Volume 1 Number 3


Summer 2003

The Painter

By J.R.Cain

"Thirty days to pay." Herbert Botch's hands shook as he held the letter. The hairs of his wispy beard quivered like the spores of wind-blown moss. "This is ridiculous, I'll never get the money. Why can't they just let a man be free?" With his face a mask of determination, he stomped across the cracked linoleum in the kitchen and discarded the debt notice on the bench. "There's no way on God's Earth we'll get that kind of money, short of you selling your ass on the street, Em."

Emily stood before the stove in a pink nylon dressing gown absent-mindedly staring at a frypan; her crimson-dyed hair bundled up in curlers. "No chance of that. Not that I would mind a change." She flipped an egg with the tarnished eggflip and glanced at her husband ferreting through the fridge.

Herbert was dressed in his crimson snowflake pyjamas; his pumping arms flung yogurts aside in frantic abandon. "No beer. Didn't you buy beer?"

"Sorry. You know how it is. No money, no beer. If you'd remembered to pay the insurance, none of this would have happened. No one to blame but yourself." She pushed her sliding glasses back up the bridge of her nose.

"Don't start." Herbert slammed the door shut, rocking the fridge where it stood; a pink pig magnet suicided to the floor. "How was I to know the asshole was going to slam on his brakes? Pedestrian, my ass!" Herbert's jaw clenched as if he were preparing to grind his teeth--grind them to the gums. "Damned Mercedes!" He swallowed and ran a quivering hand over his head, over what used to be hair. "You should have bought beer."

"Rear-enders are always the other guy's fault, especially when the driver in front is a lawyer." Emily flung a rictus smile over her shoulder. "Guess what? You're the other guy."

Herbert turned in circles, disorientated, and lost.

"Bacon with your eggs?"

"I want beer. We'll lose the house. He'll force me into bankruptcy. Going to court means nothing to him, and sure as elephants like peanuts, I'll have to foot court costs."

"You can't get a job without a car. Guess we'll be in debt until we die." Emily looked forlornly out the window above the stove. "And I was so looking forward to nursing home retirement."

"Tell me about it." Herbert looked annoyed and shuffled on the spot in his slippers. "Crap! Crap! Crap!" He stomped his foot.

"Don't swear so much. You know I don't like it. Mother always said..."

"Screw yer mother!" Herbert said louder then he intended. He averted his face guiltily at the harshness of his response, and turned away from his wife. Turned and walked to the round Formica table by the wall and sat down. Picked up a plastic salt shaker and sat there sprinkling salt into the palm of his hand.

Emily scraped the egg noisily from the sizzling pan and slapped it on a plate between a fork and a half-cut tomato. "Have a garage sale. Sell some of your collection."

"I won't get enough." Herbert's head was slumped on his shoulders as he watched his wife prepare the food. "No one appreciates good art." He tapped the Formica with his nails. "Don't forget sauce."

Emily snatched up a near-empty sauce bottle and slapped its bottom, spurting scarlet onto the food. "I'm sure someone in the club would buy it. Donald Spencer, Robert Cook, Davie Petersen. You'd get a pretty price, too. Pay this bill. Get the car fixed. Maybe have a bit left over to go on a holiday. You remember those? You have boxes and boxes of your army."

Herbert spent his spare hours painting endless regiments of lead soldiers. Then, every second weekend, he lived at the Misty Heights Historical Appreciation Society reenacting Civil War battles: Cemetery Hill, Little Round Top, the battle for Devil's Den, all played out in a realm of Styrofoam, paint, and plastic trees. "Painting's the only way I can relax. Those are my treasures. Each ones a little bit of my soul. Art's in my blood, my fingers, bones, and skin. Pop was a painter, and so am I."

"Your Grandfather was a bum; walked out on your Nan; deserted his kids--you, too, if I remember. They're toys, Hon. Little metal toys. Nothing more." She kissed Herbert gently on the forehead and placed his plate before him. "Tea?"

Herbert shook his head from side to side. Salted his food. "I'm not selling. If I break up my army, I'll have nothing to do. Boredom is the number one killer for retirees, don't you know?"

"You could get a job." Emily fetched a cereal bowl from the cupboard. "Plenty of elderly men get part-time jobs--handymen, odd jobs men, gardeners." She poured some cereal from a box of corn flakes on the shelf. "We could spend weekends together. Now there's a novel thought."

"No!" Herbert glared at his wife with glass-button eyes; his cheeks were slightly flushed and he could feel his blood pressure was on the rise. He'd have to calm down. He tried to steady his breathing and tugged at his beard. He didn't want to fight, didn't need indigestion ruining his breakfast; didn't want another heart attack. He spiked an egg with his fork and thrust it in his mouth. Chewed as he mumbled: "I won't sell, but I'll look for something part-time."

