Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Portrait of Bare Pneuma by Steve Lucas

An alcoholic artist loses his job as a mechanic at the same time that his visions of an alien world reach a crescendo; by Steve Lucas.

'Why don't you just disappear?' asked the old man, waving his hand as if brushing away a fly.

'Don't speak to me like that.' James lifted the wrench a fraction as his muscles tightened in his right arm.

'Take it easy kid.' The old man lifted his cap, ran his fingers over his white hair and put the cap back on. 'Listen. You don't show up for a week. You don't call me. Now you turn up stinking of booze. You did a botch job on Mr Williams' Audi before you took off.' The old man took a deep breath. 'And you were already on your final warning after last time. What else can I do with you?'

James rolled his shoulders back and lifted his head. 'Come on, Joe.'

'I know you've got these... difficulties... and I've tried to be as understanding as I can be. I'm trying to run a business here.'

'You've no idea,' said James, stepping forward an inch.

'Put the wrench down,' the old man said, turning his palms over.

James looked into the old man's eyes, almost looking through them. Then he dropped the wrench to the concrete floor and stormed out of the garage. The old man breathed a heavy sigh and put his hand to his chest. 'Oh boy,' he whispered, shaking his head.

'Excuse me,' a young lady called. The old man hadn't noticed the Mini waiting on the forecourt. 'I think I need some new windscreen wipers. Could you fit them now? I'm in a rush.' The old man groaned and began looking for his glasses. The young lady watched the red haired mechanic make his way up the street. 'James,' she whispered, shaking her head.

James had caught a glance of the Mini and its driver, but he was too tense to think clearly. Anger quickened his pace. He would never forget that face. Her hair was shorter and she was wearing big bug sunglasses, but it was Donna. He stopped for a moment, rubbed his chin and then carried on walking.

He made his way along the overgrown verge of the bypass. Then he cut through the subway and emerged into the street. James went into the off licence and bought a bottle of the cheapest single malt whisky. Within minutes he was home. He walked through the front door, went up the stairs and locked himself in the grim sanctuary of his room.

He touched the photograph of his daughter and paused for a second. Then he filled an empty jam jar with whisky and eyed his canvases. His mind raced with feverish excitement as his blue eyes darted over his mysterious, colourful creations. Trampling empty cans under his feet, the room seemed unrecognisable to him now from the spacious, clean bedsit that he moved into just six months previously. He stood over his newest composition, lost in thought. Stopping only for a burning mouthful of whisky, James threw paint upon paint. He took no rest. It was as if he was being held by some supernatural force. His eyes could not leave the painting and he only stopped to urinate into an empty bottle. The source of his energy was never questioned. The guide of his hand was never seen. He finally collapsed, eyes fixed, arms limp... and then came the stillness of sleep.

It was a dream of the white world. Great shafts of light shone into his head as he flew over enormous alien landscapes, gargantuan chasms cut by gaseous streams and luminous towers that curved into the sun-filled skies. Strange snake-like birds looped and swung through the air to the supple music that resonated across the hills. A wet proboscis nudged against his rippling body as he felt himself slip from solidity to fluidity. He flew higher and higher.



Pleased with her new windscreen wipers, Donna went back to the drop-in centre. She dug out James' file and skimmed over the pages. She had first met James a year ago when he stumbled through the door on her shift. She had counselled him from that first visit. He became something of a regular at the centre, coming in once a week on average in varying states of distress. Donna could not often afford to devote more than an hour of her time to any one service user but she would make an exception for James. She had been struck by his lack of balance, both emotionally and physically. His abuse of alcohol and solvents had been severe and dangerous enough to lead him into temporary states of psychosis. He was prone to crippling bouts of depression and auditory hallucinations, especially when he abandoned his medication, declaring that he was cured.

Donna liked to think that she had been a significant factor in helping James to stop abusing solvents. When she thought about it, there was something in his eyes, something that she had seen in their very first meeting that set him apart from the other service users. It was not the fragility or vulnerability that shadowed him; she saw the energy and animation that threatened to burst out at any moment. During one memorable session, James became almost manic and raved about the incredible dreams he was having. Then it was as if he caught himself, his mood dropped and he refused to discuss them any further. He was as frustrating as he was frustrated. He would appear to make progress and then stop coming to the centre. Then four to six weeks later he would come crashing through the door and all the hard work seemed to have come undone.

Donna turned the pages. James' problems refused to go away. Fostered as a child, he seemed to have no anchor. At sixteen he became father to a baby girl, Holly. She meant the world to him. Little more than a year later, her sudden disappearance threw him into despair. Speculation of her possible abduction or murder was never confirmed as her body was never found. The newspapers soon forgot about her as the media spotlight, like a shark, has to keep moving. From the first day he crashed through the doors of the drop-in centre, James had Donna watching over him. She often found herself wondering about him, especially when a month or so had passed without him making an appearance. The more time passed without seeing him, the worse he would be.

