Fiction · 12/06/2017

A slow, unstoppable devouring of everything

The moment Hans saw the postcard-sized, paint-by-number picture of a labrador on his manager’s desk, he knew he was in trouble. The frame was expensive-looking and made of dark, exotic wood. It was turned slightly towards him, so he could see it but still think the picture was placed there for Mr. Ashfeldt’s own viewing pleasure.

Of course feeling like you were in trouble seemed to be the norm when asked into the manager’s office, the point of the whole thing even. You had to squirm in the chair, looking nervously at the walls, at the pencil can on the desk. It was a requirement, just like the weekly team-building coffee and muffin breaks, or the never-ending stream of birthday cards to sign for colleagues he didn’t even know existed. And Mr. Ashfeldt’s strong, bushy brow seemed specially engineered to make lowly clerks sweat. There was nothing as soul-shaking as being on the phone with a nitpicking prospective client, answering questions about room sizes, seasonal rates, or discount codes while the call time clock ticked on, and feeling the man’s stare zero in on you. Hans sometimes felt Mr. Ashfeldt had climbed his way to his current position by the sole strength of those eyebrows.

This time felt even more ominous than usual. That chat about a new Platinum/Gold VIP Customer desk opening was clearly nothing but a shameless excuse to have him come into the office. Mr. Ashfeldt seemed to be struggling to find facts to give Hans, as if he were trying to put off talking about another subject. Hans sifted through the previous days for a flaw or gaffe his manager might have picked up on. His eyes wandered the desk, landing on the frame, the pen holder, stray paper clips, then back on Mr. Ashfeldt. Hans nodded along. Then back to the keyboard, mouse pad, Mr. Ashfeldt’s neatly cut nails, Mr. Ashfeldt’s face. Nod.

“Oh, actually, while you’re here,” said Mr. Ashfeldt finally. He took the frame and turned it towards Hans. “See, I’ve started painting myself.”

This is the cathedral’s fault, Hans thought. He should never have brought that painting, any painting actually, to work. That weekend he’d just finished what he thought was his masterpiece. For days he’d put up his easel on the bridge in the late afternoon, after work, when the skies roared pink and the river, the houses, and the cathedral took on an eerily sharp focus, their outline more defined in the dusk than at any other, brighter time. He’d painted them like that, but the sky he’d left blank and colored later, at noon. The contrast between the clear blue sky and the ominous, dreamlike town below had produced a great, unsettling effect. He’d been so happy with the result that he’d brought it to work and had hung it in his cubicle, next to his screen.

“It’s your new painting that gave me the idea,” Mr. Ashfeldt went on. “I saw it on Monday, and I thought, damn, this is so powerful. I just wanted to try and do something like that myself, so I stopped to buy this after work. Of course, I’m just learning, it’s nothing like your work. But who knows, one day….” Mr. Ashfeldt let his words hang, and Hans feared he was revelling in the dream that he would one day paint without the crutches of numbers and contour lines.

+

Hans had started like that himself, on a day he was just too bored and sick of trying to entertain himself by watching crappy TV shows, reading crappy books and magazines. He’d found one of these paint-by-number things in a pound shop, and he’d been seduced by the simplicity of it, the self-containment. Tiny canvas, paint, and brush in a box. An all-included trip to anywhere else. He’d enjoyed doing it so much that soon he was finishing one every day. Looking back, Hans saw now that he’d kept himself trapped by narrow guidelines, just like his working days were endless repetitions of the same call scripts, the same requests filled out, the same boxes ticked, the same hotel rooms described as bare lists of furniture. In the end, he had taken the extra step and bought a blank canvas. He spent a few restless days staring at the white expanse before he began his first number-free, contour-free picture with the paint left over from weeks of micro paintings. He hadn’t known what to paint, so he’d taken as a model his first paint-by-number piece, a ginger kitten standing and leaning against a brown ball of wool. The original, being Hans’s first effort, had been a bit blotchy, but his reproduction opened a whole new Pandora’s box of issues.

Colors had been a problem, as Hans had to squeeze the remnants of dozens of tiny tubes to get what he needed. Sometimes it took ten of them to get a rabbit poo-sized amount of brown. As a result, he only had a limited control over colors, and the kitten had ended up a fiery hue of red. The strangest thing wasn’t the color though, but the way the lack of lines had freed Hans’s subject. The kitten stood undeniably human-like and looked like a wry barfly leaning at the counter, waiting for his drink, the way his leg rested on the ball. There was a sly smile on his face, like he was just about to tell you a dirty joke.

