Monday, 30 January 2012

The Man Who Drew the Brook

I was ambling cross-country alone, as I often did on the infrequent days I could free myself from my business affairs. I found that doing so cleansed my head of the petty concerns of the city. On this particular walk, I was venturing into an area I was unfamiliar with, in a county I had previously visited only intermittently, deep in the countryside and far from any town or A-road.

I had been following a brook a while, crossing over at the footbridge marked on my map, when I saw him. He stood in front of me on the ruddy path a way ahead, facing the water, evidently sketching what was before him in a little notebook. My heart leapt, as it always did, at the sight of artistic activity. I could make out that he was not young, but perhaps not as old as me, and he certainly had the look of someone for whom life had not been easy. Even at a distance, I could tell that the skin on his face and hands was coarse and brown; hardened it seemed, by the wind and rain like an old jacket. On his head was an artist’s beret, which would have been a laughable affectation for a man so evidently absorbed in creative pursuits, were it not as water-damaged and creased as its owner. His clothes were shoddy and inappropriately thin for the time of year, and clung tautly to his thin limbs and torso in the wind.

Something told me this man was more than an average Sunday painter. Yet, as I drew closer, I could see that the notebook he was using was not that of a professional artist, but one of ring-bound writing paper, complete with lines and margin, that soaked in the drizzle of the murky day. His pen, meanwhile, was not designed for drawing, but a fat novelty biro, which had the capacity to change between four different tubes of colour ink at the click of a switch.

Although his choice of materials was poor, however, I could not help but look over his shoulder as I passed and greeted him in the country way. I received no reply. Nevertheless, what I saw, out of the corner of my eye, intrigued me. So much so, in fact, that I felt compelled to pause and, while hoping I did not offend him in doing so, absorb the image further. There was certainly grace in his use of line, and even limited to a very basic palette of red, blue, green and black, the subtlety with which he used these elements to capture the atmosphere of the day was startling. But not only that, there was something more, a definite sense of confidence, of vision even, absolutely embedded in every stroke of the drawing. I found, much to my surprise, that I was deeply touched by it. A surge of aesthetic pleasure washed over me as I stood there, a feeling of intense spirituality that I have so rarely encountered. It was the elevation one feels when confronted by nature at its most sublime, yet here embedded within a work of art far more impressive than the dull real-life counterpart of mossy bank and muddy stream that it depicted.

Even as I stood there gazing upon it, the drawing was already smudging in the rain, disintegrating even as the artist put in the finishing touches. I knew that I had to buy it off of him before it disappeared forever.

As I reached for my wallet, hoping that the handful of notes and change would be sufficient, a voice from behind called a name that I could not make out. The man turned round and looked straight past me, unconcerned by, and perhaps even unaware of my presence. I too turned to see a second man beckoning and calling from the top of the verge that led down to the bank. The moment slipping away, I tried to engage the artist in order to make my acquisition. He did not seem to hear me, however. Instead, he turned back towards the brook, and did something that nearly caused me to faint in shock. He tore the drawing from his notebook, ripping it savagely in the process, then rolled it into a ball in one hand, and threw it with gusto. It arced high, and I could only watch as gravity took hold and drew it, inexorably, into the water below.

I would have dived after it, but the current was far too strong, and so I did not have the power to do a thing as I saw it carried downstream and out of view. The man meanwhile, had marched past me at speed, his thin legs and long step carrying him swiftly up the verge and over the peak.

I had to follow him. I found the verge much harder going than he did, and nearly slipped over backwards in the mud more than once. By the time I had mounted it, the man and his companion were already halfway across a meadow, the other side of which was an outlying row of houses belonging to a hamlet evidently of quite ancient origin.

I tried to run after them, but it was no good. My confidence in the terrain was nowhere as strong as theirs, evidently local as they were, and my joints were not as supple as they once had been. I was careful, however, to observe where they headed, and was delighted to find that upon quitting the meadow, they entered a house immediately ahead.

I knocked on the door through which they had entered several minutes later. There was no answer at first, but on knocking again, the door was opened by the second man. He did not seem pleased to be interrupted, but nevertheless heard me out as I explained that I was someone who had an interest in art, and I desired very much to see whatever works by his companion he may have stored within the house.

