Something a little more light-hearted now, to ease in the new term. Do you remember when Edward Munch’s The Scream went missing a few years ago? I got to wondering how and why such a thing might come about.
It was the kind of day when you ponder how it’s all too easy to cut your tongue on your own teeth. Seems like a basic design flaw, that. Whose idea was it to have something so soft and sensitive housed in the same orifice as naked, sharpened bone?
Tongue protruding slightly to numb it, I stared at the blank computer screen with my fists balled in my hair. I don’t know how long I’d been like that…collectively during the last month I’d guess about a fortnight, although at this point it was about two in the afternoon so I must have only been out of bed for about half an hour.
The weather was as uncommitted as tarmac and the vague sunlight lay like cold dust all over the room. If I’d been able to think of some imagery like that at the time there wouldn’t have been so much of a problem. I may have even got dressed to celebrate, though I can’t promise anything.
I’d gotten as far as forming a protagonist. Well, in the loosest sense of the word. There were a few words coming together on the screen to create some semblance of a fictional personality, but it was slim pickings. She boiled down to three pathetic paragraphs and an over-enthusiastic word-processor cursor. I managed to muster up the energy to glare at it.
With a report that almost had me sailing through the ceiling tiles, someone announced themselves on the woodwork of my front door.
“Please, dear God, be someone interesting.”
I shambled down the hall whilst doing up my dressing gown and wondered idly who would be calling at my flat at this time on a Sunday. My publishers were perhaps the only people I knew less committed to my writing than me and certainly wouldn’t fly out here to do what could easily be accomplished in an abusive phone call. As for friends, well, just…ha.
I peered through the peephole, leant back, wiped it with my sleeve and tried again.
“What the hell?” I yanked the door open and stared dumbfounded before repeating, louder this time, “What the hell?”
I didn’t dodge in time and was shortly and, it seemed, irretrievably enveloped in a cold and not-entirely-pleasant smelling embrace. It was even clumsier than usual due to the rather large and flat package he grasped in his left hand.
“Doug,” I croaked. “Doug, get off!”
He pulled off and ginned at me idiotically.
I stood there, stammering. “Well, what…why?”
“No need to look so surprised,” he shook his head at me. “Can’t a man visit his little sister when in her neighbourhood?”
“Not when he lives in Birmingham and her neighbourhood is downtown Moscow. What are you doing here?”
He sauntered down the corridor and settled himself in one of the large but grubby armchairs in my living room, looking about appraisingly.
I spent a moment trying to disentangle my confusion from my anger, whilst standing with my hands on my hips and trying to look intimidating. “Doug, the probation officers are really not going to like this,”
“Honestly, Chris. One might think you weren’t pleased to see me. Jesus, you look like crap.”
“Well you smell like you spent the night in a cattle truck.”
I took a deep breath, adjusted my glasses and formed the question again, slowly. “What are you doing here?”
“I just thought it was about time I visited you out here in the frozen wastes.”
“Is that so?” I slumped onto the sofa, feeling he really was in no position to be telling me I looked like crap. Not only had he seemingly slept in a cattle truck but also in his clothes and, from the look of him, for more than a couple of days. He needed a shave, a bath and to be about one and a half thousand miles West.
“So how you doing?”
I blinked at him. “Same as ever.”
He nodded, scanning the ceiling. “Your latest is doing well back home.”
“I should think so too, they bugged me enough for it,” I paused. “Are you going to tell me what you’re doing here? Don’t pretend any more. It’s been at least five years…”
“Yeah, I know.” In the backs of his eyes I could see the laughter that had rang in the air when he used to give me piggy-backs and help me steal biscuits from the top shelf. But then it fled, whisked away like pollen on the breeze to be replaced by something a little colder. “It’s been too long, don’t you think?”
I scowled. “Hey. You stopped talking to me. Remember?”
“And why do you think that was?”
“How the hell should I know?”
