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The Drawer

by Armadillo 

Posted: 15 April 2013
Word Count: 9782
Summary: Mr Avery, an artist, falls in love with another artist, Michelle. He is inspired by her drawings and strives to become as good as she is. He takes on Oliver as a student. Through his teaching he learns much from troubled Oliver, and his obsession to become a great artist ultimately destroys his relationship.

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This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.

Mr Avery drew pictures. He spent his days in the dim light of his ramshackle house, scratching with pencil to paper, or imploring his mind to produce perfect pictures. He was a proud man, never socialising with the people of the town. He lived away from the people, thinking them vulgar and greedy. A stream separated him from the town, so that in times of severe rain he would be stuck on his side. Children would often go down to the stream in search of crawlies, and seeing him across the water they would jeer at him. But he was too proud to shed a tear. He was too proud to yell back at them in anguish. His pride kept him from deteriorating into fits of rage at the children or indeed at the situation he was in. His situation was an impoverished one. So much so that he once almost starved to death. He just could not become another cog in the wheel. He wouldn’t. That was for the soulless and the passionless people. For who could really find passion in the workings of the wheel? Such jobs were never for pleasure. They were for the service of others. Jobs such as a shoe repairer, a banker, a butcher, a baker, a man who beat iron day after day, who went to sleep with the clanging still ringing in his ears so that it clanged into his dreams, so that it muffled his true dreams, beating him into a man without real dreams; no, jobs like these were not for Mr Avery. All this was for the payment of money to be spent on food for his belly. Ah it had no real purpose. Mr Avery clutched to his dreams. He would not be another cog in the wheel. He would rather be a spanner in the works. He shuddered from the children as he saw the fire in their eyes. He almost wept, not for himself, but for them. And ignoring the frustrations of the outside world Mr Avery returned to himself again. It was in his pictures that he found himself. Every drawing freed him. He need not show anyone, so long as he kept it up. His drawings were always from a past life, a vision that stayed with him, a memory. This one was of a boy.
He met a woman he was fond of. The fondness was enough for Mr Avery. She liked his drawings. In fact, it was at a drawing class that he met her.
‘Alright people, take out your pencils and your sketch pads and sit down at the tables.’
Mr Avery sat beside her. She turned and smiled and asked his name. He responded and quickly looked down. And so they began their conversation, each explaining the circumstances which led to their obsession with drawing. ‘I always doodled in class as a child’ said Michelle.
The two went for coffees together in town. They eventually went for dinners together. It was smooth going and Mr Avery was feeling the pressure a man feels in such a situation. When should he ask her to be his girl? She had a gentle nature. He noticed it one day when they went into Gale’s Café. A man yelled from across the room and it was unbearably loud.
‘Please, we don’t need such a racket in here’ she said to him. She said it delicately. The man looked at her, stunned, sitting down quietly, adhering to her instruction. She was delicate in her movements, both careful and oblivious; it came so naturally to her. Mr Avery felt comfortable being in the company of such a lovely-natured woman.
‘Michelle I’ve been wondering and whether you had thought and I would love it so much if perhaps you would go with me as my girlfriend from now on’. He felt a relief after the words were said, a great pressure loosened its grip on him.
‘Well I thought I already was’ she said, though smiling like a cat inside. And in a frantic fluster,
‘Oh of course I had just thought to ask, I’d be best not to assume’. She got up to receive some sugar from the counter. It was a light topic to her he thought, but that suited him.
They had spent days up in the hills of Oriental Bay drawing pictures together. It was the drawing that brought them together, as sharing a mutual interest, a common passion. But never were they separated so distantly from one another as when they were in the grips of a concentrated work. Sometimes he would shy away from her looking at his drawing, as if she were analysing it, critiquing it. Once she had scolded at one of his drawings. She mocked him. ‘It looks like those people are floating, there is no depth! Aren’t they supposed to be on a hill? And what is that! A dog?’ she laughed at him and he felt like a closed fist. He could let her beat him in anything but drawing. Mr Avery was such a good drawer, many people told him so; and when he found good competition, it truly burnt him like nothing else. He was quiet for many hours after her laughter. And she would notice, laughing harder, telling him to quit his sulking. A sulking person never sulks so deeply as when they are told to quit sulking.
One day Mr Avery inherited a modest fortune from an Uncle. He did not care for the uncle, but he cared greatly for the money. He had decided to buy a studio. He and Michelle would draw there. They would open it as a gallery for the public. Immediately he told Michelle of his plans. She shared his excitement and they were like children at Christmas. Michelle loved to be excited with him. It was being excited together about something, some place, some idea, that made her want to stay with him. If it was not their talking plans of travel, then it was their deciding which dog they might buy, the best foods to eat, the best houses to live in, the names of pets, the movies, the books, the drawings, oh especially the drawings.
Michelle’s brother had helped them secure the place. He was a Real Estate agent, and it was vitally important that he helped them move, she said. Paul was very protective of Michelle. Often he called her and wrote to her. ‘Ha ha look at this joke Paul sent me’ Michelle would laugh, crooning over his letter. Paul, Paul, Paul, ah Mr Avery hated it. And yet it was a strange jealousy. For Michelle could never be Paul’s girl, such things were incestuous. But it was Paul who she truly looked up to. Mr Avery was Michelle’s equal, her best friend, her sexual partner, and her rival at times. Paul knew many things. Mr Avery knew very little besides his passion for the arts, his love for music, films, literature and of course he drew better than anybody. Paul was a practical man. It was important to be practical, as people forever searched for convenience in their lives, to do things easily and quickly, so they could go on spending their days productively fixing more things for convenience, to improve the comfort and convenience of their lives. Mr Avery imagined himself and Michelle living together in a house and her calling up Paul to fix the fence, and to ask him about the insurance or the mortgage. Such things were necessary to know, but such a bore to Mr Avery. In this sense he was an impractical man, though he refused to accept he was incapable. He did not buy into the material world, valuing rather his art than his car or his house. When he was at a loss as to what to do with such things as cars and houses then he would feel utterly hopeless. He was not stupid. After all, his studio was a cracking idea, and business was not bad.
