Bag o’ Bones

I never liked the small room that backed onto the kitchen in our old house. I say room – we referred to it as such ‘the utility room’. In reality it was more of a functional hallway, leading out from the kitchen to the backdoor which led into the garden.  Late at night the little frosted glass window set into the door would flicker with streetlights and the hi-beams of passing cars. The nocturnal noises of the neighbourhood could be heard faintly from the other side. Amplified in my childhood mind the sound of the wind and local strays would be transformed into monstrosities – held back only by the beaten plastic of the old door frame.

The hallway itself contained too much of nothing to navigate easily. Alongside a bulky washing machine (itself responsible for more night-time dread rumbling) It was lined with domestic debris, used tires, toys, and acrid smelling car batteries. Christmas lights, baubles and Easter bunnies lay in boxes, arranged between Halloween masks and fake bloody paraphernalia we would string up over the course of a year. There was also an all but antique chest freezer, which had at some point in the heady days of the early eighties assuredly seemed like the height of Americana inspired modernity. Now it appeared closer to what it was, a rusting awkward coffin. Amongst the rest of the dust laden bric-a-brac were a set of heavy rattling metal drawers. The kind often seen in car repair garages. All but one of the case’s five or six sliding caddies were filled with the coin and currency of maintenance. Bolts, washers, screws, hex keys and a mix of other Frankenstein parts all oily, encrusted and iron scented. The bottom drawer however contained a heavy stained black canvas bag with a zipper. The content of which remained – for me, my elder brother and sister a mystery throughout the years of our childhood and most of our adult lives.

We were never explicitly instructed to avoid it, but the idea was asserted – in one way or another – that the greasy canvas and it’s contents were not an area for exploration. Too heavy, too potentially messy and too likely to be the cause of some unnecessary inconvenience.

On occasion, when I was requested to retrieve something from the chest of drawers by my father, a screwdriver, a bolt or nut of a particular size (years of hoarding Lego pieces in plastic buckets had taught me the value and ingenuity of cannibalisation early on) the bag was to be avoided. Having scavenged thoroughly through the other drawers, looking for the requested piece, I would holler in a reedy voice asking, “what about the bag in the bottom drawer?” A pause and always a variation of the same reply: “No, not in there.” Conceding an end to my efforts, I would reply defeatedly “…then, I don’t think we have anything”. A moment later my father would inevitable appear, tools in hand grease smeared and smiling faintly. He would tug open a drawer, shuffle rattling metal a moment, then hold up an accusatory piece to the light and inspect it for a half instant. “That’ll do”.

Each time I was certain It had not been there a moment ago.

Though I seldom had other reasons to be in the utility room (a scouting expedition for some long-forgotten toy or piece of equipment for me and my brother, scavenging a surreptitious Mr. freeze ice pop in the summer months) I treated the drawers with the kind of unusual reverence that is reserved by children for the ill understood esoterica of things indelibly marked for the adult world.

On certain nights when he arrived home late, I would hear my father enter the utility room. The tell-tail sounds of his too-heavy boots scuffing the rubberised flooring. The opening and rattling of drawers. I would wonder what his reasons for being there were. It was in the end not purely my curiosity that would catch me out, but the foil of every curious child. The explicit instruction issued by my mother upon noting my curiousity was that under no circumstances was I to “go digging in your father’s things”.

So, late in the summer, one night assured both parents were long in bed (the sound of my father’s snoring strengthened my resolve, and likelihood of staying awake) I slipped downstairs. I could not comprehend my Mother’s attitude considering how often I had dug through those other drawers, all but categorised and creating an inventory of their contents. Pulling open the bottom drawer as quietly as I could, I unzipped the canvas bag and delved a hand in. Finding nothing on first inspection I dug deeper, the further I did the oilier and more incriminated by hands and wrists became. The small metal washers, saturated with grime clung to my skin, I peeled them off, flinging them back into the bag as I continued to dig amongst it’s content. The scent of the bag itself clung to my hands for days after, staining beneath my fingernails for weeks, and lingering in my mind longer still.

In the end, though my search was cut short, I found nothing of interest at all really.

Nothing in there to incriminate either of my parents as some wilder part of my imagination had perhaps hoped. What had I hoped for? A bloodied knife? A gun? A treasure map? perhaps letters or a mysterious looking leather-bound book? Some unexplained rotting remains? Fragmented bones or the  skull of some unnamed unfortunate? Regardless, It was not what I had hoped to find (and did not) in the end that I remember. It was the result of my actions.

I heard the cup shatter behind me before realising my mother had come shuffling downstairs. She found me elbow deep amongst the grime and gears of the bag. On hearing the noise, I turned in fright. Hallow faced and empty handed I stared at her, as she stood in her slippers, amongst the broken shards of the teacup she had been holding. Initially I had suspected she had dropped it in surprise at seeing me there in the dark, but I quickly understood this was not what had shocked her.

She stood a long time, looking at me silently.

I gathered myself to speak, as I did she kicked at the broken fragments on the floor. Her motion seemed reactionary, like a poorly aimed reflex. The small shards scattered in all directions and instinctively also I shielded my face. I stayed quiet as she continued to stand there in silence. As I looked on longer, I could see tears on her face highlighted by the dim-light coming from the kitchen.

I began to piece together an explanation. “… there’s nothing…I mean I didn’t find anything just more old bolt and nuts.”

“I don’t want to hear it.” She cut me off. Her tone was as acrid as dead batteries.

“Mum, I’m sorry… I just”

She cut across me again. “Clear this mess up and get back to bed, I don’t want to ever catch you down here again.”

She turned leaving me stunned and uncertain, I was not in truth entirely sure what had just happened, but that’s It thought –  it’s over.

