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The Treachery of Images

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John never tells Paul this, not when things are still good between them, more or less, and not after, but he never liked that painting. That green, stupid apple. Doesn’t like Magritte in general, either. Which, if he is honest, has nothing to do with Magritte and everything with Paul behaving as if Robert bloody Fraser had invented surrealism for introducing him to that collection of pipes, apples and masks which weren’t. Guess what, mate, John thinks when Paul is off to yet another afternoon of playing minstrel at Fraser’s gallery, guess what, some of us went to art college. Some of us could have told you all about René fucking Magritte. If you had asked.

One day when he’s at Cavendish, working with Paul, the phone rings, John answers just because, and it’s Robert Fraser, not even waiting for anyone to announce himself before asking in his posh Eton accent: “What are we doing for dinner tonight?”

The sheer arrogance, the presumption of authority over Paul’s time makes John nearly slam the phone down, but Paul is back from the bathroom and watching. So he makes a joke, as withering and sarcastic as he can, but Robert isn’t Brian and remains completely unrattled by bad puns about dry bobs and soft pansies. Keith Richards, yet another member of the Groovy Bob fanclub, says Robert Fraser served under Idi Amin in Uganda when he was in the army. Presumably that does make one unimpressed by verbal jabs from pissed off musicians who aren’t even sure why they’re so annoyed.

Still, when the Stones get busted and Robert Fraser ends up in prison because he carried the drugs and he’s not a pop star who has the Times defending him, John isn’t sorry at all. Paul will have to get his Magrittes elsewhere for a while. No more trips to Paris with Groovy Bob, and what was that about anyway? As if Fraser couldn’t have bought those paintings on his own.

By the time Fraser gets out and reestablishes his gallery, however, everything has changed. John is with Yoko now, and Yoko, like any artist trying to make their name, needs exhibitions showcasing her work. Which means they need Robert Fraser. As for Fraser, he needs money, so of course he says yes. The You Are Here exhibition is a bust, though, and a part of John blames Robert Fraser for this and wonders whether Paul secretly paid him to ruin Yoko’s show. He’d love to tear Fraser a new one, but something else has changed as well. They’re on heroin now, he and Yoko, and Robert Fraser is great at providing it. Pissing off your drug dealer is a really bad idea. So John seethes quietly for a while, something that never was his forte, until one day it becomes too much, Fraser’s upper class accent, his black hair, tight trousers and black thick framed glasses which are exactly like those John used to wear back when he still was ashamed of them and hid them whenever he could. Fraser has just given him more H and that should make John happy, but it doesn’t, because the bloody phone in Groovy Bob’s apartment rings and wouldn’t you know it, there’s that sentence again, “What are we doing for dinner tonight?” Said with the same taken-for-grantedness as it was two years ago, and apparantly Fraser doesn’t hear Paul is into American food these days as a reply, because he says “yes, I’ll see you then” and looks delighted once he hangs up. This time, John can’t stop himself.

“Did you ever”, he starts harshly, and Robert Fraser looks at him with that unimpressed, amused expression that derails him, so John ends with, “did you ever do heroin with Paul?” Convincing himself that was what he had meant to ask from the beginning. He sums up a sneer. “Bet you didn’t. He’s too chicken. Needed two years of convincing to have a go at LSD, Paul did. What a square.”

“Once”, says Robert Fraser, and what did they teach him at Eton, drawing out syllables like they were bubblegum? “It wasn’t his thing, so we left it at that.”

He keeps looking at John, and John has almost managed to be sure they’re really only talking about heroin when Fraser adds: “I’m surprised he never told you, but then, you probably never dared to ask, old boy, did you?”

He’d have hit Robert Fraser then, even if Idi Amin has taught Groovy Bob personally how to rip people’s guts out, John doesn’t care, but Yoko is with him, and she’d want to know why afterwards. He can’t lie to her, and he would have to figure out why himself, which is just what John doesn’t want to, so he takes her hand and leaves, their new supply of heroin safely tucked away.

It’s years later, and Yoko isn’t with him, Harry Nilsson is, when he sees a Magritte painting again. At the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, no less, and John is just drunk and high enough to do what he always wanted to with Paul’s Apple painting, the one Robert Fraser bought for him. He uses his cigarette to burn a hole into it. Harry Nilsson laughs. May, who has to make a round of apologetic phonecalls and get him to sign checques for compensation the next day, on the other hand, isn’t amused at all when she hears about this. What gets him is that she doesn’t look angry – which is what Yoko would have done – but dissappointed.

“You love art,” she says. “I just don’t understand why you would want to destroy it.”

“I can’t stand Magritte,” John says.

He feels bad about it, though, and not only because his head is killing him, or because a Magritte is bloody expensive these days. Every painting is unique, and this one hadn’t even been touched by Robert Fraser.

Maybe Paul would recognize it anyway, though. If he asked him. If he described it. They’re back on talking terms these days, he and Paul, aren’t they, and John is pretty certain Paul is still into Magritte. Probably knows the master’s work by heart by now.

Maybe Paul would even understand the rage that drove John’s need to burn it, but that’s not a comforting thought, and so in the end when John sees Paul again, he doesn’t bring it up. Instead, he asks whether Paul still has that Apple painting or whether it’s in some attic now, hid away like the bad omen it was.

“Calling our firm after something that has ‘goodbye’ written over it,” John says lightly. “Really, son, what were you thinking? We were screwed from the start. Groovy Bob scammed you with that painting, admit it.”

Paul gives him his wide eyed look, only slightly spoiled by that hideous mustache he’s sporting these days, presumably encouraged by his wife because it reduces the queue lining up to shag Paul to double digit numbers.

“But it doesn’t say ‘goodbye’, John,” Paul replies evenly. “It says ‘au revoir’. Says I’ll see you again.”