I stood motionless, my breath painting pictures in the cold night air, waiting, waiting, for the energy to move. That gut wrenching feeling in my stomach, the one I'd come to be so familiar with showed no signs of letting go. A car honked its horn. People bustled past. The world had moved on.
'Hey kid,' a voice sounded out from the gallery behind me.
I turned, grateful the soft rain could hide the blossoming tears in my eyes, even just a little. My old art teacher emerged from the archway, drenched in amber streetlight. His face was a little more lined but his kind eyes had remained the same as when I'd left for college all those years ago.
'Mr Martin,' I smiled, shaking his textured hands, fingertips still stained black from sketching, 'It's been too long.'
I didn't feign surprise; we had locked eyes not even twenty minutes before. The simple truth wasn't that I didn't want to talk to him but that I was ashamed. He could see it in the way my shoulders slumped and my eyes stared intensely at the pavement. He could see it in how quickly I'd left.
'It's Dan, son,' he laughed, placing his hand on my shoulder, 'I'm not your teacher anymore.'
'Force of habit.'
'Like leaving so early?' Dan responded. The moon emerged from behind a forlorn cloud, bright and powerful. I stepped back for fear of him seeing the tears brimming. It didn't help; the tears had begun and all I could do was stand and feel the weight of everything crushing down on me. The air grew thinner as I struggled to breathe properly. My face stained cherry red as I cried and cried.
'It's alright son,' Dan muttered, rubbing the small of my back. The scattered sounds of some kids running home bled through the white noise and I focused on it. Fresh air reached my nostrils and I gulped, clearing my head, for a moment. The pain was still there, tied to my soul indefinitely.
'They hated it, Mr Martin,' I whispered through muted gasps.
'Yes they did, Mark,' he said matter of factly, raising me to my full height by the shoulders. I was at least an inch taller than him but I couldn't have felt smaller. My stomach ached from the stress, and embarrassment and now from crying, 'They didn't care one bit.'
His bluntness was harsh but oddly refreshing, like late September rain. I steadied myself as the gallery door opened and a few people started to leave. They glanced at me briefly, confused as to why an artist would have left before the viewers but they moved on quickly. I wiped my eyes and straightened my back. My throat ached and I coughed to clear it.
'I don't know if I want to do this anymore, Sir,' I muttered, zipping my coat up, 'I don't know if I should. This is the fourth time this year, I've been... ridiculed! I put my heart and soul into that damn painting and they treated it like some child's doodle.'
Dan stared, waiting for my anger to fizzle out. He was patient; it was only after I unclenched my jaw he spoke.
'I know,' he said softly, 'I was there. But smooth seas don't make good sailors son. And you might have to brave a lot more storms to come out on top.'
The rain slowed with the traffic and the pain in my gut took a back seat. My tears stopped, leaving their tracks to fade in time. The moon disappeared, taking the cold light with it. All that was left was the soft orange streetlight, buzzing proudly. The door slammed open and the critics emerged, walking slowly, conversing over the art they'd seen. I recognised some of the other artists walking with them, laughter etched on their faces. They looked away when they saw me; some looking to the ground, others to the sky. The critics had no such shame and instead, looked me up and down as if I were a sculpture to scrutinise.
I looked back at Mr Martin, the faint outline of a smile on his face. Our eyes locked again, this time in a silent triumph. I knew right then I wasn't through. Not even close. I said my goodbyes and turned, avoiding the scattered puddles to cross the street to go home. As I reached the kerb and felt the breeze caress my skin from passing cars, I turned a final time to face the gallery, standing proud and tall.
* * *
5 years later:
Muted shades of blue lay smeared across my hands as I painted, a mug of tea to my right and the sweet sounds of Billy Holiday oscillating from my stereo. I didn't notice either, my eyes were focused on my canvas. The light streaming in from my bedroom window gave the sea a lilac tinge and the small ship on the horizon gleamed a gorgeous gold. Pins and needles electrified my foot, a by-product of staying in the one spot for too long, but I was in the zone. The final brush strokes were in place, cementing the winds that had torn the little ship apart, wind now in its past as it caught the glint of the sun on its white sails.
My phone buzzed. I picked it up, covering the screen in navy smudges, before answering the call.
'Hi, it's Mary. I'm just calling to make sure whether or not you want me to head in tomorrow?'
The phone crackled and beeped before reconnecting,
'Hello? Hi, Mary, the gallery's closed tomorrow, you have the day off.'
'How many times kid,' I smiled, 'You don't have to call me Sir.'
'Ok Sir. Shit, sorry. Anyways, I was wondering... would you like me to come with you tomorrow? To the funeral?'
I paused and with tired eyes watched a robin land in the tree outside my window. The bright sun enveloped the tiny creature, bathing it in warmth and light.
'Thanks kid, but this is something I gotta do alone.'
We said our goodbyes and I hung up, pocketing the phone. The faint aroma of tea reached my nostrils and I picked the cup up, pouring the liquid out onto the grass outside. I let the soft breeze tussle my hair before I walked back inside and knelt before the finished painting. My masterpiece. I picked the ink pen up from beside the canvas and with practised precision wrote For Mr Martin in the top right corner, where the ship met the rising sun.
Hi! I hope you enjoyed this little short story. I so feel free to leave a like or even a tip, both are immensely appreciated. Click the little picture of me to read more of my stuff. See ya next time! - Ciaran.