A Moment of Reflection
27 September 2019, 6.22am.
"And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”
The words were tolling bells, deep and powerful, thundering into the silence, heralding the beginning of time. Normally, they offered solace, the promise of light. But tonight they failed to comfort, and, as Holly’s sleepless eyes stared blankly at her reflection in the kitchen window, it seemed that the world and everything in it was conceived in darkness, that a fragment of that terrible void remained in every cell, every creature, every living thing.
Was she so maudlin because the darkness in her was growing overwhelming? It had been there for the longest time, boxed up in the most arcane recesses of her mind. Mostly, she’d tried to ignore it, shying away from its very presence, pushing it further and further into the shadows until she could no longer remember the exact details of what it looked like or what was contained within. But she did know, was aware with every breath, of the presence of the box. It provoked a terror so nameless that her thoughts ran from it if she dared even acknowledge its presence.
Nevertheless, the shadows cast by the box bled into her life, muting colours and rendering the brightest moments dark.
Even so, she usually managed to keep the shadows at bay, to cling to beauty, to maintain just a small circle of light in which she could live. And it had worked, just about, until this week. A week when a strange congruence of events had occurred, as if by the design of a malign universe, to bring her to this point. A point where shades of memories and feelings long suppressed were rising up like long-dead corpses, threatening to consume her.
20 September, 2019, 8.45am.
It had all started with a car crash.
A miserable, funereal grey day with mizzling rain and poor visibility had resulted in an accident and a road closure. It had meant an arduous detour and the resigned certainty that she was going to be late for work.
Had she not been, she would never have arranged for her class to be taken to the library, they would never have been writing a story, and she would never have had that conversation with Morgan James.
It had begun innocently enough. Casting her eyes over Morgan’s story, she read a description of storm-swept trees and troubled skies. With the morning’s gloomy journey still at the forefront of her mind, she had suggested that she might use the adjective melancholy.
Morgan, a sixteen-year-old with wide, kittenish eyes, had looked at her in bemusement and asked her what the word meant.
“It means sad,” she’d said. “You know, when you feel kind of blue and depressed.”
Morgan’s eyes darkened. “Melancholy. I feel like that. Every day.”
And Holly had felt something stirring in the shadows. “You want to talk?” she’d asked, quietly.
She’d sat in an empty room with Morgan. For four years the young girl had endured. For four years she had suffered in silence. And now she had decided that four years was quite enough.
Admiration and envy at Morgan’s ability to speak combined with corrosive shame at her own inability to do the same. She sat and listened to the dark details, woundingly painful to hear. And all the while, inside herself, she hunched in the darkness, feeling the lash of Morgan’s words and the terror of the lengthening shadows. As the pain intensified, she whispered to herself don’t think, don’t think, don’t think, don’t think and nodded and listened and tried to ignore it all so she could help the girl in front of her.
Finally, Morgan raised helpless eyes to hers. “He was just so big-”
And unable to bear the guilt and anguish in Morgan’s tone, Holly forced herself to creep close to the box, to open it just a fraction, just for a fragment of a moment, so that she could remember a tiny shard of memory, so different to Morgan’s, but still – and find the right words, words that would ring true-
And finally said, with absolute clarity, “You’re a young girl and he was a grown man. He was wrong to do that to you.”
She had seen the relief in Morgan’s eyes, an acceptance of that clear truth. And Holly had, in bewilderment, listened to her own words, and for the first time actually heard them.
24 September, 2019, 6pm.
Creative Writing Class, Teesside University.
“Jot down a description of each picture,” Bob said, placing a sheaf of photocopied images of paintings face-down on the table.
She picked up the first: an abstract painting of a couple, poised to kiss; then a futuristic image of twisting, writhing buildings reminiscent of Ghormenghast; and then…
It was a painting of a figure, naked and vulnerable, curled like a foetus in the blue-black darkness, trapped in a small space.
She stared at it, feeling the impact like a punch.
Don’t think about it.
Too late. Morgan saying “it was like being trapped-”
Don’t think –
Feeling his arm around her neck, choking her, dragging her backwards into the dark – hell, she couldn’t breathe –
It was all her fault, she shouldn’t have walked that way, she wanted to die –
It’s not your fault it’s not your fault it’s not your fault-
And Bob, announcing the homework “write about your own personal experience – what this picture says to you.”
