This is one of the Newcastle Herald Short Story Competition 2020 finalists. For a full list of the finalists revealed so far, head here.
'The will contains various conditions,' Janette tells me when she calls. This, at least, is no surprise. I wouldn't have imagined Leo writing anything other than a declaration of detail.
In recent years, I've spent less time with Leo. It's the direction university friendships tend to take. I married Eliza in my mid-twenties then, shortly after, moved south and began teaching at Wollongong High. Leo remained in Sydney, a tiny terrace in Balmain. He shared the place occasionally when he wooed a woman of interest, but it appeared that such relationships couldn't withstand the inflexible punctuations of the painting and private time that structured his life.
Our friendship continued as a drifting dialogue through days, months, years; a Christmas card, a birthday call, and the occasional catch-up over the long lull of school holidays. Ours was a conversation that seemed never to end but rather continued in one form or another without faltering, despite the intervals.
'It must be a terrible shock for you.' I say to Janette. I think back to July. Leo had seemed so completely himself when we'd met at the Opera Bar. He'd enthused about the MoMA exhibition in Melbourne which he'd attended earlier in the year, we'd discussed his sculpture and installation projects. He was full of verve, as always. Now, this.
'Oh no, not at all.' His sister murmurs through the phone. 'He's been unwell, for years.'
Shame mushrooms. I hadn't known, hadn't noticed, was too busy during our catch-ups lamenting the school system, my sense of entrapment, the apathy of the kids.
'Well you can teach art in a sense.' Leo, as always, had listened intently and dispensed advice thoughtfully. 'But the glitch lies in the fact that you can't teach passion. It's inborn I think, or the seed of it is. You need to weed out the kids that have the passion and teach them technique. Give the others a helping hand to pass the subject, but don't invest in them, they'll suck you dry. Ever thought of chucking it in? Going back to painting yourself?'
'Jesus, if only! Eliza keeps bringing home brochures for new kitchens, cars, holidays. The list is endless.'
'Yes.' Leo had sat back in his chair and rubbed at the stubble on his chin. 'It's undeniably difficult this business of balance.'
I'd been so caught up in my own petty concerns-the slow-smoking dispute that clouded my otherwise reasonable relationship with Eliza-that I'd noticed nothing in Leo's appearance or demeanour that indicated he was anything other than he'd always been; thriving.
'He wanted it that way.' Janette soothes me as I stammer and stutter my surprise. Then, on top of the detonation of Leo's death, she asks me to meet with her regarding a matter in the will.
The following week we meet in Sydney. The Art Gallery Café, her choice. We both know Leo would approve. We order coffees and she takes from her bag a raft of documents which she flattens on the table between us, with the heel of her hand.
'Leo's will. His bequest to you, a house in Merewether. Well, he hasn't left it to you, as such.' She hastily clarifies. 'But it's yours until your death. The conditions being that you must use it as an art studio. And you mustn't remove, adapt, change, or tamper with the art installation in the back yard. He refers to it here as Jinty. I'm not familiar with it. I wasn't even aware he owned the house.'
I don't absorb much more of what's said. I'm confused, muddled with emotion.
'What about you? Would you not want to sell the house?'
'That wasn't his wish. I'm fine Jack, honestly.' Janette lays a tanned hand lightly over mine, before reaching into her bag and withdrawing a set of keys and an envelope, sliding them across the space between us. 'Go there. Paint.'
I say nothing to Eliza. I need to process it all; my shame, my disbelief, my sense of galloping toward an open gate. I don't teach the following day, instead I drive up to Merewether. I find the house at the far end of a cul-de-sac, high on the headland, windows watching widely across the bush and beach of Glenrock. A breeze shimmies across blue, lifting warm stillness like a translucent sheet, shaking it out across an army of grey-green eucalypts. A lone cicada calls for summer.
The house is patterned in paint that peels and curls from weatherboards, like Sunday sunburn; the ruin of a once creamy complexion. The interior is dim, a cool tang of turpentine and salt hangs in the hallway and lingers in the kitchen, where the sink bears a lone upturned mug, a smear of violet paint on the chipped handle. Beyond the window, trapped in knee-high grass, pinned within the boundaries of an iron fence, stands Jinty.
The questions I've had since yesterday are answered. Leo had always insisted artwork reveals the artist, rather than the subject. Leo-like Jinty-was broken, but he held firm. The sea of weeds, like a tide edging in on him, was accepted. He never spoke of it, never surrendered to it, nor did he wrestle with it. As I gaze out at Jinty; lost limbs, fenced-in, and swallowed by grass, I sense that Leo knew he was boundless. He'd been prepared to mow it all down, there was no question of that. He continued-Janette had told me-to envision his future creations until the very end. Alongside the knowledge that his body was being stripped and stolen he rested in acceptance that whatever happened he would remain undefeated. He knew I could see it in Jinty-her stance, her attitude, the valiant humour-that the essence of his being was bigger than any circumstance. Leo had gifted me the answer to the question of my life; paint regardless. Creation, in a world of uncertainty and destruction, is nothing short of divine.