'Still reading about James?' asked the secretary as she peered over Donna's shoulder. 'Isn't he a bit young for you?'

'Oh, don't be ridiculous,' Donna replied snapping the file shut.

'Sense of humour failure?' she smiled, 'I must have touched a nerve.'

'Schizophrenic alcoholics aren't my type.'

'You could have fooled me,' she said, raising her eyebrows. Donna felt the blood flow to her cheeks. She stuffed the file into her bag and returned her attention to her computer.



James woke up and recalled his dreams. For the last few years the dreams had come to him with increasingly regularity and clarity. He thought of them as his visions, or illuminations, but he could not find a label that captured their essence satisfactorily. As soon as he defined them in his mind and attached the appropriate terminology, the dreams took it upon themselves to mutate and transcend. It was as if they revelled in pushing beyond his linguistic limitations. To label is to understand and control. Whatever James experienced could not be understood or controlled.

The Voice spoke to him with utter clarity. 'The time is approaching. You have waited long enough. Do you want to come to us?'

James lay in a kind of no man's land, in-between levels of consciousness. 'You mean the white world?'

'Our world.'

James felt frozen yet floating, numb but alive. With his eyes shut he felt outside of his body. 'What do you want?'

'To make your dreams reality.'

'Am I going mad?'

'No. Don't be afraid. You want to be with your daughter?'

'Yes, more than anything.'

'Then so you shall. Leave this house and head for the hills.'

'Promise me that I'll see Holly.'

'We promise. Now bring the rope.'

A throbbing ache split his head in two, his eyes hurt to filter the light. The painting pulled his eyes into focus and his heart began to race. James began to shake nauseously as he hauled himself to his feet, stumbling to gather his money together. He found his climbing rope under the bed and made it into neat coils. Pulling on his shoes and coat he put the rope over his shoulder, opened the door, almost fell down the stairs and left the building. He made a meandering walk up the street to the shop.



Donna made her way home. As she drove along the bypass, she felt more shock than surprise to see James, still wearing his blue overalls, cross the road with a bottle of vodka swinging in his hand. The sight of the rope he carried sent a chill of fear down her neck. She braked hard and switched on her hazard lights to warn other drivers. James narrowly missed a Volvo before forcing his way into the bushes towards the fields. She managed to pull over.

'James!' she shouted. He half turned and then carried on walking. 'James! Where are you going?'

'To the woods...' She struggled to hear him over the car horns and the roar of the traffic.

'Stop! Come back and I'll give you a lift. We'll talk on the way.' But he was already through the bushes. Donna debated whether to go after him or to report the incident to the Outreach Workers. As she accelerated through the gears, she questioned her own motives too. If she was honest with herself, she had always found James compelling. He was young, handsome, bright yet careless, gifted but scattered, spontaneous and alone. He struck her, despite his mental health problems, as one of those people not made for these times. Or perhaps his soul found itself in the wrong body or on the wrong planet? As it was unprofessional, she could not admit to herself that she was attracted to him. As she pulled onto the roundabout, she realised that today was the third year anniversary of Holly's disappearance.



James ran across the field towards the trees and the hills, frequently falling on the uneven terrain. Each time this happened he would get up, take a swig from the bottle and carry on, oblivious to the mud and the cuts and the bruises. He wanted to find himself in natural surroundings, deep in the countryside, away from other people and their civilisation. He believed that being closer to Mother Earth in this state of intoxication would make him more likely to hear the Voice and to experience the dreams with greater clarity. James anticipated the coming of the night with a vampire's glee.

Once he was deep inside the woods he stopped to climb a tall tree with low branches. He felt safe nestled high above the grassy ground, sheltered from the spitting rain. Shielded in the green where nobody would find him, he tied the rope around his waist and the heavy branch just in case he fell. He listened to the wind in the trees, the songs of birds, the jostling of branches, well away from the hubbub of the town. Drunk and exhausted, his mind drifted off and his eyelids grew heavy.

The white world returned with all its glowing wonder. James felt the colours soar through his heart as he flew through their never-ending rainbow. Free from the chains of his body, his mind danced in the light beams that seemed to spill through all existence. Waves of faith and golden belief swept his jubilation to new heights in a chorus of re-birth. Pillars of sound appeared to vibrate through his outstretched hands, showering him with an all-encompassing alien love. A slender, delicious tongue slipped inside his brain and sucked at the core of his mind, drinking the pain away, swallowing the hurt and the fear.

'You are important to us. It is hard to believe that you have come so far. Are you ready for your new life?'

'Yes, yes I am. But why me?'

'You can hear us. We speak and you listen. You feel and we feel. Together we can know real happiness.'

'How can I feel it?'

