by Julie Oldham
Art Room 1: Colour
‘I know you, don’t I? Only not your name.’
The smooth-faced young man doesn’t wait for me to reply, but turns back towards the painting behind him. In the centre of the painting there’s a man’s face—angular and cartoon pig pink—surrounded by cubes of vibrant colour.
‘It’s not me, it’s him,’ he says, nodding towards another man standing beside the painting. Now he turns back to me and our eyes meet. And there it is: the recognition, then the pause. There’s always a pause.
‘Yes, I do know you. You’re Reuben’s dad.’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘I’m Richard…Richard Swinburne.’
‘Richard, yes. Good to see you again.’
The other man smiles. No, not a man, a boy still: gangly, with damp-haystack hair, his pointed chin livid with acne.
‘And I’m James Fletcher. I was in Reuben’s English group. We used to have tea at your house sometimes, Mr Ellingham.’
There it is again, in the silence that follows: the hesitation, the embarrassment. Have they got it wrong? Have they been crass? Perhaps they shouldn’t have said anything.
‘Yes, I remember. It’s good to see you again.’
I remember…the conkers that rotted under the bed, the games of football in the garden. Opening Reuben’s bedroom door and them all lying on the floor, school bags thrown in the corner, their eyes caught like rabbits in headlights. The flash of flesh and nipples. Reuben trying to hide the magazine behind his back. Amy rocking with laughter when I told her. The oven chips. The journeys home. The, thank you Mr. Ellinghams.
Richard’s still anxious. Where will the conversation go now? But James smiles again.
‘You’ve shrunk, Mr. Ellingham. You were taller.’
‘Old age shrinks people,’ I say.
They grin. Good, I’ve put them at ease. They were both nice lads. But then I realise, of course, it’s the perspective that’s changed. They were what then…only 13…14?
‘So, what are you both planning to do next year?’
‘University. English and Media Studies,’ says James. ‘If I get the grades. I want to be a journalist.’ There’s just a moment of hesitation again, then he says, ‘My exhibition’s in the next room. Would you like me to show you, Mr. Ellingham?’
‘Yes, I’d like that.’
I follow James along a scruffy corridor into another high, white space. The room is buzzing with parents holding plastic tumblers of wine.
A plaque on the wall reads:
Art Room 2: Emergence
One side of the room has been divided into bays, the partition boards covered with drawings and paper sculptures of insects. In the centre of the room, there are black-wire butterflies suspended from the ceiling. Beneath them, there’s a shambolic mess of brightly coloured papier mâché shaped into cylindrical, cobweb covered cocoons.
James leads me around the debris towards a black fabric tent. He pulls the curtains apart and we step inside. It’s gloomy and airless. A dim light flickers from a bulb in the ceiling. On the back wall I can just make out a tall, thin canvas. The bulb goes out. Darkness –then I hear the clicking of a slide projector.
Suddenly, the bulb overhead explodes white light. The canvas shines and, in the bottom corner, an image emerges. Yes, there, an insect with wings. The light flickers and the insect disappears. No, it’s still there, as I stare, in the gloom. The light comes on again. The beetle—yes, a beetle—emerges, disappears, emerges.
‘I wanted to make the viewer aware of how different amounts of light affect our perception of what’s there. But that an image is always there – even in the dark.’
I had expected James to whisper. His confident voice seems out of place in here.
‘Yes, I can see that, James.’
‘Right. Yes. Good one, Mr. Ellingham.’
The projector switches off. The light goes out.
As my eyes adjust to the darkness, James says, ‘I miss Reuben, he was a good mate. How’s he doing?’
‘He’s all right, James. He seems happy. He enjoys it when we take him out, and he likes to listen to stories. You should come and see him sometime. I’m sure he’d be pleased to see you. And I know Amy would love to see you too.’
Words cast on water? Maybe not now.
Back in front of Richard’s paintings I ask, ‘So what about you, Richard? What are your plans for next year?’
‘I haven’t decided yet. University, or maybe college to do a foundation art course. My parents think I should take a gap year.’
‘I’ll tell Reuben,’ I say.
I put my glass down on the bar and apologise to the man beside me.
‘No problem,’ he says, pushing the slopped beer away with a beer mat.
