Maybe you have heard of Federico Piccoli? No? That is, perhaps surprisingly, the way we prefer it. He is considered, rightly in my humble opinion, to be the pinnacle of luxury men’s leather shoes. Less obvious, less glamorous than your usual high-end high street brands, more exclusive, more subtle and, maybe more importantly, more expensive. If you do find us, and if you do choose to dress your feet in our shoes, I promise your life will never be the same again. I’m not bragging – that is just what happens. That’s what happened to me.
More than twenty years ago I was renting a tiny bedsit on the Holloway road, a five–minute walk from Archway station. It was the start of my second year studying Art at Goldsmith’s University. I was young and foolish and full of such dreams. On one side of my room was a single bed, a kitchen counter with a single electric stove, a scratched one-tap sink, and an array of never-fitting cupboards. On the other side was what I referred to without irony as my ‘work’, a bundle of abstract paintings in the style of Miro (he was, but is not now, my art hero).
My choice of university and subject taken was against my father’s wishes, a fair man who had correctly predicted that – although it was not difficult to presume as such – it would be a hard-earned waste of time and money, and I was far better off concentrating my efforts on my strength, which was, strangely, mathematics, as this would almost guarantee a decent future income and allow me to paint at the weekends. But what kind of idealistic teenager would ever bend to such basic logic? So, supporting myself by summers spent stacking in a local supermarket, I found myself full of pride and ambition as a first year art student at the prodigious Goldsmiths College.
As expected my first year was a slow disaster as I struggled to come to terms with the large leap in difference between good at school and good at university. I scrapped by with a low-third, my practical almost as bad as my theory. For all my love and loyalty, I was lost. But, to either credit my stupidity or my dedication, I returned the next year after yet another supermarket summer.
I was halfway through that term’s main project – a portrait of two lovers saying goodbye, their eyes not meeting, his on the floor, hers faraway remembering a happier time now long gone, their hands stretching but failing to meet, their touch falling short. I wanted to show the unspoken sadness of lovers realising that their love alone is not enough, life and all its outside forces proven too strong. However, they cannot acknowledge such failure and only bid farewell until a tomorrow that will never come. Remember, I was young. The painting’s fine sentiments were, alas, ruined by my clumsy hand: the man looked as if he was about to vomit; the girl, if she was indeed feminine, appeared to have suffered some accident which had tilted her head but not her face, blurred features appearing as if falling down a steep slope. My own failure to portray their defeat had made the day too heavy so I left for my customary long walk, down towards Camden, through Regents Park, and soon, before my body knew it, into and past Oxford Street.
Poor, sad, and hungry, my feet throbbing from the journey, I stopped in a café off Regent’s Street. Across from my table stood a small, dark shop with an Italian name and a clearly expensive display of men’s accessories. I stirred the dregs of a coffee I couldn’t afford and decided that things couldn’t be much worse than now and, before I knew it, was entering the shop and smelling for the first time that scent of rich fresh leather. And money, real money, that too.
Once the sales assistant, a harshly handsome man with thick black stubble and severe green eyes, was certain I was not there to beg or steal, he did me the service of at least appearing to listen to my application and, apparently, wrote down my information – although, in hindsight, he could have been writing down his shopping list or composing a sonnet. As we were about to finish, the manager stormed in and proceeded to let loose a torrent of angry foreign vowels at his assistant who, now silenced, aimed his eyebrows at me. Did I have sales experience, the manager asked in heavily accented English? I did. Had I a decent suit? I had, just. Was I good at Maths? I was. And to prove it, the manager at once unleashed a series of stock entries from the accounts book that I was meant to calculate in front of them then and there.
After being clogged down by the subjective ambiguity of art for so long, it was a pleasure to let myself find the answers where they were rather than where they could be. My mind felt as if it was swimming through clean water, the numbers coming to me like warmth. I was right. He tested me again, and again I was right.
The next day I returned in my only suit as a minimum-wage shop assistant and I would keep returning for the next two decades. Now, in a variety of bespoke suits, I arrive as the national representative. Even now, I wake up waiting for that smell of new leather and the look of enjoyable scandal on the face of a new customer as they buy a gift for themselves they will never regret.
