(published in ‘Dreams & Nightmares ‘ 1996)

“It’s easy to imagine the subject of this painting being alive.  Merely look at the face, the brown eyes shining through near tears, a hint of blusher on petal cheeks, shapely lips on the point of moving in speech…”

The guide indicated a large oil painting in a gold-studded frame, mixed sprays of flowers subtly overlapping the abstract margins.

“The girl it depicts, as you can see, has been wonderfully caught, no older than it takes to have the beginnings of womanhood in the lines of her dress.  And, indeed, the dress is a work of art in itself: drapes of creamy silk edged with the frailest lace that paint has, in my view, ever conveyed, and a bodice of finely embroidered tulips.  See the undulating curves created by her legs, as she sits inside that marvellous dress, all part of a dream that the artist has, perhaps inadvertently, captured with merely a few instinctive flowing movements of his brush.”

The guide’s words brought out details of the painting, summoned them, in fact, from invisibility – if only for a few fleeting seconds.

“But I suppose it only makes it sadder, with this being such a living image of beauty with brown eyes, that she is now dead – scientific examination having proved it was painted at the turn of the century.”

A lady in the audience, one holding a Henry James novel, sobbed.  She seemed to have a similar hairstyle to the young girl in the painting: natural undulant curls of rust-brown hair, its heavenly composure dependent upon the deft positioning of lemon-white ribbons, neatly concealed beyond the abstract margins.  The guide strained to see who had sobbed, but the crowd had closed ranks.  Nothing for it, but a tentative continuation…

“The artist?  He – or she – remains a mystery.  The painting is unsigned, undated, with no documentation to give it provenance, in a frame unlike any other, depicting an angelic composure that, to my mind, fits no known fashion of social history and, so, I’m afraid we can only stand and gaze in sheer admiration.”

The crowd began drifting off piecemeal, the sobbing lady among them.  Most recalled nothing within the frame except a rather self-conscious still-life in yellow flowers.

“Only those with brown eyes are able to see Heaven.”

The guide muttered these last words, before becoming an indistinguishable part of the departing crowd.  And, at night, there was nobody left in the Gallery to witness the meeting of  composure and decomposure: a pair of abstractions walking proudly hand in hand.


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