One part vodka, three tablespoons of instant coffee, warm water. Sometimes a heaped teaspoon of brown sugar to serve as an extra kick. Always brown, because white was too costly. Nevertheless, the artist usually avoided sugar, then forgot the water and the coffee altogether. That’s when thirty millilitres of triple-distilled would finally realise that its destiny was never to base a Bloody Mary, nor to swirl around a highball glass on a terrace overlooking Paris, but to serve as a nightcap for an Englishman who’d barely even sleep.
The vodka’s clinical stench liberated the stale odours imprisoned within the layers of brown grime that climbed the mug’s interior. He shuffled from the pantry to the lounge, kicking at wrappers, bills and final notices as he went. This litter blanketed his flat but met its apex in the area surrounding an easel and canvas arranged in the room’s centre. He sipped his nightcap and observed his masterpiece, oblivious to the festering mould that lined the flat’s cornices, oblivious to a dense ring of cigarette ends, lager cans, and takeaway containers that circled the painting like space junk before a black hole. A dusty shelf stacked carelessly with photo albums, letters, and oddments from forgotten hobbies hung limply against damp wallpaper, slanting hopelessly toward the centre of the room.
Anyone who’s created, even conceptualised work as marvellous as his would agree that it’s difficult to focus on anything besides it. Art wholly consumes its artist. Most would disagree with its comparison to a black hole, though. They’d prefer to compare their art to a glistening star; whose impenetrable light makes it impossible to see anything else. Perhaps it was this blazing light that kept him up at night.
The debris licked at his ankles as he waded toward the canvas and lit a superking. He grinned as all worries concerning his masterpiece escaped with the jets of smoke that fired from his nostrils. He was always too harsh on himself and too harsh on his work. He wondered how he’d ever resented something of such finery and deep meaning. How did something so abstract speak such truths? How could something designed in the sincerest depths of his soul reveal unseen perspectives about himself and his genius? How did its tender and harsh textures, brutal and gentle strokes develop such a distinctive language? An alien tongue born only to communicate, define, and resolved human issues from the silence of his dingy ninth floor flat. Let it speak, he thought, let it sing from every gallery, corner shop and telephone pole in the country. Let them observe its wisdom from a gilded frame in parliament. let it be sewn into every soldier’s uniform and it will surely guide the last bullet before world peace. He ran his calloused fingers over the masterpiece. After two years, it was almost done. He still had no idea for a title and debated using one at all. Art like his was simply indefinable.
The stained curtains stirred as the wind whistled through the broken window, carrying the street’s stench of wet tarmac and earth with it. But this wasn’t all, for it was Friday, and on weekend nights the wind seemed to bring more than just winter from the streets below. He overheard the drunken cheers of punters at the King’s Heron, the pub on the corner. He shambled from his masterpiece to the window and cautiously peered from his bunker in the sky to see a mob of rowdy tradies and skinheads. They fraternised, laughed and played rough beneath the orange glow of a streetlamp. A kid wearing a mohawk kissed a girl perched atop a graffitied grit bin, and a white-haired lady gossiped with a Jamaican doorman. A suited gentleman shattered a stein as he stumbled from inside, which prompted a group of old geezers in argyle sweaters to wheeze into merry laughter, coughing and spluttering pipe smoke into the brisk night. A wistful smile slunk across the artist’s face. He quickly wiped it away with his cardigan sleeve. Those geezers had sixty-five years under their belts, he thought, but nothing to show for it except the beer bellies that hung just above.
He turned from the window and pulled another cigarette from his joggers. He wasn’t like them; he didn’t want to be like them either – not at all! He was a pioneer, not a directionless lowlife who only worked and lived for the weekend. He lit his smoke and wondered how anyone could exist without a grander purpose, without creation, without art. He began to hear music rise from the pub. Someone his age must’ve hit the jukebox, because he recognised the song as Come Go with Me by the Del-Vikings. His muscles tensed as its saxophone melody pierced through the night with its high-pitched notes. He took a pensive draw as his mind drifted to the day that he bought that very record in ‘58. Back when he was clean shaven and sported the duck’s arse that his mother hated. He had drainpipes and drapes too, a far cry from his cardigan and joggers. Do-wop encouraged him to have fun with his art, and folk showed him that lyricism doesn’t demand complexity. Jazz inspired him to relax, to be sporadic and remember that nothing is perfect. Stuart outed his smoke on the windowsill. He used to adore music. A sunken patch of carpet was the last remnant of the record cabinet that once inhabited his flat.
It’d been months since he’d listened to anything at all. He couldn’t bare it anymore. He looked over to his work, standing regally over its empire of filth. Resentment began to twirl about his stomach. If he was a good artist, then he’d be as famous as the Vikings, and his work would be spoken of and re-printed in the same way that their songs were sung and re-issued. It wasn’t a masterpiece at all, he thought. A grim look befell his face. It was atrocious. His old musical icons were all twenty-something when they made it, yet he was thirty-six and still haggling for change. If his pieces were truly spectacular, then why weren’t they shown in galleries and auction houses across continents? Why weren’t wine sniffers and pseudo-intellectuals queuing for a chance to bid? He stood before the canvas and gazed again into the tender and harsh textures, brutal and gentle strokes of his work. Suddenly, its distinctive language spoke clearer and truer words than ever before. None were pleasant. He tussled with the idea of painting the canvas white or hacking it into firewood.
Three loud thumps boomed through the flat. He dropped his brushes and walked toward the door, praying he wouldn’t meet with his dog-faced Polish landlord. Looking through the peephole, the man sighed in bittersweet relief. It was Preeda, his mother-in-law. He wondered what banalities she’d have in store for him this time as he unlocked the bolts.
