“Can you tell me the way to the castle?”
The man behind the bar scratched at his moustache and looked at the customer doubtfully.
“Why do you want to go there?” the bartender asked. “He’s a crazy old man.”
“I’m a journalist,” the man said. “Paul Rossi. I’ve been asked to interview him.”
The bartender laughed.
“Another,” Rossi sighed, pushing over his empty glass.
“I’m sorry,” the barman replied, putting the glass under the pump and filling it with cold beer. “It’s just I can’t imagine that man agreeing to anything.”
He handed the beer to Rossi, who sipped. It was just as cold and delightful as the first. It was strong, too. He could feel the effects already.
“He’s already said yes,” Rossi explained, putting down the glass.
The barman raised an eyebrow.
“I’ll tell you something,” he said. “He comes in here, maybe once a month. When he comes down to the village.”
“Why does he come down?”
The barman shrugged. “Maybe he orders art supplies, maybe not. I see vans go up there to deliver things, so I don’t know whether he gets things from the Internet. Maybe he buys groceries online, maybe not. But my son, now, he has an idea.”
Rossi sipped the cold, cold beer again. “What’s the theory?”
“He thinks the old man, he has a box.”
“You know, at the post office.”
Rossi nodded, although he really didn’t understand.
“He checks it, once a month, and sends replies,” the barman continued. “Private things. Secret things that he doesn’t want anyone to know about. Bottles, gas cylinders, that sort of thing.”
“Why would he need a gas cylinder though?”
“Maybe air conditioning,” the barman said, pointing above his head.
“That makes sense.” Rossi nodded. He was halfway through the beer already. It was a hot day, and this was strong beer. He needed to take it carefully from hereon in.
“How do I get up there?” he asked.
“Let me call my son,” the barman said. “He’s a taxi driver. He can drive you.”
The barman turned, and picked up his phone from the back of the bar, dialled, and then spoke to someone. Rossi worked on the beer in front of him during the call. When the barman turned back, the glass was empty.
Rossi shook his head. “Better have coffee.”
“As you wish,” the barman nodded, and turned to use the coffee machine. He deftly prepared an espresso in a glass cup with a metal handle, put it on a glass saucer, with a sachet of sugar and spoon on the side, and placed it in front of the journalist.
“Your son?” Rossi asked, pulling his wallet out and extracting a note.
“He’ll be a few minutes,” the barman said, taking the note. “You’ll have time.”
The coffee was good, strong and hot. It was bitter, but not acidic. Rossi drank it down slowly, sipping it, allowing the taste to go through.
“We don’t get coffee like this at home,” he remarked.
“It’s the way it’s made,” the barman shrugged. “Coffee is the same everywhere, really, now that the corporations have taken over.”
The barman went over to his till, rang up the beers and coffee, and then handed back the change.
A thin young man with a sleeve tattoo on one arm walked in, and the barman beckoned him over.
“This is my son,” he said to Rossi. “He’ll drive you to the castle.”
Rossi finished the last of his coffee, placed the cup back on its saucer and stood up.
“Let’s go,” the taxi driver said. “You want to go to the castle, right?”
“Right,” Rossi nodded.
They walked outside, and Rossi got into the front passenger seat of a black car with a distinctive taxi decal on the side.
“You’re going to see the old man, the artist?”
“That’s good,” the taxi driver continued. “He doesn’t see many people. You must be a bit special to be allowed to see him.”
“I don’t know,” Rossi shrugged. “There was a time I was an art critic, rather than an interview. I think I reviewed his last show before he moved here.”
“You must have given him a good review,” the driver said, pulling away from the kerb side. “He doesn’t usually talk to anyone if he can avoid it.”
Rossi muttered to himself.
Warrington’s aesthetic is a lifeless characterisation of staid tableaux, a lifeless pageant of drably-rendered mundanity scattered on canvas like a child playing marbles. Never have I seen talent so effectively and comprehensively wasted in pursuit of the inane and uninteresting. To call it art would be an insult to the word; the discordance created from the combination of technical skill and high levels of vacuity on display make one despair for his future if this is all Warrington has to offer.