Hans had laughed when he’d finished the picture. What freedom there was in this! No boxes to fill, no script or guidelines to follow! The next day he’d stocked up on canvasses, and proper paints and brushes. And that was when the obsession began in earnest. That was when he’d started looking at the world and everything around him as potential material. Even in the office now, he looked away from his screen and got lost in thought, seeing the patterns the partition walls formed, the clean cut contrast of blue carpet on white wall on cream styrofoam ceiling.

During one of his daydreams his wandering eyes had landed on Jonathan, across the aisle and through the dusty leaves of plastic ferns, staring at him, enraged. As manager of the Help Desk, there wasn’t much Jonathan could do to hound him. Hans had been there too long, and unlike his mostly younger, more careless colleagues, he rarely needed to put a customer on hold to check some technicality with the Help Desk. While everyone on the floor whispered to each other their own scary tales of being shouted at by Jonathan, Hans had hardly ever heard the man’s voice, as if he worked outside of the petty Help Desk manager’s little radius of power.

Hans sometimes felt as dense and pointless as a megalith in the midst of these revolving generations of young, careless sales assistants talking about their dreams of round-the-world trips, of rock’n‘roll stardom, of start-upping the heck out of there, these fantasies they eventually forgot, or funded in the few months they stuck around, reaching their monthly targets by omitting much about cancellation policies to over trusting old ladies, or hanging up on too hesitant callers. Hans only had ten or fifteen years on these kids fresh out of school, but they made him feel a generation older.

It was their exuberance, the way they talked hectically, as if there always was someone to impress, a girl or boy to get, that had initially prompted Hans to look for a hobby. By the time he realized what a sway painting had over him, it was too late. Not that he wanted to stop, anyway, but he might have made more of an effort to keep his yearning to himself. It was fine for the young things to clamour they wouldn’t be long around here, that they had better things to do, but Hans felt too old to live on fresh air and paint tubes.

Hans had tried to be more careful. Jonathan wanted to be Mr. Ashfeldt, and he already behaved like he was, acting hurt by the fecklessness of the phone monkeys beyond his immediate remit. Hans often noticed Jonathan staring at him after he’d caught him daydreaming, and he knew he might be in trouble the day Jonathan’s power grew beyond the four assistants of the Help Desk.

Try as he might, though, Hans couldn’t always control his mind’s flight paths. He would be on the phone, and before he knew it he would be imagining what the person on the line looked like, how he would paint her: reclining sensuously on a couch. It was like a slow, unstoppable devouring of everything. Painting began invading the whole of Hans’s life.

+

“I’ve got myself a good stock, anyway,” said Mr. Ashfeldt, bringing Hans back into his body, and he laughed, opening a drawer and taking out a couple of boxes of paint-by-numbers. “Plenty more where that came from!”

My God, thought Hans. It had started already. Mr. Ashfeldt was already obsessed. It would grow and grow, and soon all he’d be able to think about would be painting, how he would divide up his canvas with loose pencil lines, how he would balance colors off each other. He would realize then that Hans had been thinking about nothing but painting for months. Whenever he’d blanked out in team meetings and managed to make it seem like he was thinking about numbers. Painting! Whenever he’d sent an unsigned email to the wrong colleague. Painting! Whenever he’d put his phone on After Call as if he had a job to finish: Painting! Hans thought he had weeks, months at best before Mr. Ashfeldt came to that realization. Then, he would no doubt have to look for another job, some place where the management wouldn’t know he didn’t really have any available brain space to offer.

“Anyway, that’s all I wanted to go through with you today,” Mr. Ashfeldt said, standing up. “Oh, and Hans, I meant to tell you. You’re doing a great job, a great job with us!”

Mr. Ashfeldt smiled widely, and he offered Hans his hand to shake as he led him out of his office. It was quite rare to see Mr. Ashfeldt smile so freely, so honestly. He usually strode the floor with that serious face of his, his eyebrows set in unflinching concentration. Hans wished he could do his portrait, try to render the man’s different moods as he had for the cathedral. He would paint a wide, toothy grin topped by a dark, menacing stare, Mr. Ashfeldt’s strong eyebrows dropping down in the middle in an intimidating V.

In the weeks that followed, Hans started toning down his cubicle’s decoration. It had got to the stage where the three partition boards were full of paintings, Hans’s own and reproductions. He had a few books on painting and art history as well, buried under his stationery. He cleaned up his space slowly, bringing home one item at a time.

