The War Artist

The War Artist

by Simon Cleary

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When Brigadier James Phelan returns from Afghanistan with the body of a young soldier killed under his command, he is traumatised by the tragedy. An encounter with young Sydney tattoo artist Kira leaves him with a permanent tribute to the soldier, but it is a meeting that will change the course of his life. What he isn't expecting is a campaign of retribution from the soldiers who blame him for the ambush and threaten his career. With his marriage also on the brink, his life spirals out of control. Years later, Phelan is surprised when Kira re-enters his life seeking refuge from her own troubles and with a young son in tow. She finds a way to help him make peace with his past, but she is still on the run from her own. The War Artist is a timely and compelling novel about the legacy of war, the power of art and the possibility of redemption.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780702261930
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Publication date: 03/04/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Simon Cleary is the author of two previous novels, including The Comfort of Figs (2008), which was published after the manuscript was shortlisted for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards. His second novel, Closer to Stone, (UQP, 2012) was inspired by his experiences in North Africa at the commencement of the Algerian civil war in the 1990s. It went on to win the Queensland Literary Awards People’s Choice Award in 2012.

Read an Excerpt


Written on the Body

Sydney, November 2010

Kira leans over the body before her. The girl's eyes are closed tight and Kira studies the capillaries on her thin eyelids, looking for a pattern, some map of the frightened girl's eighteen years, some clues to where her life might yet lead.

She adjusts her lamp and the inside of the girl's right wrist is illuminated in a cone of light. A beautiful wrist, Kira thinks. There is a tenderness, a fragility despite its fleshiness. Already the transverse scar has begun to retreat behind the purple stencil she has laid over it, a scar that will merge with the tattoo when she is finished.

The tattoo machine starts. The girl looks into Kira's eyes as an anxious child might seek out its mother. Kira smiles at the girl – not much younger than her – pats her arm then bends to her work, losing herself.

The chain of bells tinkles as the studio door off the street downstairs opens. Kira lifts her head from the girl's wrist and her almost-finished skull and counts the seconds until the door clicks closed again and the bells stop. Just one person, she judges, and, from the weight of the footsteps on the timber stairs, a man. While Flores has taught her about tattooing and its gods, this practical knowledge she alone has won. She glances at the clock on the wall. It is nearly six. The heat has not yet broken; these November days with more summer in them than spring.

Kira watches the man emerge from the steep stairwell. He stops abruptly when he reaches the top. She guesses from his shoulders, his short hair, the way he scans the room, the way he weighs both her and the girl in the chair like they're objects in a landscape, that he's either police or military. Though it's unusual a man from the forces is alone – they usually come in pairs. Odd too that he's as old as he is.

'Be a minute,' she calls across to him, thinking he can wait, that it'll be good for him. Thinking too, how much she enjoys this part of her art – the unpredictability of the studio and who might walk in the door at any moment. What stories they might bring, what novelties, what fears, what needs. 'Take a seat.'

Phelan continues to stand. He's not entirely sure what he's doing here. Examine yourself, Marcus Aurelius, his philosopher guide urges, test your motives. Be unsparing. That alone is the way to doing what is right, what is great. Be untiring, be disciplined. Control your impulses, as true Stoics must. Know yourself.

Oh, Phelan thinks, he has controlled his impulses all right, how disciplined he has been. And how he has risen, how he has been rewarded. But now there is Beckett, now and always, no going back, that much he knows. Yet by what impulse does he find himself in a tattoo studio in a back street in Surry Hills after an exhausting day of ceremony and obligation, after delivering a young soldier's body to his parents? He has bowed his head before man and God today. He has expressed sorrow and gratitude and spoken words that lost their shape in the very act of their being uttered: 'honour' and 'sacrifice' and 'loyalty' and 'mateship'. Now he stands warily in the foyer of a tattoo studio, his uniform folded neatly in his overnight bag, this one final thing to attend to before taking the last flight to Brisbane. He is beyond the boundary of familiar duty, baulking at the edge of his world.

