Excerpt from The Muse

Chapter 1

I had two goals when I took my first shaky steps into the dingy lecture theatre; number one: make a friend, and number two: don’t die.  Not dying may seem like an obvious outcome to most people, and easy to achieve, but due to the overwhelming feeling of impending doom that washed over me every time I attempted to enter dark, enclosed spaces, I wasn’t always convinced of this outcome.  Each time, my heart raced away in my chest like a hundred stampeding horses and I honestly believed that those where destined to be my last moments on earth, despite the fact that they never were.

I’d had a problem with enclosed spaces for as long as I could remember and my mother hadn’t been any use in helping me to figure out why.  I think that’s the reason I was happy to be going so far from home—if you called two hours by car a long way—when it was time to go off to university, because I wanted to prove to my mother, and to herself, that I could do it.  I knew that if I was any closer to home it would be all too easy just to run back there whenever I felt a little uncomfortable with the world, plus it would be far too easy for Mum to just drive past and check up on me unannounced.  And of course, I didn’t want that.

I continued taking more steps into the foreboding space and let the door swing shut behind me.  The air was dusty.  I could feel my lungs beginning to constrict, my stomach tying itself in knots.  Concentrating on breathing, I forced my legs to walk on, without pause.  That was the best way to do it, I had discovered, from years of fighting this thing.  Giving into it would only mean becoming one of those obsessive-compulsive types, the ones who never left their houses, and let their once small fears grow to the size of a paralysing fungus, keeping them prisoner behind their four walls of misery.  Those people were stupid—I didn’t want to turn out like them.

I kept my focus straight ahead, and when I had chosen a seat—one on the far side, in the first row of the tiered seating—I locked onto it and walked directly to it.  I felt light headed by the time I sat down because my lungs had stopped working, and I needed a few seconds to calm herself.  Everything was fine after that.  The room was big enough.  There was space around me.

I took some slow breaths.

Her eyes shifted left.  The four white letters of the emergency exit sign were illuminated there, above the door.  I can get out, I soothed herself.   Finally beginning to relax, I eased my bag, which I had been cradling in my lap, to the floor, and I consciously released the remaining tension from my muscles, one bit at a time, while watching people trail into the room.

It was my first day of university, and I had been worried sick about coming here.  For the first time in my life I found herself alone.  There was no one to tell my when I should go somewhere and what I should do with each minute of my day.  There were no bells to indicate the start or end of classes, and strangers populated the busy paths and streets, as well as the trams and shops I frequented.  Even my own house—a share house—was filled with people I had just met.

I scanned the room, waiting for the class to begin—so far only a dozen or so students had arrived.  At the back, in the far corner, was a pair of goths, or possibly emos—I was never quite sure of the criteria that had to be met in order to be classified as one type or the other.  There were a few hippies and quite a few sexy-types, the girls wearing tight dresses and the guys in tight shirts to show off their muscles, and there were also some nerdy-looking guys down the front who had neat clothes, perfect hair and glasses that didn’t seem to fit quite right.

I turned to see who was behind me.  One guy was seated there on his own, all the way at the back, in the shadows.  He was already staring down at me so I shifted my eyes quickly away, trying to seem casual about it.  I couldn’t make out what type he was, but I thought he seemed vaguely familiar.  Or maybe not—it had only been a fleeting glance.

As I watched the door a lone sullen-looking girl dressed all in black entered next and sat down in the first seat she came to.  Goth, I thought.  I wondered then what type I was—what others saw me as.  I didn’t think I belonged to any of the groups, just like the man behind me.  Well maybe that was another group, I decided—non-specific.

I breathed some more air slowly in and out through my nose.  So far so good.  I wasn’t sweating anymore, though my heart was still beating a little fast.  There was no need to panic here.  The place was large and I knew I could get out quickly if I needed to.  I flicked my eyes to the side once more, up to the exit-sign, to reassure herself.

Finally, dead on time, the lecturer walked through the door.  He was a short, middle aged man with a long beard and a thick moustache.  He reminded I of the nineteenth century painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  He even wore his thick black hair swept over to one side, just like the famous painter, and the dainty black rimmed glasses balanced on his nose were in a similar vein to that of Toulouse.  He began delivering his speech as soon as he reached the podium.

