The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Autumn 2012 Results

Irony of the Tortoured Artist

Copyright © Tania Yardley 2012

Butterflies are delicate creatures and yet, as everyone knows now, the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings may result in a tsunami across the world. Had the butterfly failed to emerge from the chrysalis, whole islands of people may have been saved. It’s hard to know consequences in advance.

Rob took down his umbrella, shaking off the drops. It was still sprinkling but it was such a fine mist now that he felt ridiculous still to have the umbrella furled. It felt prissy. He was prissy but he didn’t want to feel it. He wanted to feel manly; something to wish for in a next life. He was gay and gourmet. He knew how to match wines beautifully and colour co-ordinate. He knew good cheeses and exquisite chocolates (and chocolatiers, but that was another story, an old heartbreak, best forgotten).

'Manly' he wasn’t but he could at least pretend to throw caution to the wind, getting misty with rain, letting it mess up his hair, just a little. Live dangerously. Add an imperfection to the Persian rug so as not to offend the Gods. But his hair was thinning quite alarmingly these days. Rugs of any kind weren’t a comforting topic lately. He would have to shave it off eventually but he wasn’t sure he could carry that look. He hoped he didn’t have a lumpy skull. Men with lumpy skulls looked like they really shouldn’t.

All in all, given the rain and the slight thinning, he decided to stop off at his gym and use the hairdryer. 'Misty with rain' was unlikely to work for him. After that, the umbrella was staying furled unless the sky split open with full sunshine and a choir of angels as well.

He’d met Anna at an art fundraiser. She was the sort of woman every gay guy wants to be in his next life (if, that is, he believes in reincarnation and wants to be a woman in his next life). She was smart, spiky, funny and glam. She had long blonde hair, beautifully cut and of absolutely no interest to her. She smoked with an ivory cigarette holder and wore red lipstick, stiletto heels and black. Smoking wasn’t cool any more but Anna could give it a comeback. She could make a person want to start, even with the threat of lung cancer and 'smoking kills' on every pack. She removed her glasses when buying cigarettes and stuffed her stash into a little silver case. She blew smoke rings of course and had a very husky singing voice. Anna could do anything. “Edith Piaf reincarnate,” said Rob (he did believe in reincarnation). Anna just looked at him then. Icicles formed. She was no victim, no 'little sparrow'. She was Katherine Hepburn, strong, cool and scary. Rob wanted to be Anna; he wanted her to like him. He tried not to show it. Wise move.

He was running late now for the latest art show, her show. Fixing his hair had taken longer than he thought. He’d gotten slightly dazed watching someone delicious lift his body weight in steel, quite effortlessly, it seemed. Now he felt flustered and panicky. He hoped she wasn’t there first. He prayed to God (rediscovering the religion he’d forgotten all about since Easter). It was her show so technically she should be there early. That didn’t mean anything. She was rarely early, for anything. He was probably ok. He was glad he’d stopped to do his hair. Nothing was worth a bad hair day in her presence.

He arrived just in time, only five minutes late. Scanned the room. No Anna, yet. Good. He took a spin paying particular attention to her papier maché sculptures. They were painted in matt black and had red lipstick. They were apparently self portraits (so the sign said) but they had lumpy faces and misshapen bodies. Anna was tall and slim. Surely this isn’t really how she sees herself? No, she’s messing with us, he thought, just messing with us. She is pretending to be the tortured artist she isn’t. It’s the Irony of the Tortured Artist, I see it now. She is making a statement about the cult of the Tortured Artist and how boooooring it is. Yes. It might be best to get her talking about it before venturing an opinion.

The door opened and in walked a group of art students. The wind must have picked up out there. They brought with them debris; leaves from the shedding autumn trees outside. They were young and full of words, full of opinions, full of themselves. Affectation on affectation, ironic through all of it. Yes, irony, that’s it.

He unbuttoned his shirt, just one button lower. He felt almost hip for a moment, then uncomfortable. It’s drafty in here. He buttoned up again. His mother noticed a draft. You could catch your death from one. You could catch your death from almost anything in fact. She had never mentioned death by incorrect word choice. What to say? That was what he feared most right now. Words can get you into a lot of trouble. Like when you see a play that some actor friends are in. You have to say something, especially if you hate it. 'It had a lot of energy' is the wrong thing. As is, 'Good on you, you had a go and I slept through it.'

Rob picked up one of the little plastic champagne flutes and looked through it squinting. This wasn’t such a great gallery, plastic flutes. He preferred crystal. He tasted and screwed up his nose. Awful and the bubbles were getting to him. He sneezed in the direction of Irony of the Tortured Artist and just saved himself from slopping his awful champagne. He turned left and startled. Anna smiled coldly, half a metre to his left. He jumped, tossing the awful champagne over the left shoulder of his new cashmere sweater. It missed the sweater. Thank God! It showered Irony of the Tortured Artist. Cheap plonk pooled in the indentations of the lumpy headed sculpture. Cheap wine is acidic. It reacted with the paint. The top of the head bubbled. Bubbling and boiling soggy paper. Rob wanted to dissolve himself. Acid rain, rain on me now! He wanted to dissolve, right there, a pool on the floor. He looked up to see Anna and The Look. His throat closed over. His breath stopped for a full three seconds until he gasped for air and started laughing wildly. Head scrambled, hysterical. Images flew through his head. A pool of Rob, liquidated by a look! The Wicked Witch of the West melting in water, just a pointy hat and boots to mark the spot. He laughed until he started to hiccup. He drew in a great big breath and held it, puffing out his cheeks. A great big hiccup erupted from him. Nope, that didn’t work. “Scare me,” he said to Anna. She was not amused.

He had nothing to lose now. He tossed the rest of the champagne over his right shoulder. It was a lucky sweater. He missed the sweater again, this time showering Death Over Afternoon Tea. It was a piece that looked like either a massacre or scones with jam and cream. A massacre from the point of view of the scone? It must be frightening to be edible, thought Rob. Like an antelope near a lion. That’s how a scone must feel.

The cheap plonk was having a strange effect, his mind running He hadn’t even consumed very much, just tossed it over his shoulder really. In front of him was a waiter with a full tray, frozen, about to run. Anna was shaking. Had it been five minutes since her last cigarette? He grabbed two more glasses (or should that be 'plastics') one in each hand and tossed them simultaneously over his left and right shoulders. They met in a stream behind him, this time splashing a few drops onto the back of his lucky sweater. “I’m christened,” he grinned and announced to the world, “christened!” He grabbed two more glasses, toasting himself “to health, wealth and a fabulous love life.” Then, looking Anna in her horrified face (her whole body shaking with nicotine withdrawal) he added, “Cheers to not giving a fuck!” And with that he swept out of the room with a dramatic whirl, twirling his umbrella as he went. He’d always quite liked Mary Poppins, so camp.

It was a week later when he got the bill from the gallery. His mother brought it over. All his mail still went to her place. It gave them the chance for a cup of tea and a pastry. "Thanks Ma," he said, and slowly ripped the bill into confetti, showering them both. “You can’t do that,” she said. “I just did,” said Rob. She giggled.

Tania used to work in a bank. Now she works at a sexual health clinic. The stories in the tearoom are better. The cakes are better and have sexual health themes. There are soft toys shaped like popular STIs. She prefers sexual health to banking. In her spare time she scribbles songs, dances salsa and writes a bit. Her acting career peaked playing a woman who talks to the devil for a Corrective Services mental health video.