In the room I bitterly refer to as my studio the window blind failed long ago. It slumps onto the sill, bulging along the bottom like a roll of flab. Evening light leaching through the fly-spotted fabric has a jaundiced tinge. The house frumps and crumbles around me. When I enter it I often give a cheery greeting: a ‘hi there!’ or ‘hey Kerry!’ or even ‘I’m hooome!’ I tell myself I do it as a gag, a self-deprecation, but the words leave a taste in my mouth that won’t go away, like the nicotine gum I’m constantly champing. I patrol the empty rooms, sometimes summoning a follow-up cry: ‘Have a good day, Kerry? How was work, babe?’ Doors drag on warped floorboards; the cornices sag. I’ve come to regard the place as a mirror of myself, a kind of schema of my innards, to the point where if I’m feeling something visceral I scour for the detail that represents it. These days I find it in the bedroom where a noticeably lighter patch on the wall indicates where Kerry’s poster of Amy Winehouse once hung. She stuck it there to cover up a mysterious blossoming blotch. Since then, the fumes of our cigarettes had deepened the dun hues of the wallpaper surrounding it. I feel that oblong of absence inside me, complete with the stain at its centre like an ominous shadow on an X-ray.
The brush kisses the canvas, adding nuances of texture to the figure in the cardigan. I know I’m fussing. The piece is essentially complete and I’m prevaricating, because this is the last picture I will ever do. My dream of being an artist ends tonight and I’m putting off the moment when I break my brushes. For now, I convince myself this fiddly intricacy is vital. While I’m adding imperceptible traces I’m still a painter.
Fittingly, my final work is a portrait of Death. I’ve always been fascinated by morbidity. At school I filled the margins of textbooks with skulls and skeletons. Nothing unusual in that—what schoolboy hasn’t messed with the macabre? Except I never grew out of it. Whenever I find myself doodling I watch a ghoul emerge from the purposeless scribbling like a form materialising from fog. I’ve painted many personifications of Death—black-cowled monks with bone-blanched masks, wielding scythes or cradling hour-glasses. Emaciated and poker-faced. He once appeared as a medieval hunchback, the billows of his cloak black as an abyss. Within the inky pool of his hood you could detect the dull glint of an eye and a slice of beaky nose. He dominated the frame, except for a vulnerable waif huddled over a guitar to one side. It was Kurt Cobain. Death pointed a knuckly digit to indicate a better chord. They were writing a song together.
Corny. It was one of my earlier efforts, yet one of the few I’ve ever sold. It hangs in a coffee shop, looming over the customers sipping macchiatos and lattes. I walk an extra block to avoid the place because you can glimpse my work through the window. The problem I have is the fact that it sold. This depreciates its value. Good Art defies commerciality. It has something elusive that denies mass appeal and befuddles the public. Good Art does not sell. I still find myself thinking that. Fortunately, I’ve produced a lot of Good Art. It cramps my studio and crowds the bedroom and the laundry, netted with webs.
I step back to evaluate my latest portrait of Death. He is bespectacled and his hair is thinning. Middle aged and small in stature, he looks comfy in a beige cardigan. His cuppa gives off ribbons of steam, but he doesn’t like it too hot. Milky, one sugar. He has the demeanour of an office underling, his expression apologetic as he lays an arm possessively across the shoulders of my sick dad.
I’m aware of a must in the air and I breathe deeply, savouring it. It emanates from a cup on the shelf that has a faint crescent of lipstick beneath its rim. Cerise—Kerry’s favourite. Within, a residue of coffee has long ago mutated into fur. It has begun to creep up the sides, evolving. I once snatched up the cup and stowed it in the laundry, to prevent its taint from polluting the house, but it didn’t work. I could still smell it—or at least imagine I could smell it—no matter which room I was in. So I re-placed it on its shrine. I’ve tried to re-create the circumstances of Kerry quaffing that brew. Lipstick suggested she was about to go out, or had recently returned from, say, a lunch date with girlfriends. I wondered if I’d prepared it for her: she claimed it tasted better when I made it. Had we spoken as she’d sipped? We hadn’t talked much in those last few weeks and when we did it had an awkward formality. A pained politeness.
I often lie awake at night listening to the house creak and crack. It sounds like it’s shifting in discomfort, still troubled by the arguments and pleadings that had reverberated in it after Kerry fell pregnant. When she told me the news I wandered the rooms to locate the detail that expressed my misgivings and was drawn to the spider webs with their bundled flies. I felt the encroaching threat of responsibility, the humiliation of domesticity. My bohemian persona fuzzed, smudged like a charcoal drawing. My idea of myself as an artist defocused. I decried poverty, plucking at my threadbare clothes as proof. I was only intermittently employed, mainly casual work in restaurants or libraries. Kerry assured me her position in HR would improve and she’d be able to earn enough to support her daughter. She was so certain the baby was a girl she eschewed confirmation from doctors. She’d name her Lori, after the sister she’d lost to a heroin overdose two years earlier. I mocked her fancies of reincarnation. I whined and begged and brokered deals, promising we would have a family at a later date, when her job was settled and my art was causing controversy in galleries. Exhausted, she surrendered. She refused to let me accompany her to the clinic, being driven by a friend instead.
