Headlong

Headlong by Michael Frayn Read Free Book Online

Book: Headlong by Michael Frayn Read Free Book Online
Authors: Michael Frayn
tuberculosis by tomorrow, like the sheep.’
    I move thankfully towards the door.
    ‘Sorry we couldn’t be of any assistance,’ I say. ‘Delightful evening, though …’
    But Tony’s stopped.
    ‘Just a moment,’ he says. ‘Where’s the other one?’
    ‘What other one?’ says Laura.
    ‘There were three of these Dutch buggers.’
    ‘Oh,’ says Laura. She goes over and reaches behind the fire screen that hides the empty hearth beneath the Giordano. ‘Sorry, but it just fitted. Those bloody birds in the chimney keep bringing the soot down.’
    She struggles to shift a large, unframed wooden board.
    ‘It weighs a ton,’ she says. I move to help her. ‘Wait,’ she says, ‘you’ll get your hands filthy.’
    She finds an old newspaper under the empty coal box and scrubs at the board as best she can. Then between us we hoist it out of the fireplace and balance it on the table.
    So it’s there, in the freezing breakfast-room, among the indifferent chairs, with Laura still holding the filthy newspaper she’s just been scrubbing away with, and Tony looking over my shoulder, still hoping for a valuation, and Kate in the doorway, still patiently rocking the carry-cot back and forth, that I first set eyes on it. On my fate. On my triumph and torment and downfall.

I recognize it instantly.
    I say I recognize it. I’ve never seen it before. I’ve never seen even a description of it. No description of it, so far as I know, has ever been given. No one knows for sure who, if anyone – apart from the artist himself – has ever seen it.
    And I say instantly. The picture’s uncleaned, and for a few seconds all I can see, until my eye adjusts to the gloom, is the pall of dirt and discoloured varnish. Then again, how long is an instant? The human eye sees very little at any one moment. All it can distinguish with any clarity is what falls on the fovea, the pit no bigger than a pinhead in the centre of the retina where the packed receptors are closest to the surface. If I’m holding it at arm’s length, as I am, to keep it upright, what I’m seeing at any one moment, really seeing, is a patch of paint about an inch in diameter. I’m seeing one tiny detail.
    What is that detail? The first one I see? I don’t know. Perhaps the highlights on the new green leaves where they lie in the track of the sun. Perhaps the figure caught for all eternity just off-balance, with his foot ridiculously raised to stamp the ground. Perhaps just the foot itself. But already my eye’s doing what the human eye always has to do to take in the world in front of it. It’s flickering and jumping in indescribably complex patterns, back and forth, up and down, round and round, moving over and over again each second, assembling patch after patch into a first approximation of awhole; amending the approximation; amending it again. For a picture this size, some four feet high by five feet long, even the most cursory scan must take a matter of seconds.
    Already, even as I look at it in those first few instants, what I’m contemplating is not the picture but my accumulated recollection of it.
    And already, somewhere in those first few instants, something has begun to stir inside me. In my head, in the pit of my stomach. It’s as if the sun’s emerging from the clouds, and the world’s changing in front of my eyes, from grey to golden. I can feel the warmth of the sunlight spreading over my skin, passing like a wave of beneficence through my entire body.
    How do I know what it is that I’m seeing? As with the orange of oranges once again, as with the loveliness of Tilda, I just do. Friedländer, the great Max Friedländer, is very good on this. ‘Correct attributions’, he says, ‘generally appear spontaneously and “prima vista”. We recognize a friend without ever having determined wherein his particular qualities lie and that with a certainty that not even the most detailed description can give.’ Friedländer, of course, had spent his

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