They had set the studio up so that he was on one side of the room and she on the other. Perhaps there was something more to it, but she had liked the sunny side and he chose the darker side of the studio. He would watch her working away furiously at some masterpiece, her concentration was challenging him, he felt such an urge to keep producing works better than hers. She had become very good. The sinews of the muscles, the gyrations and lines, the jaw bone so real and protruding from the page, it left such imprints in his mind, he dreamed of those images. And then she drew a man flying into a rage. He was smashing a vase, his face was utter torment, and a woman in the corner of the kitchen huddled, frightened, desperately frightened, the shock on her face was so real. But it was her second drawing following this one which haunted him the most. It was of the same man, but he was sitting down with his head in his hand, completely and utterly dismayed. There was such guilt in his face. The genuineness of the emotion was palpable. Mr Avery was disturbed. These two were certainly the best she had done, and he told her emphatically. He was not jealous anymore as he looked at them. He was happy for her. She had truly hit a spot. But her indifference was unsettling to Mr Avery. He just did not understand how she had produced such a work, yet she was not at all fazed at it, not even realising its quality, not even seeing its greatness. When they had the gallery open to the public he would watch the people as they looked at these pieces. Some were indifferent, as Michelle was. But always it was a man, noticed Mr Avery, who was strangely disturbed at seeing these drawings, looking at it for a long time, staring at the floor, and leaving the gallery like a phantom.
‘I think you should put those drawings away’ said Mr Avery.
‘What drawings?’
‘Those ones’ he said, pointing but not looking.
She looked over at them. It was the drawings he liked. He had told her many weeks ago. She had almost forgotten.
‘I thought you liked them’
‘How could someone like it?’ he thought, it was utter grief.
‘Just put them away, hide them, I don’t know, they’ll turn customers away.’ He noticed his voice rising, and nervously he let it trail into a whisper.
‘Fine,’ she said.
That evening they weren’t intimate. A silence between them created awkwardness and a momentary dislike for each other. It was as if he had insulted her when he told her to put those drawings away. He was unreasonable. How dare he get angry at her? Was it jealousy? She lay there with her back to his. His eyes, staring into the dark room, reflected the moonlight. The images flashed before him in the darkness as if he’d looked into a light for too long. The man flying into a rage, the woman trembling in the corner, guarding against the terror of the man, and the man afterwards, grief-stricken, as if he was asking himself ‘what beast have I become?’ Mr Avery lapsed into nightmares.
‘Wake up dear’ she called at him across the bedroom, doing her makeup at the mirror, a towel round her head. He felt the sudden dread that comes to one who has woken too early. Groaning, he clicked his toes. ‘What a nightmare!’ he said.
‘What was it?’
‘I can’t remember…’ said Mr Avery, staring out at the low-rising sun.
‘I’ve been up some time and I got a call from a man wanting to buy my drawing. Odd that he should ring don’t you think? Why did he not buy it then and there, when he saw it at the gallery?’ She continued with her makeup.
‘Which one?’
‘One of those you told me to put away! You lout. Let me decide which of my drawings I shall put on display. Leave it to me.’
Mr Avery sat up fast. It could not be sold. It just could not. He wouldn’t have it. There was something promising in that drawing, however ghastly the context, however frightful the image. It was a good one, a masterpiece.
‘Don’t you sell it to him Michelle. It’s a good one, your best.’
‘You think so?’
‘Yeah. Look, it’s a keeper. I told you to take it down because it’s rather grim. People were turned away by it. No. I wanted you to take it down so that no one bought it. Don’t sell it. Please.’
Michelle looked at Mr Avery suspiciously. He had never given her such flattering comments about her drawings. She liked it. She shrugged her shoulders. ‘If he’s offering a lot you’d better make it up to me…’
‘I will. I will dear.’
That day the man came to the gallery. ‘Why won’t you sell it to me?’ he asked.
‘I’m sorry but I’ve changed my mind we’re not selling this one’
‘Why not?’
‘I’ve decided I want to keep it’ she said.
‘Please’ he whispered. Mr Avery watched him from the far corner. The man, turning his back to Michelle, looked up again at the drawings, his breath came in short bursts; he looked troubled. Why did he want them so much? He caught Mr Avery watching him, his cheeks reddening. He turned to Michelle, as if for one last appeal, but he knew her final answer and so chose another question.
‘I have a stepson who likes to draw. Will you give him lessons?’
Michelle was speechless and she turned to Mr Avery. She had turned to Mr Avery, finally looking to her man for direction.
‘I’ll teach him’ said Mr Avery.
The man could not quite smile, perhaps still exasperated at the failure to buy the drawings. ‘Thank you. When can I bring him?’
‘Today will be fine, 3.30’.
The man agreed and was gone. Mr Avery smiled to himself for being so decisive. Proudly he continued his work, occasionally looking over at her, at her beautifully small composure, her long legs and her hips which were throbbing with the succulent weight of a fruit that Mr Avery considered so rich and feminine, a power inherent in all beautiful women. Such a woman’s power is in her hips, he thought.
Oliver was his name. He was nervous and twitchy, but both Michelle and Mr Avery noticed an eccentricity in him that was the budding of a genius. He was inquisitive and his nervous nature soon passed.
‘I’ve done some good drawings, I’ve done ‘em since I was about four. Mostly animals. Charlie tells me to quit with the animals. He says people don’t care much for drawings of animals. He says they wanna see people, doing everyday things, like washing dishes. Ha ha.’
Mr Avery was quick to notice that he was a poor boy, his clothes being ragged and torn, and unclean. He had neither paper nor pencils. Charlie had not enquired about the cost, perhaps assuming a free first lesson. Mr Avery had never taught drawing before and he had always wanted to. The boy was keen, he noticed, as he watched him engage with the drawings on the walls, his eyes widening at some of the horrific ones, his face freezing for some moments at the one Charlie wanted to buy, the one that gave Mr Avery goose-pimpled bones. Mr Avery had decided that if they had no money to pay for the boy’s lessons he was happy to keep this boy on, as a learning curve for himself too.
‘Sit down here Oliver, show me how you go, let’s try and draw these people doing everyday things.’
