BILLY BY ROBERT
by DARRAN BRENNAN 2022
From the outside it was a shed but Robert Cotterill knew instantly he would paint another masterpiece there that might also find its way into the Guggenheim. A higher power had guided him these last few years, revealing that he had not been in the art world but in showbusiness. The admirers that abandoned him were once festoons to his meteoric success, surpassed only by his rapid demise, furthering the rumours that swirled around the name Robert Cotterill after newspapers stopped calling for interviews and galleries didn’t want to show his work. A woman had come out saying he had groped her. Then there were pictures of him looking a little too amorous with others and one of him kissing a child. Showbusiness alright, he thought, putting the key in the door of the shed. The truth was he had a temper and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. The way it goes when you mistake showbusiness for art, he thought, the only art is in your ability to bullshit and keep on bullshitting the bullshitters.
Before he had the chance to fester about the acrid damp smell or the black mould or ruminate further about his two years of excess in a drunken hole of self-pity and destruction, that had dwindled his bank account from one-hundred-and-eight-thousand Euro to seventeen grand, with no means of income going forward, a knock came. “Robert?”
It was the lady of the house, Margret, real name Olivia—Margret because she was the living embodiment of Magret Thatcher with an Irish brogue dancing off her tongue seemingly her only discerningly likeable quality. “Robert, do you need anything?”
“Okay, come up to the house and I’ll—”
“I’ll be up.”
“Grand. There’s a pot of tea if—”
His builder’s voice was another reason the world overlooked his deep sensibilities. The way it echoed off the corrugated roof gave him pause to consider whether he should have softened it for the namby-pamby people who took up space for real art fans. Regret had been the wormhole he’d crawled through enough times, which had delivered him to this new more enlightened place. Crawling back in would only serve as a remembrance. “It’ll get cold here in winter but… and expensive to heat but… and lonely but… I’ll have art.”
Art, all-consuming art; the search inside where cold and loneliness could not reach had saved him (and temporarily solved issues with expenses). “If I did it once I can do it again.”
Before opening a cupboard or testing the bed springs, he set up the easel, removed the bungee cords and flipped the new canvas from portrait to landscape. Whatever he would paint would have a wide perspective; a horizon; somewhere to aim for. As he tightened the four clamps on the canvas, he saw an idea formulating in his mind’s eye and sat on a white round stool and stared at the canvas. It would be an abstract again for sure. There’d be something like sea and fire; a clash of ideals and a meeting; black in the centre where nothing could live; a barren land of once molten rock where he had been banished to. “My Rock. My Elba.”
She’d heard him yelling again. At first it had made her heart jump. Then, after she had one of her tantrums, she wondered if he was as upset as her. Only her new nanny, Imelda could calm her down but lately, because of the pandemic, it had only been Mam and Dad at home, and that’s when she was the most upset. She was overjoyed now that there was another crazy screamer in the neighbourhood, except he didn’t stop the birds from singing nor force everyone on the road to close their windows until she knew for sure she was completely alone.
Yes, she was an only child but she would never have to worry about getting cold. She was always sad then angry but she would never have to go without new trainers or a video game. She was scary and crazy sometimes but she would never have to worry about having friends because when you had money, according to Mam, you always had people calling.
It was summer again, seven baby magpies had started visiting in the spring but there were only four left. They chased each other around her trampoline and ventured into her Wendy House, probably to take their minds off losing three brothers and sisters. One always stayed after the others had gone, and it was using her slide to entertain itself. It was so funny and cute, she laughed. Then she shuddered because if she started the day in a happy mood (or any mood) it would end with her lying alone on the grass, under the trampoline, screaming at the top of her lungs about nothing. Crazy. Before she could sink into despair about being only seven and wanting to die, her heart leapt, a good leap. He was shouting in his shed again. “What is he shouting about?”
