Fiction by Michael Loveday
To Martyn, Rickmansworth most resembles a delicate wrist-watch, with a built-in tendency to lag behind the beat of time. A case in point: he is at Watersmeet Film Club, on a rainy Thursday afternoon, and the movie is Eat Pray Love, screening a full two months after its London release. Most of the seats in the theatre are empty. Aside from a large tub of butterscotch ice cream, his only company is a smattering of female OAPs. Wispy white hairdos illuminate the dim hall as he finds his way through the temporary plastic seating. Martyn is having an off-day. He’s chosen this film because he knows Anja liked the story: a woman who travels to India to find herself. But actually it seems the woman is searching for The One. The movie is full of turns and disappointments—and just when the heroine seems about to settle on her choice, the projector slips its reel and the screen runs to blankness. Outside the theatre afterwards Martyn loiters, wondering where on earth he’s drifting to. Maybe The One he’s destined for doesn’t live in South West Hertfordshire after all. On the wall is a giant poster for Aladdin—the next Watersmeet panto. He dragged Anja and Rob to Cinderella last year. He slinks back home in the cold and wet, with just one wish for his jinxed magic lamp.
It is 4 a.m. Not yet light. He wakes from the sweat of a dream. Now he spreads Anja’s leotard across his closed eyelids. He did experiment for several months, but he found—mostly to his disappointment—that if there is one thing which quietens his mind—enough to let him slip from consciousness at this hour of the night—it is the leotard.
Martyn lies still until the cobweb of a dream has lifted—something about being naked in a church and his mother as priest angling a compact mirror towards him while offering all manner of Communions. He tries not to think about it more—behind closed eyelids he listens for the day that has already begun. Already the lorry reversing outside is an alarm that chides him for remaining in bed; already the roadworks’ pneumatic drill asks him why don’t you find a proper job you workshy tyke? Somewhere—deep beneath his eyes—a familiar ennui is working itself to the surface, and he begins the old negotiation with this other self, deploring the need to peel back the covers. He surveys the terrain of the day: ahead of him lie the Watford Observer, the manifold betrayals of the canvas, and Loose Women studied from the comfort of the sofa. His routines are a deep-sea dive in a copper helmet and weighted boots: labouring at the bottom of the ocean, beneath currents, moving at half pace in the murk. Will his air supply be cut? He’s been down here for what seems like too long. Someone has stolen his diver’s watch. He’s forgotten what daylight looks like.
Each time Anja leads a yoga session at Loudwater Farm, he falls a little deeper into the madness. He wanders through the corridors, dazed and bewildered, lost in a warren full of agile temptations. She advises him on his breathing in one to one sessions after the main class, drawing tiny, mysterious diagrams in her notebook—which only makes him puff a little quicker than he should. And then there are the tremulous, slow melodies of her voice as she speaks—seductive as the drip of manuka honey from a spoon. But of course Anja is no siren teasing him, she is only his Penelope, weaving her shroud, and waiting for him to finish his Odyssey. It is these others who are the sirens, resplendent in lycra. So he tightens his straps, glad for the sturdiness of the mast, and rows himself home down Chorleywood Road.
He invents ex-lovers and recounts fantastical backstories to Anja—telling her they live on as ghosts in his bedroom. It might manifest as no better than a cliché, except for the tokens he clings to, summoning defunct relationships in the dread hours—the jewel-encrusted hairbrush—the rosary—the one-eyed panda—the fountain pen with the split in the barrel.
In Anja—he doesn’t yet tell her—he’s found the companion all men surely crave—a keeper of secrets, and mirror to his better self. She might as well be his twin, so mousy-fine is her hair, so hazel her irises, so olive her complexion. One shadowed glimpse of her in the evening window glass—how devilishly beautiful he looks.
The Halloween cake, populated with bloodied, severed limbs made from icing sugar, doesn’t seem like the most appealing use of a window display. Nevertheless he needs some caffeinated respite at Cinnamon Square—he is definitely not heading to the Tate Modern for the Ai Weiwei—not after wasting his own morning at the easel. From his point in the queue he spies Rob in the courtyard but isn’t in the mood—it is a no-contact day—a glass-mouth day. Martyn slips past the open window towards the refuge of interior tables in one of the low-ceilinged rooms. He sits, and hides behind his book—I am an Other—eyes wandering all over the page and unable to focus. If Rob spots him and wants to walk the plank of speech, Martyn will inform him that he has to work. He’s so pressed for time these days—not least his painting which continues to flourish in adversity—like a giant cactus flower.
