The Big Book Drop - 27 September
The Best and Worst Books of August

Fiction: 'Black Paintings' by James Smythe


I first saw the painting in a gallery in Spain. I was there on business, the day after my diagnosis, and wanted to distract myself before my flight. The gallery was so quiet; people standing, sitting, watching the paintings. In England, museums are a thoroughfare before a cafeteria and a gift-shop, where the art is motivation to keep moving. You nod and appreciate it; you move on. In Spain they have benches and people not writing or talking, but watching; as if the art might move, as if there is a chance that the paint itself might do something.

My head was hurting so I took the first bench that was vacant and emulated the locals: I looked at the sign fixed to the wall. I didn’t recognise the name of the painting, but I knew the artist. Not his work, necessarily: more the sound of his name. I have taken innumerable lessons about art, and literature, all in the name of bettering myself, and for what? All so that I might become who I am now. That’s something that my ex-wife is fond of saying.

You have paid to be exactly what you have become.

As if that is a slur. The painting in front of me wasn’t on canvas, but concrete. Some sort of statement? There were two men painted on it, both with sticks, billy-clubs, held above their heads, drawn back to strike; both knee-deep in something, like a swamp. One man with blood running down his face; and you knew from looking at him that the first strike damaged him. His moving for a retaliatory strike was desperation, a gamble for survival. Duelo a garrotazos, the painting was called. I thought that it would be too obvious if I looked it up; only tourists used their mobiles in here.

I sat there and watched the injured man until I calmed down. I don’t know how long it took.

* * *

I have an art dealer who tells me what I should be buying rather than caring about what I actually like. He talks about futures instead of taste. I think that these two things should be intertwined, but he assures me otherwise. That is why he was employed: as a way of syphoning my money into sensible investments.

He says, Most art is temporary. It only becomes forever when somebody says that it’s so. You buy a painting for more than it’s worth, that’s suddenly its new worth. The trick is making sure that people know what you paid for the thing in the first place. I have a room full of monstrosities that I never spend any time in. Modern things. A wall of vulgar erotic line drawings; human limbs pickled and labelled as if for sale; a series of intersecting geometric colour-blocks.

He tells me about his recent finds, and I pay attention, because I worry that he knows that I’m a charlatan. My investments all live in the same room. They’re so tightly forced together in there that you can’t physically look at just one. I have read on the internet about the optimal margins on a wall for a painting, and I have ignored it. He shows me his folder, photographs taken by him in slummy Shoreditch galleries, and he says, This stuff: it will only age well.

I tell him that I’ve found something I want. He looks surprised.

A discovery? he asks. I can see the glint in his eyes: he’s going to humour me. He thinks that I will show him something primitive. Finger painting, or cave art.

I tell him the name, Duelo a garrotazos. I translate it for him, because now I have looked it up. Fight with cudgels. Worse in English, so much worse, but that’s the name.

I know, he says. He is thinking of his commission. You want that? he asks. He shakes his head, like he’s disappointed. His whole persona when talking art is a charade. It will be ridiculous, he says. I mean, this is excellent, your appreciation. One of Goya’s Black Paintings. Early 1820s. It was painted to the wall of his house; you would be buying a wall.

If you can’t get it for me, I say.

He stops me. Oh I can, I absolutely can. It will cost, though. It’s been museumed. When you’re in a museum, you’re worth… Well, more than money. You’re important. And you’re there for the plaque with the donor’s name on it, to show that they understand your importance.

I ask him what it takes to get rid of a plaque. He smiles, like a matador readying the cloth.

It will take enough money that they can buy two important things to replace it with, he says.

* * *

How did I begin?

I began by selling whatever in a market, working for my father. Then I had my first idea of my own, branched out. My toes were dipped into so many waters that I cannot even remember them all. I upscaled, upsized. I learned how to carry myself. Now I am a number on a Rich List: I am exactly what I am worth, a bank balance rounded down to ten digits. And I have endless meetings. I have come up with ways to think past them: shutting everything down as much as possible, to save fuel. Running on fumes, since I became ill. I haven’t told anybody, because of the investors and employees; it’s all worth more than just me now.

