What she once told Doug hit him like a bolt as he got back in the car. It stayed with him. A perspective, a philosophy as it were, something to hold on to, to elevate him so he could move forward, light on many levels rather than the weight of it in thought.
“Consider it a halo,” said Louise.
She was getting ready for bed, talking from the bathroom.
“So, not in the vein of helping a loser out?” said Doug as he struggled to pull a t-shirt over his head. “Or a high altitude, low opening jump?”
Louise’s head appeared from the door, her white t-shirt with a yellow happy face smiling, a dribble of white paste edging lower down her lip. The toothbrush wobbled as she spoke.
“Wha’ are you ‘alking abou’?” She took the toothbrush out. “Stop drifting with your thoughts. Listen to what I am saying now, not what you want to hear.”
She smiled, took the brush from her hand, threw it across the room.
Doug caught it as his arm and hand came free from his t-shirt, the brush head warm and wet between his fingers. The words and things she kept telling him to hold on to.
The jog began heavy as he found more often the way these days.
Had it been spring or summer he figured he would no doubt have started out with much the same feeling, just a little warmer. There was an unrelenting hardness beneath his feet when they touched ground and lifted. No different for foot or claw, a near-frozen crust beneath a thin skin of brackish slurries of mud, rippled by bike tires ridden through them. Trunks and branches dark and still against an early morning sky. The air hung heavy, close, and dank, reminding him of how his father’s crumpled oilskin coat smelt when it had been left, forgotten for too long, in the boot of the car because it had been overlooked and did not need to be worn again.
Doug’s body moved without much in the way of direction. He was running a path playing out before him. His body was his life, what he knew. He ran with it and from it.
Her words floated into his head at a spot where the base of a tree stump split the path in two. As he turned, a breeze which had been behind him was now running over his face, sharpening his awareness of the beads of sweat matting themselves in tiny salt trails running around his eyebrows and ears, down the curve of his spine and between his legs.
Louise was an artist. She took little things and blew them up big on canvases of charcoal and acrylic to see what evolved.
Doug recalled how a gallery owner once said: “She listens to music when she paints. She needs distraction to create.”
Louise delighted in telling how glimpses of people often moved her in ways she could not explain. In some of her works she tried to cast a light on these landscapes of memory. She knew they would crumble like a frost flower when touched if the question had been asked as to what it meant.
She created shape from edges. She sought out those moments, seeking distant dark stars that had no reality until the work was finished and she was moving to her next blank canvas.
Doug was struck by how there was never any paint on her fingers. She had the hands of one who does not encounter the daily debris of a creative or professional life. There was no suggestion over her skin that her hands worked near anything wrenched apart, hit in anger, caressed in a daze, dropped, squeezed, poured out or feverishly rubbed clean. She had the hands of a bookseller.
Louise was one of those artists, there are many, who create works of unsettled beauty that rarely command a life-changing sale or a headline. In her time, she created a following that nudged into and beyond Europe, parts of the Middle East, cities of Asia and pockets of Latin America. She breathed life into an increasing network of followers who admired her given the nature of how her eye saw the world. They did not care about her porcelain hands, only what she did with them.
Doug once saw a video of her at a small hotel with underground rooms. Louise was one of three artists giving advice to students about their work. One question was anchored to whether they felt more or less positive about work produced now it was a reality rather than an idea.
He couldn’t recall much of what she said other than: “There is light and dark. It is within us, not something we move into or away from. Sometimes we see it, sometimes we don’t.”
Louise had a poetry blog. She tried at least once a month to read her work at a café or bar. The Black Orchid was a favourite, a small dark room beneath a bistro in the west of the city. Everyone could easily hear the poets when they spoke.
Doug met Louise two weeks after first listening to her. She was sitting at the bar. A young poet had just finished and was walking away from a high-back stool, bathed in a solitary light.
Louise turned to Doug without an introduction.
“She has a lovely way with words.”
She moved her glass closer to him as she spoke.
“Her voice is to die for.”
Doug paused before responding.
“First night too,” was all he could say.
There was a heat from candles and people milling together. The clink of ice in glass, the hustle of hushed and rushed conversations. Just beyond them from a makeshift turntable came slow-beat grooves, baristas laced with tattoos, low-hanging necklaces, amulets. The scent of fresh-cut stems.
Louise picked an imaginary piece of skin from a little finger.
“There was a poet I knew,” she said. “She died about a year ago. I like her work. She will sell more now she has gone. Shortly before she died, she wrote that the only true thoughts are those which do not grasp their true meaning.”
“That doesn’t sound like a recipe for success,” said Doug.
“Not what she was into,” said Louise. “She sketched unspoken truths. She kept coming back to them. She was a mind moth chasing something that if actually touched, it would lead to everything changing, for ever.”
Louise had left her husband a few years earlier. She woke one morning, felt a pang of lingering emptiness, rolled away, and walked out. Before this, there had been arguments over little things. No children. Doug planned to ask her more about it when the time was right.
Louise did not like running. This came down to simple and straight-forward truths as she told him over a dinner while staying in the house of someone she knew who was away until the autumn and before they moved in together.
“You …,” she said, raising a glass of wine. “You need to stop focusing on where it is you are going and how you get there. Life is not moments that repeat. It is moments. No one remembers years. They only remember moments.”
As she spoke, Doug could hear a dog barking, the sound of a car’s tyres slurring along the wet street outside and a siren’s wail in the distance. Darkness had fallen hours back.
