At some point in 2023 I randombly chanced upon a 1928 painting by Rene Magritte called The Lovers. It’s a deliberately unsettling image, so it’s not really a great surprise that it inspured a story. While it’s just a slight tale, hopefully it’s done some justice to the themes of the painting.
(15 minute read)
“Let me refill your wine.”
His date nods. She follows the shift in his eyeline and wanders off to explore the decor while he retrieves the bottle of wine he prepared earlier. The lower level of the house is open plan, the centrepiece of the property being an Asian-influenced kitchen that fills out a full quarter of the floor space with its generous work surface. Low hanging ventilation hoods and rows of concealed lights give it a shadowy, cave-like appeal. The rest of the home fits snugly around it; the unique L-shape of the space, and the variations in the decor, offering clearly defined areas for sitting, dining, and reading.
It doesn’t surprise him that his date is fascinated by the place; it is, after all, one of his favourites. As he pours out her wine, he watches her explore—doubtless imagining how well she might fit into it. She pauses by the painting, the one carefully placed so that it would settle in neither area of the home and therefore be unmissable.
“Did you say you were a psychologist?” she asks, staring at the artwork.
“Psychiatrist.” He returns to her with the glass of wine. She takes it, carelessly brushing the tips of his fingers with her own as they pass.
She tastes the wine and steals a glance at him above the rim of her glass. “What does this one mean, then?”
“The Lovers, by Henri Magritte,” he begins. The oil painting depicts two people in an embrace, a man and a woman, kissing, except each figure has its head and face bound in white cloth. “The lovers embrace but they can neither see, hear, nor taste one another. Possibly they cannot even one touch another and yet they are intimately placed. I believe Magritte intended it to serve as a notice that we can never truly know one another. The individuals in this painting are both unknown to one another and unknown to us. Their identities are fully concealed. Aside than their attire, we cannot even be certain if they are male and female.”
She giggles. “Superheroes—they wear masks all the time.”
He watches her take another nervous sip of her wine. “Superheroes suffer from severed identity. They are neither fully one persona nor the other, and yet they are both. As such they amply illustrate Magritte’s thesis; hiding from themselves as they hide from the people. Pretending to be one thing so they do not have to endure being the other.”
There is a moment of silence, punctuated and emphasised as she takes a longer sip of wine. “Do you really think that?” she eventually asks.
“That we can hardly ever know each other? I’d have thought a psychologist would know more about us than anyone.”
He walks away from the painting. “I must finish preparing dinner. In the meantime, you should come and relax in my favourite chair while we talk.”
He gestures towards a dark green, fabric-lined armchair with just the right number of cushions laid across it to make it irresistibly comfortable and inviting. “This chair, I promise you, is spectacular: you can fall asleep in it and barely notice. I wouldn’t even be offended if you did.”
“Well, I don’t plan on falling asleep just yet. That would be a waste of a lovely evening.” She smiles as she accepts the invitation into the armchair, sinking into it with a sigh. “Oh my, yes, I see what you mean. By the way, I wanted to say how nice this is: I don’t get out mu—”
“As I already mentioned, I’m a psychiatrist, not a psychologist,” he says, as he takes his place in the kitchen. The armchair has been carefully placed to allow him to watch her as he works on the meal. “The disciplines are similar, the primary difference is that a psychiatrist can prescribe medication.”
“I see,” she nods. “You’re probably totally judging me right now, aren’t you?”
He pulls a chef’s knife from the rack and begins slicing button mushrooms, cutting each in half across the orb-like cap. “To answer your question: yes, I do believe the truth in what Magritte is trying to say. Take, for example, the other people living down this street—my neighbours, if you will—ask them who I am, what I do—even what I look like—and you will most likely get a dozen different answers amid the blank stares. Our society has been conditioned to no longer look outwards, each person is too preoccupied with their own lives and concerns. The other people around them have become … an inconvenience.”
“That’s … bleak,” she replies in a sleepy-sounding voice.
“That’s not why I have the painting, however. The painting is there to remind me of a particular case: a policeman I once knew, an unofficial subject of mine, who was obsessed with a case of his own.”
He brushes the mushrooms aside with the flat of the knife and reaches for the steak, red and raw. He starts cutting the meat into precise one-inch cubes.
“There had been a series of killings in the district in which this policeman worked. The victims had been slaughtered in a very specific way and there were no leads. The policeman had been outsmarted and he needed help. He wanted to understand how this killer worked but he didn’t realise that he was asking the wrong question: he should have been asking why.”
He looked up at his date to make sure she was still listening.
“Mm-hmm,” she said.
“Solving a murder is rudimentary, but the authorities typically follow a linear process focused on the wrong things. They want to know who the murderer is so they ask questions like: how can we find the murderer? Who are they going to kill next? They may even get around to asking: why did they kill these people? Always revolving around the person doing the killing. It’s only when they get desperate that they think to ask: what was it about the victims that might have warranted the attentions of the killer?
“The detective was stumped. There was no pattern—at least, not a pattern that he was able to determine. The links were sparse. One or two of the victims, for instance, had been to the same coffee shop but there were no other connections that he could find. Meanwhile the victims continued to pile up. Not excessively, but routinely. Regularly.
