I first made George’s acquaintance in Ladbroke Grove when he veered from a side road and rode straight in front of me, begging to be knocked down. I managed to disoblige him and nearly demolished a plate-glass butcher’s window in the process. The blood-stained vendor froze in the act of removing a leg of mutton from the window display when he saw my half ton of mechanised metal glaring down at him from a distance of six inches. George merely raised his hat in acknowledgement and continued on his leisurely way.
Once seen, George was unlikely to be forgotten. His shiny, moon-shaped face was partitioned by a handlebar moustache that just failed to reach his ears, and was adorned by a tiny pork-pie hat that perched precariously on his non-stick dome. He sat emperor-straight on the high-framed bicycle, arms outstretched to reach the handlebars, rigid from the legs upward.
‘You damned lunatic!’ I yelled at his retreating back, and, leaving the butcher still frozen in wide-eyed awe, gave chase.
He might not have been much of a cyclist but as a gentleman he had few peers. He doffed his hat at every female we passed, and the less-than-friendly response didn’t seem to bother him unduly. We turned into the Harrow Road and he eventually noticed my shaking fist.
‘I could have killed you back there’, I raged when we had come to a halt. ‘Why don’t you look where you are going?’
He smiled serenely back at me. ‘A navigational misjudgement, sir. I do apologise’.
He peered closely at me. ‘It’s Mr Adams, isn’t it?’
I racked my brain for some long-forgotten acquaintance with this madman.
‘You own a gallery in the Portobello Road and you specialise in old prints, am I correct?’
I nodded my head.
‘I, too, am a lover of old prints. In fact I have a collection of them. I am apt to wander around shops and galleries in pursuit of my pleasure and have passed your premises on many occasions’.
The discovery that we both shared the same passion awakened my interest in him. A love of the arts excused many conditions; perhaps it wasn’t madness that afflicted him but merely eccentricity.
‘You have never been in my gallery. I would surely have remembered you...’
George fiddled with his garish dicky bow. ‘Embarrassment Mr Adams. You see I mainly visit these, ah...emporiums with a view to selling one or two of my treasures. The needs of the body you see...man cannot live on fresh air alone’.
‘But I am just as likely to buy your wares as the next gallery’.
‘My paltry offerings would hardly interest you. It is obvious from your window display that you cater for the top end of the market’.
I laughed. ‘My dear fellow it’s all a question of putting the ‘best wine’ in the window. Behind the facade is as much junk as the next chap. I would be perfectly willing to look at your offerings. I may not buy them of course...’
He indicated the cardboard box lashed to his rear carrier. ‘I was on my way to do some negotiating now. Would you care to look through these?’
I agreed and we adjourned to a nearby cafe for refreshments. I grimaced when I saw the interior; tables and chairs courtesy of the Salvation Army, walls the colour of old parchment.
The assistant behind the counter could have been twenty or thirty; hard to say without resort to a scraper.
‘What’s it today Van Gogh?’ she asked George
‘Two coffees, my dear’.
‘ ‘Ark at him. My dear! Who’s payin’?’
I proffered the correct money for the coffees.
‘Just as well. ‘e never ‘as two pennies to rub together’.
George took a sip of his coffee. ‘We artists have to suffer for our art, my dear. Poverty figures large in that suffering’.
‘Artist!’ She turned to me. ‘ Van Gogh of Kensal Green’. She shook her head, ‘Mad as an ‘atter’.
Over the coffees I rummaged through the contents of the box. I never expect too much in my game so I am rarely disappointed. This occasion was no exception. The majority had clearly been taken from old books. There were plate numbers on many of them, sequential, which meant they had come from the same book.
Quite a number of them were black and white – or at least they had been until somebody had tried to colour them in. This was a practice that was becoming more widespread; tart up an old print, stick it in a poncey frame and knock it out for thirty quid down the Bayswater road on a Sunday morning.
George had been watching me as I worked my way down through the pile. ‘Well’, he spoke as I put the last one down, ‘can you use any of them?’
I couldn’t. Not personally. But I knew somebody who could.
‘I’ll give you a quid each for them’, I said, prepared to double my offer if need be.
Much to my surprise George accepted the offer. .A couple of minutes later the box was firmly on my side of the table and he was shoving four tenners in his waistcoat pocket.
The waitress had been hovering in the background all this time and within minutes of our transaction she was standing by George’s side.
‘You can pay your bill now’, she shrilled. ‘We’re not a bleedin’ charity you know’.
George doffed his hat. ‘Certainly m’dear. Very kind of you to let me run up so much. How much does it come to?’
‘Eight pounds, fifty pee’.
He presented her with one of the tenners from his waistcoat pocket. ‘There you are my dear. Keep the change’.
That flustered her momentarily and gave me a chance to study her more closely. Pity about the muck on her face, I thought. She had nice eyes, sparkling like spring water on a sunny day.
