Andy Charman is a freelance business analyst and technical author who also writes literary and crime fiction. He produces
brochures, technical manuals and training material for finance corporations and he helped design the award-winning software
for BidRoute.com. His short stories have featured in Every Day Fiction, the Global Short Story Competition, Cadenza, the Jacqui
Bennet Writer's Bureau, and Ballista Magazine. He claims he's working on a novel, but then -who isn't? Andy lives in Surrey, UK,
with his wife and daughter. www.apcharman.com
The tap squeaks as he spins it open. He rubs his eyes and waits for hot water. It is five months now since José Luis started
working on "Two Colours" and it has taken over his life.
No more coffee with Richard. Cafes, bars, restaurants - they've all ceased to exist. He pulled the telephone cable from the wall
and told his daughter to phone before visiting (she still turns up Sunday evenings, tight-lipped and disapproving). As for Maria,
his Portuguese cleaner, having been banished again she'll need a whole book of flattery to be coaxed back to work - but no
matter; all that counts now is the painting.
At his age, and with this painting, it is all about memories, constantly begetting one another. Just this morning he woke to the
recollection of his grandmother singing a lullaby, just a tune with too few words. Catalina - big white moon. He could have been
no more than four years old.
All he wants is to represent the past with these two colours. One of them is simple; he can select it from any number of tubes.
It's the first one, the ancient, memory-laden essence that eludes him. He has tried many paths; first oil, then eggshell, then
every source of pigment, emulsion, stain, dye and tincture without getting one shade closer.
When steam interrupts his thoughts, he leans over to scoop up some water and splash it over his face. His hands scrape
against a week's growth as he wipes the water clear then he blinks at his reflection.
It's strange to him, his face, like a brother he has not seen in decades, and he is resentful of the lines of concern. He wouldn't
mind his appearance if it had been etched by his enjoyment of life, but the smile lines are faint. It was acts of defiance and
resistance that caused the scars - those and the pain. So his own face is a stranger to him. It is a boundary that he lies beyond.
He wipes his hand down his cheeks once more, clearing the water from his oily skin. His eyes twinkle back. He can certainly still
cause trouble. Most often he makes mischief with paint and this new work will surely have them chattering again. What has José
Luis done now? Two colours? Just two? But what does this mean? Surely that's been done?
As he shuffles through to the studio he wonders whether he'll tell them; whether he'll even hint. He knows his enemies cannot
be dismissed as fools, so he may need to. But there! The explanation should be in the painting. Either you paint it or you don't!
So it all comes round again, and he's in the middle of the studio, staring at the floor trying to see the colour. Trying to see how
it could be. But not seeing it. His head comes up and he speaks out loud in Spanish.
"Well you can't paint it if you can't see it, can you?"
Such thoughts bring him to seriousness as he breaks open a new box of brushes, but they are forgotten when he pulls one
out. It is the largest and he holds it up to admire. In all his years of painting, José Luis has never lost his reverence for the
simple brush. It is still an object of beauty - that crown of sable, flaring from the metal crimp to such a sumptuous bulge before
tapering to its delicate tip. He turns it in his hand. In colour it is inimitable - the hairs blend through the subtlest, most elusive
shades of blond. His lifetime has been homage to this object, but now he sighs heavily as he contemplates it. Perhaps it is time
to move beyond the brush - perhaps he has found its limit.
The brushes go on the table beside his easel and he clears yesterday's canvas from the stand with only a moment's
consideration. It is white still - a broad rectangle of white, as rough-edged as his chin, painted onto grey-blue backing. But like
the others he has discarded, it is not the white he is after.
He does not mean to express purity; that is the crucial point. His childhood was not pure any more than any other. He can see,
now, cast onto the petrol-blue oil, drifting over the glistening lines, a face. It is Jesús, holding out a pair of sandals, offering
them with hands that are grained with dirt and the tyre rubber he made them from. And God knows, his brother was no angel,
stealing tyres from the truck stops, but his teeth were white. They were white, even and all on display in the grin he offered
over the shoes.
They were the same white as the cotton sheets that dried in the sun; another memory-image that comes back regularly. The
whole village was decked with sheets; great white sails lined along the hillside where the houses grew out of the rock; an ever-
present obstacle in the alley ways and tiny streets. And though the women only ever wore black, it was the white sheets that
were hung outside to dry.
It is all in the past now, the village is deserted and the villagers gone, leaving just the bitter-sweet taste of roasted red peppers.
And yet, to José Luis, it seems as recent as a list of things he should be finishing today.
And perhaps he would never have painted if there'd been no more colour. If it had all stayed white, maybe he'd have lived simply
and died young like his father. Or maybe he too would have moved to Calahorra. Life in a wood-floored apartment; spare time
on a scrub-ground olive-grove, wearing slippers and track-suit trousers. The superstitious would spit.
Maybe portraits. Leon saved him from the refugee camp because of his obsession. Brought him to Paris to watch him grow (so
he said) and if it hadn't been him, surely someone else? He'd always have painted. Maybe landscapes. Mischief gets into the
world through his paintbrush. It was meant to.
He is cleaning his glasses; slowly, needlessly. What to do when they're clean? He's staring at the blank canvass.
There is nothing he can change. The Fascists came; his brother swore and spat into the dust, then disappeared into the hills.
Gone was his white grin. And when the war was done and the Fascists were coming back to murder them all, his mother took
him into the night and they walked to France. Walked!