“What made this case special is the manner in which the bodies were rendered, each in a very specific manner. A sharp instrument had been used to pierce their eardrums, destroying them. The same with their eyes. In some cases the eyes had been removed entirely. On certain occasions the victims’ tongues had also been removed. And the finishing touch? Each victim was found with their head and face bound in white cloth.”
He nods over his date’s transfixed stare. “You see? Just like my painting.”
He pushes the meat to one side and reaches for a bowl of baby red capsicums. Crisp and sweet, with delicate skin: the ideal finishing touch for any kebab. He takes the first one and slices it delicately along its length so he can cut out the insides.
“So, this policeman needed help. He had exhausted his deductive capabilities and the bodies kept falling. Perhaps he had finally realised that simply calling the murderer ‘psycho’ wasn’t going to get the job done.”
He pauses and smiles, pointing at his date with the knife. “I know what you’re dying to ask: how did the policeman eventually catch his killer?”
She watches in silence as he slices the knife across the surface of another baby capsicum.
“I did my best to help the detective understand that this killer wasn’t choosing the victims so much as they were choosing themselves. Those who refused to engage or connect with the people around them. The ones who wouldn’t stop to help someone who had fallen in the street. The ones with their faces buried in their phones all day long. The ones who failed to say thank you when being served a coffee or a sandwich. The ones who think someone is beneath their notice until they wave the offer of money, or fame, or comfort in front of them.
“But the detective was at least smart enough to realise that he couldn’t follow every person in the city, so how could he possibly predict when the killer and the victim would intersect. How could he stop them. Could he even stop them?
“Finally, there was no choice. The public already knew there was a killer in their midst, and they knew the police had yet to catch this person. So our man puts out a bulletin, a public message advising anyone who felt they were in danger to call a particular number and report the incident. He reached out to the ‘vulnerable’, the ‘isolated’ and the so-called ‘introverted’ imploring them to connect to one another and save themselves.
“Inevitably the calls came flooding in. Hundreds of staff called in to man all the phone lines. Police cars on every street block. False leads.
“Then, just as everyone was losing faith, a call comes in from a six-year-old boy: I think my family is being murdered, he tells the police. His family. People who have everything, who disregard even the slightest suggestion of helping those in need around them—and who now beg for help.
“The detective races to his car. The address is nearby. The police arrive but it’s too late. Four bodies lie in the front room of the house. The boy, hidden in his room, is still alive. It takes hours to coax him out from under his bed. The detective stares at the death around him, wondering what more he could have done to prevent it.
“He takes his photos of the crime scene and waits for the medics to arrive—they are caught in traffic, the hospital is on the other side of the city, but he already knows what he’s going to find. He pulls the white cloth mask from the first body. The father. Eyes pierced, blood draining from his ruptured eardrums. The second body: the teenage daughter. The third: the mother.
“It’s as he reaches for the fourth body, lying behind the armchair, that he might have asked himself what he had missed. What was the one thing that didn’t match up? Do you know what it was?”
His date, watching him through wide eyes, says nothing.
“The photos. This family was so self-obsessed that they had photos of themselves everywhere—the four of them, so happy and alive and self-satisfied together: the father, the mother, the daughter … and the young son.
“But the son was still alive. So, whose was the fourth body?”
He pauses to arrange the chopped meat and vegetables on the counter, contemplating the ingredients needed for a marinade.
“The detective pulls the mask from the fourth body and that’s when the killer—ingeniously disguised as one of the victims—strikes, driving his metal spike through the detective’s neck and escaping through the back door before any of the others even realised what was going on.
“In the end, the detective survived but the case—and his near-death experience—had damaged him. There was extensive therapy and I believe the detective was no longer the same man at the end of it all. The taste of death, you see, changes a person. Irrevocably.”
He pulls open a drawer set into the counter and studies what lies inside.
“And what of the killer, I hear you ask? Well, they never did catch him. They never even knew who he was. Following my involvement with the detective’s case I also required a fresh start, so I came here to be swallowed up by the masses. Anonymity, it turns out, is a refreshing tonic after all—all of us living our separate, disconnected lives, until …”
His stares at his date, sitting on the chair, propped up by the cushions, her eyes speaking all the words her mouth is no longer able to.
“Oh, it’s just a muscle relaxant. The effect typically wears off. I see no reason to make these things harder than they need to be.”
A tiny whimper escapes.
“Of course, you won’t remember me because you never saw me but I noticed you and I started watching you. I watched when the person serving you would ask how you were, but you neither saw nor heard because you were too busy looking into your phone. I listened every time you failed to say thank you. I was there when you would play your music so you didn’t have to listen to the people around you. Every day you cut yourself off from the rest of the world, trying your hardest to ignore all of those other people around you. trying to stop them from getting into your life.
“And now? Now you get your wish come true. You will never have to see or hear anyone else ever again.”
He reaches into the drawer and pulls out the four metal skewers, pausing a moment to enjoy the subdued light glinting off their polished surfaces.
Then he walks over to the chair.
“So, let’s begin.”
* * *
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