Clearing the floor felt as though it took infinitely longer than I expected it to. My feet and hands were cold (I had not bothered with socks or shoes, thinking only to aid my aspirational stealthy movements on descending the stairs). The floor gradually became cold, painfully so and I began to shiver. I stumbled about looking for a brush, the dustpan thinking only of returning to the warmth of my bed. As I clumsily picked the shards of cup from the floor my fingers bled a little – creating more mess. I blotted ineptly at the stains and blood with kitchen roll and washing up liquid. Succeeding only in smearing and slurring my pyjama sleeves, shorts and knees more as I worked feebly. What seemed like hours later, when at last I did crawl silently beneath my duvet – still afraid to make any noise – my hands and face were stained and smudged.

My mother did not speak to me for days. In the morning her and my father exchanged looks but said nothing. If the topic was brought it up by either of my siblings it was brought to a blunt end. Both of them had heard the noise of the night’s events and much to my parent’s visible annoyance – feeling alternatively brave or churlish – they would take it in turns to inquire about it. If I was to so much as hint at it, I was sent to another room, reprimanded often before even being able to speak. For the longest time when my parents did look at me, it was as though I had just pissed my bed. Worse, I had befouled or demeaned some seemingly invaluable item. In time, the topic was of course forgotten, or more accurately perhaps, not allowed to be remembered. Tucked away neatly – the memory lingering like the persistent scent of oil.

Years later, both my parents passed away, my siblings decided to sell the house. I’m not sure why I had wanted to see it before they did. Nostalgia hangs like a strange key around our necks, only remembered when a lock presents itself.

I had made trips back over the years, at Christmas, or Halloween. My relationship with my parents and siblings was good. Outside of those things which unavoidably erode the course of years we all got along. We looked out for one another when we could, even if we did not speak as much as I sometimes felt we should. But then who does?

My sister gave me a copy of the keys and said to check if there was anything left in the house, before the remaining contents were cleared by the removals company we had all split payment for. She mentioned a strange smell in the back room by the kitchen but seemed to think little else of it.

Having passed through the rest of the near empty rooms. I rounded the corner from the kitchen into the rear room. It smelt strangely of old spice and rot. Decay, festering and rancid. As I rummaged amongst the few remaining items, wondering at what the source of the smell could be my eyes landed on the set of metal drawers.

Pausing a moment, I looked around the room, glancing over my shoulder before approaching it. Slowly, cautiously I pulled open each drawer. Each rattled open lightly in turn, the content having been dispersed by time or necessity. Eventually I reached the final drawer. As I pulled it open, it came heavier and more stubbornly than the others. The smell shot up into my nostrils, I coughed and gagged a little and spat to one side. Without waiting to think I pulled the zipper open glaring down into the canvas bag. It seemed filled to the brim, but only with more of the same mechanical odds and ends that had, years ago filled the other drawers of the cabinet. Unwilling to plunge my hands in for fear of what I would find. I poked tentatively. Hesitantly I dug down further and to my relief still found nothing, yet the sour smell lingered, was certainly stronger as I sat crossed legged on the floor in front of the open drawers. I hauled out the bag itself, with some effort – It seemed to weigh more than it ought to have.

I peered into the back of the drawer and still saw nothing but a few small pieces of rubbish, an old whisky bottle the label dried out, a scattering of coins, cigarette packets. I extracted each carefully, plucking them from the stained metal bottom of the drawer which was lined with a red gooey filament and matted rust. As I did so there was a rustling noise from somewhere behind the other boxes.

I turned following the noise, just in time to see a small red tail flash toward the garden door. I approached the door and with the toe of one shoe, pushed aside part of the filthy plastic frame to reveal a small hole that had been warn away.

Understanding better now, I returned to look at the drawers. I tugged at their weight pivoting them toward me so I could examine the back of them. I squatted down, drawing the neck of my t-shirt over my nose to cushion the smell. In the bottom corner of the unit I saw another small hole which had been rusted or gnawed open over time. Picking up a screwdriver which lay idly on a nearby box, I prodded it into the gap. It returned coated with a wet brown filament, traces of matted decay and spider web. The remnants of what the fox had dragged in, buried here in the back of the drawers. The tiny hole was stuffed and stored with what had become a festering nest of tiny pelts and broken bones.

After I had explained the mystery of the strange smell (my sister insisted it had not been so overwhelming when she had last locked up the house) we took it upon ourselves to dispose of the mess, too ashamed to leave it to a team of strangers already burdened with carting off the last forgotten remnants of our past.

To be sure, we cleared the hallway entirely, for the first time in what was likely decades. Grateful to find nothing else. When we had finished there remained a pooled rust red stain on the peeling Formica floor where the metal drawers had sat. Curious, I squatted down and tugged at the torn corners of the flooring around it, revealing the bare concrete beneath. As I peered under I saw it too was stained by the same dark substance. Given nothing but time and opportunity the oil and rot had managing to seep down and make itself part of the house’s foundations. “Well I guess that’s it, nothing else we can do about that now”. “I guess not” replied my sister, rolling her eyes at me as I wiped my hands along the front of my jeans, and stood up.

We closed the door, turned the key and went on with our lives.

False Idols

Two men walk into a bar.

More like collide, explode actually.

One man is enraptured by brotherhood and unification. He is soaked in the sweat of coal and steam. He is led on by exploration and the dread ideal of utopia.

It is the turn of the twentieth century, the crust of the earth is torn up blazing, raised and raging with fire and smoke.

The other man, raises his fist, swinging wildly, pressing home the point of his sacred heart, certitude and philosophical argument are his stone tablets. They will be laid down as surely as Sinai.

Both see logic sway in the smoke and steam that billows from factories, which line the canals and streets of the city. Fire and the steel consume the hours and days of those they love, those they whisper solitary silent prayer for on bent knee each Sunday.

One claiming the old gods, the other new. Relics exotic and the esoteric. The shroud of Turin, the minkisi of the Congo river, the shores of Benin. The chaste chaff and rod of home-grown Christendom.

Neither will have long to live. It is the ancestor’s glowing coals and embers that will burn through the remaining strata of the earth, will continue to seer down opening fissures and gaps large enough that the soil and those stood upon is will call out, in a noxious cloud of their own creating. Slowly suffocate, holding their own children and grandchildren in arms.

