FRAME OF REFERENCE
It is surely the worst kind of betrayal to watch these grey-clad women, knowing they can never look back through the one-way window and pass judgement in return. They sit along the wooden benches, ripping through piles of fish and tossing away the entrails. Their fingers flick as swiftly as their tongues and they rarely pause to gaze down, so practised are their hands. The gloomy hut is rank with the smell of newly-dead herring, and as I watch them work, I breathe swift thanks for my cavalier location in the twenty-first century.
The women nearest to me are in deep shadow. Those further away are illuminated by the light that floods through the crude window in a dazzling arc and splashes onto the floor below. I have never before seen such luminous paint and I wander past the picture several times, hoping to catch it off guard and fathom the secret of its liquid brilliance.
I am only here in this art gallery in the nothing time of a Copenhagen Sunday afternoon to avoid the nothing time of my empty apartment. I should have gone where there were more people and less silence. I take one final look at the painting, step back and walk along the passage to a small gallery. There is only one statue in there, a young woman moving confidently across the honeyed wooden floor in the warm spring sunshine. She shakes her parasol into flirtatious folds, delighted to be walking once more beneath the creamy blossoms after a long, cold winter. I stand in the shade of the nearest cherry tree to watch her glide noiselessly across the grass and sink onto a wooden bench. She drapes her skirt folds attractively and observes the passers-by under shaded eyelids, while I shelter helplessly under my branch, no more able to move towards her than to run from her.
Three pre-school children tumble through the far door in a flurry of giggles and half-unzipped snowsuits that remind me the spring has been reluctant to arrive this year. As the children’s carers marshal them wearily along one side of the gallery, I leave by the far door, propelled unresisting on the current of their vitality. I ought to look for Andreas. I met him in a bar last night, hitchhiking defiantly all the way from Sweden to Spain to recover from the break up with his girlfriend and unable, he told me, to pass an art gallery without exploring it. I am generally ambivalent about the half-life of galleries but the morning drizzle and the city draped in its usual Sunday slumber tempted me to accept his invitation and join him here.
I find him in a room devoted to ancient and rather sour royalty. He is sceptically inspecting an ornate gold frame and frowning but he smiles when he sees me. ‘I did not find you before. What have you seen?’
I hesitate. ‘I saw one amazing picture and a statue that I’m not yet sure about. How about you?’
He shrugs. ‘It was definitely worth travelling all this way from Kiruna for the architecture of the museum but I have found no picture yet that speaks to me. You must show me what you have discovered.’
I am not at all sure I want to share my finds but the exhibits are public and anyone can see them, so I turn and lead him towards the gallery where the girl is still waiting. I stop in the archway but he takes my elbow and edges me closer to her. We stand in silence as the clock inside my head breathes off the seconds. I watch him rather than the statue. I already know all I need to about her.
‘You are right, she is indeed very beautiful,’ he says.
‘I didn’t say that. I said I wasn’t sure about her.’
He laughs. ‘Seriously – you don’t think she is beautiful?’
‘Maybe on the outside. A little too perfect, perhaps, but you can’t tell what’s on the inside.’
He seems genuinely curious. ‘And so, we are to assume the worst?’
‘Of course not, but appearances aren’t everything, are they?’ I force myself to resist the easy jibe simply because he is a man.
He looks at her again. ‘Appearances can of course deceive and in real life, you can come to know someone in time, to see what is underneath. But this is a statue. Whatever is there to be known is all on the surface, surely?’
I shake my head. ‘Not necessarily. The artist must have wanted us to look deeper than that or there’d be no point in all that work.’
He stretches out a hand and allows one thoughtful finger to trace her eyelid. He opens a waterlily palm and cups her pale cheek more sensuously. My visceral reaction shocks me. I have a sudden violent urge to slap his hand away, to scream at him for his male blindness.
‘God, she’s a bitch!’ I exclaim, to purge the bitterness which surges through my mouth.
