by Marco Etheridge
The glass-walled studio projects from the seaward end of the cottage, an afterthought built two centuries after the foundation stones were laid. Viewed from the outside, from anywhere in the damp fields that surround the stone cottage, the studio has the appearance of a translucent wart.
A man, a painter, stands inside the cramped studio space. Before him, on an easel, rests an over-large rectangular canvas. The painting is not finished, not quite, but the scene depicted in bright oils is clear to the eye. Sea and surf in cobalt and cream, rock reefs in black, the grass of the fields an impossible green, the endless sky cerulean and white.
The painter raises his eyes above the painting, stares past the safety of the enclosing glass. Stretching away and below is the exact scene depicted in the painting, alike in form, but devoid of colour. The sea is dull as slate, the surf tame and flat. The jagged rocks are frosted with grey ash, as is the sand on the beach. The impossibly green grass lies buried beneath drifts and miniature dunes of pumice. The world outside has been stripped of its colour.
If the painting were complete, there would be a signature in the lower right corner, G. Thorvald, for Gregory Thorvald. The painter could finish the painting from memory, or imagination, but it will not matter whether he paints his signature or not. Gregory Thorvald doubts that anyone else will ever see this painting. In this he will be proved wrong, but only just.
Out of long habit, Thorvald studies the afternoon sky. There is no quick rent of blue to break the pulsing grey monotone, no fleeting glimpse of sunlight. The painter expects no more than he sees. Clouds of ash have buried the world and blotted out the sun. There is no sign that the sun or sky will ever return. Natural light for painting is a thing of the recent past.
Gone too are the rhythm of sunrises and sunsets. Each new day is marked by a twilight that rises from the inky blackness of night. At the end of the day, the same twilight fades back into an unlit void. There are no stars now, no moon, no glimmer of light on the sea.
Thorvald seats himself on a wooden stool. He reaches for his briar pipe, then for a battered tobacco tin. He fills the bowl of the pipe with meticulous care, not spilling a single precious strand. He cradles the unlit pipe in his hand, mentally calculating his remaining supply of tobacco. Which will run out first, the smoke or the world? It is a question he cannot answer. He strikes a match, waits for the flare to subside, then holds the flame over the bowl of his pipe.
Smoke billows up the glass panes, whiteness obscuring the already obscure landscape beyond. The whirls of smoke reach the plank ceiling and hang there above him, waiting as he waits.
The pipe sucks and crackles as he draws on it. Outside, the wind keens against the ash-covered land. As the painter smokes, he counts the days in his thoughts. Was it thirty now? Yes, a month since the first shocking news reports. A massive supervolcano explosion at the Yellowstone caldera. The eastern half of the States buried. Then in Iceland, another cataclysmic eruption as Katla exploded. Hekla and Grímsvötn followed, and what used to be Iceland blew itself into the skies over the North Atlantic.
Five days later, the ash clouds swept in from the sea and blanketed the land. Ten days and every radio signal morphed into buzzing static. His cellular phone became a piece of useless junk. He has not seen a vehicle in two weeks. He is marooned on an island the size of a stone cottage.
Thorvald is trapped. South or north, the nearest town is thirty kilometres away. His old Land Rover still starts, but he doubts it will get far sucking ash into the air cleaner. He is not in a hurry to take his chances. The last garbled radio signals spit out grim news of towns and cities succumbing to deadly food riots and marauding gangs.
The cottage is a lonely outpost on the loneliest stretch of this rocky coast. There were damn few neighbors to begin with. Those that there were have fled or died, he knows not which. So he does the only thing he can do. He smokes, sits, and waits.
The monochrome day is waning, and, for the moment, so is the rai of ash. Thorvald’s eyes search the landscape. He sees the dry-laid stone walls that mark the course of the road. Drifts of ash and pumice choke the western faces of the rough walls. The twin lines of stacked stone rise and fall over the contoured hills, appearing and reappearing as they climb to the dim horizon. And the walled-in road is empty, as empty as the landscape it passes through.