Two men sit in a bar, drinking whiskey.

One called wolf, one called steel.

Men of science, men of industry

Gears grind all about them, waves ripple out in every direction.

The Artist’s Hat

For Rene, who saw all of us, before we could even see ourselves.

It was a night soaked with rain. Cascades ran down the brick arches and columns which surrounded the town square. Mothers rushed along the colonnades avoiding the water. Drinkers slinked between doorways and alleys – each trying to make their way to the next destination remaining as dry as they could.

He stood in the square, a light from a nearby window washed down over him, highlighting the rain as it fell about him. He remained stock still, saturated.

He stood head bowed. One hand gestured gently palm upward, seeming to emanate gratitude. His other hand was pressed sincerely to his chest. He had been posed like this since late morning. Not long after he had climbed up on his place on the small box, the grand clock in the archway that faced south chimed, and businessmen had begun streaming past him to their places of employment. Shoppers and boys on bicycles carrying packages, turned their heads as they zig-zagged between errands. Young girls in flowing floral dresses greeted one another chatting casually, their eyes rested upon the man on the box a moment before conversation and eyes drifted elsewhere for morning coffee.

As morning turned to early afternoon, an older woman grasping the hand of a small boy strolled slowly across the cobbles and paused, when the small boy asked his grandmother “Nonna – who is that man?”

Pausing a little way from the gentleman, she leant down toward the child and spoke softly “That man is an artist”.

“What does that mean?”

“It means he creates things.”

“Creates things?”

“Yes. you know how you like to paint and draw, with your coloured pencils and crayons? Sometimes it is like that.”

“But he hasn’t got any pencils…”

“No, but remember how your Nonno used to like to play the piano for us in the evenings? Sometimes it is like that also”

“What is he making now?”

“Some days he comes here to the square to share his art with everyone. Sometimes he is just here to remind us to stop and look around at our little town. See how pretty the flowers are?” She pointed to a small window box that overflowed with small, soft yellow flowers. “Did you notice how pretty they all are, placed about the square?”

“Not really…” replied the boy looking up, down and around him now.

“These are my favourite flowers…” said his grandmother gesturing to the little flower box again. “…and yet we would have walked right by them without my noticing. Today he is simply here to remind us. We should say thank you.”

She took the boy’s hand again softly in her own and they approached the man on the box.

“Good morning”, called out the boy.

The man did not speak a reply, but suddenly his chin lifted, and his eyes opened, he grinned widely. Then he gestured deftly – beckoning the boy who passed an anxious look toward his grandmother. She smiled and nodded, comforting him.

The man’s eyes looked gratefully towards the woman, and then he learnt down, urging the boy to come yet closer. He whispered in his ear, before turning him gently by the shoulder and pointing him back toward his grandmother.

“He said that somebody told him when you were my age, you were the prettiest young girl in the whole town”. The boy looked up at her a little confused.

“Oh did he now?” the woman responded curiously. The boy continued “…But he does not believe it – because he thinks you are too beautiful now, to ever have been more beautiful before.” The lady felt the corners of her lips raise.

“He also asked me to give you this” The woman smiled further, as she watched her grandson’s small hand open to reveal a yellow flower. “He said they are his favourites also.” 

As she took the flower from her grandson’s hand she looked back at the man on the box, who was now bowing deeply.

“Take this and give it to him please” she said producing a small coin from her pocket, placing it into her grandson’s open palm.

Now more confidently, the boy approached the man again and placed the coin on the ground, just in front of the box. As he did, he felt a hand shake the hair on the top of his head. When he jumped back to look up the man was stood stock still again, a hand out blowing a kiss, extended toward his grandmother who now grinned broadly.

From where he stood between them the boy watched his grandmother’s eyes make contact with the man on the box and he thought her expression looked familiar, like when he and his mother arrived on Sunday mornings with pastries, or just before they all sat down to eat a large meal she had prepared. When she spoke to him in stories about how funny his father, and his grandfather had been.

As the boy watched her, she reached out her own hand for him to return to her. He waved back at the man on the box one last time before re-joining his grandmother. They turned to continue on with their day. As they walked away, the man on the box could hear the boy ask his grandmother one more question “Can we come back and visit the man again soon? I would like that”. “Yes, my beautiful boy I would enjoy that too”, the women replied.

So, the day passed slowly, as did small groups visiting from the other towns in the surrounding hills. They thought the man upon the box curious, as they had never seen somebody perform in such an odd way. Yet they laughed and delighted at the faces and poses he pulled in quick response to their questions. Individuals would stand and admire him, saying nothing but watching him remain stock still, mirroring the stone statues between the colonnades.

As the changing light of the day passed over him, occasional passers-by left coins, for which he expressed his gratitude as he had to the old woman and the boy. Some stood simply holding his gaze, which he also returned gladly. Meeting their eyes each felt held up by one another for a moment.

The stools and tables of the small cafes around the square slowly filled and emptied, with those eating and smoking. The sights and sounds of food, plates and coffee cups filled the square and then again became quiet. As evening came, the sunlight trickled back over the terracotta rooftiles and peaked tops of the buildings. As it retreated back into the shade, the clockface in the highest arch illuminated.

From a far corner of the square a small figure appeared in a long coat, carrying a suitcase. Methodically he approached the first of the large glass domes which adorned the various corners and entryways of the square. The man on the box watched him pass from one to the next. As he reached each one he unscrewed a cap from a small container, placing it gently inside of the larger glass orb, where small flecks of bright dust gingerly floated from it. Once a few hovered inside the dome he carefully screwed back on the cap, returning the container to a little pouch he wore on his belt. Placing a hand to his mouth he blew into the lamp, and as he did the small specks multiplied, sparkling to life. They created a radiant ambience which filled the glass dome and lit the small area of the square around it. He closed the door of each dome gently and passed on to the next lamp until each had been danced into life. By the time he had finished his round, the square was lit by a swirling luminescence radiating from each dome.

