The Writing Quarter June 2021 Competition Winner

Posted 4 months ago under Uncategorised,

Corinna Underwood writes short stories and novels in the magical realism, mystery, and horror genres. As well as numerous short stories, she has published two non-fiction books: ‘Murder and Mystery in Atlanta’ and ‘Haunted History of Atlanta and North Georgia’.

Stained

The fading summer sun struggled through the murky leaded panes. In its wake, dust-plankton drifted languorously down to the sticky linoleum floor. The only sound was the low tick of the old school clock that hung above the bar. The doors were unlocked, but no patrons had arrived yet. It had been like this for the last eighteen months. Andy smiled. Since his father died last spring, the young man had run off most of the regulars and encouraged a smaller group made up of the homeless, the unemployed, the divorced, and the divorcing; those who might not wash or change their clothes daily; those who had been forgotten; those who drank to forget. He’d taken care of them one by one.

Andy lined up the clean glasses at the back of the bar, and in front of them placed a row of glasses covered with a film of dust. He rotated them regularly, but none of his patrons noticed; none cared. Tonight was his last night. Tomorrow he was locking the doors and handing the keys to his banker. He had worked hard on his paintings all year and had finally had them accepted for an exhibition in London. It was good to know that there was someone else out there who appreciated his style of art.

Andy sat quietly behind the bar watching the dust settle around him. Suddenly his mother was there with her filthy rag and spray-bottle of disinfectant scrubbing away at the tables, cigarette hanging from her lips, spilling ash in her wake.

“I hate this damn bar! There’s always something to clean. People come in here with their filth and leave a trail of scum behind them. It never ends.”

As Andy had grown tall enough to see over the top of the bar, he saw his mother less frequently with the spray bottle and more often with a bottle of vodka. She still complained, but by then it wasn’t just about the bar.

“Stains everywhere damn it. Even my own child is marked with a stain. It’s a sin, that’s what it is. The whole world is stained with sin.”

“Leave the boy alone Joan. He can’t help the way he is,” and his father would gently usher her to their rooms above the bar.

Andy opened his eyes. His mother had been right; there were all kinds of stains in the world. Some could never be washed away. He smiled at himself in the bar mirror, admiring the port-wine birthmark that dripped over his left eye onto his cheek. Most women didn’t appreciate beauty in the way that he did, which was a shame, because he needed a woman for his last painting.

The clock struck six belatedly; happy hour. Andy leaned over the bar and looked across at the door expectantly. He could wait; he knew exactly who was going to show up. He was a reluctant bartender, but he needed some material, some inspiration to finish his work.

The door opened moments later and spying its opportunity, the late sun snuck in behind the solitary customer, making a halo of her blond bouffant and sharpening her petite figure to a line drawing. The door swung closed behind her, and she shifted from chiaroscuro to vivid color and immediately lost the aesthetics the shadows had lent her. Mina wasn’t like other women; she didn’t flinch from Andy’s face, but let her eyes linger on it not with repulsion but perhaps something like fascination. He had often thought about showing her his paintings, perhaps she would understand. She tottered over to the bar on her out-of-date spiked heels, and sat on a stool, letting her middle-age spread beneath the too-short skirt.

“The usual Mina?”

“Of course my lovely. What else would I be here for?” She made an exaggerated wink, which left mascara footprints beneath her eye.

She rummaged through her bag for her equipment, then lined up two packets of cigarettes, lighter, lipstick, and compact on the bar. While Andy poured a glass of house Merlot, she went through her evening ritual. Flipping open the compact, she examined her eyes, rubbed away the smudged mascara, then shifted attention to her lips. A top-up layer of lipstick, press lips together, touch up the corners. She looked up suddenly and caught him watching, laughed lipstick waving.

“Have to keep up appearances you know.”

“Of course.”

