BY ANTHONY WARD
Copyright is held by the author.
PETER HAD been compelled to keep the painting on the staircase wall even though it made him feel uneasy whenever he passed it. Though the thought of getting rid of it. unnerved him even more. He told everyone that it reminded him of something. What, he did not know. He often found himself straightening it as he ran up and down the stairs, catching it with his shoulder. The painting beheld a rural scene of a winding road that wound itself beyond a thatched cottage at the end of a nave of trees. He admired the intensity of the sunlight as it waded out the brooding shades. Most of all, it made him feel at home.
He had moved into the house three months ago. When the hawthorns in the garden were at their most inviting. It was all he could afford, as it was cheaper than all the others in the street, though he never asked himself why.
It was a Saturday, and like any other Saturday Peter had gone to the market to look for something different amongst the craft stalls. But he was really searching for something else. Something he could not quite determine.
Peter stopped to look at the carvings on the stall that led down from the bridge. He picked up a medium sized onyx, moon gazing, Hare, stared at it sullenly, and placed it back down after thanking the lady tending the stall.
“Sorry,” he said after turning around, bumping into a tall dark-haired woman wearing a long, green, knee length coat. The woman said nothing, just pushed passed without even turning around, before disappearing into the crowd. Peter thought nothing of it at first and shook his head. But as he continued looking around the market stalls, he could not get the incident out of his mind. Her face, those eyes, that expression.
When he returned, he passed the picture on the stairs and nudged it. As he straightened it, he stood awhile, imagining himself on the path, fancying that he was that little green speck which he had not noticed before. Thinking it was just a bit of dirt, he tried to scrape it off with his fingernail, but it wouldn’t move. He carried on up the stairs and went into the bathroom where he picked up a cloth from a white cabinet and dampened it under the tap. ‘That’ll do it,’ he thought. He wiped the cloth over the glass, but the speck remained.
“I’ll sort it tomorrow,” he said, descending the rest of the stairs, eager to dive in between the pages of the book he was reading.
The following week Peter noticed that the smudge had grown larger, like neglected mould. He tried wiping it again, but it would not budge.
“It’ll have to wait until I get back from the market,” he told himself begrudgingly, lifting his coat from the newel post and rushing out the door with only one arm sleeved.
At the market, Peter had a familiar feeling he was being followed. He thought he could see the shape of the woman in the long green coat a few yards behind him. The portent for rain held back as he weaved himself through the grey crowd, constantly looking over his shoulder, his eyes threshing the field of faces to find her, as he felt somebody bump into him.
“Hey,” the woman called out.
“Sorry,” Peter replied.
“Oh, hi Peter, how are you?” He thought he saw the woman in the green coat disappear up a flight of steps before the woman in front of him came into focus. “I haven’t seen you in a long while.”
“Hi Gillian. It’s been some time hasn’t it.”
“It has,” she replied uneasily, “not since…” she hesitated.
Peter nodded in acknowledgement. “Bethany. I know.”
“I still can’t believe she’s not here,” said Gillian.
Peter looked towards the bottom of the steps as if expecting to see the long green coat swishing from behind the wall.
“If I hadn’t of stood her up.”
“Hey!” Gillian replied tilting her head. “It’s not your fault. She was ill.”
Peters eyes glistened. “She’d still be here if it wasn’t for me.”
Gillian placed her hand on his shoulder. “Maybe we should have a drink some time, catch up, if you want to talk.”
“Sure,” Peter replied, “let’s do that sometime.” He could see that last word stretching away from him as Gillian disappeared into the crowd. He raced up the steep flight of steps that turned like a dogs hind leg, leading up to the castle chare. But when he reached the top the only thing he caught sight of was his breath in the chilly air.
Peter returned home with a renewed determination to remove the mark. He ascended halfway up the stairs and stood staring, perplexed at the smudge on the painting. Not only did it appear larger, but it also appeared to have a more distinct form. “It’s just my imagination playing tricks on me,” he reassured himself, scrubbing the glass with an abrasive pad. But it remained stubborn. He scrubbed harder and harder as Bethany started to enter his thoughts, running over and over through his mind. “If only I had of been there for her. If only I hadn’t have been too absorbed in myself,” he muttered, scouring the glass profusely, “I could have helped her.” He saw Bethany on the beach, her face tussling with her wind-swept hair. “What is it, Bethany? Tell me. Tell me what’s causing this pain.” The words echoed in his cavernous head. It hurt as much now as it did back then. Her depression darkened day by day, like a front coming across to land from the sea. “It must be on the inside,” Peter said to himself. Taking the painting from the wall, he removed the masking tape from the back. The mark was on the painting itself. He tried wiping it, but this resulted in him spreading the mark until it had blemished the painting. “I just couldn’t take it anymore. It was too hard. But I know it was harder for you, Bethany, I know. What happened to you that night?”
What happened that night, nobody knows. Peter knows he was meant to meet her at the bus shelter at the end of the lane. But he didn’t. He couldn’t face her that night. He could no longer take the pain that she had to take. He went over the last time he saw her. The day before she disappeared. He remembered she had been painting. It was the painting he was now trying to clean. ‘I like it.’ he had lied to her. “But maybe it needs someone it in.” Bethany had looked at him with blank eyes. “Maybe, I’ll put you in it,” she had muttered. “Maybe you should put yourself in it.” Peter recalled his callous reply as he pushed his hand further into the painting, making a circular motion, which made the blemish bigger and bigger until the painting had been completely absorbed.
Peter saw the sunlight streak across the floor and wall, as if a tide of light had swept up the staircase. He heard murmurings coming from a distance as he watched two strange figures wander passed up the stairs. He could hear doors opening and closing as if people were going in and out of all the rooms. Eventually the figures came back down the stairs and stopped in front of the painting. A tall woman, wearing a long green coat, with her long dark hair draped over one side of her face, looked straight into the painting.
“Well, what do you think of it Bethany?” came the voice from the other person.
Bethany stood staring at the painting, her attention wandering up the winding road to the thatched cottage, where the small figure of a man, merely a brush stroke, could be made out. She wondered about the man, who he may have been, what he was doing there.
“Well,” she said, replying to herself as much as the other, “Either the painting goes, or I do.”
Anthony loves the way words sound through silence. He is inspired by the nature of the world and the expression of art as humanity decrees to discover itself. He writes to express the overwhelming beauty of the natural world with the inspiring admiration of artistic creativity. He has recently been published in Jerry Jazz Musician, Cold Moon Journal, Shot Glass Journal, Highland Park Poetry, and CommuterLit.