FICTION: Sketching Sunsets by Alice Kouzmenko

Her

Most of the world is perceived through a blurred lens. Fathers see their daughters through tinted glass, tattooed with a set of too-strict rules and inflated expectations, scratched enough to impair their vision. Between Dad’s high hopes and my sister’s PhD, me and my sketching hobby didn’t stand a chance. My evenings were a chorus of “give it up already,” and “business seems a suitable way forward.” Lyrics I had memorised but never cared to sing myself. And, not too often (but just often enough), the melody would darken and the notes would deepen to: “you know your mother would have wanted you to get a degree, Chloe.” The line sounded after an extra finger of whisky or a beer can that could’ve remained in the fridge, giving him a buzz enough to haze both his vision and memory. For my mother did little other than encourage the artist in me, gifting secret sketchbooks and sneaking watercolours to my room.

You’d think that Dad would stop drinking after losing a wife to liver cancer, but the death (two years ago) had the opposite effect – his wine-stained slurs cut the funeral short. Smears of her lavender scented perfume (a bottle I discovered behind her shampoo collection) acted as a distraction that day, and have done ever since.

It’s people I draw the most. The crinkles by their eyes and the freckles dotting their neck. It took me a little longer to draw him though.

“Lavender,” it was a mumble, almost inaudible. Almost.

The boy leant against the opposite side of the tree trunk at which I sat – I could see no more than a shoulder of his. A boy around my age, one I had seen before but never cared to look at. Uninterested, I turned back around, put pencil to paper in an attempt to deafen the drunken afternoon slurs, those that greeted me when I got back from school and echoed even after the front door slammed. A Tuesday afternoon in late September – Dad claimed to be working from home. It was a lie as thick as the bank balances my sister transferred to us at the end of every month.

“The grass is damp,” he said.

“It’s England, what do you expect?”

The park was quintessential England: kids with white marble skin pushing each other off the swings rather than on them, the melody of the ice cream van providing background music no matter the weather.

“Do you come here often?” he asked, either oblivious to or ignoring my tone.

“I used to,” the briefer, the better.

“Why not anymore?”

“I don’t want to talk about it. I prefer sketching,” without turning my head, I tilted my sketchbook towards him in an act of demonstration.

“What do you draw?” Although his tone was level, his voice seemed jagged, as if it were seldom used.

“People.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why people?”

“Well-” it was a question I’d never gotten; a level of interest I’d never experienced. “Why does it matter?”

“I’m just curious. Why not animals, or buildings?”

My gaze crawled over to the children queued up for ice cream – carefree cheeks and sights free of any clouds other than those that dotted the sky.

“People are-” the creases of a single mother’s forehead, the multiple chins on the baker, “they’re real. Real stories, real struggles.”

“And a drawing captures that?”

“Well… you understand how people are feeling by looking at them. They smile when they’re happy. They frown when they’re frustrated.”

“You can get that from a lot more than just a look.” The words were a blunt end to the conversation, the pass of a ball I hadn’t been ready to catch.

“Where’ve you been?” Dad’s words were a tight embrace upon entrance. His eyes were enveloped in indigo bags. The insomnia was genetic.

“At the library.”

“They have wet chairs at the library, do they?”

“Sorry?”

“Your jeans are wet.”

“I stopped by the park,” the words made him flinch. We’d made an unspoken vow to stop visiting Mum’s favourite place after she died. She’d sprinkled parts of herself over the grass, rooted her spirit into the soil. It was the ultimate reminder of who she’d been.

“Chloe,” his hand burned my arm, “you know your exams are coming up soon. I want you to go to a good university.”

“Dad, we haven’t got the money.”

“Your sister will help out; we’ll get you a student loan. You need this, Chloe.”

“I don’t-”

“When are you going to stop acting so selfish?” His eyes were daggers; blades I couldn’t look at.