Oliver proceeded to draw as he sat there next to Mr Avery, the little lamplight on the corner of the desk directed at the white page. Michelle watched the two. Never had she seen Mr Avery so absorbed, so spell-bound and impassioned, as she had seen him sitting so with the boy. He was transfixed, fiercely determined, talking into the boy’s ear and nodding with appreciation. The boy was quite in his own world, but sure enough he began listening to Mr Avery, soaking up his directions like a sponge. After Oliver had gone home Mr Avery sat alone in his chair and looked into the darkening room, the orange of the closing sky outside he did not see, and yet he stared. He was in a blissful daydream. Such a satisfaction he had felt that afternoon teaching the boy how to draw. He picked up his keys and went to switch off the light. Before he did so he looked up at Michelle’s drawings, feeling as he did when he first saw them, a mixture of grave concern for the woman, and a sharing of despair for the man, the maniac; almost sympathising, feeling sorry for the intense guilt. Oh how he wished he could draw like this.
The lessons went well in those first few weeks. Everyday Oliver came at three thirty in the afternoon. Mr Avery’s focus had shifted from himself to the boy. Up until that first lesson with Oliver Mr Avery had been focusing on honing his own drawing skills, focusing on executing a masterpiece like Michelle’s, but his focus had now shifted into the honing of the boy. Mr Avery had often thought that he might be accepting his failure as an artist, as he always had looked upon teaching as a thing for those who had failed at making anything of themselves. It was an unreasonable thought, and he made sure to remind himself this. There was that saying that went ‘those that cannot do, teach’. Therefore Mr Avery was unsure as to his commitment to the boy, worrying that if he got too involved with the teaching, he would ignore his own development as an artist, his true goal. And Mr Avery found the boy a thrill to be with, as he soaked up the boy’s admiration greedily, becoming more confident in himself as a man and so improving in all manner of social skills. The confidence was like a strong wind billowing in his sails, and curiously, at least so he thought, his relationship with Michelle became smoother. She kept a hold of the drawings, though leaving them on display, and Mr Avery did not press her to take them down, for fear that she might explode and sell them on a heart beat. So they were always there on the wall in the gallery in which Mr Avery and she (less often these days) worked. As he was often alone in the gallery he would attempt to copy the drawings, believing that his skills would improve if he could copy her masterpieces. Such time was put into these copies that a bystander would have noted an unhealthy obsession with these drawings on the part of Mr Avery. But Mr Avery always made sure that he was alone when he copied the images, spending hours trying to bring out the expression of the grief-stricken man, or the fear of the poor lady in the corner.
‘Today, Oliver, I saw a curious thing as I was walking from home to here. I watched a man walking his dog and he was peering into the letter boxes.’
‘What was he doing?’ Oliver said.
‘I don’t know I was on the other side of the road. But a lady opened her front door and came to check the mail and she caught him prying her letter box open’
‘What did he do?’
‘Well, you can draw me what you imagine might have happened.’
‘Ah come on’ said Oliver ‘tell me, tell me.’
‘Not until you draw it first.’
Oliver began drawing. He drew the road first, and he was fast but good with the background details. He wanted, of course, to focus on the man at the letter box but he made sure to draw everything else before he started on him, eagerly drawing the steps up to the house from which the lady came, her hair in curlers, it being morning, her silk nightgown still about her, falling perfectly downwards and not slanted as in the Mourning Athena. Mr Avery watched his concentration and almost felt envious, as Oliver was sure to become a master drawer.
‘Do not be so quick with the background details.’
Oliver had his tongue in the corner of his mouth, silent with concentration.
‘But it is like a movie, when the background is blurred and the sharp definition is on the focus of the scene, the main character, in this case the man taking the mail, and the woman coming upon him’ came Oliver’s delayed reply.
Mr Avery had not thought of this, always having drawn his pictures with equal detail all over. Such a young mind brought novel ideas! And so Mr Avery learnt just as much, if not more, than Oliver did, which he began to apply to his own drawings and observations.
‘I’ve finished it Mr Avery’ said Oliver.
Mr Avery, having spent the last half hour looking out the window at the street, jumped with surprise. Waking from his thoughts, he had forgot that Oliver was even there, and remembering the project he had given him just an hour ago, Mr Avery became excited, and he hurried to the desk. The picture was, as Oliver intended, focused on the two characters. The woman was screaming at the top of her lungs and pointing as if telling someone to ‘stop that man!’ The man had a parcel in his arms and he looked up at the woman who screamed, his eyes ecstatic, his composure urgent, he had clearly found whatever he was looking for. Mr Avery smiled as he stared at the drawing. His smile, thought Oliver, was approving and that was enough for him. But Mr Avery was more than approving. He thought it superb. He felt defeated and yet humbled at improving Oliver’s skills so greatly over the six weeks of lessons.
‘Very good Oliver, excellent’
‘Well what?’
‘What happened?’
‘Oh of course! Yes, ah, well, almost spot on, except the man took no parcel, he just ran away, the woman barely even made a noise. She just stared in confusion.’
Mr Avery smiled at the lie he just told Oliver. It was a game, there being no one at all. But where was any fun in the truth? He looked up at the clock, noticing the lesson had long expired.
‘Run on home, your parents will be wondering.’
Oliver shuffled off the tall stool.
‘Thanks Mr Avery.’ And he left through the door.
The days that followed were of great stress to Mr Avery. Oliver became vacant and detached from his conversation. His mind, thought Mr Avery, was troubled, and a question burnt the tip of Mr Avery’s tongue.
‘What’s wrong with you boy?’ he exclaimed. ‘You are gone, distant. I think there’s something you’re not telling me. What’s up?’
Mr Avery searched the boy’s eyes. Oliver was put off by the question. His abruptness startled Mr Avery, as he threw down his pencil and dashed for the door. Mr Avery, letting him go, watched him from the window disappearing into the whiteness. As he returned to his working station, the great desk at which he spent his days, he saw the drawing Oliver had been working on, and upon seeing it his pulse clapped in his temples and a sensation trickled down to his palms. It was a picture of a woman running from a chasing silhouette. Upon seeing it he noticed the expression so hauntingly familiar to him, the cowering expression of the woman’s face in Michelle’s masterpiece. He too was a great artist! And a mere child, a child. Mr Avery smiled but he clenched his fists with a desire that burnt in him. The boy had surpassed his teacher! His knuckles were the white embers of his burning desire.