The magpie was so clever in how it knew that the slide was for fun, she only used it to spy on people, she thought, watching it with her chin taking the imprint of the window runner. She darted her eyes to the shed next door when she saw a flash of black T-shirt passing the open window, then his hairy arm, then a bald spot as he sat—a big nest of long curly hair around it like an erupting volcano.
Mam and Dad were making breakfast together because she could smell coffee and toast. Dad would be reading his newspaper up in front of his face, hiding behind it, and Mam would have her phone to her ear, always organising something.
This magpie gave her an idea, if she dragged the slide over to the wall, she could use the ladder to climb over and go knock on the crazy man’s shed door and find out what all the fuss was about. This made her happy. She was going to do it later, but there was one problem, Olivia Beaufoy next door. She could hear her small radio playing Irish music; tin whistles and what sounded like ghosts singing about the life they missed. Once it went quiet Olivia would be gone to the shops. She liked to think she had a social life by going around every shop in Rathmines and talking to the owners. This was good as it meant she had a couple of hours to pluck up the courage to knock on the angry man’s shed door.
Mam and Dad barely noticed her as she skulked through the kitchen. “Billy, eat some toast and there’s cereal,” said Mam.
“I’m not hungry.”
“Billy,” said Dad, almost with a growl from behind his paper.
Billy shoved toast into her mouth and chewed loudly so Dad knew she was being obedient; being good. “I’ll be in the garden if you want me.” Her shoulders climbed to her ears, they never wanted her.
“Don’t bother the neighbours, Billy,” said Mam.
It’s not like I have a choice, it just happens. “Okay,” she grumbled.
She went outside and got sweaty from moving the slide, scrambled up it and stood on the wall. Once she had the courage, she climbed down using the lips of the rustic stones and then waited to study the overgrown grass and yellow dandelions. It didn’t matter that she’d grazed her knee or might not get back up, she felt better for being on an adventure; now this was fun.
“I’ve only sat down and ye have me up again, ye little bollix.” The shed was a sweat box and Robert tried to keep the window closed to keep the flies out. “You’re getting a lash of Lord of the Flies. My copy of Catcher in the Rhye is covered in your comrades’ entrails.” Another fly tempted fate by buzzing back and forth in the thirty-five-by-twenty-foot studio-cum-home until he’d exploded in a tirade. A jaunty knock came.
“Busy Margret… sorry, Olivia.”
“It’s not Olivia.”
He froze. A child, he thought, instantly cheering up and then sinking back into the broody soak he’d woken in. He stared at the canvas mocking him with lazy washes of azure and cerulean blue over brash strokes of black and white. It said nothing to him yet but doubt was always a fertile soil.
Another tippity-tap-tap-tap and a triple-rap.
A child, a pushy one. His shoulders hunched and he tiptoed back and hovered over the stool, mopping the flop from his deeply creased brow. The fly had moved into an elliptical pattern above his unmade bed as if drawing attention to his slovenliness. Robert wondered if the place smelled. Everything seemed fine but perhaps to someone new it might again render him tarnished, even if only a child. Children chat how they tap: elaborately. When she spoke in a cute voice his heart streamed like melting ice cream. Instantly he began mixing white with a dab of burnt umber and thinning it with the medium until runny, whereupon he gently poured several streams over the largest black abstract in the centre of the canvas. As he gazed at it, he saw into its heart. The horizon was only visceral fat. He had to go deeper. What meant a horizon? What lived at the centre of one’s drive to go beyond showbusiness? At the heart of every idea lies—
KNOCK. KNOCK. KNOCK. “I’m your neighbour.”
Squeaky voice, cute. “What?!”
“I just want to say hello.”
Robert stood up and went to the door and opened it. “Hello then.” There was this frizzy-haired little thing looking up at him, gangly limbs, hazel pinprick eyes, not as cute as her voice suggested but a rather irritable looking little scrote with a vaporous expression of nosiness propelling her. “What?” he said, his voice sounding like a hammer on corrugated iron.
