The Benjamenta College of Art

An excerpt


Luca is back in the corridor that is clearly not the corridor he thought it was; he goes back the way he came and he turns where he was supposed to have turned the first time and he comes to another door, and on the other side of this door is the stairwell he is looking for. It is a narrow and rickety thing, this flight of stairs; it looks like a closet was taken out and stairs put in its place, and because there had not been quite enough room for the stairs Luca has to duck his head as he climbs, and at the top of the stairs is a ladder that goes up through the ceiling and at the top of the ladder is a trap door, he pokes his head up through it and here is the sky. He has found his way up onto the roof of the college.

Once the college was not a college, it was a grand old house sitting in the middle of a quiet estate on the outskirts of the city, and it lived the life of a grand old house with picnics and tea and long evenings in front of the fire with novels that went on forever, not ending but blending imperceptibly into a gentle nodding off in a comfortable armchair, and this was life until the city grew and swallowed it up. The house vanished inside a city block, and once it had vanished it was no longer a grand old house, it was no longer a house of any kind at all. Whoever had lived there had moved away, or died, or moved away and then died, and there was nobody to think of anything else to do with it. It sat and it mouldered forgotten while around it the city carried on as if the house had never been there at all. Shops moved into the rooms that faced the street—there were streets built round it where once there had only been hedges and the occasional manicured tree—and in the back there was still the lane that led to it but the gate was locked, the key was lost and for years that was that. And now it is a college of art. Someone had found the deed to the house; it had been in an attic in a box in among any number of once important and since forgotten documents, or locked away in a safety deposit box in the vaults of some venerable old bank, unreachable because the key to it had gone missing under mysterious circumstances no one could quite remember, or perhaps it had been tucked carefully away in the top drawer of a desk but had been lost anyway in the tumult following an untimely death. But it was found, that was what mattered, and shortly after an heir as well. The house had been her grandfather’s house, and she may once have visited it as a child, for a holiday or a family reunion or some other occasion she no longer remembered and somehow, for some bizarrely convoluted reason no one seemed to entirely understand, the house was hers now. The deed arrived by courier and she did not have the key to the gate but there was no need for it, the deed was enough. The gate was forced, and has notshut properly since, she went up the lane to the house with long sure strides and her skirts billowing around her, and she had no need of a grand old house, she had already had her fill of grand old houses and all of the trappings that came with them. If it had been her brother who inherited the house he likely would have made it into something like a school for servants but for her all of that was nonsense, she wanted nothing more to do with it or anything like it. She wanted something else and so she had it made into a college of art, and she became the principal.

From the streets around it there is no sign of the college but from up here, where Luca is perched on top of it, with its gabled roofs stretching out in every direction around him and chimneys poking up from wherever there was need for one, and windows looking out from attics and rooms that had been attics but have been put to other, better uses, from up here it is hard to believe that such a grand and massive thing could be so entirely hidden away. There are places where changes had to be made for the college to become a college; there are windows that had to be larger and ceilings that had to be raised, and rooms like the room Luca sleeps in that had to be built somewhere and so here they are stacked up on top of the roof—from here they look almost like the shoots of young trees pushing their way clumsily up from the ground—and in the distance, where it looks like all the gabled peaks gather and meet, Luca can see what almost looks like a glass palace. It is the glass of the skylight that looks down into the great hall in the very middle of the college, where all the college’s winding corridors and hallways lead eventually, and Luca will find his way there soon but not now, not yet. For now, Luca comes out from the trap door that leads up to the roof and he comes out onto the roof, and the shingles under his feet are not solid, he has to step carefully to keep from slipping. He has his sketchbook with him, and because it is still early the sun is still drowsy and the light playing over the roof is not yet sure of itself, it floats tentatively and there are pockets of shadows here and there, left untouched, and Luca finds a place to sit, he opens his sketchbook and starts to draw. It is an assignment all new students do, they come up here, they perch somewhere in among all the peaks of the roof and they draw what they see. It is to practice drawing landscapes.

Luca thought he would be drawing rolling hills and trees against the blue of the sky but of course not, that is not what the landscape is here. What he draws is the lines of the roof stretching away from him, and the neat rows of shingles, and beyond them the city, and how the city runs up against the college and how there is no sense to how it does, or at least no sense that he can see. No two buildings look like they should have been built next to one another and yet somehow they were, and everything crowds up against everything else; the buildings do not mean to, it is just that there is not enough room to do anything else and so that is what they do. From the street it is just too bewildering for Luca to make any sense of it, it is too unlike anywhere he has ever been before but from up here it is different. He thinks he can see how it happens, how everything does what it does and how it somehow ends up fitting together, and he tries to draw that but it does not quite work out. If he looks closely enough to make sense of this part of it here, where the stairs down to the subway come up through the sidewalk and people come up and go down, then another bit of it slips away from him over there and then everything falls apart again, so instead of trying to draw everything he draws the point where two wings of the grand old house come together, where the peaks of the two roofs meet. It is where his room is, or at least it is where there is a teetering stack of rooms like the one where his room is, and where it sprouts from the roof the shingles had to part and give way and he draws how that happened, how the tiles bunch up awkwardly against it and then gradually settle back into being neatly arranged like they should be. Beyond that—it is not clear in his drawing, it is very faint, like a haze resting on a distant horizon even though it is not that far away—he has left a space for the restless jumble of the rest of the city. He draws just enough of it to hint that it is there, the peaks of roofs here and there, the spaces between them where there are streets, and perhaps that is the best that could be done, and no matter if it is or not, it does not make a difference, he has run out of time. He looks at what he has done and he thinks he is pleased, and he stands up, and because it is awkward and not at all comfortable to be drawing while perched on the top of a roof there are kinks that have worked themselves into his back and his legs and as he stands he stretches to work them out. He raises his arms up over his head and his spine gradually unclenches itself and he takes a last look at the sky and the city spread out around him, except that it is not quite around him. He is still in the middle of it, of course, but distantly, there is space and nothing but space around him and it has been so long since he has been out in the open like this. It reminds him of where he came from and for a moment, just for a moment, he misses it—he misses how wide open the sky is and how peaceful it is, having what feels like the whole world spread out before him; he breathes in just a little more of this wide open feeling and then he bends to open the trap door he came up through. He lifts it up and he holds it up with one hand while he reaches with one foot for the top rung of the ladder, he puts his weight onto it and he twists around to put his other leg through, he lowers himself down and he climbs down the ladder and he is at the top of the stairs again, and as he goes back down and into the college the sprawling mess of it settles comfortably back into place around him.

Benjamenta College of Art cover