So I drew them instead. Sharpened pencils poked holes through sketchbook pages, blunter tips shaded lines that thickened with the smudges of my tears. Those that spiralled down when every portrait turned into one of my mother, yet another to add to the collection. The same drops that stained my cheeks as I turned up the volume of the evening news to hear there’d been a hit and run in the area (one child dead) and wondering why him. Why the nine-year-old with the scruffy blonde hair and hi-top trainers? Why my mother with her full moon face and freckled shoulders? Why them, and why not me?

“Did you hear about the hit and run?” I asked him three days later – Friday afternoon. We each kept to our side of the same tree, facing opposite directions.

“It’s all anyone is talking about.”

“I don’t get it. I don’t understand how anyone could live with the guilt of leaving someone behind like that.”

“It’s easy for some.”

“They’re a coward, whoever they are.”

“So are a lot of people these days.” The hoarseness of his voice was hidden beneath the vagueness of his words.

“What’s your name, anyway?” I turned my head just enough to catch his figure out of the corner of my eye, expecting him to do the same. He didn’t – as if putting a face to a name wasn’t what mattered.

“Luke. Yours?”

“Chloe.”

Days morphed into weeks, small talk grew into real talk. I came to the park after him and left before and, somehow, the curiosity to see his face faded. It wasn’t about that.

“Favourite dessert?” I asked him on an afternoon that should’ve been spent unravelling maths problems or conquering a science presentation.

“Cheesecake with blueberries on top. You?”

“Anything with fudge. Double, preferably. Your go.”

“Alright… favourite memory?”

I paused, couldn’t choose – not because there were a handful of prominent ones to pick from, but because I was deciding just how honest I should be.

“It was my sister’s thirteenth birthday. I was seven at the time. It was after dinner and her friends had just left but, naturally, her and I wanted to keep celebrating. We were really close when we were younger.”

“You’re not anymore?”

“Well, she’s off doing great things with her life. She’s sort of gotten bigger and better while I’ve stayed as I am,” another pause, one in which I tried to swallow the constant feeling of inferiority – one that never went down. “So we packed up the leftover chocolate cake, left our parents a note on the kitchen counter daring them to find us and ran to this very park. We hid under the slide of that playground and giggled like you would expect little girls to.”

“How long did it take your parents to find you?”

“Not more than ten minutes, despite us thinking we were so big and clever. They brought a picnic mat and a tub of mum’s homemade vanilla ice cream and we stuffed ourselves silly.”

“They weren’t angry you’d run away?”

“Not at all. We were four kids that night – Dad got stuck in the slide, Mum literally collapsed from how hard she was laughing, my sister and I prancing around them like woodland creatures. I think it’s the happiest we’ve ever been.”

“Are you close to your parents?”

“My mum died a couple of years ago, and my dad hasn’t been the same since,” the answer was rehearsed, a phrase used a thousand times.

“What made you come back to this park, Chloe?”

“It’s my last year of school, so I thought this would be a great place to procrastinate all my important decisions. Are you thinking of university?”

“I’m not sure it’s for me.”

“Me neither. But Dad’s desperate for me to get a degree, something that’ll look flashy, thinks it’ll solve all of our problems.”

“What do you actually want to do?”

“I don’t mind the idea of business, but I think I’d be better doing something more creative.”

“I take it your dad isn’t a fan of the sketching.”

“He’s not a fan of anything that reminds him of Mum. He rips up the drawings because of the memories they bring back, I think. That’s why he drinks too – to try and forget. I’ve spent the past two years thinking I hated him, but I actually feel sorry for him. Because as much as I lost a mother-”

“He lost a wife,” he stole the words from my lips.

“Are your parents together still?”

“I’ve got no idea; I’ve never known them.”

“Did they die?”

“They left me.”

The silence was palpable. Maybe because it was far from silent – my breaths dense, my heartbeat heavy, synchronised with his.

“Where do you live?”

“Foster home down the street.”

“Luke, I-”

“You don’t need to say anything.”

“Good, I was just about to tell you I don’t know what to say.”

Our mutual giggle was the most inappropriate and appropriate thing to have happened.

“Do you have the time?” He asked.

“Half six.”

“It’ll be getting dark soon.”