After the abortion everything changed. Kerry carried an air of quiet but persistent resentment. She’d made a sacrifice and was waiting for me to live up to it. Nothing I did was good enough; nothing redeemed the loss of Lori. In turn, I felt indebted and simmered with indignation. We slouched around, disenchanted with each other. The house groaned and gloamed, tightening around us. Joy dissipated. It was impossible to make her smile. Sex became something to tick off a list: a chore like the ironing or the vacuuming. One day, with no decision being voiced but with both of us having somehow agreed, Kerry pulled the Amy Winehouse poster off the wall and rolled it up. She loaded her possessions into the car of the friend who had driven her to the clinic. When she waved goodbye it was as if she was just popping out somewhere. There was no melodrama; none of the wrought emotion of a break-up song or the swelling soundtrack of a movie. I felt obscurely cheated.
I’ve loitered outside the building where she works. I’ve shadowed her during her lunchbreak, hanging way back. Is this what they call stalking? I’ve followed her to a café and slithered into a booth, eyes fixed on her at the counter, wishing I had a newspaper to prop before my face like a spy in a bad action flick. There was a period in my childhood where I’d spend a lot of time slinking around the playground with a biro cocked like a pistol or pressing myself against a tree waiting for a shot to splinter the bark. My spy phase was sandwiched between wanting to be a space rebel and a boy wizard. Sometimes my dad would play with me. When I shot him, he’d make a meal of it, writhing on the floor clutching his wound, legs kicking. His groans were protracted and deafening. Then he’d give a final violent spasm and lie still, spreadeagled.
Yet when he really did die there was no such palaver. A touch of flu, dad had said. I’d had flu before: it made you feel terrible for a week then you got over it. When dad refused to get better he was hospitalised. Treatment was compromised by an existing heart condition and one night he effortlessly died. Easy peasy.
The hospital staff treated me with patience and kindness, but their dealings around the body were brisk and efficient. They were handling an everyday event. That’s when I began to sense Mr Cardigan about.
I find the little man with the thinning pate far more terrifying than the mythic icon that co-wrote songs with Kurt Cobain. I couldn’t imagine that black-garbed nemesis from a horror comic in my life, yet I continually glimpse Mr Cardigan at the periphery of my vision. There he is in the department store choosing a pair of socks, or prodding buttons at an ATM, or checking his watch at a bus stop. His watch. Always checking his watch.
Amid the grief and the terrible realisation that I could never talk with dad again was an unsettling selfishness. It occurred to me that, with both my parents dead, a buffer had been taken away. Mr Cardigan had moved into my neighbourhood.
In the laundry, surrounded by Good Art, I found myself staring into the drain in the centre of the cracked concrete floor. The sour smell rising from it seemed to be wafting from my paintings. I saw then that I was playing at being an artist in much the same way as I’d once pretended to be a spy. It was romance rather than ambition.
I marched to the toilet, sliding the packet of ciggies from my pocket. I broke each cylinder, watching tobacco bristle from the rupture, and flushed them. When they refused to be sucked away, bobbing and taunting me, I pissed on them. The next day, gnawing nicotine gum, I bought shorts and trainers and waddled off for a jog. It wasn’t long before I collapsed against a lamppost, coughing up thick gobs that tasted like blood. But I tried again the next day, and the next. I perused employment websites, running a finger down the selection criteria. I fired off job applications and vowed that when I won my first interview I would forsake art. I knew being a hobbyist, daubing on the weekends, was beyond me. I would become seduced, obsessively dabbing at canvases, frustrated by my current efforts and wishing to improve. It had to be total abstinence. My name is Darren and I’m an artoholic.
As I plodded the pavements in new trainers, hobbling up hills, breath hawing at the back of my throat, I’d review the plan. Secure a job and hoard cash, then abandon the slum dwelling that had become a metaphor for my dissolution. I’d return to study and complete the information management course I’d scuppered all those years ago. My job would transform into a career.
On the afternoon I received my first invite for a job interview, I loitered across the road from Kerry’s work. It was Thursday so I knew she’d be going for drinks. When she emerged in a tight scrum of mates I followed at a distance. I had the feeling she knew I was there. There was something self-conscious about her movements and her head kept turning slightly, as if battling the urge to glance behind. In the pub I hid behind a knot of drinkers at the far end of the bar. Spy time. My eyes devoured her. Had she put on weight? Was it my imagination, or were her hands playing around the bulge of her stomach?
