Short Story: ‘Off-Buttons’

Literally still steaming-hot off the press (wrote it this afternoon) a new short story. Have tried to return to some of my old ideals whilst moving forward with technique and style. What is it that makes someone who they are and act as they do? And what would they do if they were given a way to change it?


elements-of-art-6Fuck it. Just fuck it. What a pile of shit. I don’t know why I bloody bother. Piece of crap. Where’s the black? God, I need a drink. Where’s that goddamn black gone?

Oh, for God’s sake. Typical. Bloody typical. Why do I always run out of black? It’s the one I use the most, for God’s sake. Should buy twice as much of the shitting stuff. Why do I never remember?

This light is terrible. Stupid blind always catches. Come on, open you piece of…there…that’s no bloody good either. It’s lighter, sure, but that just means I can see the damn thing better.

Seriously, why am I bothering? That’s the wrong type of blue, completely. It looks like a soppy postcard. Bloody Bournemouth or something. Piece of rubbish. Where is that bleeding black? It needs more black. And some white, some white up here.

Oh for fuck’s sake. Less light. And, what? What? Better blue?

This radio station is awful. Where’s the stereo. Where is it? This chart shit is polluting my brain. Turn it off, turn it off.

Too bloody quiet now, but fuck it.

Bleeding bloody hell. Is there an extra tube of black in the back of that old drawer…? Probably be completely the wrong type.

Jet my ass. Looks more like onyx to me. No wonder I shoved it back here.

Maybe a touch up here…where’s that pallet? Mix it with some of this ghastly blue…

Christ, this is awful. This is easily the worst piece of dross I’ve ever painted. But they only ever seem to buy ‘em when they’re crap. Might fetch something. Not that it bloody should. I wouldn’t want it on my wall.

Ruth’ll sell it. She always does. There’s always someone that wants one, the worse the better apparently.

I’m not going to meet the bloody buyer again, though. She can stuff that. Worst idea she ever had. Dinner and cocktails with the pillock gullible enough to buy my work. What a fucking joke. Not that I care that they’re idiots. Their money keeps me in paint and takeaway. I’d just rather die in a ditch than meet them.

That prick bought two. Two. Two of worst as well. He couldn’t even see that those two, out of any of them, should never be seen together, let alone hung on the same bloody wall. Rhapsody together with Red Bedlam. You think the titles would’ve at least given him a clue.

But I behaved myself. Somehow. Ruth was there, shooting me looks like she does. I kept my mouth shut and everyone had a wonderful time. What on earth was that shit they served for dinner? Some lump of green stuff in the middle of a huge, empty plate. I ordered a takeaway as soon as I got home.

I need better black. This onyx crap is just making everything worse. There has to be some more somewhere. Somewhere. Come on, please.

This place is such a tip. Fucking hell, there’s got to be another, newer black somewhere.

I’m sick of the sight of that sky. Shut that blind again. Stay shut. Stay shut. Fine, do that. Where’s that heavy thing…the thing. The thing I keep paperclips in. Weighs a tonne. There’s the bugger. That’ll keep the blind down.

No more black. Typical. Only this bloody cheap shit. Too oily. Looks like I’m painting with chip fat.

Great. Now I need a new paintbrush too. If I was going to lose my temper and snap something, couldn’t it have been one of the crap paintbrushes?

Can’t stop now. The thing needs more…more black, more white…more depth in this corner. Less in this one. It needs more…why did I snap that bleeding paintbrush? It was the last one.

God. I don’t want to out. Why do I always ending up having to go outside? My food gets delivered, why can’t my paints?

Ruth did find that one company that would deliver but their materials were even crapper than my usual ones. Of course, the work sold for thousands because of that. Ruth wanted me to carry on using them. A recognised brand, she said. They’ll sponsor, help with marketing and things.

Bugger that.

Is it cold out there? Probably. I’ve had to turn the heating up to six to keep it right in here. I need it hot. Cold slows everything down, gets me edgy and work gets worse.

I’ll need a coat, then. Two.

I hate the cold, I hate it. I hate outside. Christ, it’s freezing. And naked. The air moves too much. Winter or summer, the air is always loose and moving. Not natural.