Oliver was an only child. Certainly his parents thought of him as only a child. Unlike your typical only child, he was not always having his own way, or expecting things to go his way; to be given all the attention, to have a contemptible nature about him. No, this was not Oliver. Oliver never expected to have his own way because he never had it. His father walked out when he was only five, long disappearing out of his life. Oliver couldn’t remember his face, but always he had tried to draw it, so as to have the closest thing to a photo. Indeed this was how Oliver took to drawing. Had it not been for his father’s leaving, Oliver might never have picked up the pencil. And so he had this to thank his father for, perhaps making up for his leaving, for such a gift was the best in the world, thought Oliver. Oliver had not a bad bone in his body. He was shy at home and at school. The teachers encouraged him to do his work. But he was always caught ‘doodling’, as they put it. No, Oliver could not remember what his father looked like. Rather, he remembered the presence of his father, the hostility at home, the fear that he brought to his mother. His father had hit them sometimes. This was the memory he had. Things had much improved when his stepfather came. Charlie was a kinder man, at least to his mother. She had met him as she was crying on the park bench, having left the house in a heat. He let her drive with him in his car. Charlie’s eyes were caring, she had said. And it was not long until Charlie managed to drive Oliver’s father away. It had been three years gone since his father left. These were better years for Oliver, because they were better for his mother. His mother did not caress him or stroke his head or take him out for ice cream, but at least she taught him to take care of himself and not to talk to strangers. She had never encouraged his drawing, but she would let him do it. Charlie was cool. And Oliver’s loneliness did not concern him at his young age of eight. The three of them had never thought that Oliver’s father would return. They had almost forgot about him until he came crashing at the door one sleepless night.
‘Please John! Leave us alone!’ Oliver’s mother called from the bedroom window.
‘I’ll bash him I will’ said Charlie
‘No. Don’t!’ She knew him to be a dangerous man. Charlie was too good-natured to have any violence enough for a man like John. He might kill him. But Charlie, as many men would feel in such a situation, felt compelled to confront him, whatever the altercation might lead to.
‘I’m coming down there you hear? John leave us alone you’ll regret this’
‘You bastard, you stole my family’ John replied, drunkenly.
Oliver’s mother was helpless to stop the two, Charlie crashing down the stairs to the front door and opening the door upon the weight of John. The two men brawled on the floor. Luckily for Charlie, John was drunk.
‘You stole my family! You stole my –
And with a hefty smack, Oliver hit him on the back of the head with the large square end of a bulky brass candle holder. Charlie stood up, grunting from the rush of adrenalin.
‘That a boy!’ he said.
Oliver’s mother was in the corner at the landing, shaking. Oliver ran to her. The two of them, Oliver and his mother, rocking in each others embrace, had a moment of affection. The rare moment stunned Charlie into placid amazement.
‘I had better take him away down the road some place; he’ll be coming to in half an hour I should think. He stinks of whisky’
Neither she nor Oliver cared. He went to it, hauling John, a lighter man than he, down the steps and into the car. Oliver was still awake when Charlie returned, listening to the car as it parked up and clicked off down upon the street. He listened as Charlie sighed at the door, the tinkle of the keys landing on the dish. Oliver listened as he mounted the stairs and went into his bedroom, and the words which left his lips resounded in the boys mind throughout the night: ‘I think he’s dead Barbara, I think he’s dead…’
Michelle, feeling neglected and rather not thought about at all by Mr Avery, had even considered leaving him. The spark was dwindling. But she still felt so attached to the man, even if he didn’t earn much, even if he wasn’t always there. His character had for some months been altered by she knew not what. It was a strange day in the park with him yesterday, during their Sunday walk, when he jumped back as if he came upon a stranger. ‘It’s nothing, I must be tired,’ he told her. She knew to let it alone or else he would snap. She wasn’t to be the nagging woman, the one who worried. Yet she was gravely concerned. One might consider her concern a little ridiculous, but not when one had lived with him and noticed his altered ways. His sleep was always disrupted, and she saw how sweaty he got in the night. She knew he was having nightmares. But he would not come out and tell her directly. He stepped around her questions. Mr Avery became evasive and detached. And so her concerns were well founded. Perhaps it was her spending time away from the studio. She preferred to draw outside and go her own way during the day. This was after Oliver came along, she thinking he might want to teach in private. She decided she would spend more time at the studio with him like in the earlier days together. She barely remembered the last time she spent drawing with him. Perhaps his drawings had changed with his character. Were her pictures still hanging where she left them? She wondered at all this, deciding that she would go back to the studio.
Oliver had resumed his lessons with Mr Avery. He was deeply rattled from the night his father came home. To think he had killed his father. Oliver was rattled not from his father’s death, not from his causing it, but rather from his strange indifference to it. It was a strange feeling to not feel guilty about causing a man’s death. He knew that Charlie and his mother would not tell him he had died; he knew they were not as careless as that. He went back to Mr Avery with a quiet reservedness, but with a fresh focus. It was as if, now that his father had died, he was free from some overhanging doubt as to his path. For he always knew that his father disapproved of his ‘doodling’ and now that he was dead, there was not that pressure to make him proud. So he came back with a focused mind, and a reserved character. He was now totally left to do as he pleased, with the knowledge that there was not the hampering thought of a burdening father coming back to scoff at his achievements. Oliver had Mr Avery to make proud.
‘Oliver I have to confess you have changed. I won’t ask anything about it if you do not wish to talk about it. Only, I hope that you are not distracted, because I want us to focus greatly on the projects at hand.’
‘Mister, I’m so much more focused because my father has gone from my life, and it is a good thing too, it’s good for my drawing.’
Mr Avery smiled and asked not how or why his father had gone. They continued with their work as before. This time Oliver was drawing expressions. He had almost mastered, at length, a smile, in the form of a child at Christmas. Despite happy Christmases being foreign to Oliver, he came very close to a perfect drawing of a happy child, opening her gift at the tree. Weeks went by and Mr Avery allowed him to move on to the tragic expressions, those of sadness and anger.
‘You must change the eyes, they look the same as the smiling child!’ said Mr Avery. ‘Let his jaw droop, he is sad, don’t have his mouth so full.’
