She gazed at him from her hiding place. His eyes searching for something he hadn’t thought to look for. As he cast his glance around, her dark blue eyes pulled at the corner of his vision. He must see her. His eyes rose, and caught on hers. Broken furniture and abandoned canvasses filled the space between them, all greys and browns, dimly lit. He needed light.
He looked to the door and walked over to the light switch, his eyes never leaving hers. He flipped the switch, and then, there she was. Deep, round blue eyes stared at him from behind years of dust and varnish. He walked towards her, his eyes on hers as he pushed through the boxes and broken chairs that lay between them.
She sat behind paintings of scenes long gone, only her eyes looked out at him. He pulled her up from her resting place on the floor and held her firmly between his hands. Her blue eyes stared into his, arching an eyebrow, against porcelain skin, swept clean of her dark hair. She wore a rich red dress, aged by style and time. There was something about her, something mysterious, irresistible even.
He looked to where a curtain covered a window and, reached over to pull the curtain free. Sunlight dashed across the image in his hands and she lit up. He looked past the canvas and to the woman beyond, who seemed to be inviting a response. Without knowing it he was already falling deeply for who she might have been.
Her dress and style suggested the painting was made at the turn of the nineteenth century. But something about the way her hair was pulled back, something about the way she looked at him. She had a sort of ferocity, he thought, that you would never see in women of that time. She was passionate, he imagined, she wanted something and would fight to get it. He grinned with a dirty knowledge of what it might be. There was definitely something about her. He had to have her.
He pulled his eyes from hers and began to take in the state of the canvas. A little wearing around the edges, that could be fixed, a lot of cleaning needed to be done, a bit of paint to touch it up. Yes, she would come up lovely. “Albert?” he shouted behind him. Some shuffling followed and a man in his seventies appeared in the doorway.
“What can I do you for?” Albert asked. “How much for her?” he asked him. Albert wandered over and put a hand on the painting, angling it to the light. “Oh, well she’s a pretty little thing isn’t she? Oh let’s say fifty.” There was no haggling, he was going to have her, and he did. He walked home, a certain swagger in his step, this woman held tight under his arm.
When he got home he set the canvas up on his easel, taking his work in progress and facing it to the wall. He frowned over the finished canvases. Done, ready, going nowhere. He sat back down in front of her. What would he call her? Something enigmatic, like Esmeralda maybe, or something regal like Elizabeth. He poured turpentine onto a rag and rubbed, and rubbed, till the old paint began to come away in bright smears.
When he was done he began to dab at areas that needed repair, a little of the background, part of her dress where the dirt hadn’t really come clean. Then he went on, and on, unable to stop himself. He added a few loosened wisps to her hair. He darkened her eyebrows, blush to her cheeks, and red to her lips. When he finally sat back, she was more beautiful than he had imagined. “Well, aren’t you a pretty lady,” he said, leaning back in his chair and smiling to himself.
The next day he woke late to a knocking on the door. He opened his eyes and looked across at the canvas. She was watching him. He smiled to himself. “Good morning gorgeous.” The knocking started again and his face fell, remembering something he had hoped to forget. “ I know you’re in there!” a voice yelled through the door. He made a small grumbling noise of upset and pulled himself out of bed.
As he wandered to the door the knocking began again. “Fuck off Sam!” he yelled loudly while opening the door. The man who was Sam leaned against the doorframe, his expression annoyed. “Where have you been?” He turned back into the studio and let Sam follow him in and close the door behind them. “Where the fuck do you think I’ve been?” He turned and sat down on his stool as Sam paced in front of him.
Sam thought for a second then looked at him. “I know you’re upset about the show.”
“Oh you know I’m upset, do I look fucking upset, do I?” he said with a heavy note of sarcasm, gesturing widely.