Then Thorvald looks again. Appearing over the nearest rise, as if sprung from the ash that buries the road, he sees two trudging figures. One is tall and thin. The other is short, no more than the height of a child. Both are swathed and cloaked against the dust and ash. He cannot see their faces.
Thorvald presses his nose to the studio glass, hands cupped around his eyes. He squints into the gloom. Yes, now he can see them. They are holding hands. A parent and child? A cloud of disturbed ash obscures their legs. They appear to float along the road as ghosts.
Something wallows along in their wake. The taller wanderer is pulling a wagon or a trolley. Thorvald sees a back-stretched arm and a hand on a handle, but no more. Whatever bumps along behind the tall figure is hidden beneath the roil of churned-up ash.
They are closer now, rounding the turn that leads past the cottage. Thorvald sees that the taller one is too slender to be a man. A woman, probably young. The other is a child, a boy by the look of it. The woman and boy vanish from Thorvald’s view as the road snakes in front of the cottage.
Thorvald dashes through the cottage and squeezes into the narrow mudroom above the front steps. He peers through a diamond window set in the center of the door. The young woman and boy are standing at the head of the lane that leads up to the cottage. The two seem to be arguing. Thorvald cannot hear their words, but he can see their hands. The boy speaks with gestures. He points to the cottage. The young woman shakes her head. He points again. She shrugs, and the two travelers step into the narrow lane.
Thorvald opens the door and the strangers stop in their tracks. He sees two pairs of eyes staring at him. Their faces are hidden under hats pulled low and dirty scarves are swathed over their mouths. For a moment, no one moves. The ash at their feet swirls and settles. Now he can see the utility wagon behind the woman. The contents of the wagon are covered with a tarp and secured with crossed bungee straps.
The woman pulls the scarf down below her chin. Thorvald sees a young face, much younger than he would have guessed. She can't be older than twenty-five, probably younger. Under the smeared grime of ash, he sees that she is beautiful. The boy does not uncover his face. He looks up at the woman, tugs her hand, but she does not look down, does not move. Her eyes remain fixed on Thorvald. The silence grows awkward before Thorvald speaks.
“Welcome. You’d best come inside. You can leave your wagon.”
There is another silence. Again the boy tugs the woman’s arm. He takes a tentative half-step toward the open door. She nods to herself, her eyes still locked on Thorvald’s. Then she allows the boy to lead her to the door.
Thorvald speaks to her as he would speak to a skittish colt.
“I’m Gregory Thorvald. I don’t bite. Just brush the ash off as best you can before you come inside.”
The boy looses his hold on the woman’s hand and begins beating the ash off his jacket and pants. A cloud forms around him and drifts away. The young woman ignores the boy.
“I’m Ella and this is Toby. We don’t mean to bother you or cause trouble. We thought this place was empty like all the others.”
Thorvald nods and holds opens the door wide.
“Better if we talk inside before the cottage fills with ash.”
He leaves the front door open and backs through the mudroom and into the cottage proper. The boy is the first to follow.
“Hang your coat wherever there’s a hook. And shoes off, please.”
The boy stares at him for a long moment as if the words need to sink in. Then he nods his head. He slides out of his jacket, reaches up to hang it on a peg, and bends to the laces of his boots.
While Toby is bent over his boots, Ella squeezes in behind the boy. She pulls the front door shut behind her. Toby kicks off his boots and a puff of ash follows. He reaches out a stockinged toe and pokes her feet.
“Right, Toby, I get it. Shoes off.”
The boy’s face is solemn. Before Thorvald can say anything, Toby slips past him and burrows into the end of the sofa closest to the peat stove. Ella removes her boots and stands in front of Thorvald.
“Thank you for inviting us in. I was worried we wouldn’t find a place.”
“You’re welcome. Please, have a seat. I think this calls for tea. Toby, would you like tea?”
The boy looks at Thorvald as though he has been asked to take the throne. He nods his head without saying a word. It’s Ella’s voice that answers.
