The Artist and the Mathematician

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… down the river.

This is the meaning of love. This is the meaning of life. To change, to develop, to grow – to give love some place to go.


The sketch she thinks she’s seeing should be 6058 miles away. She refuses to look at it; she turns her face.

Outside is white and sharp. The sun sends a cone of orange light down the centre of the street, through the glass doors of the bar. It pours onwards, pointing. It glides over the empty scratched copper tables in its path. Long shadows reach out alongside it. Where its weak light falls on the opposite wall, it turns the cream paper of the charcoal sketch to orange.

She stares at the sketch while muted pop music rebounds around the silence. Everything, outside, is taut with cold. The metal table is icy on her wrist where her hand rests momentarily beside her saucer. The radiator competes with chill draughts. She’d like to change bar, but she’s waiting for a friend whose phone is dead or switched off. Between the echoing notes and faint insistent beat, the singer’s reflecting quietly on the sand in her shoes. She would rather not hear this song. She would rather not look at the sketch.

The bar always has art of one kind or another; it varies each month. The life-drawing looks… but surely they’re all the same? The observed curves of naked Woman, with any idiosyncratic flaw, fat, or angularity exaggerated to show that this was a real artist, drawing a real naked woman. This one’s good, but it’s an odd thing to hang in an exhibition, even one held in a bar. It doesn’t fit with the oil paintings around it. She thinks she’s seen it before, pinned on a wall in a bare room full of bright yellow hot sunshine, one corner torn. She sips her cold coffee and thinks about this thought.

She looks around at one of the paintings. She sees a bare room full of bright yellow hot sunshine pouring in a window, spilling across the rough brick sill and onto plain floorboards. The rhomboid of heat fills the room, so it’s no longer empty. She looks back at the sketch and quickly away again.

The dying sun has turned it red, now, and the waiter is carrying out a tray of tealights in glass holders. They sparkle in the growing gloom. One of the paintings is a study of black, using different blacks. The shapes are scarcely discernible. A small red coal glows about two thirds of the way down, two thirds across. She suspects that if she calculated the exact ratio it would be 1.6 in both directions – which means nothing, proves nothing. Everyone uses the Golden Ratio. The rest of it is too dark to make out reliably.

She looks at her watch, instead, and asks for a glass of wine. She should’ve brought her laptop.

When the wine arrives, she picks it up and walks across the room to the sketch. She stands in front of it, drink in hand, like any thoughtful art lover. She studies the torn corner and stares hard at the exact lines where thigh crosses breast, toe peeps out from beneath buttock.

“These aren’t any good, they’re only practice. I just stick them up for myself to see how I’m doing.”

“I like it. I like the way her stomach folds.”

“I’m not good at drawing people, really. I’m trying to learn.” He pushed his hand deep into the sunbleached curls at the back of his neck, tugging at them.

The sketch is 6058 miles away, so it can’t be in Cambridge. It looks the same, but she hasn’t been sleeping, again, and memory deceives.

She walks to the next painting, holding her glass with exaggerated care in case she crushes it or drops it. The canvas is wide and low, showing a pair of huge eyes set in pale, flushed skin. The eyes are a strange colour. She looks at them. It’s possible, while unlikely, that these are her eyes. The gleaming green irises reflect the sunrise.

“What is it about sunrises and sunsets?”

“They’re unpaintable,” he said. “Well, I think they are. There’s Impression: Sunrise, of course, and plenty of Turner – but even then. The ones that are so incredible they hurt you, you can never paint those ones well. You just end up with cheap tourist sketches. So I can stare at them forever and never have to paint them. And every moment is different. And I’ll never try to pin any of it down.”

“And if I asked you for a cheap tourist sketch? I am a tourist.”

“Then I guess I’d have to try. Tourism’s an important industry, we all have to do our bit.” His grin was a tourist attraction of its own.

The eyes in the painting are startled, wide, with dilated, pure black pupils.