He placed a generous glass in front of her. She took a sip, leaving a kiss-print on the glass, then lit a cigarette before swallowing a more fulfilling mouthful. The ring of scarlet on the filter perfectly matched the o-shape of her mouth as she sucked in her nicotine. Andy imagined the tar filling her lungs, leaving behind a fresh layer of darkness.

“So handsome, how are those paintings coming along?”

“They’re coming along just fine Mina. Just one more then I’ll have finished the series,
and I’m ready for my exhibition.”

She contemplated the statement for a moment as though it presented a novel idea.

“So you really fancy yourself…” Mina slurped her wine, leaving a Merlot tint above her lipstick-blurred lips, “…as an artist do you?”

Andy smiled and began to forgive her drunkenness a little. He topped up her glass and nodded.

“So what is it a series of?” She cupped her chin, wavered closer, her elbow skidding into a spill of wine. Andy watched it darken the sleeve of her sweater.

“Stain art.”

“Oh my God!” She laughed, showing yellow teeth, pinked with lipstick.

“Not all that shit on canvas!”

He hooked an eyebrow and cocked his head.

“No Mina, actually I prefer to use other stains, like stale beer, wine, sweat, even blood.”

He grinned at her surprise.

“And I’m sure you make something beautiful out of it handsome.”

Mina reached over for a napkin and scrubbed at the bar top. Andy gritted his teeth and focused on filling a bowl with nuts. The whole world was smeared with a glory of stains, and all people wanted to do was scrub them away. He suddenly had a vision of the aging barfly smeared across a canvass.

“So where’s Brad tonight and Darley?” She sniffed. “I thought they would at least make it for your send-off?”

“Oh don’t worry Mina, the night is young. I’m sure we’ll see them later.”

His shoulders relaxed as he placed the stale nuts between them. He refilled Mina’s glass to the brim, allowing a little to overflow the lip and trickle down the stem, where her nicotine fingers clutched it wantonly.

“My but you’re generous today.” The glass wavered on its way to her lips, spilling onto her hand. She didn’t notice.

“Got to take care of my regulars,” he smiled showing even, white teeth. “even on my last night.”

She squinted an eye and looked at him, wavered a little then set down her glass.

“So who or what is the subject of your unusual art, handsome?”

“People I have met right here, people who I have served and shared many hours of their joys and sorrows.”

She cackled as though he had made a joke then became serious suddenly.

“I was an artist’s model once.” Another gulp of wine. “All that sitting still for hours drove me crazy.”

More cackling.

“Painting never even did look like me in the end.”

Suddenly Mina slumped into a stream of incoherent, maudlin rambling. Andy’s mother appeared behind her shoulder, weaving slightly, vodka bottle in hand.

“It’s disgusting, that’s what it is. People come in here, get drunk and spill their stupid sentimentality everywhere. Don’t they know this is my home? Don’t they know?” She hiccupped and disappeared.

Andy sighed, after tonight he could leave the ghost of his mother behind, though he would not forget her entirely. After all, he had his final memory of her captured on canvas.

Unexpectedly, the door opened again. For a moment, Andy didn’t recognize the tall man with the cocky stride. Then as the door swung closed with a final click, the shape took form and Andy’s jaw tightened. The straw-haired young man sat down at the bar.

“Heard this was your last night Andy, so I thought I’d stop by for a quick on my way downtown to a real pub.” His voice was railway-announcer-loud.

Andy forced his mouth into a grin and poured off the dregs of the Guinness keg into a smeared glass.

“There you go, Phil. This one’s on the house.”

He tried to think of a way to get Mina talking again, but he was no conversationalist. He wanted to exclude Phil, to make him realize he was superfluous. Phil’s crisp white shirt and rough-scrubbed hands had no place here. His place was behind the pristine counter of the butcher shop across the street. Andy watched the last glob of froth disappear into the red slit of Phil’s mouth and suddenly wanted to dip a brush in there and paint the young man’s sneer onto the canvass of his shirt.