The numbers never stop, either. I get home and I can walk into any room of my exaggerated house and pick out the most expensive item; and then there are requests, always requests, from ex-wives. One of them, the worst, calls me evil, but the others are just desperate. They never ask how I am, so I haven’t told them. They don’t know what’s wrong with me yet. I don’t think I will tell them until they find out of their own accord.

At my fourth wedding, my best man asked me why I was doing this again. He said, You know how these turn out for you. What he meant was, She is after the money. It was an explanation for the entire thing, one of many, and an easy one to swallow. But what else was I going to do with it? Now, I sign things over. I have emails arguing about clothes for the children, even though I buy them everything that they could ever want. I am busy, so I am a bad father.

I call one of my ex-wives but she isn’t there. I tell her machine that I’ll transfer the amount she has asked for.

I say to it, This is all transitory. One day you will have to stand on your own two feet.

* * *

My new painting won’t be hung in the usual room. It can have its own, as so many of them are unused now. When am I likely to have eight visitors at one time? I pick one and clear it out myself, dragging the furniture to the other spare bedrooms. Then this room is open to everything, and I marvel at it, and I try to ignore my new headache. These places, when they’re bought, they’re empty while being already complete, somehow. They have a history that you can’t put into them or mask over. I try and visualise my new painting on the wall. I pull a bench in from a room down the hall, and while it’s not as comfortable as the one in that art gallery, it will do. I sit on it in front of that wall until the pain subsides. There is nothing there, though; soon it will be me and those two painted men, and that sludge at their feet.

I’m called to work in the afternoon, because there is a meeting of the board. I sit there and let them speak, and I think about the thing inside my skull, and I watch the Yays vote before deciding which side of the fence I am sitting on for this one.

* * *

When the painting arrives, it is cracked into two distinct pieces. The transporters carry it off their van and lay it against the wall. They don’t know what happened: their braces should have been enough to hold it steady in the truck. The crack is clean and vertical. They speak like doctors, telling me about a fatality. We all know that the painting is ruined now, and the insurance claim will rinse the delivery company dry. Somehow, it is now worth less than what was paid for it. The entire rule of the art world thrown onto its head.

After they have heaved the pieces upstairs I watch them peel off the bubble wrap. Now they’re delicate. One of them says, Maybe it can be fixed? He’s seen paintings damaged and then restored to how they were. He tells me about them with a quiet, desperate confidence. He has a family to support, I’d bet.

It’s fine, I say. There is a mount already on the wall, and they look at putting the blocks of stone onto it, but I tell them to stop. I’ll worry about it, I say as they leave. I even tip them.

I sit on the bench and look at the painting, which leans against the wall in a way that’s too casual for something that cost so much. The two men have been separated, which is typical and inevitable, the split running directly between them. They are still fighting though, readying their weapons to swing at the space between them. Between them is a gap that shows off the room’s regal yellow wallpaper. My eyes are still drawn to the one man with the injury. I stand up and pull the other part away from him, dragging it. I shouldn’t do this, I know, because it’s carving lines into the floorboards – restored from the original, four hundred years old at least, and the cost of varnishing and maintaining them alone – and it could damage this side of the painting, maybe. I don’t know.

When it’s moved, I sit back down and focus on the injured man by himself. He is terrified: he holds his cudgel above his head, rushing to attack somebody who is no longer there. Like fighting off a ghost. He is bleeding, and I look at his feet, which aren’t moving. They are still and the sludge that he trawls through, it’s cloying and black. For the other man, at the far side of the room, the mire is thin and yellow. Did that make it easier for him? Is that how he got the upper hand?

I stand up and make eye contact with the injured man, and I advance. There’s something in his eyes. He needs to survive this, I can see. It’s paramount.

* * *

I wake in the middle of the night. I rarely sleep through, because I hear noises, and when I wake up, they aren’t there any more. I tell myself that this is living in an old house. It would be stranger to hear nothing. We have mice, and we have birds in chimneys and bats in the attic, and the house seems to be constantly settling. That’s what the estate agent who showed it to me said: some houses never stop settling. This one needs an owner who will settle with it.