The lamplighter folded up the small ladder he used for the taller lamps and removed the small tube from where it hung on his belt. Placing it ritualistically back into his suitcase he then exited from the same side of the street he had appeared from. Not long after, the man on the box felt the first drops of rain.

Within the hour the rain had begun to teem down, overflowing the gutters of the roofs. While others carefully tried to skip their way around puddles and beneath dripping awnings, an old man in a dark hat and suit strode slowly across the open square. When he reached the man on the box, he paused and looked up. Where he stood on his stage in the middle of the square, the light split the man’s features into contrasts of light and dark. The rain continued to run down his face in streaks, but he made no motion as the other man gazed on.

Without speaking the old man doffed his hat as if in recognition of the artist. Then bending one knee, he placed the hat at the base of the box gently. Raising himself back up, he glanced around the empty square before clearing his throat to speak.

“Look after this hat. Whenever you wish it, you may place it upon the ground like this and speak the name of the one you love. Speak it honestly and with relish and they will appear, and you may both share the rest of your days happily together”

From the box, the artist saw only dimly in the rain the elongated features of a face with deep eyes smiling up at him, before they turned and shuffled into the rain.

Late in the evening, the rain slowed, and eventually as his shoulders began to ache, the artist stepped down from his box, collected the flowers he kept in his pockets, picking up both the box and the hat (pausing to turn it over a moment) he placed it upon his head and walked home through the lamp light.

Some years later the artist had collected enough money from performing on his box in the square to become comfortable renting a small studio a little way outside the town, north of the river close to the parks and cemetery. As he had been able to afford more materials, he had begun to expand his work. He now regularly filled notebooks with poetry and sketches. Occasionally able to come across canvases and paints, he was able to create larger pieces. His paintings and work were often a topic of discussion in the nearby cafes and salons. Some Sundays along with friends he would exhibit a few of his favourites in the park, while he painted the pretty figures of passing girls with parasols, and the boys in their shorts as they swam.

One such Sunday a respectable couple, whom the artist was faintly familiar with, approached him and spoke generously about his paintings, use of colour, the motion and subtly of the images he created. As he gently held her hand passing encouraging looks, he insisted Ana was typically much more expressive. But as she greeted him that day in the park Ana only smiled shyly at the artist whom she so much admired. Still it seemed enough, not everything can be conveyed in words.

The artist thanked them both sincerely for the kind words. He was himself shy in discussing his work, but it made him immensely happy that others should enjoy it so much. After a time discussing art, and in turn many other things, the husband offered to collect some bread and cheese. Returning a little while later with a blanket for them all to sit on, they passed the early afternoon in one another’s company.

As the sun dropped low and the warmth from it dissipated, each began to speak of returning home. The artist offered that the couple would be very welcome to any of the smaller pieces of his work with them. It would be more than any price he could ask that his work found such a good home. At this Ana again blushed but also began to enthuse, that he ought to arrange an exhibition of his work in one of the capital’s galleries. She and her husband had discussed it and would be happy to help the artist to do so.

“In fact” her husband continued, seeing Ana’s bashfulness again cut her short “We would very much like to take you up on the offer of taking some of your work home today.”

The artist replied again, that they were welcome to any of the smaller pieces they would like to choose from.

“It is only that, we have both long admired this larger canvas we saw you complete some weeks ago while walking here in the park. We have picked out a place of for it in the home we are building together, a large wall in our library has been reserved just for it in fact”

Again, the artist was a little taken aback by their enthusiasm but knew the worth of such a large piece and moreover the time and cost in materials it had taken him to create. He admitted to himself he was also, somewhat selfishly, found of it – knowing the landscape was some of his best work.

Sensing his hesitancy, the gentleman continued, “We both saw how diligently you worked upon it. How you seemed to condense the colour and senses of the park here around us down into it. For such talent we are privileged and happy to be able to offer a price we feel at least reflects a little of such skill”

Here the artist fell backward, knocking his hat from his head rubbing the back of his neck more vigorously than he intended in nervous response to the number suggested – more than he would have dared ask and many times that which the paint and canvas had cost.

The gentleman taking his hand from the palm of his wife, laughed brightly and lent down to retrieve the old hat from the grass, dusting it and handing it to the artist. “Perhaps we could also find you a new hat”. He smiled kindly, “It suits you well – but is a little worn” The artist smiled in response, glad of the swift change of topic, “It was a gift and I am fond of it”.

“We also appreciate that some works must be hard to part with, so as for your painting you would be most welcome to come and visit it in the library at any time, to work or read. We would be only too happy to share company and tea with you any time”.

As they departed, the artist again thanked them for their encouragement and generosity and assured them he would see them both soon. Later that afternoon the artist arranged with a friend to have the canvas placed in a better frame, wrapped in brown paper and delivered it to the address of the couple’s newly built home in person.

It was not an overly large house, grander by far than the homes of most friends or colleagues the artist generalised socialised with, though to an aesthetic eye it was obvious that it had been built with consideration. A minimal but elegant, the single indulgence had been the addition of a dome roof to the entrance hall which contained the main staircase. The couple had been adamant the interior of the house receives as much natural light as possible at all times.

On arriving, the artist was welcomed in and shown the space in the library where the couple had told him they intended to hang his work. The Library was easily one of the largest rooms in the home. It contained two tall bookshelves on opposing walls. One side featured a small brass staircase allowing access to the uppermost shelves. The rest of the house was beautiful if not elaborate, a good size kitchen, smaller drawing rooms and a glasshouse with a beautiful range of plants and flowers, few of which were like anything the artist had seen. Ana’s husband worked as botanist. As a result, he had travelled widely for work, but now looked forward to settling here to study the plants and notes he had collected. He looked forward to writing about the experiences and was glad to hear the artist mentioned an interest in literature and illustration. Having been shown around, the artist declined the offers of tea, still timid at overstaying his welcome as it became late. He created a probable polite story pertaining to plans with friends elsewhere, promising to return not too far in the future.

