FICTION: What’s in a painting? by Simon Marlowe

I am always drawn to small art galleries, rather than the prestigious monoliths which swarm with tourists, because they sometimes offer the unusual, the slightly quirky vision of a local painter who had created something unique which (perhaps by chance) didn’t quite fit into any known artistic movement. Whilst not a painter myself, I have a loose connection with art and artists, operating a small retail outlet on the premises of one of the more well-known London art colleges. I have an interest in art, but am sadly lacking in talent, natural or acquired, other than having studied techniques, and understanding mediums which enables me to support students. It is a small insular world they are starting out in, and I shudder when I overhear the poor things talking of the malicious critiques and failings loaded onto their young shoulders. However, I have estimated that they steal approximately ten per cent of my stock, which I factor into my pricing. I still hire one of the students each year to help me out in the shop, especially to cover lunchtimes or else I would never get a break.

Peace can be found in the small artist who just wants to paint and display without ego bursting out of their bitter-tasting mouth. I find this peace around the corner from the hideous modernist frontage of the art school (which, I might add, hides the old established architecture of the original art school) where there is a graceful small church, which has been superbly converted into one of those small venues which I find so appealing. I can eat my sandwiches in ten minutes and then pop out for some fresh air before I go back to keeping a beady eye on my oil tubes and brushes. You walk along the street under some beech trees, for a good two or three hundred yards, then turn right down a short dead-end street, focusing at the bottom on the church gallery, which is partially shielded by a wall and hedge and the overhanging branches of an aging oak. London has these little sweet surprises and I like to eke out my trips there as high points of the week. It is only when you step inside and face the magnificent high windows that the appeal of such a place for display can be fully appreciated.

Well, I had popped out for a short break and walked around the gallery, thinking nothing had changed since my last visit, when I noticed that the small alcove at the back of the church had its door ajar for once (it had always been closed). There was never anyone around to prevent you from stripping naked and screaming: ‘I’ve got a lovely bunch of coconuts!’ As I am someone with a curious nature, I decided to peer into the room, wondering if I would catch a leftover priest pleasuring himself in front of the Madonna. Whilst my cheeky thought was unfulfilled, I did find something which immediately held my attention. In the hexagonal room, clean and of white brick, were three rather skilfully painted, representational pieces. The first two were good, but in the middle of them was something familiar. I then realised I was looking at the old school’s drawing room, which was still used by the Fine Art Department. Skilfully painted, with some elegant brush strokes, it discreetly used variations of light to reveal to the viewer a space which was both empty and full. I had no doubt that this was a painting by someone who had real craft. I continued to scrutinise, not only looking for a signature but surprised how fresh the painting was, as if it had only just been lifted off the easel. But I was none the wiser as to who the artist was – perhaps a student, or someone who had once attended the art school… how else would they have been able to capture the inner sanctum?

It was only later that day when Jim Armand, who taught the school’s main computer graphics courses, piled into my shop to invite me upstairs to the staff bar that I could bring my discovery to someone else’s attention. But first I had to listen to Jim explain his day of frustrations, which always started with complaints about the poor quality of the IT support in the school, how he only ever had one computer that worked and how most of his lecture time was spent solving a myriad of technical problems. I don’t think it ever occurred to Jim that some of these problems might be rooted in his alcoholism. He needed two pints of the black stuff in the morning before he could start, stank of alcohol throughout the day and had a top-up at lunchtime, before seeking out someone to facilitate as early as possible his evening’s requirements. I didn’t mind the odd drink, but I couldn’t sustain the nightly consumption that afflicted Jim. But he was lucky, because the cherubic-looking Jim Armand could rely on the understanding of his supportive wife to take him home. He just reminded me of some Evelyn Waugh-type character, a posh lost tragic soul, loveable but sadly doomed to some appalling fate… which in Jim’s case had to be liver disease.

There was no draught on offer in the staff bar, which meant that we consistently purchased two bottles of lager every round, which equated to approximately one and a third pints of Czechoslovakian rocket fuel. We sat by the window looking out at the peak-time traffic, consoling ourselves that we were not part of the mad rush to get home. It wasn’t long before we were joined by the hyperactive Brothwicke, Head of the Fine Art Department (what was left of it) and bitter enemy of the ‘no art’ departments which flourished in the rest of the school. I had some sympathy with Malcolm, not least because conceptualism and performance art were difficult to cater for in my retail outlet. I think our first topic of conversation was the latest offering from the final-year degree shows, which had included tea bags laid out in a trough of doormats, a television dropped from the top floor and a Mohican-haired student tethered to a pole walking around in circles encased in a pair of fresh brown clay trousers.

