SPINE

Patrick Griffith's surreal short story tells the tale of a despondent artist who encounters his creativity in its real, physical form.

My brain hadn’t been very kind to me for at least three months. You would have thought, after Lu left and Tojo died, after everything we had been through, that it would have at least been a bit more compassionate, a bit more helpful than giving me an increasingly painful headache and an abject lack of creativity. My paintings were grey. Dull. Devoid of life.

On one of those many days I sat hunched over a pristine sheet of paper, staring at it, as though an image might miraculously appear. Cherry-red dots of blood fell onto the paper creating a pattern infinitely more artistic than anything I had produced for days. As I reached for a nearby cloth and held it to my nose, I noticed something moving in the splatters of blood. A tiny brown lozenge, an insect-like cocoon, maybe a centimetre long, wriggled violently before the casing split and the wriggling ceased, replaced by slow, deliberate movements. A peculiar prickly, creamy-white creature gradually emerged. It wasn’t like anything I had ever seen; it wasn’t an insect, at least I didn’t think it was, and as the spindly thing slowly stretched it began to look more like...well, a tree. A minuscule, ghostly, thorny, leafless tree. It sleepily unfurled four relatively large branches from its trunk that resembled two arms and two legs, and a bulbous growth that can only be described as a head emerged - complete with two pinprick eyes and a tiny mouth that I swear showed a hint of a smile.

I barely noticed that my nosebleed had stopped because, gloriously, so had my headache. Was this tiny monster the cause? Was it somehow lodged in my brain? It didn’t seem to matter at that very moment because I was transfixed by the increasingly animated thing stretching, apparently acclimatising to its environment. Then, before I had a chance to react, it ran along the length of my desk, slid down the table leg, scampered across the floor and disappeared behind the mess of books, boxes and pieces of paper, stacked in the corner for future attention. I looked for it, thoroughly, I thought, for some time but I found no sign of it. Confused, I convinced myself that I must have been hallucinating. Maybe I was lightheaded after my nosebleed. I was certainly extremely tired. And having a wonderfully clear head for the first time in months, I didn’t need a lot of persuading to float straight to bed.

After a glorious night’s sleep I awoke fresh, revitalised, filled with an energy I hadn’t felt since I don’t know when. I returned to my desk, eager to get to work, but I was immediately confronted with yet another surprise. Laid out on the tabletop was a painting – a magnificent abstract portrait of a beautiful woman with a haunting glare. I didn’t remember doing this. It was my style, my brush strokes, the kind of thing I would paint back when I was in that happier, more productive place. But it wasn’t, couldn’t have been mine. I examined it in awe. The paint was still wet in places and in the corner was my signature. Did I paint this, somehow, unconsciously? In my sleep? I found the notion ridiculous but what other answer could there be?

The strange little visitor was a distant memory. Perhaps it was a dream rather than a hallucination. Clearly, strange things were happening in my sleep, I thought, and after a day impatiently reconnecting with an old art dealer acquaintance, I went to bed that night with a smile on my face, waiting to see if my unconscious self could conjure more wonders.

Sure enough, the next morning a new painting was waiting to greet me. It was, if anything, better than the portrait of the previous morning and, once again, I had no recollection of painting it although it was clearly my work.

This went on day after day. Morning after morning I would wake up to these masterpieces, and in the daytime I would replenish my supplies to make sure that everything was there for me if and when I needed it. It’s a routine that worked; an odd routine, you might think, but why mess with it? I was on top of the world and other pieces of my broken life very quickly fell into place. I started feeling healthier – I exercised and stopped eating junk. I started socialising again and my friends were clearly glad to see the return of a more confident, happier soul.

But it was after a night out that the memory of the spindly thorny thing returned. My angry fat bladder woke me up at around 4 a.m. but on the way to the bathroom I was distracted by a noise in my studio. I poked my head around the door to see my desk lamp illuminating a half-finished painting. Although it was a little larger – maybe three or four centimetres in height – and its evidently tougher skin was a deeper brown colour, the same figure with the same pinprick eyes and tiny mouth that I had convinced myself was the product of a very vivid dream, was scurrying back and forth, grasping a towering paintbrush, swishing left, right, and centre, with impressive dexterity. It was the artist. It was the one producing these paintings. Being very careful not to make a sound, I watched it as another amazing portrait gradually materialised. After a short while I returned to bed, lying awake, perturbed, as it all started to sink in.

