Short fiction and serialised novellas of GJ Fairlamb

Archive for October 2013

Savage Writing: By Another Voice

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Task for this week was “In Another’s Voice”. We passed around our pieces to be read out by others. Really didn’t expect some of the emphasis Mike put on my words, but I was far happier overall with the way my writing came across, compared to the last time we did this.


 When Trevor first saw my paintings, he nodded and said ‘Mm.’ He kept repeating it, going ‘Mm,’ on an exact rhythm that coincided with every sixth beat of Mozart on the stereo. Faux polite. Utter disinterest. I could smell that response better than any other reaction: it was in the half-second pause before responding, the pinch of eyebrows as he tried to disguise his underwhelm, the slightly-too-long lingering over the brushstrokes in the pretense of genuine interest. And those words, God, those milquetoast words, from the creamy off-white section of the dictionary: “Interesting.” “Very colourful.” “I like the detail.” I knew my chance was gone.

I waited for him to stop his show and finally voice the opinion I’d seen ten minutes before, so I could pack up my paints and think of the next potential buyer. At last, he straightened and turned to me, face apologetic, mouth open. I didn’t even need to steel myself. Rejection wasn’t easy, of course – I got my hopes up each time like a teenage girl with a crush – but the cut seemed shallower each time.

But the cut never came, because, with his mouth still ajar, he spotted my open sketchbook, and his eyes wouldn’t leave it.

‘Is it alright if I have a look at this, darling?’ he asked, in his strong Estuary accent. Before I could reply, he picked it up. I had forgotten what page it was on, and had to stand on tiptoes to look over his shoulder and see.

‘These are nice,’ he said, flicking back and forth between pages.

‘They’re rough,’ I said. He turned and held out one drawing: my sister, as she had lounged on the family couch last Boxing Day, her love handles peeking out from between her t-shirt and her pyjama bottoms.

‘Yeah, but they’re nice. I really like the way you draw people. Any chance you could do some more like that?’

‘Uh, yeah. I mean, there’re always more people to draw, right?’

‘Yeah, yeah,’ he said, flicking through a few more pages. ‘Yeah, this is more the kind of thing we’re going for: that kind of real-life, verisimilitude kind of thing. There’s a real character to them, you know? And if we have a whole set of them, they’ll be like a commentary on modern life, yeah?’

‘Uh, yeah, yeah, I guess…They’re just sketches, though.’

‘Nah, nah, I like that. Just adds to the authentic kind of feeling, you know? Tell you what, what I’d really like is more ones like this, in black-and-white, on that size.’

He gestured to my 20 by 26 canvas, the smallest piece on display. It displayed a red waste underneath a heavy purple sky. Into the impastso clouds rose a black skeleton of a tree, and imprinted on the waste were black footsteps retreating into the distance. I’d strained my eyes trying to paint such small toeprints.

‘Can you do that?’ Trevor asked.

‘Yeah, okay,’ I said, trying to conjure my enthusiasm. ‘I don’t know who I’ll draw, though.’

‘Doesn’t matter, anyone – though young ladies always go down a treat, am I right?’

He gestured with his elbow, nudging an invisible person beside him, an imaginary me who agreed with him.

‘Okay,’ I said, remembering the gas bill for the month, remembering how I had said I’d be happy if I sold just one goddamn painting. He was asking for five or six. I couldn’t complain.

But as the weeks went on and I sketched my roommates, my family, and friends of friends, my pencil scraped along the page like a knife on a brick wall. I enjoyed drawing people, of course – I enjoyed mapping out the folds in their shirts, the contours of their skin, the lines that made up their expressions – but I looked at each finished sketch, and I always wanted more. I wanted to put a dragon on my mother’s shoulder. I wanted to wash red all over Lauren’s cheeks and lips and dress and turn her into the vamp she was inside. I wanted to put Dan’s sister, who posed cross-legged, in the middle of a sink-hole in hell, a beacon of calm amongst shrieking demons and piss-rivers.

‘It’s so lovely,’ mum said, when I showed her one of the finished pieces, with its thin-line inking and rough edges. ‘They’re really real. It’s much warmer than your usual stuff.’

“Warm?” I wanted to scream. I am not “warm”, and the expression of myself shouldn’t be “warm”. I dream of breaking skies and technicolour worlds, of green suns and black grass and blood. And this sketch is not reality – it’s an outline of an archetype, a hazy glance at a person with all the details blurred out, with none of the fine points that make them who they are. My sketch of my mother made her winsome, calm, dignified. A dragon sinking its claws into her collarbone and breathing ash on her eyelids was more true to who she really was than that gift-shop design.

But still.

Trevor came back, and the canvases were done. And this time his eyes lit up in genuine delight. No hesitations, no microexpressions of disappointment.

‘Yeah, yeah, this is it! Oh man, this is perfect. Sheila is gonna love it when she sees these.’

I gave him the paintings. I took the money. It took me a moment to recognise the familiar feeling in my gut: it was the same emptiness I got from one-night stands, where I asked myself over and over: am I not satisfied? Can’t I be happy, like I told myself I would be?

A month later, with another bill to pay, Trevor rang my phone. A friend had complimented the set I gave him for his offices, and wanted something similar. He was going to come round and discuss his ideas in more detail.

I looked at the sprawling painting I had made in the meantime: a knight in armour wrestling with a white-moustached Chinese dragon in the clouds of Huangshan mountains. A painting I made in the full knowledge that it was too big to fit anywhere, and that all that effort was for no-one but myself.

‘You might actually make something of yourself, doing this kind of work,’ mum said, when I told her of my new commission. ‘Doesn’t it feel nice to be making money from what you love?’

‘Yeah,’ I lied, cradling the phone in my neck as I covered up the knight and dragon, the red waste, and all the other rainbow scenes I had made over the last year.

‘You’re really very good at those portraits,’ she continued. ‘The paintings you normally do are…nice, but they don’t have that feeling of reality that the sketches do.’

I looked at the white sheets. An artist wants to be admired, I thought. Other people often see value we don’t ascribe to our own work. A hundred people are more likely to be right about my worth than I am.

But still, when I sat down at my easel again, ready to create another worthwhile, sellable piece, it felt like handcuffs had bitten round my wrist.


Written by G.J.

16/10/2013 at 11:19 pm