Try-Hard – Short Story by Francesca Newton


Second Place in the Letter Review Prize for Short Stories

New Fiction by Francesca Newton

April 14, 2023

If you have to blame someone for what happened outside the gallery, blame my father. The slug.

He sat life out, let reruns of American sitcoms fill the hole where his mind was meant to be. He was happy with exactly what he already had, what generations of man had already built on his behalf. He refused to take any one thing any one inch further.

If there’s one thing I’ve always hated, it’s laziness.

At nine years old I decided knowing myself meant knowing that I wasn’t going to be like him. I remember the moment, on Bring Your Dad to School Day, standing at the red classroom door, sensing he wouldn’t come, and being glad of it. I’ve forgotten the excuse; what stayed with me was the motivation. I needed to push beyond the future the universe had lined up for me by making me his son. I was going to be something so much higher.

My mother saw it in me, at least. She wasn’t like him either. She could have had her own brilliance, I think—maths, music, linguistics, anything—if she hadn’t subordinated herself to his complacency. But she knew. Each show she came to, at school first, and then at college, and then at university, was an apology for him, for the way he was and her part in it.

Her I forgave. I’d stand behind her at those shows as she looked at a painting and speak, my chin on her shoulder, my mouth at her ear. This piece was about the fall of Lucifer, I’d say, about the felling of the Tree of Life. My subjects were always the foundations: what makes me me and what makes you you and what makes the space between us twist and contort the way it does. She’d clasp her hands at her chest like she was in prayer, and lean into the eddy of colour, and say, ‘Yes. Yes.’ 

My tutors saw it too. They told me they did. When the last of those shows was over and my mother had left, Joanne came to where I was standing in front of Lucifer and touched my elbow.

‘I’m calling it,’ she said. The bulb of a plastic glass of cheap grad show Malbec was balanced on two fingers, and she gestured in a way that made a little red liquid slip over the side and drop on the linoleum floor. ‘You work fucking hard. You’re going to be a big one.’

As an expression of faith, she said, she was buying the Tree of Life. I told her she could have it for free. I wasn’t in it for the cash.

I had to reach an audience, of course, so other pieces did sell—the anger of Noah went to a collector in Falmouth, the sacrifice of Iphigenia to a buyer in LA. The dealer, when she came to my studio to collect them, poked her elbow into my ribs and stage-whispered the sales were ‘no small fish’. That had to be it, I thought. That moment, that body-to-body collision. The sign my existence was about to begin.

But art tests you. It tests your resolve. Eleven months on, seven days a week spent in front of a canvas, my fingers cramped around the handle of a brush, nothing else had gone. No galleries were interested in exhibiting me. I was still a root in the darkness.

I didn’t care. I’d wait. I would have waited until all the paint in the world had turned to bright dust before I gave it up and let myself be him. The patience was part of the skill.

My father, in his doped state, did care. He resented it. The costs of the studio and the materials, yes, but the shame too. The effort I made, which showed up his failures like white light on the surface of water.

He blamed me more as weeks rolled into months, as eleven months rolled into a year. I came home one evening to find my parents at the kitchen table, the house gaunt, empty of the cooking smells that filled it every night. ‘We’ve been waiting for you,’ my father said. I laughed.

He asked me to sit down and folded his arms, right over left. I noticed, looking at him straight for once, that his eyes were different sizes—the right a resting almond, the left a pure circle. I should paint him, I thought. The envy of Herod.

‘I know how much you care about your art.’ He uncoupled his arms and crossed them again, left over right. ‘But it might be the time to think about some other options.’

Tom’s firm, he explained, had a slot for me. I’d be working for one of my father’s brash friends. Making adverts.

‘The reality is that we can’t afford to keep supporting you like this.’  

I thought about working in an office, relegating painting to the stolen brackets of the day. I thought about performance reviews and coffee sucked through a plastic slit that burns your tongue. I thought about coming home and seeing my father in the cool light cast by the fridge, scratching his stomach through his T-shirt and asking me what I wanted to watch tonight.

I thought he hated me more than I’d understood.

‘You’ve never cared about my work,’ I said.

My father sighed and rubbed at a patch of dry skin on his forehead with his fourth finger. ‘The job was your mother’s idea.’

