Peter van Straten Art by Peter van Straten


Serge had made a mistake. Because of some dreadful wrong turn in the maze that was his world view, he had somehow convinced himself that art made for money was art corrupted. Dirty art. He stood dead still in the chaos of his studio, his long hands framing his ashen face, and wondered how on earth he could have wandered so far off Truth’s beaten path without noticing. An error in judgement as fundamental as this, he thought as he started to pace, corrupted not only the mind, but the heart as well. Rage and self-loathing were building inside him like cumulus cancer. In a daze of stunned disbelief he paced about the studio until his gaze fell on a wooden mallet, half submerged beneath plaster bits and dust at the feet of an uncompleted angel.

He had stripped himself of empathy, and now, by God, thought Serge, he was going to pay.

He picked up the mallet, and gazing right through it – eyes lost to thought – wiped the white dust off its square, weighty head.

Conceited idiot that he was he had judged money to be the most loathsome motivator for an artist. That was his mistake, and due to this insanity he had actually been sitting in judgement on his fellow artists. But the truth – so startlingly clear to him now – was that money was the only pure motivation there was! Money was clean because it was a necessity! In a moment of uncanny cinematographic synchronocity the morning sun cleared the neighbour’s garage roof and filled the studio with light. All other motivators, Serge suddenly realised, the mallet raised before him, were pure hubris: fame, glory, critical acclaim… all garbage. All ego. How could it have taken him this long to understand something that simple!

With one violent sweep of his left arm he cleared the top of the nearest work bench.

And the most embarrassing thing of all was that he had actually believed himself superior – pitiful struggling sculptor that he was – to more successful artists! Just thinking about it made his cheeks glow hot. As far as he was concerned he was damn lucky not to be taking another toe, or even a finger over this.

He took a deep breath and placed his shaking left hand down flat on the workbench, with fingers splayed. He held it there, pressing down against the wood until it was still. For the briefest moment he felt a pang of pity for the hand– it was the mind after all that was to blame, not the hand – then he brought the mallet down with uncompromising force.

He screamed, and dropped the mallet to the floor.

Shot through with sudden wild guilt, he immediately tried to lift his left hand, but couldn’t. Only by sliding his right hand under the wrist of the left did he manage to drag the injured hand off the table, slowly helping it down with the right hand, until it hung throbbing at his side.

“Oh fuck,” he whispered.

This time he had overdone it. His error had been fundamental, but he had hit too hard. His body felt cold. He wandered blankly about the workshop, stumbling over clutter, looking for the door. He headed for the light, and emerged into the garden. Shuffling round the back of the house he finally reached the swimming pool, its surface littered with leaves. Beside the pool on a recliner, making the most of early autumn, Saturday morning sun, lay his wife Miemie in a red bikini, her eyes hidden behind dark plastic. Hearing him shuffle at speed towards her she pulled in her chin and watched his approach over the tops of her sunglasses.

“Oh no,” she drawled, “not again.”

“But how else am I going to learn,” pleaded Serge, holding up the left hand with the right.

“Oh God,” she rolled her eyes. “You know I love you Sergey, but this self-mutilation thing I can’t do.”

“Not mutilation,” replied Serge, “mortification. Mortification of the flesh.”

“Oh God, whatever,” sighed Miemie, rolling her eyes.

“No, not whatever!” whimpered Serge. “I love you… but you’re – you’re like an animal, or… or a plant. You have no questions.”

“But you’ve got no answers,” replied Miemie matter-of-factly, suddenly holding up her beautiful hand to inspect her fingernails.

“You’ve got to take me to the hospital,” said Serge.

“Uh uh. No way!” she replied, “not this time. This is your thing, take yourself.”

“But I can’t drive,” he winced hopping from one leg to the other. Movement helped with the pain, which kept growing. His nerves felt as if they were bursting in slow motion, like Doc Edgerton’s apple as the bullet plunged grimly through it. Growing and growing like Beethoven.

“You should have thought of that,” Miemie continued without urgency, “before you did whatever to your hand. Or you should have gone to the hospital first, then done it right there.”

“Oh God,” moaned Serge, temporarily unaware of his wife’s existence, and swaying, trying to lift the hand ever so slightly up so that he could look at it.

“Get Pito to take you,” sighed Miemie, leaning back against the recliner, and pushing her sunglasses back up her nose.

