Still Life

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
Lee Stewart is a writer. He lives a creative life just waiting for inspiration and his big break to come along. But to the rest of the world he's a layabout.

Submitted: March 30, 2016

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Submitted: March 30, 2016

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Lee Stewart stared at the painting. He nodded to himself in the hush of the gallery. This Lowry feller may have been a grumpy old bugger but his pictures really captured a time, a place and a feeling. No wonder this gallery and the shopping mall attached had been named after him.

He found the gallery inspiring. Who knew, perhaps one day after visiting the place he might get an idea for a story that would put his writing on the map. It was all art as far as he was concerned. Writing, painting, theatre, music. It was all connected somehow. He reached into his coat. He pulled out a small bottle of whiskey. As he headed to the next exhibit he took a sip of liquor. An elderly woman tutted at him as she passed. He gave her a wink. People just didn’t get it. He was a writer, a creative artist. Would she have tutted at Lowry if he had a pint while he painted? Yes, he decided, she probably would.

The next painting depicted workers spilling out of a factory at home time. Another masterpiece, thought Lee. His thoughts were interrupted by an announcement over the loudspeaker system. ‘Please note the gallery at 5pm. As this is in a few moments time please make your way towards the exits. Thank you for visiting.’

Lee swore. He checked the time on his wrist watch. A minute to five. He swore again. His mother’s fiftieth birthday partly would be already under way. He took the steps two at a time as he headed for the exit. He rushed along the street towards the tram stop. He could almost hear the grief he would get for being late for the party. Not good. He was already the black sheep of the family as it was. He spotted the tram at the stop. The tram doors were open invitingly. He dashed down the platform. Just as he reached the front of the tram there was a high pitched beeping sound. The doors slid shut. Lee cursed as the tram pulled away.

He studied the electronic display mounted on the stop. The next tram to Eccles was due in twenty minutes. He shook his head. He was late enough as it was. The birthday bash would already be well under way. And, yet again, his name would be mud.

While he waited for the next tram he paced the platform. He noticed the queue of people at the ticket machine. Why would you pay the tram if you could get away with not paying? And why on earth would you queue for the privilege.

After waiting for what felt like an hour the Eccles tram arrived. Lee shuffled on board with the other passengers.

He was just over two hours late for this mother’s 50th party. At least, he thought, it was being held in a pub. He may have to spend time with his family but there would be draught beer. Happy 50th birthday banners and balloons were strewn all over the walls. The pub was packed. Lee pushed through the people and headed straight for the bar. He was about to take a swig of his pint when he felt a nudge at his elbow He turned to see his father. His angry eyes glared from under greying eyebrows.

‘Nice of you to join us.’ he growled.

‘The trams were a nightmare. Signal work or something.’

‘Whatever. Your mother is through there.’

He jerked a thumb towards the back room of the pub. Lee nodded and went through. A song by The Hollies playing over the speakers. A few of his aunts sung along, waving their arms. He spotted his mother on the far side of the room. She was deep in conversation with his sister. She grinned when she saw him.

‘Happy birthday, Ma.’

He hugged her. His father returned from the bar with a fresh pint.

‘How’s things, Lee?’ asked his sister.

‘Aye, not bad. How you doing?’

‘Yeah, really well thanks. Work is going great. And Nigel has just got himself a new Lexus.’

‘You must be delighted. I am pleased.’

Lee couldn’t hide the sarcasm from his voice.

‘Have you got yourself a job yet?’ she asked.

Lee felt the eyes of his sister and his parents as they waited for his answer.

‘Look,’ he sighed. ‘I’ve told you. I’m a writer. That is what I do.’

‘Some of the best writers started out working daytime jobs and did their writing in the evening.’

‘Not the greats though, dad.’

‘What, like Hunter S Thompson and Jack Kerouac? You call them great do you?’

‘You know I do. Most writers don’t work in offices or warehouses.’

‘No but they work as reporters or journalists. They don’t just-’

‘Don’t just what?’