“You never bothered to find out.” We glared for a moment until he rose and paced through to the kitchen. I followed, aware the effect of my righteous indignation was mitigated by my threadbare dressing gown, uncombed hair and smudged glasses, but I still gave it a gutsy try.
“Well, come on then,” I growled at his backside as he rooted through my fridge. “Spit it out.”
“Christ, Chris, how old is some of this stuff?”
“Don’t change the subject. If this is the moment of revelations, why did you stop talking to me?”
“Well,” he rose with a reasonably-edible apple and a cold sausage, “leaving the country wasn’t exactly the best way to keep close with friends and family.”
“I hadn’t had so much as phone call from you since you got out. That was a year before I left.”
He sighed, spattering some semi-masticated apple onto the counter. “You’d abandoned yourself. That’s why.”
I had crossed my arms and prepared a good response to ‘you didn’t visit me in prison’, but for this all I could do was blink. “Stick who in the what now?”
He waved his sausage in the air demonstratively. “You weren’t you any more. You’d abandoned everything that was important to you.”
“I didn’t abandon you.”
“Not me, you pillock,. I wouldn’t have wanted you to see me in there…like that…either.”
As I stood there doing a fairly passable impression of a goldfish, he continued, “I don’t know… you lost it all before you’d had that contract less than a year. You got into writing for a reason, Chris, but there’s nothing of you left in your books. Hasn’t been for years. You changed and it…disappointed me.”
“Let me get this straight,. I took a couple of deep breaths. “You come all the way out here, unannounced, turn up at me door stinking of what I can only hope is cow shit, insult my life choices, take my food and then insult my work?”
“Pretty much,” he returned to the living room, propped his filthy boots up on my already filthy coffee table and clicked the television on with the remote.
I couldn’t think of any curses foul enough. I tried a few anyway whilst searching around the kitchen for something to hit him with. Returning to the lounge brandishing a ladle I asked, “What right do you have to come all the way out here and talk to me like this?”
“I’m your older brother. It’s my job to tell you when you’re life’s gone down the crapper.”
“My life is not down the crapper.” I made myself not yell. That was what he wanted. “I’m a world-famous writer, you prick. I make sales. And money. Lots of it. Don’t let the outfit fool you, I get Croesus popping round for loans, and you know it, so how can you say all that with a straight face?”
“You’ve lost yourself in the game,” he said, flicking through all the Russian channels. “You made a success writing what you wanted but then you learned you could still make money writing whatever. I read them all. You’re selling, yeah, but there’s nothing in these books that you used to sneak into my room when we were kids and tell me about.”
I lowered my ladle.
He clicked off the telly. “I mean, seriously, Chris. Which was the last book you actually enjoyed writing?”
I rubbed my eyes. I knew he was right. That just made it worse. My books sold because of expensive marketing campaigns and some model’s photograph on the inside of the jacket. Even when I jaw it was happening and had to get away, to avoid the judgement, they told me to move to Moscow to be ‘inspired by the history’, the landscape, the people. But I barely ever went out if I could help it, spent most of the time sleeping and just churned out as little as I could get away with to keep the cash flowing.
“I’ve lost it Doug,” I slouched on the sofa. “Lost it ages ago. I’ve forgotten how to enjoy it, but it keeps a roof over my head and keeps me in chocolate and wine so I don’t complain.”
He leant forward and patted me on the knee. “I get it, sis. I lost it too.” He was grinning again and I was really starting to get annoyed with him. Here he had opened a wonderful new window for me to jump through and roll about in self-pity and he wasn’t even going to let me enjoy it. “Well, I didn’t lose it,” he continued. “They took it away from me when they shoved me in that dump.”
“‘It’? What ‘it’? You don’t have an ‘it’.”
“Course I have an ‘it’,” he looked offended. “How do you think I ended up in there in the first place?”
“You broke into an art gallery,”
“Yeah, because I do what I want, not matter what people think.” He seemed absurdly pleased with himself. “That’s my ‘it’. Freedom. Non-conformity. Wanting to appreciate the arts and screw opening times.”