“Looks like the sunset will be nice tonight.”

His lack of a reply didn’t faze me. The actual reply, when it came, did.

“Will you describe it to me?”

With that, he shattered our invisible boundary and inched over to my side of the tree, face exposed but eyes not, hidden behind sunglasses. My arms numbed as he pulled around his white cane – his lifeline, yet an object I’d never even cared to spot. Infinite words and no words at all strangled me. A moment that clarified the whole “hit and run” concept. Running is a risk I would’ve taken.

“You’re-”

“Deaf,” I forced a laugh and then cursed myself for thanking God he couldn’t see the superficial smile through which I faked the feeling. “Chloe,”

“I’m sorry, I-”

“Is the sun setting yet?”

“It’s getting there.”

“Will you tell me about it?”

I find it difficult to believe that a deep breath can ready anyone for something they’re unprepared to do. I took one anyway. “Alright, let me try this. Okay, think fire. Not quite getting burnt, more the second before it kicks in. The heat’s not yet scorching, but your skin just starts to tingle. Think taking a bath in warm vanilla, having it coat you like paint. Think maple syrup – you know the one you dribble over your pancakes?” I paused not to let him nod, but to watch the memory seep over his face as he did so. “And not just the sweetness, the consistency. Imagine someone pouring that over you, imagine getting it in your nose, in your belly button.”

“Thank you, Chloe.”

“Wait, I’ve got another one – think how you crave cold milk after you’ve eaten something super spicy. A freshness, but it doesn’t steal away every last bit of heat.”

“Do you like spicy food?”

“Curry’s my favourite.”

“Mine too,” he kept his tongue on his lips as he smiled.

“Have you had dinner yet?”

And it was there, at a sunset-stained metal table with crooked legs, where I asked, with fiery breath, if I could draw him. Our laughs were spicy, our fingers powdery as we tore apart pieces of Naan bread.

“Why me?”

“Because you deserve the attention you never got.”

“I’m not interesting enough to be drawn.”

“That’s for the artist to decide.”

“If you-”

“Please, Luke.”

“If you promise to tell me about it afterwards.”

 

Him

It’s funny how people attempt to understand another’s life. They search for clues, ways to sympathise, leaping to misconceived conclusions. My life is a series of stereotypes people pin on my back like a childhood game of “pin the tail on the donkey.” It’s a game that always tasted bittersweet, one that teased me with the prospect that every other child could step into my shoes. A feeling that was robbed the second they were allowed to take their blindfold off, a reminder that mine was permanent. The diagnosis (just after I turned one) slapped me in the face and poked me in both eyes – not completely blind, but pretty much as close as you can get. I don’t remember at what point my parents chose to leave me, at what point I was expelled from an orphanage for normal children and enrolled in a school for the disabled. I don’t remember the point at which the memories morphed into stories people would tell me about my past, those I’d swallow with gullibility, wanting to believe that my life was important enough to tell stories about.

One of my teachers took me to the park when I was younger, even pushed me on the swings and squeezed my hand down the slide. It’s less of a memory and more of a milestone, an outing that saved my lungs from closing up. When it was deemed safe enough and I was considered old enough (eighteen), I began going alone, choosing a single spot to make my own. The knots of the tree trunk massaged those buried deep into my back, the kids’ distant echoes reminders of happier lives. In an attempt to escape my own existence, I’d invent stories about others’. Drifts of black coffee were accompanied by business talk, men whose days were saturated with meetings, whose evenings were spent battling to be fathers instead of employees. There were multiple types of teenagers: those conversing about their homework assignments (teachers’ pets competing for a framed certificate), and those whose speech was deafened by rap music, whose words were lost in clouds of smoke (cigarette or otherwise).

She was different. Not so typical, perhaps, a box that hadn’t yet been ticked, a story I wasn’t sure how to write. I tasted the lavender the second she sat down, her broken breaths indicated she’d been running (away?). She hadn’t passed in front of me, her footsteps, words and pencil sketches all beats from behind.

