The Face: Part 1

This is a novella (a short story that’s a bit too big to be a short story) that I wrote over a decade ago.  Since it’s too long to publish in one go on the Internet, I thought I’d do it in a series. Hope you like it!


The Face

The painting came on a grey autumn morning, riding on the back of Peter’s truck. Jane would never forget that day: It rained later on, but right then the wind was strong enough to pull the wrapping cloth away and make poor Peter chase it around the yard.

Peter worked as a night guard at the Dunns. The Dunns – named after the founding family – was a small shoe factory about ten miles away from their house. Peter got a job there after he wrecked his knee and couldn’t count on his football skills to provide the two of them with the daily bread.

He always joked about it though.

He’d been working at the Dunns for almost two years when the painting came. When it came. Jane couldn’t put it any other way: Peter didn’t bring it. It came.

So it was one of those ugly, grey, freezing Tuesday mornings, around half-six, and there she was, standing in her purple robe, waiting to hear the engine roar as she stared at the big Snoopy mug with the plate on top to keep the coffee warm. Black. That’s the way Peter drank it. Said it suited him. A big black coffee for her man.

The truck pulled up the front yard and Jane flinched. She knew the ritual: He’d come in, heavy boots on the front porch – and staying on the front porch – and he’d come inside in his socks, he’d grab her, kiss her and stroke her hair. Then she’d give him the Snoopy mug and he’d take one long swig, set it down, smack his lips, go “mm-hmm” and say that he just loved the taste of his wife’s coffee right after his wife’s lips. Then she’d laugh, and the day would begin.

There had been a time when she would spend those mornings – grey ones, sunny ones – wishing that the ritual would change; today, maybe tomorrow. But after a while she spent mornings – grey ones, sunny ones – telling herself that rituals were good, that they meant something, that they gave life steadiness; something like an iron bar you could hang on to when your ship was being stormed to pieces – and boy, did she know about storms.

Like the day the painting came.

Peter didn’t come straight in that morning. Jane was looking at the Snoopy mug, telling herself about how good rituals are and all that, and suddenly she realised that Peter was still outside, by the truck, calling her.

She wondered if she should take the mug with her but decided not to.

She went out to the front porch.

“Mornin’, baby! What’s happenin’?” Her voice was always hoarse this early.

Peter waved and walked behind the truck. “Mornin’, sugar. Got you somethin’, thought you should see it before I brought it in.”

All Jane could see was a big flat object, covered in a white cloth. Looked like a window. “What’s that?” she asked, starting to get suspicious like any rational woman at a moment like this: the moment when he brings something into the house, and that something is not expected.

Peter straightened the object and Jane mechanically placed herself in front of the door, like a guard.

Peter stretched out his hand.

Jane took a deep breath. It was cold out here.

Peter pulled the cloth off.

Jane didn’t breathe out. She just stared at it. And it stared back. Because that was what it was.

A face. That was the first thing that struck her. A face. The fact that it was a painting sank in later.

Or maybe it never did.

She was speaking now, fast. “There’s no way on earth that thing is coming into the house. No way.”

Peter’s face fell. “You don’t like it? C’mon, baby, it’s art. Kinda weird, sure, but that’s the whole thing about it. It’s modern art!”

Jane kept shaking her head. “No. No. No!

And then Peter looked down at his feet. He did that when he got serious. “Look, just listen to me for a second – there’s a story here.” Remember old Piper Jack?” Piper Jack used to teach at an aviation school, teaching folks to fly Piper Cherokees. After crashing with one of his students, he developed a bad case of the shakes that eventually beat him down to the lonely old drunk everyone knew him to be: an old alky with no one to share his war stories except a mangy brown tomcat that pooped all over the house. When they found his rotting body earlier in the summer – a steaming hot week after he died – the coroner put down the cause of death as either the bottle or the cat’s filth.

Jane stopped shaking her head and peeled her eyes off the painting. It didn’t take its eyes off her. “Piper Jack? What about him?”

