Sometime in the early month of May, in this present year of our Lord, the brilliant reclusive artist who resided at #27 Dan Wilson Street completed his long awaited masterpiece.
It had taken him more than two and a half years to finish it. That was two and a half years of blood, sweat, loneliness and absolute solitude. For two and a half years he had locked himself up in his little studio behind his house staring at his wide plain canvas all night and day, neither going out to see his numerous friends nor wishing to be seen or heard from by them or by well wishers or even his family … except for his Cheshire cat, Thom.
He never came out much during this time – except for crossing the street during the evenings towards the roadside sellers to buy cooked food, oranges and kola-nuts. During this time he seldom went out to the market either but stayed indoors swallowing cups of coffee and eating large amounts of junk food, which he prepared for himself. He lost a few pounds because of this but still he wasn’t bothered. His recent girlfriend after much fuss, fits and complaints had walked out on him into the hungry waiting arms of his neighbour next-door, but even that never bothered him. Not one bit.
Though his eccentricities wasn’t a new thing. Even when he wasn’t working he still kept to himself, never getting involved with people’s arguments, quarrels or thoughts, even if they invited him to, though he never refrained from buying them palm wine drinks whenever they asked. Yes, he did smile and laughed at their crude jokes even when they were directed at him but he seldom involved himself with them; and when he spoke, his words were soft and few. Time and time again they tried to indulge themselves unto him without much result. He would at times become unusually quiet and distant. Still they loved and worshiped him for whom he was, but deep inside, they feared him. No one around ever thought about picking a quarrel with him – for what reason would they?
Indeed, everyone in the village knew of his persistent seclusion whenever he sat down to begin a new painting, which was quite often … but this time it had been too much for them to bear.
On the street corners, in the marketplace and roadside eating/drinking spots, all the villagers talked about was him. They whispered of him, argued about him, recalled past tales and chance encounters with him and in the end laughed about him. It wasn’t long before one could barely separate what was truth and what was rumour. And why should they – after all, he was their favourite neighbour, their number one icon; the one person they wished their wayward sons would emulate and become and whom their supple daughters would hopefully one day marry, that’s if the good Lord so wished it.
“I hear that he has gone mad … utterly and completely!”
“My God, will you please keep quiet! You’re always over hearing nonsense.”
“You who’s talking, what do you know besides drowning your mouth in a beer bottle.”
“What I heard was his painting got the best of him so he locked himself up the other night and slit both his wrist.”
“That what you heard? I heard he opened his throat – ear to ear…”
“Well, that wasn’t what I heard. I hear he’s working on something much bigger and greater than his previous works …”
And on and on the rumours travelled like an ageless nursery rhyme, sweeping all over the village, infecting all whom had an ear or two to listen.
Day and night they stood watching from across the street, balconies and opened windows; drinking beer, cracking dry jokes, swapping stale gossips and reading old newspapers, watching and waiting anxiously to be among the first to see his studio doors creak open. Their doubts had slowly begun to evolve into fear till one of them – though till today nobody could actually recall whom – stood up and approached his back gate, followed by several others.
Silently they crept across his littered backyard like thieves and pressed their nose against his studio’s dirt-stained windows. A heavy sigh of relief came off their breaths as they were once more happy again when they recognised the artist, naked from the waist up, standing with his back towards them, a palette in his left hand while his other swished a paintbrush across a wide canvas in front of him while Thom, his cat, purred by his feet. They stood there for a long time, talking and whispering excitedly amongst themselves till finally the artist came out and rudely told them to leave. Distraught though they were, never the less they left with a much warmer heart and mind.
The next day had brought a new sunshine into the village. Everybody, from the newspaper vendors, to the bar tenders, to the Reverend Father who presided over the Catholic church in the village, to the roadside food sellers, to the ragged winos and drunks sitting by the gutters, to the ever grumbling postman, to the little kids going to school and the young lads playing football by the sand field all day. They were all very nice, polite and bright to each other and it could be said that throughout that week, nobody exchanged so much as an angry word, threat, or malicious glance at each other. The artist was alive and kicking behind his work and that was all that mattered to them.
The next item on everybody’s mind was about his upcoming work: was he through with it or not? And if not, when? What was on it? How beautiful was it? Did he intend on selling it, or sending it to one of those profitable Art houses in the city, or was he keeping it for himself? Or if indeed he was going to sell it, then how much would it cost … and could either of them afford it?
Abstract guesses and rough estimates were made but before that, the final question was asked: had anybody actually seen the painting? Few stood up and bragged that they had but neither one’s description tallied with the other, thus it was hard to know whom to believe. But still at night, they all secretly dreamed of possessing it.
The fishermen down by the harbour all day thought about how much quantity of fish they would have to catch for it. At night the market women dreamed about how many yards of wrappers, clothes, or quantities of food stuffs they could sell for the upcoming weeks to afford it; others began cajoling their husbands with sweet words and sultry promises about purchasing it while the young ladies desperately pleaded with their boyfriends and older lovers about wanting it as a special gift for their upcoming birthday present. Some of the men began cutting down on their late afternoon drinks and other regular frivolities just to save money for it with the silly excuse that they were trying to cut down for their children’s sake. House rents suddenly doubled; debtors began hiding themselves away. Relationships, which were once ripe, all of sudden grew sour and fights and quarrels occurred almost every week.
It was sometime in the early evening on the second week of May that the artist finally dropped his brushes, palette and paints, changed his clothes and walked out his gate. A heavy rain had fallen the night before and the streets still bore much evidence of it. People walking along the street immediately stopped and stared at him with awe. He looked just as young and handsome and vibrant as the last time they saw him – like he had all the while sneaked off to a lush Caribbean island for a little fun and sun. He said a few hellos and waved at them before heading for his destination; some of them who weren’t busy doing anything decided to follow him.
He walked over past the small fishing harbour to Aliwu’s bar/restaurant, which overlooked the sand field area. Everyone, including the proprietor, Aliwu, was just as happy and surprised to see him, and he and his workmen welcomed him as if he were a crowned prince. He immediately set up a table for him at the end of the room and served him himself. The artist ate his meal in silence after which he relaxed himself and ordered for some palm-wine while several of the people whom were in the restaurant and others standing outside by the windows watched him. After paying for his meal, the painter shook hands with Aliwu and walked past the large crowd and headed for the park where he boarded a taxi heading for the city.
The rest of the day was ripe with talk and gossip. First off much of the people were upset and angry at how the artist had treated them. They had yelled his name, slapped his shoulders and smiled at him, but rather than acknowledge them he had simply shrugged off their embrace and stared at them as if they weren’t there while he walked away, leaving them standing there on the road like lonesome beggars.
Even Aliwu had added his own share into the brewing pot. He spoke with a grumpy look on his face (and a glowing touch of hidden pride and self-esteem in his heart since he was for the moment being the main focus of attention in the midst of a growing gossip mob) about how the artist had refused to tip his bill as he often did on numerous occasions but had instead complained to him that his fish hadn’t been well prepared.
This was all a total lie but neither of the village folks knew and they eagerly accepted it. Though some of them did have their doubts about everything but they were too few and weak-mouthed to speak out. By sundown the news had spread to the other end of the village and the old folks all folded their arms, shook their heads and wondered.
Excerpt from: The Artist at Work.