‘Difficult,’ she agrees. ‘Living here. In this town. A place of noble souls, a home for me for many years. But as a place for an artist? You should see things on Saturday night when the boys come into town to let off their steam. The scenes you will see. But I am inspired by places such as this. I am interested in American scenes. In capturing the America of my childhood, the America around me.’
Her manner has changed now. She has made the speech before, and she has drawn something from it. For a moment she looks around the room, and Gray detects a look of defiance. He finds it attractive, she is suddenly attractive. Underneath the nude self-portrait, they stand together and Gray think of the woman he has involved himself with at work. They are not suited. She is younger than Gray, not much, but the age difference is noticeable. Whereas Gray would like to eat in little restaurants, she is happier with large chains, even fast food. The few times they have been to the cinema, they have been unable to agree upon films. He finds her taste in music and books, her willingness to lose herself in the most crass television programmes, utterly abhorrent. But in part he envies her. Her own past, which Gray realise he will soon be relegated to, history, any kind of depth, are irrelevant. She is always moving forward living in a perpetual present, like a shark. This woman is different. She is genuine. Looking up at the portrait, he wonders if he could ignore the clumsiness of her talent in return for her faith and defiance, for the warm geography of her body.
Finally she turns to him. ‘Would you like to come through to the next room?’
‘Of course,’ he says. ‘What is there?
‘Another painting. Something I’m sure you will like. I owe a lot to this painting. People come from miles around to look at this work, and, well, soon we are going to have to give it up. So you best enjoy it while you can.’
Gray follows her into a smaller room with the same white paint, another tea-brown stain rising from the floor. A single picture occupies the wall behind the doorway, a vast canvas illuminated by spotlights. A man in rags stands upon a desert path. He has grey hair and a beard. He has one arm thrown up against his face. A small creature squats upon his shoulders, a blackened imp with a wide leering mouth, black saucer eyes. It pulls at his hair. Its tongue is long, red and forked, and has woven itself amongst the old man’s beard. Another creature stands upon the path in front of him. It resembles a toad, elongated and blue, with feet similar to chicken claws, and wide yellow eyes. More figures gather in the air above the man, large bat-like creatures, their wings like shreds of black cloth, their expressions vicious and crazy. Beyond this sign, the sky is azure marbled with pearly clouds. A settlement stands upon the horizon. Here, the land is more fecund, sprouting with trees and grass and crops. A miller carries a sack of flour from the entrance to a windmill. Dogs chase on another beside a pond. From a tree nearby, a pelican launches itself into awkward flight.
The woman is standing by Gray’s side. She is looking at him more than the painting, gauging his reaction, her face almost beatific.
‘What do you think?’
It take a moment for Gray to answer. ‘Incredible. How did you…?’
‘How do we come to have it? In this little hick town? Well.’ The words sound like sarcasm, but when he looks into the woman’s eyes, Gray sees a bright, hardness, like a genuine anger, or frustration. All her triumph has gone, and when she speaks again, it seems to Gray that her accent has thickened, that it is strangling the words. ‘Like I said, my father was in Europe. The great European theatre. He had been there upon those beaches, where young men were torn up like ribbons. He had pushed onwards through the country. They came to a town in Champagne. Like the wine. On the outskirts, there was a chateau, which the local Nazi commander had used for his headquarters. He would send the soldiers under his command out upon raids. To gather anything of value. They stormed great houses of the vicinity like they were military installations. This picture was only one of a hundred, a thousand works of art left discarded in the chateau when the my father found it. Leaning against a wall, rolled up like a map. The commander had fled.
‘She was a Jewish lady. Who owned the picture. I don’t know how they work these things out. She went to the gas chamber, this woman. Oh my god. It’s too horrible to think about. My father thought, if he was stealing from anyone, it was from the enemy. We know now, that it wasn’t right. Perhaps he was offended that this art, these great pieces of work, had been viewed only for their value and not for their beauty. I am an artist, so surely, surely there is a part of my father who can appreciate these things. But there was another owner, of course. We received a letter some months ago. They are talking of repatriating it. To make amends. Oh, I know this must be done. That we will lose it. That really we should be grateful for having it at all. But still.’
She looks at the picture and shakes her head. ‘My inspiration. Whenever I lost faith I would come to this room. It became my temple, my church. When I doubted my talent. That this work of art, hundreds and hundreds of years old, could be rolled up by a boy, not even shaving, and hidden in a rucksack. And carried thousands and thousands of miles. It made me believe again. That what survives you is the work. That it is all that survives.’
© Daniel Bennett