He became faintly aware that he was only wearing his boxers. He didn’t remember undressing himself. Sam had seen him in less. Sam, who looked at him now, eyebrow arched, glaring. Sam started again, quieter. “You’ve done a lot of work, and I understand that this is disappointing. It just wasn’t going to work. I talked to Maggie at the studio-“.
He cut him off. “Oh you talked to fucking Maggie did you? And what did she have to say about it? She’s had it in for me from day one. Thinks I’m some fucking arrogant twat doesn’t she. Bitch herself if you ask me!”
Sam stared at him, waiting for him to stop. He was always waiting for him to stop. “The work you’re doing, for them… it just wasn’t a good fit.”
He put his head in his hands. “I’m good at this Sam. Y’know. I’m really good. And people like fucking Maggie-”
“Maggie isn’t the problem here.” Sam fixed him with a familiar, firm stare. “You need to get a fucking grip and start listening to other people.”
“And what?” he said loudly, “and change my fucking work?”
Sam tensed his jaw. “No. You just need to listen more.”
He kept his head hung low, hoping Sam would leave.
“Who’s she?” Sam asked.
The gentle tone of Sam’s voice made him look up, he followed Sam’s gaze to the canvas behind him. “Ah,” he said, smiling. “She’s my new muse.” He stood up as Sam came up to take a closer look.
“Where d’you get her from?”
“Albert’s,” he said, grinning.
“Paint looks fresh?” Sam said, his brow furrowing.
“Well, yeah. Cleaned her up a bit, added a few bits.”
Sam turned away from the painting to look at him.
“What did you clean her with?”
“A bit of turps.”
“A bit of turps?” Sam’s tone was incredulous. “Oh you’re a proper fucking restorer aren’t you!”
He turned away as Sam’s voice rose.
“You’re not just supposed to strip away a painting like that! You could have ruined it! And what do you mean, added a few bits? You put acrylics on her? That’s oil you stupid twat!”
He rolled his eyes. “Does it really fucking matter? I made her look better. Look! She’s fucking gorgeous.”
Sam looked back at the painting. “You’re a fucking idiot man. This guy McKenna could be some great unknown or something.”
“McKenna?” He looked up at him, his brow creased in confusion. Sam gestured to the painting as if to prove a point. He walked back over to Sam and followed his gaze. In the corner of the painting there it was, a signature; McKenna, in slick black lettering. He must have missed it.
“Probably worth something. And you’ve almost ruined it.”
He didn’t care what Sam thought, what any of them thought. He spent the rest of the day packing away paintings, drinking as he did so. He’d find someone else who would love his paintings. Not like fucking Maggie. Or that twat at Lethbridge’s. Fucking cunts! He threw the last painting on the floor, half wrapped, and sloped off to his bed in the corner, where he fell into a deep, drunken sleep.
In his dreams he saw the woman from the painting. She was watching him from the corner of a room, a party in his honour, but she was all he wanted to see. She placed her hands on his chest and stared deeply into his eyes. She kissed him deeply. When he awoke from the dream he felt flushed, invigorated even. He did not notice the taste of turpentine on his tongue as it disappeared into the sharp tang of his hungover breath.
After finding nothing in the kitchen he ventured out looking for food, then made his way back to Albert’s. He always went looking for something, anything, to distract him. But today he felt he knew what he was looking for. He pulled back canvas after canvas before coming across a beach landscape, deep and rich in colour. Recognisable. He pulled it up and cleaned the corner with his sleeve; McKenna.
He’d spent the rest of the day at the storehouse and managed to find five paintings in all. Landscapes, rich and dynamic, all Payne’s Grey storms, and Cadmium Red fire in their skies. Albert offered to deliver them the next day, but he couldn’t wait. He crushed them into an Uber and carried them up to his studio, knocking them against the wall as he went.
He cleaned and painted, until each stormy sky and burning fire burst from their dirty brown varnishes. Daylight was appearing at the windows when he wandered to his bed. In his dreams he felt fingers on his body and imagined he woke to see the woman in the red dress sitting astride him. He tried to touch her, but was frozen in place. He woke up exhausted, as though a heavy burden had been placed on him during the night.
