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The house will be destroyed in the Second World War, but right now it stands on Place Lamartine in Arles, and Vincent van Gogh has just broken in through the window.
It is exactly as he left it, if dustier.
Paul Signac was still in the street, watching his friend go ahead, wondering whether it was wise to bring the poor man here. He’d had his wits about him all day, talking about painting and socialism and literature. A trip back to the house couldn’t hurt.
It was a sunshine-yellow house with dark green wooden shutters. Moonlight ran like milk on the broken window. Vincent turned around. Standing there, illuminated in the green frame, he appeared for a moment like one of his self-portraits. He beckoned impatiently for Paul to follow him in.
Paul was careful, but still caught his arm on jagged teeth of glass. Little dots of blood came up along his shirtsleeve.
“Mind yourself on the glass, Vincent,” said Paul.
“Why? In case I hurt myself?” Vincent smiled and gestured to the bandage around his head. “Don’t worry about me, Paul. I’m at home here.”
They had come from Vincent’s room – cell – at the Saint-Paul Asylum (with or perhaps without the permission of the doctor). The yellow house had been sealed by the police some weeks previously, on the day that Vincent was admitted. The heavy black lock on the door necessitated a sharp elbow through the window.
Vincent trod freely on the soft creaking floorboards. The wood underfoot was wet, and the still air was dank and poisoned with turpentine. Paul’s eyes steadily adjusted in the silver light, and the room formed around him like a house of cards assembled by invisible hands. The room was deeply, disastrously untidy. Canvases and sheets of paper lay about like half-formed ideas. Some still hung on the whitewashed walls, which were freckled around the frames and cornices with an encroaching black mould.
“Vincent, you should be careful. This is…”
Paul approached one of the paintings on the wall. The yellow lights of a cafe glowed warmly over a cobbled street, and big blotchy stars bloomed like flowerheads in the blue night sky. People milled around at the distant end of the road, and some eleven or twelve patrons mingled on the terrace. One figure stood exceptionally tall and white; another was just an ominous silhouette in the orange doorway. The foreground of the picture, where Vincent had evidently positioned his easel, was lonely and cold. Paul tilted his head and imagined the muffled chink and chatter of the cafe, coming in waves on a chill night breeze. The overhanging branches at the right of the picture rustled in the dark, and everybody at the far end of the street seemed to be walking away.
“Yes, I like this one,” Vincent said. He came up to it with one hand raised, seemingly unconsciously, holding an invisible brush. His long fingers made minute adjustments to the brushstrokes.
“It reminds me of the one by Antequin,” Paul said. “But that is so much busier. This is…”
“A quieter world. Emptier. How do you find Arles?” Vincent stepped back from the painting and dropped his hand. For a moment, Paul fancied he heard the clatter of the invisible brush on the floor. It might have been a mouse among the papers.
“I find my friend Vincent here,” Paul said. “So I find it good.”
“Arles does not find me so,” Vincent said. “The lock on the door. They signed a petition. Thirty of them. They called me ‘the redheaded madman’.”
“Well, you’re not.”
“You deny that I have red hair?”
Paul smiled. He stepped over a row of brushes in jars and examined another canvas on the wall.
“Is this inside?’
“No, it’s a different cafe. That one…” He pointed back to the terrace. “… is peaceful. This one is not.”
Paul squinted, tried to make out the figures. Tiny children’s fingernails of moonlight sat on the cusp of each brushstroke. The characters emerged, and Paul saw men leaning on tables with their heads in their arms, like they had just lost at life – or at least at billiards.
Paul took another step, and tripped on a canvas leaning against the wall. He picked it up in both hands. A bedroom. Blue walls, a red sheet, green frames on the window.
Vincent skipped ahead. “Up here, Paul.” He disappeared, and Paul followed him in the black dark up a slanted staircase. He still held onto the canvas of the bedroom, which was damp at the lower edge as though water had got in or paint had seeped out. His fingers felt sticky. The painting was getting on his skin.
