Alby Stone: Me and Johnny Midnight

Copyright © 2022 Alby Stone


He was a rising not-quite star in the art world when we first met, at the tiny Galerie Ostermann in Montmartre. I was fifteen years old, on a school trip to Paris, supposedly for our cultural refinement. Art, architecture and history, the older the better, hopefully avoiding reference to bloody revolution and royal decapitation in case they gave us ideas not appropriate to a respectable school in a smugly Tory borough. The teacher in charge, Miss Sharp, whose Francophilia was focused mainly on romantic literature, vin de table and Gauloises, had somehow persuaded the head teacher to rent an entire house for a week. Imagine that: a dozen schoolkids and a semi-alcoholic teacher left to their own devices in a large house in a seedy-genteel area of a city famous for le belle vie. We did not behave well.

It was a strange time for art. In London the Young British Artists were shinning up the greasy pole, increasingly well-heeled from Saatchi money and media courtship, hogging the limelight on television and in the press. Art in the modern world – nostalgia and retrospectives aside, was now firmly conceptual, and every private gallery competed to add their own pet iconoclastic prodigies to the roster. It was like the early days of Dada, in more ways than one. Where traditionalists had once been outraged by a urinal or a moustache on the Mona Lisa, now they fulminated against beds, bricks and pickled semi-cows. Figurative art was derided, technique scorned. Installations and cobbled-together statements of one concept or another were in, the more abstract and clumsy the better, portraits and landscapes most definitely out.

In this atmosphere, Richard Fallon had little chance of either commercial success or critical acclaim, if he’d wanted them. And if he’d been young enough. He was a painter, working mainly with acrylics but occasionally drawn to oils, and exquisite draughtsman. His paintings were, to my young mind, as they still are, breathtaking. Almost photographic but with a distinct, blocky otherworldliness – the lines somewhere between Dalí and Dave Gibbons, coloured by Ernst and John Higgins, glossy and shimmering, evoking – well, nobody could really fathom that one. The likes of Hirst, Landy and Emin did not move me, and while I later had some regard for Grayson Perry, Gavin Turk, Rachel Whiteread and Angus Fairhurst, to my mind none could compare with Fallon. His work spoke to me. The people and places and situations he painted reminded me of a home I could never have known. Like dreams, those I had from time to time where I flitted like a shadow through landscapes that were simultaneously alien and maddeningly familiar, where I could not tell who or what I was. I could lose myself in Fallon’s paintings, lose myself yet not be lost.

In the Galerie Ostermann that day, I spotted one of Fallon’s paintings, practically hidden in a corner. I stood and stared at it, enraptured. I’d only ever seen his art in magazines, and to view one in actuality was an unreal experience. When I realised someone was standing next to me, I turned my head – as you do, even if you’re sure that person will be of no interest to you whatsoever – and was astonished to see it was Fallon himself.

‘Sorry,’ he said, with a shy smile, ‘For a moment I thought you were Johnny.’

‘Johnny?’ I echoed, eyes wide and mouth gaping, keenly aware that I must look like a moron.

‘Yeah, you remind me of Johnny Midnight.’

‘I don’t know anyone of that name,’ I said. The name sounded like an rock and roller’s pseudonym, or a late-night radio slot, or something from American crime fiction. As for me being a Johnny Anything… Well, no. I wondered if it might be because I was dressed all in black – my attire, like my musical taste, tended heavily toward goth retro – that made him think of midnight.

Fallon laughed. ‘I don’t think anybody does. Only me. He’s sort of a friend. And my biggest inspiration.’

‘Is he an artist, like you?’

‘He’s more of a muse. Or an irritant. A haunting.’

My schoolmates were making a racket, probably hoping that they’d be thrown out, leaving them free to find a bar that would sell them a few glasses of Stella Artois. Some were hurling insults, in bad French, at the gallery staff. One girl had lit a cigarette and was tapping ash onto the floor. Miss Sharp lacked the fierceness necessary to intimidate them into good behaviour. Loud whispers and arm-flapping were getting her nowhere.

‘Are they your friends?’ Fallon nodded toward the loudmouths.

‘We’re in the same class at school but I wouldn’t say they’re friends. This is supposed to be a cultural trip but all they want to do is get drunk and play around. God knows what they’ll be like in the Louvre tomorrow.’

Fallon smiled. ‘They’d better watch themselves. The guards there won’t put up with this kind of shit. Do you like art?’

I pointed at his picture. ‘Yes, and I absolutely love this. You’re my favourite artist.’

To my surprise, he blushed. ‘Thank you. I’m glad someone likes it. The competition’s pretty stiff these days.’

‘The YBAs? One day people are going to see through their stuff. And the way some of them badmouth other artists…’ I shook my head, allowing my disgust to show.

