I’ve recently moved back to my hometown. It’s a small seaside town in the uk and you’ve almost definitely never heard of it. I left to study art at university, which in the blink of an eye became 10 years working in the art world in the city.
My life was fast paced, full of parties and social gatherings, and I had real potential to make it big.
I decided to come home when an old friend of mine died. He was the third to pass away in the space of 6 months. The 4 of us had been the closest group imaginable growing up, spending our entire childhood and teenage years together. The news of his death devastated me.
So much so that I felt I had to come home, not for just a visit, but for as long as it took to work out why my friends were gone. I left everything behind.
My friends and I were not so well behaved growing up. We often caused problems, were disrespectful to everyone and generally a nuisance to the local residents. So when my parents told me that two had succumbed to addiction and the other had a heart attack during a bar fight, it didn’t surprise me that no one in town batted an eyelid.
My friends took seriously different paths to mine, we hadn’t been in contact regularly for years. But we’d shared a trauma in our teenage years, something that made me feel like these deaths weren’t a tragic coincidence.
Darren was my closest friend. He was the most recent to die and was the supposed heart attack.
When we were young he used to tease me because my parents named me Liza after Liza Minnelli. He would throw jazz hands whenever he saw me. It makes me smile to think about. Darren was sweet and kind and incredibly loyal to his friends.
I’m not telling you this because it’s relevant. I’m telling you this because I know there will never be another positive account of his life. Darren always had a lot of problems. More so than all the rest of us.
He had already embarked on a turbulent life journey when I left for uni, getting into drugs and dealing them and spending anything he earned at the pub. There wasn’t a Friday night that he wasn’t fighting someone random.
I think he did it to numb the pain. I ran away, Darren drank and snorted.
Baz was different. I had some sort of twisted hope that he would be ok, I was wrong. He was the most gentle and sensitive of the group. He adored his girlfriend Lacey and despite everything we went through he seemed to cope pretty well. About 2 years after I left he broke up with Lacey, lost his home, she wouldn’t let him see his 18 month old son and he turned to drugs too. Over the years it had only gotten worse. There’s not much else to do where we’re from.
Baz died 3 months ago. He was found seized up in a squat and had likely been there for days. Heroin. It was sad, but expected. Especially after the sad loss of our friend Tyler to the same awful addiction.
Tyler went first, 6 months ago. When it happened, my parents broke the news to me over the phone. I was attending a cocktail party hosted by an up and coming artist launching a new collection. The harsh reality that I’d been sipping martini while someone I loved foamed at the mouth in a cold dark alleyway hit me like a ton of bricks.
I felt incredibly guilty that I hadn’t been there, that I hadn’t called or kept in touch.
I came home briefly to attend the funeral, the look on Tyler’s 5 year old daughter’s face broke my heart. I’d never met her before, but she was the cutest kid I’d ever seen. The old Tyler would have been so proud. Guests spoke to me about the shock, how he’d been doing better recently.
His funeral was the last time I saw Baz or Darren. It was like a morbid school reunion. Darren didn’t look too good, he was angry and had already drunk too much when I arrived. He took it out on me because he always felt I abandoned him for university, I couldn’t argue, I suppose he was right.
When I arrived Darren started screaming at me immediately. Ranting about how I left them and if I’d stayed then Tyler wouldn’t be dead. Saying that it was all a lie and Tyler had been clean for months. That there was no way he’d overdosed.
It all cut pretty deep. Baz tried to hold him back but I could see he didn’t know what to say to me either. I figured it was the grief and the whiskey I could smell on his breath talking. Of course Tyler had overdosed, his whole life was headed that way. I truly believed that until he said something that made my blood run cold.
“Do you know where he died?”
It was a simple question, one most people might find benign if not a little dark given the situation.
But to me it was huge, I knew the answer already, purely because he had asked that question. It was the whole reason I begged and pleaded with the university to let me in. My grades were terrible, but I was passionate about art. It took night courses and resitting exams but I made it. All to escape this town. That place.
