“It is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.”
Cars stream past the service station. From his seat at the window, Richard has a clear view of the car park and the road beyond. It is not much of a view but it is still preferable to the sight that greets him on his plate: a limp, Full English fry-up swimming in ketchup and grease. He is not an enthusiastic diner, unless he counts his evening cigarette as some sort of nourishment, but he can’t remember when he last ate, so he forces the food down. There is coffee, at least. Black, without sugar. Mopping up some of the ketchup with a slice of toast he returns his attention to the road.
Dusk burns in the distance, illuminating every smear on the restaurant window. Staring through the dust into the horizon, he entertains the thought of stepping into its fire and being consumed; a blazing end to an unremarkable life.
He has not always felt this way. For years the portraits in his studio kept him sane; friends, family, company in the night when it grew dark and he had no one to talk to, or dream of, except those whom he had brought to life with watercolour. Fondly he remembers Friedrich and his expecting wife, little Felix who dreamed of one day flying with the birds, old Joseph, who gazed back at him so openly from his canvas. When he smiled, he fancied the portraits smiled back at him. If he joked, they laughed, their faces swimming like disturbed water. Looking into their eyes, he felt they knew him, or at least understood who he was.
His heart pounds as he relives the moment that he realised they were flawed. He had loved his portraits desperately, but that love had blinded him to their dishonesty. He had only to walk down the street, to sit on a bench and watch the people passing by, to see that his paintings were nothing like those people. It was a love affair with art, with life; the greatest there could be. Then the affair was over and he was alone; the kind of aloneness that came with being surrounded by faces he no longer knew or loved. With his new perspective he had painted other things. Pictures that better reflected the world as he saw it. Wives became wolves, their female snouts shining wet in the moonlight. Schoolboys grew beaks, black marble eyes and feathered wings. Joseph transformed; smudged mouth screaming silently while cavernous holes where eyes should have been watched him from under their brow. Skeletal things crawled through thin alleys drowned in darkness. Sometimes stars filled the sky; tiny lights like bullet holes bleeding in the night.
He stays sitting by the restaurant window until the sun dies. When it hovers on the horizon, he slides from his seat. Service-station chatter fills his ears, then the automatic doors sweep apart to let him pass and he is outside, with nothing but the roar of traffic and the cool breeze against his face. He swallows the lump that is settling in his throat. Bitter grinds linger in his mouth.
It is not a real horizon. Just a road filled with cars capturing the last of the day’s light in their windscreens and on their metallic hulls. He can’t remember the last time he saw a horizon that was not a tower block, a building roof, a stretch of road just like this one. Like the amphitheatres of old, the ancient myths, the worldly heritage he had studied as a young man, those horizons are lost now. Like the paintings in his studio, they mean nothing.
At the roadside he feels the rush of speeding cars against his face. He might be standing at a precipice; an abyss made of shining metal, glass and stinking rubber beyond which lies nothing except the empty sky. He has but to step forward and it will all end.
He thinks about several things, in that moment. He remembers what it means to love the world, and to hate it. He remembers sitting on a bench, the day everything changed, and watching as a homeless man and his dog begged for food. More than anything else, he remembers his last painting.
In the painting, beige skies stretched above dark soil scattered with sketchy ruins; the remains of a nameless city reduced to matchsticks. There were shapes in the ruins, which might have been toppled columns, or the black charcoal bones of a world burned. A number of thin figures picked their way through the gutters. Dozens more lay like rag-dolls in the ruins and underneath them. Their faces were grinning bovine skulls.
A single figure stood in the foreground. It was pale, the watery shadow of a classical statue, except for the dark mass of serpents on its head. Slender limbs stretched into the sky, entangled in the blur of black snakes so that the figure seemed to be falling. Its mouth was a silent circle sunk into its face above which two eyes stared without seeing into the sky.
When the painting was finished, he slept. On waking, he drank; vodka over some ice. Then he set fire to the studio. The flames took to the artwork quickly. He remained watching for as long as possible, petrified, while the firelight gave life, movement, light to the darkness he had captured in watercolour. In those last seconds, the painted city had really burned. Medusa herself moved in death, swaying but never falling as the canvas around her crinkled, became black. He can still hear her roar with the voice of fire. Then he had left and driven here.
He has waited all day at the service station for dusk, and a glimpse of the abyss beyond. He would have waited a lifetime, if he had to. He walks over to the easel, set up in the car park when he arrived this morning.
The world is dark and full of fear. A thousand times a thousand people live and breathe pain each day. This is their legacy; this is what it means to be alive now, the ugly truth revealed in a dozen watercolours. But as his studio burned, he had watched that pain burn away, and as it burned, it sang. It shone. It danced with life, even as the canvasses on which it was shown shrivelled and died. Ugliness had been made into ash, but before it was ash he saw beauty, and from those ashes he will see beauty again, the world resurrected in the exact moment it dies each day; dusk blazing in windscreens and on car bonnets.
He begins to paint.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2014 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.