Author’s Note: I got the idea for this story about two years ago and have attempted to write it about three times. For some reason, every sentence was just a struggle. I don’t know why. This latest version took me about three weeks to write. I started out with a goal of 500 words and ended up with almost 3,000, so things kept morphing. Still don’t know why.
Andrew Harrisford woke up and knew with absolute clarity that he was going to die that very day. He went from sleep to wakefulness in a moment and there it was, the ugly knowledge, waiting for him like a shark.
He panicked and reached out for Laura and found only the vast empty tundra of percale sheet, and he cringed inwardly because she’d been gone for nearly four months and he had thought himself well past such reflexes. The problem was that her presence still lingered, stamped on these lifeless things as the old poem said. She was the one who’d insisted on high threadcount bedsheets and neutral colours for the bedroom, and Andrew had gone along with it because he’d assumed that Laura’s tastefulness would please him as much as it did her, and frankly he didn’t really care whether the walls were painted in Sea Pebble Beige or Blue Mountain Pewter. Apparently his lack of interest made Laura angry and they’d fought about it for ages. But then, he supposed, they weren’t really fighting about interior decoration.
And at this point Andrew remembered he was going to die, and forgot about Laura and the fact that they’d eventually settled on Ebro Valley Fog to complement the white bedroom furniture. Instead he sat up and reached for his mobile phone. But who to call? Which of his friends would take him seriously? If someone had called him at six-thirty on a Friday morning, claiming an unfounded sense of impending doom, he’d have told them to sleep it off, or possibly get a therapist. If he didn’t just laugh at them.
He stared at his mobile, dismayed. Was this a real thing? Was he ill? Perhaps it was stress. He’d seen the articles about heart disease and depression. Maybe he really was depressed. Maybe he really was still upset about Laura leaving. Maybe he was just in denial. And maybe he was going to die today, and at the end of the day, it wouldn’t make a difference.
Andrew became terribly aware of the things around him, and the way those things didn’t give a shit whether Andrew Harrisford lived or died. The shirt he’d carelessly thrown over the back of the chair. His collection of silk ties. A bottle of expensive cologne. He wasn’t rich, but he’d taken such pride in acquiring each of those possessions, because he’d had to work for them.
And yet here they were, and when he died they’d simply carry on. It wasn’t as if his passing would cause the threads of silk to spontaneously evaporate, or the cologne would turn to odourless water.
In an alternative timeline, Andrew might have used this moment to springboard into a beautiful philosophy about the ephemeral nature of life and existence and the relative worthlessness of material acquisitions. He might have given away all his earthly possessions and shaved his head and moved to a Buddhist monastery somewhere in southeast Asia, where he would have spent his days in meditation and humble acts for the benefit of the community. But that Andrew, worthy though he may be, is not the Andrew of this story.
Instead, the Andrew in our story thought about how if he died, someone would come into his apartment – his mother probably, perhaps with Laura’s help – and go through his things, and his shirts and ties would all go to Oxfam, because everyone would assume that was what Andrew would have wanted. His friends already had their own collections of silk ties, and if they took one for “sentimental reasons” it would most likely be because they’d always secretly coveted the dark lavender one he’d brought back from his holiday in Phuket two years ago.
Maybe, he thought with a flash of uncharacteristic meanness, that was why those ancient Egyptian kings got buried with all of their stuff – the idea of someone else wearing their favourite linen loincloth was too unsettling, and so they locked it all away for eternity, just to make sure.
At that moment his alarm clock shrilled and Andrew jumped. On an ordinary morning, it would be the signal for him to jump out of bed, hop through a shower and go through the motions of getting ready for work.
He was dialling the number almost before his thoughts had caught up, and so he had a moment of panic when Terry actually picked up the phone.
“Morning Terry,” he began, and perhaps it was the surprise that forced his voice out as a croak.
“Hiya Andrew! You sound terrible. Sick?” Terry sounded out of breath and Andrew would have been prepared to bet a fair bit of money that he’d either been jogging or having sex when he answered the phone. With Terry it could go either way. He was the most relentlessly active, unassailably cheerful man Andrew had ever met; even those poor souls who’d tried to impress the boss by joining him on his morning run had soon given up, beaten down by his apparently bottomless well of energy. While lesser mortals wheezed and limped, Terry would expound on business ideas.
Andrew surprised himself even more then. “Yeah, got a rotten stomach bug and spent the night inspecting the plumbing.” The lie came out smoothly.
“How awful!” boomed the ever-healthy Terry, with not a shred of sympathy. “Take the day off and get better alright? Oh, d’you think you’ll be better by Monday? Only I’m not supposed to tell you this but we had a whip-round and got you a birthday cake. Seems a waste if you won’t be there!”
