The Burning Ground

Adam O'Riordan

July 18, 2017 
The following is from Adam O'Riordan’s short story collection, The Burning Ground. The Burning Ground is a collection of eight stories about men haunted by their past: from a painter tormented by memories of a lover to a father trying to rekindle a relationship with his son. Adam O’Riordan’s poetry collection In the Flesh won the Somerset Maugham Award, awarded to the best writer under the age of 35. He is an academic director at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Alannah would always come at two o’clock as she had on her first visit. But they never talked about how they might exist outside of the confines of the studio. Then at Easter a fortnight passed without her visiting. He had delayed his own trip to see his sister in Harrogate. By the third week, when two o’clock came he was pacing the studio, snapping the slats in the battered brushed-metal blind, peering down on to the parked cars on the street below. He had first met Alannah and her husband at the same party. He had dismissed the husband: a tall man, in his thirties, in a striped shirt and red braces, whose boyish good looks had begun to slacken. He was explaining to an acquaintance the difference between a bull and a bear market. There was a touch of French or Swiss to his accent, which seemed an affectation. He might have dismissed the man’s young wife too: timid, pale, unexceptional, had a mutual friend not shepherded them together and on to the common ground of his former tutor at the Slade. She seemed impressed that there was anyone alive who could still remember him, let alone who had been taught by the great man.

After their first meeting he did not think again of Alannah until the friend who had introduced them phoned to ask if she could pass on his details. She explained about the monograph Alannah was working on and how he might lend some important insights. He agreed but that first afternoon her visit slipped his mind.The sound of the buzzer jolted him from his work. There followed a difficult conversation over the intercom as he failed to recognize her name wrapped in the little loop of static and feed-back. Only once she was standing in his studio did he recognize her from the party and recalled the arrangement made via email a few days earlier in the internet café where twice a week he went to pick up his messages. As they talked he noticed how her skin reddened in uneven patches on her neck and across her décolletage and the hard, level confidence of her stare, a poise he had not noticed at the party.

Three weeks after Easter when eventually Alannah arrived, she was forty minutes later than usual.There was a pause as she stood before him in the doorway. He wondered if she had second thoughts. If time away with her husband reminded her of the fullness of her life and the extravagance of her time with him: the painter whose reputation had been in decline for two decades now. He imagined her in her car, parked a few streets away, her hand hesitating on the key in the ignition. Standing there before him she seemed smaller, tanned, changed by her time abroad: carrying the mood of the French town whose name was printed on the calico bag that held her tape recorder. The tape recorder she had continued to bring with her to his studio as evidence, if an alibi were needed for her husband. He stood for a moment registering the ways she had changed since he last saw her: a new leather bracelet, her hair now parted at the side with a tortoiseshell comb, a little more make-up than she usually wore.

They did not speak. He set about reclaiming her, first lifting off her jacket, then digging his nails in hard below her shoulder blades, pressing through the fine linen of her camisole as they kissed. Pushing her against the crossbar of a racing bicycle that had sat unused in the entrance way for the best part of a decade. Her teeth clashed against his dry lips, drawing blood. He tasted it ferrous and metallic at the corner of her mouth as they kissed.

They made love at first on the camp bed and then on a patchwork quilt laid on the cold linoleum floor, an old horse blanket by their feet. Gripping at the curves of her hip bones as the gas heater burned on nearby. Looking down at his own body; slackened with age into folds of formless skin, its contours of tightly packed wrinkles and puckering. The sounds of a London afternoon outside, schoolchildren shouting excitedly as they waited for the bus and the sound of the fast train passing on the bridge. Afterwards, he traced the outline of her swimming costume across the soft flesh of her lower back before she rolled away from him and sat up, pulling the quilt over her knees. She was tense after they had made love, as if she had arrived intending not to, running her forearm and thumb through her hair, rapidly working from strand to strand; searching out a single hair coarser than the others, she would then lift it gently from her scalp, twisting it between her fingertip and the pad of her thumb. He had learned from Alannah that in her teens she had been in the habit of pulling out her hair. A trichotillomaniac, she had said, carefully enunciating the word, making the term seem almost comic. At the clinic her parents sent her to for treatment she learned about the associated, much rarer, condition trichophagia, what they called Rapunzel Syndrome, where sufferers would pull out their hair and swallow it, causing, over time, the tail of a hairball to reach down from the stomach into the intestines. She told him how the image had been enough to arrest her own relatively mild condition. Though the habit of searching out the coarser hairs still remained in times of anxiety.