“Perhaps,” he said.
“There is no perhaps. Drink a little.”
She moved her glass to his lips. Hers were partly open, glistening in candlelight. It was as if he was taking communion, unsure whether to pull the shimmering glass vessel to his lips and let a sliver run over his tongue, or whether to just take whatever went into his mouth. To submit.
“What do you feel?”
“Well, it is from a good year.”
“Not the wine. What do you feel as glass and wine touch?”
“I don’t know what you mean. I’m in a good place.”
“You’re not in a place.” Louise held the glass closer to Doug’s lips.
“Feel it touch you. Focus on now. Not what is to come or has been.”
Doug could hear her words swim through his mind as his legs churned below. He straightened his back as he ran and felt bones resist. He had been on the trail for nearly an hour.
He approached a clearing that opened into a large oval space used by a cricket club in summer. It was one of those verdant silent spaces where you knew that if you hit the ball right it would get lost in distant undergrowth, perhaps for a few minutes, perhaps for all time.
Around the clearing, facing towards the centre of the green were several benches, all identical from a distance, three lengths of time-softened wood for the base, two for the back. Across these were small black plaques with silver spidery engravings. Most had rusted brown steel plugs, binding metal to wood, much like sinew to bone. Some were missing a plug here or there, decayed, worn.
Their messages spoke of coupled people from another time, words capturing distant lives: Doris and Cecil Flood, 1905-1998 and 1917-2004.
‘Together for ever,” read one. “When the fighting is over this is where we escape to,” read another.
He looked at the sky as he ran. Scratches of blue trying to break through clouds. He could not sense where the sun was.
Several ducks drifted in a still pond, wild green parakeets darted among branches, screeching as they flew. A jet bound for distant lands carved a white line into air as it lifted higher above him, over the shadows of the earth.
Doug began to think of words and images. He thought of authors and poets, living and not so, who had an unfinished eloquence to their legacy. Bolano perhaps and Camus, Highsmith, Kundera, Kafka, Sexton, Neruda, or Carlotto. Maupassant was said to have penned his own epitaph: “I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing,” he wrote as his days dissolved.
He wondered about his own epitaph or what Hemmingway, Plath or Cobain thought before a cold sea surge broke through and ended internal arguments. Dreamlike meanderings floated briefly through consciousness.
He neared the car park. Morning dog walkers had not yet arrived in large numbers.
He always savoured the point in time when a jog became a walk. He ran his hand across his forehead to wipe the sweat away. As he neared his car, he reached behind to unzip a back pocket and pull out his key.
The fob was cold as he moved to unlock the door and reach beneath the front seat where he had left the studio keys. As he did so, he had the sensation of a gas-blue jolt running from the core of his groin, arcing through the base of his spine through his skull. It was as if his body left-to-right, top-to-bottom was a mirror image and the four sides shifted momentarily in an unforgiving way.
A searing heat burnt into and through his back. As his thoughts ran with molten disappearing seconds, he sensed a body close against him.
“Let it go … everything as if it were the only thing you taste, see or feel.”
There was a dream, forever unplaced and yet close and present in his thoughts. He was in a garden, expansive, warm, and ripe in the lee of a hill looking out towards water, shimmering in light near that time between afternoon and dusk when the horizon line disappears amid sea and sky. Everything hanging nearby in colour, swollen and slightly bleached. Heat prickled all it touched. Two small-winged birds darted down then up and over the hill. A vapour trail of a silent jet cut a line through an exquisitely bright, blue space. He could not recall a time when he looked at such an empty silent sky. He stood firm, relaxed and without apprehension. He knew exactly what happened once the jet passed. He had always known. The grip within his chest grew more intense. A thought briefly passed, absurd and clear. He was standing to the end.
It was a black and yellow fleeting idea, burning, not fading away.
He thought he could hear the distant chords of a song.
“Three chords,” he thought to himself. “Not really that difficult if you put your mind to it.”
Near and far …
The pain eased. He got into his car, aware of a slight throbbing sensation in his neck.
To calm his mind, he thought of a river. In his mind’s eye, a log was coming downstream towards him as he stood on a bridge. It drifted by with his thoughts.
The drive from the park back to the studio was not long. It was a Sunday, traffic was slow.
Supermarket delivery trucks were double-parked near multi-story concrete cathedrals snaking along the edges of the river running through the city. A black BMW ran a space between two lanes of cars heading in opposite directions. The driver gave Doug the finger, swerving aggressively in front of his own car. Doug smiled, raising his own hand with a gesture never seen.
Doug pulled up outside the studio and waited a few minutes. There was a gentle ticking sound as the engine cooled. He gathered things, walked along the short path to the door, unlocked and entered.
He tried to make a conscious effort to breathe as he headed to the kitchen. He poured himself a glass of water.
Louise came into the room, just out of the shower, wearing two towels, one wrapped low around her head, partially covering her eyes.
Doug held his glass to light coming through the window, staring at particles swirling silently in front of him. Small moments within still moments.
He thought of time past. It was a little heavy in places, he wanted to say. You know that recurring feeling you sometimes get? It comes over you like a wave, marks you out for a time and then passes. You come up, look around and simply have a memory of air.
Louise shook the towel from her head, threw it onto a nearby chair and ran fingers through her hair.
“I think it will be one of those days.”
She moved forward and gave the lightest of kisses. Doug could just about feel it.
“There is always tomorrow,” said Louise looking out the window.
“Maybe you will join me when it comes.”