Her friends gulped cocktails and flutes of bubbly while Kerry sipped orange juice. I wondered if there was a slug of vodka in it. I pictured myself sauntering past, Bond-like, to snatch up her glass and thrust my nose into it, snuffling for alcohol. Because she wasn’t smoking either. Weight gain or baby bump?
I fought the urge to rush her and babble about my reformation. I’d poke my tongue out to show her the masticated mass that left an aftertaste of pepper and ash. I’d explain I was drinking less and tell her about my impending interview. I wanted to tell her I was becoming an adult. I was changing for her. Lastly, I wanted to tell her about dad. I wanted to see sympathy wash into her eyes. I wanted her to leap to her feet and haul me into a healing hug. But I couldn’t do it. It was obvious she was better off without me. At that moment, I knew this was the last time I’d see her.
• • •
I examine Mr Cardigan’s queasy grimace of compunction. Like Kerry, he was in HR too. I reassure myself the painting requires more work, but I need to prepare for tomorrow’s interview. I’ve jotted down some questions I think they might ask and I must practise my answers. I decide Mr Cardigan should be my interrogator and pull up a chair. Then I conclude there will be more than one on the panel so I flip through the canvases lining the wall. I’m not sure what I’m looking for until I come across one of Kerry. I set it up on a chair alongside Mr Cardigan and perch opposite. What do you think you can bring to this position? I practise eye contact as I answer but Mr Cardigan’s unprepossessing ordinariness unnerves me and the depiction of Kerry makes me ache with longing. Then I linger over her portrait, distracted by the flaws of composition. It was painted several years ago and I completely failed to capture her restlessness, her spark. And that wisp of sorrow that clouds even her happiest moments. What are the major challenges facing the public library in the twenty-first century?
I rehearse the questions over and over. As weariness sets in I concoct joke answers. Mr Cardigan enquires about the challenges and opportunities of mortality and I mention regret and the aura of meaninglessness, but also the nourishment of composting corpses. Kerry asks what skills I can bring to the position of boyfriend and I talk up my Good Sense of Humour, culinary skills and abilities in the sack. When I find myself outlining my extensive experience of giving oral pleasure I realise it’s time to take a break.
I snatch up my brush and face Mr Cardigan, wondering where to apply the final strokes, but his obsequiousness is perfect. With a qualm, I realise I am no longer an artist. I seize the brush in both fists and strain to snap it but it doesn’t yield. I fossick outside and return with a brick. I brace the brush against the wall and bring the brick smashing down. Pain explodes in my thumb as I crush the nail. The brush cracks and the splintered lower half spins towards me. It slashes below the eye. I tumble back with a whelp. Warm blood tickles my cheek and I feel a rush of satisfaction. Melodrama at last.
I reduce the rest of my brushes to tinder and snatch up the furry cup. I raise my arm to dash it to the floor. The limb remains suspended until it develops a tremble. Then I carefully re-place the cup on the shelf.
• • •
I reach the library early. It’s good to appear eager. I wander around, soaking up the atmosphere. The comfort of Dewey numbers and their inevitable progression. There are three on the interview panel: two women and a man. They regard the band-aid on my cheek with undisguised suspicion, then switch to my bandaged thumb. I consider cracking a joke—‘you should see the other guy!’—but decide against it. On my left, the man has sparse hair and a slug-grey jumper. He has an off-putting diffidence. Is he slightly withdrawn from the others, turned towards me at a sharper angle?
What information technology are you familiar with?
I peer above their heads as I marshal my thoughts and my mind immediately sets out to sabotage me. I see the portrait of Kerry there, my inquisitor from last night. I note again the lifelessness in the brushwork. The deadness of the flesh.
I’m aware I’ve paused for too long so I snap down and outline my familiarity with library management systems and bibliographic databases. I want to meet their appraisal equally with friendly composure, but every time the man wavers in the corner of my eye he seems to be sporting a beige cardigan. I fix on him to prevent this. He’s perturbed by my scrutiny.
How do you see the future of public libraries?
I part my lips to recite a spiel about virtual information centres and 24/7 customer service but my rehearsed script suddenly seems glib. My gaze wanders and the man on my left dons the cardigan again. I don’t want to look directly at him in case he refuses to revert.
‘The future …’ I muse sagely. Steepling my fingers only serves to display the cocooned thumb.
I search above their heads for inspiration. This time I don’t see the existing portrait of Kerry but the one I would create now. The ragged strokes that would shiver her image and suggest her restlessness. The glint in the pupils muted by melancholy. Hair hedgehoggy. Visage flickering with life. Sizzles shining through the coruscations of colour.
At the periphery of vision Mr Cardigan checks his watch.