My mother, on my left, was looking at a picture tacked to the wall above his head. I’d painted it in primary school—a sun glaring down on a park full of people walking their dogs. The sun was a heavy swirl of orange and red, yellow and purple, made of so much paint that the page was raised, casting a shadow on the empty space below. Her eyes were watering, like she was forcing herself to stare into the real point of light.

‘Is that true?’ I asked. Under the table I clenched my right hand into a fist and felt the residue of dried paint crack over the knuckles.

‘Yes,’ she said, not shifting her gaze. ‘Yes.’

My father waited for a moment, soaking. This was his bliss. Then he said: ‘Just give it a go. Just try.’

The people in Tom’s office didn’t want to know me. I was fine with that. They resented the way I’d got the job. I resented the fact none of them had the vision to imagine their lives as anything other than an endless stretch of grey, cold and flat like a palette knife.  

Only my manager, Luca, reached over the barricades. The first time I arrived at the office, sweating from the commute into the ‘enterprise district’ where steel and glass blocked out the light, he showed me to my desk and sat on it, legs crossed at the ankles, in such a practiced gesture of corporate nonchalance I couldn’t keep my face straight.

‘What’s funny?’ he asked.

‘All of this.’

He smiled in a way that made clear his annoyance.  

‘We like funny. But it’s effort that really matters.’ He picked up a stapler and examined its insides. ‘Work hard and you’ll go a long way.’

I looked at my desktop background. A stock photo of a shoal of yellow fish, their eyes black and uneven, like my father’s.

The problem wasn’t trying. The problem was what I was trying for. Before I’d tried to make work to outlive me—work that could capture the eyes and the ears and the mouth for hours, and the mind for days, the heart for years after. Here I was trying for the tiniest crumbs of the subconscious, the evolved-into-absence part of people’s thoughts that forced their hand toward the red toothpaste tube on the shelf instead of the blue.

Editing a washing powder ad from photos of kids throwing baked beans. Deciding whether green or pink was better as a backdrop for a dating app logo. Dragging my soul through a list of two hundred fonts to judge which would best burst out of the flickering seconds of attention people gave it as it sped past on the side of a bus and infect their bloodstreams. It was turning me to stone.

But I picked out the children’s clothes in bright white. I spent hours on the fonts, tracing the outlines of Ys and Os with my finger, asking what their curves and corners demanded of me. Neither the pink nor the green suited the dating app; I countered with a heavy red, the colour of luxury and desire.

The patience is always part of the skill.

At the start of the fourth week Luca came back to my desk and laid a thick hand on my shoulder.

‘You’re doing good work,’ he said, which meant I was making him money. ‘How are you finding it? Anything I can do to help you settle in?’  

I was testing the exposure and contrast on a photograph of a woman eating a pineapple-flavoured low-fat yoghurt. I told him everything was fine.

He turned his hands backwards on the edge of the desk and leaned again like he was stretching a calf. From his knuckles grew sprigs of pale hair.

‘Do you miss painting?’ he asked. ‘Tom mentioned it was your thing before this.’

My finger hovered over the mousepad. The woman was looking into the camera with her mouth closed around a spoon, green eyes flaring. The pot she held was empty white space; the logo would be edited in later, along with thinner hands and longer eyelashes.

I turned to him and set my face in a smile. ‘Do you have anything harder?’ The air felt cold on my teeth. ‘A bigger project. Something more demanding.’

On the commute the next morning my phone pinged with his answer to my request: brainstorm ideas for this clothing line. There was a link to a brand, shops I’d seen in the centre of the city full of proud, preened people, all neutral shades and long hair and black boots with soles the width of my thigh.

Specifically, the email went on, this coat.

Luca had attached a picture from the site—a wide man in cream trousers creased down the front, no shirt, and a great black overcoat that collapsed over his frame like a waterfall splitting apart.

I diverted my route to my old art shop. Helena asked me where I’d been as I dug through the shelves and paid; I gestured to my button-down and grey trousers and she laughed and rolled her eyes. ‘A real job. Gross.’ Back in the office I printed a sign saying ‘IN USE’ in black block letters and tacked it to the conference room door.  

No one asked what I was doing. No one cared. I stretched the roll of art paper out the length of the table and started to paint.