His glass-cleaning has to stop; his mother by the side of the road, feet encrusted with dirt and blood, her arms wrapped around
her head in a pointless attempt to hide her sobbing moment of desperation. Light of dawn so cold; them without shelter; days
since their last meal. Then the wonder of climbing the Pyrenees near Jaca and looking back on the valleys and plains they had left
behind. Thought they'd made it.
The bullet that took her left enough life for just two words. She chose "Learn French". He has re-lived that moment so much;
just a month ago he woke to the echo of a single report.
So at last he sighs, stands, puts on his glasses and turns to the box from Austria. What claims they made for this stuff, and
how much they charged. The tube is quite normal. It squeezes onto a clean board with promising clarity. A fresh brush; its last
unblemished moments. Then a shimmering slug is curled on the palette, coaxed onto the canvas, and, with a precise stroke,
drawn across the centre of the frame.
Without blinking it's inadequate. Teeth start chewing at gums. When a patch is complete, its thick rails showing the subtlest
shadows of rise and fall, the conclusion is set. Nothing was so plastic in his youth. His youngest years were undoubtedly white,
but not in this way.
He sighs again and pulls the wasted canvas onto his lap. It sits like a cat that eats only the neighbours' food. Defeat is always
It is not that this whiteness is wrong, but it is not enough. He slaps the brush on the table and lifts himself to his feet.
The view from his studio is not a luxury, it is a tool. He has a wall of windows with clear a sight of the roofs of Paris like his
palettes, brushes stencils, moulds; they are all of them tools.
He leans against a bench and peers. A dull, hazy morning. The distant Eiffel Tower is a vague streak in a grey wash. At fifteen,
he stood at the end of the PPont d’Léna and watched the German officers walk around it. Of course they loved it. That was the
fascist through and through. So irredeemably obvious. They hated to think.
His head touches cold glass and he wishes he still smoked. Why did Fascists hate art that was not obvious? Why was that? Not
a big thing. Why burn it? Why kill someone for painting it? Why did they not find it possible to leave it alone? Why did they kill
Leon? Georges? Gods. As exalted as his brother.
Breath steams glass. He turns towards the bookshelf. Maybe someone explained the thinking of the Fascist. Perhaps there is a
book on this loathing of art that is not obvious.
He could be more figurative. He could be literal. He has a photograph of his brother and everyone knows what Leon looked like.
But then it would multiply like a virus. He would irk God to get every detail. Maybe the other way; more abstract; further from
He stays on the bookshelf. Words maybe. Not outside the painting. Not explaining. But in it. Fabric.
His lips purse. His being weighs the possibility.
He sits slowly at this desk. A learner driver. Cartridge paper has fine, tiny ridges; watermark. Texture. Indian ink for a quill-pen.
And then the words.
It is not white at first. It is everything; fried chorizo; chanting songs and the clashing tambourine on the night of San Fermin.
Garlic soup on the floor when the handles broke from the pot. Juan-José blowing raspberries at the back of the priest. Frost-fall
on the terraced fields. Uncle Pedro's belligerent pig. His uncle walking the donkey down to the market in town, five hours down
in the morning sun, seven hours back up at night.
The studio behind him shrinks into nothing as the papers fall round him like shorn hair in a barber's shop. He stays at it until
the rumble of his stomach becomes undeniable.
Cold asparagus flan from the refrigerator. Crumbs on his lap as he reviews, page by page of smelly Indian ink. Food done, he
A life has many parts, so he starts to focus. The French did not welcome so many Spaniards. Socialists. Communists. The
refugee camp was hidden, miles from a town. Leon got help from American friends. Release papers; he offered José Luis an
apprenticeship. Offered it. As though he might decline to live. The wind always blew there. Same time every day.
His eyes run across it, taking in the colour and the words. He's nodding. The afternoon overtakes him as the words get better.
Light seeps from the sky without a sunset. The desk lamp is enough.
"Yes. Yes, that's it."
He decides on a set of words, writes them out. Rejects and re-works them. Reads, nodding. Writes them again for the
perfection of the hand. Nods more.
When he turns, the studio has been replaced by darkness and Paris' streetlamps. He finds the wall switch. Strip lighting pinks
and blinks and stutters into brightness.
The canvas is where he left it, so he tears the superfluous paper from around the words. Bottles, cans, plastic files are pushed
aside until the tube of craft glue emerges from under the bench. The back of the paper is covered, then it is on, centred in the
canvas. Big enough. He steps back. Smiles.
It is like arriving home, to see such a thing. Like walking past the house where his uncle lived, climbing the steps and into the
cool air of his mother's kitchen.
His bottom lip starts to quiver. He rolls his jaw to keep control, blinks and banishes the tear to his cheek.
This is it. This is the whiteness of his youth.
He sits back on the chair, head on fist and reads and reads and reads it again.
He has done it - better than ever he thought he might. Of course, with no paint at all.
"There it is."
For completeness he reads his painting — Two Colours — out loud.
"White. Like billowing clouds that bloom over coastal mountains too enormous to believe in, crystal sharp edges, white bulges,
white movement — impossible to know. White that dazzles; white like the sheets my mother used to cast into space like the
sails of tall-ships bound for distant salt-laden seas. White like teeth. White like horizons and dawns. White like the moon and
hope-filled dreams of tent walls flapping in mistral winds. White like frailty. White like surrender. White like hope. Red."