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"I Can Do It In My Sleep" by Sam Szanto

‘Mummy, look, a ghost did a painting.’

Maddie looks. On the kitchen table is a painting of a bucolic country scene. There is a farmhouse with a blue door and a white gate leading to two fields: one of sheep and another of cows. The picture strikes a dim chord in Maddie’s memory.

She puts a hand on her daughter’s shoulder and says: ‘I don’t think ghosts do paintings.’

‘Did you do it, then?’ Elodie’s face is caked in glee. ‘When I was asleep?’

Elodie’s thought that a ghost would be more likely to do a painting than her mother says a lot about her creative talents, Maddie reflects.

‘No, not me, darling.’

She wonders if Elodie did the painting, but she has never seen her eight-year-old daughter produce anything as proficient as this. And Elodie would have given the game away by now.

Yawning, and wondering whether this tiredness means she’s coming down with a cold, Maddie takes out the breakfast foods. Cereal for Elodie, a bagel for her and porridge oats for her husband Rob. She’s given up trying to make everyone eat the same thing.

‘Daddy says he didn’t do it.’ Elodie exchanges the Special K for chocolate granola.

‘He must have.’ Maddie swaps the cereal packets back; Elodie makes a face.

‘I didn’t,’ calls Rob from the utility room.

As Maddie picks up the painting, she realises where she recognises it from. It’s the farmhouse in Scotland that she stayed in as a child.

The next painting to appear is of Elodie as a baby. Elodie decides these two artworks are early gifts from Santa, and Blu Tacs them to her bedroom door.

‘But where are they coming from?’ Maddie asks Rob. ‘Do you think Elodie has a talent for art we’ve never known about?’

‘Not according to her school report. Maybe Banksy’s coming into houses now.’

When Maddie mentions the paintings to her mother, she says, ‘Well, of course you’re doing them, darling! Don’t you remember what happened when you were a child?’

‘What?’ Fear slides down Maddie’s body.

‘You used to sleepwalk,’ her mum says, as gaily as if she’d said You used to ice skate. ‘You’d scribble on the walls with your felt-tips; such a pain getting it off. When we took you to Doctor Cole, he said not to overstimulate you, whatever that meant. It stopped after about six months, thank the Lord.’

Rob holds his phone aloft, like a priest with the body of Christ. ‘We have proof, Maddie.’

Maddie and Elodie watch as he starts a video. Maddie’s fingertips tingle as she sees herself painting the church in which she and Rob married. In the film, her expression is somewhere between vacant and intent. When she has finished, she tidies the paints away and goes upstairs. The film stops.

‘Put it on TikTok, Daddy,’ Elodie pleads. ‘Mummy could get famous.’

‘Oh no, you don’t,’ Maddie says. ‘Mummy could become a laughing-stock. How did you know to film me, Rob?’

‘I heard you get up,’ he says, ‘and it was obvious you were sleepwalking. It was amazing to watch you in action. You’ve got a real talent, Maddie.’

Maddie looks at the painting on the table. It is more abstract than the others: angels hovering in the top corners and noisier colours.

Though she too thinks these drawings and paintings are good, it’s unnerving to do something she’s unaware of. And what if she falls downstairs or decides to bake when she’s asleep? What if she drives her car?

If she could produce paintings in the daytime, maybe the sleepwalk-art will stop. She wouldn’t be so tired that she falls asleep while putting Elodie down at eight o’clock.

Maddie has Fridays off work. She goes late-night shopping one Thursday and buys a sketchpad and watercolours. She lays the brushes, pot of water, paints and paper out reverently. She has no idea what to paint, and tries to recall an image from memory. Nothing comes. She closes her eyes and listens to distant voices and disordered traffic noises through the open window. By the time she opens her eyes, it is three o’clock and she is late to pick up Elodie from school.

When Rob takes Elodie to a birthday party, Maddie sits down to paint. This time, she tries to recreate a photo of Elodie. What she produces looks like her daughter, but doesn’t capture her spirit. It’s as if someone who doesn’t know Elodie has drawn her.

Maddie, Rob and Elodie travel to Rob’s parents’ house for a weekend. It is unseasonably hot and they have a barbeque.