‘Lee, you’re almost thirty years old. Isn’t it time you got your act together?’

‘All we’re saying is, what can’t you be more like your sister? You’ve just been promoted at the office, haven’t you Anne?’

His sister nodded.

‘Have you heard yourselves? Promoted at the office? That’s such bullshit.’

‘Don’t talk to your mother like that.’ his dad snapped.

His sister glared at him, furious at the insult.

Lee sighed. He looked at each of them in turn.

‘I appreciate your concern guys, I really do. But I’m doing well. I’m writing a lot. It’s good, man. It’s flowing. Something is just around the corner. I can feel it.’

‘Where are you living these days?’

‘I’m kipping in my mate’s spare room at the minute.’

‘You need to sort your life out.’ Anne said.

‘I can’t be chained down. I gotta be free. I need to do things this way.’

‘Do nothing more like.’

‘Dad-’

‘I could have got you lined up with a bloke I used to work with but you turned it down. And your sister, she has a lot of contacts.’

‘I’m sure I could get you fixed up.’ she said.

‘I can’t do the nine-to-five. It’s about the writing. It’s the art.’

The others burst into laughter. Lee said nothing.

‘A woman at work,’ said his sister. ‘had a story published in the Christmas newsletter.’

‘Next stop the Booker prize, eh?’

‘Booker prize? I would have thought that would be too commercial and mainstream for a true artist like you.’

Lee necked the last of his pint. He got to his feet.

‘I’ve got to go.’

He kissed his mother goodbye and patted his father and sister on the back. As he passed the buffet table he pocketed sandwiches, pork pies and sausage rolls.

Back on the tram the conversation with his family went through his head. They just didn’t get it. They didn’t understand him. As the tram rattled across Salford he took the small whiskey bottle from his pocket. He took a sip. That was better. He munched on the buffet food as the tram rocked on. He took another hit of whiskey. A woman sitting facing him stared at him in disgust. She was caked in make up and clutched a designer handbag. He felt like telling her that he wasn’t a down and out but was an artist, a writer. But she wouldn’t understand. People like that never did.

An hour later he hopped off the tram at Piccadilly. The cold and rain touched him with their icy fingers. He zipped his parka coat all the way up. He turned off the main road. The pub was about halfway down the narrow side street. The place had live music every night. Lee loved the place. For him it was the best pub in the city. All the bands that performed played either folk or jazz. Part of the charm of Lou’s Place was that it had yet to be discovered by the plebs that frequented most of the city centre bars and pubs these days.

The barmaid smiled at him.

‘Evening, love.’

‘Hi Vicki. Pint please, love.’

She slid the pint of bitter across the bar. He paid her in loose change. He found a seat in the corner by the fireplace. He reached into his coat pockets. He pulled out scraps of paper and a spiral bound notebook. He spread the bits of paper out on the table in front of him. He studied the scribbled notes. He tried to put it all in some kind of order. Somehow, some of these notes, all in his messy handwriting, would connect like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The parts would all come together and form a story.

Lee noticed glances from the other tables. Instead of mocking his creativity they seemed to be looking on with curiosity and interest. He nodded to himself. They knew, man. They could dig where he was coming from. The cats that came in here to listen to the music were col. These guys weren’t like the rest of them. The rest of the world seemed to be obsessed with fashion, celebrity and social media. Lee didn’t even own a mobile phone. It was the principle, he would declare. In actual fact it was partly the principle and partly the money.

Three men carrying musical instruments took to the small stage at the front of the room. They went about setting up their equipment. Twenty minutes later they were about ready to start. Lee got himself another pint. The band was comprised of a saxophonist, a drummer and a double bass player. The sax player was around forty years old. He had a reddish beard and thick glasses. He introduced the band. Three Blind Monks. They didn’t look like monks and they were not blind but there were actually three of them. The band launched into a spiralling hypnotic jazz number. They might have a daft name, Lee thought, but they can really play.

