Short Story of the Month

The Walk by Jonathan Page

Our Short Story of the Month is ‘The Walk’ by Jonathan Page.

After the anniversary of his lover’s death, a man walks purposefully along a familiar hillside path and ruminates on the relationship that has come to define his life.

Ten years have passed since he bid farewell to the woman, the artist, he loved so dearly – and as her life and the last of her works become public property, he finds himself resisting calls to give up what little he has left of her.

Jonathan Page lives in Bronllys, close to the Black Mountains. He works as a senior technical author and writes literary fiction in his spare time. Jonathan was the winner of the Earlyworks Press Short Story Competition 2015 and the Earlyworks Press Flash Fiction competition 2017. His story, ‘The Hill Farm’, took second prize in the ShortStory.net Competition 2016. His stories have appeared in five anthologies between 2016 and 2017.

His current project is Century, a novel of closely connected stories that spans a hundred years in a Welsh border town.

 

The Walk

John walks a path in the sky. The world falls green away, severe and pleasing in its scale. The soft dissolved fields are as far away as the sky. Cairns stand at intervals on the ridge.

He is full of love for this place. A skylark sews the air over the long drop, like a message to him, like something he should carry home for translation. The light blooms in the long grass and rocks cascade down the steep sides of the hills in suspended glittering motion. The rocks look like coal dust pitched from the end of a spade.

Every time he comes up top it feels new to him. The lark singing in plain sight. The way a rock carries the light on its back. But what do you tell people when you come down again, what can you say. You talk about a rock and a bird and you drift over your pint into more solid matter about the state of your legs or the path or the weather. Your pictures go unseen by others, as they must, as is their nature.

Pictures. His pictures began here.

His longing for Rose overtakes him and he sits on the ground with his hands about his knees. His first paintings were muddy things. He ridged the paint like he planted potatoes and cut paths with his palette knife. There was nothing wrong with them, they sold, but they were wrong. They hid what he wanted seen.  

That was when, seventy-six? Rose had been painting a long time. Her pictures were sparse, a few lines and she was done. She smiled at his piles of unvaried muddy panels. Then she took him up here to walk and draw, though there was no intention to change him. He had lived in Llanandred all his life and never come up.

After those first walks he made simpler paintings using reds and golds and blues, the colours and strong architecture of the high moor. They came from his experience of a place and he was no longer so ashamed to draw from it. He had been a teller in a Bank the year before and it was hard to believe he was any good. His father did not think pictures proper work. He thought he shirked. He thought it a phase. He thought it sex.

John closes his eyes and sees Rose’s hand  – the skin thin and soft over the bones in her hand – cover his. The tickle of the air is the hover of her hand over his, about to rest upon it. Maybe the old bastard was right about the sex.

He goes on all fours, his bottom in the air, to help himself get up again. Part of him wants to stay where he is, sheltered by the small cairn and warmed by the sun. His bones are getting old. For a moment the path ahead intimidates like stairs in early childhood.

Come on you lazy sod.

Critics and dealers were always coming to the chapel to see Rose. He saw something switch off in their eyes when they learned the paintings at the back were his. She was the One they came for, the famous Rose Hartwood. If they praised his work it was to please her. If they asked him what he did and what he thought and what he liked it was to please her. They were not unkind, not unperceptive. He was her lover and her assistant, an anteroom they must pass through.

He did not mind. He did not begrudge. Without Rose he would never have left the bank.  Without Rose he would not have found love. Her work besides was extraordinary. She reinvented her work constantly and whatever she did worked. Besides he was still young – youngish - and assumed there would be more for him. He took his hunger to succeed for satisfaction. He took the dead eyes of the critics as proof that his work was truthful.

Later he found himself a footnote in articles and books. The writers and academics milked him for stories of their life together. The age-gap titillated and repulsed and sex was always on their minds when they talked to him. He was a means to an end, an aspect of Rose’s psyche.

A Rose by any other name.