'Go to the top of Pendle Hill before dawn. Wait for us there amongst the stones. The time has come.'

'This is it.'

'Make a circle. Kneel amongst the stones.'

James opened his eyes to find himself sprawled across the branches of the tree. His head pounded and his lips were sore and split. The rain hammered and the wind threatened to throw him to the ground below. Blindly, he clambered through the darkness, down the branches, down the trunk. The bottle lay amongst the leaves where it must have fallen. He unscrewed the cap and drank thirstily. Before he was aware of it, he was on his knees, crying out huge, desolate sobs into the night. He screamed until his voice cracked. Then he made his way to the edge of the woods and scrambled up the ever-steepening hill.



No matter how much she pressed herself against her boyfriend, Donna could not relax or feel secure. She couldn't sleep. The thought kept returning that James was in danger. Then she got annoyed with herself for stressing about work when she was at home. That was something that she used to do at the very start of her career, now she liked to think that she was more professional, more rational.

When sleep did come to Donna it brought bizarre dreams about hills and woods, water and lightning. The dreams turned into nightmares as she saw James confused and drunk, running for his life across a muddy field. She was trying to reach him but the mud grew thicker and deeper and her legs got heavier and heavier. Something pursued him and his running became slower and slower as it got closer and closer. Then the nightmare changed. She could see James at the top of a hill, making a noose. Deluded and depressed, he swayed from side to side, shivering in the rain. No one was there to help him. At the moment that he was about to end it all - she woke up.

Her heart was racing and she had the most awful feeling that something terrible was about to happen to him. It was still dark outside and raining again. Donna just knew something was wrong. She slipped out of bed with the feeling that she'd received a message. She got dressed as quickly and quietly as possible. She had to check.

'What's the matter?' Richard asked, waking up.

'Nothing, I just...'

'Where are you going?' he demanded, sitting upright.

'Don't get angry. There's something wrong with one of our service users and I'm going to check that -'

'Don't tell me,' he said, curling his upper lip. 'It's James, isn't it?'

She paused. 'Yes but...'

'Jesus Christ!' He threw his pillow across the room. 'We talked about this before! What the hell is so important about James? How do you know something's wrong with him? I didn't hear the phone ring...'

'You think I'm stupid, don't you?'

'No. Just tell me the truth.'

'Well, I had a dream that something terrible was happening and James was -'

'You're dreaming about him!' he exploded. 'Jesus Christ, you're losing it. I don't believe this.' He threw the duvet to the floor. 'I once dreamt that my mum was about to have her blood drained by a ten foot lizard but that doesn't mean that it was about to happen! I didn't go to check on her. I didn't even call her. Do you know why?' He rubbed his fingertips against the sides of his skull. 'Because it was just a dream...'

'I'll be back really quick.'

'If you go out now don't bother coming back!'

Donna ran downstairs, out the front door and got inside her car. With shaking hands she drove through the rain, hoping to see something that would allay her fears. James could be anywhere but she had to try to find him. Her heart couldn't bear to do nothing. She drove along the bypass and scanned the field and saw nothing but blackness. 'What did you expect?' she chastised herself aloud.

Donna turned off at the roundabout and took the road through the woods, half expecting to see James run into the beam of her headlights, crazed and drunk. She thanked the universe for the new windscreen wipers as she found the single track lane that ran up the hill. She told herself that she would follow it as far as she could, then turn around, go home and take a sleeping tablet. Maybe phone work in the morning and tell them she was sick.

The lane soon narrowed until it was scarcely wide enough for the car. In first gear she climbed the hill until the track became too pot-holed to go any further. The rain was easing off and she scanned the hillside, squinting through the darkness. There was nothing to see. Donna sighed and thought about trying to turn the car around in the next field when a flash of lightning illuminated a figure on the hilltop. There was a boom of thunder. She struggled to make out a vague silhouette swaying from side to side. Was her imagination running wild? She stared at the figure. Could it be James? What if she went up there and it was someone else? Was it safe? Then she realised that in the rush to leave the house she had forgotten her mobile phone. She sat, eyes fixed on the hilltop, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel. She had to check now before turning back. Leaving the keys in the ignition she began to scramble up the hill, her heart beating faster and faster, straining her eyes to see and trying not to slip on the wet and the mud and the stone.



Richard was out of bed and searching through Donna's possessions. He emptied her work bag and James' file fell to the floor. He picked it up and started reading until he found what he was looking for. 'Room 6, Red House, Church Street...' he said to himself.

When Richard got there the building looked dead. He rang the bell and waited. A woman in a torn dressing gown opened the door.

'Hi, is James in?'

She turned around and walked back down the hallway. 'How should I know?' she said.