He watched her kick the quilt from her legs then walk, without speaking, to the windowless shower room at the back of the studio.

When occasionally they did meet in the world—at gallery openings and once at a party for a mutual friend who was recovering from breast cancer—Alannah was warm and cordial and calm; indistinguishable from how she might greet any other senior artist she had worked with or interviewed. He accepted he had no right to claim her, hoping in time her visits would increase, that she might begin to feel the necessity of their intimacy. Knowing that if he challenged her, or invited this, she might disappear from his life altogether. There had been other women over the years of course. Married and unmarried, some younger, some older. The married made fewer demands or rather different demands, demands he found easier to fulfil. He had been married himself once, in his twenties, the year after he left the Slade. It hadn’t lasted and they had lost touch. She had died. He came across the obituary by chance in The Times. It seemed to him surreal, to think that thirty years ago they had lived together, shared a bed, made a home as best they knew how. Her daughter, who was eager to learn more about her mother’s early life, came to visit him at his studio a few months after she died. She had her mother’s features but was much taller than the woman he had married. But after thirty years without contact, the dead woman in The Times was a stranger with whom he had shared a brief part of his remote past. He had been attracted to her daughter and sensed an attraction on her part to him.

Remembering his afternoons in his studio with Alannah, there were certain images he would return to; faint rain pooling in the grooves of the corrugated-plastic skylight, the radio at the foot of the camp bed, the barely audible voices, Alannah’s clothes in an untidy pile. In darker moods he wondered how many other studios she had visited with her tape recorder stowed in her bag, if every artist she had interviewed was afforded the same treatment. That everything that followed her climaxing—those short tight breaths she drew in through her front teeth as she came—was make-believe or self-deception. He looked for proofs from the past as a holy man might rake through the entrails of some dead animal.

The final night around her table in Tufnell Park, he had studied Alannah, trying to absorb what was most elemental about her. He sensed the dinner had been engineered as both a farewell and a rebuke. That Alannah had needed to show herself next to her husband, to prove she was resuming the role of the faithful wife. Each time her husband asked a question on the economics of his profession, he had referred him to his gallerist, Delaney, who sat two places down, knowing full well his last show of unfashionable still lifes—found objects accrued in his studio over the years; seashells from the beach an hour’s drive from his sister’s house, obsolete electronics picked up at the flea market in Deptford, begun as exercises with no coherent theme—had sold poorly to Delaney’s regular buyers.

He would turn and continue his conversation with the woman to his right, an Australian literary agent with a mass of very dry straw-coloured hair, keeping Alannah in view across the table.Watching as she laughed at her husband’s jokes or laid her hand on his shoulder. He wondered if it had been a gamble for her inviting him, a final thrill wrung from the dying affair. Or if in their year of afternoons together she had grown to know him well enough to make an appeal to his better nature this evening. If she had seen through his gruffness and reluctance to commit to coming when she had phoned to invite him and knew he would try to please her, that the night would contain no dramatic declarations for the guests to discuss in the back of their minicabs home.

He acknowledged how easily he had allowed himself to submit to her willed civility. And later, he would reflect that being there was itself a kind of pleading, an appeal for her to take him back. For her to return to him as she had on those afternoons throughout the year: uninvited, unannounced and wholly welcome.

In the summer months he had learned to recognize the sound of her car coming to a halt on the street outside, the light metallic clunk of the driver’s side door of her Citroën. He would grow expectant as she made her way up the concrete steps of the dilapidated former garment factory that housed his studio and several others, wiping his hands on the sides of his jeans, swilling a glass of tap water around his mouth to wash away the taste of unfiltered cigarettes and strong tea, growing tense before she pressed the buzzer. It was in the summer that she bought him the brushes. Handed to him three days before his sixty-fifth birthday, in a velvet-lined box tied with a red bow. She explained, solemnly, that she had bought them with money of her own, from an advance she had received for a short book based on her monograph, that she would start to write over the summer.

