........ ..........stories.



I first met Daniel at the tube station near where I worked in London. It was a Thursday and I was on my way home, and so was he as it turned out. He was in front of me in the queue, fumbling for change and not finding any. Everyone behind was raising their heads and edging forward murmuring curses which got gradually louder - until Daniel slunk away with his head down, still rummaging in his pockets.

  "Where to," I said to him, "Charing Cross OK?" He stopped and looked up, surprised. Then he nodded. I bought myself a ticket and one for him. He was a bohemian all right: scruffy, neglected, half emaciated, but with a bright intelligent face. He was clutching a massive tattered portfolio which matched his clothes and with edges of paper creeping out at the sides.

"For me?" he said, taking the ticket, obviously amazed.

"For you." I replied, as I handed it over with a slight mocking bow.

He gave me a grand smile in return and we joined the crowd onto the escalator. I soon discovered he was not much of a talker, but that he lived in Cardboard City just south of Waterloo and had been trying to sell his pictures all day. He looked shattered too, and said he'd just lost three quid through a new hole in his pocket.

Once we were on the train I prompted him to undo the string holding the portfolio together and let me glimpse the top picture. My first impression was of a whole lot of smudges, with swirls of pale purple and yellow. In fact, though it took me a while to see it, it was a minimalist, impressionist version of Trafalgar Square. There was Nelson's Column with the fountains and lions in the foreground, and The National Gallery behind, all in beautiful soft watercolour, but washed-out and tastefully distorted so you could only just make out what it was.

My train wasn't due for 40 minutes, so as we approached Charing Cross I asked him to join me for a snack so he could show me the rest of his work. I don't pretend to know much about art, but this picture was magnificent and I'd have been delighted to hang it in my lounge.

At first he seemed reluctant, but after a little persuasion he gave me another of his smiles which seemed to warm me inside - what was it about him, his gaze, his poise..? When we reached the station café I told him to order whatever he liked, while I settled for a beer and peanuts.

Eventually, he opened the portfolio. And what a show! He had eighteen pictures of various sizes, and although they were fairly clear, he explained briefly what each depicted. One superb rendition of Pegasus made me gasp. It was so vividly alive and dynamic, yet like Trafalgar Square it had a soft watery effect that all but obscured the image and made it something inexplicable, something for the imagination to get its teeth into for some minutes at least, I thought.

"How much?" I said, wondering suspiciously why they hadn't sold.

"The flying horse?" he asked.

I nodded.

He hesitated, then said, "Two quid all right?"

"Two quid?" I said, "How long did it take you?"

He shrugged, "An hour; maybe two, at different times. You see, they have to be done in stages, drying and washing again and so on. That's the way to get the colours to run and merge so they appear distinct and washed-out at the same time."

"But you have to buy the paper." I said, "And the paint."

He grinned and blushed slightly but said nothing.

"How did you do these in Box City?"

"Cardboard City." He said, smiling again. "I borrow a friend's room some days in exchange for a picture. That's where I keep my things. They're not really safe there but it's better than the boxes because every now and then the Council raid us and take most of it to the dump. I once lost a whole lot of stuff that way. Must have been at least twenty of them, some of my best." He looked glumly down at the floor.

   I thought: if I could buy some of these and frame them myself they'd make marvellous gifts and might even resell for quite a bit. And if he only wants two quid for the best one… But I don't want to take advantage of the poor kid, even if every other dropout is a capable painter these days and the market's overwhelmed.

I'd been to the bank the day before and drawn £100, and after paying a couple of bills I had about seventy left.

"It's not enough," I said, "and I'll have to settle properly at some future date, but for the moment how about fifty quid for these?"

His eyes lit up like lights. "Fifty?" he said, "That's incredible… I don't want to put you off, but are you sure you want all of them?"

To hear that, I thought, was even more incredible. Unlikely as it seemed for someone in his circumstances, it appeared that as well as being a skilled painter our homeless friend was honest too.

"I'm Positive." I said, taking five tenners from my wallet, "By the way, what's your name? I've a feeling we'll be seeing more of each other."

  "Daniel. See the big D in the corners?"

  We made the exchange and he told me to keep the portfolio. He'd buy a new one, he said. I asked where I could contact him and he just told me mysteriously that I'd see him around. I had no choice but to take him at his word. We shook hands and I paid the bill then left to catch my train.