Presently, Michelle was drawing in her corner of the room. She did not bother them, though secretly she would join in on the project. Mr Avery did not go over to her and ask her what she was drawing, being too engrossed in his teaching. She would listen with pricked ears, smiling at his instructions, and producing works of her own in accordance with his teaching. So she had produced a great set of the expressions, from smiling children, to sad children crying. There was a severity in her drawings that Mr Avery noticed in those of the abusive man, the cowering woman and the guilt-stricken face of the man wondering at what he had done. Looking upon her desk that day, when she had left and the lesson had expired, he noticed her work of expressions. His heart sunk with something beyond jealousy. He noticed how each expression was shimmering with reality, carrying the emotion from the page and into his heart. The smiling child was so perfect it made him feel sad, the angry child so true it made him laugh, and the guilty expression, being the recent imagery of his nightmares, stirred inside him a fearful heaviness. He was transported within himself and across the room. He reached for a bottle of Johnny Walker, taking a swig to warm himself from his cold reaction. Mr Avery had known of great artists who would copy out great works so as to import the genius, to learn how it is done. Somerset Maughaham admitted to copying out verses of the Bible. And so Mr Avery took Michelle’s drawings of the expressions and began copying them fastidiously. Perhaps he would learn how to draw like her.
At last! After several weeks of studiously copying Michelle’s drawings, the expressions and her two masterpieces, he had created a near replica. It came upon him in the most relaxed mood. He had nearly given up. Hours he spent throwing down the pencil and throwing his hands in the air. He had found time at the end of the day when Michelle had left early. His concentration went from the drawing to something else. He thought of how he and Michelle used to draw together up at the hills of Oriental Bay. He thought of their laughter at picking names for pets, absurd names like Keith. Chuckling to himself he recalled her laughing with such violence that she looked like she was in pain. All the while he drew, occupying his mind with these thoughts, and the expression appeared out of the paper; he barely noticed he had finished it. It was virtually identical to Michelle’s. This was of the child opening the gift, the joyful child. The happiness ringed through in his image as it did hers. He felt it was the truest drawing he had done. Of course, he had copied, but now he realised that he had the capacity to draw a masterpiece. Upon the instant Michelle walked in.
‘I forgot something’ she said, dashing across to get one of her drawings.
Mr Avery quickly scrunched it into a ball and threw it behind him. He sighed, ‘What is it?’
‘I’ve drawn Francis her picture, I promised to bring it to her tonight.’
She took one from the pile on her desk. ‘Ah here it is’
‘Right let’s be off. I’m done now’. He took her by the hand and walked outside with her, turning the corner and onto the street in the direction of their house. He looked down the steep street into the bustle of the six o’clock traffic and smiled. He felt so happy his heart was like butter and, kissing Michelle and squeezing her, he thought of his budding genius, the great works to come. He saw his dreams upon the horizon.
Oliver’s indifference about his father did not remain. He became increasingly disturbed. It was prompted by a visit from the Police. He had heard them talking when he was in his room. Charlie’s voice came in low hums through the floorboards. He strained to hear what was being said. He was gripped with a fear he might be questioned. He decided he would lie to them if it came to that. To think he had killed his father! It was creeping upon him, this realisation, becoming bigger as the days went on. The Police did not return, nor did they speak to him. But their visit had driven home the seriousness of his actions. He wondered whether he should talk to his Mum or to Charlie, to reveal to them that he knew. He thought it best to keep quiet for now. Perhaps the dread would go away. He would lose himself in his drawings, escape. But the drawings were not coming easy, his hand beginning to tremble. He had to let this out to someone. And so he turned to Mr Avery.
‘You killed your father?!’ said Mr Avery.
‘I didn’t mean to. It was in the heat of the moment, I grabbed the nearest thing at hand. It was the candle holder.’
‘But the police might find a mark on his head.’
Oliver panicked.
‘But he was drunk. He was stumbling everywhere. He fell…’
The two looked at each other and Mr Avery’s eyes were trusting.
‘Keep it cool Oliver. I’ll say nothing if I’m asked. The guy had it coming. I tell you, he would have died in a ditch that night anyway. It was freezing. And as you say he was drunk.’
‘At first I didn’t care. I felt happy even. But then it scared me to death when the Police came. I could get in real trouble eh? Oh let’s just get this out of our head and do some drawing. Teach me how you draw like that!’ he said, pointing up at Michelle’s two drawings.
Mr Avery looked at them and smiled. He felt justified for saying they were his own, or at least coming across as if they were, for Oliver never asked him directly. But he smiled, not because Oliver thought them to be his own, he knew Oliver revered him, he smiled because he knew he had the potential to draw like this. He thought of his perfect copy of the other, and he repeated these night after night. The skills were growing in him and he wished to convey the skills to Oliver.
‘Yes let’s draw.’
Oliver began with the outline of a head. They had been focusing on faces. Mr Avery had tried to tell him: without colour people only care for drawings of people, forget scenes, forget nature, draw humans, something that people can relate to, as Charlie told you. He said we all relate to a person’s expression, and if he could master a perfect face holding a true expression then everything else would come easily. Oliver’s face was well done, the chin was sharp, the perfect shade was cast around the lips, the mouth was down-turned but it was the eyes which destroyed it completely. The eyes were dead. They were not looking, they were marbles, dolls eyes, and not even the glisten gave them any reality. Mr Avery was encouraging, but he was honest to the boy, and told him the face had not come to life like those up on the wall.
‘Look at that man with his hand on his head, his wincing expression, it hurts me every time to look at it. There is such struggle in the expression. I cannot help but wonder what is going on in his mind.’
‘Who is it? What were you thinking when you drew it?’
‘I just came up with it…’ said Mr Avery, feeling guilty for lying.
‘It reminds me of my father’ replied the boy.
‘Did your father hit your mother?’
‘Sometimes… He looked like that’ said Oliver pointing up at Michelle’s drawing. ‘He looked like that the morning after he drank too much. He looked like that after he hit her.’