When did he stop painting? Eighty-four or eighty-five, whenever Ted Brentwood’s biography came out.  Rose hated that book. It was a fiction, lies. She hated what he had made of her, what he had made of both of them. Still it secured her legend. It got her commissions and kept her in the public eye. It was glamour of a kind, to be Rose’s lover.

He could not make paintings nobody saw. They were props for his walk-on role. When he looked at one of his paintings his saw a shut door.

John stands on a peninsula jutting out into the flat below. The cairn he uses to shield him from the wind is spiky with slants of greenish rock and the light burns low on the opposing hill. The sun pulls reddish browns and slate and three or more kinds of green out of its rounded forms. One minute the hills are as severe as a vast falling wave, the next all curves.

He sees another walker on the slope opposite, a miniature red upright on the zig-zag path. John raises his hand and he sees the red figure pause and raise its hand to him.

John is nobody without Rose. The figure – a man or woman he can’t tell from here – may be the last person he ever sees.

The tenth anniversary of her death was a month ago.

They had put him on the dais next to Rose’s new biographer, to lend her authority perhaps, to sanction what she read out at the glass podium. A picture from thirty years ago when he was almost handsome and Rose was gaunt and twinkling was on a giant screen at the back of the stage. He tried to listen but he saw the black boards of the stage going out and out and the way the audience shifted on their seats in the semi-dark.

The world became details that stopped him listening to the same old narrative that might be true this time or not so untrue as before.

John, what do you say to that?

There was a miked interviewer in a leather chair, an art historian, waiting for his answer.

I’m sorry… could you repeat that...

Old age could be a useful hiding place.

Jean says that the drawn line – draftsmanship – was what united all Rose’s work, however it changed at surface. The early Surrealist paintings…

He did not want to answer, he wanted to remain as he was. To stare thoughtlessly out at the reverent middle-classes in their tiered rows. He frowned as if listening intently to the wash of words.

Yes… yes.

He nodded. They didn’t want to know what he thought, they wanted a comforting echo.

That’s true Keith. Very true. She loved drawing, she kept drawing as long as she could, right to the end. Drawing was how she found me. I’d brought her my portfolio, which was nothing but sketches…

Steady. They don’t want to know about you now, don’t wheel out the anecdotes.

…So yes. Yes. The connection is the drawn line as you say. It was never the enemy for her. She was never just a colourist.

The interviewer smiled, waiting for more, and when none came turned back to the biographer. He was safe again. He was nothing.

John woke at first light. Rose was standing under the tall window. The shadows of leaves and branches moved over her face and naked body. He could hear birds singing and the makeshift bed was rank with their love-making. He loved the pale yellow swell of her stomach, the boniness of her hips, the smallness of her breasts. Her smile was sad. The same sad peace was in him and needed no further description. Perhaps it was only the seriousness of happiness, this sadness. To have something so complete was to realise how lacking he had been before now.

She came back to their bed on the stone flags. Her eyes shone as if he were a source of light also. He let her push her fingers through his hair.  

That was how it was at the beginning. She was in her early fifties and he was in his thirties and there were no rules any longer or so it seemed. He never knew if her husband knew or cared. George bullied her at home, was needful and sad and drank. He could not forgive Rose for doing well, not after his business failed. They never divorced. Rose felt some obligation to him and maybe that was love too and maybe he already had an inkling of what he had in common with George, that their lives were lived in the shadow of Rose Hartwood’s.

Still, he would live the same life again. He would make exactly the same choices. Rose and he were content, a rare, extraordinary, unnoticed fact, until those last awful months. There was something ancient and perfect in their connection. She had taught him to love as well as paint.

He takes a stone from the ground and places it on the cairn. He misses her. When she saw he had stopped painting she was bereft.

There’s no point, it’s not work, not really. I can help you better if I stop pretending.

I love your paintings.

You love me. You don’t love my paintings. What I do is absurd.

That’s stupid. Stupid. You’re good John. When did other people matter anyway?  We’ve never cared what other people think. It’s the work that matters. The making that matters.

Easy for you to say.