Her chin trembled a little and her eyebrows raised to show her dilating pupils. “Hey.”
With eyes so open now she looked as cute as a baby deer separated from its mother. “What can I do for you?”
“What’s with all the shouting?”
“I have a fly problem.”
She nodded, slowly, keeping eye contact and darted a peek into his house. “Why do you live in a shed?”
He sighed then grumbled and slammed the door. “Why do you live under your trampoline and not bounce on it?” he said and yanked on the window to close it. Its sliding mechanism was rusted and it bent and he jiggled it to within two inches of being closed. “I’m very busy. Go bounce, have some fun, will ye?”
Everyone was always very busy. “I don’t like fun.”
He stopped wrangling the window and shoved it open and poked his hooked nose out. “What?”
“I don’t like fun,” she said, walking backwards to get a better view of the inside. “What are you doing in there?”
“Why don’t you like fun?”
“Fun and boring are not synonymous, child.”
Her nose crinkled with impatience or confusion or both. “What are you painting?”
“At the moment, ice cream.”
Thump. “Because I just am!”
“I like ice cream.”
“Well, at least that’s something.” He lowered his chin to eyeball her. “But not fun because it’s boring?”
She held her elbow and looked back at her big three-story house as if wanting to tell him something. Robert knew what that lost look said. He’d already formulated an assumption that the child who had screamed him awake for weeks (at noon, so admittedly not a reason to complain) had been crying out for her parents to notice her, which seemed to make them only distance themselves further given their sharp tone with her, on the rare occasion they entered the back garden. By the look on her face this was plain to see.
Every fibre in his body told him being kindly would open a door to rumour and local ruin, but this little thing had nobody and needed a friend. “Would you like to see what I’m painting?”
Her eyes beamed and she skipped on the spot as if needing to pee. “Yes please.”
She has manners, so she can’t be a total scrote. “Okay, but it has to be quick and then you must go back to your garden.”
He opened the door, saying, “How did you get over that big wall?”
She cocked her head as she walked under his arm, gazing up. “I’m very resourceful.”
He chuckled. “And sassy.”
She took a quick scan of his bed situated on the left; open wardrobe with two coats situated ahead, containing two shirts and two jumpers; a kitchen unit on the other wall; and his easel in the centre. Very little room to move.
The screwed-up look on her face assessing his painting amused him. “You’re right, it’s terrible.”
“What’s it supposed to be?” she asked, inching closer to it.
He picked up a two-inch brush, shoved it in a pot of white paint and slapped a thick line diagonally across the canvas. “Ideas.”
“Why don’t you paint normally, like pictures of people or something?”
“I don’t paint like that.”
“I try to paint what people can’t see.”
She put her hand on her hip. “Explain.”
“Sassy alright.” He chuckled and stretched his hairy arms, flipping his palms. “If the mind can’t make sense of something it will try to fill in the blanks. Abstract painting is the art of making people see what’s buried inside.”
He folded one arm and rubbed the heavy black stubble on his chin. “I had a few ideas but nothing’s clear yet.”
“How can anyone see it if you don’t know what you’re painting?”
“Indeed… I need to…” He reached out his painted paw. “Robert Cotterill, your parents might have heard of me.”
“Billy James.” She stared at his thick fingers as she shook three of them. “They don’t like art, only money.”
“Oh, yes, well they are probably doing that to make a good life for you and keep you safe.”
She went on a little walk around the studio, inspecting unexciting corners. “No, they don’t like me much, only money.”
“Oh, I’m sure they do.”
“That can’t be true, Billy.”
She turned and fixed him with a pin-pricked stare. “If I wanted to paint what’s in here,” she tapped her head, “how would I do it?”.
Thump-thump! Robert gazed at the painting and slapped another thick line across the canvas to form a big X. “It would take a while for you to see how.” A lump in his throat. “You’d have to work the canvas to get it to speak.”
