from Framed

Thirty-five paintings, practically all the same: indescribable black scribblings on a black background. Obsessive, sick.

The day they arrived at the gallery I unpacked them one by one, going faster and faster, wanting to see the surprise and the splash of color. At first glance everyone thought they were sinister. Even Jacques, my colleague. He's the master picturehanger; I'm just his apprentice.

"We're pushed for time, kid. Doors open in twenty-five minutes!"

The director of the gallery gave us only four days to set up the exhibition, all the paintings and three monumental sculptures which nearly did Jacques's back in. Strips of torn steel soldered together, piled up to twelve feet high. Two whole days getting them in position, with two of us at it. I can remember the look on the movers' faces when they delivered them. "Can't they do stuff that fits in a truck, these useless artists?" Removal men often have trouble with contemporary works of art. Jacques and I do, too, even though we're used to it. We don't always know how to take them, these pieces. Literally and figuratively. We may think we're ready for anything, but we never know quite what's going to appear from the back of the articulated truck.

Twenty to six, and the private view officially starts at six o'clock. The champagne is chilling, the waiters are all done up in their ties, and the cleaner has just finished vacuuming the five thousand square feet of carpeting. And we always have a last-minute problem; it never fails. But it takes more than that to panic my colleague.

"Where are we putting it?" I ask.

That's the problem. Hanging thirty-five homogenous paintings all in the same family is easy. But there's one little lost orphan among them. When I unwrapped it I thought at first that it had got in there by mistake, and that I'd already seen it somewhere else, in another collection. Unlike the others, this one is very colorful with lots of bright yellow and something dazzling about it, an academic portrayal of a church spire emerging from surrounding color. It's lighter, more cheerful, you could say. Joyful even . . . but I don't think that's a term approved by the upper echelons of the art world.

We kept it till last. The gallery director, the eminent Madame Coste who specializes in the 1960s, has breezed through without helping us out.

"That painting's a problem, I know, it doesn't sit well with the others. Find it a discreet corner where it can breathe a bit. Go on, I trust to you, see you later."

A discreet corner . . . How would this little yellow thing show up amongst all these big black ones? They were quite nice, actually, but terribly aggressive.

Jean-Yves, the restorer, can't stop laughing at the sight of us going round in circles. He's lying on the ground with his white gloves on, touching up the corner of a painting that was damaged during the setting up. He's almost finished.

"Only a quarter of an hour left!" he yells to wind us up a bit more.

Visitors are pressing their foreheads against the glass door, invitations in hand, and already drooling at the thought of the canapés.

"Try over by the window," Jacques says.

I hold the painting up at arm's length. He stands back a bit to see if it works.

"Hmph . . ."

"We've only got ten minutes," I tell him.

"It's still hmph."

He's right. There's an unfortunate contrast between the spotlights and the daylight. The Minister may be coming to the private view, and if we're found here like a couple of idiots with a painting still in our hands Mother Coste will have a fit. It reminds me of the time we got a piece from Australia two hours before the opening. It was in a wooden trunk, fifteen bottles filled with varying amounts of water; it was called "Shark." No photo, no instructions, and the artist was at the Biennale in Sao Paulo. The visitors were starting to scratch at the door. In a terrible effort of concentration, Jacques tried to get inside the artist's head. Click: if they were arranged in a particular order, the water level in the bottles created the outline of a shark, jaw, dorsal fin and tail. We finished just in time. Everyone admired that particular piece-and I admired Jacques.

He's walking in circles, furious and calm at the same time. Jean-Yves has finished his touching up and is sniggering again.

"Hey, you're quite a double act, you could entertain the gallery . . ."

"Shut it," Jacques says serenely.

He draws a hammer from his tool belt and takes a hook from the pocket of his overalls.

"I've got it, kid."

He races off and, carrying the painting, I follow him as best I can into a room where there are already four paintings. He takes two down, puts one back up, paces round, takes the others off . . . they're all on the floor, I can tell this is heading for disaster, he swaps two over, then feverishly reverses the decision. Liliane, the attendant, comes by, key in hand, and warns us that she can't delay the opening. Jacques doesn't listen to her; he carries on waltzing to a rhythm even he doesn't understand. An expanse of wall has just appeared; he plants the nail without even measuring the height.