‘What a load of rubbish,’ said Malcolm, preferring to stand as he poured his bottle of beer. ‘You couldn’t make it up, could you? No technique, no thought, no art.’

Jim, who had some sympathy with or a better understanding of the artistic movements beyond painting and drawing, attempted to find some rationale, but was hastily reminded of his lack of formal training. It was Malcolm who had persuaded the school to expand its graphics provision, had recruited Jim and funnelled his fine art students to Jim’s classes to broaden their commercial appeal.

‘Don’t start apologising for that garbage! Not one of them has a clue what they’re doing. I wouldn’t mind if they’d learnt to paint… only then should they be allowed go on to make a tit of themselves, but not one useless turd has the intelligence to learn what the rules are. There is no discipline, no method, no substance…’

‘Let me guess,’ said Malcolm’s girlfriend, from behind him, ‘you’re slagging off the degree shows because no one’s drawn a picture.’

Catherine was a sweetheart, a golden girl, a shining light in the dingy morass of art, students and alcohol. A lot younger than the fifty-something Malcolm, their relationship was the product of an illicit affair whilst she studied ceramics.

We all greeted her cordially and knew Malcolm’s time in the bar would be cut short.

‘Well,’ I said, hoping to rouse Malcolm from his ritualistic despair, ‘you should visit the local art gallery around the corner. I’ve seen today a proper painting… a painting I do believe of your hallowed art room.’

‘I should charge them,’ replied Malcolm, ‘for replicating images without my permission.’

‘You should see it,’ I suggested. ‘I don’t think I’ve seen a finer piece for a long time. The technique is quite enchanting, mesmerising. They have managed to convey a type of brooding existentialism in just producing a fine palette of light and shade. The room is empty but full of meaning.’

‘Do you think they studied here?’ asked Catherine.

‘I doubt it,’ said Malcolm. ‘Every student of mine who was any good I know about.’

‘Every student?’ said Jim incredulously.

‘Of course. How else do you think I keep the department going without bragging about the alumni!’

‘Fair point…’

‘Right, we need to go…’ said Catherine, grabbing his arm and pushing her face towards Malcolm’s ear.

‘Yes, you’re right…’ he said, with a wince of disappointment and gulping his beer in one swift swallow. ‘Gentlemen… adios!’

The next day I decided to use my lunchbreak in the same way, but this time forgoing my sandwiches, as I was keen on spending more time studying the painting. There was certainly something which intrigued me, as much as it satisfied my artistic appreciation of a fine talent. The church gallery was its usual empty self, but as I approached the door at the far end, I noticed it was shut. I wondered if the few artworks had been removed and displayed along the walls. I walked back on myself, looking left and right for the A3-sized portrait of the old school’s drawing room.

But nothing…

Oh well, it was not important I decided, and was heading back out the door when a voice behind me said:

‘Excuse me…’

And I turned to face a sprightly middle-aged woman with spectacles hanging from her neck and over her chest.

‘Can I help you at all… you seem to be looking for something?’

And as she said this, I could see behind her that the door to the little alcove was open again.

‘Well… yes and no… I think…’ I said. ‘I mean… I am interested in a painting behind the door. Is it still there, because the door was locked?’

‘Oh yes, that’s me, being a bit silly… selfish don’t you know. I like to look at some things in peace you see, so I lock the door.’

‘Oh, right…’

‘But please… go ahead… we are open to the public.’

I was tempted to just turn back and head out of the door again, but had one more question.

‘Are you the curator?’ I asked.

‘Sometimes,’ she said, smiling benignly. ‘We all like to have a go… the committee. Please… look around. Ignore me… I am on my way out.’

Then she left. I felt a little bit awkward, as if I had been inconsiderate in some way, but I had to look, just to see if the painting was still there.

I made sure the door was left open and peered into the space, with my feet on the edge of the entrance. Yes, it was still there, but the work had been altered, or to put it more precisely, there were figures added in. I could smell the fresh oil paint, its intoxicating fumes wafting out in the draughts from the windows. At first, the additions to the painting were indistinguishable (and my eyesight is rather impaired). So, I had no choice but to move close and examine it.

There were three distinct figures, but they had not been completed. They were outlines, almost ghostly, pale shadows. In the centre was a naked woman, the object of the drawer, who was at his easel with his back to the viewer. On the other side of the painting was the most incomplete of the figures, in an animated pose I thought, perhaps moving to action. I could partially understand it… why the artist had returned… the notion that something creative is never finished. But I concluded that they had effectively ruined an excellent piece… if indeed the original artist was the culprit!