Fallon shrugged. ‘Oh, they’re okay. I know some of them well enough to understand that it’s all part of the illusion they’re selling. If subversion sells, good luck to them. Even if the subversion is fake, it’s lucrative.’

I turned back to the painting. ‘That scene – is it a real place? Are those figures real people?’

‘Oh, they’re real somewhere.’

Later, after the others had been kicked of the gallery and while Miss Sharp was trailing after them in a vain attempt to head off yet another drunken night, Fallon treated me too coffee and pastries in a nearby café. To the casual onlooker, it might have seemed creepy. After all, Fallon must have been old enough to be my father. But I wasn’t wet behind the ears and he just wanted to talk about art. He loved the Surrealists, Decadents and Symbolists, appreciated Dada, realism and other movements. Before I knew it, he had embarked upon a disjointed but eye-opening lecture which I was too young and ignorant to fully comprehend.

The true purpose of art, he said, was not to portray or reflect what could be seen. Why bother with that when you have the physical object to look at and admire? That was especially true now that we had photography, though the likes of Man Ray and Lee Miller had shown that the camera could dream as well as lie. No, the first art was not strictly representative or figurative, not even strictly religious or spiritual. It was magical, and making art was a ritual procedure intended to change reality. Look at the Palaeolithic caves: the walls of Altamira, Lascaux and Les Trois Frères were covered in images that were intended to bring bison, horses and other animals, make the hunt successful, and send the shaman to the spirit world. No worship of egomaniac gods or kings or warlords, no moralising scenes from myth and legend, no memorials to battles between nations, no nationalism, no flattery of wealthy merchants, slave traders and bankers, even scientists.

André Breton had known the truth, he said. ‘But nobody reads the first Surrealist Manifesto or bothers with the movement’s origins nowadays.’ Surrealism, said Fallon, was intended to be a psychological revolution, a merging of the conscious mind with the unconscious. That was why the Surrealists used methods drawn from occultism and psychology: automatic writing and drawing, trance, self-induced psychosis. ‘Magic,’ said Fallon. ‘Shamanism. Accessing other worlds – the collective unconscious – to change our reality.’ He then launched into a comparison of quantum physics and magical theory. I didn’t understand that at all but was strangely impressed by his conclusion: ‘Scientists only see quantum physics in terms of mathematics. But really it’s art.’

By then we were on our fifth coffee, with sweet pastries to match, and I was wired on caffeine and sugar. It was nine o’clock and nightfall was imminent. Fallon looked at his watch and said he had to go because he’d promised to attend an event, a special showing. Dreading the prospect of returning to a house filled with obnoxious drunks and a distraught, distracted teacher, I asked if I could go with him. He asked how old I was, so I added a couple of years.

‘You’re a bit young,’ he said.

‘How can you be too young for art? How can I learn if I can’t see?’

‘Won’t you be missed?’

‘Not by the others. And Miss Sharp will be too pissed to notice that I’m not there.’

He stared at me. Eventually, he nodded. ‘Well, you seem sensible enough. Okay, then. On your own head be it.’

The ‘special showing’ was taking place at a house a few streets away. The evening was warm. We walked at an easy pace, passing bars and restaurants at peak time for their trade. Music blared from an upstairs window, something by Oasis that I didn’t like. People strolled in couples and groups, stood or sat and conversed loudly outside cafés. Quintessential Paris, the city as a timeless archetype. Take away the depressing, strained ‘Wonderwall’ wail and it could have been the previous fin de siècle.

Eventually, Fallon stopped outside the entrance to what appeared to be a nondescript pension. Above the door was a black squiggle that looked vaguely feline. ‘You know, you really do remind me of Johnny Midnight. It’s uncanny. You could be twins.’

I smiled and shook my head. He laughed, and we went inside, into near-darkness, the only light coming from a candle in a glass case. He led me up a staircase and toward a landing where another candle burned. The air was heavy with jasmine, marijuana and that ubiquitous Parisian scent of Gauloises and wine. Unfamiliar music haunted my ears. Fallon put his hands on my shoulders and gently turned me to face him. ‘Explore,’ he told me. ‘Do whatever you want, but first be sure it is what you want.’ Then he vanished into the gloom. I stood there for a moment, unsure what – if anything – was expected of me. Hesitantly, I pushed open the nearest door and slipped inside.

The room was stiflingly hot. The walls were crimson, the floor hidden by shadows, rugs and the softest of furnishings. Half a dozen women, and three men, stripped to their underwear, reclined on beanbags and piles of cushions, gazing up at the ceiling. At first I didn’t understand what I was seeing. Then I realised that I was watching five films projected up from the floor. It was dizzying. Images came together and swam apart. As one was superimposed on another to create monstrous faces and fantastic scenes, the effect was so unsettling that each film seemed to be disintegrating rather than merging with the others. The music – which I later found out, purely by chance, was Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire – seemed to alternately slow and accelerate the process.