"Go on, hang it there," he tells me.

I hang the painting and look all round the room. Everything is on the wall; the black ones are lined up at the top end and the yellow one is on a "reverse" wall, you don't see it as you come in, but only as you leave. Isolated, but there all the same. I don't even have to check it with the spirit level.

Coste comes in, all fidgety and dolled up in her evening dress.

"That's great, boys, you deserve a glass of champagne. But go and get changed first."

With our overalls and our hammers, we look pretty untidy. Jean-Yves comes over to the yellow painting and looks at it very closely.

"It's a real problem, this picture," he says.

"We're well aware of that."

"No, no, there's something else . . . I don't know what it is . . . A mixture of oils and acrylics . . . it'll never last. And there's something weird about the spire, don't know what but . . ."

"People can paint with whatever they like, can't they?"

The first visitors are coming slowly into the room.

"Does this picture have a title?" Jean-Yves asked me.

"I have no idea."

"Odd . . ."

With her firm smile, Coste asks us if we could leave. We do as we're told.

Ten minutes later, all fresh and clean, we meet up again-Jean-Yves, Jacques and myself-by the reception desk where Liliane is frenetically handing out catalogs to journalists. The words "Etienne Morand Retrospective" are written in white on a black background. A waiter offers us a glass each. I decline.

"Why do you never drink?" Jacques asks.

The hall is filling with the usual hubbub, and people are gathering round the enormous sculpture in the foyer.

"I don't like champagne."

And that's not true: I love it, but after six o'clock I have to have an absolutely clear head. It's going to be a long evening, not here but not far away, just up the road. It would be too complicated to explain all that to them.

Jean-Yves looks up from the catalog and closes it.

"The yellow painting's called 'Attempt 30,' and it was Morand's last piece of work."

"Why his last?"

"He died not long afterward, of cancer. And there are no others called 'Attempt.' It's odd to paint nothing but black and then to finish with yellow."

"Oh, that's all part of the impenetrable mystery of the creative process," I say. "God knows what goes on in a painter's mind. Especially if he knew he had cancer. It didn't stop him making sculptures with a blowtorch, so why not use a bit of yellow . . . ?"

But Jean-Yves is right: the painting is odd. What intrigues me more than the color is the image. All the rest of Morand's output is completely abstract, and then there's this extraordinarily precise church spire . . . I really feel I've seen that combination of color and subject before. It's funny, it's as if the painter wanted to conclude his work with a denial of everything he had done before, with a hint of . . . a hint of life . . . But I don't have time to ponder this: it's time.

"Aren't you going to stay?" asks Jacques.

"I can't."

"You never stay. After six o'clock you whisk out of here like a whippet! We don't see you for dust! One day will you tell me what you do after six o'clock? Are you in love?"

"No."

"What is it, then?"

I start my life, that's all. My life happens somewhere else: it starts after six p.m. and ends late into the night.

I take my coat and give a general wave. I'm always bored at private views, anyway. Liliane asks me to come by tomorrow to fill in a form with my hours and get my pay. A fond wave to the whole team and a long good-bye to contemporary art. Now I'm concentrating on my own art.

Monsieur Perez, the concierge, sees me leave.

"So, youngster, off to find your friends!"

"Yup! See you tomorrow!" I say to cut any conversation short, as usual.

And it's over . . .

I come out of the gallery and head quickly toward the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré. The days are getting longer; the streetlights are not yet lit. Good old February, especially the end of the month. A bus passes and I cross the street on a green light. I cut across the Avenue Hoche and pull up the collar of my coat; it's a stubbornly cold winter. In the Place des Ternes the flower market is getting prettier by the day, and the staff at the brasserie throw out binfuls of oyster shells, it's still the season. I'm in a good mood this evening, and I'm going to bring the house down. On the Avenue MacMahon a Renault 5 beeps at me; I never use the crossings-never mind. I'm there. I look up before going in, just to see the huge sign to the temple. My temple.

