Had to do a Valentines window at the bookshop today. There’s a strange feeling when in the window doing stuff. Isolation and quiet, but on display. Naked but wrapped. Perhaps it’s the Amsterdam hooker effect. People project their stuff on you but it’s a sort of harmless distanced thing. Physical presence minus the matter. Sex without the sex. Image without the substance. I don’t know. Anyway.
Normally when I’m in the window, people usually stroll on by without much of a glance. Occasionally a friend will come and bang and gurn at me to make me laugh, or boys will leer, but on the whole I feel invisible. I like it.
Only once a year is the display dedicated largely to a feeling and not an event, a calendar moment or a heralded new book. I mean, in theory, all the events are supposed to be about love, but this is the big boy. Valentine’s Day. The day that eclipses all other events, if not with the queried importance of its sainted origin, but by its sheer application to every living person with a heart. It is a versatile day; by its very nature it should not exclude anyone. And it’s angled outwardly, to everyone, even if people choose not to embrace or even notice it. Other events are much more angled and specific. A mum is a mum, a dad is a Dad, Jesus is Jesus. But love is so multifarious and undefinable and unique and spreads its web over the world, can be loud or secret, or girl-boy boy-boy girl-girl, young, old, the start of something new, the tail-end of something long, it can be firey and flicky like a dragon’s tail or sedate and solid like old bedrock.
I was making a window for Love. And it couldn’t just be a window for what I think Love is, right now. It had to be for everyone, for every kind, for every time. Basically, my art skills were never going to be up to the job.
Now, I felt disgusted with myself for falling automatically onto the accepted colours of Valentines, red and pink and white – the conditioned little girl in me maybe – so I added more colour, all that my box of chalk pens could allow, which turned into a tip of the hat to the rainbow facets of the multisexuality of us messy sexy creatures, and it got pretty messy, and my hands got messier, and as I became more and more aware that I had no future as an artist and was making a real hash of it – finger-vomiting out an asymmetrical heart that made me giggle more with each artless stroke yet bristle with OCD anxiety – just as I was about to wipe it all clean and start again, a man came up and stood in front of me. He stood, inches away, reading the words. Not registering me. I was invisible. My vision refocused to meet his eyes and I smiled at him and waited for him to realise there was an actual person behind the glass. A girl in the window. Hullo. The Amsterdam affect. Then he saw me. I waved. He smiled. He pointed to a smudged bit of pen. I intimated “Alright mate, Jesus” with my eyes and laughed, in mime, acting behind glass. He left.
As I tidied up my tragic attempts at romantic-corporate nauseating whimsy-art, other people came up to me in the window and either smiled or nodded or just read the words. Old gents doffed their hats. Young women smiled, young men half-smiled and set their faces straight, old couples waved cheerily as though to reassure me that love was worth it in the end. The glass almost took on the gauze of the confessional. For a split second these strangers, the ones that stopped, could let a little glimmer of their thoughts about love out to someone who could not really see them and certainly could not judge them. The window became a mirror: they saw not me, but themselves.
A bit later, after skulking around with a series of nods and smiles, an Albanian street cleaner with a litter-picker came in to pluck up receipts and tissues that had been blown in the doorway by the sea wind. He swiftly directed smalltalk to the big matters, like all satisfying mysterious Europeans do. He said there were three core things in life – money, petrol, and women. And though I rankled at the disgraceful reductiveness of this, I could see his point. This old man who had once managed over 100 people in a brick factory and now swept our streets, who had travelled from his sunny country 18 years ago to learn English, because that was ‘what mattered’. He sweeps the streets of this estuary town so he can conjugate our verbs better so that we might ignore him a little less when he comes in our shops to talk to us. Money, petrol, and women. These were his things. What are mine? There are things we work for in this life. There are things we boil everything down to; years fall into the boiling. Money, petrol, and women. Those are his things. We talked. He said he loved the interaction in this country, the language, but he did not like the weather. He said he particularly liked the women. He looked at me, smiled a smile that might once have been devastating in his days of wooing, and left. Him and his old tan. The memory of a former skin, old colour. His past. I felt seen, but unseen. Just ‘a woman’. I allowed him that. (Women do that a lot.)
My words on the window were trite, thought up in a hurry. I was for a morning just a wally in a window with a chalk pen who has no real feelings for the bullshit of the 14th of February, but I was allowed a window of sight into people that I’m normally privy to. People came up to the window and they interacted. Strangers shared their instinctive responses to the notion that ‘i love you’ is the most important thing we can say. I wish it had been possible to do a time lapse video of them all. It would have been a beautiful thing, but I’ll just have to keep it in my mind. People are drawn to Love. Whatever our current relationships with people, whether they pass, change, or endure, we always have an ongoing relationship with Love. I love people, and people love people, and people love love, and that’s all really.