I shook my head. “Doug, that’s not an ‘it’. That’s just insanity and ASBOs.”
“It’s sort of an ‘it’,” he said, a little abashed. “The point is, I stayed true to myself. They wouldn’t let me in during the day, because I looked like I might cause trouble. They had fliers with my face on, for some reason,”
I rolled my eyes.
“But I wanted to see the exhibition. It was my right. I was not going to cause any trouble, I just wanted to look at the paintings. So I broke in.”
“So, you’re comparing you breaking and entering to me not being faithful to writing?”
“Oh no. You’re much worse.”
I fingered the ladle.
“But look.” He pulled forward the parcel that he’d propped against his chair. “I’ve finally made it up to myself. Made up all the time inside, the time I couldn’t be who I really was, couldn’t run around and know I was being who I was born to be.”
“What is it?” I took the parcel. It was large and flat, wrapped in layers of brown paper.
He blushed a little. “It’s sort of the reason I had to leave the country.”
A cold dread filled my stomach and started to seep through my veins and out through my skin. I stared at the parcel in my hands and then tore the paper off.
“Oh Holy Jesus,” I stammered. “Holy Mary, mother of Jesus. Holy fuck…” My hands were shaking. It took a lot of effort to track down my voice. “Douglas Faver,” I started slowly. “Please, please, please tell me you didn’t steal Edvard Munch’s Scream.”
“Good, isn’t it?” He grinned.
All I could do was gape. I took off my glasses, rubbed my eyes with my grubby sleeve. But it was still there when I opened them again.
“You’ve done it this time, Doug.” I found my voice, somehow. “Seriously, this is not small-time stuff. You’re so deep in it you really shouldn’t open your mouth in case you suffocate.”
“Oh, it’s not that bad,”
“‘Not that bad’? ‘Not that bad’? Doug, this is beyond bad, this is international infamy bad, this is…bloody hell this is fucking say-bye-bye-to-Europe bad…”
He was still grinning, damn him. “I’ve got that side of things figured out,” he said, casually. “I just popped into to see you on the way to…wherever it is I end up.”
I dropped the painting on the floor, lifted up my hands, ducked down my head and clutched at my brow. I couldn’t even decide on which was the best groan to go for, so I tried a few. “You’ve done it this time, you idiot. This is it for you. You’ll have to go to bloody Timbuktu or something.”
He leant forward and patted my knee again comfortingly. “Now, now, don’t panic. It’s fine, it is. I’ve got it all worked out…sort of. I didn’t come here to get you to bail me out or anything.”
“Then why the hell did you come?”
“Well,” he said, mock insulted. “One, to say goodbye to my little sister who I practically raised,”
I rolled my eyes again.
“And two,” he picked up the painting, smiled at it strangely, then handed it back to me. “To give you this.”
“You have got to be yanking my chain.”
He shook his head and his eyes were so sincere it made me want to punch him.
“I thought you said you didn’t want me to bail you out? I won’t do it, Doug. Get rid of it. This is your mess, I’ll be damned if jump in it too.”
He shook his head more fiercely. “No, it’s not like that – ”
I shifted my glare from the painting to him.
“Well, maybe it’s a little like that.” He shrugged. “They’re probably not too likely to search for it in some crummy bedsit over a crappy liquor store in the cruddy end of Moscow, it’s true, so that’s that problem sorted. But mostly I just want you to have it, you know, as a present.”
I blinked at him and tried to find any trace of laughter in his eyes to let me know this was all some terribly unfunny joke.
“Please, Chris. Take it. Hang it on the wall above the telly. Let it remind you of taking chances for what you believe in.”
He left and I sat staring at the closed door for a long time. After that, I sat and stared at the painting.
The new book’s not selling all that well in Britain and is only doing tolerably well stateside. But damn, I enjoyed writing it.