“Toby don’t talk. You get used to it. He’s never said a word since we’ve been together.”
“You’re not family then? I assumed Toby was your brother.”
Ella shakes her head. Thorvald sees raven hair and sharp dark eyes.
“No, I found Toby. Or he found me. It was during the riots, after the ash came and everything went dark. People were running around, smashing shop windows and each other. I was just trying to get away when I smacked into Toby boy. He was standing still as a statue, tears turning to mud on his cheeks. I grabbed him and we ran. Been running ever since.”
Thorvald feels the dim room pressing in on him. The air is close with the smell of peat burning in the stove. He loses the thread for a moment, then recovers himself.
“Right, tea. Sorry. Let me get the kettle on.”
In the kitchen, he fills the kettle and lights the stove. He puts biscuits on a plate, thinks of the hungry boy, adds more biscuits. The numbers click in his head.
Enough stove gas for three weeks, maybe, but that was figuring one person. Now it’s three. Food to last two weeks tops. There’s enough water and peat for months, enough to keep them warm and wet whilst they starve to death. Cheery thought.
He loads the tea things onto a tray and carries them back to the front room. Two faces look up at him, two more than he is used to. He sets the tray down.
“Who’s for tea, then?”
While the boy Toby destroys the plate of biscuits, Ella tells Thorvald of their journey. Two days of raining ash was all it took to drive people mad. Or drive the mad ones madder. First there were food riots. The cops tried to stop the looting. Things got rough and the looters killed a cop. After that, the madness got bloody.
“I was running for my life. Then there was Toby. Like I said before, I grabbed him and we ran. Been three weeks heading south, hiding in barns and huts. We saw this place and figured it was good for the night.”
Thorvald puts down his empty teacup and raises a bottle of brandy. She nods, holding out her cup. He pours her out a hard shot, then one for himself.
“And the boy, he’s not spoken at all?”
“Not a word. And there’s no need to whisper. It don’t do no good. He’s got ears like a fox.”
“If you’ve been three weeks sleeping in barns, what would you say to a warm bath? I can’t promise hot.”
Ella tosses off the brandy in one go and rises from the sofa.
“I’d kill for a bath.”
Thorvald looks at her, sees a thin coil of springs and energy, long arms and long legs, and flashing eyes.
“No need. I’ll just get the water going.”
It was the better part of two hours getting them both bathed. Toby sat outside the bathroom door the entire time Ella was in her bath. She soaked until the water was cold and waited beside the door like a dog.
Then Thorvald heated more water and it was Toby’s turn. Ella went in at intervals to check on him, leaving the bathroom door open. Thorvald learned that the boy would not abide a door between himself and Ella.
While they were in the bath, Thorvald swept up the spilled ash as best he could, cursing it as he always did. Now Ella and Toby were back in the sitting room, scrubbed clean, each of them wearing one of Thorvald’s jumpers like a nightshirt.
Thorvald serves them a supper of tinned beans, kippers, and crispbread. The boy eats like a machine, not looking up until the food is gone. Ella eats a little more slowly, but with no less enthusiasm.
“That’s all there is I’m afraid. No sweets to follow. Sorry, Toby.”
If the boy hears him, he gives no notice. His head lolls back on the sofa and his eyes close.
He reaches for the boy’s empty plate. Ella rises from the sofa.
“Here, let me help.”
They stack the plates and cups. Ella follows Thorvald into the kitchen.
“Just in the sink is fine. The washing up can wait.”
Ella raises her chin to the back of the cottage.
“What’s back there?”
“My studio. That’s the rest of the tour I suppose.”
He leads the way and she follows. He strikes a match, lights a candle, then another. She stands beside him, taking the room in.
“You’re a painter.”
“I am. Have been all my life. Until now.”
He hears the soft patter of bare feet, and then Toby is wriggling into the studio between them. He stares at the painting on the easel, then stares up at Thorvald.