The sky is a vast, blank wound. No roof, no solid layer anywhere. Empty. Open.

Oh God. Stop shaking. Just get to the shop, get the stuff, get back.

I can’t breathe properly . This damn empty air. And noise. The whole bloody world rattles. Hands clenched around bars, incessantly shaking. Even the ground is rocking. Lorries rumbling past. Cars zooming.

Stare at the pavement. Count the cracks. It’s full of cracks. Everything falls apart out here…eroding and breaking up under the immense pressure of the gaping sky.

Count the cracks. Don’t look up. The earth is shuddering, far above the blank blue. I might fall off at any moment…tumble off into the atmosphere and just fall forever. Careening through the great blue-blackness. Suffocating.

Stop, stop…just one second. Need to breathe but…no, I must keep moving. Keep going, get back indoors. Come the fuck on, where is that shop? Has it always been so far away?

I’ll take some of…all this…back with me…see if I can just catch the colour of this day’s outside. It’ll go into the paint. The inside outside. Imprison it all in the edges of a frame. I’ll try again to get it right.

It never works. This fucking wide gasp of nothing doesn’t fit onto a canvas. I keep trying. I know if one day I manage to make it fit, it’ll all suddenly be easy and I can hold the idea of outside safely in the frame of my head and I’ll be able to go out, stand still and look up and not fall.

Pick up the pace, goddammit. The sooner I get to the shop the sooner I’ll be back home.

Fuck, why do I bother? I already know it’s not going to happen today. The piece is awful. Even going outside and bringing some of it back is not going to help me capture it. I’ve failed again.

But…more black, some better blue. It won’t work…but it has to be finished.

The door is creaky, fitted with a high-pitched bell and the interior smells like too much cleaning product. It’s the brown-eyed girl behind the counter today.

A thousand dabs of colour cram into my eyes…bald squares dabbed on bottles and tubes. Ultra-marine, azure, cobalt, aqua, lapis-lazuli, ocean, sapphire, indigo, navy, teal, turquoise. Such pompous names. Sky. The sky has never been that colour. I refuse to believe it.

Jet, obsidian, onyx (again), slate, raven, charcoal, ebony, ink, pitch. Just the jet. The rest is just jet with other crap in it. And a paintbrush…where the fuck are they? This place must be a hundred times more organised than mine but still it’s impossible to find the bloody things.

That one. The same one again. Why not? I’m only trying to paint the same thing. Over and Over. Fucking expensive it all is too. Lucky the shit sells, really.

And…back outside. The air is still rattling…rattling right through to my bones. How can anyone stand this? My feet are only staying on the ground through sheer force of will. This is too much. I should have waited. Phoned Ruth. Got her to get me the paint and brushes. I couldn’t wait though. I can never wait.

Home is still so far.

The noise and wind. Stealing breath. Stealing balance. Shouts. Machines everywhere. People everywhere. Yawning blue hole above me, sucking at me. Fucking hell, I just want to be back inside. Christ, give me a roof. Box me in away from this.

Oh God, I’m going to throw up.

Mustn’t stop moving. Another corner, just one more corner. Swallow it. Swallow.

Key-scrabble. Get in, you fuck. Open, damn it. Open.

Thank sweet Christ. Calm, still air. Quiet. Warm. Lock the fucking door. Bolts and everything. Lock it away.

The carpet doesn’t move. All is still, like land after a rough ocean. Noises still filter through the brick and the windows but they’re all safely walled off. Carpet is scratchy on my cheek. Cling to it, catch my breath. Rub my face on it.

The hammering in my ears fading. Sickness leaving. I can breathe. I can smell paint.

They gave me medication for this. One tiny bottle of pills is supposed to make all this go away. Behaviour modifiers. Sedatives. I wasn’t listening, I didn’t give a shit. I was only there because the police told me to go. I put them in the cupboard in the bathroom that I never open.

No way could a pill make this go away. Agorophobia is a stupid word. Making it a word doesn’t contain it. Doesn’t mean it can be cured.

