My sodden denim jacket feels twice its usual weight. My right trainer has let in water and squelches as I run up the stairs. The receptionist freezes, her face blank with shock as I barge through the doors.
Recognition… She smiles and laughs, her gaze travelling up and down my dripping form. I’m a saturated mess with rat-tailed hair.
A shiver runs the whole length of me. I pull my jacket off. The material sticks, clings to my shirt and pulls open three poppers to expose drops of water caught in chest hair.
I ask, ‘Hey, can you stick this somewhere?’ I wave my jacket at her, ‘sorry I couldn’t come this morning. Uh … felt a bit rough.’
Her swivel chair creaks as she leans forward. ‘It’s really bad out there, isn’t it? Here…’ she stands and shakes the jacket out. ‘I’ll stick it over the radiator.’ She nods towards the gallery. ‘Melinda’s already started another tour. Don’t panic. You want a hot drink?’
‘Just put me on the radiator too,’ I say, running fingers through my lank locks. ‘Would that be the Melinda I’ve heard of – the scary one?’
The receptionist laughs, puts a finger to her lips to silence me. ‘Shh.’ She whispers, ‘Yes.’ Her bony shoulders jerk with suppressed laughter, ginger curls bouncing. Green eyes sparkle over her glasses and I’m transformed to a tongue-tied gawky mess.
I step towards the gallery door. ‘I’d better … better go in.’ Yes I had. God knows if the Fishing Girl survived the first night’s hanging and the lacquers haven’t run. Why am I never ready? Why all the stress and sleepless nights? Sometimes the stress is so bad the skin on my feet and hands cracks and peels away.
From the far side of the gallery I hear a woman’s strident voice, though the group she’s talking to is partially hidden by screens. She’s saying something about confident use of shadow. Thank you, Melinda. Maybe you’re not as frightening as I thought.
A man and woman pass me, heading for reception. The man has his chequebook out – always a good sign.
There’s a red dot by the Fishing Girl. I knew she would sell if the paint survived. Pity I can’t afford to keep any of my work. I’d have liked that one for myself.
You can’t see the girl at first, just a hard horizon, a promontory and trees silhouetted, a shore and a beach. Look at them for a moment and there she is like a ghost. On one hand she looks calm, her body lost in the routine of hanging nets. But there’s a storm in her– she’s worried. I haven’t worked out why yet. The paint’s pretty dry though.
A sharp voice cuts across the gallery, over the sound of shuffling feet and smashes into my thoughts. I jump to the words, ‘Do not touch the exhibits, please.’
What? That’s my painting … fine then.
I turn and see about twenty pairs of eyes all tuned to haughty disapproval and focused on me.
Among them stands a large black woman in a suit. The sort of person that wears her glasses on a gold chain and stares the world down. She turns away and starts talking again. ‘This one, “Little Comfort” is not for sale but is on offer free to any children’s charity that wants it.’
The group turn and look at the painting; Melinda’s commanding voice holds them like chains. ‘Note the central mother and baby are in perfect detail and executed with skill but as you move outwards past the needles left in play parks, the bacteria – this one is meningococcus – and the portrait of Myra Hindley, the form is lost and everything becomes dreamlike. In this case a nightmare.’
Bloody hell, not anything to do with me being in a rush then…? Or the fact that I had no space left for drying paintings on my bedsit floor. The bloke in the room below started complaining about the noise I made jumping across paintings to get to my door and back.
I suppose I’d better join the group and introduce myself. I walk towards them and try to silence the squelch of my right foot.
Melinda turns. ‘Excuse me but this is a private group. If you wish to know about the works please go to reception and collect a catalogue.’
I stop and turn away, confused, awkward. Safe behind a screen I notice West Linton Treeline has sold too. Amazing. People look at painted sunsets and say, “That’s not very realistic”, like they’ve never looked at a sunset. I’ve studied the sky sometimes and had no idea what was going on. The sky, the sun and the clouds don’t do rules. Anything can happen up there. But someone must have looked at a sunset and saw the painting worked.
Melinda has pitched her voice to hearing aid clarity. She knows her stuff. She’s talking about Ailsa Craig. Bugger, I know I shouldn’t have put that one in but I promised I’d supply forty-six works. I had to dig it from a pile of early discards.
‘This one tells us about the artist more than any other. Dark, stormy and brooding, he uses black or heavy pigments around the edges to pull you in. He wants you to focus on him. Here, the savage light on the stone columns reveals blazing passion.’ She pauses and laughs. ‘Don’t be alone in a room with him or your clothes will lie in tattered ribbons while he ravages you.’
Good God, what is she like? Ooh … what am I like? As the group move towards me I wander to another partitioned area. Suilven has a dot next to it too. I can’t believe so much has sold so fast. That’s rent paid, food, I may even ask the receptionist out – wow, a social life!
Melinda’s voice is muffled by a door swinging then I hear, ‘Is the artist saying he’s an existentialist and making us face the reality of child warriors in Africa? He’s only used girls in their early teens, all nudes and given them assault rifles – phallic symbols. This is about our culture too, young women forced too early into pregnancy and motherhood… Note that the girls are almost asexual, all angles, knees and elbows. They’re tense, awkward. Everything screams at you “Not ready”.’
She’s a bloody genius. She’s read my mind and composition perfectly.
A woman peels from the group, adjusts her glasses and heads for reception. Passing me, I see her fingernail pressed into the catalogue number 23. Really? She wants someone to tear her clothes to ribbons? The group moves again.
Grief, Girl in a Steamroom has slipped a bit. I go to straighten it.
‘Young man!’ Melinda’s voice blazes at me, ‘I asked you not to touch the exhibits. Please leave the gallery.’
Now I’m the exhibit. All eyes in the group escalated to full outrage. Shit, I can’t handle this. I turn, hunched, guilty hands hiding in my jean pockets, and walk out without looking back.
The receptionist stands, holding a credit card slip, her eyes all questions. ‘What’s going on in there?’
‘Quick, give me my jacket. She thinks I’m some sort of vandal. If she finds out I’m the artist right now she’ll be embarrassed and I’ll be dead. When’s the next tour? I’ll come before that and introduce myself properly.’
‘But you’ll sell more if you go back in…’
‘Actually, no. Melinda knows more about my work than I do. Shit, quick. Here they come.’
I get a hot wet jacket in the face.
The main doors groan as I push through them.
© Gary Bonn: 2012