He remained true to his word, and in turn the couple remained true to theirs – he was welcomed at any chance or occasion and made to feel very at home.

The next time he returned to the couple’s home, he entered the library to see his painting of the park hung prominently between the shelves of the library, washed in a clear light from the windows. He blushed a little at seeing it’s place of prominence in the home.

Just opposite, a set of comfortable but modest sofas and a table had also been installed and Ana insisted he sit and consider if he liked how his work had been situated. As he perched upon one of the sofas to look upon his work, the botanist carried in a tray with tea, madeleines and sandwiches, repeating their hope that he would feel comfortable to visit it at any time. They thought of it as merely “re-homing” his work, and certainly did not like to think of it as belonging to them.

And so, on quiet days the artist would often find himself returning to spend time with the couple in the library. The three spent more and more time together, discussing art and travel, writing and the world around them at great lengths.

He noted that many of the shelves of the bookcase remained empty. Though over time they did accumulate new volumes. Often the artist found that if he expressed an interest in a topic, perhaps a week or so later there would suddenly be included on the bookshelves a number of works by prominent authors on the subject. In this way he continued a broad education and the couple seemed continually excited to hear his ideas and opinions on the things which they all discussed.

In time the couple also made good on their promise to help arrange an exhibition of the artist’s work in some of the capital’s many galleries. On those occasions they introduced him to many friends, businessmen, academics and other artists. While Ana and the Botanist chatted amongst groups of friends, The Artist would mill amongst the frames and canvases studying, trying to understand the elements each was made up from.

On such an evening, the Artist found himself studying the composition of the images and the techniques applied to one particular canvas. He was taken by them in such a manner that as Ana approached with a small group of other guests, she was drawn to ask him, “What are you admiring  so intently my friend?”

Without turning away the Artist replied faintly “This work. It’s extraordinary. The colour and boldness of the landscape. The movement of the people – seem so honest, and relatable, I find it remarkable.”

“I’m very glad you enjoy it”, a deeper voice than Ana’s responded, taking the Artist by surprise. He turned from the painting to see who had spoken.

One of the gentlemen who accompanied Ana now stood with his hand extended as if for the Artist to shake it, Instead he stood a moment in awkward silence. The Artist looked at the man curiously, noting the composition of his face, the colour of his brown eyes. The man in turn seemed unphased by the artist’s curious lack of social cues, and so placed his hand upon the Artist’s shoulder with a gentle demeaner. “I’m pleased you find so much to study in my work, I’ve admired many of the pieces of your own which Ana has shown me.”

At this the Artist felt his cheeks blush, he stuttered out a few words of appreciation before insisting he return to his rounds of the gallery.

Seeing the admiration, the two men shared, Ana took it upon herself to ensure the two had reason to spend time together, in studios and galleries. While both seemed happy in discussing work, though Ana recognised her friend’s trepidation regarding other topics. On rare occasions she would tentatively press upon it, yet the Artist spoke only of “training at the academies, differences in technique” and good looks which made him feel “less than uncomposed.”

Through the couple’s kindness, and the many connections and relationships that flourished from those exhibitions, the Artist found he was able to create a good living for himself.

He found a more permanent address, not far from the couple and his friends in the now fashionable artist’s district of the town. Still only a little distance from the parks and solitude should he feel the need of it for working.

He purchased little furniture for the new home but did salvage an old piano he purchased at little expense from the house of a lady who stated she had little need of it after her husband had passed away. With nearly as many dead keys as those which produced notes, he enjoyed tinkling short single-note tunes from it. He found time to read, even to compose poetry, this last activity he began sharing with the Botanist, who had an accomplished knowledge of languages. Both men would take turns sat at the old piano bench hopelessly picking out a melody with one finger from amongst the dead keys, while the other read and discussed one another’s writing. Through these exchanges of verse and stanza, the men became close, confiding many of those things which a person may allow themselves put into poetry, but may continue to omit from the proses of their everyday life.

One afternoon as Ana, the Botanist and he were preparing tea in the bright kitchen of the couple’s home, the Artist thought to himself that he had come to feel as peaceful in that place as anywhere else he had known. While they chatted, the Botanist smiled gently at Ana, and he from across the room, while opening and closing some of the many dozens of stone jars which lined shelves in one corner. The scent of the leaves and botanicals filled the kitchen with aromatic notes, complimenting those of the butter and baking.

The large copper kettle began to whistle on the hob, and as its pitch increased the Artist was taken back from his thoughts, by the sudden sound of stone on stone as one of the botanical jars hit the floor and rolled across the tiles. At this, both he and Ana turned at once from what they were doing. As Ana turned, her hands raised to cover her mouth and she gasped. The Artist moved to attend his friend the Botanist, who lay slumped on the floor, no longer breathing. The tea leaves had spilt across the tiles beneath him. A tray with cups, saucers and an empty pot all sat readied on the counter. The copper kettle was still whistling.

The funeral was a small gathering, Ana preferred it, as with all things, to be uncomplicated. The cards and messages of condolences easily eclipsed ten times the number of people sat sorrowfully filling the pews. Most suitable perhaps, the flowers and arrangements which filled the chapel had been sent from as far across the continents as it is possible for flora to flourish. In the front row the Artist sat black-tied, his hat upon the pew to one side, on the other his hand held that of the widow. She wept quietly in front of the alter, at the casket, through lunch, dinner and for many evenings afterward.

After that day the Artist saw in her a melancholy that never lifted. He would paint it on rainy afternoons in the glass house, attempt to draw it as Ana turned the pages of books on the sofa of the Library. Some part of him felt that if he could capture the pain accurately enough, there on page or canvas it might by some trick unburden itself from Ana’s complexion, untangle its barbed choke upon her broken heart. Try as he might, filling notebooks and whole rooms of the now quietened house, the raven-like-shadow of unkindness never seemed to depart completely.

