Janek watched the screen light up as he unlocked his phone. I will look now. The list would be a source of instant pain or pleasure. Part of him was reluctant to see it. He could remain, sitting on the bench on the pavement, feeding his half-eaten dim sum to the expectant pigeon. Or he could find out. It’s all right, he said to himself. Just another rejection on the pile. Nothing to worry about.
A pain thudded in his stomach as he clicked on the link. It was a long list, and it took a few minutes to read the names. And reread. Scan again. Disbelief. No mention of Janek Gorski. The painting had taken six months. Each night, he had worked until midnight after returning from work at the art shop. His eyes had ached with fatigue and his legs had almost buckled at times, but he had steeled himself. I can’t, he thought, I can’t keep doing this to myself.
The pigeon’s throat swelled with the mass of dim sum, then flattened out. For a moment, he was transfixed by the emerald patterns on its feathers. He stood and walked to the tram stop. Manifest, I must manifest what I want. I am a finalist. I have won the prize. I have completed two hundred paintings.
He pressed his earphones in to listen to the affirmations disguised as New Age music, the electronic harp tumbling into his cranium. He had been playing it for weeks to program his brain for success. It was time to go to work.
Half an hour later, he stood in the canvas-stretching department, staple gun in hand. Customers seemed more interested in the cheap Chinese canvases stacked near the entrance with a sale sign attached. He thrummed his fingers on the workbench, eye on the clock.
Although he had known about the law of attraction for twenty years, he had not tried it with any consistency. He had reasoned that a New Age trick, as appealing as it sounded, was unnecessary for someone with his talents. There was another factor. Underachieving felt comfortable, like an old coat. He was not sure he would be able to handle larger success.
Siri had told him about the law of attraction when he had met her in Italy. She was an Amazonian Dutch girl, with enough self-confidence for them both.
‘You are a fascinating man, Janek. Just remember, there is nothing you cannot be, do, or have.’
She flicked her straw-coloured hair over one shoulder and adjusted a bikini of miniscule proportions. Janek glimpsed a fuzz of pale pubic hair at the edges. He drank her in, his eyes hidden behind large mirrored sunglasses. Her skin had tanned mahogany, and shone with perspiration as she adjusted her position on the deck chair. Beneath them, his feet absorbed the heat of round grey stones.
In the following weeks they shared knowledge. Janek told her about his interest in the Tao and Zen Buddhism. She explained with great patience that whilst she respected Eastern traditions, manifestation was more powerful.
‘Until three years ago, I lived in a squat with an abusive man in the worst part of Rotterdam. I decided I’d had enough. Years before, I had read a book about manifestation. Every day I visualized myself in a comfortable flat, with a job in a bookshop. It happened and I haven’t looked back.’
Janek gave a wry smile. ‘Did you manifest me?’
He poked her in the ribs and rolled on top of her, stroking her hair away from her face. They were sprawled on a narrow bed in a room the size of a bathroom. The hotel was seedy and inexpensive. Acid-yellow sunlight dappled the threadbare sheets.
Her face was solemn. ‘I did. I felt the need for some sex and so I conjured it up. Clever, no?’
When he thought of Siri these days, it gave him an erection. He did not confide this fact in Rosalie. He had met his girlfriend at a poetry reading in Smith Street. She was a petite journalist, with glossy dark hair, pale flawless skin, and a studious manner. Within weeks, she assumed the job of caring for him. She was old-fashioned—obsessed with honoring her word and ideas of loyalty. To his questioning eyes she shrugged and murmured something about her Italian parentage.
Her vegan meals were delicious—lentil stews flavored with cumin, and quinoa and pumpkin salads. Even so, he often craved a bloodied hunk of steak. Not wishing to offend, he kept this to himself.
As he leaned against the workbench, his mind felt light and suspended. Then the idea struck. He could experiment with the law of attraction in a less threatening way. A blue flower. He would imagine finding a blue flower, picking it up, and stroking the downy petals with his long fingers. His amber rings glinting gold in the light.
For the next two weeks he practiced the visualization each morning before work. It became vivid with the smell of nearby restaurants and the roar of passing traffic. He began to believe it. Rosalie came to stay for a few days, and he was distracted. The sheets on his mattress were grimy—he had forgotten to sweep the polished concrete floor. Lids had been left off the turpentine and mediums, and the former warehouse was heady with fumes. His girlfriend began to set things right. Her nose wrinkled at the sheets as she peeled them away from the mattress, and she hastily opened windows. The metal hinges screeched as she wound the handles. Janek knew he was expected to clean the kitchen in preparation for a vegan cooking frenzy.
Over the weekend they lay entwined on the laundered sheets. They watched old movies on her laptop in between delirious sex. A deadline came up and she was gone. Making her exit, she pressed her lips hard on his and he could feel her teeth.
He shrugged on his battered leather jacket and half-ran down the stairs, taking them two at a time. It was late afternoon, and the streets hummed with traffic as people made their way back to the suburbs. Inhaling the waft of Middle Eastern cooking and exhaust fumes, he walked without purpose.
Absorbed in his thoughts, he did not see the man with the blue singlet and monstrous biceps – he collided with the hard muscle of his arm and trod on his foot.