Someone tapped me on the shoulder. ‘You’ll put your neck out staring up at it like that.’ An American accent, it’s owner a sultry-looking woman of around thirty wearing only a black Louise Brooks bob and matching skimpy lingerie, gestured to a heap of cushions draped with a coverless duvet. ‘Lie down and look straight ahead. It’s much more comfortable. Might also be an idea to take off some clothes before you roast.’

I flopped onto the cushions but kept my clothes on. She sprawled beside me, took a ready-rolled joint from a box, and lit up. When she offered it to me, I declined. I was already a bit stoned from secondhand dope smoke and wanted to keep a tight grip on my remaining wits. ‘What do you think?’ She waved a hand at the ceiling. ‘I call it Electron Macroscope. An investigation into the transformation of the mundane into the unreal.’ She laughed. ‘Christ, how fucking pretentious was that? Nah, it’s just a bunch of home movies on a loop. Pretty cool, though, uh?’

I watched it for a few more minutes, aware that the woman was watching me. When she waved a bottle over my face, I sat up. ‘Drink something before you overheat,’ she said.

‘I don’t drink wine.’

She grimaced. ‘It’s Beaujolais nouveau, for Christ’s sake. Practically fruit juice.’

I took the bottle and swallowed a mouthful. As she said, it tasted like flat red grape Schloer, with barely a hint of alcohol. It was pleasant but I was still very hot. I undid my top button. The woman smiled approvingly and licked her scarlet lips.

‘I’m Emma,’ she said. ‘Emma Vries, artist and – well, just artist. From the Netherlands by way of New York. You, know, I thought you were someone else when you came in. I mean, you don’t actually look anything like him but there was something about you.’ She bared her teeth and crooked her fingers like claws, made a growling sound and ended with a laugh. ‘How did you find this place? It’s not exactly on the tourist map.’

‘I came with Richard Fallon.’

‘Ricky? Oh, yeah. He set this place up but he doesn’t show anything here. Only ever turns up once in a blue moon. It’s supposed to be a place where kindred spirits can explore their art. Mind you, there are other things I’d rather explore, know what I’m saying?’

That was when I noticed that on the adjacent bean bags a man and woman were now wholly naked and having energetic sex. Across the room two more women were naked and caressing each other intimately. Shocked, I tried to stand but Emma pushed me back down. I was dismayed to see that she had slipped off her underwear without me noticing. Another woman, also completely nude came over and began kissing Emma, with me now trapped beneath them. Confused and frightened, I tried to drag myself from the tangle of limbs. Fingers plucked at my buttons but my wriggling prevented further undressing.

After what seemed an eternity I managed to slide out from under them and off the beanbag. As I stood, brushing myself down, Emma looked up at me, smiling lazily. Without a word, I turned and left.

‘I did warn you.’ I almost jumped out of my skin, Fallon was waiting on the landing, all but invisible in the murk. ‘There are worse people than her in this place,’ he sighed. ‘Some of them are barely people at all. You’ll find out, just like I did.’ He guided me downstairs and to the front door, and opened it for me. He was, I thought, a curious mix of avant-garde enfant terrible and old-fashioned gentleman. He seemed sad, but it was impossible to tell if the sadness was for me or himself.

‘What is this place for? What are you trying to do here?’

‘It’s an experiment,’ he said. ‘Observing different techniques. Looking for a way through.’

‘A way through what?’

He spread his arms. In my semi-stoned state he seemed to encompass the entire universe. ‘This.’

I walked back to the rented house in a kind of daze, aimless yet somehow failing to lose my way. It was two in the morning by the time I crawled into bed in the room I shared with three of my classmates. I realised I must have been in that weird place for around four hours, but all I could clearly recall was going inside and that disturbing episode with Emma and her films. In between, only snapshots like fragments of distant memory: snatches of music, flickering images of people, paintings, sculpture. I must have been in other rooms, seen more art, met more people. Had I been drugged, only emerging from a deep stupor as I entered Emma’s domain? Or perhaps I had simply fallen asleep after a long day traipsing around Parisian sights and art galleries.

At least I was unharmed and, Emma’s attentions aside, unmolested. Her room – should I call it an installation – had clearly aroused erotic feelings in the other people there, but affected me differently, inspiring only an uneasy wonder. But should I dwell on that or meeting my hero, Richard Fallon? Photographs did not do the man justice. In the flesh, the movie-star handsomeness was softened by sadness, a sense of profound loneliness and yearning, that ravenously hungry intellect. Not a man you could fancy, probably not a man to be loved; but definitely a man who could inspire.

