John Moores Painting Prize 2020: The Window


To close our exclusive series published in partnership with the John Moores Painting Prize, Laura Robertson presents a (gross, you have been warned) new short horror story inspired by 2020 China category prize winner, Li Qing’s The Window…

My arms and lower back are screaming, and my hands keep cramping into claws. I feel ten times heavier than when I started to climb. My feet slip and snag on the greasy wall but cling on, toes digging in, resisting gravity.

I’m almost done-in, so I keep telling myself: just one minute more.

Just keep climbing.

The window’s right there. And any minute, I’m going to fling myself through it. Anything’s better than being in this filthy hole.

I feebly lap at the sweat and snot on my upper lip. Rub my eyes against my wrist.

“It was hot as hell, and the stench, my god, imagine a portable loo during the searing heat of July – that sweet, shitty perfume – and you’re somewhere close”

It’s bizarre to lose all sense of before. I’m an emptied-out thing, scrambling forward without any sense of reason or context; someone’s come along and scraped away all of my memories with a big spoon. I’m trapped in this nightmare, this flesh palace. I woke up in it, disorientated, naked and wet. Whatever I was lying on undulated, and I couldn’t stand up. It was hot as hell, and the stench, my god, imagine a portable loo during the searing heat of July – that sweet, shitty perfume – and you’re somewhere close.

The dim room slowly took shape around me. Squinting, I could make out a large, curved chamber, with a lofty, dripping ceiling. Every surface was ribbed with veins. It felt like I was being watched. Weak, pink light trickled down from a solitary window too high to reach without stairs or ladder or rope.

My logic was: if there’s a window, then there’s a way out.

I bounced awkwardly on my hands and knees across the flabby floor, searching for an exit in the shadows, and straight into a shallow pool, splashing myself from head to toe. Thank god I had my eyes closed – as soon as it hit, I knew it was acid. Shocked, shrieking, I desperately tried to scrape the scorching liquid off, and skittered back under the window. I ran my bubbling fingers, tenderly, over inflamed calves, genitals, thighs – every part of me that had weltered in that revolting pool.

‘I need help!’ I screamed. ‘Water, please!’

I shouted and begged until I was hoarse. No one came.

There was a deep, industrial thump-thump-thump, more heartbeat than motor, somewhere far below, and then a mounting, angry rumble.

You know that sensation before you throw-up? That pre-empts a violent squeeze, purging out all the recently gobbled-up food, the noodles and beer and sweetcorn, in one lumpy spurt?

The room started to do that. It quivered. It started to heave.

Hurled into the air, bucking-bronco style, I dug into the gristly floor and held on to an artery, determined not to be flung back into acid.

After several minutes the heaves abated, followed by an ear-splitting, face-blasting, absolutely disgusting




of pungent gas, which rushed out of a crack in the wall behind me, and abruptly snapped shut again.

I lurched over to the discharge point and found a tight bundle of muscles. This sphincter was my only ticket out of here.

It’s a sick, sad world.

It wouldn’t yield, at first. There was so much cartilage underneath my nails that they bent and broke off. I got so thirsty I drank the meaty juices that dribbled down my wrists, grateful for the semi-darkness.

Eventually, a few fingers popped through the resisting, tensing hole. I wiggled like a maggot until I could fit my whole torso through. Wheezing, squirming and kicking, I plopped, mucus-covered and triumphant, into another chamber, which twisted upwards into a narrow tube.

Scampering onwards, I detected – mercifully – a series of fibrous ridges that made a sort of ladder. I’ve been dragging myself up this steep incline for hours.

“Adrenaline propels me into a spring, and berserk, I fix a vice-like grip onto the window’s sinewy frame”

And now the window’s straight ahead, set into the top of the tract.

Grinning like a maniac, I’m going to slide my blistered palms up and over the next reeking bump and through that gap, bugger the consequences.

Adrenaline propels me into a spring, and berserk, I fix a vice-like grip onto the window’s sinewy frame and pull my knees up onto an encrusted sill.

Close-up, its ‘glass’ is a thick film marbled with burgundy capillaries. It gives as I lean into it, stretching like bubble gum. Scrabbling with both hands, I manage to make long lacerations with the torn fingernails I’ve got left.

It tears.

I get an arm through and take a deep breath.

I push, it splits completely, and I cartwheel forward.

Into rough hands.

They catch me and lift me up and unceremoniously toss me back into the caustic juices.


The window’s membrane is growing back, healing itself. It looks exactly like it did before, up in the veiny rafters, next to that dripping ceiling.


‘You took your time’, they say.

I laugh and laugh and laugh as the fluids gurgle around me.


Laura Robertson is a writer, critic and editor based in Liverpool.

Li Qing was born in 1986, and currently lives and works in Beijing. Her work is inspired by everyday impressions of architecture. She was selected as one of the five prize winners for John Moores Painting Prize China 2020. 

This new text has been commissioned by the John Moores Painting Prize and is part of a creative-critical series published exclusively by The Double Negative during April and May. Writers were given free rein and approximately 500 words to respond to any painting or paintings from the 2020 exhibition, and in any style, tone or format that they wished to use.

The John Moores Painting Prize provides a platform for artists to inspire, disrupt and challenge the British painting art scene. Established in 1957, it is the UK’s longest running painting competition. For over 60 years the John Moores has brought to Liverpool the best contemporary painting from across the UK and has over that time, developed a legacy of supporting artists at all stages in their careers – undiscovered, emerging and established. All entries are judged anonymously. The John Moores 2020 jurors were: Hurvin Anderson, Alison Goldfrapp, Jennifer Higgie, Gu Wenda and Michelle Williams Gamaker.  

See the exhibition yourself via their virtual tour!

Image: Li Qing, The Window, 2018, oil on canvas

Posted on 08/06/2021 by thedoublenegative