Perhaps. But you know what else? I’m not free and you are and you don’t see that. You can paint what you want, when you want. You don’t see the sheer bloody luck in that do you?

He was stubborn. He’d held out for a year but in the end he started drawing again, then painting. Small square pictures he made out of need. There was praise, visitors to the chapel who took them home with them as gifts. It was enough. There was a sketch pad in his pack, even today, a few lines for a lark or the rising and falling line of the land.

There was a special anniversary exhibition at the chapel, drawings and small paintings from the cottage never exhibited before.

He was like any other visitor here. He looked at Rose’s drawing of a horse that usually lived in the hall and saw the skill again, the five downward strokes for the mane and the folded line for the head. The light lay in long hot strokes over the chapel’s remaining pews.

There were six or so visitors, wealthy retirees, and a young couple with a baby. He sketched the young people in his head and his fingers twitched as he worked at the imagined pad. He sketched the baby’s perfect velvet head and the swell of the sling like a giant twisted leaf. He sketched the large man who sat near the door while his wife visited each picture in turn, barely lingering, as if he timed her.

To his surprise he found his face wet. He pulled a scrap of tissue from his pocket and pushed in hard shame at his face to dry it. He did not know why he was crying. He did not know why he was sketching imaginary pictures. To keep Rose from him perhaps, to still the revived pain of her going.

How are you John?

Ah… hello. Sorry. Pollen. Dust in here…

David touched his shoulder. Her son was almost his exact contemporary in age but had always managed to seem younger somehow. He wore good shirts and shoes and his house was a careful minimalist essay, all spare abstract paintings and bare polished boards. He lived in the present as he did not, David was brave that way. He had prospered in the years since Rose’s death.

Thought I’d see that everything was in order for the official opening tomorrow. You’re coming, right? It would be lovely to see you, maybe say a few words about Rose?

He smiled but spoke softly. John wasn’t sure if he was comforting him or trying to say he felt the same.

I’ll come by for the start. For the free champagne. Yes. I’ll think up something to say I’m sure.

What would Rose have made of all this fuss?

I think she’d have had a good moan and enjoyed every minute of it.

I think you’re right.

David touched his shoulder and he saw sadness in his backward glance. He watched him go up the stairs to the converted organ loft. He saw Leona the curator get up from her desk behind the glass wall then laugh at some joke David had made. John felt lonely of a sudden. He had never been that easy around people.

The Rose Hartwood Trust had run the chapel since her death. Two years ago they built a tearoom and shop in the old meadow across the stream. They would get his cottage when he died. Already it felt like a museum. Leona had sent a cabinetmaker round last year – or was it two years ago – to repair the cheap battered sofa in the lounge when he threatened to buy a new one. Rose would have smiled at that.

He had a sudden urge to run away, to be at home or on top of a hill. Then he saw the young family in front of the horse drawing. They didn’t seem very rich, their clothes were worn like his. He remembered his other life in the Bank, the life he had given up.

Do you like it then?

The woman said: Oh… yes. It’s beautiful. The horse’s head. Almost Celtic…

The man said, almost speaking over her: Yes. How simple it is… But I couldn’t do it. My hands don’t work like that.

There was a pause, they wondered what he wanted.

I’m John Hedge. I was Rose Hartwood’s partner. That horse lives in my hall usually, opposite the coat rack. I’m not sure if I look at it properly any more.

They did not know what to say to him. He saw something like reverence in their faces. The baby’s sling was a simple Indian print and a biro had leaked in the man’s jeans pocket.

Listen, I wanted to… Would you two like a coffee, over at the tearoom? I can pay. I wanted to talk to you about something.

An hour later Leona stood blank-faced at the back of the room while an assistant unscrewed the little picture from the wall. John watched the assistant bubblewrap the picture and hand it to the couple. The woman hugged the package to her chest while the man hugged the baby, freed of its sling, to his.

….

The water is the colour of ale. The stream is a black mark in the marron grass as it descends in small waterfalls towards the Hill Farm, the highest farm in the district. The farm is neat boxes from up here and the stream is the same stream that cuts silver through the base of its yard.