As I walked back that first day I was astonished at how easy a dream can die. That was it. No more. I was done. I returned home and threw all my work into the outside bins with yesterday’s food and last week’s waste. I was not sad, but instead amazed at how weak our deepest desires really are, and that, in all probability, we all might find ourselves in the last place we would ever have looked. And find ourselves there smiling.
Last night I was awoken by the touch of my wife’s reaching hand on my back-turned shoulder. Suddenly alert, I spun over awaiting her semi-conscious embrace but she was gone, lost in her dream, and I was confronted instead with only her silent snores and corpse-like mouth. Immediately, I thought, ‘How strange! How strange to be so surprised by such basic tenderness!’ And then I too was lost there, in the debris of my own dream, awake and a slave to my non-returning slumber.
I am normally a solid sleeper so as I lay there I recalled the last night that I had been unable to find rest, perhaps half a year ago. I had suffered – yes, no other word will do – an erotic dream of such sexual potency that it startled me from my sleep. I was breathless and damp. My penis had not been so forceful, so desperate, since my adolescence. It raged.
My mind had been watching myself about to perform oral sex on what was assumed to be a previous, now long-forgotten colleague of mine. Although I knew it was her, I also knew it wasn’t: her face was different, more angular, more streamlined; her eyes narrow and accusing; the hair the same raven black but shorter, falling just below her shoulders as opposed to above her waist. I had never slept with her, never tried, nor seen more of her flesh than summertime calves and forearms, yet I was certain that this dreamt-body was also fraudulent: the breasts thinner and further apart, the nipples too dark for what I was sure was her reality.
All of this occurred only in my post-dream state, and, as we all know, may not have happened at all and is simply a safety system made by my mind to protect itself from any uncomfortable truth. What is true, and is remembered to this night, is what gave me thoughts of such carnal ferocity. I remember that in the middle of her vagina – cleanly shaven, closely packed – was a slither of space where nothing was, a void into which I was about to enter, tongue first.
How could that image hold such power over me? To this day I do not know. But then, that night, I lay trembling, my heart a dancing beat, my whole being succumbed to, to, to what? Fear? – Certainly. But more: a desire that verged on murderous and a terrible question – Was it now, now it was all far too late, that my sexual self had awoken? No, not reborn, I was never, and had never wanted to be, a ladies’ man; my libido had always been on a leash. Tonight, 48 years old, I was like a teenage boy again, full of heat and hunger, sleeping next to a woman who had not slept with me for months, and, all cards on the table, may never again: a sad thing, but not so sad as it might be, for both of us, for the best.
I left the bed stealthily, an act I was more than used to accomplishing after nights of stupidly drinking anything after 10pm, and tiptoed, my penis leading the way, to the bathroom. Once there, I stood above the toilet and masturbated for all of five seconds before all my semen jumped into the toilet, my legs quivering, my mouth open and twisted. A quick yet thorough clean, a half flush with the lid closed and then I went to wash the guilt off my hands.
As the water whispered through my fingers, I looked into the mirror to see the man I had become. My hair was thin and high, wrinkles too deep to dismiss as simply fatigue, eyes that were more than tired, teeth circled my colourless lips. No matter how I dressed up reality, the truth remained: I sold shoes, I was a shoe salesman. Gone, long dead, was the teenage artist living in poverty, living for art and the life it led. A wife and a house and a car and money and twenty years and the mute horror of finding out that you don’t like where you belong. ‘How did I get here? Is here where I should be?’ Who has never asked themselves those questions? Who has ever heard an answer?
And it was at that exact moment that I realised I had gone past half-way, the scale had slipped, and there was now less of me when before there had been more. What I felt was not sympathy for myself but rather almost a hemorrhaging of love for my wife, and, as strange as it sounds, for all us poor humans, doomed to be forever ourselves, each of us shackled to the unavoidable tragic comedy of being anyone at all.
That night was different because, moments later, I was soon asleep. But tonight I’m still here, my wife and her soft hands on the other side of the bed, a whole world away. Is there anything sadder than a painter losing his painting? Yes – a marriage losing its love, a life losing its life. I remain awake. But dawn draws close; its sun frames the windows.
Andrew James Talbot
Andrew James Talbot was born in Norway but raised in England and has travelled extensively, living in Japan, Russia, and Argentina. He now lives in Brazil with his young family.
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