‘Watch where you’re going—bloody moron.’
Janek nodded dumbly as the man shoved him aside, staring back as he lurched away. On his upper arm was a large tattoo of a teal blue flower, its intricate petals curving around his bicep. I did it, he thought, I made it happen. Turning around and shaking his head in wonderment, he made his way back to the flat.
He hurtled up the stairs and unlocked the door, stumbling towards his mattress. What do I want now? Just one more small experiment and then I’ll go for the jugular. He chuckled to himself as he imagined his next desire. He and Rosalie had made a bet. If she could not abstain from drinking for six months, she had promised to cook him a steak. He began to visualize it—a big fillet steak oozing blood. It would be a challenge, as she would not even use a saucepan that had touched an animal product. For the next hour he constructed its image—sitting in the middle of a plate with a blue striped border.
It took a week. Rosalie turned up on a Friday night with a resigned expression. Her face was drained of colour. In her right hand she held a green bag. She pushed past him and dropped it on the kitchen bench. Unpacking its contents, she pulled out something wrapped in butcher paper, a surgical mask, and rubber gloves. Her dark eyes shot him a look.
‘You have won the bet.’ Her voice was low and tight.
He watched her with growing unease. She put on the mask, the elastic snapping against the back of her head, and pulled on the rubber gloves. Taking down a saucepan from a hook, she turned on the gas stove. Her hands shook as she unwrapped the steak and placed it in the saucepan.
He stepped forward and placed his hand on her forearm. ‘You don’t have to do this, Rosalie. I can cook it myself.’
She mumbled something, but it was distorted by the mask.
As the fatty smells emanated from the meat, he frowned as she began to cough and dry retch, turning her head away from the stove as she flipped over the steak with a metal spatula.
He strode over. ‘Rosalie, please stop. I can’t bear to see you like this. Let me have that.’ He tried to take the spatula from her hand.
Tears streamed from the corners of her eyes and a strangulated sound came from her throat. She ripped off the mask and seized her handbag.
‘Have to go. Sorry.’
‘Are you all right?’
But she was already out the door, her footfalls echoing on the stairs.
How awful, he thought, I shouldn’t have done that. He sat down at the bench and devoured the steak.
That night, lying on his mattress, he imagined being taken on by Novo Space, one of the best galleries in Melbourne. Two hundred people would attend his opening, and his works would sell out overnight. He saw his face on the cover of Art Australia magazine with a title in capitals—’Janek Gorski—Painting’s Rising Star.’
Before it could come to pass, he was called into Monument Gallery, where he had several works. He had been instructed to take them away as there had not been any interest. As he made his way to the small office at the back, he felt like shielding his eyes from the other paintings. Nudes in lurid colours, blocky still lifes, and corny slogans jostled for space on the white walls. Derivative rubbish, he muttered to himself.
‘I’m sorry, Janek, no one even inquired. I think you need to review your prices.’ The gallery director tapped on her keyboard as she spoke, her glasses perched on her nose. The phone rang, the ring tone reverberating in the cramped space.
‘Do you mind if I get this? I have a delivery coming.’
He received the call the next day.
It was Robert Goldsmith—the Director of Novo Space. He explained that after viewing his website, they had decided to represent him. His work was ‘the perfect expression of the postmodern zeitgeist.’
Janek was stunned. For most of his life he had imagined the moment, but when it happened, he felt oddly flat. His heart began to pound, and when he looked down at his hands, they trembled with violence. Shoving them in his pockets he began to pace his flat.
Two weeks later he found himself in a photographer’s studio, being prepped for a headshot. He was to be featured in Art Australia magazine. He sweated and shook throughout the photo shoot—an assistant rushed over every few minutes to powder his face.
The opening was overwhelming. He pressed hands, air-kissed, explained his work as best he could, and watched with amazement as his paintings gathered red stickers. Several times he escaped to the bathroom and locked himself in a cubicle, cradling his face in his hands.
His new psychiatrist prescribed an anti-anxiety drug, reassuring him his symptoms were not unusual. Overnight fame was traumatic for many people. He visited her every week, trying to fight back the waves of tears washing through him like emotive tsunamis.
Success meant a renovated terrace house in Carlton with Rosalie. Lying together in their Italian bed resembling an upholstered spaceship, he started to shake again and could not stop. Cold sweat formed a clammy layer on his skin. His breath was ragged, and he could not get enough air into his lungs. He needed his old coat, and he visualized with clarity and vivid detail. A converted warehouse, a mattress on a sturdy base with four legs, and a second-rate gallery that managed to sell some of his paintings. His breath slowed, and he tumbled into the embrace of sleep.
Kate Murdoch exhibited widely as a painter before turning her hand to writing. In between writing historical fiction, she enjoys writing short stories and flash fiction.
Kate studied Professional Writing and Editing at Swinburne University, and has completed short courses in creative writing at RMIT (Melbourne, Australia.) She is currently writing The Orange Grove, a novel about the passions and intrigues of court mistresses in eighteenth-century France.
Kate’s novel Stone Circle was on the HarperCollins website, Authonomy, and was selected by the HarperCollins editors as ‘One to Watch’. More of her stories can be found at https://kabiba.wordpress.com.