The students muttered to each other.  I took notes.  So much information was given out in such a short space of time—names, dates, email addresses, websites.  Ten minutes into the lecture I put down my pen and stretched my hand.  my head snapped up all at once when the door to the theatre swung open abruptly.  It banged loudly against the wall behind it and a tall, lanky man in dishevelled clothing strolled in.  His hair was frizzy and mostly stuck up, and his stubble looked more than a few days old.  The door closed itself quietly behind him.  The room fell silent.

Toulouse stared at the man, looking annoyed.  “Welcome to Contemporary Arts 112, Mister…?” he said, with false warmth.

The man stopped in his tracks and turned to face the lecturer as if just noticing him for the first time.  The other students stifled their giggles.

“Huh?” said the latecomer, and stood himself up straighter.  I was embarrassed for the guy, though he himself didn’t seem uncomfortable at all.

“Your name, sir?” Toulouse said, impatiently.

“Oh—Taj,” was his reply.  He remained relaxed.

“What is that?” the older man asked.

“Her name.”  The lanky man looked confused but a smile crept across his face when the students began laughing quietly behind him.

“Is-it-your-first-name, or-your-second-name?”  The short lecturer said every word separately, the way you would to an imbecile if you wanted him to understand you better.

The students laughed again, only this time a little louder.  I cringed for him.

“Both,” came Taj’s reply and he grinned broadly at Toulouse and then around at his audience, who were by now not holding back.  I couldn’t help but let out my own half-snort, half-snicker.  I could never have acted that confidently.  I admired the way this Taj had strutted in, without shame, in front of everyone, late, and smiled his way through it.  The hundreds of staring, scrutinising eyes fixed upon him seemed to have no effect on him.  If it were me in his place, I would rather have sunk quietly into the ground, skipped the lecture, pulled out of my course and driven the two hours back home.  But Taj did none of these things.  He seemed almost to enjoy it.

“Please take a seat—Mr Ta-aj,” said Toulouse, drawing out the vowel sound in his one name, mockingly.

Taj turned and waved to the students, still grinning, as he continued across the front of the small auditorium to the far side, near to where I was seated.  Up close, I noticed with amusement that his trouser legs were two inches too short for him, as were the sleeves of his grass-green shirt.  He turned at the aisle and went up the steps for quite a few rows, before plonking himself down in front of the man I thought I might know.

The lecture continued undisturbed after that, for another twenty minutes or so before the Power Point presentation we were being shown flickered and then turned off, followed by the lights a few seconds later.  There was a joint cry from the students at being suddenly plunged into darkness, and then murmuring began.  my stomach dropped.  Immediately my body became rigid as a paralysing fear washed over me.  It felt like minutes that we were locked in the blackness, though it was probably only seconds, and the whole time I didn’t breathe.  Whenever this sort of thing had happened before, maybe three or four times in total, I would be overcome with an acute case of deja-vu.  The darkness, the enclosed spaces, the panic…  It scared the living daylights out of me.

When the lights came back on once more, a few people clapped, but I just started to breathe again.  Then I spent the next few seconds convincing herself not to just get up and flee.  I stared at the exit sign, making sure it was still there, while Toulouse pressed franticly at some buttons in an attempt to make the Power Point display re-illuminate.  It didn’t.

“If you can all just remain seated and have a bit of patience,” called out the small man in a rather large voice, over the din.  He continued pressing buttons on the computer.  “I’ll go and see if I can sort this out.”  With that, he abruptly gave up his endeavour with the buttons, and pushing his glasses up his nose, he stepped off the little podium, then wiped at his brow as he waddled out of the room.

The other students began talking in earnest after that.  It was their first day and clearly everyone was keen to meet each other.  Regretting my choice of seat, I sat sullenly on my own.  I had convinced herself to stay there, though I didn’t know why.  In my previous class, Art History, I had bombed out in talking to anyone at all, and now, in this class, I was proving a failure yet again.  Just then, voices coming from behind made me turn.  Taj was twisted awkwardly around talking to the guy at the back.  Even the scruffy latecomer had found a friend.

I fidgeted in my seat, feeling self-conscious, and anxious, and disappointed in herself.  If I had been less worried about my stupid claustrophobia-thing when I had first entered, I could have paid more attention to who I was sitting near.  As it turned out, that was no one.  The chairs around me were empty for a five to seven metre radius.

Toulouse had not been gone long before the voice of Taj came louder behind me.  I turned to see.  He was making his way down the steps, and the familiar man from the back row was following along.  Apparently, they felt no compulsion to hang around.  As the two of them drew near, I let my gaze slide up to the second man’s face, curious to get a better look, but I was not quick enough before he turned away, stepping off the bottom step.