“Like I said,” he said, irritably, “it has to say what can’t be said.”
“Can I try?” she asked, reaching for the paintbrush.
Enthusiastically, he showed her the correct way to hold it, adjusting her little fingers. “Not like a pencil, like fencing. Hold it light.”
“It’s too heavy.”
“Here, try this one,” he said, replacing it with a one-inch brush.
“I can’t reach.”
He thought about letting her balance on the chair and thought better and hoisted her up under her arms. She filled in the top portion of the X that began to look like sand in an egg timer.
He jerked her away and put her down before she could ruin it. “No, wait.” He scratched his chin. “Hmm…”
“About what?” She flicked the brush in frustration, speckling the canvas and giving it some grains of sand.
Thump-thump-thump! “Hmm…” He gazed down into her keen pin-prick eyes. “What is it that we all want more of, Billy?”
He shook his head and pointed at her work. “What does that look like?”
“Not an egg timer?”
He frowned and chuckled. “People always want more time, okay?”
“So, what do you think it is about time that makes them want more?”
She walked a little circle, staring at her trainers. “It disappears?”
“Clever.” Her excited glance up caught the sun, making lighter flecks in her eyes into shimmering golden stars. “Have you ever wished for time back?”
“How did you feel when you knew it was gone?”
“Come on…” he hunkered down and wiggled his bushy black eyebrows, “why?”
“I wanted to fix something.”
“To make it better.”
“Make what better?”
She crossed her legs like she needed to pee. “Dunno.”
“Come on, tell me, what were you fixing?”
Her chin wobbled. “Fix it with Mam and Dad.”
“And what’s wrong there?”
“Eh…” She held her elbow. “I’m doing something wrong.”
“Eh… being bold.”
“Shouting and being… sassy?”
“Cos they shout… and laugh at me.”
“So can you fix that?”
“Eh… I don’t think so, I’ve tried.”
“So, if not, why then do you need more time?”
“Eh… to fix… eh, something else?”
“And what fixes you?”
“Eh… being happy?”
“How can you do that?” His eyes widened with a smile.
She squeezed her elbow and legs together and released her body in a big breath. “Having fun?”
“Good,” he said, bouncing to his feet. “Fun isn’t boring!”
She pondered for a moment. “I don’t really like fun, though, only sometimes and not really.”
“Maybe you have someone else’s idea of fun in there,” he said, tapping her head. “You have inspired me, you should go now, I need to work.”
“I want to stay and watch you paint.”
“People will… just better you go now.” He gently took her shoulders and turned her around. She straightened her legs and fell back and dug her heels in. “No, I want to stay.”
“You can come back, but for now I have to work.”
“Sorry, Billy, it’s not a good idea.” She went limp, and he pushed her outside. “Come back tomorrow.”
She pouted and folded her arms. “You promise?”
“Yes.” He hunkered to remember her cute face and saw Margret Thatcher eyeballing him from a window with a pursed mouth like she was holding a bee in there. “Off you go now, Billy,” he whispered. “See you tomorrow.”
“I’m going to paint.”
“Good.” He stood and watched her run to the wall. “Bounce on your trampoline first. You have plenty of time to paint. Think about what you’d like to say while having fun.”
“I don’t like bouncing. Eh, I can’t get back up,” she said, staring up at the wall twice her height. “Will you lift me?”
He didn’t want to move from his spot (held there by the suspicious gaze of the Iron Lady of the house) but relented when he saw Billy’s little knee grazed as she determinedly attempted to climb. He grabbed her under the arms and lifted her and stepped back smiling. “Remember, figure out what’s fun to you.”
She carefully stepped across to the top of the slide and slid down saying, “I will.”