“Do you come here often?” I asked, recognising, but ignoring, her lack of interest. For her presence was tangible and, despite never having seen a ruler, I could tell her perfume lingered mere centimetres away. For she was born in another world, one in which people weren’t defined by their diagnosis, one without censored conversations or scrutinised disabilities. It was a normality I craved.

“I used to,” a hesitation.

A hesitation that could indicate she’d left town for a while. Not impossible, but not probable, for the town was not one people left. And if they were lucky enough to leave, they wouldn’t choose to come back. She hadn’t left town, then, but avoided the park because there was no longer a reason to visit. Maybe someone had brought her here when she was younger. Maybe that person wasn’t around anymore.

The conversation was not one of great length, depth or interest, but it was one I remembered.

My life consists of constants. Routines that are seldom broken – the same eight-am alarm with Braille buttons, the same soggy cornflake breakfast swallowed in a cafeteria of assigned seats (everyone memorises the steps towards their own), the same thick sugar smell from the ice cream van, never parked far from the tree. It’s a scent that’s almost tangible. A passer-by wouldn’t notice a difference, wouldn’t think twice about the soapy odour that coated the van that autumn afternoon. For me, however, the smell was undried paint – toxic. Not the lingering remains of a much-needed car wash, but an attempt to mask an act of some kind. To accompany the fragrance, the driver spoke a little louder than usual, his “which ice cream would you like, my dear?” or “that’ll be fifty pence please, love” underlined with a superficiality, a voice one uses to persuade of a friendliness they do not possess.

Stress is an emotion detectable without any form of sight. It’s the constant cracking of knuckles and the breaths that penetrate both lungs. Hers tasted urgent.

“What’s the matter?” I asked when the flavour burnt my tongue.

“Nothing.” I may have little to no experience with girls, but I know a lie when I hear one.

“You seem a little stressed.”

“Well, aren’t you? I’ve got a history essay, a chemistry lab report, a maths test next Friday and, as if that wasn’t enough, an English book I can’t even begin to understand.”

I wanted to tell her. I almost did, almost took back the ‘foster home’ lie and explained the simultaneous school and orphanage situation. The place where every teacher was a substitute for a parent, thus unable to fulfil either job to the best of their ability. The place where homework is overpowered by the loneliness that plasters the walls, ceilings and floors. Almost doesn’t count for much.

“What book is it?”

“The Picture of Dorian Gray. It’s driving me insane.”

“I’m sure that’s what Wilde would’ve wanted.”

“Have you read it?”

“It’s one of my favourites,” I neglected to mention that the majority was read aloud to me, and the rest was read in Braille, “it was written over one hundred years ago, and every theme is just as relevant today, if not more so.”

“Like what?”

“Like how superficial society is. Our obsession with physical beauty and attractiveness, how much we rely on appearances to get around.”

“Will you write my essay for me?”

A joke, but a suggestion I wouldn’t have minded. “Out of all the books you could’ve been assigned, this one’s not the worst. I take it you don’t read a lot.”

“I loved reading when I was younger, when I could actually choose the books I wanted to read. Now it’s all about the works that other people consider classics. I take it you’re a bookworm, then.”

“You could call me that. But I read more for characters than anything else. A book’s good if it’s got authentic and believable people in it. Making up characters is actually one of my favourite things to do. Do you do that? Take little details about people and create entire background stories for them?”

“Of course, I love people watching. Anywhere – train stations, supermarkets, playgrounds. That’s one of the reasons I love coming here, to draw the people I see.”

Wilde must have had a time machine, must have travelled far into the future to experience the madness of a world that cannot scratch beneath the surface, cannot read between the lines that are printed or see through gaps in brick wall cement.

“Looks like they caught him, by the way,” she said.

“Caught who?”

“The driver, the one that killed that kid. It was the ice cream van guy; can you believe it? Gave the boy a concussion and then had the nerve to come back and serve cones to his friends.”

“How did they know it was him?”

“I’m not sure if anyone reported it, but they found some blood on the wheels of his car. It matched the kid’s.”

