The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley
he had tried to return the book. As soon as she realized it had been left behind, she’d picked it up and rushed after its extraordinary owner. But he’d gone. He moved surprisingly swiftly for someone so old. Maybe he really didn’t want to be found.
It was a plain, pale-green exercise book, like the one Monica had carried around with her at school, filled with details of homework assignments. Her friends had covered their books with graffiti of hearts, flowers, and the names of their latest crushes, but Monica was not a doodler. She had too much respect for good stationery.
On the front cover were three words, beautifully etched in copperplate script: The Authenticity Project. In smaller writing, in the bottom corner, was the date: October 2018. Perhaps, thought Monica, there would be an address, or at least a name, on the inside so she could return it. Although it was physically unassuming, it had an air of significance about it.
She turned over the front cover. There were only a few paragraphs on the first page.
How well do you know the people who live near you? How well do they know you? Do you even know the names of your neighbors? Would you realize if they were in trouble, or hadn’t left their house for days?
Everyone lies about their lives. What would happen if you shared the truth instead? The one thing that defines you, that makes everything else about you fall into place? Not on the internet, but with those real people around you?
Perhaps nothing. Or maybe telling that story would change your life, or the life of someone you’ve not yet met.
That’s what I want to find out.
There was more on the next page, and Monica was dying to read on, but it was one of the busiest times of the day in the café, and she knew it was crucial not to fall behind schedule. That way madness lay. She tucked the book into the space alongside the till with the spare menus and flyers from various suppliers. She’d read it later, when she could concentrate properly.
MONICA STRETCHED OUT on the sofa in her apartment above the café, a large glass of sauvignon blanc in one hand and the abandoned exercise book in the other. The questions she’d read that morning had been niggling away at her, demanding answers. She’d spent all day talking to people, serving them coffees and cakes, chatting about the weather and the latest celebrity gossip. But when had she last told anyone anything about herself that really mattered? And what did she actually know about them, with the exception of whether they liked milk in their coffee or sugar with their tea? She opened the book to the second page.
My name is Julian Jessop. I am seventy-nine years old, and I am an artist. For the past fifty-seven years I’ve lived in Chelsea Studios, on the Fulham Road.
Those are the basic facts, but here is the truth: I AM LONELY.
I often go for days without talking to anyone. Sometimes, when I do have to speak (because someone’s called me up about payment protection insurance, for example), I find that my voice comes out in a croak because it’s curled up and died in my throat from neglect.
Age has made me invisible. I find this especially hard, because I was always looked at. Everyone knew who I was. I didn’t have to introduce myself, I would just stand in a doorway while my name worked its way around the room in a chain of whispers, pursued by a number of surreptitious glances.
I used to love lingering at mirrors, and would walk slowly past shop windows, checking the cut of my jacket or the wave in my hair. Now, if my reflection sneaks up on me, I barely recognize myself. It’s ironic that Mary, who would have happily accepted the inevitability of aging, died at the relatively young age of sixty, and yet I’m still here, forced to watch myself gradually crumble away.
As an artist, I watched people. I analyzed their relationships, and I noticed there is always a balance of power. One partner is more loved, and the other more loving. I had to be the most loved. I realize now that I took Mary for granted, with her ordinary, wholesome, pink-cheeked prettiness and her constant thoughtfulness and dependability. I only learned to appreciate her after she was gone.
Monica paused to turn the page and take a mouthful of wine. She wasn’t sure that she liked Julian very much, although she felt rather sorry for him. She suspected he’d choose dislike over pity. She read on.
When Mary lived here, our little cottage was always filled with people. The local children ran in and out, as Mary plied them with stories, advice, fizzy pop, and Monster Munch chips. My less successful artist friends constantly turned up unannounced for dinner, along with the latest of my artist’s models. Mary put on a good show of welcoming the other women, so perhaps only I noticed they were never offered chocolates with their coffee.
We were always busy. Our social life revolved around the Chelsea Arts Club, and the bistros and boutiques of the King’s Road and Sloane Square. Mary worked long hours as a midwife, and I crossed the country, painting the portraits of people who thought themselves worth recording for posterity.
Every Friday evening since the late sixties, at 5:00 p.m. we’d walk into the nearby Brompton Cemetery, which, since its four corners connected Fulham, Chelsea, South Kensington, and Earl’s Court, was a convenient meeting point for all our friends. We’d plan our weekend on the grave of Admiral Angus Whitewater. We didn’t know the Admiral, he just happened to have an impressive horizontal slab of black marble over his last resting place, which made a great table for drinks.
In many ways, I died alongside Mary. I ignored all the telephone calls and the letters. I let the paint dry solid on the palette and, one unbearably long night, destroyed all my unfinished canvases; ripped them into multicolored streamers, then diced them into confetti with Mary’s dressmaking scissors. When I did finally emerge from my cocoon, about five years later, neighbors had moved, friends had given up, my agent had written me off, and that’s when I realized I had become unnoticeable. I had reverse metamorphosed from a butterfly into a caterpillar.
I still raise a glass of Mary’s favorite Bailey’s Irish Cream at the Admiral’s grave every Friday evening, but now it’s just me and the ghosts of times past.
That’s my story. Please feel free to chuck it in the recycling. Or you might decide to tell your own truth in these pages and pass my little book on. Maybe you’ll find it cathartic, as I did.
What happens next is up to you.
|September 14, 2022
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