I bought the house the day I first made an appointment with my doctor, when I felt sick as I signed the contracts, and my head lolled, and I nearly passed out. I said to the estate agent, I will never move house again. Then, I thought that would be because I really loved the place, not that I wouldn’t have a choice. That was only six months ago: too late to change anything.

The noises could be in my head, I know.

I was warned about this.

* * *

My doctor asks me why I even bother coming to see him any more. He says – and his theory – is that I should be making the most of what time I’ve got.

I have a classic story in me, I tell him, Greek or Roman or something, as old as those; about a man who has everything and yet can’t buy the one thing that he needs.

That’s irony, he says. He says, We spoke before about chemotherapy. We can start a course if you like.

But you said it won’t help, I reply.

No. It could make you feel like we’re at least trying, and that might help you feel better in yourself. But no. You’ll be sitting in a chair and making yourself weaker, and you might end up buying yourself days. Everything turns serious with him, then. He does this: a sense of camaraderie, as if we are in this together. I am the only one here dying. You’ll be sick enough soon enough, Jeffrey. Don’t invite this into your home before it needs to be there.

We play golf. This is what a sick rich man does with his doctor who cannot cure him. They play golf, and the sick rich man wins but can’t tell if it was skill or private-healthcare pity.

* * *

So I put money into inner city refurbishment programs. A way of spending the money that makes sense to me. A newspaper editorial called The Man Who Gives Back runs, and they talk about what I have done. I didn’t condone it, but I know that publicity were behind it. Must have been. An ex-wife calls me when she sees it.

You can give back more this way if you like, she says. She tells me that our son is bullied. They need a new house, as if your house is something you can be bullied over. She tells me this in a voicemail, where I can’t protest. Everything with these women is a full stop.

I sit in the painting’s room. I focus on the one with his bloodied head. We are in this together, I think: both of us with this wound in the same place, only yours is so visible. I often find myself wondering if you will see mine when I go: that there might be a pop, then blood in my eye. That’s what I’ve read: that it can flood you, when it goes. I might be walking around and it’s already happened and I just don’t realise, and I am filling up with blood to the outside world. And so many things can happen with this outside of my perception. My doctor said, There will be effects. He said, You won’t necessarily notice them. You might not even know that there’s something wrong.

There’s something in his pose, which is drawn back, as if he’s still about to strike. Maybe it’s more aggressive than I first thought. As if that cudgel is aimed at me, and I am the other half of this argument. That’s how fights begin, I think; with a simple word heard or said wrong. Oh, and the tension, that’s always important. There’s always tension before a fight, even if you aren’t aware of it.

I call my ex-wife back to talk about the house. I say, You’ll have the money soon enough. You’re like a parasite sometimes. I can’t remember if I actually said that last part. In my memory I spat the words out. Maybe that’s how I should be thought of when I’m gone: as a bad old man, even though I am not that old. I only look it, suddenly.

She says, You’re becoming like those people that you hate, you know.

To which I reply, I have always been them, and I am not becoming anything.

* * *

I hear noises when I’m asleep again. They sound like they are coming from down the corridor. They stop as soon as I am awake, sitting up, wondering if I am still alive; but I look through the house anyway. I won’t sleep now. I end up in the room with the painting, and I sit. Of the two pieces, one has a place here. The other is the attacker. What is it doing here? It is the back of a man’s head. He’s committed some violence, that much is true, but I cannot see his face.

He is the antagonist. There’s no room for him.

His piece is heavy, but not so much that I can’t pull it. I dig grooves into every floorboard as I do it, but I get it to the hallway, and then to the stairs. I think, I will take this one by one, walking it down. I don’t know what I’ll do with it at the bottom. I am naked, because that’s how I sleep, and this is my house, and there are no neighbours. I stand below it and try to work it down to the first stair, but I can’t hold it. It slips and falls, and then suddenly it is at the bottom of the staircase, and shattered. The back of it is old and worn, and that’s what I can see from here: half of a masterpiece reduced to rubble.

I’m not sad, though, and I won’t miss him.

I make my way back upstairs, where I move the remaining man – he is the survivor – to the middle of the wall-space, so that he can get my full attention. I already find it hard remember the other one; what he looked like, what he brought to the room.

I stand in front of the survivor and plant my feet on the floor, and I raise my hand behind my head, mimicking his pose but facing off to him.