Maddie wakes the next day and encounters the absence of a body next to her. The room is filled with light. She falls back to sleep.

When she gets up, there is no one in the house. Everyone is outside, staring at a charcoal drawing on the white garden wall.

As she walks over, Maddie feels as if she is underwater, her limbs moving through heavy silken liquid. She hadn’t wanted more people to know about the sleepwalking episodes. Especially people who worry as much as Rob’s mum and dad.

‘You dipped chicken bones in charcoal,’ Rob says to Maddie. ‘Very resourceful.’

Elodie’s laughter floats across to Maddie as she scrubs her hands in the downstairs toilet. After Rob has taken photos, he and Maddie wash the wall.

‘Have you seen your GP?’ Rob’s dad murmurs as they are leaving.

‘Perhaps you should visit a counsellor,’ Rob’s mum whispers.

Maddie makes an appointment at the doctor’s surgery. The doctor asks how many units of alcohol she drinks and if she is stressed. Maddie says there’s been talk of redundancies at work. Her weekly alcohol intake is within normal parameters. The doctor suggests downloading a mindfulness app, lowering her alcohol intake and turning off her phone at least two hours before going to bed.

Maddie is made redundant. She had not enjoyed her marketing role for a long time, but it is a blow to her self-esteem. Rob says that he earns enough to support them. Maddie doesn’t tell him that she’d rather they made an equal financial contribution to the household.

Maddie’s sleepwalk-art rate increases. In one week, she does five pictures. Once they run out of paper, and she uses knives and forks on the kitchen table. Rob doesn’t say this is very resourceful.

They have a small party at home for Rob’s birthday. Maddie’s best friend, Gillian, and her husband, Dev, stay over. Elodie goes to Maddie’s mother’s for the weekend.

In the morning Maddie is woolly-mouthed and headachy. She finds Gillian, Dev and Rob nursing mugs of coffee and looking at two paintings.

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ Gillian demands, as Maddie says: ‘Any more coffee in the pot, Rob?’

‘It’s her secret super-talent,’ Rob tells Gillian, as he pours coffee grounds. ‘I’ve scoured the internet and never come across anyone who can do this. I keep telling Maddie that she could be a YouTube sensation.’

Embarrassment and anger swirl in Maddie’s gut. She knows Rob is proud of her, but he doesn’t understand that it can be a frightening thing to have your body making different decisions to your mind. She wonders how he’d feel if when he was doing a Park Run, his legs involuntarily ran backwards instead.

‘Who wants toast?’ she asks.

Gillian puts her hand on Maddie’s arm. ‘Rob showed us the pictures and videos: all of your stuff’s fab. You should have an Etsy page and sell it.’

‘That’s a great idea.’ Rob pours boiling water over the coffee grounds.

‘Maybe,’ Maddie says.

She would feel like a fraud, she thinks. She doesn’t consider herself an artist, it’s like she has a creative doppelganger.

‘Is everything you do this good?’ Dev asks.

‘Oh no, some of it’s lousy,’ Maddie says. ‘And sometimes I do something I like but paint over it another night.’

She turns away to make breakfast and the conversation changes. Later on, though, walking on the Downs boy-boy girl-girl, primary-school-trip style, Gillian mentions selling the art again.

‘I can create an Etsy page,’ she says, fingering the plait snaking over her shoulder. ‘All you’d have to do is send me pictures. Think of the extra cash.’

Maddie recognises that her friend is being tactful; what she means is You could do with the extra cash.

In the distance, church bells bang and bong. Maddie wants to say no to the Etsy page, sensing this is getting out of control. But she could do with the extra cash, she’s still not got a job and the interviews are thin on the ground. With the headlines stating the UK is about to plunge into a recession, it seems possible she won’t be working again for a long time.

‘Okay, thank you,’ she says. ‘Can I just ask, Gill – don’t tell anyone how the art’s come about. I don’t want to be trolled.’

The art sells well on the Etsy site. Joy coursing through her, Maddie sends Gillian a bottle of prosecco and puts up her prices.

Told you so😉 Gillian texts. Think how much more you could charge if people knew how they were created! xoxo

The bank that recruited Rob a year ago makes cuts, and he too loses his job. Last in, first out, his boss says apologetically. Maddie and Rob have savings but their mortgage is large, and Elodie does many activities, the latest of which is expensive horse-riding lessons.