I worked for a week.

No drugs. No witchcraft. Just effort.

The night before the ad was finished, I took a beer from the fridge and went into the living room to sit with my father. He had been comradely since I took the job; warm, even. It was what I’d expected. He saw me as part of him, now, rather than a competitor, and worthy of affection. But it was all contingent.

The alcohol and the laugh track on the TV made the room cloudlike. One of the characters was trying to explain to his girlfriend it wasn’t him she saw kissing someone else in the park, but she wouldn’t listen to him.

We watched the story resolve itself along the usual path. The credits slipped into adverts for supermarkets and shower gel, holidays, smartphones, delivery companies, videogames.

My father’s voice interrupted a jingle for a cherry-flavoured cider. ‘Thank you,’ he said.

The brown leather of the sofa stretched out for miles between us.

‘For what?’

‘For listening to me.’ He swallowed. His eyes were still on the screen, but I knew he’d stopped watching. ‘I know it hurts to grow up.’

I picked at a bit of blue paint on my hand.

‘Would you be happy?’ I asked. ‘If I was good at this?’

My father coughed. He leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. After a few seconds a soft hum left the inside of his throat. The title sequence for the next episode geared up, and I realised he was asleep.

On Friday afternoon I knocked on Luca’s door and asked him if he’d come and have a look. He grinned and followed me back to the conference room, where we stood together and surveyed the art paper under the strip lights.

I felt sick.

Luca moved closer. His lips twitched, like he was trying to decipher a text. He raised a hand and ran two fingers around a circle in the bottom right corner. Then he backed up to the wall, head pressing against the plaster, and put his hands in his pockets.

Finally he turned to the door and walked out.

I went to the kitchen and stirred instant coffee powder into hot water. I scrolled the emails I’d ignored for the last five days. I spoke to Nicola on the next desk, feigning interest in her dull weekend plans—the farmers’ market, and then a train north to see her sister’s new baby. She complained that Luca never liked her ideas, and I nodded like I understood.

At five o’clock I started to worry he might not come back. I was surprised at how bad the coat looked on him when he did.

Luca was a man who preferred the metallic sheen of cheap suits, legs that landed baggy over white trainers. I wondered how many pay packets the coat had demanded of him. Still, he was smiling—the beatific, stupid smile of someone convinced they’ve just bought the one thing that will set everything else in their life right.  

Nicola sprang up as he came in and stopped him, not noticing the coat, asking questions about the deadlines for the NGO campaign. I went back to the conference room and rolled the advert into a crinkled scroll, and then slipped behind Luca, down the escalators and out onto the street, and hailed a cab.

Over thumping electronic music the driver asked me what the paper was. I ignored him and looked out of the window at the tired sky.

Groups of tourists and schoolchildren on trips were gathered in the square in front of the gallery when I got out, chatting, laughing together, eating plastic-wrapped sandwiches, looking at their phones. Banners for a pop art exhibition whistled in the wind. A busker played a sickly acoustic version of an ’80s pop song. It filled the space like the voice of God.

The front wall was a wash of white stone. I unrolled the advert and taped it up.

There was nothing, at first. The low clatter of electrified strings as the busker’s guitar fell to the ground.

Then the crowd shifted as one. Like a distant flock of birds turning back on itself in the sky.

You know what happened next. The broken glass. The slash of red released as bare skin meets paving stones. A hand on a chest, a green-painted nail pressing into exposed flesh. The seizure of the limbs when desire strikes, the drop in the facial muscles as whatever thought moved them the moment before is washed from the mind.

There simply weren’t enough to go around.

It didn’t come near me. The madness. I watched. The strands of smoke arching and breaking like spines, the children with their searchlight eyes. I thought about the wine-stained inside of my tutor’s mouth. My mother’s hymnic affirmations.

I thought about the thin, flat shape of my father. The bleached tar of his veins.

If you have to blame someone, blame him. But I don’t. We all wish someone would try.

Francesca Newton

I’m a 26-year-old writer and editor based in London. My fiction has appeared in Ellipsis Zine and Reflex Press, among other outlets, and will feature in the upcoming Bath Flash Fiction Anthology. I’m currently developing my first novel.

Artwork by Kita Das