Around midnight as the band was winding up Lee finished his last pint. He headed for the exit. He was at that wonderful state of drunkenness where the world feels all soft and spongy. Another free tram ride saw him arrive at his friend’s house. His friend had agreed to put him up for a few days about eighteen months ago. Lee knew his friend wouldn’t mind him staying there. His mate had a wife and young children but didn’t seem to object to Lee crashing there.

Lee stumbled up the garden path. In his mind he let himself quietly in the front door. In reality after scraping the key around the door for a few minutes he managed to find the keyhole and open the door. Once inside he slammed the door shut behind him. He bounced from wall to wall like a pinball as he headed for the spare room.

As he crossed the landing he remembered that he had to be quiet so he didn’t wake his friend, his wife and the kids. His friend had made the odd comment lately about the noise when he came home in the early hours. He pressed a finger to his lips and shushed himself before stumbling into his bedroom.

The next afternoon Lee was positioned at his favourite table in the small coffee shop at the Lowry gallery. He had his writing spread out in front of him. He hoped that something would come to him in these surroundings. After all, he reminded himself, writing and painting are both creative arts. Lee was sure he’d read somewhere that a lot of painters were frustrated authors and vice versa. He chewed on his biro and looked out at the view of Salford Quays. If he could just get all these thoughts, these notes, ideas and plots in some kind of order, then he might just have a decent story. He reached for his tea cup. Empty. He shrugged and went back to going over his notes.

Several hours later the waiter came over.

‘Can I get you another tea, sir?’

‘No, I’m fine, thanks.’

‘Then can I ask that sir leaves this establishment?’

‘What?’

‘This café is for paying guests. I’m not running a soup kitchen.’

‘You’d have probably kicked Ellis Lowry out too.’

‘It is L.S.Lowry.’

‘Whatever.’

Time for a pint, anyway, he muttered to himself.

That evening, just after midnight, and slightly drunk Lee let himself into the house. Instead of being in darkness a light glowed from the back of the house. Lee went through to the kitchen hoping to find his friend having a night cap.

His friend was sitting at the kitchen table. A bottle of whiskey and a glass were in front of him. He sipped from the glass. He looked up as Lee entered.

‘Alright Beansy?’

‘Evening Lee. Sit down.’

‘I’ll get myself a glass.’

Lee grabbed a glass and took the seat facing his old friend. He helped himself to a large measure of whiskey.

‘You’re up late, Beans.’

‘You’ve got to go.’

‘Eh? What do you mean?’

‘I’m sorry but you can’t stay here any more.’

‘I will try to be quieter when I get back at night.’

‘Lee, Marie’s not impressed. And you’re scaring the kids.’

‘Come on, mate.’

‘I’m really sorry but you’re going to have to find somewhere else to live.’

‘But Beansy-’

‘And another thing. My name is Phil. Nobody has called me Beansy since high school.’

‘You are out of order. I thought you were a friend. All I’ve done for you and this is how you repay me?’

‘Like what, Lee? Exactly what have you ever done for me? We’ve put you up rent free for-’

‘Save it, Phil. I’m going.’

Lee necked the last of the whiskey. He slammed the glass down on the table. He rushed up the stairs. He threw what belongings and clothing he had into his rucksack. Slinging the bag over his shoulder he stormed down the stairs.

‘See you around, Beansy.’ He shouted.

He banged the door shut behind him. Without thinking about where he was heading he trudged through the darkness to the tram stop. His mind was reeling as he hopped on the tram. What was wrong with the world? Surely wanting to live a creative life was a good thing. He did not want to be one of those squares in their suits at the office. He couldn’t face a mundane soul destroying desk job. His life as a writer would be over. His life would be over.

He started out at the night scape. Streetlights glowed orange. Most windows out there were in darkness. The world was asleep and yet here he was, nowhere to go, no place to sleep, alone. The tram rattled on.

He was a failure, a nothing. He wasn’t a writer. Who was he kidding? His family were right. He was a loser, a deadbeat.