‘Sold you some of his rubbish then ‘as he?’ She returned my gaze. ‘Well, there’s plenty more where that came from’. She began clearing the table. ‘He’s barmy you know. Painting, painting...all night long’.
George seemed embarrassed by her outburst. ‘Yes...well I do tend to work late at night. Can’t sleep you see...’ His voice trailed off for a moment then revived again. ‘Perhaps you could call round some evening and appraise more of my collection?’
I told him I would be delighted to and we arranged a time a few days hence. He then doffed his hat to both of us and was gone
How describe George’s house? Once inside, the only way was upwards. Downstairs was barricaded with boxes and bins, bits of old bicycles, stacks of mouldy books, picture frames, broken vases and sundry other items too numerous to mention. There was an enormous bellows lying across the doorway leading to the downstairs rooms. Of the door itself there was no sign. The room in the background was the scene of even greater devastation; it was if a dustcart had emptied its contents in the middle of it. I could hear a cat mewing among the debris.
George waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the accumulated junk. ‘I don’t live downstairs any longer. When one lives alone a couple of rooms are ample – and cheaper to heat of course’.
I followed him up the stairs and couldn’t see much improvement in the conditions up there. It consisted to two rooms and a bathroom and toilet. The toilet housed one of those enormous cast-iron baths with splayed legs that always reminded me of a Sphinx.
The bedroom contained two mattresses stacked together with a mound of blankets heaped on top. The rest of the space was taken up with more of the same junk from downstairs.
But it was the living room that impressed me most. Everything that George needed to survive was crammed in here. A tiny gas ring stood on a rickety cabinet, bubbling away, taking the chill off the air. Beneath it, cooking utensils and foodstuffs fought for breathing space on the bulging shelves. I could see a plastic container of something or other with a furry green substance growing on top of it. In the centre of the room stood a wobbly table. It was laden down with paints, brushes, palettes and knives. There were a couple of paint-spattered bentwood chairs nearby and a paraffin heater that smelled like a diesel engine. The only other item of furniture was a small mahogany sideboard that held a collection of figurines- all flawed in some way – and a silver-framed photograph of a young woman from a bygone era.
There was also an easel, with a painting resting on it. It appeared unfinished; a landscape or seascape of some sort. Its background was a blend of crimson and gold that might have been an inferno. It had the hazy, misty look about it that is often associated with Turner. None of his genius however.
‘Admiring my Turner, eh? Well, my attempt at it’, George said somewhat sheepishly.
‘A very difficult man to copy our Mr Turner. Still, you seem to have captured the...mirage effect’, I replied noncommittally.
His face lit up like a child’s. ‘D’you think so?’ He stood back a little, his hands on his hips. ‘Yes, I see what you mean’.
We were silent for a moment then he remarked casually.’ It’s the voices, you know’.
‘’Voices?’ I heard myself saying.
‘Oh yes. Sometimes I am lying there at night and they come to me. I have to get up and paint then. Often through the night...’
‘They tell you to paint...Turner, these voices?’
‘Of course. Always Turner. Never anybody else’.
By this time I should have concluded that he was a raving lunatic, but it never occurred to me. Afterwards it puzzled me, yet somehow it didn’t seem out of place. He told me how the voices had first come to him years ago, and how he had been painting to their specification ever since. He was convinced it was Turner speaking to him. He had tried to sell them or place them in auctions but without success. There must have been a couple of dozen paintings in all, and when he had removed the dirty dust-sheet and let me view the pile I could understand why the dealers had laughed at his claim that they were the work of Turner.
I told him that I wasn’t interested in his paintings, didn’t fancy Turner that much, and he seemed to accept that. What intrigued me were the piles of prints scattered about the room. There must have been hundreds of them. He was very reticent about where they came from. I collected them over the years. Where from? Books, just books. Where are the books now? Who knows? Lost. Thrown away. In the end I was no wiser.
I tried a different approach. ‘Have you always lived on your own?’
‘I was married once’, he eventually replied. ‘’But it all seems like a dream now. A bad dream...’ He indicated the sideboard and the silver-framed photograph. ‘My dear wife. My lovely wife...’ and a fog settled over his face.
‘What happened to her?’
‘She died’, he replied simply. His hand forestalled any condolences on my part. ‘It was all a long time ago. All forgotten now’. His hand waved vaguely around the room. ‘She wouldn’t have liked any of this. Not my Marjorie’.
I tried to draw him out some more but he had said all he was going to say on the subject for the present. I ended up parting with fifty pounds, and acquired another box of prints and a raging curiosity.
