The White of the Canvas
The clop of heels and wooden-soled shoes echoed off the looming buildings of Basnett Street. An autumnal wind sighed over the din of voices, bringing a chill that cut to the marrow. Some of the hunched forms looked my way. Never for long.
Silence, at last. I stood, slabs of ice where my feet should be. The shadows of the alley offered sanctuary. Deep in the gloom, I found the basement window, the boxes shielding it unmoved. After a last glance over my shoulder, I shoved them out the way and slipped inside.
Mist billowed from my mouth more so than outside. The smell of rot seemed worse than usual. Dark as Williamson Tunnels, I fumbled about for the palm-sized torch I'd found outside the grand office of a law firm on Old Hall Street. It emitted a dim, flickering glow. Even without the torch, I knew my way. Three weeks I'd been here. It still made me smile. Living in the George Henry Lees building. The place I used to come shoping with Mum when I was a kid.
It had all happened by chance. One night as I passed the boarded-up building I noticed workers loading a van at the top of the alley beside it. I'd slipped through a side door when they weren't looking and hidden. A warm, dry night was all I was after, but nobody had returned. I had it all to himself. An empty palace.
I left the basement, made my way up what had once been the staff staircase. I glanced at the door leading to the ground level shop floor and froze. Clicked off the torch. Held my breath. Rushed to the wall closest the door and ducked down behind it. Light.
One of the first things I'd tried when I moved in was the light switches. None had worked, including this one. Could someone else be in here?
A look through the tiny windows of the doors revealed nothing. I pushed them open, winced as the creak shattered the silence of the room. Moving at a crouch, I reached the nearest shelving unit and after a deep breath, peered into the open space beyond. Empty as my stomach. I held position, my breath too, and watched and waited to see if anyone revealed themselves by sight or sound. Satisfied I was alone, I sighed, stood and regarded the lights. What had made them come back on?
On my way to the room that had become my own-a back office on the top floor-I tried other switches. Some worked, some didn't. The power, it seemed, had been switched on. This ought to be good news; no longer did I have to sit in darkness, living by the light of torches. Instead, unease churned in my stomach. It meant something, and I wasn't sure what.
The thud of a hammer woke me. It was at the edge of my hearing, travelling up from downstairs. I checked the windows. The ledge was too broad to see the alley below. Hide or investigate? Curiosity won.
I went barefoot, boots too clunky. The hammering grew in volume as I neared the shop floor, and when it faded, another more distant strike filled the silence. Had the workmen returned? Panic consumed me. I didn't want to give up this place. Here I had some level of comfort, a comfort I'd sought for a long time. They would take it away. Maybe do worse. I'd heard stories of people paid to make squatters disappear. Few people ever asked questions about the forgotten.
I inched open the door to the shop floor. In the heart of the room was an opening that stretched all the way to the basement. A staircase joined each storey. I peered over the edge and immediately pulled back. A group of people were gathered in the basement. Five in all. Men and women, mid-twenties, early thirties-around my own age. They darted about like frenzied ants, pointing at things I could not see. They laughed and joked, slapped each other's backs. They seemed happy. I wanted to know why.
I descended another floor. The hammering reached its loudest, seemingly coming from the floor below, but off in another room, toward the main entrance perhaps. I peered down at the group, now in a huddle. What were they up to, these unwitting invaders of my domain? They seemed to be planning something, but what? I could hear the murmurs of their voices, punctuated by the bangs. I edged along the railing, hoping to catch a few words. My foot struck an old metal fitting. Before I realised, it had skidded off the edge. Time slowed. The metal twisted and turned in the air. The thought of it hitting one of those below stopped my heart. I dived away from the railing.
Cries sounded. Hammering ceased.
"What was that?!" I heard a woman say.
"Came from up there," a deep-voiced man said.
"Who's up there?" another man, with a well-spoken accent, asked.
The pause after the question was longer than I'd have liked.
"No one. The place is just falling down," said another girl. They laughed.
I didn't find it funny. What were they going to do to my palace?
"Everyone all right?" a voice shouted in a thick Scouse accent, louder than the others; he was on the floor below me. One of the workmen. Those in the basement shouted up what had happened.
"Want me to check?" the workman asked, his words like a cold knife through my heart. I scampered away, back to my room. The rest of the afternoon I spent with my ear to the door, looking through the keyhole, waiting for the workman to find me.
At some point, I fell asleep. A crescent moon was shining through the window when I awoke. I checked my Casio. 00:32. The sight brought me fully awake. I couldn't recall what time I'd fallen asleep but cursed myself for doing so. I'd missed my opportunity. Tesco chucked out the good stuff at midnight. It would all be gone by now. My stomach grumbled.