“Well, here’s the story. Remember we used to think the old man had no family? Well, it turns out he had this cousin, right? So, since he didn’t bother making a will before he passed, all of his stuff – including this painting – went to her. I can’t imagine where he even got it from – he didn’t strike me as the artistic type. Anyway, get this”, he said, and pulled a folded piece of paper out of his back pocket, “when the cousin came over to collect Jack’s things, she finds this note taped behind it. It says: ‘In the event of my death, this painting is to pass on to Peter Belder, for his kindness towards me during my old age.’ Can you believe that? I just helped him cross the street a couple of times – that’s all. Didn’t like it one bit either, him reeking of whisky like he did. Anyway, the note is signed and all, so the cousin comes in yesterday evening at work – very polite and all, didn’t look like old Jack one bit – and gives me this painting. It spooked me at first, but after spending the whole night with it, it kinda grew on me.”

Jane tried to sympathise. “Baby, I still don’t see why this… this thing has to go into our house. You want to keep it, fine, but do we have to put it in public view?”

Peter shook his head. “You don’t get it? It’s not about the painting. When I asked the cousin what she was going to do with the rest of Piper Jack’s stuff, she told me that it was going to either charity or auction. Scattered to the four winds. So you see”, he said and looked at it, “this painting here is all that remains of the old fella. It was a present. It don’t feel right, just burying it somewhere, know what I mean?”

Jane sighed. He had a point. And now that she took a calmer look at it, the face didn’t seem as hideous as it first did. It actually seemed a bit friendly too, something like a faint smile on its lips. In fact, the artist must have been a genius – the face seemed to change expressions when you looked at it from different angles.

“So what’d you say, baby?” Peter was giving her puppy eyes as the final resort.

“Okay”, she said, still looking at the face that suddenly seemed satisfied. “Okay. But I say which wall it goes up, right?”

Peter beamed. “Sure, honey. Whatever you say. Thanks.” He began to untie it. “I love you”, he said, but she had gone back into the kitchen.

By the time he brought the face inside, the coffee had gone cold. He didn’t even touch it though, preoccupied as he was with their new acquisition. Jane poured the black liquid down the sink while Peter went down to the basement to get a hammer and nails. It was later, much later, that Jane realised that their ritual had been broken.

He didn’t kiss her either.

To be continued…

On writing

The biggest problem I face as a writer is figuring out what to write, and then how to write it. I want every word I type to be in of itself witty, profound and life-changing, and at the same time be part of a greater, stunning, verbal construct that is also witty, profound and life-changing, but also greater than the sum of its witty, profound and life-changing parts.

In the normal world, they call this “analysis paralysis”. You think about something so much, so deeply and so widely that you overwhelm your brain – the part that matters, anyway. You’re trying to change too many gears at the same time, and your car has stalled.

So it goes with writing.

Everybody writes. We have the Internet now, and everyone can instantly go from brain to keyboard to the world, unfiltered and entitled and expectant. It’s out there now, so it has to be read. And statistically speaking, it probably will be.

And as the law of supply and demand dictates, when there’s a lot of supply, demand moves onto better things. Literally – people will demand higher quality.

So it goes with writing. With so much out there, instantly available and immediately accessible, the bar rises and floats to the top. Natural selection ensues and everything cheap, trivial, mundane and dull perishes into oblivion.

How do you get read today? How do you grab the attention of a postmodern, apathetic, “seen-it-all”, hard-to-impress, hipster audience? Humour? Self-deprecation? “Real talk”?

Fact is, I have no idea. I’m just here to write.

Except I want every single word I write to radiate with wit, profundity and life-changing force. I want every tap on my keyboard to echo a step closer to the New World. I want you to read poetry or prose, I want you to start nodding in assent, then to get that tingle in your chest, that smile on your face, that elevation, that transcendence, that ungluing from the solid world and into the ether of the mind, I want my words to subdue your surroundings, to dim the lights, to quiet the noise, to isolate you and cage you and hit you blow after blow after blow with verbal punches until the word, the page, the paragraph, the text has melded into your world, consumed it and swallowed it whole and left you sinking into the soft vacuum of narrative, character, voice, story, meaning, theme, closure, plot device, cliché, first, second, third act and then gently or forcefully re-enter you back into your same old world with a different you, an impressed you, a richer you and an affected you.

Except, like sieving through the riverbed for gold, most of what you find is age-old carbon.

Rocks. Stones. Pebbles. The stuff you just chuck back.

