Pink Horses by Tony Warner | Shortlisted Entry Short Story Competition 2022

‘Grandma, can we paint some pretty pictures now?’

Usain has been fussing me all morning. Truth to tell I’m having withdrawal symptoms; weeks since I’ve had a good session in the studio. How much can I concentrate with a demanding child asking questions all the time?

‘Come on. Let’s get into grandma’s studio. Don’t touch anything without asking me first.’ Clutching his favourite pink horse, Usain dashes up the stairs, stands expectantly at the studio door, tries the handle, despite having been told several times the door is locked. I look at him triumphantly. He gives me that cheeky grin he reserves for the times when he has been examining how far he’s allowed to go.

I pull out the key, let Usain turn it, which he does with both hands. ‘Right,’ I say. ‘First thing in the studio, protective clothing.’ He looks at me, puzzled. I unhook an old pinafore which I use when I’m too lazy or too hot to put on my overalls.

Usain is not happy. ‘Girls’ clothes,’ he grumbles.

‘No clothes, no painting,’ I say, tying the waist strings under his armpits. ‘Now, our hats.’ Usain loves this, watches me intently as I fold two newspaper hats from my collection of ancient copies of Roussillon Libre. I sit him at my desk with some of sheets of typing paper and a vast array of coloured pencils accumulated over years of a peripatetic existence. Usain looks at the paper dubiously, sorts the pencils from lightest cream to darkest lamp black.

‘What are you doing, grandma?’

‘I’m draping the fishing net we found on the beach yesterday over the painting. When I’ve finished I’ll tack it on to that driftwood in the corner so it hangs over the plastic submarines.’

Narrowing his eyes, Usain watches as I unfold the net and fling it over the canvas. He turns back to his pencils, bends over the bench like the most studious of illustrators, draws in careful scratches. He works on for twenty minutes or so before looking up.

‘Finished,’ he says.

‘So have I.’

‘It’s rubbish,’ he says.

I look at his drawing. He is right. Two tiny figures no larger than the nail on my little finger, a scribble of brown behind them, taking up the whole height of the paper, a tiny patch of blue at their feet. A huge stick figure takes up the rest of the scene. He looks at me. I nod. He nods back. I turn back to my canvas.

‘It’s rubbish,’ he says.

I stare at the painting. He is right. Just like his, far too referential. I’ve even scrawled in what seems like an orange life vest under the netting. ‘We are both on the wrong track,’ I say. ‘This is a painting studio, not an art therapy unit. Sit there a moment, I have an idea.’

Under a pile of turps-soaked rags in a corner I find the easel I sometimes use. Usain helps me set it up in front of my painting. With difficulty I fix on a large canvas, a metre high and one-twenty wide; a disaster from last year, three quarters finished before I lost patience and gessoed over it completely, leaving only ghost images of paintwork hinting through like the sun on a foggy day.

‘Big,’ says Usain.

For him I open the bottom drawer of the plan chest. It is full of sketches and watercolours which I may return to one day. Near the bottom is a block of A3 Carron d’ache paper which I have been saving for a special occasion, only just arrived after twenty years. Usain’s eyes open wide as I lay one of them before him. We both look dubiously at the coloured pencils. With a flourish I sweep them into an old plastic container, replacing them with a set of ancient chunky oil bars.

‘Now, we have to decide on a suitable subject. What about a boat?  The scene out of the top window? The mountain side?’ A vehement ‘no’ from Usain. He clutches his horse to his chest, something he does when he is upset; looks about to cry.

‘All artists are at their best when they paint something they love. Why don’t we paint your horse?’

‘I don’t know how to paint horses.’

‘I’ll show you. Watch me.’ Picking up a compressed charcoal bar I draw the outline of Usain’s horse on my new canvas, the nose barely touching the edge on the left, the back end an inch or so inside the other. I shorten the legs a little to make the body fit the space but I’m doing art, not photography. Usain gets the idea. He grabs a vermillion oil bar and draws his horse to the same proportions on his paper. His is the right height but shortened in length. Neither of us care.

‘I love you, grandma,’ he says. ‘You are very clever.’

My gallery in Dusseldorf has mailed me three times in the last hour. The artist who is meant to be showing the week after next has let them down. Seems he has died. How inconsiderate of him! It will work out in the gallery’s favour eventually, nothing so remunerative as a dead artist. In the mean time they have an exhibition slot to fill. Someone like me who has recently received a favourable review in the local and national press is ideal. Can I supply six canvases or a substantial conceptual piece in the next ten days?

So, I have seven days to get ready, given that transport may take three of those days. ‘Everything in hand,’ I mail back. ‘Expect delivery ahead of opening. Photographs to follow.’ God, how I can lie at times!

Usain is delighted to be invited upstairs to the studio again, setting to work on another version of his horse painting, this one in glorious yellow with green crosses as decoration. I help with filling in a purple circle he decides should appear on the haunches, before turning to my stock in trade.