I’m a challenger, I say, as if there is something here to fight over.

* * *

I don’t know how, but it comes out in the press. About the cancer. There’s an article in the FT, stock plummets, and I am inundated with telephone calls. My ex-wives range in emotion from distraught to practical, with the worst of them attempting to persuade me to alter percentages of my estate based on what amounts to time served.

(Or you could sign it to me now, she says, meaning the house and the cars and whatever else. Even my stake in the company; she would have it all, if she could.)

The article is written by a journalist I’ve helped out in the past, and I call her and ask her why she published it.

Is it true? she asks.

Yes, I say. Of course it is.

Is that on the record?

Whatever, I say. Fine. I am dying. Is that what you want to hear? I am dying. She asks for more details, and I tell her that it is pressing on my brain, and I describe the pain to her, and tell her how long I have known and how long I have got. There’s an update to the online article an hour later, with quotes. I think to myself, I’m sure that I have never sounded that purple, but those words are mine, because I must have said them. They are attributed to me.

* * *

In a board meeting they say, We propose a vote of no confidence. I wonder if they will let me wait until they’re all done before I cast my ballot.

This whole thing would be hilarious if it were not this; if it shared none of these details, and it was not my life.

* * *

I dreaded an end that came this way: me alone in my house, and everything empty. I had a cleaner and a cook but I have fired them, because what is the point? What was ever the point? I am a man, and I can take care of myself.

Here is how it was when I was young: me and my younger brother and two younger sisters, and a mother who drank and the rest, and a father who worked on a market and drank and the rest. I didn’t need staff then, that’s the crux, so why should I need them now? When did that happen to me?

I should call my family, because we haven’t spoken in years. They all wanted more from me when I suddenly had it to give. What was I to them? I was a grab. A snatch.

I call my brother first. He answers, which means he still lives in the same house that we grew up in; that my parents died in. I could visit that part of London and ask him if he can see the shiny park that I have had built across the road, or the flats that have now become apartments with my name on the contracts and my money underneath the floorboards. I can ask him if he recognises my voice: the words that I have learned, the accent that I have adopted.

Hello? he asks, and he knows that it’s me without me even saying anything. It’s you, isn’t it? I am too scared to talk, but he sounds as he ever did. I read the article, he says. You’re dying, then? I can hear the question poised on his lips: a diver, waiting to jump into my money. Fine, do this, he says. You play this game. This can be a final goodbye. I hear the click of the handset, and the tone; and then he picks it up. He listens, to see if he has a dial tone now or if I am still here. He puts it down, and then I do. I imagine he will pick it up again and check, but I have no way of knowing.

* * *

My nose bleeds. I am in bed alone and it’s all over the sheets, and I wake up wet. I think that it’s sweat until I smell that, like pig’s blood – one blood is like another, probably, but the smell of pig’s blood, that’s the one that I remember – and I touch my face. It is not warm, but this is viscous, and over my lips. I can taste it, and I look down and it is on both my bare chest and the white of the sheets. One of my wives, I can’t remember which, would only sleep under white sheets. There was a thread count that she insisted on as well, but only because she had read the number in a magazine about the rich and famous. Egyptian Cotton, as if that made a different. As if it isn’t all just the same, but some is from one place, and some from another. Branding, and spun by different machines, that’s all. Maybe even the same machines.

I look at myself in the mirror, and I clean myself up. Chest first, then nose. It comes out like, I don’t know. I think, Maybe this is a part of my brain. Maybe this is the explosion, a firework, and now the rest comes. Death. I collapse here. I even wonder if I died in my bed: if I will walk back and see the body there. Maybe this is how the afterlife is, or purgatory: a constant feeling that you are about to die, wondering when it will happen. That moment, replayed. I pull the part from my nose that feels like mucus, thick and tough, and what’s left is still-streaming bright red. I stem it, mostly, and it isn’t until I am staring at myself in the mirror that I think of what I could do with this.

How does a painter see their materials? How do they find inspiration?