ACADEMIE DE L'ETOILE

I take the stairs up to the second floor to get to the room. I take a deep breath, wipe my hands on the front of my coat and go in.

The lights, the sound, the smell, the coming and going . . . I'm at home. Benoit and Angelo give me a welcoming squeal, the players perched on the mezzanine look down at me, and I raise my hand high. René, the manager, pats me on the back, and the waitress Mathilde takes my coat. People are playing, smoking, having a good time. I need this, all this explosive life, after hours of concentrating on nails and picture hooks. The audience is not the same brand of people you get at private views. Here, they don't think about anything, they even forget the game, they cheer and heckle or they can even stay silent for hours. And I'm like an addict who becomes himself again after the first fix, at nightfall. And happy with it too. The neon lights are on over every billiards table except for No. 2: it's reserved. I spot a boy getting up from his chair shyly and coming over toward me. I don't know why I think of him as a boy when he's at least my age-early thirties. He barely opens his mouth, but I cut him short straightaway, still staying as polite as possible, though.

"We were meant to meet at six, weren't we? Listen . . . I'm really sorry but this evening there's a game with the second-ranked French player. I'm not playing, but I really don't want to miss it. I've got you here for nothing . . ."

"Uh . . . it doesn't matter, we can put the lesson off till tomorrow," he says.

"Tomorrow . . . ? Yes, tomorrow, and, in return, I won't charge you for it. At about six, like today."

"That's fine . . . but this evening, can I stay? I mean . . . can I watch?"

"Of course! You should really make the most of the opportunity and book a table to get some practice, to do a series of 'breaks.' "

To make this clearer, I starting positioning the balls that René has just brought over.

"No more than eight inches between the whites, and-with the red one-vary the distance: start off with it a hand's width from the one you want to strike. Don't worry about playing for position for now."

"What is 'playing for position'? You've already told me but I've . . ."

"It's when you play a point and try to get all the balls as close to each other as possible, to prepare for the next point. But we can do that a bit later, can't we?"

I play the stroke as slowly as I can and hold my position so that he can memorize the movement.

"The most important thing is to stay absolutely parallel to the baize, I can't stress that enough: the slightest angle, and you've had it, OK? You strike the upper part of the ball with a tiny bit of sidespin to the left and you're rolling."

I don't feel like going back over all the different phenomena hiding behind that one word "rolling." Not again, it took me a good hour in the last lesson. And you can get to the point where the expression doesn't mean anything any more, they either feel it or they don't, and it comes to them gradually. The boy doesn't look very sure of himself as he picks up his brand new cue, runs a line of blue chalk over the tip and puts the balls back in position. I turn away so as not to put him off.

Everything looks ready at No. 2. René has just taken the cover off and is brushing the baize. Langloff, the champion, is screwing his mahogany cue together over in a corner. He lives in a far-flung suburb and hardly ever comes to Paris, just for the national championships or exhibition matches, and sometimes, like this evening, to visit his old friends. His game is a bit austere with no flourishes, but his technique won him the title three times. He was thirty-six back then. Every time I see him play I steal something from him: a mannerism, a gesture, a shot. It will take me years' more work to get to that level, that's what René tells me. But he can tell it's coming.

In fact, I haven't come just to watch: I know that Langloff likes playing three-way games, and René has promised to suggest me for this evening's match. I've been thinking about it all week, that's why I was in such a hurry when I left the gallery.

René is talking to Langloff. I can see what he's up to; he's talking to him about me. I cross my arms and stay sitting on my seat, looking up at the ceiling. It isn't easy playing with a much younger player. I would completely understand if he refused.

"Hey, Antoine! Come over here . . ."

I jump to my feet. René does the introductions, and Langloff shakes my hand.

"So, are you the child prodigy? René tells me you're pretty tough for a kid."

"He's exaggerating."

"We'll see about that. How would you like a three-way game?"

How would I like it? How do you think!