There’s not a lot of it, to be truthful. Work I am not satisfied with or can’t sell I usually paint over to save money on new materials. There’s a reasonable one here: a spiral of purple illuminated wire disrupting a collection of pink circles on a green and yellow ground. Goes nicely with Usain’s new painting. And a strange thing I did after reading “A Tale of Two Cities”, two squares of knitted wire set in a brown rectangle. ‘Les Tricoteuses’ I called it. And a five-foot square piece decorated with brilliant blue neon tubes. Still three paintings short.

Chess players run into difficulties with ‘time trouble’; having to make a determined number of moves within a set time. Their solution is ten second chess, a ‘look and move’ system, to do almost anything to avoid forfeiting the game by running out of time. Now I have to do the same. Where to begin?

The sun has already set, so I take a pause from the horse painting. ‘Well done, grandma,’ says Usain. ‘Nearly as good as mine.’ He has produced four versions, becoming increasingly painterly and vaguely abstract, while I have been wrestling with one. We hug one another, stand in the middle of the room, a mutual admiration society.

Next day I press on with the work for Germany. The large one still needs something else. At present it’s too amorphous, while the other sits there sticking its tongue out at me, daring me to be brave. I’ve come across paintings like this before. Pretend I’m not bothered, then attack it when it’s not watching. Usain is covering sheet after sheet with brilliantly coloured horses, each one more wild and unlikely than the last.

Usain stops, scratches his head. ‘Too boring,’ he says. His eyes light on my one-day box. That is all the bits and pieces I am going to use ‘one day’. He almost disappears into its depths scrabbling around inside, flushing out old bits of materials: a rusty toy gun my eldest left out in the rain one birthday, a set of empty cd boxes, stubs of old church candles, an assortment of jar lids in a variety of colours. I grab them for myself, selecting an irregular offcut of MDF the carpenters left behind when then did up the studio.

While I set about gluing the lids onto the board, Usain shakes out several packets of Christmas tinsel and glittering stars which he places with infinite care along the outline of one of his painted horses. ‘It’s called collage,’ I tell him, ‘sticking extra pieces of different materials on top of one another.’

‘Can I use this?’ he asks, picking up some old canvas pieces I’d been using to wipe my brushes on.

‘Only if I can use some of your horse paintings.’

Usain pauses for a moment, weighing up the balance of the bargain, decides there are limits to his generosity. ‘You can have those over there,’ he says, waving at several drawings he has discarded for no reason I can discern. ‘If I can have this whole pile from the box.’

I was going to throw them away anyway, except I have been too idle, so the deal is swiftly concluded. The glue on the jar lids needs to dry out. There’s nothing I can do on them until tomorrow, so I set to work with the horse drawings. At first, I try them on the biggest canvas. They overwhelm it. The composition requires a subtler approach.

There is a box of pins somewhere in one of the drawers under the paint table. As usual, what I want is buried away right at the back. ‘Don’t swear, Ma,’ says Usain. ‘It is very naughty.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I reply, cursing again as I encounter a surgeon’s scalpel left with a cap off among the other bits and pieces. Usain sighs, as one will when faced with a disobedient child. At last I find the pins, which I promptly spill all over the floor. Never mind, I’ll know where to find them when I want them.

For a start I pin every horse drawing I have onto the part-finished smaller painting. Too many, but I knew that. Next step, to select out ones which are superfluous. A venetian yellow version goes, as does one in sap green. The pink and the violet have to stay. I spend ten minutes considering a sky-blue horse decorated with orange dots and yellow streaks like tracer bullets. Too garish.

Now I have five, which chase one another across the canvas in a variety of combinations. Nothing is working, but that doesn’t matter. The process is still in full flow. ‘Pam; pom, pom. Pam tiddly pom pom. Pam tiddly pom pom. Pom Pom Pom’ I sing. Usain stares at me open-mouthed. Probably he has never heard Beethoven before, or not in the version he’s getting from me.

‘There!’ I exclaim, ‘how’s that!’ Instead of galloping all over the picture surface the horses are now huddled together as you see them in the fields, heads over one another’s necks. One of them is upside down but that doesn’t matter, the colours and the shapes fit the composition better that way.

Usain giggles. ‘You are off your head, Ma,’ he says. ‘How clever of you to sing your pictures together.’

That last big painting still resists all my best efforts.

‘You rotten little sod; what have you done to my painting?’ I ask that afternoon.

‘Nothing, Ma. It was rubbish. It needed something extra to finish it off.’

‘He is right,’ I thought. ‘That’s great. But won’t you want your horse back?’ Usain’s horse hangs from the canvas, not quite in the centre, not quite half way up, supported by a thick splodge of lilac paint.

‘No, you can have it. I don’t need it; I’ve got you, Ma.’

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