But, Herbert knew it would be a fruitless search. There were hardly any jobs in small mountain towns, especially when the radiator of your car was kissing the engine block--unless you wanted to be a waiter or a cleaner, of course, and catch a taxi to work, and he wasn't going to have any of that. Perhaps a night manager in one of the many hotels in Misty Heights if he was lucky? Sit and paint soldiers all night.

"Thirty days." Emily smiled across the table at her husband, her left eyebrow arched like the back of a lazy cat. "Tea?"

"Don't nag. Don't like tea. I don't want anything from you." Herbert glared at his wife, scratching his left armpit. He reached for his glass and emptied his milk with a single gulp. He cringed as the bracken fluid slid down his throat like creamy sand. A wave of sour embraced his tongue.

"That's last night's. You'll be sick." Emily smiled.

"Tastes fine." Herbert grimaced and scooped sauce on his fork then sucked the utensil clean.

"Look in the attic. Most of your Pop's stuff's up there. If you don't find something to sell by tomorrow, the soldiers will have to go."

Herbert crunched the crispy rim of an egg in the side of his jaws. "I'm not selling my paintings. It's part of me," he said with his mouth full.

Part of his soul he was not prepared to lose.


Herbert's eyes danced over the piles of dusty boxes stacked haphazardly in the attic. A single beam of light lanced down through a grimy window and motes of dust danced lazily like balloons in a carnival sky. He sniffed at the dry air and hitched up his overalls, then commenced opening boxes of his Grandfather's belongings.

Pop was a dear old soul. Herbert would always remember his black-pearl eyes and silver hair. His wrinkled, satin skin that always smelled like warm straw--a whiff of summer, of better times.

Herbert was often left with his grandparents as a child whenever his mother worked weekends. Much to his Nan's dismay (and Pop's insistence), Herbert was allowed to skip church every Sunday. Pop and little Herbie went on expeditions around the countryside while Pop indoctrinated him on life and art.

Pop's voice: The mind's a powerful thing Herbie. Too good to waste. In dreams, you live. In dreams, you fly. Only in dreams can you be free--truly, truly free.

Herbert's mind blossomed on those lazy outings--painting, drawing, fishing; flying kites beneath cotton clouds. A rich time, seasons marinated in life, days without worry, before care.

Before reality snatched Pop away.

We were dreamers. Thicker than thieves.

Herbert would draw and paint with his grandfather until the paint hardened on their skin, like marble in a Grecian ruin. Pop opened an enchanted eye in Herbert's skull. Dry gold mines became the secret dens of jet-skinned devils. Flooded streams hid raisin-hearted kelpies, and granite-pocked hills were the broken backs of giants sleeping until the last second of time.

One day they'll come back, Herbie, mark my word. One day they'll wake again.

The days were a little longer then, the sun a tad brighter, and birds were always singing in the trees, feathered cherubs singing praises to the gods above.

On November 11th, 1956, it all came to an end. Pop walked away from his wife, daughter, grandson, friends. Never seen again. Nan said he moved to Tasmania. Pop never wrote, never sent a letter to his Herbie to say goodbye. The man left behind a legacy of a boy's broken heart.

Pain. Herbert remembered it well--a new lesson, a harsh lesson--but through it all, Pop was never forgotten.

He'd never forget those lazy Sundays.

"It still hurts," he said with a crumbling voice.

As a kid, Herbert couldn't understand why Pop left. He was crushed, sure, and felt deserted and betrayed, but there was more. Pop was his hero, his mate, his only confidant, the brother he never had. Being married to Emily for the past thirty-six years had been an education, and, sure, he was close to his wife, but nothing like he'd been with Pop.

Looking through the scattered belongings of his Grandfather's life, Herbert now felt he understood.

Knew why his Pop had run away.

Sometimes women just won't let a man be free.

Boxes. Cardboard boxes, all that remained of his childhood now. Boxes in the attic, shrouded in cobwebs, secreted away with the roaches, the nesting place of field mice. Boxes were all that remained of Pop. Cardboard boxes and the embers that smouldered in Herbert's heart still.

Herbert gulped with emotion and fought back the rising tears. "We never even got to share a beer."

Aged hands peeled open a carton, ripped away the masking tape from the lid. Inside were piles of old books with material covers, faded lettering on their spines.

These should get a bob or two, but not enough. Not near enough.

Herbert hefted the box aside. His eyes happened to glance at a sheet crusted with brown-gray dust, dust like volcanic ash, leaning against the wall.