He told me bluntly that it would not be possible. He said the other man was his brother, but that he was simple, and not capable of producing anything that would be of interest to anybody but himself. He said there was nothing to show me.

I begged to differ, and told him that in my opinion, the work that I had seen was of the very highest quality, and that I would very much like the opportunity of seeing more.

The man laughed, and said that if that were really the case, then I had best put on my wading gear. His brother’s only subject was the brook, which he drew every day at the same spot. Then, as I had observed, when called home for his evening meal every evening, he would duly tear his work from his pad, roll it into a ball and throw it into the very water that was his subject.

I could not believe that this was occurring. Every day, a magnificent work was produced with the crudest of tools, and every day, it was destroyed. I pleaded with the brother to assist me in preserving one of the drawings, and though he was extremely reluctant at first, when I revealed the amount of money from which I was willing to part in exchange for it, he finally agreed.

I booked a room at the nearest inn. The next morning, the artist’s brother led me to a shallow and thin part of the brook where the discarded artworks would often collect, forming a sort of ineffectual dam that he would clear every so often. I was hoping that some of the drawings would have miraculously survived their watery journey, but this was not the case. They were all hopelessly smudged, one colour bleeding into another, with only the vaguest ghost of the original image remaining.

By the time we returned, he had already taken his place at the brook. I watched him as he drew, spellbound as he captured the scene in front of him, embodying perfectly the qualities of the day in his strokes. The result was an image so utterly different from the one of the day before, despite having the very same subject, viewed from the exact same angle. It made me think of Monet and his haystacks, or Cezanne and Mont Sainte-Victoire, their repeated motifs containing the potential for infinite variation. Yet this, I felt, went beyond that. While Monet succeeded in capturing the ephemeral moments of time, and Cezanne the changing perspectives created by the movement of the eye and body, this man, this simple, innocent man, untouched by any notion of art or maybe even civilisation, was capable of documenting his entire experience of a single day in one image. It was all there somehow, every aspect that defined that day’s utter uniqueness from the billions of days that had preceded it, and all those still to come. Not with the pedantic camera-like quality of a savant, but with what I can only describe as the spiritual insight of a true artist. As I observed the drawing emerge in front of me, I could come to only one conclusion. This man was a genius.

I began to feel my nerves play on me as we approached the onset of evening. Soon his brother would be here, and the act we had agreed upon would have to be committed. It was not without disturbing implications, but I had already justified it to myself as a necessary and even ultimately humane procedure, however cruel and brutal it might seem in the immediate present, that would open up this poor individual to communion with the outside world.

The moment arrived. As the sky entered its first phase of darkening, the brother appeared at the top of the verge, as he had done every day for who knows how many years. Yet this time he did not call to his sibling. Instead, he made his way down without drawing attention to himself, as quietly as he could on such slippery ground. Meanwhile, the artist’s attention remained fixed on the brook while, at his brother’s signal, I assumed my pre-agreed position, edging towards him softly, quietly, until I was mere inches away. His brother did the same, creeping up behind him, until he too, was as close as I.

We nodded, and burst into action. The brother locked the artist in a bear hug, while I made a grab for his notebook. Even as the air was pressed out of his lungs, and with his legs flailing as they left the ground, the artist held on with surprising vigour. As I saw the real pain in his eyes, I almost abandoned my plan then and there and leave him to his strange ritual. But I had seen the quality of the drawing that day, that it was indeed for the ages, and knew that it was my duty to save it.

Finally, as his fingers slid from the corner, I had the notebook fully in my hand. The top page on which he had drawn had creased in the struggle, but thankfully it had not torn. I clambered up the verge with as much haste as I could muster, while the brother held on firmly as the artist wriggled within his grasp. Looking briefly over my shoulder, I could see that he was suffering considerable distress as his day’s offering to the water spirit disappeared out of his sight, and it pained me to know that I was the immediate cause. Yet I had no choice, I felt, but to harden my heart to it, in order to improve this poor individual’s lot in the long term.

