by Vivien Steels
Opposite the bus stop was a dilapidated row of buildings. He was attracted to a sign in one of the shop windows. As he walked towards it the words became clearer – ‘BARGAINS – CLOSING DOWN SALE – ANTIQUES’.
He entered the shop to the sound of door chimes. He often found old paintings in junk shops. The canvasses could be white-washed over and recycled. An ancient, stooped man materialised from a blackened doorway at the rear of the shop, as if summoned by the bell of Judgement Day. He shuffled towards Sean with the aid of a walking stick grasped in his right hand, which looked like a bird’s talon carved in ivory.
“Want something in particular or just looking?” There was a definite note of cringing sarcasm in his voice.
“Have you any old paintings?” Sean tried to fathom the map of lines written across the dark, wrinkled face.
“Yeh, go’ one or two,” he muttered. Enthusiasm had long since left his body. “They’re by the chest of drawers, if yer wanna ‘ave a butchers.” Sean picked up on of the paintings. The carved, wooden frame was warped and the canvas was torn in several places. The second picture was lying face down with a mock-Victorian washing jug resting on top. It seemed in quite good condition. No tears. As he flipped the canvas round the right way up he studied it scrupulously.
“Any good?” The old man hovered half-heartedly.
“I’ll have this. How much?” The words registered like a till.
“Like it, do yer? Give me six pounds.”
“Five – me final offer. The frame’s worth more than that.” Sean handed him a five pound note, which was rolled up so tightly, when unravelled it looked, as if it had been permed. He left quickly.
His flat definitely lacked artistic flair. The pots in the sink emanated a foetid smell, the floor was well greased, coffee grounds and bread crusts fused on the draining board. He went straight through the kitchen into the living room carrying his purchase. His latest picture was still on the easel. He compared the two. The old picture was skilfully executed with a dense forest covering the bottom half. A narrow road wound through the trees separating the forest into two halves, leading the eye along and into the middle of the landscape. At the end of the road a dark, menacing castle aspired towards the purple-clouded sky. In front of the castle, a set of insurmountable mountain terraces fell in granite layers to ground level. He stared at his own painting – finished yet still glistening with wet oil paint. It was a copy; an exact replica. He could not reconcile the truth staring him in the face. They were identical in style and content. Until today Sean had never seen the old picture. There was no signature, no date, no clues. He decided to take it back.
The bells shuddered ominously as Sean pushed open the door. The old man drifted from the inner darkness.
“Want something in particular or just…” he began but did not bother to finish when he recognised Sean.
“I’ve decided I don’t want this painting. The frame’s full of woodworm.” Sean held out the bulky frame towards the man.
“Too late, mate. You bought it.”
“ I want my five pounds back.” Sean’s irascible voice began to gather momentum. Unnoticed, a smartly-dressed, well made-up woman with a perfumed air of sophistication had made her way gracefully towards the two men, scruffy artist and scruffier shop owner.
“What a lovely painting!” she remarked loudly and enthusiastically. She turned to Sean. “I’ll give you five pounds for it. That’ll take it off your hands and you’ll get your money back as well.” She smiled and her very blue eyes pierced Sean’s thoughts.
“That’s very kind of you.”
“It’s no trouble. I like it.” She smiled again, crimson lipstick perfectly in place and pushed open the door, lodging the painting carefully under her expensively suited arm. Sean held the door open for her. The shop owner grimaced, then hobbled to the back of the shop, disappearing past a grubby curtain through the inkwell of the distant door.
The Local Artists’ Competition was held at the Castle Museum every spring. Sean had entered his painting. The winners were notified by post and he had watched for a letter each morning for the last week, but so far, nothing. Nothing but bills, that is. This morning was the same as any other, except the postman was late. His coffee tasted gritty. The post fell with the softness of fruit from a tree onto the hall mat. Another buff envelope. Another bill? He opened the letter with foreboding.
1ST PRIZE – LOCAL ARTISTS’ COMPETITION – £2000 – Sean Rattigan
There was a cheque plus an invitation for dinner with the adjudicator -
V S Michaels. It was for Friday, eight o’clock at the Grosvenor Hotel. Things could not be better.
Sean was dressed in his best (and only) suit early on Friday evening. The Grosvenor was crowded. Where could he be? He made for the bar. A light touch on his arm made him turn.
“Hello, Mr Rattigan. I’m Ms Michaels. I’d like to talk to you over dinner about your painting. When I’ve finished, I’m sure you’ll owe me £2000, plus £5.”
She smiled and her very blue eyes stared at Sean’s rather shocked expression, as she linked her well-tailored suit sleeve through his.
Vivien Steels is a poet and a painter, who has been widely published in
poetry presses and on the Internet, sometimes with artwork. Her work is
deeply influenced by the natural world, which she often uses as symbolism
for the spiritual. Her paintings are intertwined with her poems, which they
illustrate and she has exhibitions of her paintings and poems. Vivien has
designed/produced three collections of her illustrated poems - *PROMISE*,
*MANDALA* and recently *SECRETS* and has designed three websites
featuring her poetry, artwork and prose.