Drawing Lessons

She told me her name was Anna. The big bonfire, on the lawn behind the old house, burned in her eyes. I was dazzled. She had long hennaed curls and a dress sense somewhere between hippie and goth. She didn’t like alcohol, and had only drunk a concoction made from lemonade, lime, soda water and ice – a ‘Bugger Me’, she called it. When some of the party-goers became boorishly drunk, she took my hand and led me away, over the lawn to the hedge, where we sidled through a gap into the trees beyond.

We walked through rattling darkness, her hand still in mine, her tall figure moving gracefully ahead of me. Eventually we came to a road on the other side of the spinney, which we followed until we arrived at a brick-built building, a stable block I thought. She squeezed my hand and led me up wooden steps, at the top of which was a wooden plank door that she unlocked with a key she shook from her shoulder bag.

As she went through the door, she slapped a dimmer switch on the wall. The light revealed a large, one-roomed, studio flat. Kitchen units lined the far wall. The bare floorboards were painted blue, and dotted with rugs stained with tea and paint. A bed, neatly made, was pushed against one wall. There was a small dining table, empty but for a bowl of fruit in its centre. The washing-up was done and stacked in the drainer. Chaos only began as we moved closer to the centre of the room, past an old and worn bed-settee and a walnut coffee table – stained with tea-cup rings, and oils and turps and white spirits – on which sat paints and brushes. Unemptied ashtrays spilled their grey, white and brown contents onto the table and the arm of a ripped leather armchair. At the centre of the room, beneath a skylight, stood an easel. On the floor around it bloomed the tiny flower heads of dripped paint. Finished and half-finished canvases lined one wall. On the floor, on tables, on chairs, lay pieces and pads of paper of all sizes, some containing dabs of watercolour, some pen and ink, others charcoal.

She flopped into the leather armchair and lit a cigarette. She threw the match towards an ashtray and missed. The match joined others on the floor under her chair. She crossed long legs encased in horizontally-striped black and beige tights.

I looked around the white-walled room. ‘This is…’ I began.

‘Quaint?’ Anna interrupted with a laugh. ‘Nice? Interesting?’

‘You took all the words out of my mouth.’

She looked around. ‘It will do for now,’ she said. ‘I would like better light, but I can’t afford a studio that provides it.’

I picked up a pad and flipped through the pages. The pad mostly contained pencil drawings.

‘You’re good,’ I said.

She smiled enigmatically. ‘How would you know?’

‘I’m no expert, but I know what I like.’

She laughed. ‘Do you draw or paint?’

‘No. I’m more practical. I’m an engineer. I only dabble in photography.’

‘A true novice,’ she said. ‘Let me see what you can do.’

She tossed me a pad and a pencil.

‘What shall I draw?’

‘Me.’

I tried my best to draw her, but her essence kept slipping away. Her tartan miniskirt and a tie-dyed, strappy top that she wore over her unconstrained, small breasts I rendered almost successfully. Her pale oval face and brown eyes had escaped me entirely. I frowned at the paper.

‘Have you finished, Mr Engineer?’ Anna asked.

I said I had. She came over, took the pad and knelt on the wooden floor in front of me.

‘It looks like a child’s drawing,’ she mused. ‘More sophisticated, perhaps, than a child. But still…’ She looked up at me. ‘You don’t mind me saying this?’

I shook my head. I knew she wasn’t being unkind. Her assessment was accurate. I had never been able to draw.

‘Everything has thick black lines. You draw like a child,’ she repeated. ‘You shouldn’t rely on the lines. Here, I’ll draw you.’

She stubbed out her cigarette, and picked up a stick of charcoal and a pad. I could hear the black stick scratching on the paper. She was quiet for a few moments, occasionally smudging the charcoal with her fingers. Then, she flipped the pad around with a smile.

It was me, all right. My wide mouth, narrow eyes, sticky-out ears. Her drawing had light lines that defined the shapes, but the form was provided by her shading, by the way she had represented light and shadow.

