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The Dig Chapter One

The Dig Chapter One

Artist FINN has become increasingly isolated while she cares for her sick husband. She is just resuming painting, and is reluctant to break her isolation. Then ravens unearth modern bones at the 1st Century broch (round tower) DOM is excavating. Hoping to re-kindle a former relationship, short of cash, and under pressure to be off-site by Halloween, he involves Finn in their investigation. Despite her resistance, Finn finds herself involved, and soon becomes embroiled in escalating complications. This helps her see her situation and relationships more clearly, and to begin to move on.

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Literary fiction


author-small

Rowan (Australia)


ONE

I stepped back and looked at the canvas. It was different. I tried to think, remember when the last time had been. That I’d painted. It must have been before…I glanced towards the door, listening. Still quiet. Maybe something’s changed in me too. But the feeling’s the same. The feeling I’ve somehow depicted something I hadn’t known was there.

As if I’m still alive, somewhere inside.

I picked up the thinnest brush, just a few hog’s hairs, and dipped it into the slick of indigo. The oils were still too wet, but I didn’t want to wait. I carefully signed the bottom right-hand corner. Fionnuala O’Neill. The person I used to be. It didn’t smudge, and sat there darkly gleaming against the silver-grey sheen of the sea.

I pulled my stool over and sat for a moment. The forgotten familiarity of the smells of linseed oil, paint, and… the long ago …breathed themselves into me. Indigo. The same pigment as woad.

Beyond my easel, the sky’s lightening was already reflected in the water, and the fishing boats were setting out with the tide towards the islands. I wanted the feeling to last for ever. And the rare moment of peace before Andrew woke. So, I just wiped the brushes on a bit of rag, and left them soaking in the jar of white spirit.

I wandered into the kitchen to make some tea, then took the mug out into the back garden. The sun was just beginning to rise over the hills beyond and I shivered in their deep shadows. The clouds were gathering, but for now the air was still and suffused with an early-morning freshness.

The grass was knee-high and tangled with suckers straggling from the bushes reverting to dog-rose. The white-trumpeted bind-weed was rampant, smothering. Returning to wilderness. Andrew used to keep it so well. One of the few things he could almost control.

There was a crash. I twisted towards the house, and scalding tea splashed my fingers. Back in the kitchen I turned the cold tap on full, and held my hand there for as long as I could bear it. By the time I got to the studio it was too late. The palette was upside down and oil paint was splattered over the floor, the walls. The painting was gone.

I ran into the hall. Out of the open front door. No sign of him in the road. Back inside I checked the bedroom. The duvet lay flung on the floor. The sheet was crumpled and trailing.

I looked at the clock. Ella would be coming off shift; she’d probably be back at the police station. I lifted the phone and pressed the fast dial.

I ran outside, turned towards the village … the way he’d taken the last couple of times. The wind was cold, fine droplets of rain stung my face. I went too fast, and my feet ran away with me down the slope. The hedges at the side of the road seemed to be rushing uphill. I stumbled into a puddle, and icy water splashed up my legs. They were bare. My slippers became heavy, squelching. I’m going to fall. I reached out, clutching for something, anything. Then I turned sideways, and my feet had to slow.

The headlights of a car slowly rounding the upward bend dazzled into my eyes, and I paused, raising my arm to protect them.

The car braked to a stop, and the door opened. A hand grabbed my arm.

‘Mother, for God’s sake.’

I looked up at Ella.

‘Get in the car.’

As I got in, I turned to look behind. Andrew was strapped into the central seat, the picture under his arm, oil paint streaked over his pyjamas, rubbed into the stubble of his chin.

Ella slammed the driver’s door and put the car into gear. Her face was tight, weary.

Back in the kitchen, I held my smudged and smeared painting, steadying it up against the wall, beyond tears. ‘Look at it, just look at it.’ My painting. So much it had taken to begin again.

‘Mum.’ Ella folded her arms across her chest. ‘Mum, I picked up both of you. Both of you were running sideways, like crabs, down the middle of the road. In your nightclothes.’