Still he continued to busy himself (and in turn Ana) with projects about the house, they continued to bake (she teaching him), paint (he teaching her), read, write and occasionally even turned their hands (together) toward the pruning of the plants and flora that still flourished around the house’s rooms and hallways. Afterward on warm summer evenings they would prepare tea for one another, and sit in the small glasshouse, Ana would speak contentedly of the Botanist as they both enjoyed the scent of the flowers and warm honey-dew light.

In the days and months that followed, the pair passed their time in good humour, and companionship. Though the conversation seemed to turn (more often than the Artist would have liked) to the topic of if and when he would find a partner for himself. Shortly after the funeral of the Botanist, Ana had received many more cards from all around the country. Amongst which more than one from the handsome artist in the capital. Each enquired gently into the good health of his fellow colleague. The Artist however, continued to decline Ana’s suggestion to return correspondence himself. In as remarkably generous a friendship as ever there was, it would be the only thing to come close to annoyance the pair ever shared between them, until the day they were parted.

On that day, Ana lay upon a bed she felt now much too large for herself. Many said she had grown old faster than seemed fair after the death of the Botanist, but as with the flowers the Artist had painted her amongst nearly every day since her husbands passing (which blossomed and wilted in turn with each seasons) he thought only that Ana seemed more beautiful now than on the day he had first seen her. From the bed she took her friend’s hand, thanking him for his love, his companionship and his work. It had been the thing which had brought them all together to begin with, and she was so grateful for it – for everything that had come from it. As he kissed her hand, the Artist promised her solemnly he would continue to create after she was gone – and in keeping with the precedent set by his friends, he kept his word.

The Artist remained in the house which Ana left to him, its content included. The paintings and books of the library, where now all but the very top shelves were filled. He had little to move from his old address but paid two young farm boys to assist him moving the old piano, which though still untuned he enjoyed attempting to play. He continued to paint, draw, and sculpt. Gradually his projects began filling whole rooms of the house. Slowly, absent-mindedly he transformed each into his ad-hoc studio, before moving to the next when it became too cumbersome or difficult to remain amongst the pieces he lingered over.

Each evening after eating a small supper, he would return to the library and gaze at the painting of the park. He saw it now as the image which had begun everything. He looked at the figures beneath the parasols, in bowler hats, wondering if he had known then that any of them might have been Ana or the Botanist? Curious if any of his work after would ever bring him to feel the way he did about this piece. It’s light, colour and composition – the way it held him in the moment of its creation.

As he gazed upon it, he concluded that he would continue to turn what remained of the empty house into his greatest work, in honour of that memory.

Over the coming weeks and days, he collected materials, summoned favours from neighbours and friends from all over the town to help collect supplies. Then inside the main hall of the house, around the spiral staircase they constructed scaffolding stretching from the floor up to the domed roof. Once the construction was complete the Artist began to brandish colour and texture. First flooding the hallway with light, pastel blues and white, then shades of violet and ambers. From the borders of the floor, until he lay flat upon the upper rafts of the scaffold painting the dome itself with such abandon and openness that those who watched him work, (coming to deliver gifts of fruit, and baking, lunches and supper) stood in wonder seeing it unfold.

When he reached each of the lamps of the stairway, he began to construct elaborate works in stained glass, which fragmented light into elegant and precise spectrums. He finished each case by hand in decorative brass and copper. As he moved upward, he created even more elaborate pieces for each of the many ornaments, and the windows themselves which flooded light into the house.

When needed, carpenters and stoneworkers would join him to lend their hands and talent. As the years passed and the work continued not a single person in the town remained unaware of the work that went on, and when eventually it was completed not a person who visited could stand in the hallway and not feel themselves moved, uplifted by the shafts of light and colour which washed over them. If he doubted it even a moment, the glint as eyes dilated, assured the Artist that he had transformed the beautiful arches and angles of his friends’ home into something of unique beauty.

He enjoyed many years of community and warmth in the house before an afternoon came where he sat alone in the Library. On a small side-table was a saucer and cup scented of lemons and verbena. In his lap he held the old hat he had carried with him for so long, and he smiled, remembering the evening in the rain when the old man had gifted it to him.

As he smiled, he leaned forward in his chair, carefully now, his back and knees did not move as easily as they did when he had stood upon the box in the square all those years ago. He placed the old hat on the floor, closed his eyes and through wrinkled lips whispered.

He opened his eyes and no sound came. No movement other than that of the light which streamed through the library’s windows between branches of the trees outside. He lifted the saucer and cup to his lips. Laughing lightly at his old romantic heart, even after all these years he believed in magic.

As he placed the saucer back upon the table-top, he heard a knocking from the hallway. Steadily he lifted himself from the chair, calling out a welcome to whomever it was had come to see the house and stairway. The town folk had begun telling friends and relatives of the house. He received visitors from all over who came timidly to request to see “the museum” as it had become known. He was of course happy to play guide and shake the hands of those who admired and lauded his work, sometimes traveling long distances to visit, he enjoyed sharing in the stories of their own homes and lives.

As he stepped through the doorway of the library passing down the hallway, the figure of a man stood leaning one hand on the frame of the front door, where he knocked again and spoke out. “May I be so bold to enquire if the great artist of the house might be accepting company?

The artist then recognised at once the face of his colleague from the capital. Standing there in the hallway the two embraced. Though they had known each other only a little over the course of the years, they shared a unity in their craft, a lifetime of creation and composition, washed over them now. One was as deeply pleased as the other to be reunited. And so after brief chatter of the city and offers of tea, the Artist began to guide him amongst the hallways and rooms of the house. As they spoke, a sense of lost time was discovered amongst each object and artwork, they spoke long into the evening and as such the Artist felt it only fair that his colleague be invited to stay. It seemed clear they had much to speak on, and with both the Botanist and Ana now gone, the Artist admitted to being more glad of an old friend’s company than ever.