George’s voices got louder as time passed. Over the months I made regular visits to his house, and not always to buy. This old man, faintly ridiculous-looking, who painted badly and held conversations with Turner, had got me going. It wasn’t madness that possessed him, I decided, but fanaticism. You could see it in his eyes when he spoke about Turner – there was fire raging in there. Despite his obsession he was very articulate and could converse knowledgably on a wide range of subjects. When I mentioned Universities however he shook his head and remarked in his sometimes pompous manner that his education was gained in ‘the public libraries of London’.
He was now spending most of his time at his painting, and once finished the canvas would be hawked around from shop to shop, gallery to gallery, in the hope that somebody, somewhere, would accept it for the masterpiece he believed it to be.
Despite my constant probing I never learned much about his background or what made him tick. Why I should be interested I had no idea, but I knew that my curiosity would not be denied. Conversations with other gallery and junk-shop owners soon established that he was well-known all over London. I learned that he had been touting his prints around the Capital for more than thirty years, selling them everywhere from the Embankment to outside Madame Tussaud’s.
‘How come I haven’t come across him before?’ I asked one acquaintance.
‘Probably because you haven’t been in the Smoke too long’, was his reply. He’s been out of circulation for a while. To be honest I thought he was dead’.
He was delighted to learn that George was still very much alive, and when I related the tale of the Turners he laughed.
‘Of course. It makes sense now. I’d heard stories of a few piss-poor copies floating about’.
Another friend thought his wife might have been an artist herself. He seemed to think that she had died mysteriously but couldn’t elaborate any further. Another still came up with the name of Tanner Daly, a totter who had spent all his life knocking on doors in the Notting Hill and Queens Park area, and who had been friendly with George.
A few days later I was in the cafe again, this time on my own. Rita, the counter assistant had shown definite signs of wanting to further our acquaintance so I asked her out for a drink. Later that evening, her hair fluffed up and her plump knees shining above six-inch stilettos, I wondered what I was letting myself in for. When we had exhausted the usual small talk – I told her how my wife had run off with my accountant and how happy they were somewhere in Spain and she told me how her boyfriend had dumped her for her best friend – the talk turned back to George. I asked her if she had ever heard of Tanner Daly.
‘Course I have. Everybody knows Tanner. Anyway, he’s family – he’s my dad’s uncle.
When I mentioned the possibility of him and George being friends she wasn’t so sure.
‘I suppose they might have. I never remember him talking about him though. Maybe when he was totting. But he packed that up more than twenty years ago – when he bought the caff’.
‘The cafe you work in? He owns that?’ She nodded her head. ‘Do you think I could talk to him?’
‘Not at the caff you can’t. He hasn’t been there for ten years. But if you fancy a drive tomorrow you can come with me when I visit him’.
Later on, after we had generated some heat in the back seat of my Mercedes, she told me he rented out the cafe to her family. That way he got an income in his old age and they got a living out of it. She laughed when I asked how he had got his nickname.
‘Tanner? Whenever he bought anything he’d say ‘I’ll give you a tanner for it missus’. That’s all he ever paid for anything, he reckoned’.
The following day found us somewhere round the back of Wembley High Street, at the Eagles Old Peoples’ home. God preserve me from old age I thought as we waited at reception. The signs of decay were everywhere. All about me shapeless bundles were lolling about in armchairs; one old man’s mouth was half-open and his dribble was falling unheeded on his sleeve. There were conversations going on, but with themselves and not each other. By the time Tanner had been found I was wishing I hadn’t come. Small and wiry-looking, the veins bulging on his hands and neck, he was almost invisible in the large tub-chair that housed him in a corner of the TV room.
‘Oh, it’s you’, he said when he saw Rita. ‘Is it Christmas then?’
‘Give over, Tanner’, she laughed. ‘It’s only a few weeks since I saw you. And dad comes to see you nearly every week, don’t he’.
‘Yeah. Worse luck the miserable bleeder’. He turned to me, ‘did you bring anything to drink? Don’t give it to me. Slip it into that green vase on the table over there by the window. Worse than the bloody Gestapo they are around here...’
‘I’m sorry...’ I began, wondering what he was on about.
‘Take no notice of ‘im’, Rita interrupted. ‘He plays that game every time I come here’. I could see Tanner chuckling away. ‘Adam’s here to talk to you about George. He paints and sells pictures. Adam thought you might’a known him once’.
‘Old George. Yeah, I knew him. Still do. Comes around now and then. Always brings me a drop and a few smokes...’ He paused, ‘you sure you ain’t got anything?’
I shook my head then remembered the couple of cigars in my inside pocket. They disappeared from my hand before I had time to offer them to him.
‘When did you first meet George?, I asked him.
‘A long time ago. Now, was it before the war or after? Must’a been after I suppose. He was supposed to help me with the knocking but in the end I couldn’t afford him’.
‘Yeah. He couldn’t keep his trap shut when I was haggling over a deal. Always encouraging me to pay more’.
‘You fell out?’