I kept my eyes open Friday but saw nothing of him. Then on Saturday I took several of the pictures to a local art shop. As I explained how I'd acquired them, the man frowned, then as he turned them over he began to grin strangely.

"What is it?" I said.

"Not quite the style, of course," he murmured, "but you've heard of Beardsley, I trust?"

beard"Beardsley?" I said, "Sound's vaguely familiar."

He was examining the pictures more closely now, removing his glasses and using them as a magnifying glass, then he replaced them and held one of the paintings at arm's length. "Aubrey Beardsley," he said, "And this fella's up to the same trick, though it's not so obvious."

"What are you saying?" I said, peering over his shoulder, "Is there something wrong with them."

"I wouldn't say wrong exactly, more… well, specialist. They might," he added, squinting and scrutinising the detail on a small picture of what seemed to be the Albert Memorial, "in the right place, fetch a very good price." He put the picture down and looked at me with raised eyebrows.

 I stared back at him briefly then took up the one of Trafalgar Square and studied it closely, "The swirls?" he said, pointing at the lions, "and the mark on Nelson, so faint it looks like a construction line that's been drawn a shade too heavy?"

Then, like a flash, I saw it. "The little twister!" I said, "Who'd have known? So that's why he was smiling so much. And that smile! Why didn't he tell me, or at least give me a clue?"

"Not so hasty, pal." said the man, "For one thing he'd have assumed you noticed; to him it would have been glaringly clear, too clear probably. And for another thing you're forgetting this is art, and there's the issue of artistic license. What's more, they could be quite valuable. The balance between obviation and obscurity is extremely fine, unusually fine in this case, a highly sought after quality. The licentious old stud hoodwinks the puritan wife. Both see beauty, but quite a different picture. People see what they expect, or hope to see, if you see what I mean."

   I didn't know what to say. First, the pictures were misleading, now they were something special.

"What do you call 'a good price'?" I said.

The man scratched his head, "Difficult to say. Anything between £150 and £450 at a very rough guess. Not really my field. I could find out for you if you'd like to leave a couple with me."

"What about this one of Pegasus?" I said, "Where's the problem with that?"

"Extremely subtle that one," he said, standing back from it and looking over his glasses, "Extremely suggestive too. See the wings, like thighs, the head thrown high like… well, er, then the two distinct buttocks, round and full like a huge pair of er… quite brilliant really."

"Amazing." I said, "Now I'm not sure what to do."

"Leave them with me and I'll get a valuation. There's no charge. If you decide to sell, then maybe I can be your agent. I rent space in two shops in town. That's where they'd fetch the best price."

"Very well," I said, "though I'm not sure if I want to sell them just yet."

"That's fine," he said, handing me his card, "Call me late Monday."

I called him before I left the office. I could hardly believe what he said and asked him to repeat it. For the five pictures I'd left him with he was prepared to pay £3,500. I told him I'd call him Tuesday.

When I got to Charing Cross I looked around a bit and then walked over the footbridge to Waterloo. He wasn't there either, so I thought to bribe some beggars with a fiver to direct me to Cardboard City.

"No such place," they told me. "All spread out like; different places."

 I described Daniel and his pictures but they'd never heard of nor seen him. They indicated where I could find a lot of dilapidated warehouses and alleys where I might find him. Half an hour later I was stepping among a long straggle of filthy tramps and drop-outs who, if they weren't asleep or spaced-out, glared at me scornfully. When I was about half way I cried out "Anyone know Daniel the painter?" The response was a lot of shh's and a smattering of lethargic groans and curses telling me in the foulest possible language to get the hell out or I'd end up in the Thames. Then some feeble voice from far down one end cried, "Who wants 'im?"

 I moved swiftly along the line to where I thought the voice had come from. "I do." I said, gazing around uncertainly in the gloom.

"You from Social?" It was a different voice.

"Do I look like Social?" I said, "I'm an art collector. I bought one of his pictures and I want to commission some more."

"How much they worth?" It was the first voice again and I homed in on it. The kid couldn't have been more than fifteen. What was a fifteen year-old doing in a place like this? What was anyone doing in a place like this? He had shoulder-length hair thick and knotted and was sunk into what looked like a washing-machine box that was ripped apart on one side with the top above his head for a roof.

"Where can I find him?" I said.

"A tenner for where 'e is." said the kid.

 I had three fivers ready in my pocket. I took two and passed one over. "The other when you tell me." I said.

