Got to keep moving, thought Horace. If I just keep moving, it will be okay. If I just KEEP MOVING, I won’t think about –
And, instantly, he was back there, back at the bar, back on that terrible night. Six months ago, but burnt into his memory like the graphics on an old Vectrex monitor. A single stupid question was all it had taken.
“What’s the matter, Francine?”
“Nothing’s the matter.”
“It seems like there’s something the matter.”
“Jesus, Horace,” Francine took a long drag on her cigarette. “Leave it alone.”
Part of him wanted to do that. Part of Horace knew this wouldn’t end well. But he was like a man-blob-creature on a ledge made out of spider webs and the urge to jump was overpowering.
“You seem so… distant lately, that’s all.”
“I’m tired.” She shrugged, and drew her knees up under her chin, and Horace tried not to look at her bare legs, because her skin still made him feel light-headed.
“Is it the eating?”
Francine rolled her eyes. “You are pretty bloody hungry all the time.”
“I can’t help that. It’s a pituitary thing.” In his not-exactly-ears his own voice sounded desperately weak.
“It’s not the eating.”
“What then? Please. If you tell me then maybe I can do something about it.”
“Honestly H? You honestly want to know what the matter is?” Francine rubbed her temple like she had a really bad headache, and then fixed him with a sad, steady stare. “I don’t think I even know what you are anymore.”
It was like he’d been smacked in the gut by an alpine tree. Not for the first time Horace found himself grateful for having two horrific blank holes instead of regular eyes, because at least it meant he wasn’t going to cry in front of her.
“You mean the thing sticking out of my back?” he stammered. “We’ve discussed this, Francine. I’m ninety percent sure it’s supposed to be a tail. But it could be an arm and some bad perspective.”
“I don’t mean that. I don’t care about the tail/arm thing, or whether you’re supposed to be an alien or a mutant or a weird dog or whatever the hell. You know that stuff doesn’t bother me.”
“So what DO you mean? Help me out here, I’m not psychic.”
She stared at her shoes, and muttered under her breath: “God, you can be such a dick.”
“Tell me, Francine. Just tell me.” Openly pleading with her. Horace doubted there was any way she could despise him as much as he despised himself right now.
“Fine,” said Francine, a sudden and scary impassiveness washing over her face. “When we met, you told me you wanted to be an artist. You told me you wanted to leave behind great work,” Francine dropped the cigarette into a beer bottle, and shook her head. “I thought it was so romantic.”
“Well what the hell?” Horace was almost relieved to feel anger instead of self-loathing swell inside his combination-torso-head bit. “You think it’s that easy, making it in the art world? I’ve been working, haven’t I? I’ve had three installations put on in the past year. Sure, maybe not at the best galleries, but decent enough.”
“Yeah. The ‘installations’,” said Francine, with air quotes as lethal as cars barreling down a motorway. Horace gasped.
“You didn’t think they were any good?”
“The one where you ran round the park, eating whatever you could whilst avoiding the park guards?”
“What?” Horace waggled his arm-or-possibly-tail defensively. “Intelligent Life described that as a clever parody of todays’ excessive greed and consumerism.”
“It was derivative, Horace. It was almost IDENTICAL to the installation Pac-Man put on at the Tate Modern three years ago.”
“I think that’s an exaggeration,” said Horace, with an unconvincing pout. “I chased off the guards by ringing a bell, not by eating a power-pill. That’s just for starters.”
Francine arched an eyebrow. “Yes, because park guards are famously scared of bells, aren’t they? That part didn’t even make sense.”
Horace looked at her legs. “Sometimes artists will hit upon the same idea. Like a Deep Impact/Armageddon situation. It doesn’t make it derivative.”
“Oh, come OFF it, H! What about the Mystic Woods bullshit?”
“That was a searing meditation on the futility of ambition. I can show you the Wordpress blog where it says that.”
“It was a carbon copy of the Manic Miner exhibition from the Royal Academy last spring.”
“There were, granted, maybe a couple of similarities…-”
“And don’t get me started on your Spiders effort.”
“You didn’t like the Spiders either?” He was flailing.
“It was exactly the same as every other platform-based art installation anyone has ever done, but just more… boring. Truth is,” Francine wasn’t even trying to hide her disdain anymore, “In the entire time we’ve been going out, I don’t think you’ve had a single original idea. I thought you were an artist. But you’re not, H. You’re a hack.”
The word hung there like a big, ugly full stop in their relationship.
“Screw this,” said Horace, downing his Babycham. “I’m going skiing.”
And so here he was. A hack. A variably blue/green indeterminately shaped hack dithering at the side of the motorway. Six months of trying to pluck up some courage. The noise from the traffic was ridiculous, and every time a hardware truck blasted past the rush of dirty air almost knocked him off his feet. He scuttled back and forth along the length of the pavement, so close to the kerb that if he’d had a nose he imagined he’d be able to smell the tarmac. He squinted across at the ski hire place through the thick wall of exhaust fumes, clutched his forty dollars tight, and steeled himself one last time. Horace stepped onto the road.
He never even saw the ambulance coming. But, right before it hit him, he heard Francine’s voice ringing in his head.
“For crying out loud, Horace,” she was saying, “this is just fucking Frogger.”