This evening I really mustn't let my friends down. I shake hands with an old boy who spends all his time holed up in here but hasn't played for two years. "My arthritis!" he says when I suggest a little warm-up. He is sixty-nine, and I am sure he would still hold his ground pretty well. And when I think how long he has been playing I reckon that, at thirty, I have another forty years ahead of me. Forty years of learning. Forty years of pleasure, of jubilation every time a point is made. Sooner or later I will put in for the Championship. All I want is to score the points, I want prizes for beautiful shots, I want to be able to do things which defy the laws of physics, I want the mahogany cue to be an extension of my index finger, I want the balls to take up impossible angles, to obey the most absurd orders, for them to be propelled by remote control by my hand and my will. Billiards is a pure universe: everything becomes possible . . . and simple. You never play the same shot twice in your whole life. Three spheres in a rectangle-and everything is contained within it.

My life is here, around this rectangle.

Forty years to go.

*

Angelo is playing with us. He has just positioned the balls to determine which of us will play first. He has a thick wop accent, and he always says, "When it rolls on velvet, you know it's billiards." I take off my watch and ask for a minute to warm up, just to see how the cue is responding. My hands are fine; they know what to do all by themselves. My eyes are getting used to the light that shimmers over the baize and stays within the confines of the table. We can start.

My mind flashes back to my old uncle Basil. I would have liked him to see me this evening, he taught me to play in the first place, in Biarritz. I was eighteen; I could run fast, hit hard and see far. He was on the brink of senility, it took him ten minutes to cross the room at the café, and he wore bifocals. But he only had to pick up his billiard cue and he would show me how you could flirt with geometric perfection: those beautiful spheres knocking together, spinning, dancing balls.

I really was hooked for forty years' worth then.

*

In the last six games I have only got to my feet eleven times. Angelo has left us together, Langloff and myself, for the last two hours. My best break earned me twenty-four points in succession. Langloff watched me with a strange look in his eye: not really worried, more intrigued. We all knew he would put us in our place, but I kept on at him with the determination of a terrier. At one point I even played a variation of a shot he played last year. I thought it was so beautiful that I spent hours practicing to get it right. He remembered it, and it made him laugh. I barely heard the cues being drummed on the ground to acknowledge the shot (our form of applause); I was hypnotized. Everything has worked for me this evening, specially the "screw" shots. When I opened my eyes again, the fluorescent lights were all out except for ours, and there were a dozen or so aficionados watching us in silence. Angelo was there, chalk in hand, keeping note of my score with undisguised joy. René had lowered the blinds, as he usually does after eleven o'clock. Langloff concluded the match magnificently on a point off no less than five cushions-well, you have to end on a high.

We all cheered. René switched off the lights over No. 2, and Langloff took my arm to take me to one side.

"You had me going there, young man."

"You must be joking! You were three sets up on me . . ."

"No, no, I know what I'm talking about. René tells me you don't have a coach."

"Well . . . Yes and no . . . I've got René, Angelo and Benoit."

"You need to step up a gear. I've got my last Championship this year, and after that I want a kid to bring on. You've got what it takes. Trust me."

René comes over to join us and pats my cheek; I don't know what to say. He agrees with Langloff: I'm their great hope in this place.

"Think about it, young man," says the champion, putting on his mottled gray fur cloak. "We could meet up again toward the end of the year. Think about it . . ."

As soon as he leaves the room, René and Angelo thump me on the neck.

"If you say no, you're a loser. With him as a coach you'd be ready for the Championship in a couple of years."

I feel a bit lost: this has come from nowhere. I need to get out to think it all over, in peace, in my bed.

I put my wooden cue away in its case and said good-bye to everyone.

"See you tomorrow."

Once outside, I took a taxi.

As I lay in bed with my eyes closed, the waltzing balls carried on spinning in my mind for some time.

*

I'm not recovering from these late nights very well at the moment; maybe it's because of my bedding. With the pay I get today I can afford to buy a new mattress. The gallery has just opened, and Liliane is all bright and fresh. Mind you, it is eleven o'clock already.

"Jacques has dropped by already, at nine o'clock. He says hi."