At least the stress makes Maddie artistically productive. She starts selling on BigCartel, where she makes more money than on Etsy, and uses Pinterest and Instagram to generate a buzz; she soon has hundreds then thousands of followers. She tries not to let impostor syndrome take over, and puts her prices up again. She pays to make the sites feature her art more prominently.

Despite this additional income, they have to cancel Elodie’s horse-riding lessons. Maddie sees from Rob’s face that he feels as bad about this as she does. Their relationship has taken on a barbed texture. She knows that he both does and doesn’t like the fact that she is the one earning the money.

‘Can’t you paint when you’re awake, too?’ he asks one day.

Maddie gives a huff. ‘I have tried. I’m not really an artist, Rob.’

‘You can literally do it in your sleep, Maddie. Of course you’re an artist.’

Maddie is ironing Elodie’s school uniform when her phone rings. It’s an unknown number, so she doesn’t answer.

Maddie returns to the ironing.

A beep indicates that a voicemail has been left. Maddie trembles as she listens.

‘Why would I talk to a journalist about you?’ Gillian demands.

‘I’ve no idea.’ Maddie tries not to shout into her phone. ‘You tell me.’

‘Well, I wouldn’t, and I didn’t. Maybe you called them in your sleep.’

‘Not funny. Did she offer you money?’ Maddie paces the room, averting her eyes from her paintings which Rob has framed and hung.

‘For God’s sake, Maddie. This has got nothing to do with me.’

‘Well, how about Dev? You and he are the only two people who know about it, apart from my in-laws, and I can’t see them doing it – they’d be far too embarrassed.’

‘Dev would not have done it.’

‘Well, then, who?’

‘I suggest you look a bit closer to home,’ Gillian says, and ends the call.

‘I’m sorry,’ Rob says, ‘but you’d have said no if I’d asked. I just thought it would increase sales – and I’m sure it will.’

Rob’s face morphs and melts as he speaks. Maddie’s thoughts are ants, centipedes, spiders as she listens.

‘It’s one article in a local paper.’ Rob puts his arm around her; she shakes him off. ‘You declined to comment, so they may not even print it.’

Maddie puts on her coat and steps into the brittle cold. She has no plan, apart from to walk as far and as fast on the Downs as she can.

The article appears on Page 2 of The Chronicle. The headline ‘I Can Do It in My Sleep’ appears above Rob’s photo of Maddie’s Scottish farmhouse painting. There are links to her Etsy and BigCartel sites. There is a photo of Maddie, and her name and age are given.

‘You’re famous, Mummy!’ Elodie says. ‘Can I bring the paper to school to show my teacher? Please?’

The Chronicle’s article is syndicated. Maddie’s story appears in the Guardian, the New York Times, the Times of India, China Daily. And many others.

In one day, Maddie receives one-hundred-and-sixty calls. She is asked to go on This Morning, Loose Women, the local and national TV news, the local and national radio. Her Pinterest and Instagram sites have thousands of followers.

Maddie sells all of her paintings. She has no more, as she has not painted in her sleep for weeks. She is so tired from the media furore that she sinks straight into sleep and doesn’t wake until morning.

Her story fades like colours into a rainbow and vanishes.

And then there is another unexpected phone call. Editing a WhatsApp message to Gillian, seeking forgiveness, Maddie swipes right and accepts the international call by accident.

‘Hello,’ says a female, American-accented voice, ‘can I talk to Mrs Madeleine Woods, the artist?’

‘This is she,’ says Maddie, warily. She has never said ‘This is she’ in her life.

‘I represent the singer, Rihanna,’ says the voice.

Maddie laughs in disbelief.

‘Rihanna wishes to purchase your painting of her. Please arrange to have it sent as soon as possible, we will pay all shipping costs.’

Maddie remembers how many of the news articles featured her painting of Rihanna, one of the first she had done. Quite a few used a photo of the singer alongside headlines such as ‘I Paint Rihanna in My Sleep’, which Maddie thought made her seem like a crazy fan girl.