Toby watches the painting as if it were alive. He sags where he stands, leaning into Ella. He begins to nod, and Ella slips an arm around the boy’s chest to catch him. She turns Toby out of the studio and pushes him through the kitchen and back into the sitting room.
“Right, it’s getting late. Ella, you take the sofa for yourself and Toby can bunk with me in the loft.”
The boy is awake in an instant as if he’s been stung. He’s shaking his head and clinging to Ella’s hand.
“Sorry, what I meant to say was Ella and Toby should take the sleeping loft. I’ll bunk on the sofa.”
“Greg, I think, at this point.
“Goodnight Ella, Goodnight, Toby.”
He watches Ella help the sleepy boy climb the ladder. She disappears after. Thorvald stokes the stove with fresh turves of peat. He throws a quilt over the sofa and settles himself for the night.
* * *
Blackness has given way to gloomy twilight when Thorvald opens his eyes. Someone is moving around in the kitchen and in the drift between sleep and consciousness he is waking in a different cottage on another continent and he is two decades younger. The woman in the kitchen has red hair and a fierce temper and Thorvald loves her madly. Then the undertow of memory pulls him back and it is Ella in the kitchen making tea.
He rolls upright on the sofa and wraps the quilt around his legs. He listens to the muted noises from the kitchen and then she is there, walking toward him with a mug of tea in each hand.
“G’morning, Greg. Did you sleep alright? Sorry for booting you out of your bed.”
Thorvald stretches out a hand to take the tea she is offering.
“Cheers. Good Morning yourself. Is Toby still sleeping?”
Ella nods her head and takes a sip of tea. She sits on a low stool beside the peat stove.
“It’s the only time I get to myself. He sleeps like the dead in the morning. Whimpers and squirms all night, but goes quiet for a few hours right about now.”
The tea is good and strong and hot. Thorvald is happy to have it and happy to have someone bring it to him. A question pops into his head and he blurts it out.
“If he’s not said a single word all this time, how is it you know his name?”
“Found it written inside his jacket. Laundry pen or something.”
“Do you think his parents are dead?”
Ella looks up to the loft above their heads, listens for a moment, then nods.
“Things got ugly. There were a lot of bodies in the streets.
“You have to understand, I was running for my life. I almost ran over the top of him. He was just standing there in the middle of all that mess, crying his eyes out. I couldn’t leave him there all alone.”
“You saved his life.”
“Maybe so, but I don’t know if I can save the rest of him. I think he saw his parents killed. That or some other horrible thing.”
There were noises above them, the sound of bare feet on wooden planks. Ella rose from her stool.
“I better get another cuppa.”
The day is spent cleaning the cottage and washing travel-grimed clothes. Toby is an eager puppy at Thorvald’s heels. Wherever he goes, the boy is his shadow. Toby vanishes every few minutes, checking that Ella is still close at hand, then reappears.
They need water for laundry. Thorvald shovels away the ash that blankets the walkway to the pumphouse. Toby shovels his own section of the walk. Inside the pumphouse, Thorvald shows Toby how the petrol generator works. Toby is a quick study and quiet as a mouse. He finds himself liking this strange silent lad.
Thorvald engages the electric pump. He shows the boy how the water is piped from the well to a holding tank mounted behind the cottage. Then he leads Toby into the kitchen where Ella is waiting. Thorvald lights the big boiler ring to heat water, conserving gas be damned. What point in rationing the cooking gas? A week more or less, what does it matter? The end is finite and inevitable. No one is going to stop by to fill the propane tank. May as well wash clothes, cook hot meals, and enjoy this moment on the edge of hell. Why not?
The gloomy excuse for a day passes into darkness. Tubs are emptied and the kitchen floor mopped. Damp laundry is strung from lines crisscrossing above the peat stove. Toby had been fascinated by the old-fashioned hand wringer, insisting that he be allowed to run the crank.
They take their tea in the humid room, flushed and hungry from the efforts of scrubbing and wringing. Their meal is much the same as the night before. There are sardines for kippers, tinned beans, and cream crackers. They eat until the food is gone, happy to have it.
