Shades of December

by Austin Dowling


Ultan, a lonely man fosters strange fixations and Q-user was mine. I had been consulting Q, my trusted dating app, for anatomical research amongst other things when I discovered him. My winter deadlines took a backseat as I spent each evening tracing his profile from memory until my fingers threatened to fall off. ‘Q-user, 21’ read his username and I could not deny the image of my own flesh and blood. At that age, his father wore his skin awkwardly. He would tear at rolls of puppy fat instead of walking them away. But an artist never escapes his own skin.

Before I scrolled over Q-user, no Cork muse of mine had ever satisfied that veins-the-size-of-muscles aesthetic my trade demographic gobbles up. Pencil artists like me cut our teeth realising the physical aspirations of socially inept young men and Q-user was the monster I had spent my working life creating. This month I realised that fantasy was a mere five kilometres away and at midnight last night he looked right at me. Yet I could never muster up the courage to approach.

My father made a mute out of me, Ultan. When his wife passed, he had no idea what to do with his nervous eight-year-old so he bought him his first sketchpad, fitted a desk in his bedroom and prayed for the best. That son grew up with an intimate knowledge of superhero anatomies and a poor appreciation for the limitations of the real world. At the cusp of puberty I became convinced I would wake up one morning with sculpted muscles punctuated by bulging veins and win the heart of a woman crafted in the shape of an hourglass. Since you left him, Ultan, the sole connection that grown up boy has kept to civilisation has been his pencil. The landlady of his regular haunt has grown tired of asking him for an order. 

One these days he will find a response to her. 

One of these days he will order a pint.

My life is my art, Ultan and I hope to be dead before the last pub in this city closes its doors. A cigarette might never have brushed my lips but the beer gardens of Cork keep me alive. That smart-phone you bought me two Christmases ago left me without need for a working address so I’ve moved my office into the crow’s nest; a lively corner of Grand Parade from where I can watch the city crumble.

With a pencil in hand and my favourite seat won, life can be as toasty as if I were in our old bedsit. I sleep on the job and sometimes I wake with a pattern of lead decorating my face and I wonder why staff never tell me to leave. Commissions are rapid work without distractions, so I often spend my free evenings drawing oblivious strangers. I could never leave Cork now. As you know only too well, I have an appetite for suffering. My steady diet of slaughtered edifices and soggy pavements keeps my pay-checks incoming. 

Yesterday, at a few minutes to midnight, I was sat at a dark table struggling to perfect the shy fringe of Q-user’s new haircut and doing my best not to make eye contact with a barmaid from the seasonal intake when a poorly poured Heineken was planted unsteadily beside my page.

‘I’m aware you didn’t order anything’ the barmaid behind the phantom pint explained, ‘I just wanted to get a closer look’.

I returned to my drawing as I waited for her to leave. I sketch, I scroll and I stalk but I never speak. I haven’t had reason to share more than a few words with a soul since you shut the door of our Fiat Punto in my face two long years ago and boarded a plane to London, alone. 

‘He could be your son’ the barmaid suggested. I made an attempt at a laugh and refreshed his profile to check if he was any further away. 

150 metres.

The barmaid disappeared for a few moments and through the railings of the beer-garden I watched a gaggle of final years from the University approach the gates of Bishop Lucey Park where a haunted heron had found sanctuary in a frosted pond from the depths of the icy Lee. An elderly barman from the Deep South shooed them away from the barking creature and bought me no time to study their faces.

‘He can’t be far from here. Where would you guess he is?’ asked the barmaid, who had settled for a cigarette-break on an electric box behind my shoulder and blew inconsiderate levels of smoke into the back of my head. 

I shrugged and pointed in the direction of Cornmarket Street with my free hand as the other shaded my shaky attempt at his left ear. I pictured him queuing for a nightclub hand-in-hand with a half-interested girl and sweating through unreasonably light clothing for a midwinter’s evening. After a few more puffs of her cigarette, the barmaid fell quiet and I returned to my art.

43 metres.

I lied to you, Ultan. I wasted my youth denying myself in real life in order to live out my fantasies in my art. Q-user was the product of my delusion; a child brought into this world because I was too scared to live out the truth. Since his birth I’ve lived with the feeling he was out there, somewhere, but until last night I never had the courage to confront him. When you left me stranded in that airport car park two years ago without a key or a licensed driver to bring me home, it became clear to me that the most significant obstacle in my life has never been a lack of a voice, but of not knowing what to say. 

It did not fall on deaf ears when, before shutting the door, you stuck your head back in for your final two-cents, ‘It’s time somebody told you that your sexuality doesn’t make you a superhero’. 