Still half-asleep, I sit down near the reception desk, which still has an empty champagne glass on it.

"Did it go on late?"

"Till midnight," she says. "You wouldn't believe how many people there were. How about you, what time did you go on till? Given the state you're in, you must have had a wild time."

The only answer I can manage is a yawn.

"I've drawn up your pay slip, all you have to do is check the hours, and I'll go and get Coste to sign it. And that's Antoine off out of here with his money in his pocket, vanished from the face of the earth until we dismantle the exhibition, am I right?"

It's true that I never set foot in this place between setting up and dismantling an exhibition. Jacques is the one who takes care of maintenance, once a week.

"Who do these works belong to?" I ask.

"To the nation. Morand gave them to the country." To the nation . . . to everyone, in fact. Partly mine too, then. Coste told us she had met Morand when he came back from the United States and that she had very much liked his work. She really wanted to put this retrospective together.

"The Ministry of Culture has loaned us the pieces for a month," says Liliane. "When they're dismantled, they'll all go back to the depot. You're pretty keen on the depot aren't you, Antoine?"

Sure, I like it. It's a huge reservoir of works of art, a stockroom for part of our heritage. I work there in the summer when the gallery is closed, in leaner times. It was Coste who pulled some strings to get me the job.

"When is the next exhibition, actually?"

"March 22, you'll have four days to set it up. And, given the type of pieces, it'll be quite a workout."

"What sort of stuff is it?"

"They're installations, objects mounted on plinths."

Bad news . . . I fear the worst. I hate that sort of thing, weird objects, African statuettes with Walkmen, toothbrushes mounted on cinderblocks, basketballs in aquariums and all sorts of other stuff. It's the post-Oxfam effect. For three years now, contemporary art has been competing with a bric-a-brac shop. It's the cult of the practico-inert: you look at a can-opener on a base and you ask yourself all those questions you would never ask in your own kitchen. Fine but . . . Jacques and I just can't help laughing. I can't count the number of times I've had to tell visitors that the ashtray and umbrella stand were not part of the exhibition.

"Can you keep an eye on things for me for quarter of an hour? I'll go and get your check."

This is the usual procedure. I quite like playing the part of the museum attendant, and it means I can wake up slowly. But it actually involves the work of a Titan; you really need an extensive knowledge of inertia. People often find museum attendants funny, they wonder what they're thinking about, or people say that they are in love with one particular piece of work, that they spend their days daydreaming, sitting there for thirty years with their eyes locked vaguely but doggedly onto the same still life. Usually it's a plucked pheasant and two rather ripe apples on a willow basket. But here it's more likely to be a willow pheasant and a rather ripe basket on two plucked apples.

Out of curiosity, I glance at the visitors' book to read the praise, insults, and graffiti left by the guests yesterday evening. By looking through this, even the very day after the private view, you can tell whether an exhibition will do well or not. And it's not looking good for the Morand retrospective. "Rubbish, and it's the taxpayer who's footing the bill," or there's "A beautiful exhibition. Congratulations," or "I can do just as well, and here's my address," or even "Thirty years too late. Contemporary art doesn't stop in the 1960s!"

I really like this big white book, it's the only way the general public can express their opinion, anonymously or openly, about what they have seen. The Morand Exhibition won't get ten visitors a day. But people do realize they are taking a risk when they go into a modern art gallery, they don't necessarily expect to see anything beautiful or decent. Otherwise they would go to the Louvre. And those who, like me, don't know much about it, and who manage three shy little steps over toward something impossible to approach . . . well, they deserve the right to scribble a little something in the visitors' book.

A man comes in and smiles.

"Is it open to look round?"

"Yes."

"Is it free?"

"Yes. Come on in."

He doesn't even glance at the sculpture in the foyer and goes straight into one of the other rooms. Not hanging about, then. He is wearing the complete panoply of the gentleman farmer. If I had some money I would dress like that: a herringbone suit, almost certainly Harris tweed, a beige shirt, a glossy brown tie, big English shoes and a crumpled Burberry over his shoulder. Let's see when I get my next pay packet . . .