So it goes with writing. Poetry and prose play ping-pong and the writer’s in the middle trying to catch the little white ball. That’s me – and if you write – and I mean if you write meaningfully – that’s probably you too.

This is where, in the 722 words of this text, unstructured and unedited, instantly available and immediately accessible, I would lay some writing wisdom on you. You know, the kind that is witty, profound and life-changing. The sort of thing that writing websites would quote if I ever became a famous writer.

Except I have nothing; and that’s the point.

I can’t tell you how to write. No-one can. Sure, there are rules, and most of them you can’t break. But if this rambling text, in its 722 words, means something to you, chances are you already know the rules and you already know that’s not what I’m talking about.

So if you write, write. That’s it. And don’t tell others how to write. Let them find their own way. Let them produce their own rocks and stones and pebbles – and somewhere there, they’ll finally get some gold going. And that gold in the mud will actually mean something, and it will be read and it will affect and it will be worth it.

Demand is up and doesn’t care. It wants to feed with words and air. My words are fodder and despair, and yet I solemnly declare that here I sit upon my chair, caught between poetry and prose, trying to write something witty, profound and life-changing.

— Nik

Short story: Vincent

Sometimes, it is too much to take.

Sometimes it is too much to handle.

Sometimes it’s just too much.


Vincent opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. He was sweating. In the moonlight, he could see the shadows from the branches outside, dancing gently in the midnight breeze. Next to him, Sarah mumbled something in her sleep and scratched her nose.

His thoughts started to play, just like in the old days. He struggled to keep them on the bright side.

Think happy thoughts, Vincent. Happy thoughts.

Think about your life. It’s been good up to now, hasn’t it? College, love, job, family. Isn’t it worth it? Why ruin it?

Think about Sarah, her bright eyes, her kind heart, her generous spirit. A wonderful woman.

Think about the kids. Tommy, with his baseball cap, wielding a bat as tall as him. Tommy, with ice cream all over his face laughing and squirming when his Dad tries to clean him up.

Lizzy. Oh, Lizzy with her big mother eyes and gentle manners. His little princess who cried over that dead bird she found in the garden as if it was the greatest loss in the world. Lizzy, with her little smile and her long ponytail.

Think happy thoughts, Vincent.

Don’t do it.

Think about that promotion, waiting for you just around the corner. Employee review is only a week away and Jonas said you’re moving upstairs, to Management. And if Jonas says something, it comes true.

Come on, Vincent. Don’t blow it. You’ve buried the craving for years, and you can keep at it. Maybe it hasn’t gone away, maybe it won’t, but the fact is, you’ve kept it under control. And under wraps – that’s real important, Vincent, ‘cause if anyone finds out, if you get caught, then woe is you. It’ll be over; Sarah, the kids, the job, the promotion – even that fishing boat you’re saving up for. No trout, no salmon, no tilapia. You give in to the craving, and you can kiss it all goodbye.

Goodbye. You hear, Vincent? Just stay in bed, breathe, cuddle up with Sarah if you must, but you just stay there and let the craving pass.

But it didn’t.

Minutes dragged on, and shadows grew longer, they stretched from the ceiling to the walls, long, wicked, gnarled fingers that reached out to him, and spread over his body and squeezed him so hard that his breath caught and his heart tightened.

He couldn’t believe it. This time, it was bad – just like the last time it happened, some twenty years ago. It was at camp. Him and his team had just gotten back from a secret night swim at the lake and snuck back into their house without anyone knowing. And then, laying in bed and staring at the ceiling – just like now – Vincent saw the shadows growing long and the fingers crawling toward him, slowly, menacing, horrible and terrible and downright evil. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. His heart tightened.

And then it came, the craving. It was the first time, and it was powerful, a rabid beast, a crazed wolfman, that uncontrollable monster that tore up from the depths of his soul and grabbed his little body and shook it like an earthquake, like a rolling wave, like the very scream of the abyss itself.

Just like now.

That night, twenty years ago, Vincent jumped out of bed, still in his underwear and run out of the house. He stopped for a second, holding his breath, palpitating, his pulse pounding in his ears – do it do it DO it DO IT – and then his legs took over and he ran like a maniac, like an animal, like the wind, and he tripped, he fell and just kept going on all fours, on threes on twos, until he reached the forest and then he plunged deeper and deeper into it, cutting himself on the bushes and the low branches and the stones.