I turn away from the bar. In the corner of the room, two game machines are pulsing. Mick Jagger’s voice begins to crash across the room. Brown Sugar.
I head towards a table in the corner, steadying myself, focusing on the glass, but stumbling into a room full of tables where memories wait with drinks in their hands.
I lower myself into the chair. The game machines flash. Brown sugar…
A fairground: dodgems and waltzes. Round and round. Cubes of colour. Laughter streaming, screaming. Reuben’s eyes wide, shining with delighted terror. The BMW on its roof. Amy with her arms spread wide, agonised words spilling across the empty space. Midnight breath freezing around us. The sound of the metal cutters. Amy sobbing. Nothing I could do. Nothing I could do.
I stand up. A beetle crawls across the floor towards me. It disappears under the game machine. Appears again. I crush it. Time? Check my watch. Christ. Stand up. Focus.
A slap of air against my face. The car keys stare up at me. I close my fingers around them and walk towards the bus stop.
Empty Spaces: Reflections
The kitchen’s warm, the television’s on.
‘You need to drink that.’ She puts a cup of coffee in front of me. ‘I was expecting you back two hours ago. Are you Okay?’
‘Yes, I’m fine. I’m glad I went. I met some of his old friends. Do you remember Richard and James? You used to cook them pizza and oven chips. Always oven chips.’
She reaches for the remote and changes channel, does not look around. Asks, ‘Do you want something to eat?’
‘No…do you remember them, Richard and James?’
She gazes at the screen. ‘I think I’m going to try that. I’ve got some ginger needs using.’
I lift my hand. Crush her.
She smiles now. Smiles that it’s okay I’m late, and that she’s fine, really, she’s all right. We’re both all right. We’re fine.
I walk into Reuben’s room and switch on his bedside lamp.
He’s awake, mouth gaping, the usual damp patch beneath his slack lips. His wide eyes stare into the dark. I smooth the sheets, organise his pillows, then pick up his book. He loves this story.
‘It was good of the school to invite me back, Reuben. I saw some of your old friends, Richard and James, remember? And your art teacher Mr. Davies. He reminded me about that project you did – the one about the rain forest. He said he was so impressed with your drawings – even then. Such maturity for someone your age he said.
The corner of his mouth twitches. Yes, a flicker.
‘You always liked Mr. Davies, didn’t you? And James said he might come to see you.’
I wait, just in case, then pick up the book. I hold the book up for him to see the front cover illustration, then lay it on my lap.
‘Are you ready…?’
His eyes stare ahead. The bedside lamp is reflected in the black pupils.
‘Once there was a giant who lived by the sea. He had legs as thick as tall ships’ masts, and hair, which shone like kelp. Each day the giant would stride along the water’s edge and gather the grey shore stones with his enormous hands. Then he’d carry the stones back to his cave on the headland and polish them. And, each day, as he polished, they began to sing.’
A sound behind me. Her face in the shadows.
‘He’s not there anymore. Why do you keep doing that?’
‘You’re tired, Amy.’
‘Yes, of course I’m bloody tired.’
Here it comes.
‘There was nothing I could do, Paul. You know that.’
‘ And if you hadn’t been too pissed to drive…’
The pause now. There’s always a pause.
‘You don’t ever think about me, do you, Paul? How I feel.’
It’s bitter out here. An owl’s hooting, haunting the moon: a pearl, reflected in the pond beside me. A mirror moon, smooth, cold and always there, even in daylight, just hidden. – that’s what he said: the amount of light affects what we see, but an image is always there.
But what next, Reuben? University? A foundation art course? My parents think I should take a gap year. You never got to say that.
She’s standing at his bedroom window. She draws the curtains.
Take me with you James, Richard. University. Anywhere. Another year may be too much. How tall will you be then? How small will I become?
And you, Amy, where will you be then?
The owl’s still hooting. Out there, somewhere, in the dark.
Julie Oldham lives in West Yorkshire. She writes short stories, flash fiction and poetry. Her stories have appeared in a number of publications including Bare Fiction Magazine and Artificium Journal. Her work can be read online in Open Pen Magazine, The Nottingham Review, Unbroken Journal and Spelk Fiction. Julie is a Pushcart nominee.