She looked at her picture again. ‘You could learn to to do it, too,’ she said. ‘It’s just practice.’

That night we drank Earl Grey, smoked cigarettes, and talked until the morning. I fell in love with her. I hoped that, one day, she could love me too, even though I knew that, in my Levis, trainers, and Fred Perry, I was far too straight for her. We were now friends, at least, and whenever I saw her I tried to draw her. There was no doubt that, with her help, I was getting better. One day, while she was making a pot of Earl Grey for us, I stole a photo of her from a photo album so that I could practice drawing her at home.

I came to love that picture. I studied it day after day as I tried to get the shapes and shades right, cross-hatching here and there, smudging my heavy pencil lines, learning to leave spaces where light should be. In the photograph she sat in the battered leather armchair, nursing a mug that I guessed was full of her favourite Earl Grey. A smile played about her lips, a smile just in the process of forming or dying – I couldn’t work out which – and her brown eyes seemed to throw out a challenge.

I struggled with my drawing. I returned to it whenever I could, applying what I learned from her. I filled pads with attempts that weren’t quite right. Sometimes I would fill a page with only the shapes of her eyes or her lips, or the fall of her curls to her shoulders. Page after page contained my attempts at shapes and textures, light and shadow. But I was getting closer to her. With each improvement, I was shaping a whole. My drawing, when complete, would be an emblem of my love.

Finally, struggle turned to success. I could see it. The image on the page was her, I was sure of it. I was so happy to have captured her at last. I was eager for her to know that I too was now an artist. I ran up the steps to the studio on a cool, grey October afternoon filled with swirling brown leaves. She was alone, as usual. She put the kettle on the hob, laughing at my enthusiasm. Then she sat me in the leather armchair and kneeled on the floor in front of me. She took the pad, and flipped it open. In my excitement, I had torn-out out my drawing and placed it at the very front of the pad, so that she would see it sooner. She studied the drawing for some time. The kettle whistled but she made no move to get it.

Then she looked at me. ‘Is this how you see me?’

I said yes, so excited by what I had achieved that I failed to see the sadness in her eyes. But the tone of her voice I could not mistake.

‘You can go now. Please go. And take your picture away.’

The kettle continued to whistle as I left.

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Memory Traces

I surfed the Web, randomly entering into Google the words I found in the notepads that were scattered on the desk. The desk was a mess, I noted. Scraps of paper contained notes and doodles, yellow Post-it notes yelled imperatives and reminders, and the rings from coffee mugs stained A4 sheets and the desktop. The ashtray was full to overflowing. The bottle of scotch was empty. Had it all been downed in one sitting? I worked around the chaos, carried on entering words. Pages were displayed. I scrolled and followed links. What I was discovering, what I was creating, was like a picture, a map, a simulation, a metaframework, of a mind.

I displayed pages about Devon, train timetables to Leeds, a Google map of Bristol. I zoomed in, found Montpelier. A page in one notepad contained only the words Flickr and Wiltshire. I searched Flickr for tags, looked at pages of photographs of beautiful, soft, green, Wiltshire hills. I read essays about reality, quantum physics, red rain, ghosts, and post-structuralism. As I worked, I saved all the pages to a folder on the computer. I printed out pictures and texts that took my fancy, and placed some of them in a physical folder. Other pages I placed on the cream walls of the office using the pins and Blu-Tac I found in the desk drawers. I made connections between the pages using the coloured ribbons I had also found in the desk. I used as clues the scribbles I had found, the Web pages I had read, and my own intuitions. A ribbon linked a Google map of Dereham to a photo of a UFO, then a Google map of Roswell. One blue ribbon stretched from a map of Banbury to a picture of Leeds University. The link was one made from intuition, as Banbury had been a station my train had stopped at on a railway trip I had once made from Reading to Leeds. From that picture, a yellow ribbon stretched across the wall to a photograph of Middlesex University. The ribbon was pinned and then turned 90 degrees, ending at a picture of Meg Ryan. I believe that Middlesex University once had a performance arts course, and Meg is, of course, an actor. It made sense. It made sense. Of course it did. I felt it in my gut. I searched around the desk, the Web, for another link, looked in the notebooks, at the scraps of paper and Post-It notes. Soon, I had found the connection and pinned it to the wall. It was, of course, Jim Morrison. I printed the photo and placed it on the wall, added more ribbon from Meg to Jim.