“I said does he sell many paintings?” the taxi driver asked.
“What?” Rossi asked, the chain of recollection broken. “No, just one or two a year. But they sell for a lot – a million, sometimes two or three.”
The driver whistled. “Nice work if you can get it.”
The car slowed beside a large brick wall, the driver looking carefully for something. Finally, he found it, and the car stopped. Rossi looked over to see a small green door, with faded, peeling paint, set in the stone.
“That’s the door he always uses,” the driver said. “The postman rings that bell there, you see?”
Rossi nodded and handed over a note. The driver took it, reached into a pocket, counted out a few coins and handed them back. Rossi got out of the car, and waved self-consciously. The taxi sped off back down the hill, leaving little trails of dust in its wake, as though the driver couldn’t get away fast enough.
He pressed the button next to the door and waited. Within a few seconds, the door opened and what looked like an old man appeared.
“Hello,” he said. “Do you speak English?”
“Rossi?” the old man asked. “Is that you?”
“Yes, it is,” Rossi replied. “I’m here to see Mr Warrington.”
“You’re looking at him,” the old man said. “Come in.”
Rossi coughed. “Sorry.”
“Close the door behind you,” the old man said. “It locks itself.”
Rossi followed Warrington down the small passageway. The painter looked a lot older than he expected, although it must have been nearly forty years since he had last seen him. He looked thin, and wiry. Strong.
“This is where I live,” Warrington said as they entered a large room dominated by grimy windows on one side. “There’s a studio next door, but this is where I spend my time when I’m not working.”
Rossi looked around. There was a small old looking television – ten or twelve inches, with a rotary dial, and probably black and white – with an armchair in front. Against the wall under the window was a bed, one of those military style ones, neatly made. Then there was a kitchen table, glass topped, with a few dining chairs around it. He turned around and saw a couple of units and a sink against the wall behind him, away from the light. A single lamp stood guard over the work surface.
“It’s… nice,” he offered, trying to make conversation.
“It’s functional,” Warrington said, going to the stove. “It’s all I need. Everything else is painting. Domesticity distracts me from my work.”
“Coffee?” Warrington turned to look at him. “I can smell you’ve been drinking, so maybe you’d like something stronger? I’m going to have a whisky in mine.”
“Irish? Yes, that’d be perfect.”
“I’ve no cream,” Warrington said. “I have milk. I don’t usually, I don’t drink it, I bought some because I knew you were coming.”
“Just the whisky will be fine.”
The painter nodded and turned back to the stove. He boiled water, took two enormous tin mugs and poured instant coffee powder into them from a huge catering pack. Then he opened the cupboard above, took out a bottle of cheap whisky, poured generous measures into both cups, and topped them with hot water.
Rossi sat down at the table and the painter placed a coaster in front of him, then put the cup on top.
“Domesticity?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Hot things break glass,” Warrington replied. “And I like this table.”
The coffee was good. Not too hot, but strong with the taste of whisky. It settled well on Rossi’s stomach, relaxing and enervating at the same time.
“So why now?” Rossi asked. “All these years you’ve been a recluse, not talking to anyone except your agent, who apparently doesn’t even have your phone number, and now?”
“Now I’m bored,” Warrington drank some coffee and continued. “I work here. I paint, every day. Mostly I paint for me, for fun. After… that show… I decided not to be part of the regular art world. My canvases already sold for a lot, and I figured why exert myself? This place was cheap and so I bought it, I moved here… and I paint.”
“You paint every day?”
Warrington nodded. “Every day.”
“Yet how many paintings have you sold since…”
“In the last forty years?” the painter raised an eyebrow. “Thirty eight.”
“The most recent for two and a half million,” Warrington continued. “Not bad for someone ‘as blessed with mediocrity of vision as he is with technical ability’, is it? Your words.”
