FRAME OF REFERENCE
It is surely the worst kind of betrayal to watch these grey-clad women, knowing they can never stare back through the one-way window and pass judgement on me in return. They sit in chattering lines along the two 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. As I watch the women work, I breathe a swift thanks for my cavalier location in the twenty-first century.
What draws me most is the gush of light at the far end of their cramped room. It floods through the crude window in a dazzling arc and splashes onto the floor beneath. I have never seen paint this luminous and I wander past the picture several times, hoping to catch it off guard and fathom the secret of its liquid brilliance.
I am here in the art gallery in the nothing time of a Copenhagen Sunday afternoon, to avoid the nothing time of an empty apartment. I take one last look at the painting and step away. Two doors and eighteen steps lead me to a small statue gallery, where a young woman steps confidently across the honeyed wooden floor in the warm spring sunshine. She shakes her parasol into flirtatious folds, delighted to be walking beneath the creamy blossoms again after a long, cold winter. I stand in the shade of the nearest cherry tree and watch her noiseless glide across the grass. She drapes her skirt folds attractively as she sinks onto a wooden bench and observes the passers-by under shaded lids. I shelter helplessly under my branch, no more able to move towards her than opposing poles on magnets.
Three pre-school children tumble through the far door in a flurry of giggles and half-unzipped snowsuits that remind me spring has yet again been reluctant to arrive this year. Their carers marshall them wearily along one side of the gallery and I leave by the far door, propelled unresisting on the current of their vitality, to look for Andreas. I met him last night in a bar, 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 more ambivalent about the half-life of galleries but the morning drizzle and the city’s being draped in Sunday slumber tempted me to accept his invitation to join him here.
I find him sceptically inspecting an ornate gold frame and frowning. He turns when he sees me and smiles. ‘I did not see you before, but what have you found?’
‘There’s an amazing picture through there and a statue I’m not quite sure about. What about you?’
He shrugs. ‘The architecture of the museum is definitely worth travelling all this way from Kiruna but I have found no picture yet that speaks to me, so 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. I turn and lead him reluctantly towards the gallery where the girl waits for us. I stop in the archway. He takes my elbow and edges me closer. We stand in silence as the clock inside my head breathes off the seconds and I watch him rather than the statue. I already know all that 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.’
‘Seriously – you don’t think she is beautiful?’ he asks.
‘Maybe on the outside. Perhaps a little too perfect. But you can never tell what’s on the inside.’
‘And we are to assume the worst?’ he asks, looking genuinely curious.
‘No, of course not, but appearances aren’t everything, are they?’ I force myself to resist the easy jibe simply because he is a man.
‘Appearances can of course deceive us but in real life you can come to know someone, to see what is underneath. This is a statue, not a painting, Whatever is there is all on the surface, surely?’
‘Not necessarily. The artist must have wanted us to look deeper than that or there’d be no point in all his effort.’
He stretches out his hand and allows one thoughtful finger to trace her eyelid as he considers my statement. He opens a waterlily palm and cups her pale cheek more sensuously. My visceral reaction shocks me – 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 surging through my mouth.
His shoulders erupt into shocked laughter. ‘No, indeed, you cannot seriously think that. She is just as you or me.’ He turns my shoulders and forces me to face her full on.
‘She’s nothing like me, that’s for sure,’ I say, flatly. ‘Look at that smirk. She looks as though butter wouldn’t melt, but all the time she’s watching …’
‘So?’ He interrupts my venom.
I change tack, not wanting to appear any more irrational. ‘You can tell that she doesn’t work for her living. She’s rich, just look at her dress. I’ll 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 to please those around her. And have you noticed she is all alone?’
‘Aren’t we all?’ I snap, regretting it as his face folds instantly closed. ‘I’m so sorry, Andreas. I didn’t mean this to get personal. But you can’t know that she’s alone, not for sure. She’s probably waiting for someone.’
‘Aren’t we all?’ he says and grins at my discomfiture. ‘OK, I’m sorry, but I think you’re being a bit hard on her. It’s not her fault she is so beautiful and to me she simply looks lonely. Is she perhaps waiting for someone who never turns up?’
‘Because he’s with his wife.’
I say it reflexively and he smiles and tips his head to look more closely.
‘He is not free to be with her you think, so they are to meet one last time to say goodbye?’
‘Not with that smirk. No, she’s waiting here for him to tell his wife it’s over and then he’ll come to her.’
He shrugs and spreads his hands. ‘I’m not helping, am I?’
‘I didn’t ask for help.’
It is my turn now to take his elbow and I draw him back through the gallery to my picture.
He stares at it for a few moments. ‘It is certainly … interesting,’ he says at last.
‘Isn’t it? But what about it, exactly?’
‘Not the picture itself, I mean, but it is interesting that you would be drawn to this one when it seems so … colourless.’
‘Colourless? But look at the light,’ I urge, dragging 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 and pushes his hands deeper into his pockets.
‘For … them … for their situation … you must see it,’ I insist, half laughing at his frustrating obtuseness.
‘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 for a second. The sun is lower in the sky now and no longer tumbles through the window to warm their pale cheeks. The hut dims as I watch the youngest woman heave the last of her pile of carcasses onto the pallett and wipe her red hands on her woollen dress to dissipate the stench. She tugs at the splintered latch with raw hands and scrapes the door back in its frame. She and I look up at the sky outside where the late afternoon sun shines in golden bars through the grey. 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 think I’ve seen enough. You know, this is exactly why I don’t like being taken to museums – the burden of other people’s self-expression.’
‘Maybe 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 do have to go now. My train is leaving.’
I will him to leave quickly. He lifts his hand in a casual salute and we smile goodbye. As soon as I hear his footsteps rap lightly through the gallery and flick away to silence, I turn back to my picture. I stare at it for a long moment until the summer sun climbs higher into the sky and pours back through the window onto the captive workers. I turn away quickly before the light can change again and move reluctantly back across the gallery. I walk right around the statue and this time look directly at her face. I am surprised to see a faint blush on her cheek and 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.