Tiny, round, rattling things. They can’t possibly wipe out a whole world. ‘Sufferer’ he called me. Like it was a disease. Me? A sufferer? Hardly fucking think so. It only ever matters if I need paint. Food gets delivered. What more do you want? No one gives a shit if I’m skinny or pale. Like it bloody matters. Bloody doctors.

Knew I should’ve thrown the clinking, white fuckers away. They look like pupiless eyes, peering out of the neck of the bottle. They might as well have blank smiles painted on them, smiles like the one the doctor wore.


But I have to paint it. Have to put the whole world into paint. Then it won’t be too big anymore. It needs to be a wide, skewed spread across canvas, controlled by me. Not controlled by little white buttons in a bottle.


An hour’s drive? An hour? Outside? In a car? Those tin cans don’t hold back the pressure of the sky, especially since they fill the damn things with glass so you can always see out. Why in hell do I have to go to an exhibition of my own work? I’ve seen it all before, haven’t I? I bloody well painted it. It’ll be full of stiff people holding wine, making up words. It’ll be inside, thank God, but an hour away.

Bloody Ruth. Why do I even have an agent? The crapping things sell themselves. Although without her I’d have to do it all myself…go out. Talk to even more people.

Fucking Ruth. She uses stupid words like networking, personality, image, opportunity. Like I care.

And it’s in a week’s time and it’s an hour away

No way to get out of it. Already tried. ‘The next level’, ‘contracts’, ‘the big money’. I wish I didn’t have to care about money. But I need canvas. I need paint. Gallons of it. And take-away and delivery services. I need money.

Do I take one? Or is it two? I can’t read this label, it’s too bloody small. How can anyone read this? Two? No, three. Three times a day after meals.

What if you have only one meal? Or five? Depends on the day, doesn’t it? Idiots. Eat when you’re hungry, piss when you need to. I bet these people have pissing schedules too. Four times a day, after drinks.

Fuck it. I’ll have one when I wake up, one half way through and one before I pass out again.

If I have to go to this pretentious suck-fest, I mean to do it without throwing up or collapsing.

I need a drink. I swear I had some beer. Come on, something to wash this silly white pill down with. Vodka? Is that all I’ve got left? Cat-piss. Typical.


The blinds go from black to grey. Pill. I get hungry, order some Chinese. Pill. I drink and yawn and drink. Pill. Pass out.


It was fine. The drive was fine. The exhibition was fine. The wine was fine. Nothing special. How long ago was it anyway? A week? Two?

This house smells funny. It’s bloody dark too. Can I get these blinds open? Most have been shut for so long, some of the mechanisms have rusted still.

Pins. Blu-tak, sellotape. That’ll hold them open, if they can’t do it themselves.

The place really does stink. Paint and rubbish. Damp and dust. It must have always reeked of paint, but this stale, dust-smell is a new. Opening the windows has eased some of the acid paint stench but it’s lifting the dust up in the air and shifting it about. Paint tins are like magnets for the stuff. I don’t know, leave the things alone for two weeks (or is it three?) and they’re all covered in it.

I need another pill…

The ceiling stares back at me. My breath tastes cool in myself. I wonder if chewing on the end of this paintbrush is sharpening or dulling my teeth…some animals chew on wood don’t they? And it’s good for them. Good for their teeth. Keeps them sharp? No, keeps them worn down. Rabbits and beavers and things. They’re teeth need to be kept worn down. Ah, worn down. It will be wearing my teeth then. Better stop.

For once the cool is nice. I suck it in. Everything feels still. My insides are hidden. I can’t feel the ebb and rush I vaguely remember that came whenever I was moving around, losing things, moving things, thinking about having to go outside.

The outside is in now, isn’t it? I’ve opened the windows and let it all in. I’ve never done that before. It’s let in the sounds and the smells, but it’s not shaking at my mind-cage.

The ceiling really is rather low. This whole room is really rather small. Strange, I’ve never noticed before.

Stop chewing, start painting. Been lying here all morning. Barely touched the new paints Ruth got for free from someone or other last week. The ten new canvases in the corner smell of clean, even from here.