*

And if Liliane thinks of bringing back a cup of coffee . . . I could leave here on top of the world with a check in my hand and a long, lazy afternoon ahead of me. To relieve the boredom, I pick up a catalogue and leaf through it, trying to find the painter's biography.

Etienne Morand was born at Paray-le-Manial (Burgundy) in 1940. After studying at the School of Fine Art he left for New York in 1964, drawn by the Abstract Expressionist movement. He took a close interest in the techniques used . . .

I stop reading abruptly.

A sound . . .

Something crackled.

Liliane still isn't back.

It may not be very important, a spotlight that has fizzled out or the wire stretching under the weight of a painting, but I have to get up. Unless it's that visitor who has decided, as so many of them do, to try and straighten a picture with a little nudge of his thumb. If that's what it is, I will have to follow him up with the spirit level.

I'll have to do a quick round of the room at the end-softly, softly-even though I hate acting suspicious. As I make my way over, the crackling gets louder. I arrive in the room and the man turns round. I scream . . .

"But! You're . . . you're . . ."

I'm trying to find a word, an insult perhaps, but I don't know what people say in this sort of situation.

He gives one final jerk with the Stanley knife to free the canvas from the gaping frame. The yellow canvas.

I stammer, whispering various words that stay stuck in my throat.

He calmly finishes the job.

I want to reduce the distance between us, but I can't take a single step forward, pacing ineffectually in front of an invisible, insurmountable wall.

Terror . . .

I lean forward, twice, without succeeding in moving my legs. I need to break through the bricks, but the soles of my shoes stay rooted to the spot. He is getting flustered too, crumpling the canvas and only managing to screw it into a ball under his Burberry. In order to get out he has to get past me, to walk round me or plow right through me; he hesitates, the same wall is stopping him from taking any initiative, then he shakes his head and brandishes the Stanley knife.

"Get out of the way . . . this is nothing to do with you!" he shouts.

I don't know anything about fighting, I ought to jump at his throat or maybe . . . or maybe I should run to the exit and block the doorway . . . shut him in . . . . I really should step toward him, not let him see that I'm at a complete loss, empty . . . . My arms are hollow; I can't get them over this wall of terror.

"Get out of my way . . . for God's sake, get out of my way!"

I clenched my fists before taking off and launched myself at him. I clung to his collar with both hands and dragged down on them furiously to try and get him to the floor. He struggled, and I fell with him. Kneeling on the ground, my fist crashed into his jaw, I struck again, then turned my head, and the blade of the Stanley knife came and planted itself in my cheek. I screamed and released my grip, he drove the blade deeper into my flesh, and I could feel my cheek ripping right down to the jaw.

I stayed motionless for a second. A sheet of blood glided down over my neck.

I cried out.

Sputters of blood spurted from between my lips. Then a great gush of it meant I couldn't utter a sound.

Out of the corner of my eye I could see him getting to his feet and picking up his raincoat.

Slow.

I forgot how much it hurt; a surge of anger heaved me to my feet. He started to run. I lurched after him with one hand on my cheek, trying to hold back goodness knows what-the blood streaming down my sleeve, scraps of flesh, I don't know, all I could see was him, his back. I ran a little faster and threw myself forward to bring him down. He spun round and fell to the floor in front of the sculpture in the foyer. He drummed his heels into my face, something cracked not far from the gap in my cheek, and my right eye closed of its own accord.

With the other eye I saw him regain his balance on his knees and pull himself up on the sculpture's base. With one hand he gripped one of the metallic branches and pulled on it to bring the whole lump of metalwork down on its side. He gave me one last kick in the face, I howled like an animal and brought my arms up over my eyes: everything went black.

I forced myself to look up.

I could feel myself slowly receding. I felt the blackout rising in me like a hiccup. Just the one.

But before that there was a brief second in slow motion.

I registered everything at the same time: the silence, the heat, the flow of blood over my body.

And that silvery avalanche that started oscillating slowly toward me as I sank into unconsciousness.

From Framed (London: Bitter Lemon Press, 2006. Copyright © 2006 by Bitter Lemon Press. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.