WRITE ACROSS SUSSEX: Art forms

Write Across Sussex
Write Across Sussex

by Andrea Hargreaves

Another entry in our Write Across Sussex competition.

I don’t know if you’ve ever accidentally urinated on the closed lid of a toilet but the sensation is initially warm and comforting – rather like peeing in a wetsuit – but the realisation of what you are doing, which occurs correspondingly slowly according to how much alcohol you have consumed, soon provokes other reactions, again depending on how much you have drunk. In my case three pints of Sussex still equates to pelvic-floor-clenching panic while four gives way to nonchalance and a slapdash mop up. But that’s by the by. I don’t know why I’m telling you that really except that it gives you an idea of how we were then, at that point in our lives when we were contemplating marriage and mortgages but hadn’t got as far as thinking about kids. We were living in the hazy reality of the mid 60s which our 50s’ childhoods hadn’t prepared us for. Every experience was new. We accepted each idea as it was presented to us because we had no frame of reference to gauge it against. So I and my husband-to-be had taken to going to the pub in what our friends in Seaford referred to as The Village, about five miles away. There – don’t ask me how we drove home afterwards in those pre-breathalyser days of shrugged-off prangs in MGBs and Mini Mokes – we gathered of a Friday evening in an old coaching inn furnished with a huge refectory table on which we perched. Back then the only service was provided by the surly landlord who barely tolerated us; if the local gentry came in he would immediately serve them no matter how many of us were waiting for refills. You see in those days life in the country was very different from the city and we from the town – the peasants – were still expected to know our place, so when the woman with the long hair and gypsy skirt to the floor and the man in the scuffed brown leather jacket and paint-splattered cords – they must have been in their mid-30s I should think but seemed very mature to us – walked up to the bar and were cordially greeted as Patrick and Arabella we interrupted our exchange of mild banter and stared at the exotic newcomers.

“Mind if we join you?” Patrick asked in a pleasant Irish burr. “We’re new here and don’t know anyone. Fine pub this, and Tom’s good with the craic.” It took us a moment to realise they were referring to the landlord. We’d never got beyond calling him Mr Phipps. We asked them what brought them to the village. It turned out that he was an artist and they were renting a house there. She was gentle, with a soft voice and a lyrical way of telling stories that drew you in but drifted away to nothing; he was friendly and full of words that seldom connected. We asked him about his art but didn’t understand his confusing metaphysical explanations and didn’t like to ask for clarification because we didn’t want our ignorance exposed.

As the bell rang for last orders Arabella invited us back for coffee. There was me, my fiancé, Angie and Pete, Robin, Peter and Sue, Tim and Ann. Of course the young man who became my husband, Pete, Peter, Robin and Ann are all dead now – leukaemia, booze, booze, fags and bowel cancer respectively – but in those days we never gave our mortality a thought and burst out of the pub door, laughing with the exuberance of careless youth as we staggered slightly in the still, cold night air oblivious to the spectacle we made.

Patrick and Arabella lived in a large Georgian double-fronted house just off the main village street. Once elegant, it was now echoey and full of shadows. Arabella conducted us to what would once have been a grand drawingroom but was now a shabby space containing no furniture apart from a sofa covered with crocheted blankets, and some large cushions on the floor. There were no curtains and every so often the wind beat a tree branch against the sashed bay windows like the persistent whisper of a percussion brush.

Arabella explained that Tom Phipps was their landlord. They had only just moved in.

I needed to wee again, the effect of six halves. “Up the stairs, along the landing to the end,” instructed Arabella.

The landing was a long one, stretching across the frontage of the house. As I walked along it I became aware of a small, dumpy old lady in a Victorian dress. Grey it was, and plain. Her hair was gathered into a small, wispy bun on top of her head. She didn’t look at me but continued approaching with steps that spoke of small feet in too-tight shoes. She got so close that my eyes went out of focus. When I looked behind me she had gone. Mindful of a toilet incident I opened the lavatory door, checked the lid, did the necessary on automatic pilot and came out, wondering just how much I had really had to drink to conjure up the vision I had seen and asking myself why it wasn’t story-book frightening. Was it because there had been no anticipation of seeing anything strange?

However, the experience must have had some effect because as I returned to the sitting room Arabella remarked: “Are you all right? You’re as pale as a ghost. ”

“I think I’ve just seen one,” I replied hesitantly, suddenly sober and waiting for the guffaws of my inebriated friends.

“What did you see?” asked Arabella, ignoring the titters.

“You’re going to think I’m barmy, but it was a little old lady.”

“Was she in Victorian dress? In grey, with a straggly little bun?”

I nodded dumbly while the others gaped.

“Don’t worry about her. That’s Agnes. Tom Phipp’s great grandma. She’s OK but his great granddad is really annoying. He taps on the window with a sound like the brushes drummers use.”

She then went to a cupboard and pulled out two small paintings, one of a lady in a grey Victorian dress, the other of a bent old man with a fierce expression, carrying a garden broom. “Patrick’s latest paintings,” she explained. “But we won’t be putting them up because we’re off next week to find somewhere to live that has more atmosphere than this place.”

Patrick added: “I need more than two fairly benign ghosts to inspire me. You asked me earlier what I painted. Now you know: I seek out the supernatural. You can’t photograph ghosts, you know, but I can paint them so they haunt houses forever. The trouble is, they make very bad models with that habit they’ve got of just melting away while I’m trying to get a good likeness.”

“We’re moving on but I’m sure we shall meet at least some of you in the future,” said Arabella as she said goodbye at the front door, while Patrick stared after us with a painterly eye.

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