When we were about 16 we found a place we called the wall. It wasn’t anything fancy and we weren’t too creative, it was just what it was. A wall, at the back of an old closed down industrial estate with a nearby alley to access it. The same alleyway Tyler had died in.
At the time we had just started smoking weed and would hang out there to drink and smoke without being bothered or caught. The industrial estate was always quiet, there were never any homeless people, junkies or other kids there and you could sit for hours and not see another soul. It was perfect. In retrospect maybe I should have seen it as a red flag.
The wall was covered in the most beautiful street art I’ve ever seen. Colours and compositions you couldn’t imagine, bright tones and line-work in all different styles that flowed together like a living organism. I don’t say this lightly, especially with my career, but it was nothing short of a masterpiece. After a smoke I would get lost in it, transported into a world of colour and light.
I spent hours there just watching it, observing every pattern and colour that made up the intricate mural. Every square inch of it was imprinted into my mind.
There were no tags, or standard sprayed graffiti to be found anywhere on the wall, the texture was like that of an oil painting, dust proof and fresh looking. I don’t know how long it had been there but even in the time we spent hanging out there it should’ve aged a lot but every day it looked as if it had been just painted.
The boys weren’t as visibly fascinated as I was but they were vocal about their appreciation. Baz more so than the others, but he was always a sensitive soul.
They would sometimes kick a football up against it, lean on it and clap their shoes against it to get the sand out if we’d come from the beach. I cringed like the brickwork were the Mona Lisa herself every time but I never let it show. They were careful to do no damage though, where as usually they wouldn’t have cared at all.
After we’d spent a year or so in our new hangout we stopped going anywhere else. We met there daily, after school and at the weekends. It was the best time of our lives. Then one day it all changed.
We’d had a rough day at school. Darren had gotten in trouble for getting in a fight with another student and threatening a teacher. He’d gotten violent with the other student and was facing permanent expulsion. He never intended to go to university, but he at least wanted to make it through 6th form.
We’d gone directly to the wall to hang out before we had to go home and Darren would have to face his violent, alcoholic father. He was fuming and still ranting about the earlier incidents, we were trying to calm him down. This wasn’t really anything new, we were those kids. But this time was particularly bad.
Tyler has always been the quieter one. But for some reason that day he couldn’t cope with Darren’s ranting. He got angry himself and told Darren to shut up. He must have predicted the fist coming towards him because he ducked in perfect timing for Darren to full pelt punch the wall.
The beautiful wall.
It wasn’t hard enough to damage brick, he wasn’t really that tough. But it was enough to shatter Darren’s hand, he broke a lot of bones that day.
Tyler apologised profusely, although I doubt he’d have apologised if a punch that hard landed, he was lucky that Darren was in too much pain to care about why he was angry with him in the first place. Tyler was always too scared to bother challenging Darren. So it was odd that he had in the first place and he didn’t dare call him out on the overreaction to a simple “shut up”.
I know you probably can’t understand why we were friends with Darren or why we stuck around, but we knew he had issues, and he was never usually violent with any of us. He was a product of his environment.
We tried to help him and called an ambulance. He was calm for a while, but as the swelling built alongside the pain, Darren reacted the only way he knew how to in almost any stressful situation. He got angry again.
He grabbed hold of Baz’s bike, holding most of the weight with his good hand but still putting far too much pressure on the bad one. Pure rage had cut through the pain and he smashed the bike against the wall. Baz tried to protest, but the red mist had already taken over.
He struck it repeatedly until part of the beautiful paintwork crumbled off. Although the painting previously looked eternally new, the wall itself was old. It wasn’t long before cracks appeared, chunks of decades old brick fell to the floor and the mural was ruined. The abstract colours and patterns were interrupted and distorted. My heart shattered.
As an art nerd is was as if someone had taken a blowtorch to Picasso.
When the paramedics arrived I refused Darren’s pleas to get in the ambulance with him. He took Baz, and Tyler cycled Baz’s mangled bike behind them.