‘I’m sorry.’ Maddie pushes her untidy morning hair out of her face. She imagines this woman coiffed and highlighted and styled in an office overlooking the Hollywood sign rather than in a bedroom overlooking an unruly apple tree with two fat pigeons in it. ‘I’d love Rihanna to have my painting, but it’s not for sale. Someone bought it.’

‘That is a problem.’ The woman’s accent stretches out the vowels.

‘Yes,’ says Maddie, the word catching like a fly in her throat.

‘You could paint another?’

But whatever she attempts will be lifeless. She doesn’t try to explain this, as people can’t fully comprehend her being an artist who cannot paint unless she is asleep. She gets asked about ideas and influences, as if she has either. ‘I’m like a thumb with no fingers,’ she said to one journalist, who did not print this pearl of wisdom.

‘No, I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘I’m so flattered, though, and I hope Rihanna can find another painting that she likes. Or another painter.’

‘Would it help to know the amount she’s willing to pay for your painting?’

The woman names the sum. Maddie’s teeth vibrate.

‘Oh my God,’ Rob says, as if light has poured through a crack in the clouds. ‘Never mind Elodie starting horse riding lessons again, we could buy her own horse – scrap that, we could buy the Pony Club.’

‘Yes,’ Maddie says. ‘We could.’

But this is hypothetical, the idea of the sale sliding away as if they’re trying to grasp it with wet hands.

‘You could try to get the painting back, Maddie,’ Rob says.

Anita Lorenz lives at Fifty-nine Cemetery Gardens, Gateshead. It will take Maddie six hours and nine minutes to drive there, or six hours and thirty-nine minutes by train and bus, according to Google Maps.

It takes eight hours and fourteen minutes by train and bus, and nobody answers when Maddie presses the doorbell. The sound echoes through the beige new-build.

Maddie wonders why on earth she didn’t email. Anita Lorenz might be away for the night. At least she’s booked a hotel; she can return in the morning. But what if Anita goes to work in the morning? Maddie’s train is at ten thirty.

What if Anita Lorenz is on holiday?

Maddie sits on the wall. At least it’s warm, thin slices of early-evening light falling onto the path. She scrolls aimlessly through her phone, ignoring Rob’s texts.

‘Are you wanting me?’

The woman speaks with a North Eastern accent, sounding somewhere between nervous and irritated. She is wearing an electric-blue furry coat and has a shiny handbag over one shoulder. Maddie puts away her phone and stands, smiling.

‘Anita Lorenz?’

‘Who wants to know?’ The woman narrows her eyes. Out of sight, a dog barks.

‘My name’s Maddie Wood,’ Maddie says.

‘I think I recognise the name,’ Anita says. ‘Are you on the telly?’

‘No – well, not really. You bought a painting of Rihanna from me. Online.’

Anita Lorenz grins.

‘Ah, right. I gave it to my sister, Donna. She really loves Rihanna. Thinks she looks like her – she doesn’t.’

Oh no, thinks Maddie. A woman who really loves Rihanna has her painting.

‘So what are you doing here?’ Anita asks.

‘Could I come in for a minute?’ Maddie wishes she’d brought a bottle of wine.

There is a moment when she thinks Anita will refuse, and Maddie will have to trudge back to her hotel with the bathroom that hasn’t been cleaned properly and try to reconcile herself to the loss of the largest sum of money anyone has ever offered her.

‘You’re not trying to sell me anything?’ Anita asks.

‘Definitely not.’

‘Okay,’ Anita says. ‘My daughter’s at her dad’s until tomorrow, so I’m doing nothing.’

Maddie takes her coat and shoes off in the small porch. To her surprise, Anita offers her a drink. She says yes, and Anita leads the way to a sitting room the colour of a disappearing coral reef. There are squashy sofas and, on the windowsills, the blocky signs that Rob takes the piss out of: ‘Family’, ‘Live Laugh Love’. There is lots of art on the walls, including a huge painting of the River Tyne and many of a girl who looks about Elodie’s age.

Anita brings in a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and a tube of Pringles.

‘What do you want me for, then?’ Anita pours the wine into two of the largest glasses Maddie has seen.

‘Okay, I’ll come straight out with it. Would you sell my painting back? Or rather, would your sister?’