The next day I stared at the completed painting, once again boasting my signature. I knew I wasn’t so drunk that I could have imagined it all. I saw the tiny creature create this. I screwed it up in frustration, laid a new, clean piece of paper down on the desk, and started to paint. Grey. Just like before. Nothing had changed. I made several attempts, all with the same dull, bland outcome.

That night I got up again, this time with the express intention of catching the thing in the act. Sure enough, at 4 a.m. there it was again, this time wielding paint-stained knives and sponges. The piece was inspired, its best to date. I watched it quietly at first but intrigue got the better of me and, as it appeared it was finishing, I walked over to the desk. I assumed it would run away but it didn’t. It just continued as if I wasn’t there, putting the finishing touches to the painting as I sat towering over it. It scrawled my signature and then disappeared down the table leg and behind my filing system as it had on the day it first appeared.

The next night it was there again. I was waiting for it this time and I watched it work from scratch, alternating between wild brush strokes and amazing microscopic daubing, dot after dot, line after line, like a miniature humanoid printer, being careful not to press its little branching feet into the coloured liquids. It continued as if I wasn’t there, completely untroubled. I attempted to talk to it, ask it who or what it was, why it was doing what it was doing, but there was no response at all. At one point I picked it up. It wasn’t as hard as I expected – it was fibrous but flexible – more like a moist liquorice root than a dry tree branch. I put it down on the other side of the table and it just ran back to its previous point and continued working as if nothing had happened, like some kind of single-minded worker ant.

I just let it get on with things. There was no point in trying to paint myself – it just didn’t work – and there were no signs of getting any closer to my old days, let alone the quality of these new pieces. I started sleeping longer and longer hours, going out most nights, watching droll programmes on the new gargantuan TV I bought with the money I made from several sales. I watched the nimble shrub now and then but the novelty soon wore off. I just took its paintings, my dealer loved them, and people were buying them.

There was a big exhibition of ‘my work’ at a trendy gallery in Mayfair. Not a single bad word was uttered all night and, believe me, I was doing my best to listen out for them. People were falling over themselves with compliments like I was some kind of artistic genius, the next big thing. Critics were excitedly scribbling notes, buyers were pulling out their chequebooks. I was quaffing as much champagne as my body would let me.

In a somewhat inebriated funk, I watched it again that night, the agile, busy, pico-Picasso. I picked it up and moved it a few times, only for it to predictably run back and continue painting. Then I lightly flicked it across the desk, shaking off a few microscopic yellow leaves that were beginning to grow on its arms, but it got up without any bother and returned to work. I flicked it harder and it flew off the table but, with remarkable dexterity, it scaled the table and continued painting. I put a glass over it and it just kept running into the transparent wall, falling down, getting back up and unsuccessfully running towards the painting again and again and again. It was relentless. I threw the glass against the wall, smashing it into a hundred pieces but the thing just ran to the painting and continued its work as if nothing had happened. I picked it up, squeezing it tightly in my fist and stormed through the kitchen, hurling it into the bin and closing the lid tight behind it before I went to bed to sleep off the champagne.

The completed painting was waiting to mock me in the morning. It was beautiful. I tore it up and threw it away.

The next night I just stared at the ugly, arrogant devil for hours, unsure what to do. And then, less in anger and more in a daze, I went through similar motions to the previous night. I held it back. I pushed it off the desk. At one point I casually picked it up with a pair of sausage tongs and held it over the flame on my hob. Not a sound. It just wriggled, its creepy little smile never diminishing. It got free and hobbled across the kitchen at speed, back into my studio and, somehow, up onto the desk, managing to balance a paintbrush against its chest even though it was unable to move one of its charred black arms. Its disability didn’t affect its performance. The results were, if anything, even more impressive.

My mind wandered. I remembered that night when it first appeared. My joy at finding that first painting. The riches I gained from its work that just got better and better and better and better. Did it matter that, as much as I tried, I still couldn’t be that artist I used to think I could become? This tiny thing came from me. It was me. It was me.

I put it in my mouth and swallowed, washing it down with a glass of water as if it was a large, oddly shaped, slightly sharp pill. I felt it squirming a little against the sides of my gullet until it presumably plunged into my gastric acids where it would squirm no more.

There were no more paintings waiting for me in the mornings after that. And my paintings, the paintings by my own hand, were still grey. I had no money, I had no ideas, and I had an increasingly painful bellyache.



'Spine' was published in Popshot's 9th issue, The Imagination Issue, which has now sold out. To ensure that you never miss a future issue of the print magazine, subscribe from just £10 a year.