24 September, 2019, 10pm.
Like hell was she writing about her own personal experience of that picture. That box could stay firmly in the attic of her mind where it belonged. She wasn’t a masochist, she wasn’t going there again.
No. She was going to research this picture, imagine the troubles of the figure depicted, write a safe story full of distance.
The artist, as it turned out, was a masochist. Francis Bacon, who had painted the picture Untitled (Crouching Man) in 1952, had a penchant for pain.
He’d escaped boarding school twice, his homosexuality making him a magnet for bullies. It was not difficult to imagine what he must have gone through there. His parents, too, had rejected him. He had entered into an abusive relationship with a violent man, Peter Lacy, and become a masochist. Did he, too, feel shamed and deserving only of punishment?
Was he the man in the painting? Holly thought it likely, even though popular opinion suggested the figure was George Dyer, Bacon’s second lover, an ex-con of tough body and fragile mind. A mind which eventually disintegrated under the strain of being the famous Francis Bacon’s ‘bit of rough.’
Perhaps the figure in the painting was emblematic of both Francis and George, each bruised and suffering in their own ways, boxed into their respective torments. Or maybe of everyone, trapped inside their own minds. Maybe that was why the picture was bothering her so much. She surely wished she could get out of her mind. Away from-
She should write as if she were Francis Bacon. How better to get out of your own head than to try to inhabit someone else’s?
What the hell was he supposed to-
He slapped the paint on the canvas furiously, pasting it on, layer upon layer of oils, thick and coagulating, choking and clotting, a body emerging out of the blue-black darkness, white, naked, angled awkwardly, agonised and crunched, curled awkward as a foetus –
George, George, George. Damn it, the stupid, bloody, wonderful man-
He felt the imprint of Peter’s fist against his cheek bone, his shoulders hunched as blows rained down on his shoulders, blue black bruises bursting blood vessels into the frail white flesh-
He dropped his brush. Shit. Don’t go there. Don’t think. No need to go back there, to the time before George, to the time when he was George, weak and hurting-
Blue. Black. Over the white figure. Hiding him in the bruise until the bruise was George… him…
And darkness. Don’t we all want to hide? Aren’t we all afraid to be seen? And yet here he was, exposing George to the world – or maybe himself – naked and unloved, open to the cold and critical gaze of others…
More blue, more black, trapped in the darkness…
What was he going to do about George? Too much shit in his body, getting frailer by the day… to much booze, too much gambling, too many rent boys-
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Fuck. George’s body had been so beautiful, so strong, so intimidatingly powerful – he had loved it, loved it. He never fucking learned though, did he? Peter had put him through a plate glass window-
But George was cutting him, slashing at him, destroying him as he destroyed himself by painful inches.
More paint, dammit. Hide, hide, hide it.
She threw her pen down in frustration. Damn, was she just writing her own hang ups into Bacon’s character? Was the unbearable truth that there would never be an escape from her own head?
Or maybe that picture pointed to a darker, more universal truth: that everyone was caught up in their own personal hell, blue-black and bruised from the pain of life?
Afraid, she cut off that train of thought.
Don’t think -
She was very much afraid it was getting too dark.
27 September, 2019, 6.23am.
The darkness was absolute. Not shadows anymore but real, actual, visceral dark. The book before her blurred, the words unable to reach her. The box was open. The horrors were out. She could feel them, Morgan’s and Francis Bacon’s -
Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think –
-snapping and snarling at the edges of her mind, ready to devour her, leave her in pieces alone in the dark, she was going to die -
Don’t think, they’re there, don’t think, in my head with me, don’t think –
How the hell did people survive this? Hands reaching out -there were worse horrors than hers – she couldn’t breathe for the weight – breathe, just breathe –
Morgan, how did she do it? And Francis Bacon? Survive their darknesses –
She was suffocating, suffocating, she couldn’t move –
Damn it, how did they do it?
Her eyes fell on the page before her –
‘…let there be light: and there was light.’
And then she knew.
Morgan had broken her silence and told her story. Francis Bacon had put paint to paper and had drawn out his pain.
They had opened the box and released the darkness within, and in doing so had found relief.
She stared out at the garden. The first shades of morning were brightening the sky.
She picked up her pen and began to write.
Hazel Storr lives in the beautiful cathedral city of Durham, England, with her partner and son. She is an enthusiastic teacher of English and Creative Writing and recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at Teesside University.
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