You shook your head and grabbed your suitcase from the backseat, ‘There isn’t some alter ego inside you which you have to live in fear of. Try not to be miserable forever’.

But you were wrong, Ultan, I was born with a super-power. The one voice I mastered in my wasted youth was my art; the ability to construct unforgettable grim ‘n’ grit landscapes and convey superhuman despair in the eyes of inanimate characters and all using a set of colouring pencils from the local discount store. I would wager there are hundreds of repressed youths out there who thought their own existence a little more charming by comparison with the worlds I’ve created in my oeuvre.

‘He has your eyes’ the barmaid gushed, disturbing me from my sketch. No longer was she referring to Q-user’s profile or to my sketch. Beneath fairy-lights hung from the pub’s canopy stood a hooded man with creviced cheeks and an imposing set of eyebrows. The sleek hair of the woman he was entangled with arm-in-arm was twisted into a bun exposing her sheer and delicate cheeks to the midnight frost. The halt in their path seemed a surprise to her. Q-user’s eyes were set on the sporting highlights of the beer-garden’s flat-screen. I could hardly swallow their image so to be certain I glanced at my phone.

5 metres away.

Q-user had arrived. His free hand clutched his active android to his chinos.

‘That poor girl. I hope she isn’t sensitive. Q-user has some neck being on that app during a date’ the barmaid offered as an unwelcome opinion. I visualised her sneering as she took her last drag. How dare she use his name; it was my fantasy to break and no concern of hers. This was between me and my voice and if I could find it I could be Q-user’s salvation.

If I chose not to interfere they could depart as united as when they arrived. The temple of her head would come to rest on his shoulder and a timely release of her hair would drown his fur-rimmed hood. At the encouragement of her grip tightening around the arm of his coat, together they would fall further into the fog. By the time I would change my mind they would be as elusive as a cackle of sunshine at the dawn of a mist. Yet, I could be their salvation, a martyr for their inevitable misery.

My stalking had not gone unnoticed and once Q-user’s eyes met mine his partner looked upon my reddened and windswept face with the same concern one might offer an approaching drunk. There was no time for me to arrange my intentions into sentences, much less approach them to enunciate the finished product. Q-user and his worried partner vanished into the evening mist and jaywalked their way towards an Oliver Plunkett street flooded with nightclub queues and hungry rejects fighting their way through the fog for a solitary slice of pizza. Their only guide through the haze and my only hint at their location was Q-user’s android, with its torch at full capacity. I might have drawn Q-user more times than I could recall, but the shades of December had homogenised my view of the faces of every young man in the vicinity as if I had reached the climax of an inebriated blur. The only means I had to save my son from a life of misery was his ‘Q’ profile.

We were 85 metres apart.

His partner wouldn’t stray far from him following the sight of me so I allowed myself a few moments to realise my plan. The barmaid returned to her shift and I raised myself from my perch only to collapse into the shelter of the pub’s frosted window where the sapphire refractions from inside illuminated the most vivid rendition of Q-user from my collection. Using the flash of my camera, I snapped an over-lit copy of my sketch and sent it as my opening message. The app quickly informed me it had been seen. 

Ultan, that winter’s evening on Oliver Plunkett Street Q-user ceased to be. His profile vanished from the app entirely and I assumed it had been deleted. Whatever exchange I had initiated between my son and his partner with my well-timed message had done the trick. I decided to get away from the beer garden and I hoped I would bump into my son along the way. I spent the early hours truanting about the quay and contemplating the next thirty days’ worth of submissions I would have to rush if I were to keep myself in the green. 

When I arrived back at the pub the call for ‘last round’ had long since been uttered and their weary staff were becoming reacquainted with the cold wind served up from the Lee. My seat had been carried inside. I would have to find another late bar or a take-away where I could doze the early hours of the morning away. In the window where I had collapsed and finally found my voice, a chalk outline had seared its way into the frosted glass. A spectral impression had spent the morning hunched over an indistinguishable focus to the bewildered attention of those early to rise. 

Warm breath brushed the back of my neck. A young man of my height entered the beer garden in spite of the time of day and knelt to collect a number of pages discarded beneath where my seat had been fixed for the evening. He flicked through his findings; smiling intermittently. My son had returned.

‘I would buy you a drink’ he began, though he directed his words at my sketches instead of me, ‘Well, I would buy you a drink’ he repeated as he nodded his head towards the shutters. 

My son handed my drawings back to me and patted my shoulder as an injured sports-player might anoint his substitute. His father was not his father. His father was a strange loner who drew his portrait free of charge and lucked upon his profile when his muse left without a donation. His father was a melted anorak who couldn’t piece together a single sentence to convince his own flesh and blood how badly he wanted him to stay for a chat.

Ultan, an artist never mistakes his own skin.