"The Budai of Broadstairs"

Chris Simpson

Chris Simpson’s (his) fiction has appeared in several journals, most recently Jerry Jazz Musician, Seppuku Quarterly, and MIR Online. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and was an inaugural awardee of Spread The Word’s London Writers Award. He holds a BA (Hons) in Creative Writing from Birkbeck. He lives in Broadstairs, Kent.

“My short story, ‘The Budai of Broadstairs,’ is a direct response to the same graffiti of a smiling Budai’s face that is dotted around the English coastal town of Broadstairs. Since moving here, I have seen this piece over ten times. Sometimes the face is coloured in a bright yellow, other times it is just the outline. Each and every time, the Budai is smiling. I was curious as to why the artist wanted this smiling face, which is so different than a tag or the other graffiti one finds here. I have no idea who the artist is nor how long the image has been up. I have also spotted it in Margate and Ramsgate, albeit less and more sporadic.”

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You take the spray can and get to work. Often enough, when people are told they’re dying, they’ll waste little time. The stages of grief are a lie. The dying have work to do. You are no different.

You decided on the Budai. He is not to be confused with the Buddha, who around here can be found serenely sat on manicured lawns; enlightenment arriving by having better foliage than your neighbours. The Budai is as a symbol of laughing in despair. Or being a sage bon vivant. Or getting the cosmic punchline. Regardless, his image makes you smile and that’s enough. You’ve told Brian, your husband, that since the diagnosis you need to be out walking in the early morning hours. The sea, the old cliché, is what you tell him you need. You’ve told Brian that you need to witness the water at a time when it appears like bruised skin. Really, it’s just a good, convenient, undercover time for you to get out the house and make your work.

You’re doing it for him. You’re doing it for everyone. You’re doing it so that someone with bad news, everyone really, can look at something and smile. You do it because you are dying and you don’t know what else to do.

The can is shaken, your bones vibrate, your heart on high alert, your ears more open than any chasm. Ready. Breath. Lungs haven’t expired yet. The face of the laughing Budai comes flowing from your can. This is better than any drug you took in youth. Drugs, the ones to expand the consciousness rather than dull it, were a reaction against encroaching adulthood. That being the case, art is much better.

Art. This is for you too. Your insights are 20/20 and come rapidly. You hope, when you’re gone, that this art will cheer someone up. Art. It’s not all altruistic. Art never is. Neither is science. Neither is hope.

With the picture, the painting, the spot of graffiti done you can take off. You can sleep for a little if the excitement (the other side of dread) happens to landslide. You already know you’ll be back to the scene of the crime in a few hours, when the rest of the world is up, to sit in the café and watch the town look at your art. You want to see immortality before the final grains of life slink through the hourglass.

 

Brian is watchful of you. He doesn’t quite believe you’re going to the sea at three AM.

“What’s wrong?” You ask.

“Well,” he starts in the way you used to love when you were students, “it’s like this. Where do you go to in the morning?”

“I go to the sea.”

“And what do you see there?”

“Everything someone dying with cancer sees.”

You know your words are cruel, but cruelty has an advantage: it kills enquiry. You hope. And you know how you feel about hope.

“Come on now, Melanie… tell me. Don’t hide.”

When you’ve been with someone for fifty years, you know the little things about them which spiral through like film in a projector. You know how you both loved Sartre and de Beauvoir. Might seem obvious now, but it once was revolutionary. Can’t ignore what things once were. Can’t ignore decades run together.

“I’m not hiding,” you say.

“I’ll come with you,” he retorts. Direct. It’s why you married him.

“Can’t I do things on my own?”

Brian doesn’t want to speak. You know what he wants to say because you would say the same.

“There’s not much time for us though.” He can’t look at you. He’s ashamed that he had to use those words.

“You will understand,” you start, “when I’m gone, you’ll understand.”

In the revision to your will, you make it clear that once you have gone there is a piece of art you’ve kept from your husband. Like Warhol you were discontent to not revisit it. You revisited your subject in so many streets in Broadstairs, in Ramsgate, in Margate, graffitiing over Thanet the guru of laughter and a good time. Unlike Warhol reproducing a Brillo box or Mao, you wanted to do something which would make others smile. It became that in the end. As well as being satisfying and addictive. You say in your will, as your corpse will be ill-equipped for talk, that the walls which smelt of urine, of the streets poorly lit, of rushing away from the sound of rubbish trucks, that it was all worth it when you sat in the café and watched another, a human being like you are but will soon not be, stare at the Budai, better and more corporeal than the Buddha, and smile. One single smile was worth the effort as the cells inside you grouped together to bring you down to nothing.

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