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'The Boy in the Field' Chapters 15 & 16

spinner image illustration of an open book showing Morandi painting with five bottles
Illustration by by Nick Matej





AS SHE LEFT the bus station, Zoe could picture the woman in her black T-shirt, with her wide smile and tangled hair, but walking up George Street, turning onto the Cornmarket, passing so many people, so many women, the image grew less distinct. Lots of women had long brown hair; some were tall. Perhaps she had already passed her without noticing? A man and a woman strolled by, swinging a boy between them; the woman wore a green sari beneath her anorak. A crowd of teenagers from one of the language schools passed in a wave of Italian. Two women, laden with bags, hurried by. She was about to give up and head to the shopping center when she realized she was gazing into the eyes not of a woman but a man. He was walking toward her, not exactly smiling, waiting to see if she would notice him. She looked back, curious and unabashed. He had high cheekbones, a strong nose, fair skin. His mouth was framed by a neat beard, almost the same shade of light brown as the hair that sprang back from his forehead. His leather jacket was a darker brown. The pavement between them dwindled, disappeared. With the slightest nod of acknowledgment—yes, he had seen her—he was past.

She turned to watch him, hoping he too would look back. When he didn’t, she began to follow him. As soon as she saw him turn up Broad Street, she turned up Ship Street—it ran parallel—and started running. Without crowds or traffic, she could sprint down the narrow street. Then she was turning left on Turl Street. She slowed to draw breath and smooth her hair.

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He might have gone into a shop, or one of the colleges on the far side of Broad Street, but there he was, once again, walking toward her. She started walking too, slowly, wanting to make the moment last. She had taken half a dozen steps when his gaze again met hers. She saw the jolt of surprise, then his delighted smile. He stepped out of the stream of pedestrians. She followed. They were standing near the entrance to the Sheldonian Theatre. From atop the walls on either side a row of massive stone heads, Roman emperors, ignored them, staring out over the crowded street.

“Do I know you?” he said. His boots were dark brown and expensive looking.

She shook her head, tongue-tied, even as she registered the cliché. He was older, she thought—twenty-two? twenty-three? Or was that the beard? His upper teeth were very regular, his lower a little higgledy-piggledy.

“So why are you following me? Or should I say intercepting me?”

He was American. Maybe that explained the beard, and the boots. Zoe heard herself say, “You look like a painting in one of my brother’s books.” She could picture the long-faced saint in his purple robe, the twisted rocks in the background, but not the artist’s name.

“If you make a habit of telling strange guys they look like paintings, you’ll find yourself in more trouble than you ever dreamed of.” He reached toward her, but his hand stopped short.

“What kind of trouble?” She kept her voice equally low.

He laughed. “I’m not going to tell you that. Go home before some big bad wolf finds you.”

His lips, framed by his beard, were pale and smooth.

“You go home,” she said, childishly. Before she knew what she was doing, she had turned and was running down the street, zigzagging through the crowds.

Sitting on the bus, she felt stupid. His warning was an overture, the first step in a dance. Why hadn’t she answered in kind? They could have gone to a café. She tried to imagine the conversation they would have had, talking about the Bodleian Library or the Radcliffe Camera, and all the time, below the surface, talking about something else.  




LIKE A LIGHT flashing at the edge of his vision, he sensed danger. He had wanted to show Mr. Griffin the illustrations in The Little Mermaid, pictures he had loved for as long as he could remember. Now he worried that his teacher wouldn’t appreciate her endless devotion to the handsome prince whose life she saves from shipwreck but who never knows she’s saved him.

“Wasn’t there a film?” Mr. Griffin said vaguely. The frontispiece showed the mermaid and her sisters tending their garden lined with scallop shells. He began to point out the many faults: their faces were boneless ovals, their hair rippled like a bad Botticelli painting. And the seahorses were a travesty. “They’re actually quite ugly,” he said, “warty, with huge eyes on stalks.”

Mr. Griffin’s own eyes bulged beneath bristling brows as if they were trying to grasp whatever they saw. This was his first job after art school, and the smell of cigarette smoke, other kinds too, clung to his clothing, mixed with the smell of paint. Sometimes he forgot to remove his bicycle clips. He spoke fiercely about the differences between art, which he worshipped, and craft, an admirable but lesser undertaking. “Pretty” was one of his worst insults. “Decorative” a close second.

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Now Duncan studied the picture, trying to view it as a stranger rather than a lifelong friend. “I’ve never seen a seahorse,” he said, “but I like how there are wispy ink marks and at the same time you can see mermaids and flowers and fish. That’s what I want to do—to make pictures where a lot is left out but people fill in the details. How do I do that?”