After a few days, the suggestion was made (though neither would remember whose suggestion it had been) to remain a while longer. AS both had become so comfortable in one another’s company it seemed foolish to part. And so, they spent the days walking the parks and town. They sat in the cafés of the square, shared stories of art and life. In the evening, as had become the custom of the house, they took up place in the Library, reading, exchanging theories, recipes, stories – gradually the Artist felt himself fall in love with life and work once again. He revelled in the colour and harmony of their relationship, though he had reached an age where he knew they could not have many seasons left to share, he could not regret any choice he had made – for each had brought him to this point.

One evening on finishing a volume from amongst the upper most shelves of the library, his friend enquired of the Artist

“Why was it you waited so long?”

You came to visit me, as I remember it,” The Artist chuckled in reply, looking up from his own writing toward the bookcase where his friend was returning a book. He was easily able to guess what it was that he hinted at.

“Yes, perhaps that is true,” came the response “…but the messages and cards which I sent – you never responded. Ana always spoke so highly of you and assured me you thought something the same of me, or of my work at least, yet not once did you reach out.”

The Artist felt himself grimace a little, first at the mention of Ana’s name, then at the awkwardness which he felt considering the idea he may have caused a man with such beautiful sensibility doubt, or unhappiness through neglect.

Why did you wait?” his friend pressed on now, descending the steps from the bookcase to sit beside him.

As he reclined in the armchair opposite, the Artist still saw in his friend’s features, that which he had seen when they first met. The broad shoulders, refined gesture and poise. The confidence with which he carried himself. But more than that, now he recognised also characteristics from elsewhere. In his words he heard the reassurance and intellect of the Botanist. In the quiet company that they shared he felt Ana’s compassion and perceptiveness. His skills and ability matched any of their peers, yet amongst it all there was an expressiveness which was unique to him alone. He considered all this a moment before he began to speak.

“I count myself amongst the most extraordinarily privileged and fortunate of men in my own time or in any place which history or geography might teach me about. I found everything that I might have hoped for from love in those around me. Yet even as I look at you now, I feel the lightening of a burden I did not know I was carrying. Even after all that I have learned from each of those who have helped me, loved me, I was afraid.”

The other man waited a moment now too, before speaking his reply to the Artist. “I love you now surely, as I would have loved you then, but I wished so much to watch you paint these beautiful pieces, to talk with you as you crafted them, in some small way to have been a part of them too, not only to view them in frames and mounted on walls.”

The Artist held his friend’s gaze as he spoke looking into the dark brown of his eyeshe continued. “As for my work, I feared that I myself would not be all you thought me to be. But you must know, that you were with me each time – you were the idea that drove me on to better myself each day. Painting, drawing, reading… I continued to pursue each one, and improve, hoping to eventually feel a little of the confidence and ability I saw in you.”

“The confidence I wore only hoping to impress you with it” His friend did not wait to speak this time. The reply came knowingly, and he smiled as he spoke it, but there was a sadness in his eyes and the Artist saw his mind search at the thought of all that lost time.

“We cheat ourselves by forgetting to leave a little space in each composition. So keen are we to perfect each brush stroke that we lose sight of our perspective – the very thing which makes our work unique. We forget to include space for ourselves in our work. Do not lose sight of yourself, do not doubt that the love with which you create is the same love that holds those closest to you near. Do not be afraid to share it – it is for that purpose that we begin all art. I have been so glad of the time we have spent together, and I am proud that after it has passed away, you will at least have my work to remember me by.”

The Artist’s friend spoke no more but took the other man’s hand, kissed it softly and walked to where the old piano sat. From its crooked keys he produced a melody which floated through the rooms of the house. At first the Artist wondered ‘how?’, but without saying anything smiled as he came to realise, he knew the answer. He simply played the keys which were there. He sat happily, listening to the strange beauty of the melody as the sun set, and the fire they had lit together in the mantlepiece burned quietly low.

It was a short few months later that the Artist passed away. For the funeral he was laid to rest on a bed of yellow flowers, in a dark suit, his old hat placed upon his chest.

The other artist remained in the house, though he was seldom alone, teaching classes for students of the village and elsewhere, guiding tours of the house and its contents. He gave talks and wrote papers on the life and works of the man who had made the house famous. Having studied the artist’s work his whole life – there was no better authority.

In that way the house traded one artist for another, and when in turn that artist’s time came to depart, arrangements were made. The town council were provided the keys and last testament of its most famous occupant. The terms of which ensured it would become a place of education for all those who sought it out.

In the months that followed, a statue was erected in the town square. A small statue of a man, the likeness of a face bowing low. One hand pressed to its chest, the other holding a solid brushed bronze hat outstretched.

Just in front of the statue, a small stone square, not much more than a couple of feet across in either direction was raised about a foot from the cobbles around it to create a small permanent stage. Atop it the only inscription informed those who read it, that the statue and memorial were paid for by voluntary donations from the citizens of the town.

The owners of the carts, stalls and cafes of the square in particular had each eagerly contributed. Many of the town’s most eminent businessmen, elected officials and academics from as far as the Capital had heard of the fund and wished to contribute.

The town Mayor himself had made a generous personal donation toward the monument and at the opening of the town’s new, now official Museum, he had given a speech.

In it he declared that the remaining money (a not unsubstantial and increasing amount) would be used in the maintenance of the Museum and as a fund for those who contributed to “the preservation and continuation of the artistic and creative values which this town holds self-evident as part of its identity.”

Remembering an occasion from his childhood the Mayor spoke of a time he stood in the town square as a child, observing an artist who had handed him a small yellow flower as a gift for his grandmother.

The memory he said, had been something which had guided many of his ideas of beauty, compassion and fairness in the decades that came.

It seems” he said, now addressing a large crowd which had assembled amongst the shade of the trees, and the thousands of newly planted bright yellow flowers which had been planted along the borders and paths leading up to the Museum. “It seems,” he repeated – pausing a moment to take in the view “as through that one small flower blossomed into a most extraordinary garden”. As they applauded, it seemed an entire town very much agreed.

From a cold water flat somewhere in Brooklyn.