A match was struck, and in the sudden orange bloom Vincent was lit up, holding a candle. The broad bandage around his face glowed yellow. The black fur cap was snug on his head. He held out the candle, and the bedroom scene unfolded before them – the blue walls, the green window, the chairs facing the bed. In the low flickering light it all came in irregular dancing brushstrokes. Paul dropped the painting in surprise, fancying for a second that it had come off the canvas completely and assembled itself in three dimensions. Vincent crouched to retrieve the painting and, candle withdrawn, the bedroom vanished.
“Must send this to Theo,” Vincent muttered, picking up the canvas and tapping the damp edge. “It’s been damaged. Where the water got in. This house is not secure.”
Paul looked back but the bedroom was gone. There were only eight glass squares of moonlight in the far wall.
They tramped back downstairs.
“But I have dreams for it,” Vincent continued. The must and mould on the staircase was getting to Paul’s head. He staggered and gripped the rail. “Imagine a gallery here,” Vincent said. “A studio. A school of new impressionists.” Paul gathered himself and followed Vincent back into the white-walled room. “It could last a long time. You’re just my first visitor, Paul. Well, that was Gauguin, but…” He tapped the bandage and shrugged.
Paul leaned in the doorway and watched Vincent go ahead. He stood in the middle of the room, trampling papers and scattering brushes with his heavy shoes. He put “Bedroom” on the floor and lifted a sweeping arm. “It’s not just for me. There’s space on the walls for everyone.” He pointed to blank spaces and seemed to see something in them.
“Look. I did that for Gauguin.”
He approached a particular canvas. From where Paul stood feeling sick, it looked like a vase of rotten sunflowers. Vincent hovered there for a while, and Paul started to worry. With an effort he heaved himself into the room.
“What’s this one?” Paul said. “Tell me about this one.”
Vincent came over. “Oh, that’s my chair. See my pipe.” Next to it was a painting of another chair. A more imposing chair, ornately sinister. “And that…” Suddenly Vincent faltered. Words seemed to jumble up in his throat. “That’s just…” He gripped Paul’s shoulder and leaned on him, and looked him in the eye. A big shuddering unhappy breath. “This is a place for other people, Paul. I want to have friends here. I honestly do.”
“I know, Vincent.” Paul patted his hand. “I’m here.”
“But will you go away? I want to see friends. I keep shutting myself up but I don’t think it works. What a terrible mess I’ve made.”
“You are going to go away.”
As Paul opened his mouth with nothing prepared, a wind struck up. One of the monstrous cold winds that came off the sea to the south, like a big message of hate from the ocean to the land. It blew in through the broken window and threw paintings from the walls. Cafes and chairs and starry nights fell with sodden thuds. Paul watched Vincent’s little silver gallery come tumbling down.
“Let me get those.” Without meaning to, he broke free of Vincent’s grip and started scurrying about the room, rescuing paintings from the floor. With his arms full, he turned around and saw Vincent lifting a brown bottle to his lips. “Vincent, that’s turpentine.” He dropped the paintings, grabbed Vincent’s wrist, and slapped the bottle from his hand. It smashed against the wall, and the oily liquid spilled and destroyed whatever was painted on a canvas below.
“We’re going back,” Paul said. He took Vincent’s arm.
“You know, I painted a picture for one of my doctors. A picture of the ward.”
“He hated it. Gave it back.”
Paul led Vincent out through the window, catching himself again on the little thorns of glass. Another wind came in hard, slamming the green shutters overhead. Paul felt great pulses of worry and mould and turpentine getting into his veins. He thought the whole wretched building was starting to collapse, and he shielded Vincent. The floors were falling down on each other and big dusty plumes came roaring out over the street, and something like a wind-monster bellowed overhead. Then the wind died away and Paul saw that the house was still there, a dull sickly exhumation yellow.
He held Vincent’s arm and handed him back to his keepers. He saw him the next morning to say goodbye.