He was actually crying as he rocked his hips, in and out of her.

“Your face, in the changing light, as you come, is more beautiful than the sunrise itself.” Those were his exact words, afterwards. She hid her face against his chest, embarrassed. She didn’t think people said things like that in real life.

She takes a controlled sip of wine, her hand barely shaking. A tornado is raging through her. She would rather not look at the paintings and returns to her table. Today is 18 December. 365 days have passed. She wants to play with the number, factorise it and take it apart for unusual properties, to calm herself, but it’s an old friend: 5 and 73. She doesn’t even have to think about it. She glances at the paintings instead: 13. A prime number, a Fibonacci number, supposedly unlucky, the number of moons in a year. Primes are good, but not to play with – the quarks of mathematics, except quarks may yet turn out to be divisible.

“I don’t like the number four anymore,” he said.

“You’re an artist, you should.” She explained map theory to him – that four colours were the most he’d ever need. Whatever the shapes, however many there were, with only four colours, no two shapes of the same colour need touch.

“In the end,” he said, “it doesn’t make any difference if it’s four, or five, or six…”

She protested that every number had its own unique personality.

“Even so, once there’s a number on it, that’s it. It doesn’t matter which one it is, in the end. Four o’clock, twelve o’clock – there’s a number which will take you away, and that’s the end of it.”

Neither enjoyed this conversation. Now it was said, they couldn’t help the countdown in their heads. He said he knew how to stretch time, he’d roll them a joint. It was three in the afternoon. The light was heavy and felt second-hand. The city lay under a blanket of yellow pollution.

“What’s special about three?” he asked.

She smiled sadly. “Want a list?”

“Yes.” His voice was small and sad. He wore his emotions so plainly.

She didn’t mention primes, Fermat, Mersenne, circles, the Pythagoreans. She kissed him. “It’s three o’clock and I’m with you. That’s top of the list.” She was surprised to find it was the truth. That was thirteen hours before she left.

She looks at the diptych of blue and yellow. Both canvases show the same scene: a line drawing of Cape Town city centre from far above, the old buildings interspersed with a handful of high-rises like giant dominoes. Each structure is outlined in heavy black. On the one canvas, these are filled in with four shades of ugly, dirty yellow. On the other are four shades of blue like the sky turning slowly through dusk into dark.

She studies the paint closely, her table abandoned, hunting for the hand that had held the brush. It’s not signed – none of them are. She’s still not absolutely certain. Whatever the statistical likelihood of the same ideas and images, this is not proof. Proof is absolute. Art is vague. Art allows you room to insert yourself, your own ideas and experiences. She may be simply spinning a dream out of suggestions. And after all, is that even Cape Town? Many cities might look similar, at an angle like that. She could, of course, ask the name of the artist.

She compresses her churning feelings until they are as needle-sharp as anger. She walks on, determinedly examining. She sees:

In an underwater sea bed by moonlight, a plume of sand floats up, disturbed by a fish or a kicking foot. She peers at the paint as if she could see through the water beyond to catch a glimpse of swaying bodies. It’s just sea, though. Sea and moonlight happen everywhere. She’s inventing connections.

The next canvas has huge blades of grass, every bristling quiver minutely observed. A massive droplet is sliding down one blade, its surface tension fighting with gravity. It could be water, but she believes it’s white wine. Sauvignon Blanc, to be precise. Or is that green-yellow tinge just the grass’s colour refracting? The artist is good at painting liquid, and light. The droplet reflects something – she moves back and forth around the painting, as if she could walk around the droplet to make it out – but the shapes are distorted by the sphere.