This, I knew, was a pivotal day in my life. I didn’t understand what Fallon meant by looking for ‘a way through’, but instinct told me it was the path I had to follow. I’d toyed with the idea but now the decision was made. ‘I’m going to be an artist,’ I murmured to myself as I began to drift into sleep. It was a big moment for a fifteen year-old girl.


It was five years before I saw Fallon again. I was a student at Goldsmiths, struggling through a fine arts degree and coming to terms with the fact that my talent was inadequate for my ambitions. I was a lousy artist. Yes, I loved painting but I simply wasn’t any good at it. My draughtsmanship was competent enough, and I had an eye for colour, but that was as far as it went. When I tried my hand at other media disaster was never far away. I could write about art quite well, even if Fallon’s improvised lecture in that Paris café was never far from my thoughts. The fact was that I was a consumer, not a creator. A career as an art critic was attainable, I thought. It wouldn’t be so bad. Critics always got lots of freebies. But at the same time it would be awful. My dream was being ground down by life and my own limitations.

I wasn’t in the best frame of mind when I went to the South London Gallery on that overcast May afternoon. Peckham wasn’t my favourite place at the best of times, and it only sharpened my sense of failure. The exhibition – on the theme of scale and perception – wasn’t to my taste. Most of the works left e cold, though I quite liked Keiko Sato’s constructions of sand and broken glass, which gave an edge to my apocalyptic inner turmoil. I moved on from those to a set of black and white photographs by Erasmus Schroter, derelict ships anchored in the Baltic and blasted for military target practice. As I stared at them, seeing traces of my own face in every shade and angle, somebody spoke.


Fallon materialised beside me. ‘Oh,’ he said, frowning. Then he recognised me and smiled widely. ‘It’s you,’ he laughed. ‘I don’t believe it. Though I suppose it was inevitable. Coffee?’

We sat in the gallery café, pastries and coffee, an eerie echo of Paris. He’d grown a beard, grey showing amid the brown, and had four half-inch scars, little parallel lines, on his right cheek. His clothing was – cheaper. We made small talk for a few minutes. He asked me what I was doing now, but said nothing about what he’d been up to. I realised he’d been out of the public eye in those five years. ‘Forgive me,’ he said abruptly. ‘I can’t remember your name.’

That was because he’d never asked. Nor had Emma, and probably nobody else in that strange house in Montmartre. To be fair, most people didn’t bother. At school I was known as Morticia, the girls being bitches and the boys arseholes, and the majority of my Goldsmiths peers didn’t call me anything, content to pretend I wasn’t there. I told Fallon it would come back to him, and he smiled again. ‘You’re more like him than ever,’ he sighed.

I couldn’t swallow that. Did Johnny Midnight, whoever he was, have long hair in a ponytail? Did he wear a skirt, eyeliner and mascara? Well, okay, maybe those were not out of the question if he was a rock musician – but did he have tits? I’d bet he wouldn’t have to put up with periods, perverts copping a sneaky feel in crowded pubs and music venues, the worry of walking home alone after a night out. He was a he, whoever he was. I’d asked around since 1995, of course, but nobody had ever heard of a Johnny Midnight. My father thought it might be an American television series from the early 1960s, but couldn’t recall anything about it, not even if he’d seen it. So I had no visual image to compare myself to. On the other hand, Fallon and Emma Vries had both said it was something other than my looks that made them think of him. Maybe Johnny Midnight was also a failure, a loser, someone with a perceptible air of thwarted ambition.

‘I often think about what you said to me in Paris,’ I told him, changing the subject. ‘Have you found the way through yet?’

Fallon frowned, revealing wrinkles that had not previously been visible. ‘I’m getting there.’ The frown deepened, as if he was wrestling with an important decision. His face relaxed and the smile returned. ‘It’ll be a while but when it’s ready…’

We drank more coffee, though this time I refused further pastries. ‘I’ve got an exhibition opening next Saturday in Walworth Road. The gallery at the library, below the Cuming Museum. Local artist, you know how it is. Councils love the “local boy” thing. They can pretend they had something to do with it. It’d be nice to see you there.’ He searched his pockets and pushed a couple of tickets across the table. then stood up to leave.

The uncertainty must have shown on my face. ‘Don’t worry, it won’t be anything like Paris. The Council would be up in arms if that happened on their turf. Go on, take them. You can bring a significant other.’

Well, I didn’t have one of those and never had. My head was too full of plans and ideas to have room for a relationship. I didn’t even know if I preferred men or women. Really, sex had never interested me in the slightest. A few guys had tried their luck – as had a couple of girls, not counting Emma – but this fish wasn’t biting. I’m sure unpleasant comments were made behind my back. After all, students are still kids and we all know what they can be like, especially rejected suitors awash with hormones. If so, I didn’t hear about it. It was odd, I suppose. I mean, I do like people, as long as they have enough brain cells for friction to occur and can hold a conversation, and I’m quite emotional. Really, I should have been more sociable, maybe a bit of a party animal. But I never felt the urge.