After the brave first two, a few others followed them out.  Then suddenly, I stood up as well and exited the room quickly.  my heart raced at my escape, and relief washed over me.  While I was distracted it had been alright in there, but since I’d had no one to listen to, or to talk to, I didn’t see the point in sticking around, working herself into a ball of sweat and nerves just waiting.

Outside, the fresh air was a welcome sensation on my flushed cheeks.  Although it was warm, the slight breeze felt cool as it brushed over the perspiration on my brow.  I breathed in, allowing my eyelids to close for a moment, then I let it out, along with some of my tension.  I spent a few seconds gazing out across the neat university lawns broken only by the odd tree-lined path.  I was subtly looking for Taj and the other man while I did this, but they nowhere in sight.  From my bag, I dug out my campus map and soon started out in search of my next class, down one of the paths, following behind a few of the escapees from the lecture theatre.

After several minutes strolling along, I came to a stone archway, but by now, none of the other students were in sight.  I passed under it, then headed left into a large courtyard, as my map suggested, and I found herself in front of an old wooden door.  A sign hanging above it read ‘Fine Arts Studios’.   Pulling it open, I stepped into a long, dim hallway.  When the door closed, noises from the outside became muffled, and the darkness and closeness of the air suddenly engulfed me, setting me on edge.  I could feel the prickle of sweat on my temples almost immediately as the feeling of entrapment tried to overcome me, yet again.  What was I doing?  I considered turning back, but resisted the urge.  I stood there breathing until my eyes adjusted to the low light and the moment of fight or flight had passed.  Now I could see that the corridor was wide and that to the left, a few doors led from it, and on the right, several high windows invited in some light.  With my head held high and forcing an even breath, I pushed on down the hall.  Keeping my mind busy, I checked the room numbers above each of the doors as I went, until finally one of them matched the number I was after.  I pulled at the old, wooden sliding door, and with a bit of effort, it came open with a rumble.

The light inside the art studio was amazing.  The room was huge and the high ceilings worked to emphasize its dimensions.  The studio was set up with about two dozen easels with stools in front of them, laid out in several rows of semicircles facing the front wall.  These were strategically positioned so that the giant, high windows opposite the door, would cast their light down directly onto the works that would be created there.

I felt comfortable straight away.  It was bright and airy in there, and spacious, not a chance of my unwelcomed friend paying me a visit.  I scanned the room for somewhere to sit.  There was a girl dressed in black seated at an easel in the front row, the goth-girl from the lecture.  She was by herself, where as everyone else was in pairs or groups.  Deciding she might be my best option for a friend, I wandered over and took up a stool nearby, leaving a gap between us so it didn’t feel awkward.  The girl didn’t look up at first, fiddling around with my phone, but when she eventually turned in my direction, I took my chance to speak.  “Hi,” I said.

“Hi,” replied the girl.

Now that she was facing me, I noticed the girl’s dark, overdone eyeliner and too-pale foundation.  I had never spoken to a goth before, and suddenly wasn’t so sure we would have enough in common to be friends—I didn’t feel I would be dark or brooding enough.

“Were you at the Contemporary Arts lecture just then?”  I forced out, although I knew she had been, but I couldn’t come up with anything else to say.  Until then, I had never had to make friends with a complete stranger, not one from scratch, not one that didn’t already vaguely know me, and vice versa.

“Yeah,” said the girl.  “Great start to the year, hey?”

“Yeah.  So… what course are you in?”

“Arts, majoring in English.  I just decided to do a painting class, you know… thought it’d be fun,” she replied in a monotone voice.  She looked depressed.  She looked like she was in need of some fun.  “What about you?”

“Fine Arts.  my name’s Winter by the way.”

“I’m Penny.”

“Hi.  Nice to meet you.”

“Yeah, you too.”

There was a pause.  I shuffled in my seat.  Penny clenched my hands in my lap and began jiggling my feet which were crossed at the ankles and tucked under my stool.

I searched for something else to say.  “So… do you live close by?”  I didn’t want to let the momentum of the barely existent conversation die out just yet.  Before the tutor turned up, I was able to extract from the girl the fact that she lived miles away, in a rundown flat with my boyfriend, Mick, who apparently had no other occupation than playing on his phone, and hanging around the university waiting to meet up with his girlfriend between classes.  I wasn’t thrilled with my choice of friend, but at least Penny would be someone I could sit near in class, and clearly I wouldn’t need to spend much time with my out of hours, because by the sounds of it, Mick had a monopoly on that.