Next: a big white square of primed canvas, divided into shelves with thick black lines. The shelves are lined with drinks – flattened, rather than photorealistic, but meticulously painted: two glasses of red wine, a bottle of Amstel, three glasses of red wine, two bottles of Amstel, a bottle of red wine, two glasses of orange juice, two unmatching mugs, two coffee cups, a litre of Apple Liquifruit, a bottle of Groot Constantia Sauvignon Blanc, two glasses of red wine, two bottles of Amstel, four glasses of orange juice, the same two unmatching mugs, two coffee cups, a bottle of water, two coffee cups, two unmatching mugs, two toothmugs of red wine, two shots of tequila, two Amstels, a shot of absinthe, two Amstels, two shots of tequila, and an empty space. The space seems pointless: it’s exactly the right size to fit another coffee cup, which would balance the painting.

She stands, taut. Her body twitches. South African drinks: anyone could’ve bought and drunk those drinks, they’re common. South Africa’s big. Mugs are mass-produced: an identical mug doesn’t mean the same mug. The order of the drinks… She walks on.

Next: another diptych, but these two hung one above the other. The top one shows age-dulled black and white diamond tiles, with the cream porcelain curve of a Victorian bath cutting off the bottom right-hand corner. Water glistens on the matt tiles. The lower one shows a mobile of bent cutlery hanging from an old plastic shower rail, a high window opening up to the white sky in the top right corner, and a sliver of billowing red curtain, cheap fabric through which the sky and window-bars show. Her eyes are raw and dry. How many bathrooms have black and white tiles? How many Victorian baths does the world hold? Mobiles of cutlery – that’s been fashionable, in certain circles. Memory deceives, even hers. She has no proof. She can’t just believe.


A flattened-out jungle of vines, broad leaves, and huge colourful flowers has a woman-shaped hole in the centre where the canvas has not been touched. Her mouth twitches convulsively, but she doesn’t cry.

Next: a mosaic of the night sky, using 365 small silver squares and 75 small gold squares. The Southern Cross is made of red tiles – it’s hard to say exactly how many, because one’s been cut in half, so it’s six shapes but five whole squares. The black surrounding space uses – for this she has to step back and let her mind unfocus – 6058 black tiles.

This is a more powerful confirmation than any of the scenes she recognises. He is 6058 miles away. They had two days together, two and a half nights – three nights, if she counts the half of the Thursday night that she watched him paint the jungle mural, before they spoke. It’s been 365 days since she saw him, but those 75 hours have lost none of their power. They had sex five or six times – it’s hard to say exactly how many.

The bar has begun to fill up with shadows, spot-lighting, noise, and music. Terry has arrived, apologised, and been forgiven. Cocktails are pooling condensation on the metal table and sprouting slices of lime and multiple straws.

“You remember I told you about the guy from Cape Town?”

“The hippy?” says Terry.

“He wasn’t a hippy.”

“Okay, the not-hippy. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a hippy. What about him?”

“He hated hippies.” She called him one. He retorted sharply, “I’m not a hippy. I work and I wash.”

“Oh.” Terry mashes her ice-cubes with the straw for a few moments. “So why did you tell me that?” 


“That the guy from Cape Town hates hippies.”

“Because you said he was a hippy.”

“Remind me never to meet you straight after work again. I keep forgetting how you lose all capacity to communicate with humans.” Terry waves her hands in front of Claire’s face, teasing. “I’m a person, yeah? You have to talk to me. There are no buttons.”

“I should never have told you about that! Anyway, it’s just – the guy – I think he painted this exhibition. I think it’s about us – me and him. I recognise things – random things, no-one else would.”

“Are you sure?”

“No, I’m not sure, but my heart won’t stop fluttering. It seems like too much for coincidence.”

“Weird. He doesn’t write to you once, but he stages an exhibition about you in your favourite bar?”

“I didn’t write either.” Claire’s defensive. “We agreed not to.”

He came into her hotel room with her. She was shoving stuff in her bags. Halfway through her changing clothes for the plane, he grabbed her. He said, “I. Want. You. So. Much.”

“Me too.” She glanced at the clock.