“But Pito can’t drive.”

“Of course he can drive. He drives your car all over the place.”

Serge was dumbfounded. “But he… he’s twelve!”

“So? Now give me a kiss and go.” She pouted her lips, and out of pure habit Serge bent and kissed her.

The pain was becoming unbearable.

“Do you have pain-killers?”

“In my bag. In the kitchen.”

Dismissing him she returned her attention to the noises of the garden, and the neighbourhood. The delicate clatter of falling plain tree leaves. Saturday morning sounds: Kids, hedge cutters, sprinklers, birds, lawn mowers. Life.

“Pito!” she heard Serge yell from the kitchen.

“God help us,” thought Miemie, giving herself up to the sun.

Serge emptied the handbag onto the kitchen table, then ripped the plastic lid off the Brufin container with his front teeth. With a badly shaking right hand he rattled two pills into his dry mouth and then stumbled out of the back door.

“Pito!” he yelled again, as soon as he had worked up enough spit to swallow the Brufin. He sounded badly out of control even to his own ears, like a drunk or a maniac, but this was not the time for an analysis. The pain was robbing him of all inhibition.

The Zulu boy came running around the corner, tall and skinny with an old t-shirt of Serge’s that said “Let’s make 2001 an art-free year.”

“Yes Boss?”

“You must drive me to the hospital.” Serge kept walking, the boy following, almost running.

“But I can’t drive Boss.”

“There’s no time for nonsense now,” said Serge evenly. He kept walking towards the car. “You have to take me right now.”

“But Boss,” said Pito, smiling, “I cannot drive.”

“The Mrs has seen you driving my car. Come on now.”

Pito stopped dead, but Serge shuffled grimly forward. He wanted desperately to sit in the car. All he wanted now was to be sitting in his car.

“I can try!” shouted the boy, sprinting to catch up.

Serge stooped down and climbed into the tiny baby-blue Anglia, pushing his seat back as far as it would go. Pito got in on the driver’s side, and with practised ease pushed his seat as far forward as it would go.

“Go now, go,” muttered Serge.

“I can only try Boss,” said Pito, starting the car, and shifting into reverse.

Driveway, road, stop street, church, cars – everything took on a dream-like quality for Serge.

“Not bad for a first time,” he whispered after a kilometre, his pale head nodding rhythmically. His body was growing colder all the time.

Pito looked away, but Serge had seen the smile.

“Why you hit yourself?” asked Pito, hoping to change the subject, and turning left into the town’s broad main road without paying excessive attention to the stop sign.

“You won’t understand,” said Serge arching suddenly backward, and staring at the textured plastic ceiling, centimetres from his nose.

“I must try,” said Pito, overtaking a garbage truck.

“I want to become wise,” said Serge after some time, too tired and sore to find more precise words. “So if I think stupid things then I punish myself, so that I don’t think them again. I’m very serious about becoming wise. I don’t have a mother or father like you Pito, to hit me. So if I’m stupid then I must hit myself.”

They drove in silence for a while. They passed the mall parking lot where children with balloons jumped on a promotional jumping-castle that the hardware store had set up. Watching them jump made Serge feel nauseous. He looked at the plastic ceiling again.

“You are clever man Boss,” said Pito, eventually, “but why your hand?”

“Was a mistake Pito,” whispered Serge, barely audibly.

Pito stopped at a red light. The hospital was visible one block away.



“Maybe,” said Pito, “maybe I can hit you next time. On the bottom.”

Despite everything Serge couldn’t help but let out a laugh at this hilarious offer, sounding worse than insane to himself in the horrendous throbbing confines of the tiny car.

“Would you really do that for me?” he asked.

“Yes Boss!” said Pito. “Every time you think something stupid you tell me, and then I hit you like teacher.” The light turned green.

“OK Pito,” whispered Serge, plummeting to earth after his laugh.

They turned into the emergency parking lot. Serge opened the door and got out. He turned, and without looking left or right for cars walked straight ahead, like some indestructible zombie, into the intensive care unit.

When Pito pulled out of the parking lot he was grinning broadly, and nodding. Even at twelve he could tell that a day as good as this only came around once in many, many years. He was driving with permission for the first time in his life and not only had he saved his boss, but from now on he could even beat him. He popped the gear stick cockily into third, and reached over to turn the radio on.

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