“A Life Misplaced” by Armel Dagorn

In Fred’s room, you’d shove more splinters into the sole of your bare feet than in any other room I’ve ever been in. It was a real splinter factory. The floor was all linoleum though – fake wood linoleum but good old plastic all the same. Thing is he used to carve his rough logs of wood into sculptures right there, in his all-purpose one room flat – the fool. If romanticism had its way, I would have to tell you that he’d brush together the sawdust and wood chips, useless, shed skin of an in-the-making work of art, and scoop it into the glowing hearth which was his home’s pulsing heart. But I won’t bollocks you that way, now, will I? He had no fireplace, just a small electric heater which he hardly ever switched on, for fear of the ESB bills he received and of the scary smell of burnt plastic it gave off. Romanticism vs. electric bills 0-1.

We were in our student days then; the best ones, I suppose. We were long time friends, from school. We thus had years in common ahead of the other people we’d always hang out with, even though it never really showed and the new and old bathed in some kind of general group intimacy. We spent an awful lot of time in his all-in-one flat, just the two of us, or in groups up to a dozen. There was just a couch which unfolded into a bed (or rather a bed which, as I heard, was once folded up into a couch), a table and three chairs, a stove, shelves, and that shower which, defying time as well as space, always looked out of place to me. If you were sitting at the table, eating lunch or studying Kierkegaard (as you do), you could just have stood up, stepped once, stepped twice, and there you were in the shower. Incredible. Fred, Fred, Fred…The toilets were common to the landing’s occupants, out in the corridor. Although finances certainly had to do with that state of affairs, I always reckoned Fred relished in it.

Covering the above mentioned features, you have to imagine heaps, piles, bulging mounds of everything. ART. No, I’m being mean. My present-day disillusion should not shroud the fact that at the time, I was every bit as enthusiastic as he was about everything we were doing. On a normal day, the bed would be littered with paintings, drawings, texts, pamphlets, poems even ; on the table would be one of the half-chiseled-into blocks of wood I’ve already told you about, or more paintings, or both, and by the stove would lie wire, metal bits and pieces, plastic wrecks – anything really – picked up in the street to be later tied up together into major works of art. More voluminous objects would sometimes end up in the shower, just for fair sharing. As we whiled hours away talking in his room, he would go taktaktacking his wood into a smaller piece of wood, or painting something, or writing something, or rummaging through layers of paper to find one or another great thing he had to show me. Fred was studying Art. While we talked, I would half-lie on the bed, head cupped in hand, leaf through some random book I’d have unearthed, or search the ashtray for a worthwhile roach to light up again. Ha! A ‘Phoenix’, we used to call them – those discarded joint butts left for dead in times of plenty, and salvaged and lighted back into life in times of need. And we thought we were clever. I was studying English. I suppose our different areas of study accounted for his being so ‘full-on’ about art. Well, actually, I might be misleading you here. It’s not really that he was more into it than I was; it’s just that he did things. I did write a bit, with and without him, but apart from that I wasn’t much into crafting things. But I talked about it a lot, with him.

I realize as well that you might be getting the wrong image of Fred from what I’m saying. We’ve all had, in our youth, our college years, specimens of this eternal kind of hippie-communist-anarchist-artist guys, who were up to their nose into their own bullshit. Fred and I were big into arts, and a bit into politics; we’d talk for hours about those. But somehow we never took ourselves too seriously, and we saw some of those people around us and laughed at their snobbery, even when sharing the same interests. Of course, it never kept me from mocking Fred, and calling him ‘an artist’. He would smirk a bit then, and I knew he didn’t like that. Did he know I was somehow not entirely joking? Silly boy Fred.

Our three years in college were thus spent, in his room most of the time, this little workshop from hell of his. Or so I remember it. Most people, when they talk about their college years, have above all stories of massive orgiastic parties and random sex with compliant partners. Sometimes it seems like I’ve missed a lot; it seems like I’ve spent those years in Fred’s room tweezing splinters out of my bare feet. Sometimes I think I regret it.

After I graduated, not knowing really what to do, I decided to go away for a year. If I couldn’t spawn any decisive plan by myself, I would go and jump on one, half-randomly, dig my teeth in its neck, and not give in until I saw whether I could tame it or not. So I went away, for a whole year. I spent six months in India, teaching English in a small school of Madhya Pradesh, then six other months in Thailand, still teaching. Leaving, I was surely not the most faith-filled volunteer ever, but at least I felt that doing a good deed, my time couldn’t be considered totally wasted away. And actually I really appreciated the experience – but enough of that, it’s irrelevant.