‘Nah. We never did. Just went our separate ways. Any old books or prints I got I put his way. He was like a bleedin’ magpie as I recall’.
‘So you supplied his books over the years?’
Her shook his head. ‘Only some of them. Very few in the end I would say’.
‘So where did he get them from?’
‘I couldn’t say’.
Or wouldn’t say. There was little else to be learned; it appeared his periods of lucidity were fairly short-lived. When we left he was searching for the bottle I had supposedly hidden from him and muttering about rats.
It was George himself who provided the answers by getting himself killed a few weeks later. Failing to get any response to my repeated knocking, and seeing lights on all over the house, I gained entry by means of the key I had remembered hanging on a length of string behind the door-flap. There was no sign of him upstairs and it was only when I began searching the ground-floor rooms that I discovered the open trapdoor behind the stairs. George was lying at the bottom of some makeshift steps.
He had been dead for several days, his head surrounded by a pool of dark, caked blood. There were several dead rats nearby and his cat was sitting close to the body – as if on guard.
The cavern where he lay was illuminated as a bleak, windowless tomb, but not damp or mildewed. The room was large, oblong in shape, and seemed to be an original feature of the house that had not been completed. Its contents stunned me or a moment; books, stacks upon stacks of them heaped high. There were more than thirty columns of them, each the height of myself, and each pile having a year number attached near the top. All were chronologically arranged, starting with the previous year and working their way backwards.
I picked a few of the books at random. They were all library books, each bearing the stamps of a local authority in the London area. I eased a few more from the centre of several piles. The same. A quick calculation told me there were more than six thousand books in the cellar.
One wall was taken up with a rough-hewn timber shelving system. Ten carefully-wrapped canvasses filled the shelves. Their quality was unmistakable; not Turner, but definitely not George’s inept dabbling. I found a couple of portraits amongst them; one was certainly George as a plump young man; the other was of a young woman with a mane of flame-red hair. On the back of this was scrawled ‘ self-portrait 1952’. All were signed. Marjorie’.
In a small roll-top desk I found a couple of leather-bound journals. All the books were catalogued inside; the libraries they had been taken from, the dates, the number of prints removed from each book. There were also several cuttings, preserved in plastic wrapping, but yellowed. I read one
‘Promising artist Marjorie Andover was found dead yesterday in the cellars of Willesden Green Library, having been accidently locked down there over the bank holiday weekend. The doctor said she probably died of fright. Her husband George, who had been frantically searching for her all weekend, said she was pathologically afraid of the dark and even slept with a light on. A library spokesman said she had been allowed down in the cellars to view some old art books that had been stored down there because of lack of space upstairs. Later, the caretaker had seen the cellar lights on, called down and got no reply, and had locked the cellar door and switched the lights off from above. The lights couldn’t be turned back on again from below’.
The story went on to describe how she had shredded her fingernails trying to claw her way out, and that some of her flesh had been gnawed at by rats.
They buried George today in Kensal Green cemetery. I was the only mourner. Rita couldn’t come as she was busy at the cafe. What will happen to the house and its contents I haven’t the foggiest; it seems that Marjorie was an orphan and no trace of any relative of George can be found. It was quite amusing to hear the interested parties argue about whose jurisdiction the books came under; the police reckoned they were the libraries problem, while the libraries maintained they were the proceeds of crime and should be held by the police. Nobody wants the problem of George’s books.
Me, I have a problem too. Before I called the police I removed Marjorie’s pictures from the basement. All ten of them. They are now adorning the walls of my flat above the gallery, looking like a million dollars. Well, ten million to be exact.
The name bothered me you see so I wired a gallery owner I knew in New York for information. ‘Yes’, the information came back, ‘Marjorie Andover’s work is very well known over here. The last known example of her work sold about twenty years ago for one hundred thousand dollars. A new find at this time might easily make one million’’
The easy thing to do would be to claim that George had sold them to me. But I can’t. You see there was also another item in the roll-top desk that I overlooked. George’s will. And an inventory of Marjorie’s paintings, together with instructions that they be donated to the National Gallery. The representative from the gallery had a good laugh when he inspected the paintings I had put in their place – ten of George’s Turners – and said he was now convinced that there was not a single painting of Marjorie’s unaccounted for.
Ten million dollars...George couldn’t have known. Or could he?
Tom O’Brien is a native of Kilmacthomas Co Waterford and is a full time writer, playwright and poet.
Performed plays include Money from America, Cricklewood Cowboys, On Raglan Road. Johnjo, Gorgeous Gaels, Brendan Behan’s Women Down Bottle Alley, No Blacks, No Dogs, No Poles, etc
Books include Letters To Mother and Other Dead Relatives, Cricklewood Cowboys, The Shiny Red Honda, The Missing Postman and Other Stories, etc
All his books are available online. www.amazon.co.uk
Tom has lived in Hastings UK since 2000