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by Cath Barton

After he’d gone I sought solace in the white rooms of galleries, where the only men were blank-faced attendants who offered me neither hope nor disappointment. But the classicism of eighteenth century landscapes soon bored me, I found the Impressionists too insubstantial and in the twentieth century I was confused, still dissatisfied. I tried to avoid portraits with their accusing eyes. If there were people in paintings I preferred them to be looking away from me.

One day I found myself in front of a large canvas, a watercolour of a family group round a table. They appeared to be sitting for a meal. It was ultra-realistic. One man in the picture was standing with his back to any onlookers. He was wearing a white linen shirt and the curve of his back was alluring. Next to him was an empty chair. I sat on the leather banquette in the centre of the room and looked at the man for a long time.

As I finally stood to go a voice in my ear said, “You’re beautiful. I’m saving that chair for you.”

I was, of course, startled. I must have shown it in some way because the attendant coughed and glared at me. There was no-one else in the room. I left in a hurry, embarrassed about my too-short skirt and the echo of my heels on the parquet floor.

Next day I was drawn back to that gallery, that room. I’d dressed modestly, because I did not want to draw attention to myself. The man standing in the picture had turned and was smiling out at me. He had kind eyes and seemed to be patting the empty chair next to him. I walked up to the picture, not making a sound in my soft shoes.

“Step back,” growled the attendant.

I ignored him and put up a finger to touch the paint of the man’s smile. The attendant ordered me to leave.

At home there were red roses in a vase, fragrant cooking smells from the kitchen.

“Surprise!” said a friend, appearing in the kitchen doorway.

I walked into my dining room. For a moment it was as if I was looking again at the picture in the gallery; there was a group round the table, sitting for a meal. Now I recognised the people round the table as members of my family and old friends. Except for one, a kind-eyed stranger who turned, smiled and patted the chair next to him. I sat. He put his arm around me and said he hoped I liked red roses.

We had a dalliance after that, he and I, short but very sweet. I did not allow him to break my heart and I still visit him sometimes, in the gallery. There’s a new attendant, more friendly. She lets me go up close, though I don’t touch. It wouldn’t be polite, especially as there’s another woman in the seat next to him now. As for me, I’m glad of my freedom.

Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in Wales. She won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella in 2017 for The Plankton Collector, which will be published later this year by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. Read more about her writing at https://cathbarton.com/. On Twitter she’s @CathBarton1.