Anita stares at Maddie. ‘I know how I know you! You’re the sleepwalking artist. I read about you on social media – a friend shared an article. I didn't realise it was you who'd done the painting. Should’ve read your bio.’

Maddie realises the likelihood of getting the painting back has now reduced; Anita will think it’s more valuable having been painted by someone sort-of well-known. She asks what it’s like to sleepwalk, which is a question Maddie has been asked before and still finds strange. How can she know what it’s like to do something she’s not aware of? She says that it’s like your brain deciding to have a rest while your body decides it’s time to go snowboarding. Anita throws her head back as she laughs.

‘And do you get lots of free things, being famous?’

‘I’m not really famous,’ Maddie says. ‘I mean, not like Rihanna. I don’t have much of a talent – or not when I’m awake.’

‘You’re the only famous person I’ve met. So why do you want the painting back?’

Maddie and Rob have rehearsed this, although the best they could come up with was that it has sentimental value. But Maddie doesn’t want to lie to a friendly woman who is filling up her wine glass. She tells the truth, and Anita’s eyebrows shoot up.

‘Shall I open another bottle?’ she says. ‘We could order a takeaway as well.’

Gosh, Maddie thinks. Is this what happens to ‘famous’ people, because non-famous people feel as though they know them? She offers to pay for the takeaway, and Anita accepts.

By eleven o’clock, Maddie and Anita are drunk and full of Pad Thai, and Maddie has failed to get her painting back.

‘There’s nothing I can say to make you change your mind about asking Donna?’ Maddie hears the defeat in her voice.

‘No. Well… okay, let’s make a deal.’ Anita drains her glass. ‘If you stay the night and do a painting I like, I’ll try to make Donna give Rihanna back. If you give her some of the money from the resale, anyway.’

‘Oh, but I haven’t done a painting in ages,’ Maddie says. ‘I can’t do it on demand. I wish I could.’

Anita shrugs, and as nice as she is, it’s clear this is her one and only offer. Maddie accepts it.

‘You can sleep in Lily’s room,’ Anita says.

At least, Maddie thinks, when she is squashed into Anita’s daughter’s bunk-bed wearing a pair of Anita’s pyjamas, her sleep-art seems to coincide with the times she has slept badly and drunk too much.

Maddie wakes at seven facing a Rainbow High poster, her foot on a fluffy bunny. She follows the rich smell of coffee. Anita is at the kitchen table, looking at her phone. There are no paintings on the table.

‘I’ll get you a coffee,’ she says.

Anita’s coffee is thick and strong. Maddie sips it while Anita makes toast, and tries not to think of the hotel breakfast she has paid for. She looks at the pictures of Lily, at every stage of life from babyhood to pony-tailed in a blue school uniform, on the walls. There are also ones of Anita and Donna, who is not just a sister but a twin. Donna has braids while Anita has an Afro, but they otherwise look identical.

‘That’s a lovely painting.’ Maddie indicates a framed picture of a horse. With a pang, she thinks of Elodie’s love of horses. ‘Did you get it online?’

‘Ha, no. I did it, actually. Years ago, I took an art foundation course, had dreams of being the next Gwendolyn Knight. Nothing came of it, obviously. I’ve done a lot of the paintings in the house.’

‘Wow,’ Maddie says. ‘I mean, I don’t know much about art, ironically. But this is much better than most of the stuff I’ve seen online. Better than my paintings, too.’

If only Rihanna was into horse pictures.

‘That’s kind.’ Anita puts the plates of toast on the table. ‘I’d love to have the confidence to sell my art.’

‘Can I see some more after breakfast?’ Maddie asks, as an idea starts to form.

Maddie and Anita sit in the green room of a Cardiff TV studio, sipping sparkling water and smiling nervously at each other. Rob and Donna are in the audience. Elodie and Lily are at school, and will be picked up by their respective grandparents.

A runner takes the two women to the studio. As they walk down the noisy corridors, Maddie squeezes Anita’s hand.

The host, Rosella, who has sleek blonde hair and wears a dove-grey dress, introduces Maddie and then Anita to the audience.

‘I’m so fascinated by this story,’ she says, with a white-white smile. ‘I wish I could paint when I’m awake, let alone when I’m asleep. I also hear Rihanna is one of your biggest fans, Maddie!’