Pins and needles numbed rushed up my legs when I tried to stand. It took me a good few painful minutes and pathetic attempts to get back to my feet. I clambered onto the window ledge, back against the wall, and stared out at the night sky. The stars brought back a memory of the Christmas I had asked Mum for a telescope. Instead, she bought me binoculars. I'd thrown a tantrum, tossed the binoculars at the wall. When later I went to apologise I found Mum with head in hands, crying.
Guilt racked my chest. Am I a bad person? Do I deserve this? I wish I could see her. Wish I could say sorry.
The raucous cry of a seagull blurted down my ear. I fell off the window ledge, landed in a heap of aches and pains. The seagull stood over me on the other side of the pane, wings spread. It threw back its head and unleashed another string of choking cries, so like mocking laughter. I didn't mind the gulls. They knew how to survive and, as a fellow survivor, I admired them. I checked my watch. 07:37.
I brushed my teeth. Morning ritual. Mum had pestered me so much about it growing up it felt wrong not to do it. After packing my bag for the day ahead I left the safety of my room for the basement, hoping to make it out before the workmen and young people returned, if they did at all. I hoped not. I took the steps two at a time. A clang of metal drifted up from below. I darted to the closest window. In the alley, a red van with ladders stacked upon it was parked, a couple of men unloading things from the back. My heart sunk. Trapped again.
The hours passed slowly in my little room. Hunger grew with each one. So too resentment of the invaders. Rain fell in angled sheets outside, spraying the windows like a car wash. At least I was dry, unlike the gulls bunched together on the ledge outside. I pitied them. Not enough to let them inside.
At 5pm, after battling with hesitancy, I left the room to see if they were still there. When I could not hear anything below, hope grew in my chest like fire catching kindling. The lights were still on, though. I peered over the railing. Pulled back right away. In the basement, pairs of men and women carried square packages with great care. Others stripped the cardboard once they set them down. Inside were paintings and pictures. I heard the whirr of a drill. One by one they hung them up.
A frown had taken up residence on my face. Of all the things to invade my palace and potentially force me out: art. I slunk away to my room, returning every half hour to see if they had left. At 11:30pm they were still there. I resolved to curl up beside the shop floor railing, pressing my knees into my stomach to subdue the pain. I couldn't stop biting my bottom lip, checking my watch.
They left at 12:45. Nothing remained when I arrived at Tesco. In the rain, I trudged to London Road, checked behind the pizza gaffs; sometimes they tossed away undelivered pizzas. I found a pineapple and mushroom. Untouched, luke warm still. The smell set my mouth watering. I picked off the toppings-my least favourite of all; I could see why no-one wanted to eat it-and almost swallowed each slice whole. I would have finished it, but decided to save some. I may get stuck again tomorrow.
With food in my stomach, I slept better, even dozed the next morning to the din of people in the street below. A noise cut through it. One I recognised: the creak of the stairwell door at the end of the corridor. I darted to my own door, pressed my ear against it.
"Bit creepy up here isn't it?" a man said.
"Post-apocalyptic," a woman replied. "And it smells like arse."
"Did they say we could use all these offices?"
"Would you want to?"
They opened doors, closed them, approaching my own. Footsteps neared, a gentle pat on the aged blue carpet. I looked around for anything to help sure up the door. Scraps of paper were all I could see. I grabbed the closest, folded it into a tight square, wedged it underneath, then leant against it with both hands, holding my breath in case they heard me. The handle turned. I pushed, felt force against me. The door didn't move.
"This one's locked," the woman said.
"Wonder what's inside. We'll have to ask them for the key."
"Do you really think they'll have a key?" the woman said sarcastically. "Kick it in."
"In these jeans? Some doors are best left closed."
"Using philosophy to get out of work..." The voices trailed off, ended with the creak of the door. I sank to the ground and sighed.
I managed to get out before midnight. The haul was a good one, enough to last a couple of days: sandwiches, fruit, bread, sausage rolls, pies, crisps, even a few jam doughnuts. All unopened. It was incredible the amount of good things they threw away. As I trudged up the stairs from the basement, I began to wonder. What exactly were these artists doing?
I left my bag by the door to the ground level shop floor and stepped inside. The light of street lamps spilt in through windows high up, abating the murk. The main entrance was to my right, shutters down. The space had been completely cleared of shop furniture, the walls stripped to the plastic brackets once used for hanging rails. Upon the walls, I could see dark shapes, rectangular and square. I took out my torch, light dimmer than ever, and looked at the one closest.