Richard stepped inside and climbed the wooden stairs. He got to the top landing to see a door wide open with the keys still hanging in the lock. 'Donna?' he called out. The sight and smell of the room was offensive. It was full of empty bottles and cans, clothes strewn across the floor, rotten food, ripped curtains and paint was stuck to everything. He noticed watercolours of unusual landscapes and crumpled papers that bore fragmentary poems about flying and lights, hope and despair, hills and chasms, love and loss. He pushed them aside. There were several sketches of a red haired baby girl. Then his attention was taken by the painting on the easel.

As he stood squarely in front of the artwork his hand moved involuntarily to cover his gaping mouth. A cold shiver ran through him and physically shook his body. The picture was still wet and the oils dripped at the bottom. This almost imperceptible movement only added to the dark energy of the painting, giving it the living freshness of an advancing glacier. Not considering himself to be the artistic type, Richard did not try to analyse what he saw. Intuitively, he felt there was a religious aspect to the painting, a great sense of suffering and a terrible emptiness. The image was imprinted in his mind's eye. In the middle of those shifting dimensions of holy colours stood a wide eyed family. The red haired man must have been James. In his right arm he cradled the baby girl from the sketches. But it was the left arm that sickened Richard, the way it circled and gripped Donna by the waist. Richard's shoulders shuddered involuntarily and he looked away. A primeval surge of force rose within him. Then he stepped forward and kicked the easel and the painting across the room.



Donna was almost at the hilltop. To her astonishment, she could see a figure kneeling, head bowed, filthy, soaked and broken, swaying drunkenly in the wind. She got closer and saw with relief that it was James. He seemed lost in a faraway place. He had tied the rope around the largest stone and made a circle around fifteen feet in diameter. James knelt in the middle. Donna's legs felt like burning jelly when she finally reached him. 'James?' She placed a tremulous hand on his bony shoulder and his head lolled back, his eyes rolling to the stars, his teeth grinding like dry cogs. 'It's me, Donna. What are you doing here?'

He sucked in the cold, damp air and his head fell forward. He spoke slowly and faintly, as if in a trance. 'It's almost time to make the journey. Are you ready?'

'I'm taking you to the shelter. You're cold and hungry and you're in danger.' She took hold of his arm.

'No. They're coming.' His bloodshot eyes opened and stared through hers. Donna took a step back in shock at his intensity. 'Donna', he whispered, 'this world's not for us.'

'We all feel like that sometimes, James. Listen to me. You're drunk and you've stopped taking your medication. You need to -'

'You knew to come.'

'I'm not leaving you here.' Donna fought back a sudden urge to cry with sheer frustration. She knelt beside him in silence, thinking about what she should do. She scolded herself for forgetting her phone. James looked up at the sky with a weary smile. She put her hand gently on his arm. 'Let's go,' she whispered.

He began to mumble softly as a shimmering hazy light began to break through the clouds. A tiny whirlwind of golden particles appeared a hundred feet above their heads, spiralling down to earth. James breathed deeply. Donna thought that she could hear music being carried on the wind. She turned her head slightly and felt the delicate drizzle begin to vibrate against her skin.

'I'm ready,' James began to sob, 'I'm so glad you came.'

Donna smiled warmly and took James' hand. Then she realised that his attention was held by the skies and that perhaps she had misunderstood. She looked up and her mouth fell open. Luminous orbs danced over their heads in a strange, joyful invitation. They fell lower and brighter as a column of energy enclosed them both in its other-worldly splendour. White flames seemed to flicker as silver trumpets sang in the wind. The hilltop seemed to transform, wrapped in a warm, white embrace. Donna was dumbstruck.

'Welcome, James! The time is now. You have brought a friend! Come now. Holly has waited so long to see you.'

The crossing had already begun and within seconds, all that remained on the hilltop were some ancient stones and a neat circle of rope.

5 comments:

  1. Not really my type of story, but the suspense pulls you in and continues to build making it hard NOT to read. Characters are nicely developed. Well done

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  2. Really enjoyed this piece, very well written, and as the previous poster alluded to, excellent character development. Definitely sucked you in, I was left wanting to know what happened next to be honest, looking forward to possibly reading further literary delights about the mystical and magical white world, sounded like my kind of place!!

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  3. Nice use of language. I agree with other posters that the character development is good and the action is advanced nicely. However, the ending was unsatisfying to me. The story would have had greater impact for me if this alien world was truly a construction of his psyche to deal with despair and addiction. Just my opinion. Skillfully done, nonetheless.

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  4. I agree with Charlie Bennett. The ending seems almost like a cop-out ... just have everyone die at the end of the story and you're done. The tension throughout the story kept me reading but in the end, there was no explanation. The writing is good but there was no story there.

    Cliff ..

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for your feedback. The story is 'futuristic/sci-fi' rather than 'real life'. Perhaps you would've preferred it that way. The concept is that it isn't until the end that we realise that this other world is actually real. That's the story. Thanks for reading.
      S.Lucas

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