Phil ran his empty glass over the bar top spreading a sticky film of ale over the knotted wood; his cue for another free pint. Andy pretended not to notice and reached under the bar to fill another bowl with nuts.

“All right Mina? Come for a sitting have you?” Phil boomed.

He could put me on canvas any time, darling.” She flashed Andy a lop-sided smile.

She moved her elbow from the bar and dabbed at a spillage with a beer mat. Andy snatched it from her, and she jerked back, wavering on her stool.

“Don’t want to be getting those lovely hands dirty now do you?”

He smiled awkwardly and bent beneath the bar to arrange some non-existent bottles. That was the trouble with people, always trying to cover up mess. They couldn’t see the beauty that lay within the imperfections, the death and decay in the world. That was where reality lay, where he found his inspiration. He straightened and looked at the window, at the smeared layer of grime on its surface that lent a cynical view to the street beyond. He smiled, relaxed.

Realizing that he was not going to get another drink, Phil made a big deal of looking at his watch and comparing it to the time of the over sized bar clock which had now wound down and stopped completely.

“Well, I’d better be off to meet my mates down at the Hot Spot, that’s the new pub on the High Street. You should come down there some time Andy; you might learn something about the pub trade. Oh, but you won’t need to now, will you? Not in the business anymore now you’re a famous artist.” The door swung closed behind him, sealing out his mocking laughter.

“Well, how about it Mina? Want to check out my studio while it’s quiet?”

She cast a look around as though there might be someone listening then ran a hand through her hair and straightened her sweater.

“All right, why not? I’ll come and examine your stains.” She squinted her unfocused eyes and tipped back her wine while Andy locked the doors. He helped her from her barstool and led her behind the bar.

“Step this way, Mademoiselle.”

He opened the cellar door and let her trail him slowly down the dim stairwell.

“It’s a bit dark for a studio isn’t it?” She staggered slightly, and he gripped her damp elbow, hiding his smile in the shadows.

“Well, I suppose you could say my art’s a bit dark.” He whispered into her ear, pulling her close between the canvasses.

She giggled then gasped as his hand reached her chin and tilted her face upwards. She accepted his mouth for a moment then he let her turn her head to the paintings. She spun from his arms and stepped back to take in all the canvasses. She pointed a shaking finger at one and then the other, a smile forming then fading on her lips.

“Look there’s Brad.” She squinted closer to the canvas. “He looks kind of weird though like he’s seen a ghost. And look at Darley and Bill, why do they all look so-so shocked?”

She turned to Andy and then to the next canvas where a smeared composition of reds and browns showed a woman who appeared to be trying to claw her way out of the canvas.

“Who is that?”

“That one’s my mother Mina.”

“My God Andy, I thought…”

“What did you think Mina?” He grinned.

“I thought you were an artist Andy, but this really is a load of shit on canvas.” She began to laugh hysterically at her joke.

Andy’s fists clenched. How could she? The one person he thought might believe in him. She was just like the rest, tarnished on the outside, but underneath she thought she shone brighter than everyone else. Her crusty laughter grated on his tense nerves, winding him tauter and tauter.

“How would you like to be my next painting Mina?”

“I think I’ll pass on that one handsome.” She said between laughter and hiccoughs.

He moved quickly, setting up a large, blank canvass on a sturdy easel. Mina turned to make for the stairs, but he blocked her escape.

“Come on Andy; I told you I can’t sit still long enough. Besides, I’m thirsty.” She tried half-heartedly to push him away, but he stood his ground.

She turned back into the cellar and seemed to notice her surroundings for the first time. Around the walls were propped eight or ten canvases, each one filled by a face twisted into a grotesque, tortured expression. She spun back to Andy, her fist making a small fist against her mouth. Andy took her other hand, smiling at the jagged fingernails. She stared at him; her eyes dull like a musty port. He could feel her trembling. Andy turned Mina back towards him and pulled her fist from her mouth in one movement. The lip print on her hand matched her frozen mouth-shape which emitted no sound.