Seems like soapy water wasn’t strong enough to wash away his sins.

I’ve never seen a sunset, and I’m not naïve enough to hold onto the hope that I ever will. But, after her description, the curry tasted like twilight – a flavour no amount of mouthwash would ever remove.

“What’s it like?” she asked through a mouthful of food.

“What’s what like?”

“Being blind.”

“It’s normal. It’s all I’ve ever known.”

“Do you ever wish you could see?”

“Of course I’m curious. I’d love to know what I look like, what you look like, or even what colour this curry is. But at the same time, it kind of gives me a chance to notice other things. I might not know what I look like, but I’ve felt the bumps on my elbows and the skin on my ears. I can’t picture the curry, but I can tell you all about its smell, texture and taste. Same with the park. There are perks. My experiences might be different, but they’re no more or less than anyone else’s.”

“What about me?”

“Well, I get to imagine you too. I can create a picture of you based on the depth of your voice or the size of your hands.”

“How do you know the size of my hands?”

“Will you let me find out?”

“Big or small?”

“Small,” I said. No hesitation.

“How did you know?” Her fingers tiptoed towards mine, our palms magnets. A lot can be said in a touch. We spoke galaxies with ours.

“Call it a fifth sense.”

“Guess what?”

“You like my necklace,” I remember being told that a wink was when someone closed one eye. Winking must’ve been a habit of hers, for every other phrase deserved one.

“What kind of necklace is it?”

“It’s a gold frog – lots of curves and pointed edges. But actually, what?”

“My school is looking for an art assistant,” I’d collected enough courage to explain my schooling situation to her, “what do you think?”

“About what?”

“About doing it?”

“Me? I think I’m nowhere near qualified to teach.”

“It’s not teaching so much as guiding, helping us find other ways to express ourselves, entertaining ways.”

“Luke.”

“Will you at least give it a try? You get paid, you know,” I couldn’t imagine her face, but I felt her stare lightening up somewhat, “besides, I’ve already suggested you and gotten everyone excited.”

“They got excited?”

“They did. They’re all curious about who’s been putting such a smile on my face.”

It’s funny how one can spend months pondering a decision that is made within a matter of seconds. Chloe applied to study business, adopting what she called a “practical approach” to her future, whilst also working at the school, both to fund her studies and satisfy her creativity. Part-time student, part-time art assistant, full-time friend. I like to think that my presence influenced her choice, but maybe that’s part of the fictional world I’ve moulded around her. I stayed on at the school too, working with the younger, newer entrants – those that still regarded their disabilities with bitterness, blind (literally) to the opportunities that were sprinkled before them. I made it my business to open their eyes, reading them novels and teaching them the art of observation without sight.

“I finished that drawing of you, by the way.”

“Took you long enough.”

“Do you want to have a look?”

“Have you made me handsome?”

“I had to be realistic.”

“Funny. Come on, what’s it really like?”

“Your nose has a freckle on the end, and you’ve got permanent dimples in your cheeks.”

“Dimples?”

“Yeah, like dents by the sides of your lips. Most people get them when they smile, but yours are sort of always there.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“They’re cute, yeah. And you’ve got a sharp jaw, like a knife blade. What else? Your eyebrows are angled, imagine bending that same knife blade, just enough to change the shape but not enough to snap the metal. And I added something… I drew your eyes.”

“But you haven’t seen my eyes.”

“Well I drew their shape, an outline like a seed or an almond. But inside, where the pupil would usually be, I drew a sunset.”

“Like the one you watched the other day?”

Most people don’t realise that even smiles cannot be silent.

“Like the one we watched the other day.”

alice

From an age of just single digits, Alice Kouzmenko has pencilled and published stories. It is a passion that, combined with her love of reading, has propelled her through her teenage years, encouraging participation in various creative writing contests, including the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Now, at the tender yet exhilarating age of eighteen, Alice will be entering university to study English Literature and Creative Writing. Her dreams of publishing a full-length novel have not yet faded, and instead burn brighter with every word written.

black tree

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