I stayed with the wall. I tried to push crumbles bits of brick back in and rebuild the painting like a puzzle but I couldn’t. I ignored every phone call from the boys and just stared in disbelief at the desecrated remains of the masterpiece.
Then I saw him.
A man standing no more than 20 meters away from me and the wall, by the next unit in the industrial estate. It wouldn’t seem much to most people, it wouldn’t to me usually. But in that moment I realised that aside from the paramedics who had come to collect Darren I had never seen another human being here. I wasn’t sure what baffled me more. The realisation itself, or the realisation I had never thought about it before.
Sure, we’d often praised the fact no one was ever around. It suited us just fine. But until I saw him I hadn’t understood just how strange it was that we hadn’t seen a single person. Ever.
I stared at him, and he stared back at me with unblinking eyes. He was just close enough and it was just light enough that I could see him perfectly. They were a grey blue colour and had a sad intensity I’d never seen before. He was thin, with long, skinny limbs and a gaunt face, almost like someone that had been taking medication for a long time.
He wore a dirty grey hoodie done up like Kenny from South Park, all that I could see were those eyes and the sunken cheeks. Even his hands were covered by the long sleeves. I was terrified, something about this man really unnerved me and I still hadn’t seen him blink.
Then he walked towards me. My heart skipped multiple beats as it feel from my mouth to my chest, when it restarted it pounded. The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck danced, tickling a little as they all stood up. I still couldn’t move.
It didn’t take long until he was stood right in front of me, still staring at me with those eyes. He stopped inches from my face for a minute or two before continuing to stand face on with the wall and the large crumbled chunk.
I watched in horror and devastation as a single tear ran down his cheek and he raised his arm to reveal a disgusting sight.
His fingers had twisted and lengthened, knotting in places to create a long, thin mass of flesh. It was both elegant and sickening. From the end of the fleshy mass sprouted hairs, short and fine, growing from the slightly bloodied tips of the finger mass into a delicate point.
His hand was the most horrifically beautiful paintbrush I’d ever seen.
This was the artist I had longed to meet. My idol, the creator of my obsession, stood right in front of me. And I had never been more terrified. I don’t know if sheer admiration prohibited me from moving, but I just watched. The unnatural deformity of the hand just didn’t bother me like it should a normal person; his demeanour and silence alone should have sent me running. But it didn’t.
As the hairs on the end of his brush came closer to the wall more tears fell from his gaunt face. They dropped onto the crumbled remains of his art. He reached out his other arm and I braced myself for another perplexing sight, but his other hand was like any humans’s. It was incredibly slim, the bones and veins created ramps and bumps across the skin. But other than malnourishment, his hand was normal.
He took his semi-normal hand and laid his palm flat against the wall, his paintbrush hand hovering over the most damaged part of the art. He opened his mouth wide, pushing the hoodie open just enough to reveal his whole sunken face. I cringed, expecting an ear shattering scream.
But no sound ever came.
The scream was written all over his face even without noise. It wasn’t a scream of anger, it was a scream of unimaginable pain. I can only liken it to the expression you see on parents that have lost children on the news.
He was grieving for his artwork, for his entire soul. For the first time I was able to utter a word.
“Sorry.” Was all I could manage, I was simultaneously in complete admiration and terror all at once. He didn’t break eye contact with the wall at first, but my word disrupted him.
His paintbrush remained in the gap where the crumbled pieces of the wall had been. He turned his head and faced me again, not moving either of his hands, despite me being a little too far behind him for your average person to look at. It was like he had the neck of an owl.
He didn’t say a word. Just continued to cry and scream in complete silence. I couldn’t hear any birds, or cars. Nothing but silence. Come to think of it, my “sorry” had been the only sound since he first appeared, and after all these years I’m not even certain that was audible.
