“It doesn’t count if you’re already planning your defeat.”
“I’m not assuming that I’ll win, but that’s a very different thing from ‘planning my defeat’. Geez, Aya, why do you have to be so melodramatic about everything?” Tyler tried to laugh it off, but Aya wasn’t buying it.
“Because you do this all the time. You’re a really good artist, why can’t you see that?”
“Can we not get into this discussion again? Fine, I’ll enter the stupid competition. Maybe I’ll win, but the odds are against me. I’m not going to go pinning my dreams on something like this, something I have no control over.”
Aya opened her mouth again, before putting her hand up in surrender. “All right. Thank you. I suppose that’s all I can ask for.”
It’s more than you should be able to ask for, given the entry fee for this thing. Ten quid – plus postage – for a thing I don’t stand a chance of winning? I’d rather just buy some cake. The thought of the prize money drifted across his head, but Tyler shoved it away again. He wasn’t going to give in to any fantasies while Aya was still around.
“So, what are you going to draw then?” Aya asked.
“What? I don’t know, I’ll think of something. There’s still weeks before the deadline, right?”
“Yeah, but you should start thinking about it now. How about a landscape? That sketch you did of our trip to the beach was gorgeous.”
Tyler laughed. “What, are you my manager now?” Despite his best efforts there was still an edge to his voice, and Aya dropped her eyes.
“Sorry. I was just trying to help.”
With a sigh Tyler slumped back against the bus stop. “Why? If you’re that excited why don’t you enter the competition?”
“Because I can’t draw. And actually can’t draw, not your wandering artist, ‘life is so hard, my work isn’t perfect’ can’t draw either. You remember our last year of art? When I drew that self-portrait?”
“And Mrs Grensham thought it was a house?”
“Exactly. Maybe if it was an abstract art competition, then I’d just try and draw something normal and submit it under a different title. Fine art is not my thing. Besides, it’s not the competition I’m excited about. It’s you entering that I’m excited about.”
“Whatever.” Tyler stared at his shoes, thinking back to an age when his legs dangled off the bench and he could kick his feet as he waited for the bus. That would give him something to do with all this restless energy, and would help keep the awkward burn from his cheeks.
“We can talk about something else,” Aya conceded. “Just promise me you will enter.”
“I promise. Now, what’s going on with your sister?”
Later that evening Tyler lay sprawled on his bed, idly flicking through his phone, his brain numb as he scanned all the social posts and random news threads. There were half a dozen chores he should’ve been doing, not to mention coursework, but he couldn’t be bothered. This was how he spent most of his evenings any way, just chilling out and sharing memes with his friends.
The group chat conversation turned to holidays, and everyone began swapping their worst holiday story. Tyler grinned and started scrolling through his pictures, trying to find the snap he’d taken of the leaky boat they’d ended up in on their last family holiday. Pictures were the only way to get noticed in the group chat, and it was worth being one of the last ones to speak if you had an image for your story.
As he went through the months on his phone, one of the photos that he passed stood out. The chat forgotten, he scrolled back. The beach he and Aya had visited last year. It wasn’t supposed to just be the two of them, but everyone else had dropped out, and they'd refused to cancel just because no one else could make it. It had been nice, a calm day, far quieter than it would’ve been. All they’d done was walked about and talked. They'd discussed their future plans, how the coursework was going, which of their friends relationships would last. They’d talked about art, and Tyler’s talent for drawing. It was the first time he’d shown his work to anyone, sharing photos of his paintings as they sat on the beach wall eating ice cream.
“These are really good!” Aya had said.
“Thanks,” he’d replied, and though he’d tried to shrug it off, he’d loved the feeling. But it didn't last.
“You’re a little heavy with the shading in some areas.”
“If you’re looking to improve, there’s a few places that could do with less shading.”
“You think I need to improve?” The warm buzz Tyler had gotten was replaced with a chill.
But Aya just looked at him like he was crazy. “What, you think you’re perfect? No one produces perfect work, in any walk of life. And the only way to improve is to have someone point out what you could change. I absolutely love your paintings, and their certainly good enough for a gallery. But, if you’re approaching this seriously and looking for ways to better your work, maybe you could experiment with shading.”
Tyler had snatched his phone away and changed the topic, and for an hour or so there was a tension in the air between them. More ice cream chased that away however, and Tyler forgot about her comments until the next time he sat down at his desk.
“Less shading…” What the hell. Nothing to lose, and I can always add more later.
So he'd tried it, and the definition it gave his work was stunning. He could hardly believe that it was something he’d created himself.
The next day he’d said thank you to Aya, and apologised for reacting badly. From then on she’d been his greatest supporter, although it wasn’t long before she couldn’t point out any more ways to improve.
Lying across his bed on his belly he kept staring at the photos of the beach, but his mind was thinking about the competition. His first guilty dream had been about the prize money. Five thousand wasn’t anything to sniff at, and he could buy himself an easel, not to mention a ton of other stuff. But now…
I want to win for her. She can’t draw, but she doesn’t need to. She draws through me, through all the encouragement and support she gives me. I want her to know how grateful I am that she believes in me, and how much her interest means.
I want her to know what she means to me.
As soon as he thought that, Tyler knew what he had to draw for the competition. Tossing his phone aside he turned on his overhead light and swept his desk clean of coursework. By the time he’d dug out his sketch pad and pencils his fingers were trembling with excitement. Just the thought of winning was making him giddy.
It’s not about the winning though, he thought as he sat down and tried to calm himself. It’s about letting her know. And there was only one way he could do that.
For the rest of the night, into the early hours of the morning, the only sound in Tyler’s room was the scratching of the pencil against the paper.
It was two months later when Tyler got the email, and the first thing he did was email back with a request. The next day he headed to college early and snuck into the printer suite. When he got into class he found a seat next to Aya and slipped her the still-warm advanced advert he’d asked them to send out.
“Good enough for you?” he asked, unable to hid his grin.
Aya was frowning as she unfolded the paper, but when she saw what was on it her eyes went wide and her cheeks red. Tyler watched her eyes skim over the words, before they went back to taking in the image. Her image. Under the words saying ‘winner unveiling’.
Looking at her now Tyler could spot the places were he’d differed. He’d made her eyes a little softer, and had made the cleft in her chin less extreme, and the smile he’d given her wasn’t one she normally had. It was gentle and loving, not the wide grin she sported with friends or the tight, satisfied one when she was getting the class work right. It was the smile she seemed to save only for his artwork, and it was his favourite one of her expressions.
Waiting for her reaction was killing him, but he used the time to remember her features. No one produces perfect work, but his next piece would be a little closer. At last she folded the page up and turned to him. Her grin was as wide as his.
“It’s a good start,” she said. “What can you do next?”