Sheep in tattered coats stand at intervals on the slopes and the sun is a moving flag on the grass and bilberry bushes. He has thought out the practicalities. It would not take them long to get him down. The short rock face cut by the stream is the perfect place for an accident.

John smiles at the wonderful view.

Rose had liked to see him naked. To have him stand on a dirty white sheet while she drew him or sometimes just wander the cottage freely as if nobody could see in from the road.

Once he found her standing in the garden under the flap of the washing. He saw her ankles and mottled thighs and then the whole of her, arms crossed under her breasts, looking up at the sky. She was still wet from the bath.

Look John, she had said. There’s a barn owl in the paddock.

He had meant to take his clothes off today too, to dive cleanly, like a swimmer, into that vast space only the larks and kites ever go. He is a romantic, as Rose had been at heart. But though his family is long dead there are a few friends and Rose’s children and grandchildren to think of so he will not give the game away. It will look like a wrong step that is all, an old man’s mistake.

The path is sponge and his legs light with excitement. He climbs to the platform over the stream. A mountain ash juts from the rock to his right. The beautiful tree is one of the reasons he chose this place.

….

John takes his time dying but never wakes again. His hands seem overly large to David and his face a strange face, not John’s at all. He had almost checked with the nurses that he had the right bed.

Flowers sit pointless on the stand. The doctors were honest with him: John is smashed to bits inside and out.  Machines beep and write their rapid green writing. The beds have been arranged at angles to each other as if the silent occupants were in telepathic contact with each other.

How are you John?

David worries that he never quite connected with John. He was always there, in the background, his mother’s anchor. He liked him but their conversation was always stilted. They were shy with each other as people who are too alike are shy. He had seen him grow withdrawn in recent months and had not known how to help him.

We love you John. Laoni chose the flowers. I know you can’t see them but they’re lovely, from her garden. Em sends her love too… She’s trying to get a childminder, so she can drive up…

He can’t help feeling John has gone already. That the real John is up there on the mountain. 

What did you think you were doing? It’s dangerous up there at your age. You know that.

The man in the bed has the look of a fragile bird. Rose had that look too, right at the end. He takes John’s hand and quickly lets go of it again. He cannot remember the last time he took his hand.

We love you John.

John Hedge is the last of his mother.

….

Mark and Marie stayed up that night and by some miracle the baby slept and let them be. They drank wine by candlelight and went through John’s sketchbooks one by one. There were dozens, going back to the seventies, and the box they came in sat enormous in the narrow hall.

Sometimes they spoke, sharing some new discovery. Sometimes one of them would go to the fridge for cheese or the gherkin jar or go up to see the baby. Some pictures confused them, the dense hatching and the jagged stabbed lines – was that a face, a building? An animal maybe?

They became serious after an hour. It was a Wake for John Hedge, the stranger who had left them this gift. They saw decades of change in the animals and hills and people he had drawn and out of the countless drawings they chose a dozen to frame. They decided they could afford a dozen and would frame more in time if they could. They wondered why they had been chosen, if it was luck.

The sketchbook at the top of the box was wrapped in its own jiffy bag. It was John’s final sketchbook, the letter from David Hartwood said. It was in his pack when he fell. They framed the skylark and the mountain pony and the criss-crossing walls on the hill from that book. They put the framed drawings over the mantelpiece where Rose Hartwood’s drawing already hung.

Two weeks later a woman from the Trust phoned Marie to buy Rose’s horse back. They would open the cottage to visitors in a year or so and wanted every detail correct. She said maybe - maybe they would sell or loan it - but that John had been explicit. He wanted them to have the picture, for the horse to grow familiar and private to them. For the baby to grow up with the horse. Maybe in time Laoni. In time. Can we think about it, is that okay?

They were not greedy or stubborn by nature. They wanted to keep faith with John, whose drawings hung with his lover’s drawing over the rag rug and the baby’s scattered toys. Laoni had not mentioned John’s drawings and the horse looked right just where it was.