The following day, I returned to London with the drawing, and took it to show a friend of mine who ran a small gallery in Cork Street. He too, was not only impressed, but also deeply moved by the sheer power of the drawing. He immediately expressed a desire to represent the artist and drew up and signed a standard contract, which he earnestly requested that I present to him. I promised that I would endeavour to secure the signature of the artist’s brother, who was his full legal guardian. This meant that not only could he sign on his behalf, but was also the immediate receiver of any earnings from sales. There would be no option but to entrust him, should he accept the proposal, with ensuring the money was invested wisely and well. I myself was offered a modest finder’s fee, which I accepted, if only to cover the extra travel costs I now found myself incurring as I pursued this new undertaking. I would of course, have happily bankrupted myself in order to realise it, such was my total admiration of the man’s work.

Meanwhile, I chose not to sell my drawing to the dealer, but instead hung on to it, and, after selecting an appropriately simple card frame, gave it pride of place on the wall of my study. There it emanated a field of wellbeing, a thorough enrichment of my daily life, which I could sense even when I was not looking at it. Its mere presence was enough.

Once I had completed some business in London, I returned at the earliest opportunity to the obscure hamlet where the artist resided. There, after explaining the contract to his brother and acquiring his signature, I went down to the brook where the master had already begun his day’s work. Awkwardly, I apologised for the violence of the earlier day, and presented him with a set of artist’s crayons, along with a sketchbook of high-quality drawing paper. At first he did not acknowledge me directly, or even seem overtly aware of my presence, much less take my gifts. I took it upon myself, however, to make my own sketch on the first page of the book, using the crayons, and soon, as I expected, I had caught his eye. He studied what I was doing intently, as if his mind was absorbed in calculations that would reveal the potential of this mysterious new medium. I began to explain what I was doing as I worked, but there seemed to be no response or even recognition of my words. Only the marks on the paper agitated any expression.

Finally, I turned the page over and offered him the book, but could not persuade him to take it. I did, however, find that he would accept the crayons, if I were to offer them to him one by one. And so I passed them over individually, and he would apply subtle touches to his existing pen drawing with each shade. Some he passed back without using at all, immediately understanding that they would add nothing. The crayons he did use, however, he used expertly, grasping their qualities even as he held them in his hand. He applied them with the exact amount of pressure required, and at the angle needed in order to achieve the desired thickness of stroke.

Again, I dreaded the approaching end of the working day. The inevitable appearance of his brother over the verge made me feel sick, and I was seized by an intense desire to tell the artist to run. But I did not, and instead I repeated my role from before, and collaborated in the confiscation of his art. This I would do at exactly the same time over the next four days. I hoped that after a while the artist would come to expect it, and make the whole unfortunate business easier on myself, but sadly this was not to be. Each day it seemed to come as a surprise to him, and each day he struggled.

Returning to London, once having obtained the small batch of works my dealer friend had requested, I could not help but wish that the artist could be left alone for awhile, and pursue his strange ritual in peace. After all, any artist has a right to discard some of his work, at least. But a week later, I received a package from his brother. It contained a full week’s worth of drawings he had managed to seize by himself. I suspected that I would be receiving a similar package on a regular basis from that point on, and I was not wrong.

Meanwhile, the first works had gone on display in the gallery, on sale for a modest sum at first. The amount demanded for each work was quickly raised, however, as word spread around the capital about these strange but incredibly beautiful drawings, each superficially the same, but all so obviously different. Without my even having time to fully comprehend it, as my attention was drawn to other affairs, my friend found his gallery to be the unexpected host of a sensation. The works were being snapped up as fast as the artist’s brother could deliver them. Crucially, this was not, it seemed, because they were viewed as an investment, as is so often the case, but because once seen, those who could afford to felt compelled to purchase. It was as if they possessed some mysterious quality that answered a need in the viewer that, up until that point, none of them knew they had.

I was committed to business outside the country for a month. Yet even in the remote location I was obliged to travel to, news reached me of the excitement surrounding the gallery and its mysterious new talent. So that the artist could work peacefully, my dealer friend had given him a one word, two syllable pseudonym. While prices soared through the roof, magazine writers unsuccessfully tried to locate the source. Many members of the public claimed to recognise the location depicted, but all were proved wrong when no artist appeared at the places they named. Meanwhile, a major London show of the works was being planned, with a tour of major European and American cities to follow.

