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by Jacqui Pack

The small canvas, covered in swirling colours, hardly registers with Julia, but her mother leans forward, steadying herself with her aluminium stick.

The old woman’s lips move as she reads the text alongside the painting. “Abstract Expressionism,” she says at last, in a voice that carries throughout the hushed exhibition. The two halves of the stick grate as her weight shifts. “A three-year-old could have painted that.”

Concerned the people behind — an attractive couple, both younger than herself — will assume she shares her mother’s uncultured views, Julia moves on. She finds herself before a much larger canvas, depicting a table full of clutter.

There are three types of breakfast cereal as well as jam-jars and bags of sugar. Glasses, pottery jugs and silver trays. Egg cups, bowls, jelly moulds and mugs. The brushstrokes are thick and mostly white; childlike. Julia’s eyes travel the large canvas, trying to bring the table’s disparate corners together. It occurs to her that the picture lacks depth. The table’s surface rises upwards rather than away, making it seem as though everything had been piled up at the front. As if the artist had chosen to emphasise the clutter of existence to illustrate life’s artificial mundanity.

Julia flushes with pleasure. She imagines explaining the painting’s meaning to the young couple, and stifles the smile twitching her lips. She’s still delighting in her intellectualism when her eyes sweep the upper left of the canvas, and she sees the woman.

She catches her breath, feeling more like a voyeur at a peep show than a visitor to an art gallery. With so much in the foreground, she tells herself, it’s hardly surprising she missed the naked woman behind the table. She looks down, feeling stupid and awkward. The couple she’d imagined impressing are looking at a portrait on the far wall. She wonders whether they noticed her foolishness; whether they nudged each other and raised their eyebrows before walking on.

Loath to advertise her embarrassment by scurrying away, Julia digs her nails into her palms and looks back at the painting.

Thick strokes of pink and red line the woman’s fleshy thighs and knees. Her shoulders slope and curve above her brown-edged breasts which, lacking support, sag like half-filled water balloons. Julia stares into the woman’s round eyes, unsure whether the reproach in them is due to the model’s discomfort at being nude or her annoyance at being observed. Despite the woman’s sullenness, Julia finds the blue irises compelling. She sways, as though following the path of a mesmerist’s watch, and allows her mind to sink into the canvas. Her scalp prickles. There’s something familiar in the woman’s expression, something she recognises. Her heart skips a beat as her thoughts almost touch what it might be.

“We’ve got egg cups same as those,” her mother says with a snort.

Julia blinks, snatched from her trance. She nods and clears her throat.

They move to the next canvas. While her mother admires the traditionally painted English landscape, Julia takes a sidelong look back to the woman.

Viewed again, her nakedness seems ordinary. Certainly nothing to get worked up about. After all, there are more paintings of nudes in the world than there are paintings of cornflakes, sugar, mugs or silver trays.

The emotions stirred by the woman’s blue eyes, have – like the side-stepped moment of perception — slipped out of Julia’s reach. Instead, she sees what is safe. Something she can judge — and dismiss — at a glance. A crudely painted canvas, lacking perspective.

Jacqui Pack lives in southern England and holds an MA in Creative Writing (Distinction) from the University of Chichester. She was awarded Long Story Short’s “Story of the Year 2009” and in 2014 was among the winners of The London Magazine’s “Southern Universities Short Story Competition.” Her fiction and poetry have featured in a variety of publications including Litro Online, Swarm, Synaesthesia, Storgy, FlashFlood and The Pygmy Giant. Further information about Jacqui and her work can be found at http://jacquipack.jimdo.com or via @JPCertHum.