The clockwork vampire teeth—Anja’s Halloween gift—rest impatiently on the studio table. The scarlet gums match the plush of the curtains framing the window overlooking the communal garden—a tightly manicured lawn in the shadow of trees that line the canal. Martyn refers to the communal garden only irregularly for inspiration. He continues to paint his long-gestating sequence of canal landscapes. A man kneels in the fields of Stockers Farm, eyes closed, seeming to pray. A horse stands nearby, mane lifting in the breeze. Every few minutes Martyn winds up the teeth, then waits as their chattering dwindles to silence. Click click—a daub of blue. Click click—a dab of black.
At dinner with Anja and Rob—at the Tamarind Thai—Rob is devouring tom yum soup—slurping so disgustingly that Martyn is losing his wits. Along with small talk and cheeriness, soup slurping is Martyn’s weak spot. He is meant to remain charming but all he can think about is grabbing Rob’s neck and thrusting his fat head hard into the bowl of bobbing prawns. He is tempted to draw Anja’s attention to it subtly so they can begin to conspire over the lack of civility. Instead he digs his thumb nail into his index finger with force—displacing one physical pain with another—and confirms his own unagitated demeanour in the glass of the mirrored soap adverts hanging on the walls. His own broth arrives and Martyn puts on an exquisite performance of immaculate silence. Rob’s slurping has finally stopped—but the mere idea of its return obliterates calm repose—a pea under a mattress.
To join the London Olympics as proxy hero, Martyn intends to complete two thousand and twelve laps of Bury Lake. He is not running for charity—it is a piece of performance art, and he will be running backwards with a paintbrush as a baton that he will pass to nobody. He’ll draw two thousand and twelve sketches of the seasons as they change round the lake. Rob will monitor his progress—he must average five or six laps per day. Martyn is impressed with his own ambition—he promises to invest in new trainers each time he loses his grip. He’s not sure he will keep it up—though Rob cheers him by saying if there’s any exercise that suits him, it is surely running.
Martyn attempts to survive the narrow gauntlet of the High Street but has to stop for a woman from St. Mary’s community group who passes by. Recognition brings the recurring mix of fondness and shame in equal measure. How is she? he asks—and is her heart ok again? When they first met, she’d confided that she’d once been impregnated by her therapist practising mind control—in the end she’d had to keep the triplets for religious reasons. Today she is going to The Lakes to meet her new lover—he’s a shrink at Shrodells Unit—but it’s early days—and he’s a shy man—so they’re not telling anyone. How’s Martyn for romances? Still throwing all his effort into his paintbrush? The devil makes lovers of idle men, she winks, waving and melting back into the crowd.
Before Martyn became a painter, he lived as a 14th-century troubadour. He stood below second floor casements—serenading window panes with breakable melodies. He wore a sapphire tabard and kept crimson roses in a cloth sack over his shoulder in case of emergencies. Only two further objects accompanied him as he travelled the length of the land—his harp and a bar of caked soap. And he lived by filching from farms, while he passed through strangers’ fields at night like some kind of spectre. As for his music, a congregation of one would have sufficed. He threw his high, shy voice over rooftops. He sang songs like grappling hooks that scrambled across mediaeval thatch. Lyrics were there to be carolled and damsels there to rouse from endless slumber. Night-times he dreamed under the fires of hopeful stars. But Martyn’s voice at first was thin as a rope—too weak to bear the weight of a man’s innate desire. For several days he tried living exclusively on a diet of lemon juice and figs—to see if he became light enough to lift more easily. Lemon juice and figs—waiting for the rope to thicken.
A numb fog has descended again—rendering all a shade of paint-water. And somewhere ahead unseen, the void awaits—unwitting as a crevasse in an ice-sheet. Wild, unfathomable, and deep, it would plunge him into bottomless darkness—he could drop a stone in and never hear it land.
Martyn remains grateful that what in normal employment are considered severe behavioural defects—extreme rages of emotion coupled with hypersensitive reactions towards others—a deadly hunger for prolonged spells without human interaction—an inclination to stare obsessively at people’s faces—are considered core ingredients in the Person Specification of the Artist.
