Our new Short Story of the Month is ‘The Walk’ by Jonathan Page.
After the anniversary of his lover’s death, a man walks purposefully along a familiar hillside path and ruminates on the relationship that has come to define his life.
Ten years have passed since he bid farewell to the woman, the artist, he loved so dearly – and as her life and the last of her works become public property, he finds himself resisting calls to give up what little he has left of her.
Jonathan Page lives in Bronllys, close to the Black Mountains. He works as a senior technical author and writes literary fiction in his spare time. Jonathan was the winner of the Earlyworks Press Short Story Competition 2015 and the Earlyworks Press Flash Fiction competition 2017. His story, ‘The Hill Farm’, took second prize in the ShortStory.net Competition 2016. His stories have appeared in five anthologies between 2016 and 2017. His current project is Century, a novel of closely connected stories that spans a hundred years in a Welsh border town.
This is an extract. Read the full short story for free on the Seren website.
John walks a path in the sky. The world falls green away, severe and pleasing in its scale. The soft dissolved fields are as far away as the sky. Cairns stand at intervals on the ridge.
He is full of love for this place. A skylark sews the air over the long drop, like a message to him, like something he should carry home for translation. The light blooms in the long grass and rocks cascade down the steep sides of the hills in suspended glittering motion. The rocks look like coal dust pitched from the end of a spade.
Every time he comes up top it feels new to him. The lark singing in plain sight. The way a rock carries the light on its back. But what do you tell people when you come down again, what can you say. You talk about a rock and a bird and you drift over your pint into more solid matter about the state of your legs or the path or the weather. Your pictures go unseen by others, as they must, as is their nature.
Pictures. His pictures began here.
His longing for Rose overtakes him and he sits on the ground with his hands about his knees. His first paintings were muddy things. He ridged the paint like he planted potatoes and cut paths with his palette knife. There was nothing wrong with them, they sold, but they were wrong. They hid what he wanted seen.
That was when, seventy-six? Rose had been painting a long time. Her pictures were sparse, a few lines and she was done. She smiled at his piles of unvaried muddy panels. Then she took him up here to walk and draw, though there was no intention to change him. He had lived in Llanandred all his life and never come up.
After those first walks he made simpler paintings using reds and golds and blues, the colours and strong architecture of the high moor. They came from his experience of a place and he was no longer so ashamed to draw from it. He had been a teller in a Bank the year before and it was hard to believe he was any good. His father did not think pictures proper work. He thought he shirked. He thought it a phase. He thought it sex.
John closes his eyes and sees Rose’s hand – the skin thin and soft over the bones in her hand – cover his. The tickle of the air is the hover of her hand over his, about to rest upon it. Maybe the old bastard was right about the sex.
He goes on all fours, his bottom in the air, to help himself get up again. Part of him wants to stay where he is, sheltered by the small cairn and warmed by the sun. His bones are getting old. For a moment the path ahead intimidates like stairs in early childhood.
Come on you lazy sod.
Critics and dealers were always coming to the chapel to see Rose. He saw something switch off in their eyes when they learned the paintings at the back were his. She was the One they came for, the famous Rose Hartwood. If they praised his work it was to please her. If they asked him what he did and what he thought and what he liked it was to please her. They were not unkind, not unperceptive. He was her lover and her assistant, an anteroom they must pass through.
He did not mind. He did not begrudge. Without Rose he would never have left the bank. Without Rose he would not have found love. Her work besides was extraordinary. She reinvented her work constantly and whatever she did worked. Besides he was still young – youngish – and assumed there would be more for him. He took his hunger to succeed for satisfaction. He took the dead eyes of the critics as proof that his work was truthful.
Later he found himself a footnote in articles and books. The writers and academics milked him for stories of their life together. The age-gap titillated and repulsed and sex was always on their minds when they talked to him. He was a means to an end, an aspect of Rose’s psyche.
A Rose by any other name.
When did he stop painting? Eighty-four or eighty-five, whenever Ted Brentwood’s biography came out. Rose hated that book. It was a fiction, lies. She hated what he had made of her, what he had made of both of them. Still it secured her legend. It got her commissions and kept her in the public eye. It was glamour of a kind, to be Rose’s lover.
He could not make paintings nobody saw. They were props for his walk-on role. When he looked at one of his paintings his saw a shut door.
John stands on a peninsula jutting out into the flat below. The cairn he uses to shield him from the wind is spiky with slants of greenish rock and the light burns low on the opposing hill. The sun pulls reddish browns and slate and three or more kinds of green out of its rounded forms. One minute the hills are as severe as a vast falling wave, the next all curves.
He sees another walker on the slope opposite, a miniature red upright on the zig-zag path. John raises his hand and he sees the red figure pause and raise its hand to him.
John is nobody without Rose. The figure – a man or woman he can’t tell from here – may be the last person he ever sees.
Continue reading ‘The Walk’ for free here.