Two pictures hung beside each other. On the left, a black and white image of a priest delivering mass to a crowded room. On the right, a colour image of three bibles stacked upon a table. I recognised the contemporary furniture. Salvation Army, I read below. The artist Tony Mallon. I came to another two pictures. The black and white one showed a living room, armchairs bunched around a fireplace, bright sunlight pouring in through grand windows. A painting hanging on the wall. Flowers in a vase on the window sill. It looked homely, loving. Beside it, a colour picture of the corner of a room, red blinds pulled over the windows, blocking out brilliant sunshine. A TV hung on the wall, and above it, a turret-shaped security camera.
I'd stayed at Salvation Army hostels, the one in Tuebrook mostly. Not for a while now. I didn't like them. I drank more when staying there. Maybe it was being around people who drank too. Living so close to other people didn't make for a comfortable existence, either. I was just not used to it. Alone, life was easier.
I found it astounding to see the difference between the two images. Homeliness to surveillance. Love to mistrust. What had happened to people's attitudes? How did they become so cynical? When my eyes left one picture, they moved to another, or back to one I'd previously gazed at. After I'd worked my way through them all I followed signs leading upstairs and there found more pictures: a tough-looking man beside a snooker table; a bleak block of flats; wooden huts upon a dark and eerie beach; an old man exhaling cigarette smoke into the camera. He reminded him of my grandad, a man who had delighted in every pull, even as the cancer killed him.
I came to a series of pictures hanging from the ceiling showing young boys and girls holding sticks. The girls, I noticed, held sticks no bigger than themselves. The boys were dwarfed by theirs. It brought back a memory of fighting with a dog over the most unwieldy stick in Croxteth Parl. The dog won.
From there I went up another level and came to three canvases covered in a rage of colour, shapes abstract. I could make neither head nor tail of the first two, but in the final one saw the outline of a head and upper body. A red mist covered it, punctuated by circles of yellow. It almost looked like somebody being shot.
Beside those pictures hung more canvases, backgrounds white and covered in shapes like spirographs. I became lost in the dazzling intricacies of the patterns, seeing shapes within them. I thought I was losing it. I rubbed my eyes, yet they remained. When I changed angle, they disappeared.
I returned to the ground level, intending to go back to my room but an urge to look at the pictures of the Salvation Army gripped me. As I had before, I went along each one, noticing details I hadn't seen earlier. After I'd looked at them all, I sat down on the floor, back to a pillar, and continued to gaze. I couldn't say why I found them so alluring. Was it because I recognised the places? Knew how it felt to be there? Or was it how they encouraged me to think?
Dreams did not often visit my sleep. That night they did. I waded through a mire of darkness, feet and legs sinking ever deeper. Over my head flew the pictures I'd admired earlier, zipping by and disappearing into the gloom. A light flashed, white and blinding, leaving a horizontal scar in the void. It widened, and from it came a sound. Metallic. Like a shutter opening...
The sound ringing in my ears was like a jolt from a defibrillator. I scrambled to my feet, crossed the room as light began to pour in. I made it to the stairwell door, took the steps two at a time. When I got to the first floor I realised I'd forgotten my bag. Chance going back and getting caught, or leave it? And still chance getting caught.
I hurried back, trying to make as little sound as possible. I heard the rumble of voices beyond the door. I grabbed my bag and shot back upstairs. What would they do if they saw a homeless man living in their art gallery? I expected they'd do what anyone else would do: call the police, who would remove me, one way or another.
My room no longer felt like the sanctuary it once was. Whenever I heard an unrecognisable sound I hurried to the door to listen for anyone coming; I was becoming a paranoid mess. For a time I settled, back to the door, and thoughts returned to the pictures and paintings. I'd enjoyed art at high school, even after Mr. Wilson had rubbed out all my work and branded me hopeless. As a youngster, I'd spent many of my days scribbling in books and colouring things in. I supposed I did enjoy it. Until last night I'd never been to an art gallery. Now I'm living in one. And what I'd seen excited me. The colours of the paintings. How each brush stroke worked to create the whole. How the pictures had hooked my attention and refused to let go. How they made me think and feel. I wanted to try it myself.