Toby snuggles against Ella, the two of them curled together on the sofa. The boy’s eyes are drooping to half-mast. Thorvald smiles at Ella, gathers up the dirty dishes, and carries them to the kitchen. He rinses the dishes, stacks them in the sink, then walks into the studio.
Thorvald lights a single candle against the darkness. He sits on the wooden stool and stares out into the black night. His hand reaches for the briar pipe and the tobacco tin. He packs the bowl but does not light the pipe. The night will be long and black. He has time.
He hears a rustle of bare feet and then she is there beside him.
“Toby drift off, did he?”
Ella nods her head, her hair the same shade as the night.
“The only time I get to myself.”
Without another word she leans in to kiss him, one cool hand snaking behind his neck. Her lips are on his, sweet and warm. His heart beats once, twice, long enough to taste the ghost of a fierce woman with red hair and green eyes. The memory of her lifts his arms. His hands find Ella’s shoulders, and he pulls back from her kiss.
“I don’t want this.”
She stands before him, close, her eyes on his. He expects anger or tears, but she offers him neither. When she speaks, her words are direct.
“Who’s to know? For that matter, who’s to care.”
“I’d know. I’m old enough to be your grandfather, or damn close anyway.”
By way of answer, Ella pulls a second stool next to his, perches herself on it, and leans against him. Thorvald picks up a woolen lap rug, drapes it over her legs and bare feet, then wraps an arm around the whip-thin young woman.
“What do you want, then?”
Thorvald waves his free hand at the unfinished paintings, at the candle flame reflected in the dark glass, at the black night outside.
“I want what I’ve always wanted. I want light and colour. I want the skies to open and the sun to beam down. I want to see green and blue and white, smear them on a canvas as thick as I like.”
“And maybe you want someone else?”
“Ah, she’s long gone, twenty years now. Taken away by a stupid, ordinary accident. And she was anything but ordinary.”
“Don’t be. It changes nothing. What about you, Ella? What do you want?”
“Right now, I want what I have. Food, shelter, a warm bed, seeing Toby smile. I don’t see any future, none that I can hope for. What I want is to be rid of regrets.”
“You’re too young for much in the way of regrets.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. I don’t regret the things I’ve done. I regret the things I’ve not done. I regret not living like a wild woman, drinking and dancing, making trouble for everyone. I regret turning down so many of the boys who wanted me, even the ugly ones. Especially the ugly ones. They’re sweeter than the pretty boys and more interesting. I regret being a good person like I was saving something for later. I should have spent it all, every bit of myself.”
She tucks in tighter against him, settling herself like a cat.
“Go on, grandpa, smoke your pipe.”
Thorvald feels the forgotten pipe still in his hand. He fumbles one-handed for a match. She takes the box from him, strikes one, offers him the tiny flaming brand. He puffs the pipe to life and shakes out the match.
“Greg, how long can we stay here?”
Straight to the point, this one. There’s no sense hiding anything. So he tells her about the propane tank, the food, how long that will last. Maybe two weeks. There is peat for the fire and the well is still good, but the food will run out. Starving to death is a bad way to go. They could fish, but he has had no luck. Maybe the ash killed all the fish. He does not know.
“Two weeks until the food runs out. Then we start to starve. That’s not a good way to go.”
“Can we leave?”
“Yes, but leaving isn’t the problem. Getting somewhere else is the trick.”
He tells her about the Land Rover. It starts well enough. The old girl might be good for a hundred kilometres, she might be good for twenty. He has one good air filter. How long it will last with all the ash on the road, he does not know.
The patter of small feet interrupts their talk. Toby appears out of the darkness, wrapping himself around Ella, and for a moment they are three linked as one. Thorvald raises his hand from Ella’s shoulder and ruffles the boy’s hair.
“Right, bedtime for you two.”
They disentangle themselves and say their goodnights. Toby takes Ella by the hand and leads her away.