When he eventually got out of bed he walked into the centre of the room. The paintings had been displayed in a semi-circle. The woman, his Esmeralda, at the centre. Had he done that? He couldn’t remember. He was confused about what he was doing, the day before was a blur. He looked at the signatures; McKenna. Then he looked again at the paintings, and a jealous distaste blew through his mind. Who was this guy? Why was he wasting his time on him?
He pulled out his phone and searched for combinations of times and names and artistic mediums. Then he found a piece of academic writing on a woman, an artist; Sarah McKenna. He thought it unlikely. He wanted it to be unlikely. A small ache of jealousy gripped him as he clicked on the small thumbnail and a self-portrait loomed large on his phone. He looked to where McKenna loomed large in her canvas, it was the same painting.
He gave her an unkind look. He didn’t know what this was but he didn’t like it. She suddenly didn’t look so beautiful, she looked disdainful and critical; her eyebrow arched in a sarcastic ‘fuck you!’. He put his phone back in his pocket and picked up each painting, stacking them and throwing them in the corner of the studio.
He tried to paint that day, returning to his work in progress. But the acrylics didn’t flow as he would have liked them to and each colour mixed darker, richer, than he would have liked. He wasn’t concentrating, so in the end he gave up. He drank, and he ordered pizza and went to bed exhausted by something he couldn’t put his finger on.
That night he felt her again, he woke to hands on his body. Her fingers traced his cheekbones and worked their way down over his chest. Then back up again, her fingers moving against his skin, within his skin and then underneath it, as though they were pushing their way into his body; making room.
The next morning he arose early and without argument. He went to the easel, he pulled down the work in progress and set up a fresh new canvas. He started on a landscape he thought he’d seen once, a rocky beach in a thunderstorm. But there was something about the paint he didn’t quite like, he would have to start again. He remembered some oil paints he had stored away and rose to get them.
He passed by the canvases piled in the corner and something about the red hue he had used to touch them up unsettled him. He picked them up and brought them into the middle of the room. He looked at each painting with a critical eye; something was wrong. He took each one in turn and repaired them; stripping back the portrait to a woman he would not care to know.
He worked through the night, but when Sam came around the next day it was as though no time had passed at all. “Wow, you’ve been really busy,” Sam was impressed, which he wasn’t often. But although Sam talked he was too tired to respond. He felt as though he was experiencing everything through fog. Sam talked animatedly, but it was all too far away for him to comprehend. He didn’t notice when he left.
That night his dreams seemed far away. He was an observer, looking out as somebody else dreamed in the distance. The room was old. He looked down at a body that wasn’t his and his paintbrushes moved in ways his did not. He looked up and into the mirror sat before him, in the reflection he saw McKenna’s raised eyebrow, a small smirk twitched the corner of her mouth, and he felt himself slip away.
Reality fell through his hands. Time moved, he ate, and he painted, and he functioned, but someone else was pulling at his strings. At his behest, although he didn’t remember asking anyone, an exhibition was put on. He felt himself smiling warmly as Maggie shook his hand. He gave a speech as McKenna’s portrait looked down on him from a banner hung high.
The world seems so far away from him these days, he’s an observer from inside a waking sleep. Though he does not know it, he doesn’t know anything anymore. He doesn’t go out, or if he does it will be to quietly flip through the canvases in auction houses. Even when he paints they are someone else’s pictures.
Occasionally a friend or someone from the art world will try to meet with him, but he can’t hear his name being shouted through a door, or see it written on a letter. He only sees her name, bigger than his, hears her name, louder than his. And when he signs his paintings it’s only her name he can think of, and only her name they’ll remember; McKenna.
I wrote this for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge where I had eight days to write a 2,500 word max story, which had to be a horror, involving a painter and ambition.