When the lights below extinguished I began to forage. I hoped the artists had brought with them some equipment: paper, paint, brushes, even just a pencil or pen. I wasn't disappointed. A small pile of paint tins stood in the shell of a bathroom display. Not a splash of paint covered their exterior. Either they were unopened or the owner cherished the contents enough not to waste a drop. I suspected the latter. Amongst them, I found a couple of small brushes and a sketchbook. As much as I wanted to, I couldn't take everything; that would cause suspicion. Instead, I took two tins-one filled with black paint, the other red-a brush and a few sheets of paper, making sure to rip out the torn bits by the seam.
The lights of the corridor outside my room worked now they'd turned the power back on and it lacked windows so nobody could see from outside. I found a coffee table in a neighbouring office and set it up in the corridor. Sinking to my knees, I laid out a sheet of paper, cracked open the paint tin with my Stanley knife, and dipped in the brush. I felt giddy. Grinning like a toddler. But I struck an obstacle. Faced with the blank page, I didn't know what to paint. Corridor devoid of inspiration, I opened the door to my room, hoping the light wouldn't illumine the windows too much. Before me was a desk, casting a long shadow in the light. I decided it a simple shape to start with.
I took great care with each stroke, eyes glancing back at my model. When I'd finished I stepped away. It didn't look much like the desk. I didn't care. I started afresh, this time blending some red with the black, playing around with the harshness of the edges. When I held it up, it still didn't look like the desk, but it was better than my first effort. I smiled.
Over and over I painted the desk, each time finding a new detail to include. Each time the resemblance slightly better. When the sun rose over the peaks of Liverpool, I picked up my painting table, as I had now christened it, and locked myself in my room. I ate a sandwich to the harsh morning song of gulls. When I closed my eyes to sleep I saw the table before me, paintings upon it. When I awoke in the afternoon my first thought was to paint. It was as if I'd caught an illness, a compulsion akin to instinct. I went for my paper, only for my heart to sink: one sheet left. I'd need to steal more.
I bit at my nails waiting for dusk, for the artists to go, hoping that somewhere in this building there was paper to paint on. What if there wasn't? I will paint on the walls. I wasted no time after the shutter went down, returning to the spot I'd plundered the day before. I found even more paint tins and a couple reams of paper. More brushes too. Knowing how it felt to go without what I needed, I took nearly all of it. Back and forth, I ferried it to my room. Then I painted. Anything and everything I could see around me: staplers, hole punchers, filing cabinets, food wrappers, sleeping bag. I experimented with new colours, with different types of stroke. And with each of those strokes, I sank deeper into my own world. Forgetting my grumbling stomach, the dryness of my mouth, the aches and pains. The only thing that mattered was there on the page in front of me. I was in love.
My life fell into a pattern, sleeping through the day, painting through the night. I left my room only to get more food and water or to use the bathroom. Every other moment I filled with painting. My room stunk of paint, but I'd grown fond of the smell. Sheets of paper littered the floor of my room; I made piles but I liked to compare what I'd done. In one of the desks, I found a ball of blu-tac and hung my favourites upon the walls of my room.
The time came when I'd painted everything in the offices. I returned to the exhibitions, began to paint what I saw before me: the images of the Salvation Army, portraits of the people photographed, the bleak highrise and the eerie huts.
Days became weeks. Curiosity turned to obsession. Confidence blossomed. Some days I snuck about in the arteries of the building-false walls once used for displays and fittings-and watched the people walking around the exhibitions. The more I watched them lauding what was on display, the more I wanted them to see my work.
I chose the painting I was most proud of, one that had stuck with me above all: of the lounge in the Salvation Army hostel with the security camera above the TV. After plenty of trial and error, I'd learned how to mix the paint to achieve the right shades. I was still unable to quite believe that I'd produced it. They'll like it. I'm sure of it.
I hung it at the end of the exhibition, hoping none of the artists would notice. In a hollow wall, I crouched down and waited, peering through tiny holes once plugged by screws. Two older women approached, carrying shopping bags. They didn't linger long at each piece and turned back before they reached mine. I sighed. The following hours went the same way. Until one man came into view. He was alone, a flat cap covering his bald pate, brown coat fastened up to his chin. He studied each picture as if making a point of doing so. Hope fluttered in my chest.
He drew nearer. Then he was looking at it. I could see him squinting, moving closer to examine details.
"Jesus Christ..." he muttered before leaving. His words, like bullets, shot down my hope. My best piece. Scorned.
I didn't paint that day. Desire fled and showed no sign of returning. Has it abandoned me altogether? I wondered. I pulled out the bottle of Powers Whiskey. Mum's favourite. I no longer drank, or tried not to at least, but some nights were too cold and too painful and sleep would not come without some numbing. I wanted to feel numb now. Numb to the disappointment.