Fallon’s back was briefly framed by the doorway, then he was gone. I took one ticket – it bore a black squiggle identical to the one on the pension door in Paris – and left the other on the table. It was an art gallery café, for heaven’s sake, so there was a fair chance another customer would be glad to have it. Unless it was swept up and binned with the plastic cups and cellophane wrappers. I doubted that Fallon would give a damn either way.

The old Walworth Town Hall was an attractive mid-Victorian statement of civic duty in red brick and grey slate, with white trimmings. The gallery was in the basement, tucked away like a dirty secret. My special guest ticket invited only a cursory glance from the beautiful but clearly bored young Afro-Caribbean woman at the reception desk, resplendent in long, ornate fingernails, hoop earrings and multicoloured hair extensions, who waved me through before returning her attention to that week’s edition of the South London Press.

The gallery was both bigger and smaller than I expected. In my experience basements were cramped. This wasn’t but it was still on the bijou side for an exhibition space. Fortunately, from the personal comfort perspective if not for an artist’s ego, only three other people were there. One was a middle-aged man who carefully scrutinised each painting and made notes on a cheap notepad. His expression never shifted from one of vinegary disdain. I pegged him as a critic. The others were a pair of women a few years older than me, with specks of paint on their jeans. Struggling artists, I thought. They looked as bored as the receptionist. There was no sign of Fallon.

But the paintings were astonishing. Slightly more abstract than his earlier pieces, with a deep structure that was new, yet somehow retaining that dislocating combination of photographic clarity and comic book brutalism. That exhilarating sensation that I was looking at snapshots of my dreams. Why wasn’t this man revered by the art world? Why wasn’t he mentioned in the same breath as Hockney, Warhol or Bacon? I stared at each painting, only moving from one to the next when I felt the boundaries between my mind and the acrylic surface beginning to dissolve. I imagined I was in a rainforest, an urban wasteland, an old house, a canyon eroded from desert hills. I was a shadow and a flame, myself but someone else. As I walked from painting to painting, I was dreaming. But when I reached the last picture, I was wrenched from my reverie, hurled back into a Victorian basement on a cool May afternoon. It was a simple black rectangle. A full stop. Beside it, on the brick wall, was that squiggle I now understood to be a signature. This wasn’t an art exhibition at all – it was a process, a ritual, magic.

I found myself alone. The critic and the artists had left, perhaps to share their disapproval over a couple of beers in the pub down the road. I couldn’t understand why they couldn’t see what I saw, feel what I felt. Overwhelmed by a torrent of contrasting emotions, I made my way to the reception desk. My feet were like lead weights, my head a helium balloon.

‘Is Richard Fallon around?’

The woman looked up from her newspaper. ‘Who?’

‘The artist. The man who painted all those pictures. Is he here?’

‘Oh, him.’ She sucked her teeth. ‘He was here this morning but he left in a hurry. Said if anyone asked he was going to New York. Didn’t say why.’ She shook her head, smiled and pointed a finger at her temple. ‘Crazy man if you ask me.’

‘Do you have an address for him? Phone number?’

She didn’t, or perhaps none she was willing to divulge. That was that. Not even a leaflet, let alone an exhibition catalogue. Nothing to remember it by. Not that I would ever forget. I went home, popping into a supermarket for food along the way. My path wouldn’t cross again with Fallon’s for another ten years.


It was the voice that alerted me. It cut through the hubbub at the Royal Festival Hall bar like a blade. He was hunched over a table, arms wide, hands spread, holding forth to small group of youths who were obviously there to see the bands playing that night. I was only there because the Hayward café had been jammed when I emerged from an Ernesto Neto exhibition I was yearning to forget.

‘…the great magicians are quite often also artists. Crowley and Spare were painters. Marjorie Cameron and Rosaleen Norton. Bowie. Conversely, great artists may also be accomplished magicians, even though they may be unaware of that fact. For Ernst and Carrington it was conscious. Dalí convinced himself that it was psychoanalysis. But it’s not confined to the static visual arts. Kenneth Anger is obvious, but think about Roeg and Lynch. Are they not using the cinematic art to magical effect? The same is true of music, which frequently accompanies ritual…’

I got myself a drink – soda and lime; I’d never acquired the taste for alcohol – and meandered through the clientele to where he was still talking, standing a little way behind him. He had definite wrinkles now, and his mop of brown curls was shorn to a bed of grey bristles. The beard was longer, wilder, greyer. There were paint and food stains on his clothes. I’d forgotten how tall he was.

