Cheese and Crackers

by Steve Tait

Cheese and crackers. Cheap wine in plastic cups. Yes please. Why not? Anything will do. A glance at the walls, works of so-called art on every side. There, behind the table with the crackers. A small painting, a woman, European winter, it seems to me. But clumsy. Those colours. Uneven, it makes no sense. The brightness of the fireplace, the light, it just seems to disappear. The woman, stilted, left in darkness right beside it. I turn away, bemused by European art here in central Bangkok: dark rooms and fireplaces, long gowns and undergarments.

The first floor loft is bright and crowded, all silk and jewels, the wealthy dilettantes and art world snobs on display. All with heads up their arses, taking life and art too seriously. Look at them: suede jackets and cravats, silk dresses and high heels; the air kisses, the hugs, the too-loud hellos.  And then there’s me. Yes, me. Alone. What am I doing here? I haven’t even seen the guy since school. Not even a sighting for a decade. And who the hell were we back then? Two snotty-nosed kids still wet behind the ears. It was a different time; we were different people, with no idea of what we would become. Of course, we thought we knew it all, thought we had it all planned out.

I walk around the gallery. Another cup of bubbly? Don’t mind if I do. It’s a full house. Crowded, for God’s sake. What are all these people doing here? It’s not like the work is any good. I chuckle at that, down the rest of the champers, dump the plastic cup on a table, grab a spring roll on my way.

Look at that, I think. What’s he gone and done? Nothing but a copy of an early Matisse. At least that’s putting a positive spin on it. Done in oils, it’s a woman in profile, standing by a window, the world outside tempting her, teasing her. But those dissonant colours, with barely a thought for the woman’s natural state, for the strength of the light outside the window. Sure, the colours are bold, intense. But they’re jarring, and all that sadness, those tears. What’s the point of that? It’s disturbing, depressing. A lifetime of devotion to your ‘calling’ and this is what you get? I escape to the toilet, stare at the mirror. Natural colours at last. And even a smile. On me. Smug. I take a good look at myself. Then look away just as quick.

We’d started off the same, hadn’t we? We’d even made that pact: to follow our hearts, be true to our calling. Well that’s great when you’re eighteen years old. But the practical business of life comes to get you, to bite you in the bum soon enough. Music? Songwriting? I left that dreamworld behind; joined the real world. Investment banking brought me to Asia, the new frontier. Stocks and bonds, mutual funds, that’s where I make my music. And what rich music it is! Sure, I’ve let my work define me: who and what I am, where I am. Fine with me. The business doesn’t lie. No false sense of grandeur there. I know my colours, unlike some. Got it all worked out on the balance sheet of life. Blacks and whites, that’s all you need, never red, no never.

Back out in the gallery, another plastic cupful of chardonnay goes down my neck. Bitter, I think, then brush the thought aside. No, that can’t be true. Perhaps ‘sour’ is a better word.

“Charley! So glad you came. Didn’t think you would.”

The great man himself.

“We’re friends, aren’t we?”

“Facebook friends. Not quite the same thing these days.”

“Still. Wouldn’t miss it. Gotta support an artist, especially here in Thailand.”

Silence. We sip the toxic liquids from our plastic cups. How to bridge the great divide? Not just years but lives.

“Nice show, Mick.”

“Ha!”

“What?”

“Haven’t been called that in years. It’s Michael now. Has been since school.”

“Oh.” What a dick. “Anyway, nice show.”

“Yeah.”

“You did it, eh. You really did it.”

“What’s that?”

“The pact. Life for art, art for life, and all that. No surrender, no compromise.” I smile. Can’t help it, recalling the naivety of our youth. At least I think that’s what I’m smiling about. “You stayed true to all that. Well done.”

Mick’s turn to smile. A smile that doesn’t last, dragged off his face by other thoughts, ones that keep me at a distance. Eventually, he shakes off whatever it is that’s been stirred up, continues. “How long did it take you, Charley, to toss out all that garbage; that ‘sacrifice it all for art’ nonsense?”

I’m rattled by his tone but smug enough to stick to the script. “Me? Never believed it from the start.”

Mick looks down, not meeting my eyes. “Life’s tough.”

“For you? Yeah, right,” I say, waving my cup at all and sundry. “Look at all this. And you were in Bali last month too. At least that’s what I heard.”

“Yeah. Lucky, I guess. Paid for it though.”

“Paid for it? This show’ll pay for it, I tell you that.”

I walk with him back to the painting of the woman by the window, all vivid pinks and reds, greens and blues beyond the painted window, pressing in in all their crazy boldness.

“Look at that,” I say.

“What?”

“The price tag. 150,000 baht. And how many paintings you got here? You’ll make a mint.”

Mick isn’t smiling now. He grabs another cup of wine, cheese and crackers too. “You see these people here?” he says, mouth full, crumbs flying. “Know who they are?”

“The hoi polloi. Old money, some new money too. Cream of Thai society. Good for you.”

“No, not good for me. These people are here to be seen. It’s a social event.”

“Still got money.”

“Sure they do. And they’ll spend it too. Just as long as you got the name – the right reputation. Michael Canbiss? Who’s he? Not a name to drop at parties.”

“So…”

“Might sell one or two. Although they’ll fight me for a discount. They’ll get it too.”

“So…”

“Framing. Picture framing. Seven days a week. A little shop.”

“But you’re just back…”

“Yeah. Cost me customers too. Lost business.”

“So…”

“Debt. Loans. You do what you can.”

I wish him well. Hands are shaken, a lot more beside. I walk back to the woman by the fireplace, look again, notice those subtle reds and yellows almost hidden in the shadows of her face. The barest illumination, the merest hint of life. There’s more. I see the black. The shadows, the empty space around the edges, the depths, waiting for us all. The fire’s light, it should be bright. It isn’t, can’t be; can’t bring the room to life. We take the warmth that we can get; it’s gotta be enough.

I find a pen, borrowed from a waiter. From the inside pocket of my coat, I pull it out, write quickly, without a second thought. No bargaining, no discount, not for what I’m getting in return. I leave then, no looking back. I’ve already gained much more than I could ever have expected.

Down the narrow stairs and out into the bustling street below. The discordant sounds of tuk tuks, bikes and taxis almost drown it out, but still it’s there. I hear the tune, the melody, start to figure out the key. The Skytrain station’s quieter; I hear it more clearly now. The rhythm’s there, barely, right at the back of my head. I let it play, walking slowly, footsteps in time with the beat. I let the chorus form, hear it over and over, guitar and piano both. I think of home, wonder where that guitar could be, pray to God I still have it somewhere. But what the hell, it’s only Friday night. Monday’s still an age away. There’s time; there’s time left still. Always has been. I just never really knew.

Editor’s Note on Cheese and Crackers:

Cheese and Crackers is not Steve Tait’s first work to appear in Eastlit. His previous published pieces are:

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