"Mr Evans, what are you thinking?"
I look up, suddenly distracted from my thoughts, turn my head to meet the eyes of my boss who is staring at me from the cash register. Having been sent over to organise the brushes, there's one in my hands, and I have been gripping the metal ferrule (don't ask me how to spell it) for so long that my skin smells of old change.
Wiping my fingers on my jeans, I reply airily. "Nothing,"
"Is it your manga again?"
When I first arrived on the doorstep that dreadful day, dripping wet and feeling rather sorry for myself, and begged Greg to give me job, I rather stupidly revealed my ambition to him. Ever since then, he's kept asking me about it. I think he finds it rather amusing. He’s a very classical artist, all bowls of fruit and beautiful sunsets in Tuscany, but at the same time he’s fascinated by what I do.
"Something like that," I mutter, bowing my head over the boxes of different width bristles.
Greg doesn't let up even though he's getting on a bit- over fifty- and going rather grey. "What seems to be the problem?"
I sigh, shake my head, try to banish thoughts of you from my mind. "I just, kind of, well... don't know what to draw."
"I have the perfect solution," he says, and picks up one of the books he keeps in a drawer in the desk under the cash register. "Have a look,"
The book's heavy and smells musty, with pages that are stained yellow with age and stick together somewhat.
"Have a look at this," he says, standing behind me and turning the book to a page that looks completely incomprehensible. The letters don't seem to be organised in any way that makes sense, even without my dyslexia. In fact, some of them don't even look English.
"What is this?" I ask, completely confused.
"The muses," he says, his voice resounding on the paint tins and vibrating the canvas he's working on when business is slow. "They're goddesses who encourage the creation of art and music. Then, he begins to recite the list "Calliope, epic poetry. Clio, history. Erato, lyric poetry. Euterpe, music. Melpomene, tragedy. Polyhymnia, choral poetry. Terpischore, dance. Thalia, comedy. And Urania, astronomy."
"Thanks," I say, trying to act grateful, but somehow it falls flat. My voice is flat. I'm flat. Lifeless. Whatever was I thinking, trying to create something, when I can't even hold myself together?
"You seem less than thrilled, Jamie." smiles Greg as he returns to the cash register and his still life. He's a good boss, really, more like a kindly uncle than a boss. Kind of reminds me of a teddy, a slightly battered grizzly bear with a heart of gold and a deep, roaring chuckle. "What seems to be the problem?"
"It's just, there doesn't seem to be a muse for manga."
Well, there was, once. For me. But you're gone, and I don't care. I don't care. I don't care, and if I tell myself that often enough, maybe I'll believe it. "They don't seem relevant to me."
"Oh," he says, raising one eyebrow in a questioning way. With the brush already in his hand, I can tell he's itching to get back to his canvas, but wants to leave me with something meaningful to chew on. "Why not?"
"They're all girls."
"Well then, we have our answer. What you need to do is create yourself a muse. One that can relate to you. Take one of those sketchpads- the blue ones, which fall apart; we can't sell them so someone might as well get some use out of them- and get cracking. By the end of the week, I want to see that you've created a character."
"but..." I attempt to argue "What about work?"
"Does it look busy?" he chuckles. "And if you re-arrange those brushes once more, all the bristles will fall out. Anyone would think you were an old man like me."
His attention switches completely to his painting, as if a curtain has fallen between us, so wrapped up n his creativity that I've ceased to exist. So I continue to put the brushes in the slots for them according to size, a mindless job I could do with my eyes shut. Muses, huh? What a stupid idea.
But when the brushes are all organised in size order, and the paint pots by colour, and Greg goes off on his lunch break, I do take one of the ruined sketchpads from the store and open it, thoughtfully chewing my pencil. Not to create a muse, but to follow the thread back to how I lost one.