“You’re a writer?” she said, as she looked up toward the desk where his typewriter sat.

“I suppose.”

“Well you don’t seem certain about it, either of you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well you said you ‘suppose’, you’re a writer.”

“Yes, but you said either of us? Me and who else?”

“The typewriter darling. It doesn’t seem sure about the whole thing either, there’s not even a ribbon in it.”

“There’s not?… Oh…I suppose…I had to step out just before you arrived.”

“Step out?”

“Yes…”

“Well, where to?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Well you’re a writer, and I’m in no rush to get anywhere, I only live downstairs after all. So tell me a story…”

“I hardly even know you. I don’t know if I want to.”

“Hardly seems relevant, it’s your job after all, nobody is supposed to want to do their job are they?”

“Writers are.”

“Well you don’t even seem sure you are one, so stop worrying so much and tell me a story.”

“I’m not a storyteller, I’m a writer. There’s a difference.”

“I don’t see that there is. Well what is it then?”

“I write! I don’t just make things up, and tell people stories.”

“It’s all the same in my book.”

“You seem more the storyteller type.”

“Suppose I am.”

She lit a cigarette and they both watched the blue smoke slowly spiral towards the ceiling. Arching just beneath the chandelier, it doubled over on itself and descended again.

The birds had started to chirp outside the sun was nearly fully up.

“Where do you think we’ll be in fifty years time?” She began again.

“What do you mean?”

“You know, what do you think the world will be like, what do you think you’ll be doing?”

“In fifty years? We’ll I’d better at least be published by then. Written something of real worth y’know?”

“I don’t suppose they’ll even need typewriters by then.”

“What?”

“Well surely somebody will have dreamt up something else, you know a machine that just listens to you speak and does the typing for you.”

“Nonsense.”

“It isn’t. It seems perfectly plausible. I mean think of it, it’s not so long ago people would have laughed at you if you’d told them we were driving around in motor cars, and writing on machines instead of with a pen.”

“I still write with a pen sometimes.”

“So?”

“So people will still want to write with typewriters.”

“I suppose, there’s always a few who cling onto things. Usually it’s either just because they’re scared to move on, or they feel they’ve got a statement to make by not doing what’s expected of them.”

“Either way we’ll still need typewriters.”

“Perhaps, maybe it’s you they’ll replace then.”

“Me?”

“Well you know they’ll probably invent a robot or something that’s better at it than you are. Won’t need a typewriter or you either, it’ll just dash off stories like a printing press, somebody will bind them up and put them straight onto a shelf in the bookstore.”

“What a load of rubbish! I’ve never heard anything that’s so absurd. How could a machine ever write anything? Let alone something anybody would want to pay to read.
They have no emotion, no passion, no romance. They don’t even have a soul!”

“I suppose. You certainly had plenty of all that up until now. Perhaps you should put more of it into your writing and less of it into intercepting girls as they come out of the powder room”.

She smirked.

“Intercepted? That seems a strong way of putting it.You didn’t seem to mind so much at the time”

“I didn’t. I still don’t.
I’m merely making an observation, you could have been here writing instead. If your typewriter had had a ribbon of course.”

“Well it just so happens that’s exactly why I was there.”

“To pick up a typewriter ribbon?”

“Yes.” It was the most certain he’d sounded of anything all evening.

“You were picking up a typewriter ribbon at 11 o’clock at night in a club on the lower east side?”

“That’s just what I was trying to tell you.”

“When?”

“Before, when you asked me to tell you a story.”

“Well go on then.”

“It hardly seems worth it now, you aren’t going to believe me no matter what I say. You’re convinced I was only in that place with the intention of ‘intercepting’ you.”

“Or who ever came through the powder room door before me.”

“I was there to meet Ronnie.”

“I thought you were there to get a typewriter ribbon?”

“I was, Ronnie works in the club office, he said he might be able to lend me one if I swung by, there’s nowhere else open at that hour to get one.”

“And it couldn’t wait until morning?”

“You have to write when the mood strikes you.”

“So I’ve heard. You couldn’t use a pen like a normal person?”

“No, not this time. And there I was as you exited the powder room, and I had it exactly what I needed.”

“A typewriter ribbon?”

“No a story”

“Good”.

With that she pulled out the last of her cigarettes, slipped her legs from under the sheets onto the floor, and began to get dressed.

“Well it’s been lovely, I really would love to read your story when you finish it. But I expect my cat is missing me — he gets awfully fussy when I stay out, he’ll want fed” She said as she pulled on the last of the black dress she’d been wearing when they met.

“Let me know how it turns out.”

“I will” he said, looking confused as she slid open the window, sat on the sill and swung both her legs onto the metal landing outside.

“We really live in the same building?”

“Right upstairs darling, I told you. Why would I lie about a thing like that?”

“I don’t know.”

As she closed the window behind her and vanished up the fire-escape, he glanced at his wristwatch on the dresser beside him.

It was eight-thirty on Tuesday morning. He didn’t have anywhere else to be but he didn’t feel like going back to bed. After adjusting the pillows behind him and falling back onto them to consider his options he concluded he’d get up and make himself some coffee.

Perhaps he would head back down to the lower east side and see if Ronnie had clocked off yet. Maybe he’d gotten talking to a few more interesting girls as they made the trip from the powder room door across the floor of the nightclub.

Few of them ever had much of a story, or at least nothing original, and even fewer turned out to live in the same building.

It was those little details that made things interesting… the kind of things he couldn’t think of the word for, though it felt right on the tip of his tongue.

…”Anna!” He remembered her name.

As he climbed out of bed pulling on his underwear from the floor, he made toward the door for the kitchen. But suddenly found himself sat at the little desk where the typewriter sat.

He slid open the bottom drawer, pushed aside a few pencils and note pads and pulled out a small box.

He took the ribbon from it’s packaging, untied it, inserted it into the machine and began to type.

He didn’t stop until late into the evening. It was the little things that made the stories interesting, the anomalies.