(shown here in-progress)
This is what Dad’d say to me and Jed, my brother. When he took us to a gallery. “Okay, you know the game … each guesses which painting the others like best … no talking, no conferring.” (He’d told us what conferring meant, so we didn’t). Then we’d walk through the gallery. Poker players. Hovering over a painting we had no intention of choosing. Doubling back. Ignoring a favourite, or lingering as a double-bluff. But I was easy to pick. If there was a cat in a picture. “It’s the cat one, isn’t it Jules?” That’s what Jed’d always say. And Dad would smile, remembering how I pestered him for our Siamese (Yul Bryner). At first he’d said, after he split from Mum and moved to the small apartment by the marina, that he couldn’t keep a cat. It’d be too much trouble. I’d keep saying how nice it’d be for me to have something to come home to after school on the nights when I stayed with him. Something to cuddle up to. Something to love. (I used to go on my own then. That was around the time Jed refused to see Dad on account of the incident with Mum at the basketball game). Anyway, this one morning we were walking in the park and I said (a kind of blackmail really) “You know, Dad, deep in your heart you want a cat.” And he looked at me and said yes and so we got one. A small warm kitten that I’ve loved with a vengeance ever since.
So if Dad was with me now, or Jed, they’d know in a heart-beat that this would be my pick. A cat on a boat with two mean-looking fur-trappers. Wondering if it ought to bite through the leash, jump and take its chances in the icy waters in case the men took a fancy to his own sleek coat. Razor sharp knives in their belts. Greed in their hearts. Even if the cat found he couldn’t swim, having never once tried, at least he’d be the master of his own demise. Not like that picture I chose on our holiday in London. (When we went with one of Dad’s new women). That picture stuck in my head. Two creepy girls holding up the kitten to the lamplight. To show the frock and bonnet they’d dressed her in, with strange butter-wouldn’t-melt-in–our-mouths-smiles-but-look-out-for-what-we’ll-do-when-we’re-out-of-sight. Did they squeeze her? Did they tease her?
What do paintings do to those they trap once you turn away?
Nowadays I come to galleries alone. At my own pace. No need to rush through the rooms. Choosing. Selecting. Conniving (but not conferring). It’s been five years since Dad moved up to Portland Oregon with his new wife. They have dogs. (So does Mum. She switched sides and lives in Hawaii with Jocelyn and a greyhound called Lightning). Jed’s done well. He lectures in American history in Champaign, Illinois. If he was here now, he’d pull me into the next room, leaving the cat to contemplate his options, and tell me all about what George Washington did at Trenton on Christmas Day in 1776.
Yul Bryner lives with me these days. Tonight, before we drift off to sleep together, I’ll lift up his silk purse ear and tell him that, yes, there are wars and there is greed and malice and men who’ll strip you bare, but there’s love and kindness and beautiful paintings on walls. Some with cats.