It was five years now since he learned of the twin boys Alannah had had with her husband. Overheard, in fact, at a crowded party to mark the end of an art fair. An overweight American woman in a silk kaftan and Lycra leggings, proclaiming to a man in a blazer, that Alannah’s newborn boys were ‘darlings, just darlings’. His back to the conversation, he had felt himself flush, his face burning from the bridge of his nose to under his eyes. Standing in the noisy, forensically bright room he had seen it all: her swollen body transformed and unrecognizable as the one he had held; Alannah lying on the bed in the maternity ward; her husband working loose his cufflinks as he paced the corridor, a cigar in cellophane in his breast pocket; the grey-green faces of the wailing infants in the midwife’s hands. He had phoned her at home shortly afterwards, something he had never done before, and when her husband answered had been at a loss as to what to say. The two men listening intently to one another breathing down the line, in rooms a few postal districts apart, neither saying a word until eventually he broke the silence and asked with a curtness he could not disguise ‘Is Alannah there?’The husband gave a little snort—he took perhaps to be derision—then called back, ‘Sweetheart, it’s for you’ and then more softly, ‘Here, let me, I’ll do that.’ By the time Alannah was at the phone and asking,‘Hello?’, her voice rich and weary and freighted with a mellifluence that comes only in the aftermath of some unalloyed happiness, the same rich, weary new voice that must have been fielding calls from well-wishers over the past weeks, he had simply hung up, his mouth half-set in a stiff grimace, holding the plastic handset firmly and for a long time against the switch hook as if drowning something unwanted in a pail of water.

Now all that remained were the brushes.In the first year after they were given to him, they had painted Saudi heiresses in their overheated Knightsbridge apartments, the air outside as he walked from the tube, sweetened with the smell of confectionery pumped out from Harrods. They had painted Gold Cup-winning horses in their stables, filmed by rows of security cameras at the Surrey homes of their breeders. He would drive down with Delaney to jobs always framed as favours for friends, who were admirers of his work, with some money to cover his expenses. Both men knew the situation was unsatisfactory. It was Delaney who suggested the residency in California. He phoned him at the studio one morning to tell him of another artist of his who had just returned and how he was fairly sure he could secure a place for him, if he was interested: ‘I’m sixty-five, Delaney,’ he had told him. ‘Think of it as escaping England for the winter,’ Delaney replied. ‘It’ll add decades on to your life. I promise you.’ He had laughed and told Delaney he would think about it.

A winter in Los Angeles turned into a year. The Foundation treated him with a respect and reverence he found difficult at first but then relaxed into enjoying.When at the end of the year they approached him about a fellowship, tenured with the Foundation for a further five years, he accepted.A lawyer had argued that his client, as a painter of portraits, specifically in oils, possessed a specialism the state required. In the way Delaney had back in London, the Foundation would suggest contacts who were interested in sitting for him and would be happy to pay, wives of show runners and retired producers. He had watched a sitter in Los Angeles recommend him to a friend on her cell phone as he sketched her barefoot under a camellia japonica at the far end of her garden where they had gone to catch the end of the light.

For the first year in Los Angeles the novelty of elsewhere had underwritten him. Through the Foundation he had met a broader, more sympathetic group of people than he had expected in the city he had come to in order to forget. Life in the impossible village, as he once heard it referred to by a photographer friend in a phrase pulled from the daybooks of Edward Weston, had proved tolerable.The photographer told him with relish how Weston had detested the place, this city of uplifters lacking what he found in smallpox and poverty in Mexico. How he had encouraged all sensitive, self-respecting people to leave. But he had not left. Slowly the place had made its claims on him. The light, the absence of clear seasons, the cloud that sat low along the coast in May and June, and occasional days of rain only endeared the city to him. Each gave his life a welcome sense of stasis.The Foundation that had covered the cost of living had arranged a show at a small gallery in West Hollywood at the end of his first year there. When tired of the city he would drive out to the desert, following the Southern Pacific freight cars past the wind turbines at the neck of the Coachella Valley.

Now he would spend his working week in Los Angeles travelling between the bungalow he rented in Venice—the powder-blue paint flaking from its panelled exterior, the Indian laurel shedding leaves on the uneven flagstones outside—and his studio downtown, both provided on a peppercorn rent from the Foundation. Occasionally he would visit the houses of his sitters out along the Pacific Coast Highway in the Palisades or up in Malibu. And every evening after using them, the brushes that had been Alannah’s gift were painstakingly cleaned in the sink next to his oversized tumble-dryer then laid out along the yellow shelf in the front room he used for painting. On taking the bungalow, the first thing he did was remove the screens from the windows and savagely prune the crape myrtle and the camphor overhanging from his neighbour’s garden.

