exposed to the tyranny of several drunk and high feral bankers.


They were deep in the bowels of the building now, Lottie giggling like a child as Brett led the way through labyrinthine corridors. He’d told them earlier there would be no time to see any Degas or Gauguin, as Sally had requested, that tonight was all about the future of art. Finally they reached a door, in front of which a security guard stood impassively. Perhaps the man knew Brett, as he asked in English for them to relinquish their phones, which could, he said, be collected from reception after the show. The guard then scanned them with a handheld device, before allowing them to enter.

            The room itself was dimly lit, its far corners beyond sight. They were shown by an older woman to a row of seats that arced in a semi-circle, perhaps a couple of dozen people sitting in front and behind them, the silence broken only by an occasional cough or the door they’d entered through opening and closing.

Dating Sally in their student days he’d attended many such events, supposedly audacious exhibitions and performances, designed to shock or outrage, but which more often than not he found passé or inane. Perhaps, in one way or another, everything had been said or done, originality beyond even the most subversive of intentions. Maybe art needed a clean start, a new race of post-apocalyptic cave dwellers, unburdened by the weight of history as they daubed the rock in soot. Or would precisely the same masterpieces evolve all over again, humans incapable of escaping their aesthetic destiny?


It was a couple of miles to the apartment but they agreed the evening air would be welcome, a chance to reflect on what they’d just witnessed, and so they walked along Quai de Conti, past Notre-Dame, its stonework ochreous against the gloaming Parisian sky. He was thankful Brett and Lottie went on ahead, the orange glow from Brett’s cigarette cutting a hole in the night as he gesticulated like a native.

Of course none of it was real, despite the artist’s assurances to that effect. And yet it was beyond his imagination how the ghastly trick was achieved. He presumed the fainting woman in front of them to be a stooge; as were the few who left mid-act, tearful or appalled. Or perhaps they were just credulous; certainly no one around them seemed to share his scepticism.

            The artist – if that was the correct term – had finally appeared through a pair of black curtains at the front of the room. Dressed in dark trousers and polo neck, he looked around forty, though was clearly younger, his eyes intense, almost pained, his face a series of sharp angles, as if the skin was being drawn from within. Physically there was nothing to him, his willowy frame rising to an ovarian-shaped head, the goatee beard at its base quite satanic. His complexion was of someone who lived entirely indoors, or who had mere hours to live, yet when he spoke, his voice boomed among them without need of amplification, its timbre pealing like a church bell. There followed a rather arcane rant – the screen behind the man translating his words into several languages – the gist of which was an antipathy towards bourgeois art lovers, in particular critics who possessed no talent themselves. But instead of alienating the audience, this seemed merely to rouse their fascination, as murmurs of approval stole across the room. Apparently, few understood what true artists went through, the sacrifices that were made, least not those who sought to own their work, to own them. Yet this artist’s work, the man said, would never be owned.

            The screen was then filled with the words ars longa, vita brevis, while what might have been Wagner started up around them. A young woman, similarly dressed and with close-cropped black hair, wheeled in a small trolley, on which sat a cream ceramic bowl and a metallic tray of surgical instruments. The artist quietly acknowledged her and placed his hands in the water, drying them on a towel she passed him. At the same time the woman who’d shown them to their seats pushed a wheelchair into the room, in which sat a barely conscious middle-aged man, a sign around his neck bearing the words ‘un critique’.

            It was difficult to say how long what happened next took. Perhaps some sort of mass hypnosis had occurred, the screen laced with subliminal tidings, though all they’d seen was an endless loop of the critic’s scathing reviews, hatchet jobs that took delight in the denigration of various artists. It was, they were told, his forte.

He supposed concentrating on the critic’s eyes had been the ultimate symbolic gesture, the artist literally removing the man’s ability to appreciate art again. Ensuring the act’s detail went unmissed, especially by those seated further back, a close-up appeared on the screen, as the scalpel blade was carefully introduced to one eyeball and then the other. And with Wagner almost drowning out the critic’s screams, the young woman returned, offering the artist a small liquid-filled container, in which he placed his pair of trophies.


As they walked he tried to take Sally’s hand but she was still lost to shock, her shuffle along the quayside burdened with a sight that could not be unseen. As much as anything, it was their taking part, their willingness to vote for what happened, to determine the critic’s fate. A descent, albeit fugacious, into savagery.  

           ‘You know it wasn’t real?’ he told her again. ‘It was a performance.’

‘But the blood…’

They continued on in silence for a few minutes, finally catching up with the others, who’d stopped for a drink outside a small bar. By now the Seine was ablaze with great wedges of impressionistic light, as if Van Gogh himself had been busy in their absence. As he shepherded Sally into her seat, a smug-looking Brett poured them some wine while Lottie bemoaned their having to leave in the morning.

‘It feels like you’ve just got here,’ she said. ‘There’s so much more to see.’


©2015 Tom Vowler



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