The Norman Conquest

A few weeks ago, I was amazed to hear from Norman’s daughter and niece, inspiring me to search the files for other pieces my dad may have written about the artist. Yesterday I discovered this story. Now it’s formatted so that I can share it here.

Norman came out of the stone cottage through the open half of the arched door. His hair was not yet brought into daytime order. He carried a towel and a bag of toiletries in one hand. The other shaded his eyes as he looked up at the mist swirling among the cliffs of the Teig. The sun had yet to appear, but already brightened the sky. He wore army fatigue pants and the liner of an army overcoat. His arms and thick chest were covered with curly gray hair matching the full beard. He was shorter than average, and wider, with a bright twinkle in his eyes. To a passing stranger to the village, he might have resembled a troll or perhaps a Jewish leprechaun if ever such a creature existed.

Shoeless, he crossed the bridge over the torrent rushing noisily toward the sea two kilometers distant. He took a shaving mirror from the bag and hung it on a peg driven by him years ago into the retaining wall bordering the cobbled path along the torrent. Then he removed the khaki liner, reached behind him to drape it over the wood railing of the bridge, and tied the towel around his waist.

His breath condensed in short puffs as he bent to the basin hollowed from solid rock. He scooped cold water from the basin and snorted and snuffled through his beard before tossing more over his chest and arms. With the towel he dried himself and pulled it back and forth across the pelt on his back.

After brushing his hair into some semblance of order, great waves of curly gray and black, he whipped up a lather in his palm and covered his cheeks in such a way that he would be left with muttonchops reaching his beard. Three strokes on each side, looking askance each way, and he was shaved. A quick rinse with the water overflowing from the basin, a brisk rub with the towel and he gathered his belongings and walked back across the bridge on feet still bare and thick with hair like a goat.

Now in his seventies, he had made this his morning ritual for decades. Recently, especially in the winter, he had taken to carrying pails of water into the house to heat by the fireplace, or if he did not want to build a fire or had no kindling or logs, on the butane cook stove. He lived on a pension from the US Army, which long ago was enough to live on in Paris, where he returned after studying art in Brooklyn on the GI bill. But prices in Paris soared in the ‘fifties. Even though he was selling as well as many of his expatriate friends, eventually he followed some of them south.

Houses were dirt cheap at the time. Many young people left the villages to work in the capital city. With the francs he earned in his last exhibition in Paris, he was able to purchase the cottage – two rooms upstairs, one room and a kitchen downstairs. The toilet was outside. Minimal electricity, no running water. Like a garret, one might say, but in a Tramontana village, full of northern light.

He spread his arms as if to embrace the mountains surrounding the village: “It’s like being in the womb!”

Now, on this day in April, he had yet to unravel the sheets from his legs and set feet on the tile floor when the heavy iron aldaba on the front door sent three echoes booming through the house. He opened his eyes and wondered who. Too early for mail, and almost never did he receive any. All the villagers knew he would not welcome visitors before noon, and it could not be that late.

Reluctantly he got up. He wore a khaki undershirt and shorts. Amazing how his military clothes seemed to last forever; a few tears, a couple of moth holes in his jacket, but that’s all.

He pulled the wooden window open, still no glass after all these years, and flung the green shutters back. Leaning out he saw two faces peering up at him, a woman and a girl.

“What?” he said.

“Norman. Norman, don’t you recognize me?”

“Who?” His mind was slowly beginning to turn. It was an odd angle to recognize a face.

“Paris, twelve years ago. Vermont, ten years ago.” She put her arm around the young girl, who scrutinized him through rimless spectacles.

“Yeah. And?”

“This is your daughter. She wants to meet you. She was only two when you came to visit me and Bob.”

Memory hit him like a hammer to the skull. He had completely forgotten that whole episode, as if had never happened at all.

“Uh, yeah. Okay. Let me get dressed. Wait for me up in the Bar Palmeras.” He pulled his head back in the window and looked around the room, not exactly in panic, but with a certain unease. He pulled on a long sleeved flannel shirt and the trousers he had worn all week. He stuffed a wool jacket, two shirts and some socks into his duffle bag. He closed the shutters, grabbed the bag and ran down the steps.

From a ceramic pot in the kitchen labeled Arroz he removed his passport with stash of peseta notes and shoved them into his inside pocket. In the living room he looked regretfully at the unfinished canvas on the easel, hung his brushes in a can of solvent, and put his toilet bag in with his clothes. Cautiously opening the door, he saw no one outside, and shut it behind him. He hid the large iron key under a rock in the garden, and briskly set off downhill, never looking back toward the village and the Palmeras. The church bell rang ten o’clock as he followed the torrente still flowing from the winter rains. He could pick up the bus to Palma at the foot of the village in fifteen minutes. From there he could take the evening ferry to Barcelona.