“I’ll be there.”
“Right-o, keep up the fluids then. Bye!” And Terry was gone.
Andrew sat stunned for a moment. His birthday. How had he forgotten? Without Laura to make a big fuss of things, it hadn’t been hard to forget he was turning thirty-three.
He wasn’t sure what impelled him to get up and pull on a pair of daggy old jeans and his running shoes. As he pulled a T-shirt over his head, he had the vague notion that he might go and see a doctor. Get checked out, just in case there really was something wrong.
He stopped in the entrance hall to collect his wallet and keys, and his eyes caught the canvas.
Laura had chosen it, one far-ago Sunday morning at a flea market. It was garish and amateurly done; Andrew had hated it from the first, but Laura had ignored him and spent nearly forty-five minutes “haggling” with the sly-eyed, greasy old bastard who ran the stall while Andrew stood a few feet away, pretending unsuccessfully to be interested in handmade jewellery and wooden key racks. When she finally came away with the painting she had a hard, triumphant glitter in her eyes, and then she told him what she’d paid and he burst out, right there in the middle of the flea market, “Are you effing serious?” They fought about it all the way home and for the better part of a week, but Laura won (as always), and there it was in their hallway.
And she hadn’t even had the good grace to take the horrible thing with her when she left.
On impulse Andrew lifted the canvas off its hook and took it with him.
There were a few people standing at the bus stop, and one or two of them gave the canvas sideways looks. Andrew wondered whether they thought it was his own artwork. Well, there would be a rubbish tip somewhere he could drop it in.
A bus pulled up and Andrew got on without checking the destination. He sat in an empty seat near the back and wedged the canvas in front of his knees.
He realised that it was the first time in his life he’d ever climbed on a bus without knowing his destination.
The Friday morning city unfolded on the tiny, slightly grimy screen that was the bus window. Thousands and thousands of people on their way to work. Children going to school.
“Mind if I sit here?”
Andrew gave a cursory nod, glancing up only long enough to note that the asker was a young woman in a bright dress. She sat down and almost at once he was enveloped in her scent, as though the tendrils of vanilla and spice that floated up from her warm bare arm had wrapped themselves around his brain and were tugging him…
“Is that yours? I mean, did you paint it?”
He looked at her in surprise. She was motioning to the canvas. Pixie features and a snub nose and gorgeously plump lips wrestling down a smile. He thought he might fall in love at first sight, but then somewhat tragically remembered that almost-thirty-three-year-old professionals did not fall in love at first sight.
“Oh this?” He flapped a hand at the painting and hoped the horror showed on his face. “God no.”
“Thought not. You don’t seem like the type.” She had the sort of confident, lucid voice that naturally seemed to pair itself with phrases like ‘a First in Classics’ or ‘going up to Oxford’. “So what’s the story?”
“It’s a relic of my ex.”
She pondered this for a moment, still staring at the canvas as though it fascinated her. “Your ex must have been an interesting person,” she said at last, diplomatically.
“She was…” Andrew struggled for a word. “She was… I don’t know, a bit pretentious. Terribly pretentious, actually. I think she bought this because she liked the idea that she was supporting an artist, or getting in on his work early or something. Do you know, she paid sixty quid for it?”
The young woman gave a low whistle that blossomed into a laugh. “Are you serious?”
“Serious as the grave. We bought it at a flea market.” Andrew shook his head. “Look at the bloody thing.”
She looked. “It’s awful. So why are you lugging it around?”
“Honestly… I’ve no idea. This morning I…” The words froze on his lips. Woke up and thought I was going to die. How utterly ridiculous.
He glanced around and she was watching him with uncanny perceptiveness. “Are you alright?”
Had it shown on his face? “Well… no.” And then for the first time in his life, Andrew told a complete stranger a secret. “I woke up this morning and I felt like… well… it might be my last day on earth. I just… I know it sounds completely ridiculous but there you go.”
To her credit, she kept a straight face. In fact, she looked at him carefully, as though assessing something. “Have you ever felt like that before?”
She nodded slowly and then said, “My Granny was from Trinidad. She was… well, sort of spiritual. Kind of… well, she understood things a bit differently. If she was still alive… I’d say you were in the kind of situation that she could probably help with.”
Andrew bit his lip, an old nervous habit. “Do you think… I mean… do you think I’m really going to…”
“Honestly, I have no idea. My Granny was the one who knew about these things. But er, I did a semester of psychology and I’d say that at the very least you have some sort of unresolved issue. I mean… you are wandering around on a Friday morning carrying the world’s most horrible painting for no apparent reason.”
He groaned. “When you put it like that…”
She shrugged. “I reckon that painting is… I don’t know, my Granny would probably call it some kind of evil object. I think it’s a symbol of some kind. Maybe you need to destroy it or learn to love it or something. I think it’s significant to you in some way though.”