Left alone, Thorvald smokes late into the night, pondering how he can give Ella and the silent boy what it is they want. It comes to him, finally, in the blackness of the wee hours. By the flickering light of the candle, he begins to clear the cluttered studio.
* * *
It is morning and Thorvald has Ella and Toby in the studio. He poses them as he wants them, exactly as they came to him in the long dark hours. Ella wears a tatty bathrobe and Toby is clad in a faded jumper that hangs below his knees.
“Right, that’s perfect. You need to be still, both of you.”
“Why am I holding a broomstick?”
“All in good time, Ella. Now be still.”
Ella grumbles under her breath. Toby looks up at her with eyes wide. Thorvald hunches over the unfinished painting, drawing a cartoon in charcoal. His fingers move across the canvas without hesitation, sure and deft. Two figures take shape in the foreground of the bright landscape. Hours pass and his models begin to fidget. Thorvald takes pity on them. He drapes a linen over the canvas and shakes out his aching hands.
“Well done, you two. That’s enough for today. I’ve got a bit more to do here. If you could fix us tea, that would be lovely.”
Ella and Toby stretch and moan. The boy leans forward to peer at the covered canvas.
“No peeking, not until it’s finished. Off you go.”
When the studio is empty, Thorvald uncovers the painting. He mixes a lean oil of burnt umber. With a very fine brush, he paints over the charcoal lines, sealing the cartoon. He does not stop working until Ella calls him for tea.
The food runs low in the days it takes to complete the painting. When they are not posing, Ella and Toby help Thorvald pack the Land Rover with everything that might be useful on their journey.
In the days that follow, Thorvald paints as fast as he can, as fast as he dares. It is a race between the emptying larder and the almost completed canvas. Never in his life has he painted so swift or so sure. Every brush he lifts is the right one. Every brushstroke leaves just what he intends.
Seven days pass before the painting is complete. Their supply of food is almost gone. It is time to go.
Ella and Toby stand in front of the covered easel, waiting for Thorvald to lift the veil. The boy is shaking with excitement. Thorvald sweeps the linen away from the easel with a flourish, careful not to brush the wet oils.
Ella draws in a sharp breath and then a huge smile breaks across her face. Toby points at the painting, his mouth hanging open. Their eyes turn to Thorvald, who is grinning like a happy child. He sees the tears in Ella’s eyes and he knows.
“Are you sure we can’t take it with us?”
Thorvald shakes his head, still grinning.
“No, the oils won’t be dry for at least a month, maybe more. If we move it, it will get ruined, coated with ash, or worse. Better that we leave it here.”
It is time to go. They stand before the painting, each absorbed in one last long look. Ella has to take Toby by the shoulders and turn him away. They file out of the studio. The painting remains on the easel, the only source of colour glowing in the fading, ashy light from the monochrome world outside.
Outside the studio, beyond the cottage, Thorvald coaxes the Land Rover to life. Gears grind and the tires bump down the rough lane. At the roadway, he stops. Ella sits behind him, holding Toby in her lap. He blows out a long breath and looks south. The empty road snakes away between two stone walls drifted with ash.
“Well, here’s to luck then.”
He released the clutch and the Rover lurches onto the road. A cloud of ash rises in their wake, blotting out everything left behind.
In the empty studio, a painting on an easel. Two figures stand larger than life before a vivid background of sea and sky and rock. Ella is Boadicea come to life, sprung from the heath and turf. Toby is her adoring acolyte.
She stands a warrior queen, looking beyond the horizon, her face wild with fierce joy. A necklace of shark’s teeth perches against the bare flesh below her throat. Her raven hair is ruffled by a sea breeze, entwined with feathers, bones, and wooden beads. She is clad in leather and animal skins, fitting attire for a wild woman. Toby wears a short toga, his features shining with love as he looks up at his queen.
The painting glows as if with its own light, illuminating the dim studio. Waves of colour gleam against the grey gloaming that falls over the world outside the glass. And in the lower right corner of the painting, traced with the point of his finest brush is a signature. G. Thorvald.