But it is rather comfy here. I’ll have some food in a minute. Indian? Nah, had enough of that. Had Chinese all last week. Pizza?

There’s a new pizza place in town. The flier is somewhere in the hall. It popped though the letterbox…sometime…last week. I usually chuck restaurant fliers straight away. I keep the ones for takeaways with free delivery pinned up in the kitchen. This one is still lying in the hall where it fell, I think. At least I think it was there when I went to the bathroom for my second piss. It doesn’t deliver, this new pizza place. Pain.

Where are my pills? Bathroom cupboard. Take them with me. Yeah. Take the bottle with me, wander out to the new restaurant, have one with my pizza, have some wine or something, wander back. Should kill a few hours.

I’m quite tall, I think. Never realised I could see over people’s heads in a queue for the zebra crossing.

I wonder if Ruth will take me along to another exhibition soon. I’d like to have something to do. An evening out of the house. Free drink and they usually take up the whole evening. I’ll get in past two, drunk, take a pill, pass out.

I should get a TV for the house. How do I not have a TV? Everyone else in the world does. That’s how they fill the hours. Then I can ignore the blank canvas staring at me from the corner.

People slide by me. The pavement slides by underneath me. Cars and lorries slide past me on the road. Everything slides past like I’m covered in a layer of oil. It all slips past, in a dream, without touching. My eyes are heavy again. I’ve already had two naps today, how am I tired again? I could go home, fall asleep on that couch in the studio that’s so comfy. I used to use it to stack paints on.

No. I want my pizza. Get to the place, eat and then wander back. It’ll all slide past slowly, on the outside of this weird, sleepy bubble.

I might be able to make this trip out last until it gets dark. The restaurant’s on the other side of town. Must be almost an hour’s walk away. Yeah, get in when it’s gone dark and then I can say the light’s too bad to paint.

One little white stone swallowed with a glass of house white. Posh pizza, this. Posh place. Olives? Parma ham rather than just chunks of pink salt? The restaurant is loaded with smells. Smells of…what? My brain is fuzzy. Stuff…foody stuff.

It all slides down easy enough. One bite, two bites. Each slice about six bites, six slices. A nice symmetry there. Thirty six bites, it should be. Works out closer to forty but…never mind…didn’t factor in…

What was I thinking about? Pizza?

Another pill. Or did I already have one? One with meal. This is a meal. I’ll take one, just in case.

Just a few loose ones in the bottom of the bottle. Will need more very soon. How did I get them in the first place? Did Ruth give them to me?

No…doctor. The doctor will give me more. I must have the phone number somewhere. Ruth’ll know it.


No pills left, Ruth. Need more. You said the appointment was on Tuesday. No? Next Tuesday? Well then, when? The ninth? But I’ll run out. I’ve only got enough left for tonight. No, Ruth I need more. It feels weird if I’m even late with one. Things start buzzing. What? What do you mean it doesn’t matter? Well the doctor’s wrong. There wasn’t two month’s worth in that bottle. And I’m running out of money. Where’s all my money? I usually have more than this. Well, no, nothing new yet. I’m still thinking. Hello?

I’m tired anyway. The air in the house is cool on my hot cheeks. I’ve left the windows open again. I don’t care. Bed’s too far away. The couch in the studio is closer.

Eyes so heavy, limbs so heavy, lungs…so heavy. No, I need another pill…before I fall asleep. One more little off-button, the calm button that I push and then everything’s flat and easy.

One more…the last one.


Buzzing, buzzing. Noises clawing at skin and lungs and the inside of my head. Where are the noises coming from? I can’t see. Violent shivers in thin, loose limbs. The buzzing.

I need a pill. I remember the empty bottle. No, I need one…everything’s moving. There’s none left.

Wake up, you idiot. Wake up. No, it’s all coming back, all the ups and downs. The flatness is quaking. It’s all coming back, crowding up behind my eyes.

Blinding, buzzing. Breath tastes sharp. Get up, get up from the floor. No, can’t move. Shivering. Breathe, once, twice, three times. Light. Too much light. The air is fucking moving around me. Help, Christ, help. It’s all moving, the light, the air, the sounds, the smells.

