Being an umbrella represents a serious demotion – I must have blotted my copy-book quite disastrously in my previous existence. I’m being held high in the right hand of a young woman, my owner, who’s using me presumably to protect her face from the sun.
(Why pick on me, I’d whined to the President of the Immortals. He ignored my question. As an umbrella, he instructed me, your function will be to open and close, sheltering your owner from the rain or the sun: it’s hardly rocket science; think you can handle it?)
Back to the young woman, she’s strolling along a promenade in the company of her mother. It’s a sunny but windy day, late afternoon judging by the long shadows and probably somewhere by the sea. In my previous existence I would have judged her to be attractive, but now I am just an umbrella devoid of all such cognitive values. I am like one those cute little mechanical androids in a kids’ cartoon, jerking and chirping, comical and essentially lovable; or better like one of those super-computers guiding the spaceship to a distant star, to whom the human crew, assuming an intellectual superiority which they don’t really possess, based on having emotions and the ability to act illogically, give terse instructions, check out the navigation system K4 or fancy a game of chess K4 … until K4 sinisterly starts straying from its program, demonstrating first resentment then rage and finally self- destructs, the ship imploding in space …. I listen in on the conversation:
– Where to next? I’m dying to sit down somewhere for a coffee; we’ve been shopping all afternoon and we still haven’t found a wedding present for Luisa …
– As for the present for your half-sister’s wedding, it’s tricky isn’t it, I mean they’re already living together; now there’s someone whose creepy, her husband-to-be, that Pete!
– It’s not his fault he’s lost his job. Anyway he’s just joining the other three million or so who will unemployed by the end of the year. Luisa says he’s thinking of applying to be retrained as a teacher, of Social Communications for example …
– A teacher! A teacher of How-to-Cheat-People-out-of-their Life-Savings, more like.
– Oh, let’s stop arguing and go in here; I’m going to have a coffee and one of those delicious cakes, what about you mum, after all we are on holiday aren’t we … I wonder how dad is getting on with his fishing; he probably hasn’t caught a single trout yet.
– Don’t be so mean. Now, how about this resolution to limit yourself to only one coffee a day?
Laughing, mother and daughter enter the café and, folding me up, Chrissie dumps me in the bin by the door adding me to two other rather dubious-looking umbrellas.
As I am unable to hear the rest of their conversation, I continue my reveries. Chrissie’s mum’s comment about coffee reminded of an incident in my previous existence. As a young man teaching English in Portugal I met a Columbian girl called Ana with whom I struck up a friendship. We used to meet about once a week after work in a bar at the bottom of the Avenida. She invariably drank a small strong coffee, (she was running along comfortably on about six or seven of these a day). One day I casually mentioned that if I drank coffee at that hour I’d be unable to get to sleep. Anyway the next time that I saw her, she had smudges under her eyes and confessed that she’d been having difficulties in sleeping since we last met. Now the power of suggestion …
But I see Chrissie and her mum threading their way towards me: she plucks me from the bin without stopping and emerges from the café, not opening me but dangling me loosely from her wrist. (They’re still discussing the wedding):
– One thing I am concerned about is what they are going to live on. Luisa has her job as a nurse at the hospital, but when the baby comes along and she’s on maternity benefit and Pete is going to get some form of social welfare …
– Anyway they’ve made their bed so they’ll just have to lay on it … you just concentrate on your finals Chrissie … look; we’ve got to make a decision about their present. There was an art shop back there, let’s check it out; Luisa likes that kind of thing doesn’t she?
They enter the shop. It’s the usual eclectic mix of paintings, some unassuming, some pretentious and some veering towards local artisan work, but most moderately priced – people don’t go on holiday to invest in art.
– I’ve an idea for them – something modern but discreet … hey mum, how about this one? (This one is a large framed print signed by Bridget Riley – a simple abstract with rectangular blocks of colour – greens and yellows: good choice, I think – but then what do I know? I’m only the umbrella). I think they might like this one; it’s a limited series and would look good in their living room … 120 Euros, seems reasonable … (go for it, I think, it’s a good investment) … what do think mum? Would it do as a suitable wedding present?
– Yes I suppose so, I don’t know much about it – could we have it gift-wrapped, please – of course your father and I are giving them money …
They leave the shop, the picture under Chrissie’s arm (she having handed me to her mother) and stroll back to their hotel. They enter the lobby and approach the desk for their keys. They go upstairs to wash and wait for dad to come back from his fishing trip.
Chrissie collapses me, neatly folding me again and puts me to sleep in my plastic cover.
I dream again. I dream that I am a wind-hover riding effortlessly on the thermals. I am the heroic dog vigorously shaking myself dry scattering drops in all directions after rescuing the drowning child. I am the monstrous and deformed crustacean lurking on the deep sea-floor. I am one the Norwegian banners flouting the sky and fanning our people cold. I am the fox-driven fire devouring the wheat-lands…
But I am only an umbrella protecting a girl from the sun and rain … could be worse I suppose.
MASKS - PAINTING by THOMAS MILNER