He changed trams, hopping on the next one that came. He flopped onto the seat in the empty carriage. He wiped the tears from his eyes with his coat sleeve.

Lee spent the night riding the tram system across Greater Manchester. As he travelled he went over and over everything. As dawn was breaking the tram pulled into Salford Quays. Lee grabbed his rucksack and got off.

He watched the glorious sunrise over the quays. He felt numb, stunned. The realisations of the night had hit him hard. Lee went through his coat pockets and his bag. He pulled out notes, scraps of paper, notebooks. All these ideas, plot outlines, half-written short stories and screenplays. What did they mean? What were they worth? What did they amount to? Nothing, he said aloud.

He tossed the papers, every last scrap of it, all his work, into the water. The papers hung in the morning air for a moment like confetti before drifting down to the surface of the water.

Lee found a payphone outside an abandoned cinema. He threw a coin in the slot and dialled.

‘Hello?’

‘Anne, it’s me.’

‘Who?’

‘Lee, your brother.’

‘Oh yes?’

‘I give up. You win.’

‘Have you called me this early for an argument?’

‘I’m done. I’ve got nothing left.’

‘Lee, are you okay?’

‘Not really.’

Three days later, clean shaven and wearing a suit his sister had bought him, Lee went into the office of a shipping company. The suit and tie felt like a prison uniform to him. This was it. He was going to join the drudgery. He was going to be one of those faceless grey people that filled the rush hour commute. He had lost himself. He had sound himself out and joined the rat race.

Lee was shown through to a meeting room. There was a glass topped table with chairs on either side. It reminded Lee of the boardroom in clips of The Apprentice he’d seen. The interviewer, a man called Giles, shook Lee’s hand and said it was good to meet him. Lee felt like an undercover policeman or a spy as he feigned interest and enthusiasm. He answered all the questions as best he could. Giles asked what football team he supported. Lee felt like telling the truth. He wanted to say that he had no interest in sports whatsoever. But he had to do his best despite his true feelings. He spotted a Manchester United calendar on the wall.

‘I’m a United fan.’ Lee said.

‘Yeah? Me too.’

‘Really?’

‘What do you think of our chances this season?’

‘Tough one isn’t it?’

Giles proceeded to tell Lee exactly what he thought of United’s chances for the season. Lee nodded along,yeah, totally.

‘Well,’ said Giles. ‘I think we’re done here. You’ve given a good account of yourself and your sister has provided references. Can you start now?’

‘Right this minute?’

‘Yes.’

Lee nodded.

They shook hands. Lee felt sick. And with that the life of the writer came grinding to a halt. He knew that he would never write his masterpiece now. He would be just another tie wearing, clock watching, paper filing, desk jockey. He tried not to think about it. He just tried not to think at all. He was shown to his desk. He was introduced to his supervisor and his new colleagues.

At lunchtime he went to the canteen to make a cup of tea. He noticed a guy at one of the tables. The guy was around forty years old with a beard. Lee was sure he’d seen him somewhere before. The guy was reading a dog eared copy of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Lee was shocked. All he’d seen anyone reading so far was a newspaper or a celebrity gossip magazine. Lee went over.

‘Hey, man.’ the guy said. ‘you must be the newbie.’

‘Yeah, I’m Lee.’

Lee pointed to the book.

‘You reading Jack?’

‘Yes, for about the millionth time.’

‘Don’t take this the wrong way but I didn’t think anyone working here would be into Kerouac.’

‘You have to do something to pay the bills.’

‘Do you write yourself?’

‘Nah, I’m a musician. I play the sax in a jazz trio.’

‘Cool.’

‘We’re playing tonight in the Northern Quarter.’

‘What’s your band called?’

‘Three Blind Monks.’

‘I’ve seen you guys play.’

‘Come along tonight and I’ll introduce you to the lads.’

‘Deal. I’ll see you there.’

As Lee headed back to his desk he had a great idea for a story.

 


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