Billy bounced on her trampoline until she got tired and lay on her back watching clouds. She saw a dragon form into an eagle and the face of an old man grow legs like he was sitting by the fire smoking a pipe. A bunny became a cat and stretched out into a diving board with steps that became a slide. “Wow.” Her heart beat steady and without the horrible feeling that she needed to be happier or better or doing something different or saying something clever. That always ruined the fun and made her angry and scream until she went hoarse. Screaming was, sort of, fun. But she felt different now. Sort of happy. Happiness wasn’t what she thought it was either, it was a lot calmer and easier.
She knew Robert would have his window open because it was broken and it was so warm in his house. “Hey, Robert?” He didn’t answer but she knew he was listening. “Watching clouds is fun and climbing over walls and painting… and your funny smell and bushy eyebrows.”
“Um, good. Funny smell? Never mind.”
“Thanks for teaching me.”
She heard him clear his throat like she did when she didn’t want to cry. “You’re welcome. I have to work, Billy. It was nice to meet you.”
She looked up at Olivia peeking from her bathroom window. “Hey Olivia, are you having fun there, are ye?”
“You cheeky little…” Olivia closed her blinds.
Billy laughed. “Robert, I think I want to paint what we can’t see, too.”
After a long pause he said, “I’m thinking at the moment, will ye just….”
“I said tomorrow, okay?”
She gazed at clouds until her heart skipped along like her feet did whenever she went to a skate park to watch skaters (which she wasn’t supposed to do but her nanny was a softie).
She went inside. “Mam, Dad, I’m sorry about my screaming. I met the man who lives in the shed next door and he helped me.”
“What shed, Billy?” asked Mam, with her hand on her hip to match her stern expression.
“Robert Cockrel or something. He said you might have heard of him. He’s an artist. He paints what we don’t see… no, can’t see… wait, don’t see.”
“Don’t be bothering the neighbours, Billy.”
“I won’t. Will you buy me stuff to paint with?”
“You have stuff.”
“It’s for babies. I need one of those things to put paintings on, too.”
“An easel. You never stick to anything. I bought you a bloody expensive accordion after you begged me and you’ve played it three times.”
“I want to paint, and I know why I do.”
Mam cracked a cynical grin. “Why do you?”
“I want to paint what we don’t see… and I want to paint fun.”
“Clouds. Will you buy stuff for me?”
“Yes, of course, if you stick at it.”
“I will, I promise.” Her eyes became teary. “Sorry.”
Mam went to the window. “Who is this Robert Cockrel?”
“Why is he living in a shed if we’re supposed to have heard of him?”
She swallowed her heart trying to come out through her mouth. “You could ask but he’s a bit grumpy. He’s interesting, though, I like him.”
“Okay, but don’t bother him.”
“He said I can visit tomorrow. I helped him to paint.”
“Okay, but don’t bother him, I don’t want another problem with the neighbours. All these tantrums have made it very difficult.”
“I won’t, I promise.”
Mam hunkered and opened her arms. “Come and give me a hug.”
Billy sprinted into her arms. “You should thank him, Mam.”
“Yes, it seems you’re very different today, much better.”
“I found what I’m looking for.”
“I’m an artist.”
Mam rubbed her back. “You’re too young to know that.”
Billy wriggled free, stepped back and raised her chin. “I am an artist and that is that.”
“Okay love,” she said, chuckling, “you’re an artist.”
“It’s tax-free, Shauna,” said Dad.
“So it is. Well, Billy, if you start young you might make art your fortune.”
“I don’t care about money, I want… I want to skate and have fun.”
Mam smirked. “Fun can never last, but you should enjoy it while you can.”
Billy ran out of the room. “You’re wrong, you’ve forgotten that fun is more important than money. One day, I’m going to show you what you can’t see and then you’ll know, then you’ll see me, and then—” Her chin wobbled with the words she dared not say, her mouth stayed open but she didn’t speak.
Dad put down his paper.
“Go on, Billy,” said Mam. “Say what’s on your mind.”
She ran upstairs, yelling, “Then you’ll stop loving money and love me.”