Mr Avery did not copy Michelle’s drawings that evening. He left the studio early and went for a walk. He went down the street and into the noise of the city. The hum and the drone of the people going to and fro sent his mind into contemplation. He would think better in a background noise. Silence made him feel nervous. He looked across the wet street and saw the reflection of the headlights, causing the puddles to sparkle across the road. He went out to look for inspiration. It was always hiding in unexpected places. He decided to make for the hills of Oriental Bay. Cutting across Tory Street he headed towards the harbour. Waiting at the crossing he watched people, their minds completely filled with things they needed to do. There was a man wincing in exasperation as he wiped the rain drops off his glasses and when it was free to cross he had to fling them back on, only having wiped one lens. His stress was overflowing like the flooding gutters. The whole street was a harsh grey, as if the colours of the cars and the people and the shops took on the tone of the sky. Mr Avery came upon the wharf and watched the waves surging against the pier, the large museum stood splashed with the sea salt, reaching high into the sky and splitting the clouds, defying the rain. There was no one on this stretch along near the marina where the yachts were kept. It made him sick to look at the boats rocking in the swell. All of this was cleansing, the rain and the emptiness of the place down by the water, it improved his mood. What Oliver had told him that afternoon unsettled him. He wondered at the boy’s wellbeing, whether he was scarred by his father’s abuse. Surely there was some unconscious scar which was reopened when he hit his father. It was the whiskey would’ve done it, he told Oliver. Mr Avery felt a real hatred towards men who hit women, and he didn’t like feeling sorry for the man in the drawing who, appearing so guilty, made him want to cry. Was he the only one so affected by this drawing? Ah he wanted so desperately to draw like this. Even if he didn’t become famous, he wanted others to feel this way about drawings of his own. He wanted to give people nightmares. Coming to the bottom of the hill Mr Avery looked up at his destination. The forest looked drier, and from there he would see the view of the city. He climbed the stairs which led to the church, and pushing through the church gate he came to the road. He crossed the road and followed the track up to the woods. It was quieter in the woods. He had heard a story about a man who was chased by another man with a knife around here. Mr Avery started jogging, the quietness making him nervous. He made it to the lookout. The rain was heavier and when he cast his eyes down upon the city and the harbour it looked tormented by the weather. The ocean heaved and the city was withdrawn, unlike those sunny days when it was trembling forward in the heat against the vibrant blue sky. It would be dark soon. But Mr Avery was not concerned with the time, his mind grasping for inspiration. The dreary atmosphere dampened his spirits. He thought of Michelle, wondering at what she had drawn recently, whether she was continuing with her work. And upon an instant he realised how little attention he had devoted to her these past few months. A guilt flooded him. His tears, meeting the raindrops, trickled down his jacket and onto his chest. Shuddering, he turned into the wind and hastened home to Michelle.
When he came in it was dark. He was absolutely soaked.
‘Michelle!’ he called. There was no reply. He took his coat and shoes off and walked into the living room. She lay there on the couch; the TV threw light on her face. She was asleep. Mr Avery was mesmerised, unaware that his clothes were dripping. She awoke with a start.
‘Ugh, you’re dripping wet. Come here’ and she pulled him by his collar and into the laundry. She pulled out a towel and dried him like a child. All the painful thoughts and feelings he had that day were completely obliterated in that moment. He smiled.
‘I love you,’ he said.
‘Yes well let’s get you dry. What were you doing out in the rain?’
‘I wanted to walk. Oliver told me some dreadful story about his father who used to hit his mother. I needed to clear my head.’ He didn’t tell her he went walking for inspiration.
‘That’s horrible’. Her face was animated with concern, as a mother who worries about her child. She was cute with that expression and Mr Avery wanted to capture it so that he could draw it perfectly.
‘Yes he’s been so detached recently. But he still focuses on his lessons.’
‘Oh don’t be hard on him.’
‘I’m not.’
He was like a child, and she like his mother, as she mopped him dry each and every limp arm and leg and cheek. She rubbed his hair dry and he let her do it all for him. He loved it.
‘Hey,’ and he took her hands and stared into her face, ‘I’m sorry I’ve gotten lost in all this drawing and teaching, I didn’t mean to leave us behind, forgive me…’
She looked down, forcing a smile, ‘It’s fine.’ And she pulled his ear and he laughed. They kissed as they stood there in the laundry, the towel at his feet. And she led him upstairs, and into the bedroom. They made love for the first time in many weeks.
The next morning Mr Avery read about Oliver’s father’s death in the paper. There was an ongoing investigation but the Police suspected nobody. The man had had copious amounts of whiskey in his system, and he was found on a park bench. He decided he would not tell Oliver he had seen this in the paper, it would be an unnecessary reminder of that night. This newly awakened interest in his love for Michelle, and this feeling of duty towards Oliver had caused his nightmares about Michelle’s drawings to disappear. He barely noticed until he was reminded about them.
‘Do you still insist that I keep those drawings?’
‘Which ones?’ asked Mr Avery, raising his eyebrows as he browsed the paper.
‘You know, the bashing husband.’
She referred to them lightly, as if they were nothing. He was reminded of them.
‘Yes, I insist. Keep them Michelle, at least for now…’
‘But they are so morbid. And I had a thought: you told me Oliver’s father hit his mother. It will upset him to always see such a severe picture, it might remind him.’
Mr Avery could feel his palm sticking to the paper and he felt that dizziness that comes with panic.
‘I think they are keepers, at least for now. I’ll put them away.’
When he was at the studio that day he kept glancing at these drawings. She was able to capture the perfect emotion in these and, with an almost nauseating pain, he wanted them to be his own works. He imagined a hundred years from today, Art students would be studying his drawings. Teachers would describe how perfect he had caught the expression. There would be great wonders into the story behind these pictures, and as people always do, they would wonder if it was him reflected in these drawings; was he guilty of hurting his wife? People would not accept that he plucked these out of thin air. He would become a perceived monster, like Picasso. So he daydreamed about such things, as Michelle, across the room, sketched and sketched and lightly chatted to him about people he did not care about.
‘Her father was in the meatworks, her brother took it on, but he just could not bare it. Oh her father was so angry.’
‘Aha yes,’ he would say.
He would be a famous artist. He was going to be a famous artist. This he told himself. He was in that moment before an ultimate decision is made in which there spawns the most driven determination, as when a person makes a new year’s resolution. Mr Avery resolved to learn how to draw these two drawings, the expression of the man flying into a rage and of the woman cowering with horror, but especially he wished to draw the expression of the man who sat forlorn and guilty, that expression which made his stomach turn. He would learn to draw these as he had done the picture of the merry girl opening her Christmas present. Once he had learnt these, surely, surely he would go on his own way and produce original works. It took a great deal of learning from the greats before one could become one. Michelle was a great artist. He wondered what she was drawing now.
‘And can you believe it she was so upset - ’
‘What are you drawing?’ he said.
She was thrown by his interruption, and fluttering her eyelashes, ‘Oh I’m drawing you.’
