I was in a taxi with David Knowles, the affable artistic programme manager of South Square Gallery; his pre-wife Lucy; and a purveyor of Italian real estate, who also happened to be his sister. David was in the middle, wearing a check shirt, with his arms round the two women. They were both glamorous and he looked like he should be called Diddy D, and draped in gold chains.
—Where are we going? I asked.
—We’re going to the Sparrow Bar. David said. —It’s in town. We’re going to meet some people.
We’d just attended an exhibition by the avant-garde artist Michael Day. It consisted of two landscape projections. One was a snowscape and the other was a woodland scene. There were red neon lights superimposed over the canvas. Very few people had turned up to see the exhibition. I had wondered where the artist’s friends were. I had wondered where his family were. I had become anxious about what I was going to say about the exhibition. I was wracking my brains: think of something clever to say.
—What did you think? He asked me.
—I don’t know. I said. —I like content. I felt old fashioned, saying this.
—I like content too. He said. —But I also like stuff without content.
I see, I thought, this is how you stay hip. I need to get with it. I need two glamorous women and a check shirt. We arrived at the Sparrow Bar. The windows were steamy.
—It looks hot in there, I said. This is where the cool people hang, I thought, in the hot room. We paid the taxi man and went in. The security was comprised of one grinning bald man from Belfast. —You’ll like Belfast, he said, —You’re English. The place was teeming with young men in check shirts and beards and young sparkly women with shiny hair and retro dresses. I need a beard, I thought.
—Have a pint of Black Rat. David said, —It will give you inspiration.
We all bought foaming goblets of Black Rat. It tasted of fruit juice and had a sinister red glow. There was nowhere to sit. Then David pointed to the corner of the bar and miraculously, the table was clearing and the crowd were parting like the waves did for Moses. We sat down. We were joined by two glamorous women, they were curators. They were sparkly with shiny hair and retro dresses. Then a man in a check shirt and a beard approached.
—This is Michael Day, the artist. David said. We shook hands. We drank Black Rat.
—Michael, this is Michael. Michael is a writer. I felt old fashioned. I wasn’t an avant-garde artist or a shiny curator. I was like Heaney’s old pike badged with sores, swimming with the tench. —Michael’s just been to the opening. Perhaps he’ll write something.
—What did you think? Michael Day said.
—I don’t know, I said. —I like content. I mean, I like things that are free of content too. But you know, my preference is for content.
—But that’s the point, he said.
—I see, I said. —I get it. I didn’t get it. I felt old fashioned. I asked him why his friends hadn’t turned up. I asked him why his family hadn’t turned up.
—I don’t need an audience to validate my work. He said. I see, I thought. Audiences are old fashioned.
—I don’t know how to judge stuff like that, I said. —I don’t know how to judge whether it’s any good or not.
—That’s what I’m trying to do, he said. —I’m interested in exploring that space.
—I see, I said. —I get it. I didn’t get it. —But what do you want your audience to go away thinking about? I said. —What’s your intention?
—I’m suspicious of work that means something. I’m suspicious of artists’ intentions.
—I see, I said. —I get it. I didn’t get it.
—What do you think of the phrase, ‘Black Rat’? David’s impossibly beautiful pre-wife said.
—I like it, I said. I like the assonance. —It was the black rats that brought the plague, I said.
—It will inspire you, David said. —Trust me. —Will you write about this? A little story or a blog? We can put it on the website, he said. —Will you do that?
—I will, I said. —I promise. Only it will be dark and no one will come out of it well. Not even me. Especially not me.
He laughed. He thought I was joking.
—Have another Black Rat, He said. —It will give you inspiration.
We had 7 gazillion Black Rats at 7 gazillion percent alcohol. The room was swimming. I was drowning.
—I need to go outside, I said, for some fresh air. David joined me. We both rolled cigarettes.
—There used to be this bar, I said. —Just over there. I pointed somewhere. —It was a Jamaican bar. They played reggae. Do you like reggae?
—I love reggae. He said.
—Do you like Lee Scratch Perry, I said.
—I love Lee Scratch Perry, he said. —We should go.
—The Jamaican Bar, where they play reggae.
—It’s not open any more. I said. —They closed it down.
—We should go to another one. He said.
—Yes, we should, I said. I didn’t know of another one.
—I love black people. He said. —Do you love black people?
—I do, I said.
—Why doesn’t everyone love black people? He said.
—I don’t know, I said.
—We should go to a Jamaican bar that plays reggae. We should go to somewhere where there are black people, and tell them we love them.
—Yes, I said, —We should, that’s a good idea.
David went back inside to tell his preternaturally beautiful pre-wife and the bearded artist and the shiny curators the plan. I stood outside smoking. Feeling unusual. I don’t need to tell black people I love them, I thought, I need to go home. I need to go to bed. I hailed a taxi. David came out of the bar.
—Where are you going? He said.
—I’m going home, I said.
—But what about the Jamaican bar, where they play reggae. We’re all going. It will be great.
—I’ve drank too much Black Rat, I said. —It catches up on you.
And so we parted company. Two paths diverged. One went to a Jamaican bar, where they played reggae, the other went to my house, where my bed lived. I took the latter path.
—Don’t forget to write about this, he said.
—I won’t forget, I promised. —Only it will be dark, and no one will come out of it well. And I’ll make some of it up, I said.
—Will you? He said.
—That’s what writers do, I said. —We make stuff up.
—Are you making this up now, he said.
—I don’t know, I said, —I’ve drank too much Black Rat. And I went home to listen to some reggae.