“But not like this, fast and greedy and racing the clock. I want to touch you all night and only slide inside you when the sun rises.”

She wanted to cry, fall into his arms and sob while she still could. It was a quarter to four, the taxi was coming at four. She was only half-dressed and still had to check out. She pulled her jeans on. She encased in denim and closed away, with a zip and buttons, the part of her that thought it would be opening up naked to him again, one last time. He watched her dress and carried her bags down. He hovered in silence at reception while she signed and handed back the keys. Everything was being locked up, closed away, handed back, including each other.

They sat down in the lobby. She checked her watch: seven minutes left. She wanted to say, “Will we email?” or exchange addresses, somehow broach the subject, but all their words had fallen into the vacuum of departure.

“Let’s not write,” he said.

“Okay.” Her voice quavered.

“It’ll hurt too much. And it won’t be real.” His suggestion had become a unilateral decision and now he was trying to soften it, explain it, render it consensual.

“I know,” she said, trying to harden her heart.

“I’m in love with you.”

Her heart, crawling into its carapace, stopped.

“That’s why,” he added.

The taxi arrived five whole minutes early. He carried her bags, in some exclusive camaraderie with the taxi driver, packing them. The city was dark.

“How will you get home?” she asked.

He shrugged.

“Let me pay your cab home.” She held out the notes. “You can watch the sunrise from your balcony, smoke a spliff.”

“I’m fine.”

“Please? This won’t even buy me a coffee, at Heathrow.”

The taxi driver was waiting.

“Thanks.” His smile was so quick and tight that she realised he was holding back tears.

He kissed her lips and the distance between them was reduced to zero, and then that was it. She couldn’t see him in the rearview mirror and she was too tired to cry. Stepping back from each other, the taxi to the airport, the plane – an exponential increase of distance. The end.

“You could ask at the bar,” says Terry.

“I did,” says Claire. “It’s anonymous.”

“There you are, then. No artist gives an anonymous exhibition – it’s all about making a name.”

“But I don’t know.” Everything she does is about knowing, absolutely. Her mathematics has always been a war on uncertainty. Even databases, which were never part of the Grand Plan of her career, are an anchor. She doesn’t wonder whether they work, just as at university she hadn’t wondered whether her programmes and equations worked – she tests them. “And I don’t know how to find out.”

“Well, if you like him enough, find a way to not-write back. Take a leap into the unknown, baby.”


She lies in bed, sleepless again. Her constant insomnia was the reason she’d met him, and its temporary reprieve was nearly the most precious thing he gave her in those few days. Not since she was a child had she lain cocooned in sleep like that, rising to the warm and brilliant surface and drifting back down again to peacefulness. When at last her eyes had opened and she turned, the room was filled with sunlight thick as matter and he was sitting on the floor, wrapped in a sarong, drawing her asleep. If he could draw her now, perhaps she would be lulled into unconsciousness by the light scratch of his pencil and his calm, curious gaze. If he were here now, she would pull him into her bed.

Not writing to each other is less strange than Terry seems to think. Words are not their natural habitat. He used his best skill to not-write to her – if he had – and the paintings in the bar are better than the ones she saw in his room. Perhaps she’s wrong, but she can do as Terry suggested – leap into the unknown, use her best skill to not-write back, and wait to see. She could set a honey-trap to catch her bee, and to say, Yes – I know – I understand your secret language. She could make a database of his paintings and their hidden meanings, put it online for him to find, and wait. She’d logged onto her own site from his house, so she has his IP address, – the only address she needs right now.

Her usual thought-patterns about databases are no use, though. It has to be a less rigid classification of data – multiple connections of meanings, with no precedence among them, just a loose association of data-ideas which can flicker in and out. To fix the meaning of his paintings would be like nailing a bird to a book. The project will require a complete overhaul of the Machine, expanding its capacities beyond anything she’s required of it before. The interface will be a challenge, too. The usual goal is instant access to whatever information – but his paintings are subtle inferences, he didn’t paint anything as crass as them staring at each other or slopping the water out of his bath. It has to speak into the secret world that only he and she know, and still be lovely to any casual outsider, as his paintings are.