He came over to her desk and looked down at it. He was scared it would reveal some of his thoughts. He saw himself on the page, drawn with his expression deep in thought, staring into the far corner of the room, away from everything. His hair was ruffled at the fringe having been clasped by his hand. He looked decidedly serious, and his shoulders were back. His eyes were slightly squinted as if he saw something but at the same time he looked as if he were daydreaming, the squint being a pinch of thought. Surely it couldn’t reveal his thoughts.
‘What do you think?’ she asked.
He kept staring at it, not hearing her.
‘It’s very good.’
She giggled at his compliment and continued chatting away about her friend, who he did not know, or at least did not care. He returned to his desk and began drawing, blocking out her chattering so that he had brief moments of intense focus which were interrupted by ‘Dear, are you listening? Dear!’
‘Yes, oh I see, how terrible’ he replied.
He drew what he imagined Oliver’s father looked like. He drew him tumbling into the front door, his face bleary with drunkenness, the whole scene being bleary, so as to give the effect of drunken turmoil. He drew him with long hair about his shoulders, and he was aggressive; a man in his late fifties. It was his chance to begin practising. So he drew Oliver’s mother in the corner, cowering with fear. He tried to draw her face aghast but it was difficult. The mouth was open and her eyebrows upturned, but her eyes did not convey any true fear. He repeatedly erased the eyes until it became a smudge upon the page.
‘Well I’ll be gone,’ said Michelle.
He glanced up at the clock. Oliver was due any minute.
‘Yes dear I’ll see you at home tonight.’
‘And do come straight home. Don’t go walking,’ she told him.
‘Yes yes.’
Oliver came in looking pale.
‘What’s wrong?’
He said nothing, but Mr Avery could tell something had happened. He put his hands on the boy’s shoulders and searched his eyes.
‘Did the Police come back?’
‘No. But I heard they’ve accused another man.’
And Mr Avery saw that guilt-struck expression. Oliver looked like Michelle’s drawing. The boy had tears in his eyes. Mr Avery gave a gasp and felt for the chair behind him. He collapsed into the chair, his heart fluttering like the wings of a hummingbird. He reached for the pencil and so began drawing the boy as he stood there staring at the ground.
‘I heard them talking about it. I was in my bedroom…’ and something in his throat choked his words. He blinked away tears. He ignored Mr Avery’s drawing; his frantic scratching of the pencil was mere background noise, the ticking of a clock.
‘I just hit him because I hated him. I hated him. He was a fucking shit!’
Upon an instant Mr Avery saw the first of Michelle’s drawings in Oliver’s face, the raging expression. He sketched this too. At last he found inspiration! The pencil frantically scratched away.
‘But I can’t let another man be blamed for what I did. I won’t. It’s wrong. My dad was an alcoholic they called him. He liked to drink. But I felt so sad for him when he tried to apologize, he was desperate, he was so hurt with the things he had done. He couldn’t explain why he did them. He didn’t deserve to die..’
The drawing vibrated from the page, Oliver was drawn perfectly as he stood there declaring his thoughts and admitting his guilt. The boy continued talking but Mr Avery did not hear. His head was spinning with such triumph, he could not see. He had finally drawn something so excellent that it made his ears ring and for a moment he was gone from that room with peaking elation. He had finished it. It was perfect.
‘What are you drawing?’ asked Oliver, walking to the desk.
‘Ah! It’s me’ he exclaimed. And he blinked away the tears and smiled. He laughed.
‘It’s good, look how I am’ and he stared in wonder at the drawings, smiling at them, forgetting his problems at the present. Certainly they would come flooding back but he let them disappear in that moment. A sudden impulse caused Mr Avery to grab Oliver and hug him around the neck.
‘You’ll be fine. It wasn’t you killed your father. It was the drink.’
He felt the boy nodding against his back, the teardrops tapping on his t-shirt. Oliver stared down at the drawing and was happy for having inspired Mr Avery to draw his best drawing. Something good had come out of this nightmare in the end. He felt he had given something to Mr Avery, not realising that through his lessons he had taught Mr Avery much. When Oliver left he was hopeful that nothing would come of the man who was wrongly accused.
And Mr Avery was alone. The room was dark, yet he was too concentrated to remember the light. He took Michelle’s two drawings from the drawer. He put them against his own and there it was. Oliver, looking similar to the man in Michelle’s drawing, carried the true expressions in both drawings: the faces were both tormented, in one instance with anger and in the other with guilt. He stared at them for hours. The darkening room became cold and his breath appeared in front of him. Suddenly he snapped out of his reverie and looked about him. Calmly he put away the drawings and went into the night, remembering Michelle.
When Mr Avery got home he went straight to bed. Michelle woke in the night and touched him to see he was there. She noticed he was not sweaty. He slept soundly. The glass on his bedside table was full, his glasses barely touched. She hardly knew him anymore. The excitement had departed abruptly. Although she admired his determination, his teaching and his drawing was more like a repulsive obsession. His inheritance money would not last forever. He would always come home after dark, missing his dinner, looking pale and beat. Sometimes he looked like he had seen a ghost. There was a misery inside her that was like an anchor. She was jealous of her friends and their partners. Their men were not driven like he was, but what is the use of being driven if it does not lead to happiness? This she was not. She wondered whether she still loved him. She searched for those deep rooted feelings which she had thought would never disappear. Michelle sighed and turned, eventually falling to sleep as the room lightened.
Thus, in his tiny house, tucked against the dampness of the bank, Mr Avery sat, staring at this drawing of a boy. Where was he now? Mr Avery had thought about it often. When his money ran dry he had to sell the studio. Michelle left him even before this, declaring that she was going to live with her mother. At the time he did not care, his mind was on art, on teaching Oliver, on his new drawings. When she left he sold the house and found this one in a cheaper neighbourhood. The drawing brought back these distant memories and, waking from this liberation, he recoiled in horror. He remembered those years he spent with Michelle, drawing up on the hills of Oriental Bay in the sun. He missed her head in his lap, her teasing. Looking about him, at all his drawings on the wall, at the newspaper clippings of his artwork and the prizes he had won, at all the dark corners of his little house, at the dark bedroom in which echoed his very loneliness; looking down at the candle, the flame lengthening to a tip, a sadness came upon him. He had never felt such sadness. It was a pain between his throat and his chest. Suddenly he missed Michelle so much he clasped the drawing and clenched his fist just enough to crease the paper. But it was his only gift from her, his drawing of Oliver. How selfish he had been! In the candlelit darkness he saw his reflection in the window, and it might have been her drawing, such was the similarity. Upon seeing his reflection in the glass his heart shattered and he was broken with regret.