Phelan sees the tattooist and her client on his first scan of the room, the studio otherwise empty – the other two barbers' chairs vacant and no sign of anyone else through the open door to the backroom, a kitchenette or drawing space of some sort.

He examines the studio more carefully on his second pass. The six-inch polished floorboards and the high raftered ceiling and the whitewashed brick walls immaculately decorated with posters. There are framed mandalas and stylised roses and classic Japanese prints – The Great Wave off Kanagawa, and the Fisherman's Wife – on one wall. On another wall is floor-to-ceiling shelving, each shelf filled with books and folios, but too far away for him to read their spines. Near the wall of books is a chest-high pedestal. On it rests a human skull, illuminated by a ceiling down-light as if it's a trophy. His usually steady eye catches on the skull, and he blinks. Plaster, he guesses. But even so.

Then, suddenly, the throbbing pain behind his eyes returns, sweeping away the low-murmuring headache that's accompanied him constantly since Beckett. Phelan winces and presses his fingers against his temples. A weaker man would buckle. He'll count it out. Bloody annoying, though. He should have done a better job at hiding it – the headaches, the tinnitus, the nausea, the foggy head. But a TBI, a traumatic brain injury? For fuck's sake! Surely he should have been given the chance for it to pass before being ordered on leave, another week or two at least. He could be forgiven for thinking the Chief was looking for an excuse to send him home. It's a demonstration of leadership, the Chief had said. You'll be showing how we need to take the injuries we can't see as seriously as those we can. You'll be back in no time. And Jim, you could do with the rest. Well if he was going to have to return for treatment and a breather, then he'd bloody well be the one to accompany Beckett home.

When he opens his eyes, all is blur. He feels for the pills in his breast pocket, slides the packet out then waits until the room steadies. He pierces the foil with his thumbnail, four pills, but his mouth is too dry to swallow without water. There's a cooler in the corner of the waiting area, and he pours a plastic cupful, tips his head back.

It takes a while before he is able to refocus on the detail again. Detail matters. Always, and in everything. His nature, the army's habits. That the shaft of a childhood arrow be dead straight. That glue on a model plane not be visible. That radios are properly tuned and one's weapon is zeroed.

He continues his examination of the room, looking for cannabis pipes among the rings and slave bracelets and T-shirts and other paraphernalia in the glass cabinets at the front counter. He'd said to himself that if there were outlaw club patches among the flash tattoo designs on the reception wall he'd leave. But there are none, and no other traces of bikies, nothing discordant.

Clear, he thinks to himself, his reconnaissance done. Clear, he thinks, despite himself. Clear, but even so he cannot relax, cannot sit.

He leans forward to read the detail of a framed copy of a page from the Hobart Town Gazette. A reward note for a murderer, Kieren Patrick Dyson, posted 15 March 1837, his tattoos used to describe him:

KPD heart RR half-moon S stars fish inside right-arm, crucifix stars on breast, man cask of rum above elbow, man woman fish.

'Hi there,' she says when she's finished with the girl's wrists. 'What can I do for you?'

His skin is pocked, as if a hundred tiny landmines have detonated beneath his cheeks. His starched collar and his straight back and the neat part of his thin hair seem like efforts to subdue the ancient turbulence of his flesh. He looks old, but may be the sort of man who has never been young. His head, his shoulders, his entire body, not just his eyes, are steady as he examines her.

Kira doesn't flinch. She is twenty-three and this is her territory. She is in what has become her uniform: a black singlet, stonewashed jeans and silver-buckled black leather boots. Her right arm is bare, but on her left she wears an intricate sleeve of ink.

'Who is that?' the man asks, pointing towards the warrioress on her arm.

Kira straightens further, her hands on her hips. She looks straight back at him.

'Didn't your parents teach you anything?'

'I beg your pardon,' he says, surprised.

'It's rude to point.' She hears her father's voice as she says it. But she wants to fool with him. All these cocky men suddenly vulnerable in her studio. The fun you can have teasing them, playing with them. Upending their confidence.