I take my finger and wipe the blood from the nostril, and I smear it on my forehead. How long has it been since there was hair here? A long time. My forehead is still so smooth though, remarkably so – inside, it will be mottled and dark, though – and I can make a trace of the blood down my forehead, just like the man. I do this, forehead to face, thicker at the top, where the blow would be delivered, and I stand back. I adopt the pose, with the red tissue rag as my cudgel.

I walk down the corridor to his room, and there I see him.

I say, We are simpatico, you and I. I raise my hand again. If I could be you, I say, maybe I could survive this as well?

How can I be you?

* * *

I examine him more closely than I have ever looked at anything. This is all I have to do with my days. I close my doors to the outside, and I spend all my time staring closely at his features. I have my bench, and I sit in here and examine him. I think about what the artist must have felt, painting the wall of his house. Can you imagine that? Becoming so desperate to paint that you have to work with what is to hand? Not even thinking of the considerations of selling it, or of what the painting itself is destined to become? A man with a commercial mind would think, Paper is an easier medium. But this was frantic and wrought out of something that I cannot even fathom. A desperate passion for what he was painting: this man, this injured man, and his weapon! Who was he fighting? Do you know? I can’t even tell.

As I sit here, with this new birthmark of blood on my face, now dried and flaking, I think that it might be me. Maybe the blood on his face isn’t the mark of a man about to lose; maybe it’s the mark of a victor. He is more to me than a man with a weapon: he is a violent torrent, a personal arbiter of whatever it is that I feel I am owed.

* * *

An ex-wife turns up at the front door. She is the middle one in every way, like an average of them all, in both time and temperament. She says, You look like shit. Let me in.

What did you expect?

I don’t know, she says. I saw the picture in the newspaper, you looked okay. What’s that on your face?

It wasn’t a recent picture, I tell her. She goes into the kitchen and looks at the mess. This is the way that I live now.

She says, You’re a state. You know that, right?

I’m dying, I say.

So this is how you’re going to go?

You can’t talk to me like that.

She laughs at me. Go to a hospital. Or a hospice. You look like death, she says, and that’s a phrase that nobody ever clarifies; whether you look like the action or the person. It’s never clear in the accusation. She goes to the hallway and kicks over a piece of the rubble. She sees the back of the fallen man’s head, the one who I did away with. She asks what it is, and I can see her: thinking that I am destroying the worth before I go. This should have been hers. She has apportioned herself a percentage, and I have ruined it. It is in rubble. What are you doing? she asks me, and I think that this could be concern, but it is most likely her own selfishness. What have you become?

If she was concerned, she would have brought fruit. She would have shuttled me around. The only reason that she has come here is to remind me that she did; so that I will remember this if I decide to redraft the will.

* * *

My telephone rings. It is my art dealer, asking if I want to make more investments. He says, I have some great things you should see.

I’m dying, I say. Haven’t you seen that I am dying? Of course he has. I say the word twice. Do you even know the power that word has?

He asks if I have thought about what I will do with my collection when I go. Have I thought about an auction house yet, or will I do it all privately?

You fucking vulture, I say. You fucking pimp: it sat in a room where I hated it, and you want a percentage on it again; more this time, because of what you told people I paid for it. I hear myself breathing in the echo of the telephone line, and I put the handset down. I do not hang it up though, because I don’t want any more calls. Later, a dull tone comes from it, but the batteries will die out soon enough.

* * *

The gallery in Spain sent the wall-card with the painting, can you believe it? A small white card, in Spanish, that I cannot understand because I never took lessons. It says, Duelo a garrotazos. Duelo. I wonder if the name should be changed, because here he is on his own. The other one is still in rubble, and I think about what that must do to a man: to be left at the bottom of the stairs, nobody picking up the pieces.

Yet still I leave him there. He is nothing to me.

His friend, his enemy, whoever this other man was: he is alone in the room with me now. I imagine what it must be to fight him; to step into the darkness he is trudging through and to raise my weapon against him.

In some way, even though he was the first injured, is this other man the winner? He survived the separation, like a conjoined twin who gets the bulk of the organs. He is a survivor. The other looked like he had the upper hand, but who is left now? When all is destroyed? Is a man in a duel with no opponent the winner by default?

Do you think he knows something that I don’t?

* * *

He is a peasant. He wears peasant clothes. I read about the artist and where he came from, and what he painted. He painted life, and violence. This man came from nothing, and he defeated the other by virtue of survival. He outlasted, is all.