He breathed in the smell of cigarettes and fear on her breath, and suddenly he wanted to press her to him, to taste the stain of her lips, the trickle of saliva that was beginning to spill from the corner of her mouth, the tears already beginning to furrow through her makeup. He guided her slowly over to the blank canvas and pressed her hard against its pristine surface until she was captured in still life. Her last expression was one of wide-eyed confusion as she wondered why there were no stains, brushes, or turpentine in this artist’s studio; only the stale smell of death.

****

Andy was still in his pajamas, rubbing the sleep from his eyes when he answered the banging on the pub doors at eight-thirty the next morning. He opened them to the glare of a watery sun and the implacable face of Inspector Cox, a one-time regular in his father’s bar. Andy opened the door wider, and the Inspector barreled in.

“Morning Radley, is this business or pleasure?”

“Sorry to disturb you so early Andy, but I know you’re closing down today and there’s
something I want to ask you before you leave.”

Out of habit, Andy stood behind the bar and poured a dusty glass of scotch for his father’s long-time friend. Cox looked at the scotch for a moment as though it was alien then slugged it down with a shrug. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a photograph and slid it across the sticky bar.

“I’m sure you’ve seen this woman before, used to come in here regularly at one time.”

“Yes, of course, that’s Mina. Has she been up to no good Inspector?” Andy handed back the photograph; its crisp lines and colors pained him.

“Never returned home last night, according to her husband.”

“Husband?” Andy turned away from the Inspector and scrutinized his face in the mirror, shifting his look from shock to concern. When he turned back, his face was a fresh composition.

“Well she was in here last night, but she left around ten-thirty as she always does. She usually takes a cab from the stand on the corner. I’ve always assumed she goes home, but those other pubs on the High Street stay open much later than I do.”

“Don’t usually drink this early in the morning you know, but I’ve been on the go all night, and technically I’m off duty. Mina’s not the first local to have disappeared on the last few weeks, I don’t mind telling you lad, and I have no suspect, no leads and if I don’t make it home in time for dinner tonight, no wife.”

He pointed to his glass, and Andy refilled it, noticing the arcs of grime under his nails.

“You haven’t had anyone new hanging around in here lately have you, Andy?”

“No Radley. I don’t get newcomers in here, just the old-timers, the tarnished and the jaded.” A small tic at the corner of Andy’s mouth began a jig. “No offense meant of course.”

“None taken Andy, none taken. I didn’t think so, but you never know. Anything to get a lead.”

“Wait a minute. Phil Marsden came in here for a pint last night.”

“The butcher’s son?”

Andy nodded.

“Said he was going down to the Hot Spot on the High Street, I’m pretty sure he arranged to meet Mina there before he left.”

“Mmm, Phil Marsden you say? Always been a bit of a cocky lad, but kept his nose clean so far.”

“Might be a lead though.” Andy shrugged.

“Mind if I look around? Just a matter of routine, of course, being as this may be the last place Mina was seen.”

“No problem Radley. I’ll go and get dressed.”

When Andy returned, he found Cox in the cellar, looking for inspiration.

“All set for your big London exhibition then eh?” Cox said, waving a hand at the stack of wrapped canvases.

“Yes, they’re all shipping out today.”

“You going to live in the big city and be a famous artist then eh lad?”

“To be honest Radley, I’m kind of bored with art. I think it’s time I moved on to something else.”

“Well, no sign of anything untoward here. Sorry to hold you up, Andy. Just hope I get a break soon, if word gets out, people’ll start to panic.”

He reached out a damp palm and shook Andy’s hand vigorously. His hand froze suddenly, and he turned to the wrapped canvases which had begun to emitting scraping and scratching sounds. The stack shifted suddenly as though pushed from behind and collapsed to the floor like a bridge of cards.

“What the…”

Andy retained his grip on Inspector Cox’s hand.

“Oh it’s just the rodents, never could keep a grip on them. Let’s go back upstairs and have another scotch.”

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