'Well,' he says, 'I didn't mean —'

'Who do you think it is then?' she cuts across him, folding her arms now, her eyes sparkling with challenge.

He smiles. 'All right then,' he says. He leans towards her to examine the tattoo more closely.

She's young with raven-black, wind-whipped hair. She wears a crown of plaited ivy. Her skin is Kira's skin: her cheeks, her shoulders, her neck, her chest. Her left arm holds back a fold of her loosely flowing turquoise gown as she steps forward, the material gathering at her waist, her bare left thigh breaking from her dress. In her right hand is her sword, gripped tightly, the glinting blade pointing downwards, as yet unbrandished, her right arm itself tattooed with a knot-work of vines spiralling from shoulder to wrist. Her head is turned. Her shoulders are drawn back. Kohl-darkened eyes stare out at him.

'It's Celtic isn't it?' he asks.

She smiles. 'So you're not so ignorant after all.'

'But not Boudica,' he continues.

'And why not?'

She expects he'll say it's because her warrioress isn't red-haired, and everyone knows Boudica – or Boadicea, whatever her incarnation – was fiery red.

'The sword,' he says instead.

'What about it?' She is curious now.

'It's curved. Boudica would have had a broadsword.'

'Ten out of ten, Sherlock,' she says, nodding. 'So, what would you like?'

'I'm after a tattoo,' the man replies.

'Reeeeeeally?' she teases.

He laughs. He accepts the pen she offers and writes on her pad. He takes extreme care with each letter, as if each downstroke and each curve is a task he must get absolutely right.

Kira watches his hand labouring across the paper, pausing after each word as if resting from the effort. She watches the confidence leave him as he writes, but can't tell what is replacing it.

Samuel. Robert. Beckett.

The man checks and then re-checks the spelling. When he looks up at her, it's as if he's seeking affirmation. But then he seems to remember something and takes the pen again. Beneath the name he writes the date – seven days gone – before tearing the page from the pad and giving it to her.

She nods. Father, brother, or son? she wonders. Probably son, given his age. 'Where do you want it?'

He looks at her blankly for a moment, as if he hadn't yet considered where to put it. 'My shoulder,' he says, though tentatively, flustered.

'Are you sure you want to do this?'

'Of course,' he says, more firmly, affronted now, reasserting himself. 'I want it on my left shoulder.'

'Okay then.' She looks back to the piece of paper. 'You've got nice handwriting. Do you want me to tattoo it exactly as you've written it? In your own hand?'

'You can do that?'


He looks at the name on the paper, but then shakes his head vehemently.

'Okay then,' she says, pulling an album from a drawer and placing it on the counter. She flips through its pages, leading the man and his uncertainties through different fonts and sizes. Eventually he chooses one, and she tells him she'll be ten minutes.

'Have a wander in the street if you want. Have a smoke.'

'I'll wait.'

'Suit yourself.'


Kira sits on a stool at the bench table in the small room at the back where they keep the stencil machine, the laptop and the printer. Where in the early days she and Flores would draw and print and copy and cut. Where Flores first desired her. Or, she has begun to think, her drawings.

Of course, she'd always drawn: the angels she sketched while crouched under church pews, evading shoes and ankles all service long; surreptitious caricatures of teachers peeled off for her school friends from the backs of classrooms; butterflies in the margins of exam papers; sitting cross-legged on a gallery floor in front of a Whiteley. Her father once read one of Rodin's letters to her, his way of telling her she was okay, that her obsession wasn't abnormal, that she'd be fine. Draw, Rodin had urged a pupil, draw and draw and draw and do not stop drawing. So the day she arrived at Flores's studio, the day she abandoned her fine arts degree, she already had years of drawing in her. And an ache for purpose.

It's funny how something as banal as a widowed forty-three-year-old woman preparing a gin and tonic could lead you to choose one life over another. Kira can still hear the sound of her mother in the kitchen dropping ice cubes into a tumbler, the little cracks stirring her from a summer afternoon's ennui. She was nineteen, the end of her first year.