I felt my body shake as he looked at me, tears had begun to roll down my cheeks, not for myself but for the artwork, I could feel every ounce of his pain. I focused on nothing but him for at least a minute, the pain so intense I could barely breathe. My eyes were clouded and as I turned to look at the ruined painting it had already been restored.
His paintbrush hand had retracted into his sleeve, only a small brush tip emerging. There were no crumbled remains of anything left. It was like the incident hadn’t happened. The beautiful painting was exactly as it should be. The colours, compositions and line work were as if they had never been touched. This wasn’t a repaint, it was a complete restoration of the original.
I have never in my years come across skill or art like it. I looked at the man in awe. Now stood proudly in front of his painting. By this point he looked skeletal, his gaunt cheeks sucked in even further and his ribs almost visible through the baggy hoodie. He was so thin that his eyes bulged from their sockets. The painting had taken a part of him with it, his entire being poured into one piece. The dedication was incredible.
He looked me in the eyes again, his body turning to face me along with his neck this time. He reached out and traced his paintbrush along my cheek, leaving a burning pain in its trail. He spoke only once, and his words have never left me.
Art is obsession. The art we obsess over is to be respected.
You and your friends are no longer welcome here, but that will not stop the obsession.
You will all find obsession in your lives but if you return to mine your lives will end.
He walked away after that, disappearing behind the building I had first spotted him by. I tried to follow him, to answer or find out what he meant but he didn’t stop and by the time I reached the building he was gone.
I never saw the artist again. I turned to admire the artwork one more time, to take in those beautiful colours. But it had changed, written across it in beautiful lettering was a warning to me and my friends.
“Leave or die.”
It had appeared impossibly fast. I knew very quickly that it was time to go. Before I ran from the wall I took a picture of the mural on my phone, it was a flip phone and one of the first with a camera but the message was unmistakable. This despite the fact it had captured nothing of the artwork itself, the exposure seemed too high, but I knew the art was not meant to be viewed. It was its creators obsession alone.
When I opened my phone I had tons of missed calls from all three boys. I called Darren back first. He was still in the hospital, having his hand put in a cast.
As I held the phone to my face I noticed blood streaming from the cheek the paintbrush had touched. I babbled a lot on the phone, Darren went nuts at first, thinking I’d been attacked. I convinced him to get everyone to meet us at Tyler’s house. His parents were the only ones ok with us all there.
When I met up with them it took a long time to get them to calm down about the cut on my face and the general disheveled way I was presenting. I told them my story, begged them to listen. At first they thought I was crazy, who wouldn’t? After a while I reached for my phone to show them the photo and after that they begun to listen.
I don’t know if they ever truly believed my story, but the message in the picture and my distress was enough to keep us away from the wall for good.
To Darren’s disgust I ran to university not long after that. I tried to forget about everything but as much as I hate to admit it I still irrationally yearned for the painting. I know the boys did too, they never admitted it, or spoke about it much but I could see it in their eyes.
Sometimes when I looked at them I could see the colours and patterns of the wall dancing around their pupils.
The artist was right, they acquired other obsessions. We all did; Baz and Tyler had drugs, Darren had fighting and I had finding a piece that inspired me even an ounce of what his had. But over the years that initial obsession never waned, if anything it just became harder to suppress, I was glad to be away from it.
I think our vices only ever really masked it, I think we were all suffering without it. I’ve seen the artist’s eyes every night in my dreams.
It intensified when Tyler died. He should never have gone back but he did, all the drugs must have destroyed his will. I don’t know if he ever made it to the wall, he was found in the alleyway nearby, but we all knew why he was in that area. I imagine if he’d made it he’d never have been found at all.
Since then the deaths have happened, this is why I’ve returned. Baz and Darren weren’t found near it, but it seems too much of a coincidence for them to pass so soon after Tyler. I could see the pain in their eyes at the funeral, just like the artist’s pain. I know something isn’t right, I can feel it.
Its that feeling that bought me home. The same feeling that will guide me back to the wall tonight. The scar on my cheek throbbing. I want answers, even if I’m never able to share them.