"We could 'ave everythin' you's got mate if we wanted." He mumbled, "Now give us the other first."

 I handed it to him. He told me the name of a block of council flats and pointed in the direction; then he asked for another fiver for the number.

It was a quarter past six when I reached the place. And was it squalid? Four floors up I came to a door all cracked and grimy and with 'Fuck off' scrawled across it in bold red paint.

This was late autumn and it was all dark now, including inside the flat and there was no reply to my knocking - until the neighbour poked her head out and told me to just go in.

  "Dossin'" she said, "Been there a month 'e 'as. You Council?" I shook my head and she retreated back out of sight with a deep frown.

  So I pushed the door open and stepped onto bottles and other junk and managed to find a light switch. What a tip! I looked in one room. More garbage, but some order with a table and two chairs, one knocked over. Then the kitchen which I exited fast. As I entered the back room I could tell someone was there. "Hi." I said, "Just a friend. Didn't you hear me knock?" No reply. I turned on the light.

At last, pictures! It was the place, all right. A whole heap of them thrown in a corner, some massive, maybe two metres across. Then I saw the bed, or rather: mattress. He was breathing erratically, his face almost white. I tried to wake him. I shook him, gently at first. There was no smell of alcohol on him, and no sign of needle punctures in his arms which were completely limp and fell back heavy when I lifted them. What was wrong with him? Where was the tenant?

He woke up two weeks later in 'intensive care'. I was there at the hospital and the nurse summoned me. By then I'd had all the pictures valued that he'd sold me. In total, I could expect £17,000, possibly more. I sat at his side amidst trolleys of electronic gear to which he was hooked up, and a drip. He looked terrible and moved only his eyes to see me, giving a miniscule nod of recognition, as if unable to speak. According to the nurse his natural defences were extremely low due to years of poor nutrition, and he'd contracted some weird infection related to legionnaire's disease; he was not expected to live much longer, being kept alive on drugs and whatnot.

"The pictures you sold me are worth seventeen grand at least." I said quietly. His eyes glowed briefly and he gave a faint smile.

"A lot a good that'll do me now." He whispered, raising his eyebrows resignedly.

"If you survive," I said, "you're a rich man."

"If." He whispered back.

 I took his hand, the one without the drip, and squeezed it slightly. He squeezed back and tears formed in his eyes. "It's fate…" he said, the tears now in his voice, "I'm twenty three," he went on, shakily, "an' when you think of how millions of kids around the world are dying all the time from war and disease and starvation, how they slave for nothing and then die, destitute, pointlessly… compared to them I'm an old man, a very rich old man at that. I've done well. I've moved around. I've lived… Even in Cardboard City, I've lived…"

His eyes closed and he squeezed my hand again, and the tears ran down his cheeks.

 I said, "Don't give up. Why give up? You're still just a kid yourself. You've got everything to live for, believe me, especially now. You might even become famous."

"I don't want to be famous," he sighed, looking at me again, "I don't want anything, not even to live." He was really struggling now. "You're a good bloke." He said eventually, "I could tell that when I first saw you. I could almost fall in love with you. You didn't know that did you? Well, that's the truth of it. Sell the pictures and enjoy the dough, and maybe… maybe give a little to the people in Cardboard City… though I guess it won't do them much good. But I'm out of it now. Why fool myself? I'm out…" he squeezed my hand again and closed his eyes, then his arm went limp.

 I called the nurse who appeared instantly. She put an oxygen mask on his face and asked me to leave and let him rest. As I got up to go a doctor walked in and a few minutes later in the waiting area the nurse told me he was dead.

No, she added, there had been no other visitors.

At the hospital information desk they only had the address of the flat he was found in. I went straight there. The door was wide open and the pictures were gone; the place was worse than before. I phoned the council who told me they were a year behind with rent and enquiries had not been able to trace the previous tenant. I even found that kid again in Cardboard City, but he could tell me nothing, except that his sister had been the neighbour who told me to just go in.

  The funeral was the gloomiest affair ever, only me and the officials.

  I'd almost forgotten the paintings when the man in the art shop phoned. "Gone!" he said, "Had a break-in. I can't tell you how sorry… they may turn up again though. Don't lose hope…" he said this in a desolate tone of voice, "And you'll be compensated, of course, since they were officially valued and we're fully insured."

So now, whenever I go to buy my ticket, I take a look around and hope that maybe some day I might just get another little smile from someone.