Rossi coughed. Warrington smiled.
“I’m not here to make you comfortable, Mr Rossi,” the painter said. He lifted his cup and drained it before continuing. “But then I’m not going to gloat, either. I’m teasing you a little, that’s all.”
“I see,” Rossi hesitated.
“Drink up,” he pointed at the cup. “I’ll show you some of my archives. Some of my secret works.”
“Of course,” Warrington said. “I paint every day. I only sell what I need to sell to get by – although I get by very comfortably these days, thank you. In case you were wondering.”
Rossi drank, feeling the combination of whisky and coffee make him both aware and agreeably lubricated. Relaxed, even.
The painter took a large bunch of keys off a hook by the stove, and led Rossi out of the other door.
“They call it a castle,” Warrington explained. “But really this place is no more than a tower or a keep. There’s really only five rooms. One is a bathroom, which is the small door we passed on the way in, then there’s the artillery room, which is where I live. My studio used to be a guard room, on the south side. It has the best light.”
“Can I see the studio?”
“We’re going to my store room,” the painter replied, leading Rossi down a staircase. “I had air conditioning put in.”
“I thought you might,” the journalist muttered.
He flipped a switch outside the door, and then opened it.
“After you…” Warrington smiled and bowed a little, in an exaggeratedly courtly manner.
Rossi walked into the room, which was filled with hundreds of paintings all hung carefully on the walls. A table in the centre of the room was stacked with paintings, and there were canvases stacked against the walls, seven or eight deep.
“This is amazing,” Rossi said and turned to talk to Warrington, but the door was closed.
“Hey, what happened?”
From behind the door, Rossi heard a laugh.
“Can you guess what this room used to be?” Warrington shouted from behind the door. “Take a look around.”
Rossi walked over to the wall. The light wasn’t particularly bright, but his eyes began to adjust.
The first painting appeared to be a naked man, bent over. Looking closely, Rossi realised that his hands were tied, and the man behind him appeared to be ready to beat the naked man with a whip. The painting to the right showed the same man, this time underneath a plank of wood, while the other man piled stones on the wood. Blood was trickling from the corner of the mouth.
“Did this used to be the torture chamber?” Rossi shouted.
Rossi looked at another picture. This time, the same victim was having hot coals poured over him by the second man. Something about the paintings bothered him, as though he was missing something.
“Take a close look at the faces.” the painter replied, as though reading his mind.
Suddenly, it struck him, and Rossi felt cold. The effects of the whisky and the beer wore off immediately, and he felt completely sober.
“It’s me,” he croaked. “And you. You’re torturing me.”
From behind the door, Warrington giggled.
Rossi started looking at the other paintings, a sense of anxiety rising all the time. In one painting Warrington was guillotining him, in another, boiling him alive. Each painting was a variation on the theme – Warrington variously strangled, drowned, eviscerated or mutilated Rossi in a different way on every picture on the wall.
Panic beginning to rise, Rossi thumbed through one of the stacks of canvases piled against the wall: a beheading, sawn in half, something with rats, blood blood and more blood. He was scattering the pictures now, no longer caring where they went. The next stack yielded more horrors, the next more, and further.
He stood up and started to look through the pictures on the table.
“You’re mad,” he screamed, throwing picture after picture to the floor, horror after horror imprinting itself on his brain. “You’re sick. You need help.”
“No,” Warrington said. “You’re the one that needs help. It just won’t be coming, is all.”
Rossi stopped, and sniffed. There was a new smell, but he couldn’t place what it was.
“You’ll enjoy this,” Warrington taunted through the door.
Something was being squirted through the keyhole. Rossi stumbled over to the door and banged on it.
“Let me out,” he shouted. “Let me out, we can work this out.”
The light went out.
Just before he started coughing, Rossi smelled chlorine.
The post “Warrington” first appeared on simoncollis.com and is Copyright © Simon Collis 2018. All rights reserved.