'I'm over it, Barbara-Ann,' Kira yawned as she lay on the divan, 'I'm not going back next year.'

'Oh no, Darling!' her mother exclaimed, responding to the bait, almost dropping her glass on the white marble benchtop. 'You mustn't even joke about such a thing.'

'Not a joke, Daaaaaarling.' Delivered with a perfect sneer. 'I'm going to quit.' Though the only decision she'd yet made was to rile her mother, expose her if she could. A disdain begun long before her father's death, a daughter's conviction that her mother was not good enough for him.

'You can't waste it, Sweet,' her mother was already imploring, pressing the palm of her hand to her heart as if that was the source of Kira's talent. 'You just can't. You're as good as any one of them ...' She gestured out into the lounge room and beyond that, the sitting room – a practised sweep of the hand – to the walls crowded with paintings, to the coffee tables and their towers of art books, and to the library shelves tight with the years of catalogues she'd collected from every exhibition she'd ever gone to; from the blockbusters to the openings at Macquarie Galleries and Watters and then Legge when it spun off.

'There's a history of Australian art in those catalogues,' her mother used to say. 'Of names, and movements and fortunes. Of galleries and dealers and patrons.'

For months at a time Kira would take one to bed with her, turning pages compulsively till sleep overcame her. Or she'd sit at the kitchen bench, or on the deck in the afternoons after school, and it would be the exhibited artist's created scenes, rather than her own view of the ocean before her, that she'd try and set on paper.

'Come on darling, show Mrs Winsome how you can draw.' And her mother would pull out the sketch pad, and the collection of pencils, and set Kira up at a fold-out table, and have her copy Ingres' Grande Odalisque from a catalogue of a 1997 exhibition of Orientalist art at the gallery in the Domain. 'Isn't she amazing?' her mother would say, voice hushed, but not so low Kira couldn't hear.

In time, the pleasure Kira got from drawing for her mother's friends waned, and her mother's project of inserting her into the sweep of art history that those catalogues recorded became the burden it was destined to be. The words of admiration from the doctors' and judges' and churchmen's wives predictable and wearisome. Kira became bored.

And yet, it's difficult to ignore your abilities when there's little else you can rely on. The grades, the wins in school competitions or exhibitions sponsored by banks and charities, her watercolours hanging in the foyer of a town hall or the exhibition room of a regional agricultural show, her mother dutifully maintaining a scrapbook of her promising daughter's achievements. In her last year of school her major project was an interactive multi-media installation that was recognised by a showing in the Art Gallery of New South Wales with other finalists from schools around the state. Participants in her 'experience maker' (as she described it, pretentiously she'd later acknowledge) would answer a series of questions – date of birth, favourite colour, ethnicity, religion – resulting in a crude tribal personality profile. They'd then slide their bare arms into a sealed Perspex box where the bristles of small car-wash brushes, arranged along the length of the box and turned by a series of small motors, would paint stripes of colour onto their forearms. War paint, she called her installation, the country in the middle of a Middle Eastern war that, as far as she could tell, no reasoning person had wanted to join.

Surprisingly it was the motors of her installation that fascinated her most: the smooth silver casings and the shafts that rotated as if by magic when power ran through the little machines, the hum of them, the steadiness of it, their reliability. She knew enough to keep that to herself when she was interviewed by The Herald, a profile piece. She was learning how seldom people looked below the surface of things – that people could install her art or hang her paintings or write about her, without caring whether she was true or not. When her mother walked down to the local newsagent that Saturday morning to buy multiple copies of the paper, Kira left the house by the side door with her portfolio bag, the banksias in the street beginning to flower, and offered a series of charcoal self-portraits to a Bronte café owner, who blu-tacked them to his wall and handed her a joint. Proceeds go to charity.


Excerpted from "The War Artist"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Simon Cleary.
Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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