His shoulders erupt into shocked laughter. ‘No, indeed, you cannot seriously think that. She is just as you or me.’ He takes my shoulders and forces me to face her full on.
‘She’s nothing like me,’ I say, flatly. ‘Look at that smirk. She looks as though butter wouldn’t melt, but all the time she’s watching …’
He interrupts my venom. ‘Why should she not?’
I change tack, unwilling to appear any more irrational. ‘Just look at her dress. You can tell she doesn’t work for her living. l bet she’s never had to get her hands dirty in her life.’
He is shaking his head in bewilderment. ‘She is not smirking. She is trying desperately to please those around her. And have you noticed she is all alone?’
‘Aren’t we all?’ I snap, regretting it instantly as his face folds closed. ‘I’m so sorry, Andreas. I didn’t mean this to get personal. You can’t be sure she’s alone, though. She’s probably waiting for someone.’
‘Aren’t we all?’ he asks and grins at my discomfiture. ‘I’m sorry but I think you are a bit hard on her. It’s not her fault she is so beautiful and to me, she simply looks lonely. Is she waiting perhaps for someone who never turns up?’
‘Because he’s with his wife,’ I say reflexively.
He smiles and tips his head to look at her more closely. ‘You think he is not free to be with her so they are to meet one last time to say goodbye?’
‘With that smug smile? She’s waiting here for him to tell his wife it’s over. Then he’ll come to her.’
He shrugs and spreads out his hands. ‘I’m not helping, am I?’
‘I didn’t ask for help.’
I take his elbow and draw him back through the gallery to my picture. He gazes at it for a long moment. ‘It is certainly … interesting,’ he says.
‘Isn’t it?’ I ask eagerly.
He smiles. ‘Not the picture itself but it is interesting you are drawn to this one when to me it seems so … colourless.’
‘Colourless? But look at the light,’ I urge and drag him forward, as though this one tiny step will make a difference to his perspective. ‘Doesn’t it give you hope?’
‘Hope for what?’ he asks, pushing his hands deeper into his pockets.
‘For … them … for their situation. You must see it!’ I insist, half-laughing at his frustrating obtuseness.
‘No, I would hate to be in their situation, working all day in a cold hut for a few kroner, pulling the insides out of fish with my bare hands.’
I consider his viewpoint as I study the picture. The sun seems lower in the sky now and no longer tumbles through the window to warm the women’s pale cheeks. I watch the youngest woman heave the last of the carcasses onto the pallet and wipe her red hands on her woollen dress. She tugs at the splintered latch with raw hands and scrapes open the door. The late afternoon sun shines in golden bars through the grey clouds. The November air whips coolly around her ankles and the exposed skin of her neck and she shivers.
‘I saw it as a summer’s day,’ I tell Andreas. ‘You’re spoiling it for me.’
He stands his ground. ‘For that I am very sorry,’ he says quietly, ‘but I am looking at it with my own eyes and I see what I see.’
I frown. ‘This is exactly why I don’t like being taken to museums – the burden of other people’s self-expression.’
‘Perhaps because you only see through other people’s eyes? Next time you should come alone and make your own judgements.’ He glances at his watch. ‘I am sorry but I really have to go now. My train is leaving.’
‘Good luck,’ I say, willing him to leave quickly.
He lifts his hand in a casual salute and smiles. His footsteps rap lightly through the gallery and flick away to silence. I turn back to my picture and watch carefully until the summer sun climbs higher in the sky and once more pours through the window onto the captive workers.
I turn away quickly before the light can change and move reluctantly across the gallery and down the passage to where the statue waits for me. This time, I do not hide in the doorway or under the trees but walk towards her. When I look directly at her face, I am surprised to see a faint blush on her cheek. I glance down and see her nervous fingers clutching the yellow-ribboned handle. Instinctively, I reach towards her, then lower my hand and leave her standing, trapped in her marble moment, cherry blossom tumbling softly down around her head.