Bored in an exam, revisiting old ideas
A Residue (a re-writing of The Zenith)
It was April, and a slaking of rain and vertical cloud had just rinsed the city clean. Rivulets formed at the base of bushes, and they picked up oil-slicked tributaries as they fell down the sides of the streets, searching, leaf-laden, for a way to return home. People were looking out of their leadlined windows, eager to step outside and breathe, and be reminded what it is to breathe, to live. You could see their faces readying their bodies for a congratulatory gasp of air, as clean and fresh as the city would allow. These days were rare, and the populous felt it from indoors.
There was one who did not notice the rain, though, and whose gaze was fixed on a nodule of hardened emulsion, a tiny, tumourous growth of pigment on the corner of a canvas. It was he who had put it there, carving it with the edge of a brush and lancing it through with a palette knife. He did not hear the almost comprehensible rhythm dancing on his shutter frames, and he did not see our tributory, now strengthened by a hundred slick and muddy brothers, rush past his door. He did not notice the rainwater pass over an old collection of artist’s tools on his step, and strip the top layer of paint, making half a second of technicolour arabesques swirl around the drainpipes. He was looking at his work.
He had spent almost an entire year on this one painting, a large and textured mass of colour. He had completed it several times, laid down his hands and relaxed his retinae, satisfied that perhaps it was ready to release from the studio. Within minutes, however, the sensation flitted away coquettishly, cruelly. Each time a final, finishing touch had been applied, it led to an alteration, which unbalanced the piece, and required a review of the flow of the eye, and brought up an ugly and unfitting clash of colour, or movement, or anything, and it became agonisingly obvious that the piece was indeed far from finished, only an idiot would think otherwise. Twice, he had covered the entire canvas again with white acrylic, to cover everything beneath. Look closely, and might can see the strata of several thousand brush strokes below the empty spaces, cavernous splits and cracks divided the cankers of reappraisal. Frustration was mounting, and desperation was overbearing his movements – he spat and scratched and mauled the piece, before prostrating and apologising and wishing it into closure.
Yesterday, one of his fingers fell off. It was the third one to go in as many weeks.
For the past month, every time he had laid down his brushes and palette knives with a sense of heavy-eyed finality, or kicked aside the wax coated wine bottles and shards of willow charcoal from around his feet, or picked the hardened paint from his greasy, matted beard, he’d move too quickly, and he would hear a crackling rustle, a shifting sound like rats in a dead tree, coming from his hands. Each time this happened, he would look closely at the source of the noise, always a finger, and inspect it intensely as it wrinkled like salted mollusc, turned grey, or brown, or black, and fall to the floor. The process was painless and fast, leaving a dry, flaky, self-cauterised stump behind, as if it was the result of an injury received as a child; an accident with a hammer, or a mild birth defect, a warning lesson from the family dog.
September came fast, and the leaves were starting to dry and curl on the branches that scratched on the window of the studio. Summer was already starting to seem like a memory of a half-dream, held for a few seconds on awakening, and seen with perfect clarity before quickly being lost to garbled, mossy symbolisms and abstract word association. He sat on his stool, flecked white with paint and looked at his papery hands. Only three fingers remained; his first finger on his left hand, pressed hard against his thumb, and the middle and smallest fingers on his right hand, looping around a palette knife encrusted with black, glutinous mulch. Every seven minutes or so, he would raise his right hand up to his painting – now several inches thick from the months of pigment plastered upon the frame, a physical, swollen calendar of frustrations – and scratch the edge of the knife through the top layer of paint to expose a sliver of April, a scar of spring. All the months were under there, a year and a half of gazing, of stabbing oneself with bottle tops. January was half-visible, a streak of whiteness, and both Julys were the wound and scabbed skin around a green lip of last week. Last autumn was barely visible at all, but to lay your hands on the bulging, obese surface of the painting would reveal its presence, buried.
The artist shut his eyes, and threw a small metal pot of silver paint at the top-right hand corner of the convex frame. It bounced off, and he heard it scuttle to the sides of the room. One eye opened, encrusted with blue cyan dust. For one golden second, he could see the piece as finished. As he pulled his arm away from the canvas, trembling with elation, he was sure that this was it; that the one cut he had just made through the heavy globules of arterial red, followed by the radial flecks of silver he had just launched… this had completed his work. It had. The painting loomed at him, and he shifted his weight from one cracking ankle bone to another to gain a few degrees of perspective. It just required one tiny extension, another inch of dragged marbling through the layers.
An exhalation, and a recognition of the same pattern.That extra inch wasn’t repairable; he had reached a zenith and then fallen, having completely changed the dynamic between the washes in the bottom-right corner and the sharpness of the veins stretching around the side. Tears of pain ran into his beard and the artist stomped around studio like a chastised toddler, throwing his portfolio against the filthy windows, scattering praise and high reviews from many years ago, shouting at the papers and glossy uselessness that floated down over dead candles and a year of picking away at a year of picking away. His feet crashed through mirrors and kicked all in sight; the skeletal remains of a mummified aspidistra scattered into dust-motes and moth wings, and the acrid cloud produced a wracking, dry, rasping cough from his cracked old lips. The artist fell into a wretched heap on the oily rug that covered most of the floor, and lay still, bare chest heaving, his liver spots rising and falling on pigeon bones, their erratic rhythms moving cog-like on his heartbeat.