He stopped. He was in a small opening, in the dark, alone and he wasn’t afraid. He looked up at the full moon, and his eyes widened. He took it in like a drink, the white light glistening on his sweat and blood and he smiled.

Then he did it.

A little before dawn, Vincent came back to the camp. He dived in the cold lake to wash himself up, and snuck back into the house.

He slept only two hours, but he woke up more rested than he’d ever been. He ate double breakfast, and was non-stop for the rest of the day. He felt stronger, powerful – almost invincible.

But that evening, he knew. He knew he couldn’t do it again. He couldn’t just give into the craving. He couldn’t allow it again. Because then they might know. He was lucky the first time, but if they found out they’d tell his parents and then who knows what they’d do to him. They’d send him away, that was for sure. Maybe they’d lock him up somewhere, maybe the basement and throw food at him every now and then. No, they couldn’t find out. Never, ever, ever.

Never. Maybe he’d lose his family over it. His job. The boat and the fishing.

Don’t do it, Vincent. Stay in bed, let the fingers crawl past you. Morning will come.

But sometimes, it is too much to take.

Sometimes it is too much to handle.

Sometimes it’s just too much.

Vincent got out of bed, still in his underwear. The monster, the wolfman, the beast, the animal, it was there again, swelling inside him like a tornado, the earthquake that shook him to his core again and again, driving him mad with every vibration, breaking down his soul with every pulsing wave – do it do it DO it DO IT – and that was it.

He went to the kids bedroom first. They were asleep. He did it there and went back to Sarah. When he did it there too, she was asleep.

And now? No forests to run to. No lake to wash into. Where? WHERE? His heart pounded like a hammer and he held his breath.

The basement! He could finish there.

In the moonlight pouring through the narrow windows, Vincent did it. He did again and again and he let it drive him, carry him with its power and force. His sweat glistened in the white light again, just like that night twenty years ago. He already felt invincible. It was like he had been asleep all those years between that night and now, but it was there again, the beast, the monster, the animal, filling him, swelling inside him with every sweat-soaked motion, driving him, feeding him, taking him to –

“What are you doing?”

He stopped and stood still. Sweat dripped from his hair, but it felt cold now.

Behind him, Sarah switched the light on, killing what little of the mood was left.


He didn’t answer. He just stood there, his naked back to her.

“Vincent?” A little scared now. “What were you doing down here?”

There was no way out of it. She’d seen him. She saw him doing it. It was over. There was only one thing he could do. Poor Sarah. She’d never know what hit her.

Vincent breathed out, and turned around. All the power seemed to have left him. With slow, bare steps, he walked over to his wonderful wife and took her trembling hand into his. Then he looked into her eyes.

“It’s ballet. Tchaikovsky – the Swan Lake. I saw it when I was a kid. I can only do the opening moves.”


Later on, lying on the couch, Vincent stared at the ceiling again. No shadows. No fingers. No nothing.

Sarah had been upset, but she left him with a “we’ll talk about it in the morning”. He didn’t follow her upstairs. He needed to be alone.

He felt calm and good. He got caught and that seemed to take something out of it. Made it weaker. Lesser.

One thing was certain: he could never do it again. He shouldn’t. He was lucky tonight, but who knew who would see him next time.

Next time? There wouldn’t be a next time.

Vincent closed his eyes and fell asleep.

Never, ever, ever.

Bits & Pieces: They come to me

You might not know this, but I write. A lot. And like many writers, I often write experimentally. Try things out. So I have this folder on my computer labelled “Bits and pieces”. It contains short bouts of stuff I’ve written either for fun/expression, either to try out a new style, or even as a part of a future novel. They’re not complete. They’re not short stories. But instead of letting them collect digital cobwebs, I thought I’d polish the occasional piece and share it on the blog. So here’s one. Make of it what you like.

They come to me. From all over, I see them drawing near, like ants on a dead rat. From where I stand, I can see them coming for miles – little lines of humanity’s leftovers, small, sad, tepid ghosts dragging the chains of themselves behind them. It’s what’s left of us. It’s what we left for ourselves. And now, on that endless pursuit for meaning, this human detritus still gets on its feet and shuffles over to the mountain, the one landmark over a charred landscape.

