Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story


Sarah Day


You told me to choose something to focus on. This will help, you said. This will make it easier. The first few times I chose the clock on the wall because it was huge and its ticking filled the hollow room. I watched the plastic second hand click its way round, got lost in the rhythm of it, forgot how cold I was. But you didn’t like the way my eyes kept moving. Eyes were important to you. So I chose a tile on the floor, just one corner, and watched the shadows move across it. But then you couldn’t see my eyes at all. In the end, I chose a spot just above your right eyebrow where your pale skin began to crease and a few needles of hair fell and this would hold my gaze for hours. I saw every expression you made, beginning in a line before it fanned out into the rest of your face, which I could only guess at.

It was a laugh at first, a joke. ‘Be my muse,’ you said, because I thought art was useless, its subjects immaterial. I said you could never paint a real sunset, or a feeling, or a story. You could never paint me whole. But I let you try. I let you do everything you wanted.

It felt strange, taking my clothes off for you, although it wasn’t the first time. As children we would run around like that for hours, brazen in the twilight, back when we decided to get married and I decided to be in love with you for no particular reason. That summer before you left my hair was still only shoulder length and we were still only ten, and you promised me that one day you’d be more famous than your dad, who wrote articles for the local paper and could swing you upside down by your ankles.

You wanted to understand what things were made of, what made them tick. We spent the summer chasing insects, wading through rivers with our socks off, collecting strange rocks and lying in the long grass finding patterns in the sky. If I got in trouble for being out so late, you held my hand and lied for me.

When we met again by accident years later, I wasn’t as surprised to see you as I was that you’d grown up. We nearly collided in the street, and you dropped your sketches. I ran across the road in front of traffic to get them back. When I handed them to you we stared at each other, and I traced the contours that had spread across your face, tried to remember you smooth-skinned. You must have been doing the same. I could smell the white spirit on your hands as you ran your fingers through my hair.

We walked all over the city that day, wading through streets instead of rivers, looking for patterns and unexpected colours, and I felt your eyes on me, tracing my outlines, working me out. I wasn’t surprised that you were either a geologist or an artist, just that you were both at once.

While you sketched and I was frozen in one place you talked to me. You told me about geology, how the world moved on in tiny increments but the laws remained the same. How change was imperceptible. The opposite was sometimes true as well. Sometimes things changed violently, with a deluge or a sudden impact. Like the day your dad died. I only felt the aftershocks, long after the event itself, but you must have been there at the epicentre. Catastrophism that was called. I didn’t ask you what it felt like.

Gradually, your drawings turned into a series until I was cancelling my evenings because you needed me all the time, and I would spend my nights exposed, watching the spot above your eyebrow crease with thought. Once, you drew me in your house. You kissed me and we drank too much, and I lay down for you on your immaculate sofa and tried not to look away as the light fell in unfamiliar patterns on my skin. If you looked up from the paper our eyes met and yours were dark and strange, analysing every corner of me.

I saw this expression at other times. When you took me to your university you let me watch while you stared down microscopes, examining the minute and the infinite. You showed me your maps, your other art, and I leaned over them and traced with my fingers the lines and curves and textures of the landscape you had committed to paper, while behind me your fingers traced the contours of my back.

I watched you take apart samples of rock, slice them into sections, crush them into powder, dissolve them with acid so you could see the smallest parts of them; find out how they worked, and all the time you wore that look of furrowed concentration, that comic seriousness that made me want to kiss the lines of your face.

The critics made a lot of that, the science in you. They called it ‘the struggle between scientific scrutiny and a painterly view of the world’. They looked at your jungle series, huge canvases of light and shadow and said that, because it looked nothing like a jungle, it reflected your inner painterly reaction to a jungle. When I looked at it I thought I could make out the shapes of creepers and leaves, of a real jungle in the distance. Streaks of greens and reds and oranges that reminded me of the fields we used to race through. You’re less abstract, less ‘painterly’ than everyone thinks.

When my drawings were finished you retreated, and I let you because I longed for you to work; to turn me into great canvases of light and shadow, of soft curves and sharp edges that would take up all your space. There was a buzz around you now. Everyone wanted to know what was coming next, and only I knew it would be me, your painterly reaction to me. I wanted to be surprised, like them. To be there at the epicentre. So I waited until the opening and you sent me an invitation in the post.

Now it’s here, I wish I had asked for a preview after all, for some way to prepare myself. I spend hours in front of the mirror trying to decide what to wear, because everyone there will see the other side of me. In the end I feel over and underdone at the same time, overdressed and underwhelmed, standing at the entrance with a glass of free champagne, feeling like one of your exhibits. Which of course I am.

And then you arrive and you introduce me to your wife.

She’s kind, which is worse than anything.

You smile blankly and I watch you walk away with a detachment that might be mistaken for a painterly view of the world. She’s just there, holding your hand among the canvases. Was it the scientist or the artist in you that thought this would be the way to tell me?

I study the paintings. You’ve made me look so ugly it’s breathtaking.

And later I watch, with a relish I hate myself for, your wife at the other side of the room looking lonely.

I’m browns and greens and muddy colours, not the light and dark I had expected. I wanted them to sparkle with the promise of your fame, the promise you made to me when we were children, but instead they’re dull, not like you at all. All the love, the history, is drained from them. You’ve taken me apart.

I still remember you, aged ten, telling me you were going to dissect the world one day. Find out how it works.