Pop's paintings.

Most of the paintings were gone now. Sold by Nan after Pop ran away.

She got a good price, from what Mum said.

Grunting, Herbert pushed himself upright by leaning heavily on his leg and waddled to the wall. Pulled his creeping overalls out of his ass.

"Any luck?" Emily's head popped through the trapdoor in the floor. She lifted a serving tray through the gap with a lone mug balanced on an image of the Tower of London. "I brought you some tea."

"I don't want tea. Don't like it."

"Piffle. It's good for you. Drink it." Emily nodded at the paintings. "What about those?"

Herbert scratched the back of his neck and eased the paintings forward. Peeled the sheet out from behind them and slid it away. Revealed a heavy gold-gilded frame.

"The frame alone will sell for a hundred. Frames are expensive." Emily's head looked down the ladder. "Anyway, I have dishes to do. Unless you'll do them?" That cat eye again.


"I didn't think so."

There were three paintings in the pile. The first Herbert remembered from Nan's lounge wall. It sat above the fireplace: a crystal landscape of gem-speckled hills overshadowing a turquoise lake. The sky was brooding and ominous, bruised air; a storm threatened.

Sea monsters sleep in those waters, Herbie. Nasty beasties with diamond scales, waiting for naughty boys with ten-inch fangs and seaweed claws.

Herbert shuddered, an involuntary twitch.

A second painting, a wondrous seascape. Emerald unicorns frolicked on the sand as olive-skinned mermaids rode sapphire waves towards the shore. Spume leapt into the sky, reaching to be free. In the distant horizon, tiny black angels fell from heaven to earth; tumbled from the clouds like a hail of roadkill frogs. And a single beam of sunlight lanced the clouds in the right corner, Jacob's ladder where angels walked to heaven from out of the sea.

The realm of true love, Herbie. Where a man goes when he finds his soul mate. That lost woman of his dreams. It could be heaven or it could be hell. And you won't know until it's too late.

"Pfff. Fantasy." Herb felt decidedly uneasy and pushed the work away.

The last painting was small and unfinished, no more than two hands across. A small patch of bare canvas scarred the corner of the image.

The painting itself was intricately detailed; depicted a gloomy and sinister world with a volcanic sky and a land that flowed with rivers of boiling blood. Devils danced on a sulphurous lake, satyrs cavorted with buxom shell-eyed nymphs in the shadows of a wooden glen, and dragon-faced centaurs fled out of a primordial forest. Crevices and cracks in the ground hid hybrid beasts--animal heads, naked human bodies, insect arms and eyes.

A glimpse into a cracked and crumbling mind.

"I've never seen this. Pop's last work."

It's the borderland to hell, Herb. The last frontier of imagination. Where a man can truly be free...if he has the courage to go beyond religion. Flee God.

Herbert lifted the painting to his red-rimmed eyes until his breath caressed the canvas. Saffron fingertips gripped the border, the edge of the wood. In the center of the painting was a cave, a tiny opening leading into the bowels of the ground, descending into a mysterious unseen world beyond. A lone figure stood before the chasm, staring out of the paint, a slender man with silver hair and black opals for eyes.

And he smiled. A thin crack of paint.

Jewels of water slid down the side of Herb's nose.

Pop's hand moved. Beckoned.


Emily climbed the ladder into the attic. "Hon?" Her voice was faint and unsure. "You've been up here for hours. You OK?" Her mouth tightened when she noticed the attic was empty.

He's slipped out, probably to get that beer.

She climbed into the low-roofed room and walked over to the paintings strewn on the floor. Pushed her glasses back up her nose.

Strange, he should let them fall like this.

Emily looked around the floor in a moment of desperation, looking for feet, for her husband in case he'd collapsed, in case he'd had a heart attack or a fit. Stroke. The word in her skull caused a feeling of malaise.


She bent over slowly and picked up the picture at her feet.

A small, dark painting with immaculate brush strokes, dirty and surreal. An unholy work, but beautiful in a sinister sort of way.

People like this sort of stuff nowadays, she thought, wondering how much it would fetch for sale.

Then she pulled her hand away and looked at her thumb, perplexed. Her skin was stained red-black with paint. The bottom corner glistened; the paint was wet.

In the centre of the painting, a young man and boy ran towards a cave luminous with a golden glow. For a fleeting instant, there was a trick of light and shadow. It seemed as if the boy stopped, glanced back over his shoulder, and waved.

Laughter. The distinct titter of a child in the attic, a faint cry of joyous mirth.

Then the pair danced and, hand-in-hand, they ran into the light.

Illustration by Kimberlee Rettberg