Another landmark year. I’d just turned thirty and Gordon Brown had not long lost a General Election. The Tories were promising austerity like a dominatrix promises the lash, and Joe Public had eagerly rolled over to present its arse for the economic thrashing it, as ever, craved. The art world appeared to have become stuck with the YBAs, the record cracked and the same few notes repeating again and again. People staring and tapping at their smartphones like zombies. Climate change, terrorism, greedy bankers, rampant poverty. These were, I believed, multiple aspects of the same thing. Entropy. The universe was running down and Homo sapiens was hitching a ride down to the bottom of the swirling pit.

Sensing my gaze, Fallon sat up and turned his head. ‘Johnny?’ His grin didn’t disappear when he saw me. ‘Oh,’ he said, not unhappily.

The young men took advantage of Fallon’s distraction to flee for the safety of . I sat at the table. ‘You weren’t at the show,’ I said, as if it had been just a couple of days ago, not ten years.

‘No, I had to go to New York. Emma was ill, dying. She said she wanted to tell me something in person before she died.’

‘And did she?’

‘Yes to both, said Fallon. ‘She said to me: “Fuck you, you old fraud.” Then she died, not ten minutes later, without another word.’ He smiled fondly. ‘She always was a bit of a drama queen.’

‘What was the cause of death?’

‘Curiosity. Emma liked to experiment. Sex, drugs, booze, skydiving, fighting, you name it. In her time she contracted a vast number of diseases, an awful lot of injuries, and generally squandered more than nine lives. The doctor summarised it beautifully when I asked what was killing her. “Everything,’ he said. I had that very word inscribed on her headstone. I was her sole heir and the only mourner.’

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t realise you two were so close.’

‘Well, she wasn’t a very nice person, but we’d been lovers. Once upon a time. Not in a serious way, that was impossible. She was…’ He groped for the right words. ‘Bad news. Yes, that’s what she was.’

It was time to talk about something less uncomfortable. ‘Any shows in the works?’

He brightened. ‘No, but I’m still working. Maybe a few years from now, depending on what Johnny has to say about it.’ He paused. ‘I’ve seen you on the box a few times.’

After a few pieces in the Guardian and Independent, and a regular slot on an arts website, I’d been invited onto a few television programmes after somebody at the BBC twigged that there was a young, presentable female art critic at large, eye candy with a brain and strong opinions, to match what Alice Roberts and Bettany Hughes were doing for televised archaeology. So far I’d done half a dozen shows for the Beeb and a handful for Sky Arts. What can I say? I had to eat and pay the rent. And I’d bagged a publishing deal on the strength of it.

Fallon seemed genuinely pleased for me. But I had an idea. ‘I’d like to write a book about you,’ I said. ‘Your life, the philosophy and beliefs behind your art, the work itself. Maybe a collaboration. Would you be up for that?’

‘No. And that’s final. It would get in the way of our friendship.’

Friendship? This was only our third meeting, and every one had occurred by chance alone. It wasn’t a friendship in any language I knew. Friends called each other, visited one another’s homes, had nights out. They shared their lives, their joys and sorrows.

It was as though Fallon could read my mind. ‘People like us don’t need that kind of friendship,’ he said quietly. ‘We walk our own path, and it doesn’t matter where it leads because one place is much like any other. As long as we’re true to ourselves, we get there in the end.’

The social noises and music around blended and receded to become a distant, muted roar. My attention was focused on a minute squiggle doodled on a beer mat, magnified to enormous proportions and filling my field of vision. Suddenly, I knew I was on the brink of a major insight, poised to dive into a bottomless well of knowledge and understanding. When my senses abruptly returned I was alone at the table. All that remained of Fallon was the beer mat, marked with that unreadable autograph.


I celebrated my fortieth birthday with only myself for company, locked down like everybody else. It was an lunchtime, a glorified brunch, as had become my habit over the years, only I’d cooked it myself with ingredients delivered by Morrisons. Otherwise it would have been at a pleasant little restaurant in Walworth Road. Always just before noon, before the real lunchtime frenzy. A woman eating out solo at night is asking for assumptions of the annoying or humiliating kind to be made. Lunchtime was a different matter. I could be an office worker grabbing a bit to eat, a shopper stopping off for refreshments. Nobody batted an eyelid. None of the dangerous conclusions people draw when the sun goes down.

Now, with a new virus ravaging the world, I didn’t have that option. Everything was closed. People were terrified, and the lonely were lonelier than ever. Not me, mind. I liked being on my own, comfortable in my own skin and with plenty to do. For me, lockdown was just an excellent excuse to not have to do anything. Have broadband, will work. I missed the galleries but not the disease-ridden humans.

Thanks to an inheritance and savings – I just didn’t spend the kind of money most women professionals spend on clothes, meals, entertainment and holidays – I now owned a decent flat and a few original paintings. My most prized possession was an early Fallon, an untitled piece somewhere between a landscape, a seascape and a portrait. My second most prized possession was the beer mat I’d taken from the Royal Festival Hall, kept pristine in a plastic wallet.