That year, Fred stayed in the city. He had graduated too, but had stayed in his small world of a room, and filled his days with the same activities – if somewhat more lonely. While I lulled my dutiful conscience with the Christian goodness and teaching experience my year away represented, Fred soothed his by socializing, organizing, and planning ART with those artist friends of his. Ah, here it goes again – the meanness. There were exhibitions, I reckon (a couple of them, at least), plays rehearsed, poems self-published… We kept in touch during that year through quick e-mails, but our relationship was really an in-room business. Get me right, nothing dodgy, no sex, right? It’s just that I think we needed our small enclosed world to be friends as we were. We needed a mess, splinters in our feet, papers all around, and a shower not two steps away. So I think that it’s when I came back that we really moved apart.

When I got back, I had made a decision. I needed to do something, concretely, and so I’d made my mind up to go and try the exam to become a teacher – an English teacher. Fred understood my choice, and was actually quite supportive, but I knew he must have resented it, even only slightly, that I’d deliberately go and enlist for something that only a year before we would have sniggered away as nothing but a ball and chain, a bourgeois golden cage. Fred’s plan was to go on leading his artisty life, his ‘vie de bohème’; he offered me to come to the city where we could resume the activity (or non-activity, as you wish to call it) of our college years. I good-humouredly declined, but was darker inside. Why wouldn’t he grow up a bit, and see that we were no longer students, filling our time with plays and laughs? Did he want to end up like one of those full-of-themselves artisty artists we used to rile? The fool…

My training was in another town, and once again we were reduced to brief e-mail communication. However, when it so happened that we visited each other, it appeared clearly, and more and more so, that there was more than miles separating us. We grew colder and colder to each other whenever we met. Once again, I have to correct myself so as not to be unfair. He always showed the same sweet disposition; I suppose I grew colder, but I felt I had less and less in common with him, I didn’t know what to talk about with him anymore. He persisted in his wayward and childish way, and I suppose it was quite naturally that we started seeing each other less and less, until one day we stopped altogether.

I can’t deny it was my fault – if not entirely, at least mainly. Maybe I was even a bit jealous of his will to stretch our happiest days into years. Did he manage it? Was he ever as happy?

We grew so much apart that we weren’t even giving each other any news, not even the most important ones. Time flew. From common acquaintances I learnt that he got married, and went to live in the countryside. I heard things about his living off the few paintings he sold left and right in obscure exhibitions, plus the dole, most certainly. As for me, I became an English teacher, of course, and I’m still a bachelor – turning into an old bachelor! I wonder if Fred heard about that.

Last week I ran into him. It had been years, ages since I’d last seen him. In all this time, we’d never bumped into each other, never met randomly. Never seen each other since we’d given up on one another – or was it just me? I recognized him straight away though, in spite of the seasoning his stubble had taken – he flashed me a smile that hailed back to the universe-room days. In his arms was one of the most beautiful kids anyone had ever seen, and he made me wish I could meet his siblings, and mother too. We talked without stress, from the start, without hurry, but with care and amazement –  or was it just me? It was so long ago, being awkward now would be folly. He told me about his wife, his two kids, their house. When I took the kid’s bare foot in my hand without realizing it, he told me ‘you see, they’re running around barefoot all day and they never get splinters. I have my workshop in a separate room now’. I hear the shower has made its way away from the stove too. He told me about his paintings and sculptures, and his part-time teaching arts, and he might have an exhibition coming up in this town or that one, and would I come?

As we parted and I started walking down the street again, my eyes started filling up with tears. I remember our college days, when I would be away from Fred for a prolonged period of time (which at the time could be from a few days to a few weeks) and come back, I would always feel as if I’d missed essential moments, defining instants. And now I’d missed twenty years of his life! Of our life. All that for what? Was it just me? I had expected him to grow up, and now he had. But me – had I only ever pretended to have grown up out of that room? The fool!

Biographical Note:

Armel Dagorn was born and grew up in France, and has been living in Cork, Ireland for the past few years. He reads and writes in his adopted language, English, whenever he gets a chance. His stories have appeared in magazines such as Wordlegs, The Molotov Cocktail and 34th Parallel. You can find them here.

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