Every third Thursday of the month, the town held an art competition in one of the bars along the sea front. The tables and chairs from outside would be brought in and arranged along with the furniture they already had inside.
The chairs were positioned to face the back of the bar, where a screen was erected to display all of the artwork. The place would always be busy and the low buzz of excited chatter permeated the entire venue. The candles which were dotted about the venue on tables added to the warmth and cast wicked shadows along the walls and ceilings. Samantha was looking at these silhouetted shapes when Catherine had asked her for the third time if she wanted something to drink. Samantha remained silent and shook her head before looking down at the table. Catherine exchanged a look with Peter who shrugged and turned to face the stage. They had both gotten used to her by now.
Samantha was fourteen and for the past year Catherine and Peter Tuens had been taking her along to events like these. They were a couple in their late fifties who had no children of their own and had offered to take Samantha out every now and then, which both her parents agreed to.
To Samantha, her mother and father seemed only to go to work and then come home again. During the weekend the whole family would stay at home. Samantha would spend hers in her room, listening to records and sleeping. Her brother Dan, would spend his out in the spacious garden that they had. Their mother would spend hers in the front room watching basic TV and their father alternated between watching the news in the living room and smoking.
Three times a week the Tuens would take Samantha out to different places in the town. They would take her out for coffee, to bookshops, walks along the coast and occasionally, they would drive her into the city so they could take her to the cinema.
She liked Peter and Catherine. They had conversations, they had opinions on things, and they liked each other.
They talked endlessly about books, music, art, theatre, and music. She sat with them in the coffee shops or in the car while they discussed writers and artists, sitting in silence, taking it all in.
Samantha liked the Tuens’ agency. They cared about things. Her mother and father were so passive about everything. Ghosts.
The art contest was another event that they always took her to. Anyone wanting to enter the competition would, on completing their work, have it scanned onto a computer, and email it to the event organiser. Once this was done, the works would be displayed on the big screen via a projector. All the works displayed would of course be shown anonymously. This would be done to encourage more entries and to try and keep the judging fair.
Samantha was sat in between Catherine and Peter while they talked about some of the artwork that they saw during the last contest. Samantha wondered whether they ever entered anything themselves. They knew so much about culture and had strong opinions on a lot of the artwork that was shown but they never talked about creating or entering anything themselves.
Catherine asked Samantha if she was sure she didn’t want anything to drink. This time Samantha asked if she could have a glass of iced water. Catherine got up and Samantha pulled her sleeves up while she waited for her drink. Peter asked her if she was hot. Samantha looked up and nodded at him. She could feel the heat prickling underneath her hair and her clothes.
She wanted to get outside and feel the winter air on her face. She wanted to be walking that long stretch of dimly lit tarmac that went from her house to the edge of town. She could lose herself in the darkened silence and make like she was the only person that existed.
On the way down tonight she had thought of Donna. She had dreamt about her again the night before. In the dream, they were back in their old house, only everything had been stripped from it. There was no furniture, no carpets and the wallpaper had only been partially stripped.
Samantha was stood in what was the doorway of their living room while Donna stood in the middle of the room. She had her back to Samantha and was staring at the area where the TV should have been.
Before Samantha could call out to her, Donna turned around. She had her arms partially outstretched and there was blood on her hands, up her arms and all over the front of her clothes. Donna pressed her hands to her stomach and asked Samantha if she wanted to know what it felt like to die. She said that it didn’t hurt. Not really. She just felt heavy at first. So heavy that she couldn’t stand on her feet any more and had to lie down. Then she was too heavy to move and became tired. So tired, that she fell asleep right there on the floor. She said that was all she could remember.
Both girls smiled at each other, fixed in their respective places before Samantha woke up in complete darkness.
Samantha remained where she was, staring into the darkness of the room, feeling the sunrise creep in, until she heard the sounds of other people waking up. She took herself downstairs and sat at her place at the breakfast table. She didn’t bother mentioning her dream. Her parents wouldn’t talk about Donna any more.
She was thinking about the dream and about Donna when Catherine came back with her drink. She sucked greedily on the straw. Peter and Catherine began talking across her again and Samantha let it wash over her. She felt better now.
The curator for the event made his way towards the screen and the room began to grow silent. Peter reclined back in his chair holding the neck of his bottle between his fingers and thumb while Catherine hunched over the table, sipping at her hot coffee.
The curator welcomed everyone to the event and took his place behind a small table to the side of the projector on which his laptop sat. The curator introduced the first piece before clicking a button. This brought up a black and white sketch of a wooded area on the screen. The sketch received a polite round of applause and a few positive murmurs from members of the audience. After a few moments the next piece was introduced and a new picture appeared on the screen. This was also met with the same reaction.
This pattern continued another few dozen times, after which the curator announced that the next piece was going to be a short, black and white film. Samantha was grateful to have something else to look at other than static images.
The film started on a grainy shot of a muddy, partially emptied dock area. There were three disused tanker vessels lying in the shallow water like rusty, dead fish.
Samantha could see tiny breakers lapping up against the bottom of the frame and decided that this had to have been filmed out at sea. The camera held on this shot for a minute or so before movement could be seen coming from behind one of the rusted tankers.
The screen immediately cut to a closer shot revealing it to be a small wooden lifeboat. It was being rowed by a boy with his back to the camera. There was a woman and a man sat in the bow of the lifeboat. They were holding up a second man between them whose head was slumped forward. His hands were behind his back. Samantha couldn’t tell whether they were tied like that or if he was supposed to be doing it himself.
The boy stopped rowing and the first man reached down to retrieve something which he began to wipe on the second man’s face. Samantha couldn’t really tell what was going on.
The camera cut to an even closer shot this time in which the lifeboat took up most of the screen. It was a paint brush that was being used on the unconscious man. He was having his whole head painted with something. It looked thick, like tar. The man doing the painting pulled his head away from the paint brush and Samantha saw the man’s face. It was her father. The woman was her mother. She could only see the back of the boys head but she was sure that this was Dan. She looked up at Catherine who looked back at her blankly. Catherine pulled in close and asked her if something was wrong but Samantha turned back to look at the screen. Had she not recognised these people?
Her father continued to paint the man’s head, while her mother assisted in holding the man upright. This was wrong. It didn’t look like it was being acted. It looked too real. Her mother and father behaved like they had no idea the camera was there.
Samantha’s heart began to beat faster. Who was this man and why were they doing this? She looked around the venue quickly to see if anyone was looking at her. Everyone was watching the screen. She could hear Catherine asking her if she wanted to leave.
Back on the screen the man’s head was completely covered and her father was now standing. He lifted the man up and heaved him over the side. The man landed in the water face down and Dan began to row them out of view. The camera focused on the man in the water whose hands were bound as the waves licked over the top of his head before cutting to black.
The room filled with the standard ripple of applause. Samantha could feel herself being lifted her by her arm and she was led outside.
Through a brief conversation it was clear to Samantha that Catherine and Peter had no idea what had upset her about the film and Samantha wouldn’t say.
It was like CCTV footage. It had felt so real.
Catherine offered to walk her home with Peter and Samantha nodded. Just as they were about to leave Samantha looked in through the large front window of the venue and saw another painting on the screen. It was four equal sized white squares painted onto a blueish lilac background. It was a window pattern and each of the white squares had some unique abstract design in it. Samantha could still hear the cheers and applause as they rounded the corner and headed off into the darkness.
Paul Curtis lives in Liverpool in England. He graduated from Edge Hill University in 2017 and his Twitter handle is @PaulCurtis11.