I wrenched my gaze from the dark stain where my name had been dragged down into the sea, and looked at myself. At the paint-stained dressing gown wrapped loosely over not very much.

‘Someone might have seen you,’ Ella said.

I put my hands in my pockets, clenching them into fists.

‘Only one of you is supposed to be sick,’ said Ella.

We sat for a while in a tense silence. From the lounge, I could hear him softly singing along to the television. As if nothing had happened.

‘He kept saying “gallery.”’

I looked at her.

‘When I picked him up,’ said Ella, ‘he kept saying “gallery.” It must have registered, somehow, somewhere in there. He wants you painting again. So do I.’

I pulled my dressing gown tighter around myself, re-knotted the belt. Straightened my fingers. They were aching. ‘Something’s changed … all this time … all there’s been. But it was good. Parts of it.’

‘So now you know you can do it again.’ Ella touched my hand. ‘Look,’ she said, ‘I need to eat before bed. It might as well be here as anywhere. I’ll shower Dad; make breakfast for him, and for myself.’

Looking at Ella I saw her weariness, and felt my own. Deep, swirling exhaustion.

‘Get dressed, go and get something in the village,’ said Ella. ‘You need a break.’

I started to protest, then nodded.

*****
In Portmonay, the streets were empty and my footfalls echoed in the silence, but the Rendezvous Café was heaving. The espresso machine roared, panting out clouds of steam. There was the chink of spoons against cups, voices murmuring subdued and good-natured.

The drying people smelt of wet dog.

I stood looking round for a table. It was hot. I unzipped my parka, but it was still too hot. Becoming difficult to breathe. Eyes losing focus. I can’t … Got to get out. Pushing past an old man, I heard him grunt.

Down on the quay I paused. The air was cold, briny. There was a tightness in my chest. I realised I was holding my breath, and let it out. I breathed in deeply, the cold air aching into my lungs. And around me, everything slowly became sharp and clear.

Fishing boats lay dark in the water; sails bundled and lashed against their masts so they looked like pollarded trees, tall and knobbly against the gauzed mist thickening over the hills of Jura. Emerald-faced mallards bobbed in the wake widening and calming behind a black-hulled yacht threading a path through the scattered islets of the bay towards the horizon.

Shivering, I zipped up my parka, looking further out towards the islands I knew were there, but could no longer see. I concentrated on the soughing of the wind, the wildness of the waves, trying not to think.

I walked towards the water, flinging my arms out for balance as the pebbles shifted under my feet. The seaweed clinging to the rocks was drying, the bladder-wrack popping. An image of my painting formed in my mind, but I pushed it further back, where I pushed so much else I couldn’t bear to see.

I sat on a boulder. The surf was breaking on the shore, gratingly retreating.

Hypnotic.

Soothing.

*****

The tang of the seaweed and the brine of the sea had become stronger. The tide must be on the turn. I pulled the car keys out of my pocket and climbed back up the steps. My legs were unwilling. Once in the car I sat, head tilted back against the rest. The clouds were scudding across the sky. When I could put it off no longer, I went back home.

*****

I sat for a while after Ella left. I was so tired. Then, as I made myself get up and go to wash their breakfast dishes, I remembered I hadn’t eaten. Andrew came too, walking close behind. When I stood still he leaned heavily against me, pushing my hips into the hard edge of the sink.

‘Andrew, stop it.’ I put my hands on his thighs and pushed back. ‘Andrew.’ His weight eased a little and I managed to free myself, wriggling along the sink to the side. ‘You stupid man,’

He turned and took a step towards me.

I stepped back. ‘Leave me alone.’ I was shouting.

He reached out, touched my shoulder. Patted it.

I ran my hands through my hair. Headed out into the garden. He followed me.

As soon as I got back in, I closed the door with a bang. Pushed the bolt home. Turned and leant against the wall, closing my eyes.

But when I got back to the sink I could see him through the window. Standing motionless on the paving by the bird-bath, staring straight at me. His face blank, expressionless.




Competition: The Pen Factor 2016, Round 1

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