I felt reasonably settled now, and soon, the tutor—who I mentally placed in the hippy category—turned up and in an unorganised fluster, and began reeling off the numerous tasks we were each required to complete that semester; a folio of ideas, a major work and three minor works—it was a little overwhelming.  I had only begun painting two years prior.  I had taken up art in high school on a whim, but much to my delight, I quickly discovered I harboured a talent for it that I had never known existed.  my mother didn’t draw or paint, so the artistic genes must have come from my father.  I didn’t know my father so I hadn’t known about this artistic side of herself, either.

Out the front, the tutor pulled away a cloth that had been draped over something.  A large plaster statue of a naked man was revealed, set upon a table, and on another table was a tall decorative vase containing five or six freshly-cut sunflowers.  The task for that day, was to produce a sketch of each of the items.  Although I had sketched and painted many a sunflower in high school, having been a fan of Vincent Van Gogh, the naked-man statue, well… that was new.  I had never attended any life drawing classes—I didn’t think they even did that sort of thing back home—and I had stopped seeing my brother naked when he was eight.  I had never had a boyfriend either, so naked men were not my forte.  Although I hated to admit it, I was uncomfortable even looking in the direction of the statue.  I felt like all eyes were on her, scrutinising me, judging me for gawking too long.  It was stupid, I knew, but the more I thought about not looking at it, the harder it was to keep my eyes away.

I got to work, first on the flowers, then on the statue.  I could feel my cheeks flush red when my pencil began to mark the shape of the man’s appendage.  I glanced up only briefly each time I had to take a look, but in the end, I discovered I was too embarrassed to leave the perfectly shaped thing on full display, standing out like a beacon on my page.  Oh God!  I’ve drawn it too big, I cringed internally.  So, picking up my eraser, I rubbed it out, then obscured the area almost entirely with heavy shadowing.  I felt my cheeks turn red.

When twenty minutes remained until the end of the class the tutor called for everyone’s attention.  She suggested the students take some time to look around each other’s work.  There was a few seconds hesitation before some stools scraped along the floor as people began standing up.  I remained seated.  I still had a bit to do on my second drawing, and didn’t want to stop just yet.  my mind drifted to another place when I was working on my art, and now it returned there.  I continued to sketch in the lines detailing the statue’s muscle definition across the torso.  I scribbled in some grey below the lines, then ran my finger along the contours of the man’s shape, to smudge the pencil, creating the shaded areas.  After several more minutes of scribbling and smudging I leaned back on my stool, brushing my hair from my face to examine the overall effect.  I had barely noticed all the passers-by looking over my shoulder to get a view of my sketches.  I leaned forward several more times adding lines here and smudges there, as I perfected the picture.

“Wow, that’s great,” said one girl behind me, over the chatter echoing around the room, and, “Oh my god, that’s excellent,” said another.

“Thank you,” I replied automatically to each compliment.

“That’s very good.  I think you have a lot of talent,” said another voice then.  A male voice.  It spoke in a low tone, right near my ear so only I could hear.  He had a pleasant scent too, that lingered.

I stopped what I was doing, my mind suddenly pulled back into the room.  I glanced around to see who had spoken, but he was standing directly behind me so I couldn’t get a decent view.  “Thank you,” I muttered.  I had only caught a glimpse of him but I was intrigued.  I had seen enough to know that it was the same man who had sat behind me in the back row of the lecture theatre.  Continuing on with a few more lines, I tried to concentrate, but I was too distracted now, and the picture was basically done.

I slid off my stool and stood up, looking around.  The man was gone.  Most of the other people were packing up and many had begun to leave.  Scanning the remaining students, I tried to locate the man with the voice like velvet.  I hadn’t even noticed if he was in the room at the beginning of class because I had been so intent on my mission to make friends.  The man was nowhere around, and presuming he’d already left, I gathered up my own things and left too.

Out under the archway leading from the quadrangle I saw my new ‘friend’, Penny.  Penny was enthusiastically involved in kissing my boyfriend who had arrived to pick my up, as predicted.  my eyes opened long enough to see me approaching and she waved without stopping what she was doing.  I waved back, half-heartedly, and forced out a smile.  I almost gagged when I saw the boyfriend’s massive tongue slide briefly out the side of their mouths.  I turned my eyes away.  Surely it wasn’t polite to continue tongue kissing one person while waving to another, I thought, as I walked away feeling queasy.