A noise grew upwards from his hands. Tiny claws clambering, bracken fires spitting.
His head banged against the thin fabric with a hollow thud as he brought his hand to his face to watch the little finger twist and curl inwards like a dying spider, like a sleeping fern, atrophying quickly as a sped-up film of pestilence. It twitched twice spasmodically before turning the colour of London loam and hanging for a moment on a thread of papyrus-skin before dropping onto his stomach. His gut wrenched as the appendage rolled onto the ground near his chin, the droplets of hope and impetus drying up inside him as so many grains of sand slipping through a distorted hourglass. Only two fingers now remained on his ravaged hands, ashen stumps forming involuntary fists hung on the end of his arms like chicken gristle. Soon, he thought, soon he would be useless, sterile, impotent. He did not find the idea of mouth or foot painting at all attractive, and so what would happen if this wasting disease spread to whatever part of his body he used for his art? Would his lips suffer the same fate? His feet? His head? The idea wasn’t so unbelievable. And the painting hung heavy over him, glaring, scarred, unfinished.
He had not stepped out of his studio for so, so long. His windows let in the occasional polymer of daylight, hanging limp and sticky, photons of dead spermatozoa coughed out over his cluttered desk with its smashed glass veneer. Nobody had seen any of the work he had produced for almost fifteen years now; the exhibition he was planning on putting together was going to be crowned by this final painting, this unfinished, unfinishable virus that would complete the retrospective. He did not know what had happened to his family, his critics, his customers and investors. It had been too long.
The artist walked over snapped pencils and crushed cans, stood next to his window and scraped at the mildew, scraped again at the months and years that had gathered on the glass. Outside looked different to how he remembered it; the trees, which before were all he could see through the filth, now stood in front of tall buildings which seemed to stretch away into the distance. A thousand identical houses rolled down the hill to the left of his parched garden, and enormous cars were pulled in and out of a thousand tarmac driveways, like flotsam on a Perspex tide. A look of determination crossed the artist’s face, and he sat at the desk and scrabbled for some paper, a pen, his inkpot and an envelope. A letter would be written to his old agent (or the agent’s successor), the address was one he had never forgotten, burned into his memory when he was young, a darling of the town once. These hands had impressed, had burned with colour.
A letter announcing the completion of the retrospective, the apex of all of his work to date was written slowly and clumsily, in green ink on the old, stained paper. His remaining two fingers held the pen pincer-like, and the process was arduous, but determination drove it to completion. The old man was almost panting with excitement, a year of tears and struggles, eighteen months with hardly any food or water and with nothing to stare at but the same canvas, a mocking year, almost comple! Unwilling to step outside at this crucial time, the artist forced open the window and flung the envelope out onto the pavement, several feet away, to wait for a neighbour to pick it up, to deliver it for him. They would. He was sure of it.
The artist stepped into the centre of his studio and looked hard at the canvas. He picked up the pots of paint, held them close to his chest in the crook of his wrist, and poured their entire contents over his naked body. His ribs were highlighted by ochres, magenta ran through his hair and mingled with the greens dropping in a single, continous spout from his genitals. His ankles were heavy with blues and reds, and his back was pocked and shattered with a hundred pigments fast becoming one solid, muddy hue.
When he was completely doused in every colour he owned (even the tiny pot of silver metallic paint
from the corner of the room, that he bought for a futurist project that never materialised), he took a deep breath, bent his old legs and laughing, leapt at the canvas, knocking it off the easel and smearing it with the deep brown, sickly, heady concoction that covered and clung to every grey, wiry hair. He floundered around on the floor, feeling months of dried paint scratching and cutting his neck, his chest, his leathery thighs, plastering his beard to his clavicle. He caressed and attacked it, made love to and murdered it, prussian blues ejaculating over burnt siennas. He lay still, spent, panting in the knowledge that his work was complete. He could not see it, his eyes were caked and gummed with a colour so heavy it may as well have been a solid black acetate. Pushing himself down onto the canvas, he penetrated the layers of dried and sharpened paint, crystallised months and days opened to his skin and accepted it. Vision had left him, and finality was here.
A smile crept to his dark blue lips that were flecked with paler cyan when he heard the sound: The noise echoed once around the room, inside his head and off glass domes filled with old skin and moss. Scarab beetles under sand, rice falling on sheets of glass
It continued, clicking and rustling in his ears, up and down the sinew of his arms, on his eyelids, between his buttocks and over his knuckles. He listened until his entire body was crackling and popping and spitting with sounds of an untuned radio left out in a petrified forest. The artist’s mouth gasped once, spasmodically as his body shrunk like an autumn leaf, dried and discoloured beneath the mess of wet paint. His body contorted once, twice, and then broke into tiny pieces, which settled like dust on the canvas, and waited for the curators to collect him.
It was soon April again, and the rains returned, and the city opened itself to be washed clean. Rivulets ran, and collected their twins, and the residue of colours searched for the sea amongst the spinning leaves.