We had to leave the town I grew up in because the place was filling up with strange people. Colourful, uneven, unsettling people with nowhere to go who just stood stiffly at the end of the street, in the supermarket, in the corner of your eye, smiling a banana smile with too many teeth or waving a squashed-spider hand: circle palm, six stick fingers. Sometimes they appeared in groups, glued together by the ends of their rigid arms like paper dolls. Once or twice, my family – Mum, Dad, baby Finch and me – would come up against an uncanny mirror image of ourselves: a blonde-haired woman, long-haired man, one little auburn toddler and a bald, bug-eyed baby, stuck together in a row. We would stare at them and they would banana-smile back, and their eyes were completely opaque like potholes.
“Good morning.” My mum would tell the pavement as we hurried past.
They were benign, silent, but there just wasn’t enough space for them. They began to fill up the streets and shops, pasted all over each other and jostling for room like postcards on a crowded fridge door or like my drawings which covered one of our kitchen walls like abstract wallpaper. Nobody liked to look too closely at those pictures anymore.
Then there was the weather. When I was even younger, too young to remember, there had been strange, nightmarish storms: great knots and slashes of colour contorting overhead, sending out irregular arms of grey, purple, orange, cyan across a deathly white sky. Now, though, the weather was invariably hot. A great, livid sun burned all year round, emitting rays of light so harsh they were almost visible: orange blazes that stretched through the air all the way down to the ground. There was rarely any rain, but we often had dazzling rainbows. Their form was unreliable. Once, we saw one all in shades of pink and purple. Another had twelve layers instead of seven; it had black and grey and five different greens. They weren’t subtle: their edges were stark against the furiously blue sky, their colours vivid. They were pretty to look at but there was something not right about them.
“They’re just not very realistic.” My dad complained.
On the day we moved out of our house when I was 5, I was given the job of taking down all of my drawings from the kitchen wall. I had to stand on the table to do it, and I kept ripping out little bits of the paint underneath the tack. I glanced over my shoulder guiltily, but my parents didn’t complain. I put all my pictures in a bag. They had the texture of leaves, their paper stiffened by layers of chalk and felt tip, and they made a pleasant rustling sound. I kept one in my hand. Mum glanced at it sparingly, as if it shone very brightly like the sun.
“Oh, you’ve drawn Roberta. That’s nice.”
The woman I had always called Roberta was a neighbour of ours. She was nearly always there, standing, waving, on the pavement opposite our house. When everything was at last packed into the car and Finch and I were allowed to leave the kitchen and come out of the front door for the last time, my gaze went immediately to the other side of the road. She was there.
That’s the first time I remember thinking about it, properly. Perhaps that day my brain had reached the level of maturity required for that kind of deductive reasoning. It was a level that my parents did not seem to have yet reached. I still had my drawing of Roberta in my right hand. I knew I had done that drawing before I had ever seen her. In fact, if the picture had been drawn from life, it would have been a remarkable accomplishment for a child so young. I would have had to find a crayon that was the exact same shade of green as Roberta’s hair, and somehow perceived the precise, subtle angle at which her arms stuck out from her body, and expertly captured the particular asymmetry of her facial features. My picture was an exact likeness, but I had not drawn Roberta. Or rather, I had not drawn her from life. I had drawn her into life.
As I grew older, I was more sparing with my pencils and crayons. I drew only small things that would go unnoticed if they were to turn up in the park or the street, or in with the recycling. I found that the more a plastic bottle was shaded to look like it must be full of water, or a crisp packet had just the right angles to give the impression of being crunchy to the touch, the more likely it was to be so in real life. I felt a small, private thrill each time I went outside and ran into a piece of trash that had my small initial scribbled in the corner.
My parents were content. This town was populated with a reassuring number of three-dimensional people in healthy, lifelike hues, who walked down the street in particular directions and talked with them about the weather in the supermarket queues. Finch grew up drawing wild mountain ranges and fierce monsters with naïve abandon. Sometimes I would watch, envious. She had little regard for physical laws – and why should she? I would go upstairs and get back to practising shading round surfaces and shiny textures.
I ran into problems at school.
“Shh.” I would be scolded as I practised my writing. I would press my lips together as firmly as possible, bite my tongue hard, but it didn’t silence my voice. The classroom would be completely quiet apart from the scratch of pencils on paper and my whisper, out loud:
“There …. They’re …. Their.”
My parents were told that I was disruptive. After parents’ evening I fled to my room and finally gave into temptation. I dug out my drawing of Roberta. I took a new sheet of paper and the old set of crayons and began to copy the drawing, in miniature, in the corner of the paper. It was difficult, replicating the work of a younger child. I fought the urge to correct the length of her left arm and to add eyebrows and nostrils. I spent the next month with my eyes peeled. Wherever I went, I was peering into things, under things, behind them. I was left disappointed. Maybe it didn’t work, I thought, if it was a copy.
When exams came around in high school, I tried to explain myself. I was treated with bewilderment but allowed to sit in a separate room. An invigilator watched quietly as my voice dictated every word I wrote, even the spelling mistakes.
My parents looked uncomfortable when I said I wanted to study Art at university.