I gazed at the paintings upon the wall. Slowly a smile grew on my face. A break in the storm clouds. I'd enjoyed painting each and every one of them. No matter how bad they looked. Not one of my troubling thoughts had broken through that veil of happiness. And who cared what anybody else thought as long as I was happy?
I found desire returning. It could not be squandered. I gathered my things, set up my painting desk in the corridor. This time I didn't hesitate when thinking of what to paint. Images flooded my mind: Crosby beach with Mum on one of the hottest days on record; eating tea in front of the TV, using cushions as tables; playing football together because I had no one else to play with, even though she could barely kick a ball. All the memories I longed to relive.
When I'd finished I felt exhausted. Outside, the sky was pink with the rising sun. I went to replace the lids on the tins. Most were empty save for bits of paint clinging to the sides. I was too tired to care.
Even the gulls scratching at the windows did not stir me. I awoke in darkness. 20:18. I'd slept for fourteen hours and still felt groggy. I looked at my paintings. What I saw blew me away. I didn't recall painting in such vivid detail. They almost transported me back to the memories. Despite what happened last time, I wanted to share them. Felt compelled to.
I hung all three next to each other in the same spot at the end of the exhibition. Tomorrow seemed an eternity away. I could paint at least... only I couldn't.
I checked the spot where I'd found my trove. Bare. All through the night, I searched the building for more paint. Nothing. Helplessness consumed me. I could paint no more. It was like dropping out of university again: wanting to do something but being physically unable to do it. I hadn't lamented that first time. How could I have left my sick mother alone? She had needed me.
Excitement did not greet me the next morning. The prospect of painting was face down in the Mersey. I had my paintings on display, though. A light in the dark. I brushed my teeth, ate, and snuck to my hiding place. Rain pattered against the skylight windows, driving people indoors: parents with kids wheeling about them, groups of young people, older couples. Many turned back before reaching the end and where my pictures hung. Those that didn't looked with cursory glances: no expressions, no comments. A couple of women, about my mother's age, if she was still alive, stopped and looked.
"I like this one," said one of the women, hair short and blonde, pointing at the image of eating in front of the TV. "We always eat like this in our house. I'm ashamed to say it." "Nothing to be ashamed of. So do we. I like them too. They're really raw, aren't they? I love the little details. Does it say who painted them?"
Me. Stuart, I wanted to shout. And they wandered off.
I leant against the wall, unable to quite believe it. Someone liked them. Two people liked them. I laughed a silent laugh, punched and kicked the air in celebration. When elation settled, I realised something. I can do this. I can be a painter. But to do it I knew I would have to leave my palace. To go out and find more paint, other artists to learn from, new and exciting things to paint. I feared none of that.
I almost skipped back to my room, rolled up my sleeping bag, stuffed my things in my rucksack. I gathered my brushes, pens, pencils, paper. The paintings I left. A surprise for whoever found them. When it came to the paintings hanging below, I hesitated. They were more than just paintings. They were pieces of me. I wanted to keep them.
With all my gear I returned to the end of the exhibition. For the first time in the light of day, I stood, unafraid of being caught, looking at my work. What would Mum say if she saw these now? She would be proud. I went to take them down.
"Excuse me," said a voice behind me. I turned around to find one of the bearded artists looking at me, face a mask of confusion. He approached. "Can I help you?" His eyes went to the paintings and he frowned. "Whose paintings are those?"
I hesitated. "Mine."
The artist studied him. "I didn't see you come in."
"I've been living here." It made no difference now.
"And you painted these?" His tone was more curious than anything.
"They're really good." He studied them, pointing out the details he enjoyed.
"What's your name?" the artist asked.
"How long have you painted for, Stuart?"
"Not long. I've run out of paint so I'm going to find more."
The artist's eyes flicked over me thoughtfully.
"Perhaps I can help you out with that."
Richie Billing writes fantasy fiction, historical fiction and stories of a darker nature. His short fiction has been published by, amongst others, Kzine, TANSTAAFL Press, Bewildering Stories, Liquid Imagination, The Magazine of History & Fiction, Aether and Ichor, and Far Horizons. His debut novel, Pariah's Lament, was published by Of Metal and Magic Publishing in March 2021. He co-hosts the podcast The Fantasy Writers’ Toolshed, a venture inspired by the requests of readers of his critically-acclaimed book, A Fantasy Writers’ Handbook. Most nights you can find him up into the wee hours scribbling away or watching the NBA. Find out more at www.richiebilling.com.