Wednesday, 21 March 2012

On Loneliness and Earthquakes


He had arrived at the cabin by the lake three weeks ago. He had brought enough supplies with him to last him a month. He sat on the carpet, staring at the canvases he had painted, wondering how he was going to last another week by himself.

He had come here for the good of the work. The work. Bollocks. He had started repeating himself a week ago. An entire week’s worth of repetitive bollocks. He had come here to give himself exclusive access to himself, to shut out the din of the outside, to expel all intruders from his precious personal space. And the work was bollocks.

He had felt good about himself for a little while. For a little while it had seemed as though this was the best idea he had ever had. But here he was, on the floor in a paint-spattered t-shirt he had bought in Barcelona and a mostly clean pair of boxer shorts, staring at a canvas that was covered in strokes of bad ideas and colours that screamed volumes about his lack of imagination.

He hadn’t spoken to anyone since he had been here. He had not spoken to another living soul.

He turned his mobile on once a day to check that people were still thinking about him. Hearing his friends and family speaking to him via an automated messaging system cheered him more than he liked to admit. His parents calling to tell him about the family of sparrows that had arrived in their back garden to use the new bird bath. His friends calling to invite him to the pub before remembering that he was away. His sister calling him to tell him that his niece was very upset that he had missed her school play. His brother calling to ask him if he could pay back the money he had borrowed. And his girlfriend calling to tell him that she missed him.

He checked the phone every day at five o’clock. The time now was sixteen minutes to five. He didn’t like that he felt compelled to check. It showed a lack of focus. The phone itself was a distraction. Both the idea of it itself and the object itself. Every aspect of the phone, literal, metaphorical, metaphysical, was sabotaging him. He shouldn’t even have brought it. He should dispose of it immediately and dedicate himself to total concentration on his work.

But he couldn’t do that. He needed it. He needed to hear people. Fourteen minutes to five.

He needed to talk to people. He would catch himself remembering the words to songs he hadn’t thought about in years before singing an entire “Best of…” a capella. He would talk about the meals he was making to himself. Not full sentences yet. “…cup of…coffee, mmm…an apple.” Idiot ramblings. But full sentences couldn’t be far away. Twelve minutes to five.

But this was good. What he had here. He needed this. He needed isolation. Because somewhere in this isolation was the good idea. He had hoped to come out of this with a series of beautiful canvases, he’d even thought about titles, but now he would settle for one good painting.

It hadn’t always been so hard. He used to be able to produce a sketch in a blink of an eye. He could sit at the dinner table, not entirely blanking out the conversation of the people surrounding him, and produce something that they would lean over and admire. He had always been able to paint with other people in the room. Even if they were chatting away, it was fine. It didn’t make any difference. But soon he had to tell them to be quiet if they were going to stand there and stare at him. They did, for a while. Then they stopped coming to see him paint. He wasn’t bothered. It was better. He used to listen to music while he was painting. Then that stopped too. Nine minutes to five.

And finally it was any noise. Any noise could destroy an entire day’s work. Whether it was a car horn from two streets away, or someone talking on their phone outside the studio window, the connection between him and the canvas had been broken and, like a phone call to a distant country, it could not be immediately re-established.

Once, while drunk, he had poured all his frustration in the form of a monologue to his girlfriend while they sat in the pub they’d gone to in order to celebrate the end of her unemployment. The short of it had been that he needed to be alone. The long of it had included a lot of cursing and a lengthy itemised list of specific instances where he hadn’t been alone. She had got up to go to the toilet and hadn’t returned. They had reconciled a couple of days later, and he was more careful about how he phrased his situation from then on. Seven minutes to five

But nothing had changed. Inside he still yearned for an end to these tremors, these ruptures in concentration. He realised that he needed was a retreat. An artist’s retreat. And not one of those half-arsed retreats to a heated country house filled with pretentious windbags complaining about the work. A place where there would be no barrier between him and the work. He and the work would become one. And they would be great. Five minutes to five

But somehow here he was. He had admitted to himself a couple of days before that he was going a bit strange. The beard wasn’t rugged, it was scruffy. His hygiene had gone out of the window, which he had anticipated but was unexpectedly upset by. The smell of him filled the cabin. He wasn’t eating well, which didn’t help. He wasn’t washing regularly, which made it worse. And he couldn’t open the windows and refused to call for help, which was the nail in the reeking container of his bad work. Three minutes to five.

And he was desperately lonely. Simple as that. He missed his girlfriend. He had treated her badly, he had treated everyone badly, but it had been important. There was no other way. Two minutes to five.

He wondered if he should destroy the painting in front of him. Maybe the act of destruction would make it more interesting. It needed something. It needed anything, because it was, quite frankly…

“Bollocks,” he said. “Utter bollocks.”

He scratched at his left armpit before stopping. Five o’clock.

He ran to the phone and snatched it off the desk. He pressed the button for voicemail and held it up to his ear.

“You have no new messages.”

The police arrived an hour later to answer a complaint from a neighbour. A tenant from one of the cabins was swimming naked in the lake, throwing paint into the water and sobbing.


Hello there.

I hope you enjoyed this. I set out to not write a horror story, and this slightly odd comedy came out instead. The title comes from @macaroni_mob, her blog is In Transit. It was originally going to be a sad story about a shut-in, which I will write at a later date, but I really didn't feel like writing something sad and grim, so I wrote about "him" and his problems instead.

It was also originally going to be about a writer, but I always seem to end up writing about artists when I try to do that. The neuroses exhibited here by no means apply to my brother, who is an artist, they are all writing ones. Isolation is very important for writing, at least to me, and being selfish with your time is important if you want to get any decent work done, but shutting yourself off from the world doesn't help, and being selfish with people certainly doesn't. Oh it's a morality tale!

Otherwise, things move forward. Decisions will be made about various things. Friends have been editing the novel and have been extremely generous with their time! It's very much appreciated and I hope it will be worth it. I didn't do much writing after I finished my last edit so I'm getting back into a couple of projects now.

Hope you enjoyed the story.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Jonny, I enjoyed it a lot as usual. For the same sort of context gone darker, you could read J. G. Ballard's "The Enormous Space". I also just finished reading a collection of some of Akutagawa Ryunosuke's short stories, which also have some semi-autobiographical stories that feature similar scenes of madness and isolation (particularly "The Life of a Stupid Man" and "Spinning Gears"). And then I've just thought of a Mike Mignola "Hellboy" story featuring a sequestered artist who becomes a conduit of the demon Moloch. So I guess what I'm trying to say is that you're in good company?