A letter tries to persuade me to sign my money over to my ex-wives now, because when I die the government will pillage it as they fight over their own self-importance.

I write on the bottom of the letter: That won’t be happening.

* * *

In his room, there is peace; or, no. There is the peace that comes before violence. You know that? That moment? Here it is: encapsulated, trapped in time. Am I using that word properly?

I pull clothes from the cupboard to find something appropriate. Peasant clothes. How long has it been since I wore peasant clothes? Am I being punished? Because I abandoned who I was? Because I became this? I settle on an old shirt, on work-trousers that don’t fit me so well, but they are old, older, from when I had less money; and I face him.

Fight me, I say to him. Come on. I want your secret. But he stays where he is, and that is because everything else about this is a lie. My life, this house, this room. The bench! How ignorant I was to think that a bench would be what this needed. So that I could sit and watch him, like some voyeur. 

This isn’t complete: there is something missing. I know what is missing.

* * *

I still have my bankcards, and my accounts haven’t been frozen. They are letting me have my decline. I am a boxer who requests a final fight, knowing that it will be what finishes him. So what, they think, let him fritter a million. What harm can it really do? That’s a drop in an ocean.

I tell the suppliers that I will pay them to deliver it today. I explain my situation: that I am gravely ill, and I need to move quickly. They give me a quote and I agree. Three hours later, here they are, with the bags. I direct them upstairs to his room. I have already dragged the bench out and thrown it down the stairs to join the fallen comrade, and they have to step over the detritus, but that’s fine. I say, I’ll pay you to empty the bags out for me. They cover the floor in soil, and take money from me in handfuls, and look at me as if I’m already dead.

The hose isn’t long enough to bring through the house, so I open the windows to his room and stand in the garden and spray upwards. It’s almost freeing to work this way. I think: I am working with my hands again, and it is like nothing, as if these forty years have never happened.

* * *

I sleep. Tomorrow, I say, I will take it from you. You were a survivor, but something has to be left.

* * *

You need two men for a duel, correct? Just listen to me. If you had a duel, there is, by necessity, a second party. Duelo a garrotazos. So, the first one is fallen, because he had his back to me. He fell down the stairs and he is dead. You can call him art all you like, but he is gone now, and this one needs a combatant.

I step into the mud, sinking in. All between my toes I can feel it. I have got my shirt on, and these suit-trousers. I laugh at the thought of ever wearing these for their purpose: in a boardroom, in a meeting. Was that me? Was I really that man? You watched it, I think, as I went to the office and told them, and voted last. I want nothing to do with this. I recant it all. These words, which I have learned, been taught to say, to elocute: they mean nothing to me.

The mud is as deep as my ankles, or further. This is a trudge, from doorway to violence, but I think that it should be. Perhaps you disagree. Perhaps you think that this should come as easily as the rest of it. But he is waiting.

I am in here too early, maybe. I wonder if every fighter feels unprepared. Or if the rush of it all overwhelms them. They say, adrenaline takes over. I have heard that.

But no, I am here on time. He steps down to face me, and he still has the blood on his face. His is a wound that he is wearing proudly. How long has it been? It is still fresh, because the red is the colour of cherry juice. The room is an arena. The ex-wives around us, and the board of directors, and my art dealer.

Only I haven’t got a weapon. I forgot, and I am unarmed, but it has already begun. He has his. From here, the cudgel looks as black as anything I have ever seen, as hard and deadly. I realise this as he comes for me, his arm raised. I beg him, what have I done to you. I am unarmed. Pity. Take pity. It is not graceful to beg. It is not becoming.

He strikes me, in my forehead, a crack of pain, and I feel the blood fill my face; because one strike, that is all it takes.

Then the mud, covered in my blood. Red and brown and black, around me. You saw that, didn’t you?

As I fell?


James Smythe is the author of No Harm Can Come to a Good Man, The Explorer, The Machine and other novels and short stories, including "The Last Escapement" (available in Irregularity). This is the first publication of this story.

Image credit: Franciso Goya's Duelo a garrotazos [Fight with Cudgels], 1820 - 1823.