The winter he had moved to Los Angeles his first drawings had been of the carousel in the Hippodrome on Santa Monica Pier. He would sit inside the airy wooden building, watching young families come and go. Drawing each of the forty-six horses, with their weird snarls and contorted mouths, occasionally catching glimpses of his face in the mirrored panels as the carousel turned; thinner than he had been in London. Fixated by the rise and fall of the horses in the two inner rows and the other-worldly music from the Wurlitzer. He walked to the Hippodrome at four o’clock each afternoon, then as the low light was at its dying best, would position himself outside, sketching the bright heart of the carousel as it span at the centre of the now near-empty wooden room. Once at the Hippodrome he had watched a wedding party arrive.The two maids of honour riding side-saddle in their lavender silk dresses, the groom and his best man whooping and boisterous as the carousel span. The bride had worn a cream gown with elaborate folds of lacework down the front and a pair of pearl earrings on thin silver chains. Her smile had reminded him so completely of Alannah that he had grimaced as she looked out at him from the carousel. He must have seemed an odd sight, the tall old man, thinned down, with the contorted face on the folding stool in the corner of the Hippodrome.

With a second show at the small gallery in West Hollywood planned and a number of studies of the carousel sold, he found he was no longer drawn to images he knew would please Alannah. When working at the studio, a bright room on the seventh floor of a disused bank, he began to walk the streets nearby. On Olive and Margot and Catesby he found himself fascinated by the faces of down-and-outs. He became obsessed with the details of decay that they wore about their bodies. His first painting in the studio had been of the teeth of a man whose face had been ravaged by years of methamphetamine. He had worked from a Polaroid he had taken as the man leant up against a whitewashed wall by a dumpster in a parking lot on Margot Street. He painted details from the man’s face in close-up, so at first the viewer saw only the pink of the gum line, the caramels of his cashew-shaped teeth and the wide red hairs of the moustache. Next came a series of studies from the white-ringed staph abscesses on the calf of an intravenous user he photographed on a mattress outside the Grand Prix Auto Body shop on Olive Avenue. The abscesses, blown up large, were unrecognizable until their context was revealed later in the series.

In that year with Alannah visiting his studio in London he had worked from memory on studies of her—stooped naked at the sink or squatting as she showered in that windowless bathroom at the back of the studio. Images that were all, he later realized, of her preparing to enter the world and return to her husband. Images of her stripping herself of any traces he may have left. Now downtown he spent more and more time talking with the men who congregated in the streets in the Wholesale District. Reprising his London habit of sleeping in his studio, sometimes he would go down early in the morning and stand by their bright nylon tents pitched in front of the closed shutters of the pet stores and fabric shops. He would give them a few dollars in return for the Polaroids he took. Downtown he felt a new hunger growing for the details from the lives of the homeless: their nails, their soiled clothes, the littered groundsheets of their tents. Men he might have been indistinguishable from if photographed.

Four years since leaving London, five since hearing of the birth of Alannah’s boys, six now since that last afternoon in his studio. Life had taken on a superficial stability. A couple of messages a month on his answer-machine meant he was never short of work, and once his reputation had been established he was free within reason to name his price, charging several thousand dollars for a commission.When occasional emails would arrive from his sister’s daughter voicing her concern for their mother’s deteriorating health, a recent fall or blood test, even this news seemed to be softened by his distance from it. It was a world as other and unreal as the world he had made on those afternoons with Alannah in his studio.

As a student he had had a severe allergic reaction to penicillin his GP had prescribed for a chest infection at the end of his first term. Once the forty-eight- hour fever had passed, his body had been covered in a raised webbing of lipstick red. It wasn’t until late in the next year that it had really begun to fade. It had taken years more for it to disappear completely, appearing again faintly if he ran or got too hot. In a vague way now he remembered this rash when he thought of Alannah and those years she had always been in the background of his thoughts, as his new life continued around him: exhibitions, dinners, dates with divorced women a decade younger than him, drawn to his minor celebrity in certain circles, who sensed a hollowness at his core they could not account for and he was unwilling to explain.