“Drawing? Comics? Little people? Guns? Super villains?” My dad asked, seemingly at random. His studied ignorance appeared to be wavering. But I knew that this was what I wanted to do. By now, I had taught myself to reliably produce foil that crinkled and crackled, water that could slosh around; shiny, curved, and even transparent materials. I had even, once, conjured up a little lopsided bunny rabbit for Finch, which hopped doubtfully around our garden. Now I wanted to be taught, properly. When I thought of drawings of people who looked so realistic that you expected them to start talking, to think for themselves, to lead normal lives, I felt a rush of adrenaline. Illustrated buildings that appeared so teeming with life that you could just walk inside and find an entire working office space; pencil-drawing animals with intelligent, animated expressions.
My first Anatomy class was a shock to the system. I sat in a tutorial room, nauseated, as we were instructed to draw disembodied hands, distorted faces, giant, isolated noses. I ran home afterwards and vandalised my own sketchbook, hastily turning the faces into the fronts of postcards, manipulating the outline of the nose to create a large ornamental vase. I hesitated over the hand. It was well drawn – the professor had stood behind me and praised it over my shoulder. I had got the shading almost exactly right, and the skin texture was strikingly lifelike. I couldn’t bring myself to scribble over it, to reduce it to a bag or a bench. Instead, I tidied up its edges and signed a fingernail. At the last moment, I added a smiley face to the thumb.
The vase turned up in a charity shop a few days later. I spent nearly half an hour running my hands over it, turning it, holding it against the light. I had never drawn something so perfectly curved and so solid, so realistic. You could put flowers in it, display it in your house, and no one would know the difference. In the end, the young shop assistant demanded,
“Are you going to buy it?”
I took it home with me and stared at it and wondered about the hand.
My professors couldn’t understand why I had sabotaged my own textbook. They shook their heads at it.
“You show so much promise.” They said. “But this attitude, it’s …”
“Creative.” I suggested.
My greatest achievement in the first year was when my best friend Andy complained that there were no good nightclubs in this town. The night before his birthday, I spent six hours, well into the early morning, drawing a building: low and squat and squeezed between two shops. I applied all my newly learned skills to it, trying to create an atmosphere. It needed to look like it would be hot and dark on the inside, with heavy music and serious, arty people giving each other intense eye contact under the pulsing blue light. I drew the door and one little frosted window ajar so I could design, by sketching, where the bar would go, the stage, the toilets. By the time I was finished, I was quivering, my hand pulsing, my eyes burning. Maybe I was delirious. I named the club You’re Welcome, Andy and made the logo my signature: huge, lit up in neon. I fell into bed, exhausted.
We stumbled across the club that evening, not exactly where I’d imagined it to be, but unmistakable. Andy stopped in his tracks.
“What?” He demanded, to nobody.
“Look at that, Andy!” Someone exclaimed, laughing. “Did you have this built or something?”
“No.” Said Andy. To my surprise, he didn’t look delighted. He looked horrified.
“It’s a very common name.” I said consolingly. Andy turned his gaze on me. My neon signature was reflected in his eyeballs.
“It’s bizarre.” He insisted, and maybe I imagined it, but I sensed accusation in his voice.
In the last lecture of the year, we talked about what Aristotle said about art imitating life.
“But,” Andy pointed out, “what about life imitating art?”
“That’s a very interesting point.” Said the lecturer, and she started talking about Oscar Wilde.
“But couldn’t it be a bad thing?” Andy insisted. “If life imitated all the horrible things that people have drawn?”
The lecturer chuckled.
“Wilde wasn’t talking literally, guys. No need to worry about Fris’ Underworld becoming real.”
There was laughter around the hall. When someone screamed, I thought they were taking the joke a bit too far. Then I saw where they were pointing.
“What is that?” Someone wailed. Like some kind of nightmarish, macabre spider, a disembodied hand had scuttled into the room.
First, I felt pride bubbling up energetically from my stomach. From the way the hand moved, it was clear that all its parts were in perfect proportion, all its joints working effortlessly. The detail was impeccable, from the seam between nail bed and skin to the elevation of the tendons running over the knuckles under the surface. Even though it was unquestionably unnatural for a hand to be detached from its arm like that, there was something compellingly human about it nonetheless. It looked alive. If I could draw a hand that immaculate, I realised, it was only a matter of time before I would be able draw a face, or a whole body. Not the two-dimensional stick neighbours of my childhood but real, moving, living people. Why not, eventually, an entire city? What about a planet?
Then, gradually, I registered the expressions on the faces of the people around me. Nobody looked impressed at the perfect crease of the knuckles or amazed at the texture of the skin. They weren’t marvelling at its creation or wondering about its origin. Instead, they had their mouths open and their brows creased into expressions of horror, disgust, terror. They were looking at the hand as if it was something out of a nightmare. The lecturer was shooing it out of the hall, trying to claim that it must be some kind of joke.
“Let’s carry on.” She said as soon as the thing was outside the door and relative calm was re-established. She went on talking about artistic energy and Life’s imitative instinct.
“That was yours.” Andy said in a low voice, as if accusing me of a crime. “I recognise it.”