They come over and stand at the foot of the mountain, looking up. They don’t know, they just feel for now. It’s rational bypass now, all gone, the logic, the analysis, the mind, the what-got-us-here, it’s just instinct of the basest kind, homing on some rock protrusion in a flat horizon, something different in the nothing that surrounds us.

They look up, watching me. And I look down, watching them. It’s not mercy, or grace. It’s not the pursuit of meaning, happiness or anything like that. It’s just a gaze. Eye contact. Species recognition. Acknowledgment between the damned.

In the grey sky, the light slowly collapses. Dusk. Night. No stars. No moon. Just the dark and the land spreading at my feet, twinkling now with a thousand little fires and tiny dark figures huddling quietly around them.

It’ll be cold tonight. It’s cold every night.

It’s all we have left.

Short story: Fired

The three of them sit in a semicircle, the Director in the middle, HR to my left and my line manager to my right. Door behind me. Window across, dark with the March dusk and a miserable rain pattering on the double-glazed, soundproof, insulating, corporate glass.

Nature doesn’t usually mark the occasion. Babies are born during hurricanes. Lotteries are won in a blizzard. A guy jumps out of the twentieth floor of his apartment building on a sunny-blue summer day and sprays the warm sidewalk with his brains while seagulls fly above.

Nature doesn’t care.

Someone’s talking and my employee-conditioning kicks in and I pay attention. The Director’s pudgy face contorts in a semi-sad smile and his mouth kickstarts the stage play we are about to engage in by invoking the first line of his managerial script.

“How are you feeling?”

Of course, honesty isn’t expected. Bound by the pseudo-social contract of professional interaction, I also smile sheepishly and mutter something between “okay” and a verbal shrug.

Phase one is over and it’s time for his soliloquy. He speaks in the measured, paced, practised and soft tone of the veteran manager, but when I look up from the table and catch his eyes, all I see is autopilot.

He uses a lot of filler. Words like “performance”, “output”, “competence” and “leverage” fill the air between blow-softening neutrals like “expected”, “observed”, “discussed” and “decided”.

I nod to the music, but I can’t help keeping one eye on my watch. It takes him forty-seven seconds to go through the obligatory spiel, to put me at ease, to avoid conflict, to prevent negotiation, to minimise the chance that I’ll come back tomorrow with a case of home-made Molotov cocktails.

I feel tired. Forty-seven seconds, and then he finally gets to it.

“We all think that it would be better for you to not continue in this role.”

And just like that, the ritual – and my job – is over. Of course, there’s still some epilogue, but the main story has ended. Some live happily ever after. Some others, not so much.

They are expecting some reaction from me. For a moment, I entertain the idea of saying nothing and just staring impassively out the window. Lack of affect. Psychopathy. Scare them a bit. But then that “burn-no-bridges” instinct overcomes me, so I sigh a little and throw on fake stoicism. “Well, some things just don’t work out.”

They all nod, relieved. Whichever of them writes the report on this, they’ll tick the box that says I took it well.

The HR lady rattles off some information about contracts, final payments and paperwork. Then the Director looks at me with managerial puppy eyes and asks, “Is there anything you’d like to say?”

Like that’d make any difference. But I guess they give all the condemned a chance to final words, so I blather something that doesn’t exactly blame Management, but doesn’t exactly absolve them either.

They feel it. My line manager – ex line manager – looks uncomfortable.

Well. At least he’ll have a job tomorrow.

The rest goes fast. They get on with the scripted noise about how they wish me well and that I’ll probably have questions in the next couple of days and shouldn’t hesitate to email them.

Then they take my staff ID card. Of course, they deactivated it before the meeting even started.

The Director stands up and then the rest of us do. I breathe through my nose as my ex line manager storms out of the office without even saying goodbye.

The Director walks me out of the building and tries to pass it off as being friendly. It’s not. Company policy dictates that he has to escort me off the premises. Not a bad idea, actually.

Before I know it, I’m in a taxi on my way home. Five pm, on a rainy Tuesday. When I get home, I don’t turn on the lights. I lock the door behind me, walk into the lounge and sit quietly on the sofa, listening to the rain outside.

For the first time in my life, I’m fired.

Spanish translation