NWR Issue 104

The Key

The phone had been ringing incessantly it seemed, for almost two weeks. As had become his habit, John let the machine answer. Most of the calls had been from the owner of the gallery who represented him and were about his upcoming exhibition in August. He had fought for that exhibition – had, two years before, felt frustrated by the yawning chasm of time he would have to wait before it happened.

‘But I’m ready now,’ he’d said to Adam Mackenzie, the gallery’s owner.

‘Not until August ’07,’ Adam had said and would not be drawn into further discussion.

Now the studio had been locked for over a year, everything was untouched, the poisonous sunset unfinished, the brushes he had been using that day were unwashed, and on the table beside the easel, a cup of coffee had stood vigil for twelve months – souring, mouldering, developing a hard rubbery crust. It was in his favourite mug, which had been his son’s and had arrived filled with a chocolate egg whose foil wrap depicted Humpty Dumpty, while the mug itself was a throne of red bricks. It used to remind John of Magritte – now it would only bring back memories of his son.

So the phone rang and the machine tirelessly clicked into action, recording the voices of all those who so urgently sought John. He listened dutifully to the messages, then deleted them.

He was only vaguely aware of time passing, of days that stacked up – one bleeding seamlessly into the next. The dog had been put to sleep last October. Renal failure. He wondered if he had caused this to happen. Had he failed to ensure that there was always fresh water in the bowl, that the dog got enough food, enough exercise? Did he, in fact, cause death in all those he loved? Was that his curse – must there be some payback for his talent? His good luck?

How blithely and greedily he had accepted his success – assuming very readily that luck had nothing to do with it – never for a minute expecting disaster. Or if he did imagine some fateful end, it was his own and he embroidered it with even more glory in his romantic posthumous life. He saw his work living on, shining ever more brightly.

He had, on waking some mornings, gone up the stairs to the studio and stood outside the locked door. He was always surprised to find the door closed even though he remembered with awful clarity the day he’d shut it. Once or twice he’d tried the handle, but it remained locked and the key was lost somewhere. Searching for it seemed too deliberate. It would suggest that he had made a conscious decision to breathe life into himself once more, and what right had he to that...?

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