Outside. It’s like I’m outside.

I’ll fall off, I’ll fall off into the sky. I can feel it pulling everyway. Everything’s moving, everything’s moving. Stomach rocking. Shit, going to be sick.

Oh for fuck’s sake. Why didn’t I hold it? Just two most steps and I’d’ve been in the toilet. Fucking hell, this stinks worst of all.

Christ, it’s so cold. Shut these fucking windows. The wind’s getting in, the noise is getting in. It’s shaking everything. Shut it away, shut it away. And the blinds. Too bloody bright.

Bloody hell. What time is it? What fucking day is it? Can’t stop shaking. Breathe, you idiot. It’s all shut away now. Gotta turn the heating up, quick. What? I turned it right down to two? When did I do that? Might as well live outside.

Christ, the outside. I let it in. The door’s not even locked. The kitchen curtains are open. All the fucking windows were open. What the hell, why on earth did I do all this?

My skin feels really raw, like it’s buzzing, like I’ve been scratching at it without feeling it.

Christ, I’m hungry. Indian, something hot, magma-hot. To deliver, please. There’s a tenner in my trousers, that’ll be enough.

Where’s the red paint? I need the red. The really bright one. I’ll mix it with a bit of that ochre, it’ll make it all fiery. I could feel the sky and it was fiery. It got into the house and it was burning me. Must make it burn in the paint.

No, no, that’s fucking crimson. Bloody shit-twee colour of fucking valentines roses. Disguting. Scarlet, where’s the scarlet. And the ochre. And the paintbrushes.

Why the hell is everything in here? I never keep stuff in the paint cupboard. Fucking stupid place to keep stuff. It all needs to be out and about, to hand, grab-able.

Quick, quick. Need to mix it. The fire’s still burning behind my eyelids. Need to get the colour right, get it down. A big sweep of it, a blinding sweep all across the top and down the right edge. Yes. It needs to be brighter. Canary. Too fucking cheery. Mix some white in it, no. Needs some black.

Shite, this is utter shite. But have to keep going, have to make it work. Can’t believe I opened the windows. I might have been sucked out, pulled out into the vacuum. Scary shit. The pills pushed it all away behind that weird, oily layer but it was still there and here it is again.

Must put it in the paint, must get it down, contain it. It’s shut away now, behind the blinds, but I can still feel it in me and I have to get it out. Continue to get it out, pour it out, over and over, over and over. If I can just capture it on canvas, it won’t frighten me any more.

Yes Ruth, there are some new ones. No, they’re fucking shit. Of course they’re shit. Yes they’ll bloody sell. What? What appointment? Cancel it, for fuck’s sake. The hell I’m going outside for anything.

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10 Responses to Short Story: ‘Off-Buttons’

  1. Andy says:

    Brilliant 😀

  2. D. James Fortescue says:

    Wow, that was intense!

    Got the feeling Ruth didn’t care unless the canvas carousel was producing work. Not very nice =S

    • jcollyer says:

      I think you might be right! But I think the narrator tends to look at people in a bad light as well 🙂 Thanks so much once again for taking the time to read and to comment 🙂 I hope it made sense. I had some trouble when I submitted this story to a workshop – people weren’t entirely sure what was going on. I have tweaked it since however and hope it is clearer

      • D. James Fortescue says:

        You hear from many people how the drugs to treat their ‘conditions’ ends up dulling the people themselves. Not hurting anyone, and generating income, so its all fine. Bad is living for the next pill, then being in a haze in between.

      • jcollyer says:

        Definitely. I imagined that for creative people as well it can be felt particularly keenly

  3. Pingback: Short Story Back Up :) | The Path - J. Collyer's Writing Blog

  4. localfreak says:

    I really enjoyed reading this story, I like the pace of it and the distinctiveness of the character’s voice.

  5. H. Ken Abell says:

    I think that the real success with this story was how you managed to maintain that level of anger and neurosis and madness throughout without relenting. In my head, the narrator was talking in clipped, rapid spurts — I’ve seen true mania, and this is what came to mind. Very well done.

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