“I think I would definitely rather destroy it,” he said firmly. Inspiration struck him. “Would you like to join me?”
There followed a terribly awkward moment during which Andrew realised that he didn’t even know her name. He braced himself, waiting for her to express disgust or anger or at very least to be told how absurd he was being.
Instead she said, “Oh, alright.” He looked at her, surprised, and she shrugged. “It’s my day off,” she explained. “I was planning to have brunch at an organic cafe where my friend works, but honestly I think that watching the destruction of a painting by a man who woke up this morning thinking he was going to die is a much more interesting way to spend the morning.” She grinned at him.
Andrew breathed in deeply, feeling light-headed. “Well, alright,” he said. “How about we get off at the next stop, find a park or something and put an end to the madness?”
They climbed off the bus five minutes later. A quick check of the map application on his phone revealed a public space close by and they walked there in companionable silence. Andrew thought he’d never been in such a bizarre situation, but felt a strange, complete lack of concern. He glanced at the woman walking beside him, her long bright dress swaying as she walked, and she gave him a grin, infectious.
“How does one go about destroying a work of art?” She broke the silence at last when they were standing in the park, staring at the thing. It was propped up against a bench, the colours even more lurid out here in the fresh air.
“I suppose I could set it on fire.” Andrew looked around vaguely for signs that might indicate park by-laws. “Do you know if that’s illegal?”
“Setting something on fire in a park? I’d say so. Although I don’t think that, say, wielding an axe would be likely to be viewed any more kindly by a passing police officer.”
He thought about it for a moment. “Alright,” he said at last. “I’m going to… sort of try to put my foot through it.”
“Good for you,” she said warmly.
The world went silent. Andrew braced the canvas against the edge of the bench and took a deep breath.
It was not as elegant as he would have liked it to be. The first blow merely left the frame skewed and a deep dent in the painting. His foot bounced off and he hopped backwards, scrambling for balance. The second attempt, with more determination, tore the canvas open. And then the was the savage, destructive joy of picking up the wooden frame and whacking it repeatedly against the pavement, tearing the canvas loose from the frame…
“Andrew? Is that you? What are you…”
The voice came out of nowhere and when he looked up, for a moment he didn’t recognize her: Laura, in jogging paraphernalia. Oh yes, that’s right, he thought. She lives around here now, doesn’t she.
“What are you doing?” Laura was demanding. He’d forgotten how shrill her voice got when she felt the situation to be out of her control. She came closer, staring at the bits of canvas, and he saw the puzzlement in her eyes melt into recognition and then outrage and horror. “Is that the painting I bought you? What the hell? How could you?”
“I always hated the damn thing,” said Andrew, dizzy and breathless. “I could never even figure out what it was supposed to be.”
“You, you idiot!” Laura was screeching now, her face red, tears of outrage glistening in her eyes. “It was supposed to be you! I bought it because it looked like you!”
He stared, first at her, then at the remains of the painting, torn and battered and scattered about. Then his eyes strayed to the face of the bus stranger, who was watching with an expression half-horror, half-delight.
Their eyes met and the laughter came out of nowhere, deep belly laughter that bubbled uncontrollably to the surface and erupted, flew out from their lips and clashed in the air between them. Andrew almost fancied he saw sparks as it spread around them, but the laughter had conquered him, commandeered his lungs, stretched his cheeks to breaking point. He glanced up long enough to see the woman from the bus doubled over, laughing helplessly, tears of mirth streaming down her cheeks. In the distance Laura was still screeching, but her words were far away.
He had no idea how long it lasted, only that when he gasped out the final chuckle, Laura was gone. His chest heaved and the noise of the world slowly began to filter back in.
“My goodness,” said the bus stranger, wiping her eyes. “That may have been the single most incredible thing I have ever seen. Are you sure you didn’t plan it?”
“No. Jesus.” He breathed out, staggered to the bench and collapsed on it, surrounded by the debris of the painting. It looked like you, Laura had said.
The bus stranger came and sat next to him, bringing once again the delicious scent of vanilla. Andrew breathed deeply and grinned, held out his hand. “I’m Andrew, by the way.”
She took his hand and shook it. Her skin was soft and her hand warm. “Emmy.”
They sat like that for a while, not speaking. The morning air was soft and cool.
“So…” began Emmy. “That organic cafe isn’t too far from here. We could still make brunch, if you like.”
Andrew Harrisford smiled a smile of genuine pleasure. “Yes. I’d like.”
They gathered the bits of the painting. Andrew spotted a dustbin just across the road and walked towards it, his heart light, his spirit free.
He didn’t even see the car coming.