I continued to do this for half a day. I trailed ribbons around the walls of the office, connecting by inference and reference, induction and deduction, intuition and knowledge. I stood back and looked at the walls, at my fully-realised network, my wall Web. At that moment I should have been proud of that Web. I wanted to be. I wanted to admire its utility, its coherence, its completeness. But all I could do was shake my head in dismay. I sat down heavily in the black leather office chair, rested my arms on its leather arms, and continued to look at the wall. It was obvious to me now. I had been such a fool. I should have used the colours of the ribbons to also present information, to indicate particular types of connections and relationships. Although dismayed, I am by nature, dogged, persistent; some might say obsessive, although I think that is too strong a word.  It didn’t take me long to work out a system I could use that would could convey the additional information. The ribbons were only available in a limited range of colours – less ROYGBIV, more RGBY. I made a note of the colours and the information each colour would represent on a scrap of paper, and then set to work again, stringing the ribbons from photo to map to document. I hardly needed to refer to the key I had devised. Unsurprising, I suppose, when you have a mind like mine.

I sat down again, leaned back in the leather chair, my hands behind my head, satisfied, proud at last of my labours. I lit a cigarette. It was a shame the whiskey bottle was empty; my throat was dry. Researching, making connections, following trails through the evidence, was thirsty work. I thought about making myself a mug of tea, but I didn’t really want to leave the room. For a moment, my world, the world I was constructing, the world I would shore against my ruins, was in this room, and only in this room. The picture was not yet complete. That much I knew. I closed my eyes and relaxed.

 *

 Now, I open my eyes and turn to the computer on the desk. My attention is drawn to the photograph on the wall above the monitor. She is a pretty woman, there’s no doubt. Blonde, slight, laughing, her arms outstretched in front of her, ready to catch something, it seems. A ball, perhaps, or a frisbee? There is blue sky behind her, and trees, heavy with full, fresh, green leaf, lean into the photograph from the side of the frame. Her summer dress, long, maroon, has been arrested by the act of photography, but I can imagine its movement continuing, twisting the dress around her. I wonder what she would think if she knew that I was still here, in her house? The house was quiet. I knew she wouldn’t be coming into this room today.

I am going to enter into a database all the Web pages I have so far saved to the computer. I shall also scan the documents and photographs and also enter those into the database. I can then cross-reference all these motes of information programmatically. The database will not be as visual as the map on the wall, will not so instantly conjure for me fragments of memory. Yet, in time, the database will offer up more interconnections, intersections and permutations. I will add more documents to the wall, more ribbons that show the all-important connections.

My hands are warm inside the latex gloves. I remember this – I had found these gloves, earlier in the day, today I think, in a drawer in the kitchen. I allow myself to turn my head and glance through the open door to the hallway. I will later clear away the bodies that still lie there so obscenely. Death has created a vacuum in my head. I am blanked, black, blocked, all empty, nothing. First, I must reconnect these fragments from my notebooks, my desk, My Favourites, My Documents, rebuild my world, rebuild my self, rebuild my identity, rebuild, rebuild, restructure, reframe, cross-reference – reconstruct me.

Only then, perhaps, can I know to whom those bodies once belonged, and why they are in my hall.

Simon and Julie – a Fragment

Simon and Julie is intended to be a long short story (perhaps a novella), involving various characters from the two as yet unpublished novels The Ethical Hitman and Raven of Dispersion. The story (and those novels) are set in and around the long, hot summer of 1976. The protagonists and antagonists are at that happy stage between A-levels and Uni (or A-levels and work ) – technically young adults, but these are not YA stories. As I work on this story, I will throw odd fragments here in the blog. In this section, Simon and Julie have been out for a walk. As usual, for that summer, the night is warm, the sky is practically cloudless. They are lying on a patch of brown, dried grass at the edge of a housing estate, only dimly lit by streetlights, and looking at the sky. They have been talking about a mutual friend, Sarah.


