Success did not come to me overnight after my story appeared in a large national newspaper but it was as if a corner had been turned. When I first saw the spread, I was awestruck. Phoebe stared out of the pages at me and my brush strokes seem to have heightened her pale blue sadness. The writer told a fantastic tale that I only half recognized, about a boy who had escaped from a rehabilitation center, hit the dusty roads of Europe with a well-known French artist and picked up his skills from the master.
I thought Jacques was just another wannabe artist who hung around squares and picked up the odd commission, but it turned out he had been viewed as one of the leading painters of his generation back in the 1960s. Brian Shepherd, the art critic used up a forest of trees meticulously explaining his pedigree. The article went on to explain how witnessed suffering at first hand in Bosnia and painted it again on the streets of London, adding a frisson of hope.
Most importantly Shepherd used superlatives to describe my work suggesting I was one of the most promising young artists of my generation. I knew I he had based his observation on nothing other than his hope and the chance that if it became a self-fulfilling prophecy he would say he had been the one who discovered my talent.
It didn’t bother me. Shepherd’s word was taken seriously by artists. The days when I watched the empty street from my gallery were soon over. A steady trickle of visitors made it my way and they bought work. I started to realize these were serious figures in the art world. Other newspapers piggybacked on Shepherd’s piece and tried to find a new angle on the Phoebe story. One of the tabloids dug up the fact that Pheobe had been a victim of domestic abuse and I had saved her from Frank. One reporter tracked down Frank to a slum south of the river to depict him as the face of a domestic violence epidemic. Frank didn’t look like a poster child for anything in the picture. He was unshaven, bleary eyes and clearly had no idea what the reporter was talking about, although he had the poor judgment to raise a middle figure at the camera, which clearly pleased the news editor.
I became overwhelmed by the flurry of invitations for cocktails with the leading lights of the art world, although I was uncomfortable with the gossip and backstabbing. At such times, I would wonder if I could enlist Monty to attend in my place.
My social awkwardness didn’t faze the attendees. “Campbell. We love it that you are the real deal,” said Livinia D’Arrabatia, the veteran arts correspondent of the Sunday Times. “You are a blank canvass. It’s so refreshing in the art world.” There was an intensity beyond the well powdered crows’ feet that ringed her eyes. I sidestepped the offer of a private viewing of her art collection.
I was persuaded to move my art exhibition to a luxurious building on the South Bank. I had sponsors lining up to pay for it. Here the light came flooding in through giant plate windows like that sudden moment when you pull the curtains apart, stretched out for the whole day. There was no place to hide the flaws in my work, but the people who came in to see it didn’t seem to care. Arabs and thick set businessmen who seemed to have little appreciation for my work would grunt and offer me sums for the work that made me think I had made a mistake in adding too many zeros. There were more appearances on TV shows and I came to realize my paintings were one of this season’s must haves – a topic for soirees and something to boast about on a languid weekend.
The great and the good would pay me exorbitant sums of money to go to their homes to paint them with their dogs or horses. The work unsettled me but I obliged.
On my 23rd birthday I threw a lavish party at my apartment in Greenwich in which I showcased some of my new work.
It was the first time I had been in the same room as my parents, Monty and Grace for a long time. My father, who was becoming increasingly disorientated generally seemed to find it hard to equate me with the figure who has been escorted on a train to rehab. Grace was upbeat. “Your paintings are so much more bouncy than usual now you’ve cut out the poor people.”
Monty seemed more subdued but got roaringly drunk and narrowly missed a painting of the Countess of Warwick’s horse with his pino noir. “So what’s the secret old boy? How do you make money out of this stuff?” He said it over and over.
At midnight the party was showing no signs of ending but I was cold sober. I walked away down the spiral stairs to the garage that held by Audi. I careered out and down a road and sped through the slumbering city. It seemed miles before I came to countryside but I was happy to see the milky light of dawn appear over the trees of the Ashdown Forest. Slowly the sun came up, rendering the acres of heathland lovely. I breathed in the thin air and ditched the Audi on a farm track. Then I started walking to the horizon and a plan formed in my head. I was going to leave it all behind, I was going to ditch the hollowness of the big city with its fake smiles. I was going to Budapest to meet Jacques’ lawyer.
Chapters from my novella Transitions are entirely fictitious and no resemblance is intended to real people or events.