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Comments by other Members

Becca at 16:12 on 03 May 2013  Report this post
Hi Tom,
i think at one stage we had a conversation about word number, and as a writer of longish shorts, I reckoned maybe 5,000 max. was the top limit, and even then, the chances of anyone being willing to or having time to read and critique it was greatly lessened than if the word count fell into the 1-3 thou. mark. Your story is 10 thousand words long. I'm going to read it, maybe I'll skim over bits, but still make some observations for you, but it would be better if the next story you upload doesn't go above three thousand. You could break a long short like this up into three pieces and post them in sequence, but then you're still asking people to hold the info from the pieces before in their minds as they critique the last bit. That's quite a big ask. Also, there's a problem about getting long shorts published. There are a few publishers who might take such a length on, but not many.
Speak again soon,

Becca at 18:00 on 03 May 2013  Report this post
Hi Tom,
I did read the whole story because as long as nothing is repeated and the story or plot moves along at a good pace, then there is no reason why the story shouldn't be 10 thousand words long. But I have to tell you that in this story you repeat a great deal of what you've already told the reader, and you repeat the theme of jealousy throughout. Even if this was the first chapter of a novel, [and that could be about 20 thousand words], my judgement would be that it needed to be a lot snappier and speedier to keep the readers' interest. That is really my main point, all that you have conveyed in this story could be told in less than 3,000 words.
There are three stories intertwined here, one about the relationship between the main character and Michelle and his envy and eventual loss of her, and the second story about the main character and Oliver, and the third about what's happening in Oliver's life and the murder. The thing about short stories is that they need to focus down onto one idea to even begin to have a chance to work, well maybe that's a bit harsh of me, maybe two stories intertwined together into one story could work perfectly well. But it's a good model to follow if you were trying to teach yourself how to write good short stories. I wonder, really, what short story writers you have read, and not with the idea of imitating them as Mr. Avery does, [lol]. Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemmingway, A.L Barker, Lorrie Moore, John McGahern, David Constantine, Katherine Mansfield.... do you know any of these, the last and one of the greatest being from N.Z.
One of the ways of being able to make your stories tauter, speedier, more gripping for the reader is not to chose to write in the omniscient voice,[in which the feelings of all the characters are exposed]. The convention in short story writing and a way of limiting the number of words judiciously is to use first person, or third person, but to show the story through only the main character's perspective, so that you only tell what he or she can know.

I did notice a sprinkling of cliche phrases in the story, I didn't note them all down, but two of them were 'Oliver had not a bad bone in his body,' and 'blinking away his tears.' If you can make yourself very disciplined about never using phrases you've heard other people say or write and at the same time, really disciplined about not repeating words in quick succession such as 'frantic scratching of the pencil,[which I also think is a cliche], then your writing skill. just by being conscious of those two things alone, will improve dramatically. The one big important thing is originality.
Here's an idea in fiction writing, that people get tired of hearing, but which never-the-less is the third really good way of improving fiction writing, and that is that rather than 'tell' the reader what is going on, as you do particularly in the first section of the work, you have to find a way of doing what we call 'showing' that same thing. So the awkwardness of your main character could've come across if there'd been some dialogue between him and the children on the other side of the stream.

As your reader, I'd have liked to have felt drawn to your main character. But somehow, not giving him a first name, keeps him distant from me, and because he is anyway, a jealous individual who treats his girlfriend badly, I can't like him. I prefer the girlfriend, but she isn't really drawn in enough depth for me to like a great deal either.

I think that as writers we are a bit like actors and that one of the skills we have to develop is changing from one style of writing to another. I'm assuming that the slightly old-fashioned sounding style of the story is deliberate, but I don't think it does the story any favours. I was rather glad when the kid swore... and when Michelle or Mr. Avery uses the term 'dear' towards the end, I felt as if they were people in their seventies. Hair curlers also gave the impression of some other time, like the 1950's to the piece. So I hope you'll be thinking about a different writing style for your next piece.

I think you have a great deal of resilience as a writer and you really have kept this story going to the end, you were conscientious, and I think you did care about your main character. I think you could improve it greatly as I said above, and I also think you could use your characters again in another setting. I might have been beginning to notice that you might be a writer who is good at description, that's another good thing to build up skills wise.
I'm looking forward to seeing your next SHORT story.

Armadillo at 03:50 on 06 May 2013  Report this post
Hi Becca,

Thank you for reading my story and for your honest criticism. I've read two authors of the ones you mentioned: Hemingway and Katherine Mansfield. I did not think about the 'short story' genre when I wrote this, which might make it seem like it isn't one. I understand through re-reading this story that it might be a little over-done. I have since written others with less exaggeration. Unfortunately these are longer than 3,000 though less than 10,000 words. The 'show don't tell' advice I have heard many times before but do you think it should be adopted 100 of the time? Some authors who I've read plainly tell things and they are still very effective (Hemingway being one and Dickens to an extent). I will become a full-member towards the end of the month and upload a few more works. I hope you will look at them and find improvements in my writing.


Becca at 08:04 on 06 May 2013  Report this post
Maybe it's not possible for there to be absolutely no exposition in a story, but I'd say as much as you possibly can, show the thing rather than explain the thing.
I look forward to reading your next. But consider cutting them into two or three sections and posting up like that if they are longer than 3 to 5 thou maybe?

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