After the ink-wash drawings of the horse heads on the carousel, and the acrylics of the homeless men downtown that he exhibited in his second show in West Hollywood had sold, the brushes still remained. Daily routine had smoothed the rough edges of his life. Five days each week at his studio downtown. Every second weekend spent working on a commission—lately at the home of a senior accountant at Time Warner who lived on the Bird Streets. An exhibition at the gallery in West Hollywood now promised every eighteen months.Waking with the light in his Venice bungalow. His mid-morning drive downtown along the Santa Monica Freeway in his big, comfortable, air-conditioned American car. His regular lunch in the cantina on Grand Avenue watching Mexican game shows on the ancient television mounted on the wall. A bottle of Pacifico some evenings at the café on Venice boardwalk, that stank year round of candle wax and old incense, where he would chat with the waitresses. Over time these novelties and distractions had become the substance of his life. And other routines that frustrated him at first now comforted him, like the weekly visit by the gardeners who came to the neighbourhood with their leaf blowers, the avid persistent roar of their machines outside his bedroom window. Recently he had been asked to paint a mural for a local school and had thought about using the gardeners as a motif. This morning had showered, dressed, and then packed his sketchpad, camera and pencils into his bag.The years in California had temporarily abated the agonies of ageing. He often wondered what life would have done to him had he stayed in London. If Alannah might now be visiting him in some care home or hospital, the distance in their ages a gulf they could no longer breach. His vitality gone, suffering her sympathy. He looked at the brushes lined up along the yellow shelf. He gathered them up, tied their black canvas pouch around them and placed them in the bag with the thought that he might work on a painting in the studio downtown later that day.

He opened his front door on to the patio and smiled at a young gardener bent over his leaf blower, the device strapped to his back. A scrawny boy in his late teens, with terracotta skin, he asked him where the leaves were taken once they had all been collected. The boy was reluctant to respond, as if fearing a confrontation, certain that this was the area his supervisor had told him to clear and that their work complied with the noise ordinances. He asked again, making clear this time there was no aggression, gesturing to the piles of leaves fallen from the Indian laurel. The supervisor, who had been friendly in the past, seeing the conversation in progress, walked over. He explained they had a permit for a disused patch of land they used as a burning ground on an undeveloped plot down towards Main Street.The plot had been sold a few years ago and although billboards had gone up advertising the new development, work had never started. He asked the supervisor if it would be OK for him to draw the men as they worked. He pointed inside to several unfinished canvases leant against the wall. The supervisor smiled and shrugged, then turned to his men and told them in Spanish that this man was going to make them famous. They put down two cones at each end of the street, then set about pruning the highest branches of a plane tree that cast deep shade on to his neighbour’s two-storey concrete and glass house. As the branches fell to the ground light was let in on to the street. After the fallen branches had been collected in a tarpaulin and lifted on to the back of a pickup, the men set to work sweeping away the other fallen debris. Soon it was as if they had never been there.

After asking permission from the supervisor, he drove with the gardeners to the patch of disused ground where they disposed of the garden waste. They seemed wary at first as if he had been sent from the Department of Sanitation to report on them. He talked with the supervisor about the mural as he set the fire, dousing a stack of branches with gasoline. He stood back as the men tossed cuttings from the plane tree into the flames, emptying out the plastic sacks that held the leaves. The gardeners laughing with one another, salsa music coming from the little radio perched on the edge of their pickup. He wanted to take some photographs from behind the flames that he might use later as he prepared the mural. He walked to the back of the fire and reached into his bag for his camera. The canvas pouch that held the brushes had come undone and his fingers touched against their glossy bodies.As he looked into the rising smoke the hours in London with Alannah came back to him with force they had not before: the rain on the skylight, the wilting lemon tree she would tease him for neglecting to water, the ring of fine creases where the pale skin folded at her neck. As he remembered he found himself running his fingers over the brushes as one might reach for the hand of a lover when woken in the night.

One by one, he tossed the brushes on to the fire: the filbert, the bright, the long-pointed. He had sat with Alannah in his studio in London teaching her their names three days before his sixty-fifth birthday. He did not think of that last night around her table in Tufnell Park, or the drive back with Delaney. How he sat alone and wept in his darkened studio, the salt tears hot on his face. Or how he had hammered at the table so hard that it splintered and left a gash across the palm of his hand. How he had been unable to hold a brush properly for a week afterwards.Their nickelled brass brackets began to warp, the flames licking the ivory-black canvas of their pouch to vermilion, Prussian blue, yellow ochre, flake white. He watched the smoke rise in the sunlight of that California morning.


From The Burning Ground. Used with permission of W. W. Norton & Company. Copyright © 2017 by Adam O’Riordan.

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