The limp strands of Preeda’s head scarf wavered against the sour air that escaped the flat’s opened door. She covered her nose with a handkerchief pulled hastily from her floral print handbag and cleared her throat. “You look dreadful,” she declared through the fabric over her mouth. “How’s your flat colder than the bleedin’ stairwell?”
He leant against the doorframe. “Window broke yesterday.”
She tutted and thrust the handkerchief back into the pits of her handbag. “Fifty pounds. Monthly! I thought we had an agreement; must I keep comin’ back?”
“No, jus- money’s tight.”
Preeda itched at her neck as she watched a cockroach scamper from a crack in landing’s concrete wall. “It’s January, course it’s tight! Nevertheless, you owe my daughter that fifty per month. It’s the least you can do after leaving them like that.” Her olive complexion and Thai features contradicted her tough cockney accent.
He shook his head. “She wanted to spli-”
“I don’t care!” Preeda roared. “Your daught- my granddaughter deserves an ‘alf-decent childhood. You even working?”
“Yeah, two more weeks an- look, it’ll sell, Preeda. I know how that sounds but, but this one is-”
“No!” she interrupted, “Actual work.”
“Course,” he lied, “I’m a barman… At a club.”
Preeda narrowed her eyes. “It’s Friday.”
“T- too much staff, I’m not needed.”
Preeda huffed and folded her arms. “Do you know what yesterday was?” she queried in a sombre tone.
“Your daughter’s birthday.”
A shock jolted through his nerves. He muttered and turned into the flat to probe for something to gift his only daughter. His eyes settled upon the sloping shelf of neglected hobbies, where his old 35mm camera resided. “Yeah! I have something,” he exclaimed before fetching the Kodak and bringing it back to the doorway. “My camera. It’s, uh, sentimental. I want her to have it. It’s loaded as well.”
Preeda looked down to the item offered in his hands. “She’s eight,” she said as she shoved the thing away. His mother-in-law then retrieved a card and pen from her handbag before continuing. “I bought this on the way here. Write something,” she quietly demanded.
He took the card and pen from Preeda’s hands and observed the picture on the cover, a quaint village landscape painted with hazy watercolours. A tinge of jealousy spiked in his chest. He’d murder to have his paintings printed on petrol station cards. His work was much better too.
Preeda examined the flat in disgust as the artist wrote against the wall. Her eyes locked on the easel and canvas that appeared to rule over the abode. “You’re living with a white elephant.”
He handed the card back. “huh?”
Preeda moved her eyes from the painting to meet the artist’s gaze. “A white elephant, ‘an this flat ain’t big enough for you both. Can’t you smell it? I can. Every time you open that door.”
He looked back to the room in confusion.
The old woman rolled her eyes and inhaled as she slipped the card into her handbag. “Visit your daughter. Before it’s too late.”
From the countertop, he dialled and dialled again. No one answered. Perhaps his telephone was broken, it’d been disconnected for some time. Maybe they were in bed, his daughter probably had netball in the morning, or was it cricket? A dying superking smouldered faintly in its ashtray grave as he continued to wait for a voice to emerge through the receiver from the plains of white noise and bleak stillness. With his free hand, he fiddled with his camera’s grooved rewind clamp and caressed the smooth nickel of its lens mount. It would’ve made a stupid gift. He liked it though, when he was a teenager. Noir memories of Brighton pier began to roll with the fog of his mind. Him in his drainpipes and drapes, photographing his buddies slouched against the bonnet of a Ford Anglia. Snapping their reflections in a chip shop window. Capturing their comical attempt to threaten the ideal fate from the all-seeing Madame Sabbah. What ever happened to those likely lads, he thought?
He clicked the handset into the switch hook and decided to try again in the morning, or afternoon at the latest. That fortune-telling puppet always reminded him of Preeda, an old know-it-all whose words were fickle at best. What did she even mean by white elephant? Probably some Thai analogy inherited from her father, who was just as exasperating. The man glanced over his shoulder to the painting. He scooped the camera into his chest and carried it back to its place on the broken shelf. It was no time to fascinate over meaningless hobbies.
After setting the Kodak down, Stuart turned from the wall. As he did, the shelf came crashing down, tearing a fleshy chunk of wallpaper with it. The camera hit his toe and a white plaster cloud twisted around the room as the artist cursed and knelt to cradle his foot. His toenail was purple, but it was nothing compared to what the flat had endured. If he hadn’t already lost his deposit, he had now. He glanced between the shelf’s scattered oddments, latest editions to the chaos that circled his easel. His eyes stopped between some oil pastels and albums, where a dictionary had landed on its spine. A pale collection of pressed forget-me-nots, blushing daises, and coral bells lay frigid upon the book’s open pages. He examined their skeletal petals and scrunched pistils. He picked one up and rolled its brittle stem between his fingers. The flower showed only some vague impression of life, for it never got to sway naturally, to dance in the imperfect thistle-dotted breeze of summer’s day. It never grew to blossom, bloom then wilt. It died to preserve the perfect beauty of a life never lived.
His eyes widened as an icy stream of realisation trickled through his veins as a heavy, malevolent air seemed to darken the room. He recalled Preeda’s words and looked up from the pressed flower to glare at his masterpiece. It wasn’t a black hole, a celestial linguist, glistening star, or tyrant. Although it certainly appeared large, looming over him from his position on the floor. Like a beast, an exotic beast that had no business indoors. A beast that had commanded attention, trampled everything, wrecked his flat, and soured the air. He began to tremor, his painting wouldn’t guide the last bullet before world peace, but the last stampede before total silence.
It wasn’t finished, but the artist finally had a title.
Morgan Turner is a young writer living in the southeast of the UK. He is currently working on Il Burattino, a play that will be showing in Portsmouth, Brighton, and Edinburgh.
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