Julie picked at some of the brittle, brown grass. “Do you like Sarah?”

“Sarah is pleasantly pneumatic,” Simon said.

“Pneumatic?” Julie said. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s from TS Eliot. Uncorseted, her friendly bust /Gives promise of pneumatic bliss.”

“Oh, I see. I think.”

“And Huxley uses the word too, in that sense. He describes Lenina Crowne as Wonderfully pneumatic.”

“Are we talking about breasts here?”

“Maybe.”

“Are we saying … I mean, are you saying, Sarah has large breasts?”

“Perhaps.”

“Well, haven’t I?”

“To be honest,” Simon said, “I’ve never really noticed your breasts. I mean I’ve looked at them, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think you’re a boy or anything.”

“I am relieved.”

“But I’ve never really thought about their… err… size. They are not the thing I notice first about you.”

“Well, what do you notice first, then?”

“Your eyes.”

“My eyes?”

“Yes. They are light blue. And they sparkle.”

“But aren’t they rather narrow. Don’t I look like Clint Eastwood?”

“Yes. Clint Eastwood with breasts. I just don’t know their size.”

“My eyes or my breasts?”

Simon laughed. “Your eyes may be narrow. I cannot properly gauge that. I mean, obviously you’re not doe-eyed–“

“Obviously. Thank you for reminding me.”

“But.. and there is a but… your eyes shine. They coruscate. I like to make you smile, because then the light dances and dazzles in your eyes.”

“Really?” Julie smiled, and light danced and dazzled in her eyes. Simon fell for a moment, a giddying moment in which the Earth lifted and spun and itself danced. And just in that moment there was not enough breath in the whole world. And then Julie punched him lightly on the arm.

“You great big enormous flirt,” she said. She brushed some strands of his long fair hair away from his face. “I’ve always liked your eyes, too. A deep blue. And flirty, like you.”

They were silent for a few moments. Simon rolled over on his back. He tipped his head and saw long stalks of grass. He slowly pulled one from its sheath, and put the moist green end of it in his mouth. “Arrr, ” he said. “You know, we also call her the Coventry Climax.”

“Who? Sarah?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Well, she works in the banana factory­–”

“Sometimes it’s like Innuendo City around here.”

“Yes. Indeed. Anyway, they have fork lift trucks there. That’s their name. The make and model. The Coventry Climax. Pneumatic Sarah, the Coventry Climax.”

“I hope you would never call her that.”

Simon shook his head. “Why, of course not. When I say we, I mean Nick, Mark and Gaz. Nick named her thus.”

“Ah yes, Nick. A cad and a bounder.”

“He is. I shake my head and tut loudly whenever the epithet is used.”

Simon rolled over onto his side. He wanted to see Julie’s eyes. Julie was already on her side, her head leaning against her hand, looking at him. “Take that piece of grass out of your mouth, Si,” she said. “It is not cool.”

“Oh. Don’t you actually think two bits would be cooler? Wouldn’t I look dapper?”

Julie smiled again. The world tilted slightly, then  Julie looked at her watch and righted it again. “We have to go Si,” she said. “You’re a lazy-arse student, but I have to be in the shop at 8.30.”

Simon sighed. “Alright.”

Julie leaned over and kissed him lightly on the lips. The world whirled. “We’ll meet up again soon, yeah?”

Simon could barely get the words out. “Yes, of course.” He stood, and then offered his hand to Julie. He pulled her up. She smiled. If only she would stop smiling the world might successfully and uninterruptedly spin and orbit, and he might walk her home securely attached to its surface.

Julie slipped her arm through Simon’s and they began to walk towards Julie’s house. “You can tell me more of the names Nick has given people.”

“I will. They are, quite literally, Nick-names.”

“Oh, very good. Do I have one?”

Yes, Simon thought. Miss Lovely