The links are there, in space and time, but there are other secret heart-links reaching from painting to painting, idea to idea, her to him. Their distance in space and time seems to evaporate as the strands of heart-links spin in her mind and she drifts, at last, into dreamy sleep.

The meaning

This is the meaning of love. This is the meaning of life. To change, to develop, to grow – to give love some place to go. The canary won’t stay in its golden cage, it’ll lose both feathers and voice. Don’t stay in your rut with your but, but, but – they die who will not see choice. They die, who refuse all change – and they too, those will-o’-the-wisps, who only want outcomes and never a story, only crescendo and never a song, skip all the battles straight for the glory, just want the prizes and never the long, long hours alone, the work to create and to learn, the quiet staying at home – don’t spend what you do not earn. That is the meaning of life, that is the meaning of love. We are light, tangled with flesh, and we’ll need all our strength, above. Do you still want heaven if it’s mixed with hell? If it’s death unless you do better than well? If you want the epic and none of the mud, or the hero’s sword without the blood, the dream without the nightmare’s shiver, then let time take you down the river. Let it carry you down to your timely grave and eternal rest which you’re taught to crave. For the deep and dreamless sleep, give up. If you’re prepared to fight, stand up. Stand up for the towers of light, between the abysmal dark, for order from chaos, for meaning and myth, for logic, for music, for art. Stand up, if you want competition that for once is better than you – stand up, if you want to give your brilliance something to do. Stand up, if you want an enemy that will never be finally beaten, to take the risk of life and love, and of being eaten. This is the meaning of love, this is the meaning of life.


Frozen, entranced, he stares at the screen. Behind him, the mountain has disappeared. Its sudden absence, shrouded by the driving rain, shocks. The African gods are throwing lakes onto the sodden city, catching the trees up in gales. Tomorrow, the papers will show the annual crop of flood photos: trees ripped from their roots and flung onto the roads, torn roofs, flooded homes on the plains. High on Woodstock hill, the North-Wester and its lashing rain are shaking the houses and forcing cold draughts through the cracks around the windows and doors. The room is almost empty and deep in shadows. A futon lies on the bare floorboards, the duvet rumpled. A toolbox stands open, filled with half-squeezed oil paints and palette knives. The glass on the French doors is blurred with rain. Beyond them, the balcony is flooded. The walls are huge and white, rising to a high ceiling. Obscure postcards, photographs, and scraps of drawings are tacked up – they’re mnemonics, not décor. He’s bundled in jerseys and wrapped in a blanket, his face lit blue by the screen. A cold breeze swirls around his ankles where his socks don’t meet his tracksuit pants. His eyes are wide, his lips parted.

Rowan Knight’s “13 Pieces”

… exhibition in Cambridge. All paintings in the database remain under copyright of Rowan Knight. To enter Claire’s interactive gallery, click any of the images. You will need to ... - 33k - Cached - Similar pages

He clicks the link and watches the screen fill with his own paintings. Music creeps out of his speakers and gradually swells. His mouse drifts across the screen, marvelling, hesitating. His work has become tiny glittering portals. He clicks on the Night Sky painting, and watches a small download bar run to 100%. It opens a new window with the painting in the centre.

On one side, Google Earth is spinning the planet and zooming in. He’s never seen Google Earth before - he watches the vertiginous fall from space down to Cape Town, the land rushing up in increasing detail until it comes to rest, marked by a pin, on Clifton’s third beach. The water gleams turquoise in the bright sunlight and the sand is almost as white as the spume.

She lay in the curve of his arm, her cheek touching his, while he pointed.

“Those are the marker stars – there. And then can you see the cross, it runs like that, and that?” His hand inscribed shape on the universe above them.