Maddie returns her smile.

‘So,’ Rosella says, ‘you, Anita, witnessed Maddie creating this brilliant picture when she was sleepwalking, right?’

A large painting of the River Tyne is projected onto the screen to Oohs from the audience. Maddie feels her face redden. Anita says nothing.

‘Would you like to tell us the story, Anita?’ There is a brittle edge to Rosella’s voice, although her smile stays in place.

‘Sorry, er, yes. Well, it was a really strange thing… Erm, Maddie’s a friend of mine, we met when we were younger on holiday. I read her story and got back in touch. I couldn’t believe she was really able to paint in her sleep, but she came to stay at my house and did just that. I heard noises and followed her downstairs and watched her do the painting. There’s so much detail in the picture, it was like she was actually there.’

Stop now, Maddie thinks.

‘It’s a fantastic painting,’ Rosella says. ‘And you’re auctioning it live on this show.’

‘Donating part of the proceeds to the Equine Trust,’ Maddie chips in. ‘It’s a charity that provides horse therapy to children with special educational needs and disabilities.’

At least this speech is true. The Equine Trust’s logo is projected for the viewers, and Rosella reads facts about the charity from an auto-cue.

‘Let’s open the bidding!’ she says.

Someone calls in and bids three hundred pounds, the amount flashing neon-green on the screen. Anita looks incredulous.

‘And we have four hundred,’ Rosella trills.

The painting sells for a thousand pounds.

‘I feel so bad,’ Anita says. ‘We conned that woman.’

‘Anyone called Lady Rogers-Hythe can surely afford a thousand pounds,’ says Rob. ‘Plus the Equine Trust will benefit.’

‘And it’s a brilliant painting,’ Donna shouts, her head in the mini bar. Maddie wonders whether to say that although the TV company is paying for the hotel room, this generosity might not extend to a bottle of champagne. She decides not to.

‘But she wouldn’t have bought it if she’d have known I’d painted it,’ Anita says. ‘She thought she was getting Maddie’s artwork.’

‘You’re the real artist,’ Maddie says, as she has said many times in the past few weeks when Anita has had a wobble about the plan. ‘I’m a sideshow. You deserve to be famous, and Lady Rogers-Hythe is lucky to have your painting.’

‘I’m going to use some of the money to enroll in a watercolour course,’ Anita says, ‘and to take Donna and Lily on holiday. Lily’s never been abroad.’

Donna opens the champagne, and liquid froths down the sides. She pours four glasses.

‘Oh,’ she says, ‘I almost forgot.’

She passes Maddie a cardboard tube. Inside is the painting of Rihanna.

The lights dim, and a woman strides onto the stage wearing a black leather bustier and a frothy pink tutu. As the first chords of ‘Diamonds’ plays, Maddie and Gillian scream along with everyone else in the London O2 arena.

‘Thanks for bringing me,’ Gillian yells in Maddie’s ear. ‘So nice she gave you the complimentary tickets. Didn’t Rob want to come?’

‘Oh,’ Maddie says, waving at Donna and Anita who are walking over from the bar. ‘Rob’s not really into Rihanna.’

Sam Szanto lives in Durham, UK. Her debut short story collection ‘If No One Speaks’ was published by Alien Buddha Press in 2022. Her collaborative poetry pamphlet, ‘Splashing Pink’, was published by Hedgehog Press in July 2023. Over 80 of her stories and poems have been published/ listed in competitions. In 2023, her novel ‘My Daughter’ was longlisted for both the Yeovil Prize and the Louise Walters Page 11 Competition. She won second prize in the Strands International Flash Fiction Competition 18 and wrote one of the winning entries to the Southport Writer’s Circle Competition. In 2022, she won the Mum Life Stories Microfiction Contest and the Shooter Flash Fiction Contest and was placed second in the Writer’s Mastermind Short Story Contest. Her short story collection "Courage" was a finalist in the 2021 St Lawrence Book Awards. As a poet, she has won the 2020 Charroux Prize for Poetry and the First Writers International Poetry Prize, and her poetry has appeared in a number of international literary journals including 'The North'.

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