Normally, I would not return to the staff bar two nights running, but I had to tell Jim all about my little discovery. I think even he was surprised to see me make my own way to the bar, where he was deep in discussion with Malcolm. Something was obviously up, and I was soon informed of a tragedy. It was one of Malcolm’s alumni, or more precisely, an ex-student who had taken their own life. The news had only just been communicated, but the suicide was a few months ago… off Beachy Head. He had been one of Malcolm’s most promising students who had dropped out of school before completing his studies (and just before I had started as manager of my little shop). A tragedy, but I thought it odd that Malcolm seemed devastated, a grave emotion across his face, which I would only have expected if a close relative of his had died. But it was then that he said something which was to lead to a more detailed conversation with Jim.

‘I’ll have to go then,’ he said, ‘and give Catherine the news. Goodnight chaps!’

Once Malcolm was gone, I was left waiting for Jim to provide the detail, which can best be summarised as: the student who killed himself was the ex-boyfriend of Catherine’s and Catherine had left her boyfriend for Malcolm, an affair which became known to everybody apart from the poor young man, who had now killed himself.

‘Do you think he did it because of the affair then… the relationship?’ I asked.

Jim shrugged. It was some time ago.

‘But he found out in the worst possible way…’

‘What do you mean?’

‘He caught them at it!’ said Jim. ‘In the drawing room.’

Immediately, my mind raced ahead, as I recalled the painting which was still being worked on in the small church gallery.

I took a deep breath.

‘I went to see that painting today,’ I said. ‘You know, the one I told you about, with the superb technique, portraying the drawing room. Now this may sound bizarre, but the painting has been altered…’

‘You mean the artist had touched it up?’

‘No… more than that… they had added in characters… figures… but they aren’t defined yet.’

‘I hope you are not going to tell me it was Malcolm and Catherine rubbing frantically against the easels?’

‘No, it was a man viewing a model. But the odd thing was, there was another figure, barely drawn, but posed in a sort of animated way… as if they were rushing towards the artist’s model.’

‘Well, I can’t connect up all the dots… all I know is it’s a waste of talent. But it runs in the family… his mother studied here and paints.’

‘Perhaps that was the mum!’ I said excitedly.

I went on to explain the enigmatic appearance of the curator.

‘Who knows?’ replied Jim. ‘But no painting will bring him back… even one painted by his mother… if that’s who she is.’

I agreed and listened to Jim for the rest of the evening recount the salacious gossip of the relationship and other misdemeanours of staff and students. I was amazed Malcolm had survived and not been kicked out, but his kudos and reputation carried far more weight than any morality or policy obligation. In effect, the romantically crushed student could no longer pursue his artistic ambition, least of all receive tuition from the man who had broken his muse and stolen his girlfriend.

As Jim drank more, and mumbled more into his beer glass, I found myself pondering the various possibilities of the mysterious painting. I was intrigued… there was a puzzle to solve… a whiff of something not quite right… a lack of closure.

For the next few days I was a frequent visitor to the gallery, and on every occasion, I found that the door to the little alcove was locked. Being ever so curious, I would rest my ear against the ancient wood to try to detect any movement inside. I couldn’t tell, or I couldn’t hear, but my instincts were driving me to believe that there was someone there, working on that painting. But what were they adding in? Was it the mother of the heartbroken student who had tragically taken his own life? Was it the ghost even of our departed soul?

Unfortunately, as the weeks passed, I began to lose interest. I never mentioned the suicide or the painting again to my drinking buddies or to Catherine when she came to collect her nefarious partner, my respect for both having dropped.

It was only on a random and more casual visit to the gallery, a regular trip at lunchtime, that I had the surprise of finding the locked door ajar at last. I was hesitant, perhaps fearful of what I would discover. But what harm can a painting do to me or to others?

I opened the door, so that I could see more clearly into the small room. There were the three paintings, and in the middle the painting of the brooding, alienated drawing room. The three characters were now perfectly formed. In the centre, as clear as day, Catherine lay naked on raised boxes, which had been draped with a thick red velvet curtain. The head of the drawer was now turned sideways so a clear profile was distinguishable: it was Malcolm. And the animated figure? It was the woman who I had bumped into: she had a knife and was rushing towards Catherine.

It was then that I knew it was all too late.

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Simon Marlowe

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Simon Marlowe is an author and artist living and working in London and Essex. He published his first novel, Zombie Park, in 2017, a sharp, witty, intense portrayal following the lives of trainee psychiatric nurses in the mid-1980s. He likes to create characters who have been cut-off from the real world, enclosed in a less tangible one, which is nonetheless frighteningly gritty and surreal. Simon has a preoccupation with the dark and disturbing, exploiting the parameters of the psychological thriller, in both long and short fiction. He is currently working on a second novel, whilst publishing short stories, poetry and a political blog.

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