The door to the gallery was dark red, brush strokes in the paint giving a depth to the colour that that smooth perfection never could. Below a square of painted glass was an old, heavy brass knocker.
A tiny bell above his head tinkled as he pushed open the door. He walked up a flight of stairs to the next floor where he saw two rooms had been knocked into one, the connected space formed a long gallery along the walls of which were hung paintings and sketches. At one side of the bay window a woman was sitting behind the desk.
She looked up.
‘Is it alright if I look around?’ he asked.
She nodded. ‘Yes. Go ahead.’
He went to the wall and began studying the paintings and sketches. ‘I read about the gallery in Time Out,’ he said.
She nodded, looked over to where he stood, ‘Yes, this place is a sort of a time-share for artists,’ she said, rising from the desk and coming over to him as he studied a beach scene, the oils dark green and blue and grey, cool but with flecks of red and yellow that reflected the low winter sun. ‘I get it for two months, to display my collection,’ she said, ‘and, hopefully, sell, a few pieces. Or, who knows, maybe the whole collection.’
‘Does that happen a lot?’
She gave a quiet smile, a brief shake of the head, ‘Not if you paint figurative.’
‘The big money goes on shock value,’ he said.
‘And you paint what you see.’
An observation, not a question.
‘You have an eye,’ he said.
‘Do you sell a lot?’
She motioned with her hand toward the three or four paintings that had yellow post-it notes on the frames. ‘I sell enough.’
‘But you rarely exhibit.’
‘Twice in ten years,’ he said.
‘Are you a collector?’ she asked, surprised.
‘I’m a modest collector. I follow the work of one or two artists.’
He looked at an unsold painting. A small fishing boat, lying canted in the mud of a low tide. The name of the boat Shoreline Gold – was lettered in faded script on old, weather-beaten plankings of blue and cream. There was another painting beside it: the setting was a sandy beach below a grassy rise, and in the foreground, a fishing boat on fire. The burning boat surrounded by people.
‘Same boat?’ he asked.
‘No,’ she said. ‘That was the Lovely Marie. The EU was clamping down on small fishermen at the time. They paid the fishermen to burn their boats.’
‘If you changed the clothing, that could be a scene from a thousand years ago.’
She nodded, ‘Boat-burning goes a long way back in that part of the world, I guess.’
His hand traced the line of the sand against the sea’s edge, ‘Northumberland.’
She nodded. ‘Sugar Sands,’ she said, ‘ten miles south of Holy Island.’
‘You paint narratives.’
‘I steal moments.’
He moved on slowly, studying each painting in turn, most of them were paintings of people, people at work, at rest, people talking, people sitting alone, one or two were posed but most of them looked as though they weren’t. Looked as though the subjects were never aware of their being painted.
‘Guerilla paintings,’ he said.
‘Someone said that about me,’ she said.
He paused at a row of three coloured pencil sketches set inside a single frame. They were of a fair-haired young man, and he studied them at length. She watched him, noticed how he stood, left leg raised a little. He has an injury, she thought, but he hides it well. She said, ‘Those sketches are old. Ten years or more.’
He nodded, a crinkle in his eyes.
‘They’re not for sale,’ she said, ‘they’re just examples of what I can do.’
‘You thought a lot of him.’
‘He was a mentor,’ she said. ‘He believed in me when no one else did.’ She said, ‘You’re from the north, too.’
An observation, not a question.
‘Been down here a few years now.’ He went back to studying the sketches, looking for something. He said, ‘You caught the essence of him.’
‘You knew him?’
His eyes creased a little more, almost a smile.
She studied him in return: early forties, hair black with strong threads of grey at the temple and above his left eye; he wore an old wristwatch, black face with white numbers and dials, the original strap, hand-stitched chocolate brown leather, the steel buckle worn matt. His clothes were dark; comfortable and expensive; clothes you could move in.
He’s modest, she thought. She thought of how she would sketch him when he was gone: he was opaque. ‘I’m Kaska,’ she said. He said nothing so she reached into her pocket, took out a business card and held it out to him, ‘Mr…?’
‘Walker,’ he said.
He took her card, looked at it, palmed it, and it was gone. A conjuror’s trick.
‘What do you do?’ she asked.
‘When you’re not being a modest, retired collector, then?’
‘I lead a quiet life.’
That’s no answer she thought. ‘What sort of art do you collect? Apart from me.’
‘Art that steals a moment.’
She wasn’t sure what to say.
He smiled. Gave a short hmm, sound of amusement. ‘Are you doing well, Kaska?’ he asked, turning back to the sketches.
‘I eat. I pay the rent.’
‘And you paint.’
A nod, glancing back at her sketchpad lying open on the desk, halfway through something; abandoned now. ‘It’s how I process the world.’
‘If you could do something else, what would you do?’
‘I’d do this,’ she said, ‘every time.’
Then she said, ‘I’d like to paint you.’
He looked away from the sketches and back toward her. He had pale green eyes, flecked with gold. A predator at rest, she thought, and the image came to mind, of an open mouth, canine teeth, dripping blood, and she suppressed a shiver.‘Yes,’ she said, looking him in the eye.
On reflection, she thought, I would really like to paint you.
A smile, a half shrug, then he shook his head. ‘I don’t want to be captured for posterity,’ and his focus went back to the sketches.
‘If you change your mind…’
‘Your work has depth,’ he said. ‘You have a clear eye.’ He glanced back at her. ‘What was he like? When you knew him.’
‘He was a good man,’ she said. ‘What he was like when you knew him?’
He gave this some thought.
‘He was not a good man,’ he said, and then stood quiet for a long time, engrossed by the sketches, by some memories he didn’t share. Then he said her, ‘But I think he turned away from darkness.’
She moved alongside him and studied the sketches, focused on one in particular, one she hadn’t really looked at properly in years.
The sunlight to one side of him, the light rising from across the sea, she remembered, she could almost feel herself in the moment when she drew him – she could recall the experience of every drawing and every painting she’d ever done – it had been a throwaway, a quick sketch she’d done somewhere around seven on a summer’s morning long ago.
Looking like an angel.
‘He turned toward the light,’ she said.
‘And how did the world react?’ he asked.
‘It welcomed him,’ she said.
He smiled again, nodding very slightly toward the sketch, almost a salute, just once, as if some long-pondered question has been answered.
The phone rang and she said, ‘Excuse me,’ and went to answer it.
He stood there, quite still, studying the sketches.