In Conversation with Eric Gill
I present a piece of fiction written two years ago. On re-reading I have concerns about the ending, but I leave it without self-censorship: that is what I wrote then, so be it. This blog has made it quite clear my view on Gill and his legacy in light of sexual abuse of children, noting that most sexual abuse happens within the confines of the family unit. Gill was a serial abuser, of that there can be no doubt. [See here for a previous blog on my view of this man.]
In conversation with Eric Gill, Catholic Englishman
It is mid afternoon, that time when you push through the hours in anticipation of the end of the working day. But when you don’t work there is no relief against the empty hours. I sit alone in one of those concrete shelters on the promenade local councils were once so fond of erecting: a civic contribution to the general wellbeing of the community, a public sanctuary protected from the weather. Protected too from observation, where clandestine rendevous can be arranged. Spies, maybe, to exchange secrets (how thrilling); lovers to furtively enjoy one another (how erotic); older couples to sit silently starring out to sea, their minds blank to the inadequacy of their relationship even if their hands are joined (how melancholy). A shame then that each shelter has a sharp smell of urine and is decorated, if that’s the word, with spray can graffiti. Tags, that’s the word I was searching for. Am I losing it, my wits not as sharp, my synapses – a word I can remember having heard it on the radio this morning – not firing so easily? I am as old as Dante and, I think, my best could be behind me now.
Of the shelters along the sea front I prefer this one since it’s the furthest from town. Too far for families with young children, too distant for the old and infirm for whom this part of the coast attracts with the same hidden force a magnet does metal, and beyond the range of visitors whose time limits them to those gaudy pleasures clustered about the now abandoned and derelict pier: fish and chip shops, shell fish counters, ice cream parlours, candy floss; arcades pumping out music and bedazzling the eye with flashing lights; shops selling last year’s desirables at knockdown prices; and, amid all this trash, a pub dating to the seventeenth century and still displaying its architectural heritage for anyone caring to observe, yet preferring to hide its charms behind contemporary adornments: always-on-TVs broadcasting sport, juke boxes, ‘eat as much as you can’ buffet. These places entice and capture most of those who might choose instead to walk the mile or so to my hiding place, and for the few who do make it this far (locals exercising either themselves or their dogs, in rare cases doing both simultaneously) the sight of me brooding alone is sufficient to cause them to quicken their step, to call their pet to heel, to turn quickly in case our eyes might meet. It’s as if I carry a sign of unwelcome or there is in the air a pestilence that compels strangers to flee. Or perhaps it is just the sharp smell of urine that makes them scamper.
Yet today will be unlike every other day for today I will meet Eric. We met yesterday when our paths crossed, quite literally, at the train station though the more I think about it the less I believe it was chance. For what is chance but our laziness to recognise a pattern in all that happens in our lives. He had emerged from the footplate amid steam rising from the boiler. He was laughing and clearly in high spirits, cracking a final joke with the fireman with whom he had shared the journey. He had the demeanour of a boy and seemed to skip away from the locomotive with a lightness of foot that is without care or consequence. I watched as he adjusted his glasses, removed the cloth flat cap he was wearing, slapped it against his thigh to remove any lingering soot ash, replaced it and nodded to young couple passing just then, his eyes fixed, one might say penetrating the woman’s clothing as in his mind he began to sketch her naked. He was, after all, an artist. I think she understood for she looked behind to receive his smiling invitation. Eric, I thought, you are no different from what I imagine you to have been. As the woman’s male friend dragged her away (she complaining) his attention turned to me. ‘Are you really going to say something?’ I thought. His course was set. It was inevitable we met.
Eric Gill, he said.
You know me?
I was once a fan of yours.
I mean I was once a letter carver like you.
You made a living at it?
Then you cannot call yourself…
What are you?
What am I?
Are you deaf? What is your occupation?’
I do many things.
Any of them well?
I think so.
What? What in particular do you do well?
Isn’t that enough?
You are asking me that?
Who are you to judge?
Considering this he lit a cigarette.
I will see you tomorrow, he said and walked away.
I watched until he vanished amid a circle of dancing children.
I smell the cigarette before I see him.
You’re late, I say.
He sits close, our thighs almost touching, and crosses his legs. He wears something like a kilt and grey woollen socks come just below the knee. He adjusts them, a band behind the turndown needing to be slackened. In the burnished shine of his brown leather shoes I see clouds reflected. The cigarette smoulders at the end of a long mottled Bakelite holder. He looks out to sea then closes his eyes.
Do you believe them? he asks.
Without hesitation or reflection I answer. It is what I have waited to say.
What you did was vile. It was unconscienceable. I don’t know how you were able to live with yourself knowing you had violated your own. If then it was not a crime, today you would be sent away and, good riddance, Mr Gill.
But was it unholy? His eyes are open now.
How can you hide behind false gods?
I am off track already, my long-prepared assault on his reputation has been easily parried. It’s like he was expecting it all along, had determined to take me on at the outset without the distraction of introductions or well-mannered small talk.
My dear child, he begins. Everything we do is holy. Everything I did was promoted by that desire also to be truthful.
You fucked your own daughters, I shout.
There is no need to be vulgar. Intercourse is a beautiful partnership.
Not with your own.
Why ever not? I am surprised how orthodox you are. These taboos you speak of have been placed there by institutions keen to clamp our spirits.
I am becoming angrier. I force myself to calm down, take a moment to draw a deep breath.
Even your own fucked up religion does not tolerate incest.
Not incest, he counters, his voice rising an octave. No! It was not incest.
Then what is it?
A partnership mutually agreeable, he answers.
It sounds rehearsed as does what follows.
There was never dissent. After I had drawn and sketched her we lay together.
Then you took her every which way you liked.
I pause to allow the words find their level, attach to memories I sense are flooding his mind.
You took her and you knew she would never protest, call out, scream, tell her mother.
Mary knew, he says and his eyelids close.
Open them, I shout.
I stare at him. He focuses on mine, his glasses now reflecting the shit grey sea. Way above us a seagull cries. There is almost a thin smile of triumph moving across his face. I want to hit him but he is a shade from another place so my words must do duty.
I hesitate. I have long thought of this moment, triumphant in my moral justification, imagining him squirming at the end of a well placed, one might say clinical demonstration of reasoned judgement. I had considered my words, prepared a mental script. I was incisive in my preparations. I’d make him seek mercy as the magnitude of his sins were revealed. But now with him here by me I cannot. My mind is blank. Everything has been deleted. This man is Eric Gill and I can’t continue for at another time I cherished him, loved him like my father even if he was dead. I feel I should apologise for my outburst. He leans forward, takes my right hand in both of his, pulls me closer.
Dear child, he says gently. Be angry. You are right. I did wrong. I was a bad man, a bad father, a bad husband to my wife. Know this though: What I did harmed no one. It was God’s gift.
The End – so to speak…