Anja is with him for support—during his assessment at Shrodells. He ought not to be fazed by all these questions—he’s faced down their like before with Anja at his side. Except this time he has forgotten his prepared responses. He sees the questions coming at him from a distance like high-speed trains—and the doctor is silent now, waiting for answers. An adolescent juggler hides inside Martyn’s body—lobbing carving knives—and the knives are spinning round his insides—scraping his innards—wanting to break out.
He knows Rob thinks he is a failure as a person—but their friendship is surely based on an artistic evaluation. Just like Rob’s doctor, lecturer, and lawyer friends, an artist counts as a valuable addition to Rob’s friendship portfolio, carefully placed among the supporting cast—like an over-the-shoulder vegetable option at a banquet—would sir prefer carrot, or parsnip perhaps.
Sleepless in the middle of the night—but not wondering about Rob and Anja lying in bed in the dark, somewhere else in Rickmansworth. Not thinking about Anja awake on her side, her abdomen pressed close to Rob’s—listening to him sleeping—feeling his tanned and sculpted limbs move—sensing the glow of his body heat. Not thinking about her longing to be held—longing to stroke Rob awake.
Every portrait of Martyn’s seems a self-portrait; every weather-beaten landscape his own disturbed consciousness; in his still lifes he observes the accumulated tedium of his own routines. He fears he belongs to the paintings more than they belong to him—what happened to the core Martyn that he used to know and despise? If he is attentive he finds he is scattered everywhere—dispersed through the gloop of the oils into no more than brushwork and the reflection of light. The paintings seem to be painting themselves. He watches the paint—in his latest portrait of Grand Union swans—drip down the brush, trickle along the length of his wrist, leaving a stain on his skin.
Sometimes Anja praises Martyn so highly she makes him feel like Superman. He has the Superman dream always the same way: not the caped crusader saving the civilised world, but Clark Kent the reporter wearing preppy spectacles and befuddled by Lois Lane—except Lois is Anja—and Anja’s nipples are made of kryptonite. But this is a dream and Lois-Anja is also somehow Lex Luthor at one and the same time—looking like Gene Hackman with his big-collared 1970s shirt—and Lois-Anja Hackman takes off Clark Kent’s glasses, kisses his brow sadly, then draws his head closer to her deadly, trembling chest.
He presses Send—retreats to his burrow—and watches his rabid lust for Anja subside. Poor Rob—the man acknowledges no subplots. Eat me, Anja, eat me. Now Martyn waits for a currant cake to appear before his eyes—inside its little glass box. He waits. And waits.
Talking to Anja is sometimes strange. His view through the window is clear—then there is a splintering. He finds himself with a mouth full of shattered glass—and yet he keeps chewing.
Life breaks you apart slowly—with every relationship the miniature sculptor works with a hammer and chisel on the stone lump of your heart. If you’re really lucky, Martyn thinks, a man survives well enough to be left in the end with something recognizable—maybe not a work of art but something you can live with. But it takes a lot of false starts for a sculptor to shape a stone well—if he taps a touch too hard he finds a fault line waiting.
Martyn’s brain is floating somewhere in a bottle of gin—he’s been hauled to Rileys in Watford to play snooker with Rob and Anja. There are green rectangles in lines everywhere—like he’s playing in an endless hall of mirrors—one that stinks of beer and sweat—and Rob is wiping the grubby floor with Martyn. He’s on the last black, playing a trick shot behind his back with his right leg balanced in the air—and Anja is doubled up laughing. Rob might as well be picking him up and rubbing his face into Anja’s breasts saying see Kent this is what you could have—if you could only fly. And he knows he ought to embrace it all and just ruffle Rob’s hair with a fond palm—but really he wants to clamp his head in an arm lock and smash the fucker’s teeth out of his mouth. Today he wants the game to be over. He picks up the snooker cue, gripping it hard in both hands.
© Michael Loveday
[This piece was selected by Valerie O’Riordan. Read Michael’s interview]
Michael Loveday’s stories are published / forthcoming in magazines such as Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine; Litro; Flash Frontier; Ink, Sweat & Tears; The Jellyfish Review; Spelk; and Stand. His debut poetry pamphlet “He Said / She Said” was published by HappenStance Press in 2011. This story is an excerpt from a work-in-progress—a book-length sequence about three troubled men, set in the town of Rickmansworth on the London / Hertfordshire borders.