“That was close,” he told himself, sitting back in the bus. As he watched the ragged seacoast unfold itself on his right, he caught sight of the ferry out on the horizon, steaming toward the port in Palma. It would take most of the day to get there. He would sit up all night as she headed back in the other direction to arrive after dawn in Barcelona.

Norman used to come to our house and improvise on the Bechstein.

“My sister got to study the piano. I had to take violin. I hated it. But I used to watch her practice and tried to pick it up.”

He flung his hands at the keyboard and played a piece that Stravinsky never wrote, but would have thought was his composition, had he heard it. This he followed by a piece of bombast that Brahms would have been proud of. Once he did variations on Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

It was after one of these impromptu concerts that he sat with us in our kitchen and told us the story.

It was around 1958, right after the American Art Review ran a story on expatriates in a group exhibition in Paris.

“Get this, George”, he said, holding out an airmail letter. “I picked this up at the American Express office. This dame is coming over here from the States to meet me. Can you believe it?”

“I hope she has a gallery over there. We could all use a boost back home.”

“That she doesn’t say. Says she saw my work and my picture in the Art Review. She sent her photo.” He held it out. “Not bad, eh?”

“Not bad at all. Better not introduce her around. How’s she going to find you?”

“Not her me. Me, her. She´ll be in the Hotel La Louisianne on the fourteenth.”

“Sartre’s old hangout. Must be a literary type.”

“This also I don’t know. She did say she’s booked a double room. Can you believe this?”

He met her. She told him what she wanted.

“I want to have your baby. I think you would give me the one I want.”

He shrugged, spread his hands and looked me in the eye. “How could I say no?”

“So she goes back to the States and has the baby. She marries this Manhattan lawyer from up in Connecticut. Once in a while I get a note, maybe a greeting card with a picture of this curly haired girl, cute if you like kids, if you know what I mean?”

Then there was a death in Norman’s family. I don’t remember – his mother? A sister?

Anyway, he made the trip back to Brooklyn. He takes care of the family duties. The Brooklyn Museum has recently acquired the work of John von Wicht, a friend with a house on Mallorca. At the exhibit he meets the widow.

“I didn’t know John died,” he told her. He offered his condolences, but enough time had passed that she didn’t seem to need that any more.

She adjusted her wig. He wondered if she had been undergoing radiation. “I gave a young lady your address in Paris a few years back. Did she find you?”

He had completely forgotten that von Wicht was in the Paris exhibit. He was not exactly an expatriate, but he was showing more in Europe than in America at the time.

“I always wondered how she found me.”

Now Norman accepted another glass of red wine.

“I remembered she and the kid and her husband lived up on Central Park West.”

He took another sip, and looked sheepishly at us. “I know I wasn’t very nice about running away when they showed up here. Sorry.” He grandly shrugged again.

“As it happens I had a friend on ninety-second street, a block or so away. He had no phone, and when I got there he wasn’t home, so I said What the hell, and knocked on their door. I had to get clearance from a guy in the lobby, but he called up and there I was.”

He ducked his head sheepishly again.

“First thing I notice when she opens the door, a chess set on a glass table in the living room.”

I haven’t told you about Norman and chess. With him it’s an obsession. He’s not the only one in our village. Three or four are a obsessive as he is, Jacob Lind and Paul Kroto, for instance.

Once Norman and Bob Bradbury fell out over a game and didn’t speak to each other for years.

“So we say hello. The kid is at school. She introduces me to her husband. Off she goes to pick up the kid. Her husband and I sit down at the glass table. He’s pretty good, but I am not going to let him win.”

When the wife returns with the child, they are one to one and deep in a chess fury. A quick kiss from her daddy and a suspicious look at the guy with the bushy beard and they go off to the kitchen for snacks.

“My concentration is off, first thing I know he has my queen,” Norman says, eyes popping in retrospective anger. “I still have a chance, but there’s this curly headed midget across the table staring at me. I lost it. I mean I really lost it.”

He growled at his daughter, grabbed his hat and hit for the door. He didn’t wait for the elevator, and he ignored the voices calling out to him in the echoing stairwell.

Now he shook off the ancient anger. He tipped the glass and downed the rest of the wine. On his feet, he spread his arms.

“I could have beat him in a fair fight.”