I usually hang up on anyone who calls me between 5 and 6 in the evening. I'm not driven to complete a 30 minute survey from a teenager named Amit calling from a Moombi call centre. It may have been fate that led me to ignore that urge when the mobile rattled in my pocket.
'Yes' I mumbled impatiently. The responding voice was vaguely familiar.
'It's me. We need to talk'. The screen on the mobile read 'Tom Dinning'. I thought of hanging up anyway but there was a sense of urgency about his voice that puzzled me. My curiosity was aroused and there was little chance of deflating it beyond believing this was a prank call. I checked my diary, hoping for the next vacancy to appear sometime toward the end of the next decade. Unfortunately I had a cancellation.
'Saturday at 2 OK?'
'Right' and the phone went dead.
Christine called from the living room. 'Who was that?'
'I'm not sure. I'll tell you on Sunday'.
The rest of the week isn't worth mentioning.
Tom grabbed me by the shirt sleeve before I had finished ringing the doorbell and dragged me into the garage through the house entry.
Tom stood besides the object and smiled.
'Well, what do you think?'
I remained silent. I needed time to identify what I was looking at, clarify my thoughts and estimate what damage I would inflict if I got it wrong. Tom's demeanor seemed somewhat unstable and I was feeling trapped as a cat might feel caught between a savage dog and a swim.
'I've never had my portrait painted before', Tom quirped. I noted a quiver in his voice. I pretended not to notice as Tom wiped a tear from his cheek. He was struggling to compose himself so I focussed on the image before me, ignoring Tom's uncomfortableness with exposing his weaker side. This wasn't the man I met a month ago. Something had changed. Tom had changed. I plucked up the courage to pry.
'Who did this?' My question sounded somewhat inquisitional so I added: 'It's great'.
'Great. That's an understatement. It's bloody amazing'.
'So, why is it in the garage?' I asked.
'I can't have two of us in the same house'. With that, Tom walked back into the hallway and out of sight. I was left alone with the man with the green face. What did he mean - 'two of us'? It's just a painting. Then I started to feel a bit uncomfortable. I was alone with this strange and haunting image in a dimly lit garage and I felt less than alone. A bead of sweat ran down my forehead and stung my eye. The image moved beyond my vision. I felt like a lone surfer in dark waters. It was time to seek safety in numbers. I hastened into the house, glancing momentarily behind to check their wasn't a fin following me.
'So how's the project going?' I asked. It seemed appropriate to leave the 'green man' in the garage for the time being, at least in the metaphoric sense, . A cold drink would ease the dryness in my throat but I knew I wouldn't be offered one. Irrespective of any superficial change I might have noticed with Tom, his all consuming self-centredness was still firmly intact.
'Not what I expected' was his somewhat distant reply. I was about to direct the conversation with some poignant questioning but Tom pre-empted my inquiry and launched into a dialogue that may well have been ruminating in his thoughts for some time.
'I started this [project] with the idea of finding a birthday present for Christine and look where it's got me; crying like a baby over a painted dunny door. How can anyone do that? How is it possible for someone to create something from nothing but their thoughts and a few boards nailed together? Not only that, [Larry] managed to take a part of me - more than a part of me -and rip it from me as a butcher cuts out a liver or a heart. Then he slaps it in front of me as if to say 'this is what you are really like'. And it's not just him. Those other artists out there; the one's I've met, and more. They all do the same thing. They have this strange and uncanny ability to take ordinary stuff; clay, paint, glass, even junk, and turn it into things that affect people like this. Look at me. I'm a f---ing mess. I'll never recover from this. Never....'
I detected a sense of desperation in his voice accompanied with a lingering sound of hope in the word 'never', the word trailing off into transpareny.
For a moment Tom hesitated and drew a deep, soleful breathe. Then silence. There was something going on here and I was about to probe.
'So you don't like what you see?'
'Like? I'm like a kid in a lolly shop. Imagine eating a handful of chocolate frogs one day and a cluster of jelly snakes the next. Then, just when you think you've died and gone to Kid Heaven, someone gives you 3 Mars Bars and a Snickers. My sensations are saturated. I've seen mosaics that sing, paintings that stur the sole and glass that shines like the galaxies. And if that isn't enough it is fed to me by people as fascinating as any you would meet in a long march. This is sensational overdose. And I'm addicted.'
A calmness fell over Tom like a shroud at a funeral. He was still and thoughtful, with an expression on his face that would quell a riot. I sniffed the air for any aromatics.
He continued as if I wasn't there.
'How can I do that? How can I have that affect on people? What do I need? What is it they have that allows that to happen? These are the people we live next door to. They have jobs and families and gardens to attend and plumbing that leaks and washing that doesn't dry in the wet. They get headaches and sleep too much or too little and run out of money and 'retire' - from what, I do not know. Some of them even read the NT News. How ordinary can you get? Yet they extract something from their thinking and train their body to express those thoughts in some concrete way. But it's not like you are looking at a patch of lawn or a bucket of broth. This is stuff that stirs our sole. It moves us to smile or laugh out loud or cry or get angry or change our attitude. Get that? They can change the way we think. How cool is that? And I get to meet them and talk with them and write about them and photograph them. And I get my portrait painted. And I ask myself: what can I do in return.' Tom paused once more. He was shaking noticeably. I thought of asking for that drink but somehow it didn't seem timely.
'Then I get a phone call from one of these people and I am told that what I write makes her feel good when she's low. Me. My words and photo's. I'm not sure I want that much responsibility. That's a dangerous tool in the hands of a manic like me.'
'But your an artist, aren't you? Isn't that what artists do? Create things that affect people in some way?' I could see Tom was somewhat troubled by what he had discovered on his journey to find a gift for Christine. Simple actions sometimes have monumental consequences.
'I just take pictures and write about people. Not much in that. Anyone can do that. I leave it to others to determine what they will from it. I do it for myself. It keeps me busy so I don't have to think about the crap stuff. It's not rocket science. I could even teach you how to do it'
This conversation was leading no-where. The last time I used a camera I finished up with 3 pictures of my feet and a libel action from the subject.
'So, where to now?', pushing the conversation in another direction.
'I've started this and I'll finish it. The list is long and there is more to discover. There is a reason for all this and I'm determined to find it. The one thing I have discovered is that it's not about the art. A very famous photographer once said 'I'm not really interested in photography. Once the picture is taken I'm finished with it. I'm more interested in what goes before'. I've heard that from a number of artists. It seems like the old cliche of the journey being more important than the destination might hold some ground here.'
I'd heard this line of thought before as well. At last Tom had struck on something that interested me. Maybe it was fate that brought me to answer the phone. Maybe Tom wasn't that self-centred, arrogant no-it-all I believed him to be. Maybe there was a heart in there after all and this project of his was resusitating it. Well, maybe not.
'You can leave now. I have stuff to do' and he shuffled me out the door with the same determination with which I was welcomed.
I stood in the driveway and contemplated my next move. Through the glass pane on the front door I could see Tom enter the garage from the house. A moment later her re-surfaced, carrying his portrait. I watched his shadowy figure dissolve into the hallway. It was time to leave the two of them to get to know each other. Three can be a crowd at times.