“I can see it,” she said with happy awe.

He looked at her in the dark, a smudge of shadows and loveliness. She turned her head to meet his eyes, their faces lying close. His blood beat so violently he felt sick. He only had to shift his head a little to bring her soft lips in contact with his. Lightly terrified, they brushed their lips and sent their tongues on small, exploratory journeys. Beneath that delicate dance, his body raged and surged.

On the other side of the painting is a tumbleweed of words: see, time, count, hours, cosmos, miles, sex, days, universe, kiss, Southern Cross, swim, galaxy, uncountable, dawn, stars. His mouse-cursor responds to them as it glides over, switching from an arrow to a hand and back again. He can spin the ball of words around: some words fade and recede while others brighten and enlarge. Next to the words is a column of numbers: 1, 2, . He clicks on sex.

A filmstrip of paintings jumps up: the moonlit sea, the bathroom diptych, the grass, the black one, the eyes. His face is held in frozen delight while he explores. Each painting he views has its own 3D wheel of words and its cryptic list of numbers; some of them also have Google Earth locations. As he moves from one to the other, the database tracks him. Beneath the painting’s window is a little film-strip, showing thumbnails of each painting he visits in order: Night Sky, Eyes, Jungle, Yellow City, Sunlight, Drinks. Above the window is another strip, this one of the words he has chosen: sexunpaintableabsencethreeorange juice.

It can only be her. No-one else would know, no-one else is this brilliant. Her database is hauling him through the memories he had hoped to expunge with his paintings. He’d made them to rid his heart of its longing – and then when that didn’t work, he called in favours from his friends in the UK and organised the showing. It was partly to fling a wild dare in fate’s face, partly to get them out of his flat. He can hear her voice and see the gorgeous invisible face that haunts every picture.

He’s looking at Drinks and thinking of their last evening together, when they’d tried to drown out the sound of the ticking clock by painting the town red.

They sat at a melamine table in Café Ganesh, drinking red box wine from tumblers. The walls were papered with Lion matchboxes and he showed her how to blot out the lion’s face to make a dirty picture. She giggled.

“I’ll show you my party trick,” she said, pulling a box of matches from her handbag. “It also involves matches.” She emptied them on the table and glanced down. “Thirty-seven.”


“There’s thirty-seven matches.”

“Okay…” He waited for the trick, and she blushed.

“That’s it. I count stuff.”

“But you knew how many matches you had already,” he said.

“No – I didn’t – I just know when I look.”

He counted the matches back into the box. There were thirty-seven. But this is her box, from some bar with a Cambridge address on the back. “I don’t trust you. Wait a sec…” He borrowed another box from the next table and emptied them out.

“Twenty-five,” she said promptly. He checked.

“Okay,” he said. “How many glasses are on that shelf?”

Her eyes flicked upwards. “Forty-eight.”

He tested her with the contents of the room – chairs and tables, repeated Lion logos on the wall, tiles on the bar’s mosaic.

“How many drinks have we had together since we met?” he challenged.


“No, everything.”

“Okay – if bottles and boxes count as one, thirty-six.”

“That is so weird. Don’t you think putting a number on things lessens them, a bit?”


“Well – some things you can’t quantify. Like – sex. Or have you counted that too?”

“Five or six. Depends on whether you count getting interrupted.”

They sniggered in complicity.

“I don’t count,” she insisted. “I just know. And it doesn’t lessen anything – you just know what that number does and doesn’t represent.” She began to get embarrassed. “It makes me seem a bit autistic, I guess.”

“You’re autistic, I’m artistic – the perfect combination!”

He looks at the tumbleweed of words for Drinks. Within the cloud of names of drinks are some words only he would understand: matches, every, taxi fare, chronological. His wandering mouse reacts as it passes over the painting – it’s image-mapped, parts of it are links. He clicks on the first glass of red wine and it takes him back to Jungle.

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