A Passage in Time
A short story based on Lucian Freud's Two Irishmen in W11 (1984)
Lucian Freud, Two Irishmen in W11, 1984 (Photo: IMMA Collection)
A pause followed my question, I knew I’d said the wrong thing. His ring glistened as he closed his fist and shielded his mouth, clearing his throat, the way old men do. After this routine, he collected himself and began to speak. ‘Oh, it’s been years now. I still think about her, most days - every day. It doesn’t take much. A grey sky, a white house, a question. The kind of questions you’re asking me now. We all grow old you know; I didn’t realise it when I was… your age. I doubt our friend behind me believes it either.’ The man bristled in his chair as his son slouched, clearly, this was a fable he had heard many times before. They had the same shoulders, soft and sloping. No, not sloping, drooping. To some, it may have seemed the posture of defeated men. Two defeated soldiers dressed in the armour of blue suits and ties. There was hope there too though. Hope in the time it takes to iron a fresh white shirt, to select a tie that roughly matches the rest of your outfit. Hope in the perfectly polished ring proudly displayed on the man’s left hand, to be proudly passed down to his son and his son’s son in the future. Hope in making the journey from Ireland to this unfamiliar row of white houses in the capital of England.
"We came here once, one summer. Well, not here, God no. We went to…" The younger man’s eyes trailed off. His father’s raspy voice filled the space of the empty studio, interrupted by stutters and pauses as he grappled with the memory of a visit to London twenty years ago. "I think she would be proud of him. He’s good to me, he’s always there. Watching, waiting, standing by. I see a lot of myself in him. Do you?" The elderly man coughed and straightened up, ‘He needs to stand straight though; I always tell him that. It’s the measure of a good man. A good man is hard to find.’ The son shuffled, still silent, patiently waiting for his father to finish.
Still uncomfortable with the balance between the painter and the painted, the old man continued to command the space with his voice. "Ireland’s changed a lot over the years; I wonder if she would recognise it now? I’m not sure she would. Once a gentlewoman, hardened by what has happened. She has changed. Ha, that leaves two mothers eroded by the past. I worry about that; I worry that he’s growing up in a different landscape to the one we dreamt about for him. He says he doesn’t care. I don’t believe him."
A pause, prolonged and dissipated into silence. The eyes of the two blue-suited men slid to the ground, slowly succumbing to the afternoon of thinking that lay ahead. Their thoughts grew louder. Their eyes seemed to grow bluer. The outside window grew sharper, it was all I could bear to look at. Soon a haze choked the room. I knew I shouldn’t be there. This was the memory of a woman, a memory of a time and a place that belonged to them. The volume of the unspoken words grew unbearable. Finally, I couldn’t bear it any longer, "What was her name?," I asked.
"Oh well," the old man sighed. "Can I have a moment please?"
The son coughed, "It will be okay," he said. "He will be okay."
That was the only thing he said all day.