“I wish I knew,” Mr. Griffin said, and Duncan understood that he truly did. “All I can suggest is keep drawing, keep looking at paintings to see how the artist is using the space of the canvas, how the colors and the composition work together. Keep making your own paintings.” He went over to the shelf of art books near his desk and pulled out a slender book with a white cover. “Let me know what you think. He leaves out a lot.”

That evening Duncan found himself looking not at Leda and the Swan, or Europa and the Bull, paintings full of color and movement that told a story, but at five bottles, or flagons, or vases—he wasn’t sure what to call them—each a different shape. He turned the page and there were the same five bottles, the tallest one on the left. And again, and again. The paintings were small and the colors were cool: grays, purples, ochers, many shades of white. Sometimes the bottles were so sharply specific, he could have gone into a shop and picked them out of a hundred others. Sometimes they were ghostly, almost irrelevant. Whoever painted these, thought Duncan, loved the bottles. He imagined them lined up on the table in his beautiful room. His mother had still not mentioned his first mother, but he knew she had spoken to his father; they both praised him at every opportunity.

The next day, during lunch hour, he knocked again on the art room door. When no one answered, he stepped inside, thinking he would set the book on one of the easels that circled the room, and revisit some of the most intriguing paintings. He was heading for the nearest easel when he spotted Mr. Griffin seated by an open window, eating a tuna fish sandwich, and smoking.

“Hello,” he said quietly.

“Bloody hell!” Last year, when he started teaching at the school, Mr. Griffin had used the same swear words as Duncan’s father, but someone had complained; now he said mostly comic things: “Gordon Bennett!” “Holy mackerel!”

“I did knock. You didn’t notice.”

“And you didn’t notice that I’m holding a little white cylinder.” He stubbed out the cigarette. “So what do you think of Mr. Morandi?”

Duncan searched for words to describe his journey with the five bottles. At first the paintings had struck him as simple, even a little dull. Then, as he kept looking, he had begun to understand how they both were, and were not, about the bottles. Sometimes—it was hard to judge in a reproduction—the brushwork seemed almost clumsy, yet the paintings were complete. “I really, really want to see these paintings,” he said. “Is the painter still alive?”

“No. He died in the sixties, in Bologna, a city in northern Italy.”

Setting aside his sandwich, Mr. Griffin reached for the book and began to turn the pages. Together they studied the bottles, remarking on the soft gray of this one, the neck of that, the choice of ground, the shadows.

“I like this one,” said Mr. Griffin, his eyes bulging toward a painting in which the bottles almost vanished.

“Do you think we’d like it as much if we hadn’t seen the others?”

“I don’t know. And I don’t know if that matters. Plenty of great painters work in series—the paintings are in conversation with each other, and with the viewer.”

As Mr. Griffin spoke, the bell for afternoon class rang. He swore again, and seized the remains of his sandwich.


AT HOME, AFTER A QUICK walk, Duncan invited Lily to his room. Choosing a sketchpad and a soft pencil, he set out to draw her as if she were one of the five bottles. Normally she enjoyed posing, or at least sat docilely. Today he had barely begun when she stretched a hind leg. Then she shifted from haunch to haunch, scratched her belly, sneezed twice, and finally, without a glance in his direction, trotted out of the room. Alone Duncan studied his three attempts, each worse than its predecessor: the lines muddled, the proportions wrong. Sometimes he could fix a drawing, but there was nothing here to fix. He tore the worst of the three in half, enjoying the decisive sound of fibers parting.

Downstairs everyone else was sitting on the large green sofa, watching University Challenge; Zoe perched on the arm to make room for him. He almost never knew the answers, but he liked watching the faces of the contestants as they ransacked their brains. And he liked watching his family hurl their guesses at the screen. Zoe was the quickest, but often wrong. His mother was good on the ancient world and food. His father had surprising areas of knowledge—the deepest fjord in Norway, the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes, how the borders of Hungary had been redrawn after World War I—but was slower. Matthew was good on nineteenth-and early twentieth-century history, and sport. Why had the drawings failed? Duncan wondered. The problem wasn’t, he knew, Lily’s restlessness; it was his bad drawing that had made her restless. As he listened to a series of questions about early arctic exploration—Shackleton, dogs versus ponies—the answer came to him. Morandi had looked at the bottles, truly looked at them, giving his vision over to their slender forms rather than imposing himself on them; he had painted them over and over, until all that remained was their essence. I need to be patient, Duncan thought. Draw a paw, an ear, an eyebrow. Then I might end up in a totally different place.

“Who painted The Arnolfini Portrait?” asked the quiz master.

Suddenly he was shouting, “Van Eyck.”

“Well done,” said his mother.

“Brilliant,” said his father.




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