I thought of Fallon often, but had never mentioned him in my books and articles. Whatever our relationship, I didn’t want to risk offending him. That could well have been a pointless exercise, as nobody had seen or heard of him in years. He might be dead, though by then he must only have been in his mid-to-late fifties or early sixties and he’d seemed in very good health when I met him. If he died, would there be an obituary? What could anyone possibly write about him? Richard Fallon – date of birth probably unknown, lived who knows where, talented artist disliked by critics, connoisseurs and collectors. His paintings might be worth a bit now he’s gone, but don’t bank on it. On the other hand, I’d picked up my Fallon in a charity shop for twenty quid, so maybe there was cash in the metaphorical attic if I ever fell on hard times.

My other paintings, a very minor Moreau and a couple of pictures by little-known women artists I thought merited support, and which were within my budget, were decorative. The Fallon was company, the closest thing to another person in my life. In 2016, depressed beyond measure by Brexit – which I regarded as further proof that our horrible species was poised to flush itself down the evolutionary lavatory – I adopted a dog from Battersea in the mistaken belief that a happy pup would cheer me up. That was a disaster. It was only a small mongrel but I became irrationally frightened of it. Well, maybe my fear was not all that irrational, as the little bugger hated me, growled all the time and tried to bite me at every opportunity. He was back at Battersea within the week and I swore that was my fill of pets. If I needed an animal to make my life a misery I’d populate the skirting boards with mice.

I finished my lunch, dumped the dishes in the kitchen sink, switched the radio on, and stretched out on the sofa with a glass of Highland Spring and  a DVD of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, still relevant after all these years, which I’d been meaning to watch again for some time. Netflix later, with cake and crisps. The washing up could wait until – well, whenever. It was my birthday and I could do what I want, if I wanted. No one was likely to bother me, as I never had visitors. Besides, my flat was set up for one. There were no chairs. The sofa and kingsized bed could easily accommodate two but that was for my comfort. I didn’t share.

In fact, my flat would probably be considered unwelcoming, though I called it calming. Only one of every crockery or cutlery item. Ice blue walls and dove grey laminate flooring throughout. Slate grey for the furniture. Apart from the artwork, everything was functional, the tones muted. Books, CDs and DVDs were kept in cabinets that only opened for removal or replacement of media. Even that bloody dog had been grey. I was the exception. I still wore black, my hair was the same colour. But my eyes were emerald green, inherited from some distant Irish ancestor or perhaps some chromosomal aberration. Or only the mixing of my mother’s hazel with the paternal blue. Some day I’d have to ask a geneticist.

Berger was talking about the ‘male gaze’ – it seemed revelatory in the early 1970s, but really all he had to do was ask. Women have always known what nudes are about; isn’t it why so many male artists fuck their models, unable to see without touching? And don’t we feel that sweaty predator’s gaze upon us every minute of every day? – when my phone made a noise. I detest ringtones so my mobile just stage-whispers my name repeatedly if it needs to get my attention. It was in its usual resting-place, trapped between sofa cushions. When I answered it, there was only a faint, uneven susurration, like a murmuration of starlings trapped in an echo chamber, followed by silence when the call was disconnected. Caller unknown.

Ten minutes later, it rang again. This time my ‘Hello?’ was answered: ‘East Street, three this afternoon.’

The voice I would never forget. I was stunned. ‘Fallon? Is that you?’ But the birdwings sound returned until the call ended. My head was spinning. How on earth had he found my phone number? Only half a dozen people knew it, and they were all people I worked with who wouldn’t have given it to anyone. And what the hell was happening in East Street at three o’clock that afternoon?

It was nearly half past two. Luckily, East Street was only a ten-minute walk from my flat. I was dressed, jeans and a t-shirt in the inevitable colour, and it was a warm and sunny day, so all I had to do was pay a quick visit to the loo, put on some shoes and grab my bag. I briefly considered trimming my fingernails, which were getting a bit long, but really couldn’t be bothered.

East Street was once – and could still be, for all I know – famous for being Europe’s longest street market. Or so the locals claimed. It was certainly the longest I’d experienced. Supposedly, Charlie Chaplin had been born there and recreated the Walworth Road end for his film Easy Street. Lined with stalls on both sides, it was where many South Londoners came to buy fruit and vegetables, groceries, clothing, domestic cleaning products, and many other goods. Being incredibly crowded even on a slow day, it was also where many came to have their purses and wallets stolen, or to have their breasts and arses fondled by furtive, anonymous hands, which was why I’d only visited the market once, in my student days. With lockdown, the market was suspended, so if anyone tried it on at least I’d know which face to slap rather than having to choose from two or three dozen pictures of perfect innocence.