As for myself, although I knew for certain that by sharing these drawings with the world, I had enabled a great spiritual gift to be given, I was still uneasy about the violent method required to separate the art from the artist. Visions of his anguished face haunted my nocturnal thoughts, making sleep impossible. Yet surely, I reasoned, he must have adjusted to the process by now. Perhaps knowledge of the happiness he brought to others had filtered through, and the giving of the drawings was now a joyful business for him that enriched his previously barren existence. Perhaps, but then, perhaps not. Upon my return to England, I knew that I must visit him again, if only to try and allay my own troubled conscience.

What I found, there on the bank of the brook, offered me no comfort. His brother, already living in significantly improved circumstances, no longer bothered with the collection of the drawings himself. Instead, the job was now left to those I must describe as hired thugs: two smirking bullies, who performed their duties without sensitivity or respect. The artist, meanwhile, wore the same thin, ragged clothes he wore on the day I first met him, and his demeanour had grown pitiful. He looked grey from torment, and shook terribly as the end of the day drew near. His eyes were unbearably haunted with a terrible sadness. And it was with those eyes that, for the first time, he seemed to acknowledge my presence as I stood before him, dumbly watching as he was manhandled by men who were not fit to tie his shoe. My shame overwhelmed me, and though I had planned to stay for one more day, I had to leave then.

I fell into the most depressed state, appalled at my own instrumental part in this repeating tragedy I was now powerless to prevent. I did not leave my house for some weeks, and let my business affairs be handled by ungifted subordinates. And it was in my house, alone, hoping for some forgiveness from an undefined quarter, that I received the telephone call from the wretched brother. His hired goons had found the artist absent from his usual spot that evening, as they had arrived to perform their despicable task. Alarmed, they searched the area, to no immediate avail. Finally, hours later, they had found him. There he lay, in the water, further upstream, where it became shallow and thin, and the drawings used to form their little dam, in the days before. Now his body did the same, his arms caught on one bank, one of his legs on the other. They said that in his hand was his final drawing, rolled into a ball, slightly damaged but still basically intact. The brother wanted to know if it would sell for more than the others, considering its novelty, and of the likely rise in value of any unsold stock, now that the supply had been discontinued.

I put the phone down, and damned him to hell. I went to my study, which I had not dared to enter since my return, and looked at the wall, where the drawing I had seized an eternity ago still hung. It offered me no solace. Its power was lost. It was as dead as the hand that drew it, and I tore it from the wall in despair.

Following his death, the artist was soon forgotten, even by those who had felt compelled to purchase his work on sight not so long before, their possession having simply ceased to give them pleasure, one afternoon. His work now speaks to no one and sells for next to nothing. The brook remains unidentified and receives few visitors, except for myself. Having bought the house where the artist once lived from his brother, who made more than enough from the whole debacle to relocate to the city to follow his newfound greed, it is now I who stands there on the bank. Every day, I draw what I see before me, in my own clumsy way. My clothes are worn thin, my face already weathering from time and the elements. Although I find no value in them myself, I am careful not to allow any passing stranger to see my drawings. For who knows what they might see, somehow caught between the strokes of the pen.

I offer my gift to the brook. It takes it, and with it, my shame, for one day only. The same deal, I hope, will be reached tomorrow.

I climb the verge quickly, and cross the meadow.


  1. I thought this was terrific, with a timeless quality (perhaps the symmetry of the start and end gave it that) and an element of the adult stories of Roald Dahl (which I should say I mean as a compliment), or some master of psychological tension whose name escapes me. M.R. James without the spooks?

  2. Thanks John. Very kind of you to say so!

  3. Excellent story. I love the theme and structure, but perhaps most of all the brilliant tone of the narration. It has a real Edwardian feel to it.

  4. A delicate, thoughtful story. Sad, but beautiful. I'm so glad it was recommended to me.

  5. I enjoyed this. Loved the measured tone, the circular shape, the art-for-art's-sake message. Felt Russian, somehow, and brought Dorian Gray to mind. Haunting stuff...

  6. I very much like the way it reminds me of that old golden bough myth of the king-priest reigning until he's replaced by the person who kills him. Beautifully done.