He wanted Mr. Ashfeldt to think that he wasn’t that mad about painting anymore, or at least that he was cutting back on it, but he didn’t want to be too obvious because of the talk they had. He just kept one of his small paintings, and a couple of reproductions. He reluctantly tacked up funny pictures colleagues had sent him in group emails, silly cartoons that didn’t really make him laugh but might help give the impression that he wasn’t such a monomaniac after all.

Still, Hans got the feeling his manager was on to him. Mr. Ashfeldt didn’t say anything, but now and then Hans would look up over the partition wall and see the man staring at him with those V eyebrows of his, that inscrutable stare which might express anything from worry to reproach to seething anger. Hans made an extra effort not to get lost in thought too often, not to let his gaze wander into reveries of paint when he could be seen. At least now if he got fired he wouldn’t have much to pack.

One day, Hans turned around mid-call and found Mr. Ashfeldt standing right behind him, impassive. The man on the phone had been talking about New York, and of course nights were mentioned, and the American’s southern drawl made Hans think of dreams of packing up, of fleeing free. Hans pictured the tall, misty-topped skyscrapers, fleshed out the small, suitcase-clutching silhouette, scared but undeterred at the bottom of the glass canyon.

“What hues?” Street in First Dawn blue, Hans thought, moving up to Striking Cyan, then a Bowler Hat grey abyssal sky.

“Excuse me?”

That’s when Hans turned around, sensing a lurking behind him. Mr. Ashfeldt’s face, unfathomable. He forced himself back on script, his face stuck to the screen, as he filled in colorless box after box.

+

When Mr. Ashfeldt asked him into his office again, Hans sat across from his manager, more nervous than he’d ever been in that seat before. This is it, he thought.

“Hans,” Mr. Ashfeldt said. “It’s quiet at the moment, isn’t it? Quite quiet.”

Hans nodded. Reddened. A coarse, fiery kitten-hued face.

“I was thinking, have you been painting much recently? It doesn’t feel like you’ve been painting. You used to bring new pictures all the time. I liked that. And, you know, Hans, a man needs a hobby. It’s good to keep busy. Especially when things are quiet.”

Would he just come out and say it, Hans thought.

“In the past three weeks or so, incoming calls have been down about thirty percent on last year, can you believe that?” Mr. Ashfeldt sighed. “Anyway, that’s for me to worry about.” Mr. Ashfeldt brought his hand to his forehead, dragged it down over his eyes, his nose, and Hans imagined for an instant he might do one of these back and forth hand curtain shows, happy-sad, happy-sad. Mr. Ashfeldt paused with the makeshift blindfold though, leaving only a pout and creased forehead, and audibly breathed in.

“I’m sorry. It’s just difficult at the moment. My wife, she doesn’t really get the painting thing, you know? I guess she thinks we had a pretty good thing going on, and she doesn’t see what else we might need. I might need.”

He paused, eyes closed. “It’s like it’s been so long, we lost track of our dreams. Like there was something else, but we just can’t remember what it was. So we just plow on, with that little ghost of a niggle in our minds, an almost unnoticeable background of grumpiness.” Mr. Ashfeldt continued, looking at the paint-by-number labrador. “I just don’t know how to tell her that. Let her see we are, that I am, more than what we seem to have lived ourselves into.”

Hans’s eyes landed on the labrador too, which eased the awkwardness some.

“So, anyway, Hans, there’s something that’s been on my mind for a while. Come with me.” Mr. Ashfeldt stood up and walked to the other end of the office. For a second Hans thought about not moving, as if stubbornly staying in his seat might stall what was to come. Then he got up and followed his manager to a large blank canvas which stood on an easel in a corner. He’d caught a glimpse of the white square when he’d come in, but he had taken it for a flip chart.

“Hans, I want you to paint. You’re a gifted man. We need to give your talent breathing room. Plus, I’m transitioning from paint-by-number to blank canvas at the moment, and I’d love to see how you work. I’ll tell Jonathan to pick up the slack with his team, if needed. What do you think? You can paint all day, paint anything.”

Hans felt his eyes moisten. He looked at Mr. Ashfeldt’s face, his wide grin, his eyebrows which were now rising up in the middle, as if mirroring the bracket of his mouth. His whole face was happy, free of any trace of worry or anger.

“Anything?” Hans asked, picking up the brush.

+++

Armel Dagorn is now back in his native France after living in Ireland for seven years. His stories have appeared in magazines such as Tin House online, 3:AM Magazine, Paper Darts and The Stinging Fly. His collection The Proverb Zoo will be out in 2018. Find him at armeldagorn.wordpress.com