The walk along Walworth Road was a bleak joy. The weather was lovely and there was hardly anyone about, just a few people carrying their shopping home, singly or in pairs. Apart from a couple of buses, the road was devoid of traffic. Most of the shops were closed and shuttered. The queues outside Marks and Spencer, Morrisons, and Poundland were long but socially distanced. The shoppers glanced around fearfully whenever a smoker coughed or a hay fever sufferer sneezed. Nearly everyone wore a mask. I had a couple in my bag but didn’t plan to get within two metres of anybody.

Walworth had become a virtual ghost town. The absence of traffic noise, the subdued shoppers, the masks… A disaster movie, an urban street filmed by Michelangelo Antonio, or Andrei Tarkovsky. L’Eclisse meets Stalker, scripted by Michael Crichton. The End Times, with no Rapture, just sleeping shops and shabby survivors clutching Morrisons bags. The Last Judgement without the trumpet fanfare. It was eerie and enervating, and I wanted to go home, but it was too late to turn back.

I don’t know how Fallon had managed it, but the left hand side of East Street – the north west, if you want to be picky – was lined with market stalls. All I could think was that he’d bribed half the stallholders – or he’d hired a small army to steal their stalls. Yet who was going to complain? Most people, traders included, were at home, bored and afraid, slowly going out of their minds and going broke. The police wouldn’t care, and without them the Council was impotent. Local residents might peer from their windows and wonder what was going on, but they would simply go back to their televisions and be thankful no one was breathing lethal germs over them. Yes, the sun was shining and the day was warm, but what was the use of that when you couldn’t even sit in the park without attracting a gaggle of uniforms to move you on?

But thanks to the coronavirus, East Street was blessedly empty. A few shoppers scurried along the pavements, eager to return to safety, but they didn’t hang about and none so much as glanced at the stalls. The first, almost directly beneath the arching sign that announced East Street to anyone who couldn’t negotiate an A-Z, drew me like a magnet. It bore a single painting, three feet by four, held in a plain pine frame, and it was a Fallon.

The picture was predominantly black, greens and reds. It seemed to shimmer and wrinkle, as if something was moving within, either trying to get out or burrow further in. Maybe it was an optical illusion created by sunlight playing on the glossy paint. Or was it a matt finish? It was impossible to tell. I drank it in for a couple of minutes and moved on to the next, as though I was on a staccato conveyer belt. The same thing happened at the next stall. And the next. No conscious thought processes, no volition; my body was following another imperative, a course dictated by lines of code erupting from my unconscious mind. Art, magic, physics, all one and the same, reprogramming reality for a show created just for me.

As I moved down East Street, the long line of pictures told a story – not a linear narrative but an explosion, a simultaneous collision of many episodes, not unlike the films Emma Vries had shown in Paris. I heard music, dissonant and atonal, with an angular, irregular rhythm. The world around me became insubstantial. I was surrounded by brick, mortar, glass and tarmac that might as well have been images projected onto mist. Some of the paintings were constructed around intricate, labyrinthine designs that formed larger or smaller patterns when my focused changed, though I couldn’t say which was which. Sometimes I seemed to stare at one painting for hours, while I gave others only a cursory glance – but I knew neither was true. There was movement in my peripheral vision, black symbols and runes in motion; and I thought I saw a black shape flitting among the stalls.

And the story…

It was about me, from birth to the end, a me with no existence in this world we think is real. I was someone else, something else, a new name and a new life. I had love, laughter, tears, pleasure, pain, sorrow, triumph and disaster. There was peace and violence, blood and death and birth, the vibrant scent of being with every breath I took. The world – the universe – was mine, all the seas and stars and trees, the hills and rivers and mountains, the streets and houses and factories, the schools and galleries and monuments, and all the creatures that swarmed among them. There were no words, no images, only feelings. Only me and mine. It was my dream, all my dreams, captured and released by Fallon’s magic.

At the far end of East Street – it must have been – I gazed upon the last painting in Fallon’s series. A rainforest scene, relatively simple and identifiable as a forest by Fallon’s standards, but like a picture the Douanier Rousseau might have painted while tripping on acid and infected by architecture and Escher. The exotic leaves swayed in a breeze and were spotted by fat, warm raindrops. East Street turned inside out, became a blank space, and I stepped out of it and through the frame, into the fractal jungle.

A small, lithe shape moved toward me through the ferns and serrated fronds, a sinuous black silhouette against the chaos of rich green hues. Fur as sleek as it was dark, a promise of razors and spikes among softness, a hunter’s relaxed but purposeful crouch. He smelled of fresh air and rich soil, and the fragrance of tropical trees – a perfume of London’s streets and gardens, old books and colour on canvas. His cool, moist nose met mine in greeting, reunion. The air between us melted away as I looked into Johnny Midnight’s eyes, green lamps set in jet, translucent, luminous. They were my own.

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