He sat down and watched Lukey.
‘Why do you want to do this mad thing?’ he said.
‘Because there is something to be said about him before he dies,’ Lukey told him.
Tober smiled sardonically. ‘There is something to he said about all of us,’ he remarked. ‘You could take any one of us, man or woman, and say the same thing at last.’
“He is nearer to death than he is to life,’ Lukey whispered, making swift strokes on the canvas, ‘and he is wise because of it. It is his soul lives now and is looking at us! ’
His brush worked quickly on the canvas. A shape took colour and depth thereon, confused, a mere foundation of a single hue upon which Lukey worked quickly and with conviction, as though amidst the paint was the expression which he sought to verify whenever his gaze went to the motionless figure in the chair.
Tober laughed uneasily. ‘You think you will find the reality of it in his body?
‘It, is there, right enough! ’ Lukey asserted.
‘Take care!’ Tober said. ‘You will find something you might not understand! ‘
Lukey glanced angrily at him. ‘I understand what I see!’ he declared.
‘What is it?’ Tober said.
‘It is a soul which has suffered and which has no place amongst mankind,’ Lukey asserted.
‘Is that all?’ Tober asked cynically, pouring some boiling water in the bowl which Shell brought in. He began to wash his hands with carbolic soap.
‘That is everything,’ Lukey said. ‘It knows that it is doomed.’
Tober laughed. ‘ So are we all, you poor fool! ’
Lukey did not answer him. He continued to make quick, conﬁdent strokes of the brush on the canvas until he saw Tober place a bowl of boiling water on a little table beside the chair on which Johnny sat.
Then he stopped painting, for Tober at that instant had the demeanour of a surgeon; and something in the way in which he slit the packet of lint and the roll of bandages and opened a small case of instruments and dropped some of them into the bowl impressed Lukey.
‘Do you want him on the settee?’ Lukey said.
‘I can manage with him as he is,’ Tober said. ‘Go ahead with your devil’s work.’
Lukey resumed his painting. ‘Is he really dying?’ he whispered.
‘We are all dying,’ Tober said, removing Johnny’s jacket and disclosing the wounded arm.
‘Can you do anything for him?’ Lukey asked. ‘I mean, do you think you can save his life?’
‘I shall try,‘ Tober said, beckoning Shell over to help him.
‘Keep your head out of the light,’ Lukey said to Shell, making a movement with a brush.
Johnny was staring at the portrait on the easel. He took a step towards it and swayed. His right hand reached out to grasp it but his body overbalanced, colliding with the easel and sending the canvas toppling to the floor from which Shell quickly lifted it and set it in position once again.
‘Ah, sure, never mind the thing!’ Shell said scornfully. ‘It’s just the way Lukey passes the time like. Listen, here, mister…’
But Johnny’s right arm had swung towards the canvas once more. His fingers swept over the wet surface and left a long smudge over the paint.
‘Och, dear help us!’ Shell whined. ‘Look at that! Now there will be trouble! Mister, mister! Come away out o’ that! ‘
Johnny struck the canvas again, whereupon another smudge appeared on its surface. Shell tugged at him, but a sudden fury‚ possessed the other at the sight of his own features portrayed so vividly and impressively on the canvas; and breaking from Shell’s grip, he tottered forward to the easel, pushing Shell away and sending him reeling backwards against a chair which overturned against a little table on which a vase stood. The vase crashed to the floor, taking with it a box of paint tubes and a small bottle of turpentine. Shell’s body striking the door made a dull thud. He groaned and rose slowly and saw Johnny grab the wet brushes and thrust them against the canvas and finally drop the brushes and strike the canvas, sending it sailing in a wide curve towards the wall, where it struck another portrait and brought it down. Both fell heavily to the floor, upsetting an assortment of jars on an upturned box. The jars spewed their contents across the floor and rolled against the split canvas. Johnny panted; then with a curious, deliberate air he shuffled across the room and entered the hall.
He hesitated there, swaying, looking about him as if he were trying to recognize the place. Shell followed him, moaning and whimpering at the threshold of the room. Slowly at first, and then with an increasing frenzy of activity, Johnny crossed the hall and gripped the handle. He muttered between his clenched teeth as he struggled with the lock. Suddenly, it turned, and at once the door burst open under the pressure of the wild wind outside. He was hurled back against the wall.
For a few seconds he remained there in the bitter blast and the confusion of sound which filled the hall, and which evoked shrill, shuddering draughts all over the old house. At last he moved forward, making a great effort, across the step, then down the short flight, until his form was lost to sight in the darkness.
Shell saw him disappear, and as Lukey came rushing from the scullery to discover the ruin in the studio, he set off in pursuit of Johnny, clapping his bowler hat on his head and turning up the collar of his jacket as he brought the heavy house door fast behind him. The door slamming made thunder in the house. It reverberated for an instant and then subsided as the shrill, whimpering little currents of wind subsided. Then all was silent, except for the moan of the wind in the street and Lukey’s lament as he surveyed the confusion in the studio and the torn, smudged canvas with its broken stretcher.
He lifted his work from the floor and examined it. The features with their wonderful expression were irretrievably erased, lost for ever beneath the smudges and scratches. He let it fall from his hands as he sat down and let his thoughts move despondently. Presently, he became calmer. His despondency decreased. He thought of Johnny.
‘His soul is his own,’ he thought,’ He would not disclose it. He hated the things I put on the canvas when he saw them.’
Then his thoughts moved slowly to contemplate his own life in all its efforts and purposes and ambitions.
‘What am I to do? What am I alive for if it is not to believe in myself? What is my work in this world?’
And again he lamented the spoiled portrait, believing that he had touched a climax of expression, a pinnacle of perception, a moment of genius.’
‘It was all there,’ he told himself. ‘It was everything I have wanted to discover and paint.’
F.L. Green, 1902-1953. Odd Man Out, 1945. Published by Michael Joseph,1945
Set in 1940s Belfast, the novel follows a charismatic IRA leader, Johnny McQueen, who is evading the police, after being shot during a failed robbery. He is taken to Lukey’s studio and although he is in desparate and doomed situation Lukey paints his portrait in order to capture the soul of a man close to death. “And when he looked at Lukey, he saw in that earnest countenance the reflection of a great question. ‘Yes,’ he wanted to say to Lukey, ‘look at me and discover what is happening to me. Don’t turn away from me. I am no longer afraid when you are standing there. Stay where you are, and discover what I am thinking, and consider how afraid I am, and write it all down, if that is what you are doing. Or painting… But go on doing what you are doing! Don’t fail! Presently, you will discover everything…’ Chapter XIV, pg 231 F.L Green wrote the screenplay for the film based on his novel. Lukey was portrayed by Robert Newton in Carol Reed’s 1947 film, Odd Man Out, with the character based on John Markey Robinson,1918-1999, a well known Belfast artist and bohemian. Markey was unhappy with his unwilling role in the book and was in dispute with Green for a short period.
Image: Robert Newton as Lukey, Odd Man Out,1947. Directed by Carol Reed
Image: Markey Robinson, 1918-1999, Portrait of a Man