by Amanda Jones
martini, shaken not stirred
Tiny, freshly grown, spring leaves formed a bright contrast to the ominous, dark clouds floating high above them. She lay spread-eagled below the crooked branches, gazing up at the distorted picture of sky sprinkled with this brand-new foliage. Occasionally a glint of yellow shot through a tear in the cloud, sharply breaking the fluffy, cotton wool effect and gloomy atmosphere created with the prospect of thundery rain. She memorised the snapshot of the picture in her mind as she blinked away the dazzling effect of the sun in her eyes and sat bolt upright, took her brush in her hand and began to paint.
Gradually the vermilion green blended with cadmium yellow oil paint to form the highlights and she mixed a careful paste of linseed oil with the cobalt blue to diminish the harshness of the shadows. The view was one of the vision she had caught in her mind with the delicate structure of fine branches creeping outwards over the paper, the fine dots and speckles of green, yellow and blue formed the mesh of leaves made over the sky and carefully applied strokes of white lined the edges of the larger, closer leaves caught in the light of the sun rays…
“Ten thousand pounds! Anyone for ten thousand pounds? You, sir, any advances? Any advances on ten thousand pounds? Right, sold! Number 230, thank you sir!” The finality of the auctioneer’s hammer branded the price of the unique article for sale. It had been a popular piece, many buyers had opted in then dropped out only to dare to raise their hand or nod their head once again as the dazzling brilliance of the painting caught their attention once more and urged on their instinctive desire for individuality and quality. A small but highly decorative, standard card had been issued for the piece. It was carefully tied to the now, yellowed, fragile string which had once supported its heavy, oak frame, panelled with clear glass. Now it, like the painting was worn, old and tinged with the endurance of life, through the accidents, the brilliance of displaying itself to the world and through the stern, scouring of many eyes fixed on scorn and criticism. Its life had been a long one but from the year it had been painted in 1919 it had survived to show its worth and value of the well earned ten thousand pounds, signed, delivered and thanked for today. But the card only stated, bluntly and plainly: “Picture of a scene near Hyde Park, London, unusual viewpoint, captures a unique perspective. Painted by Miss Elizabeth Harrison, born 1893, died 1921.”
It meant a lot more to Alex. He was a lover of objects and he had known in the first moment that he had seen the painting amidst the cluttered array of the auctioneer’s exhibition that he had to own this piece of art. To him it was a valuable object to love and treasure, to display in his fine, elegant rooms and to add to his rich collection of possessions, an item to study and adore in all its glory. To him, it showed its true potential and gave him inspiration.
Alex suited the painting. With his soft, tawny brown hair flecked with blond and his moustache multi-coloured with blond, brown and a distinct glowing ginger he reflected the variety of tonal brilliance the painting offered. He was also vibrant, full of energy and life, even with the slight limp from a knee injury, scarred and damaged forever. Despite the appearance of age and slight disturbance of creases caused by light on the delicate paper the painting also was full of life and energy. The heavy, black scripted name of ‘Elizabeth Harrison’, lovely in its handwritten exquisite curves and lines seemed to catch your eye immediately after the painting had attracted your attention. Alex loved it, it was love at first sight, for him.
It hung in the living room amongst the clutter of vases, antique chairs and wooden cabinets full of delicate bone china cups and ornaments originating from the far east and displayed through the textured glass panelling. Alex thought it had settled in well. He identified with objects, unable to share the love he had of them with humans. He was totally void of any sexual desire whether for woman or man. His whole love and human compassion went into his objects. The intelligent common sense he possessed went into his work.
The living room was typical of any room in his small, two-bedroom semi. The objects lined the walls on sturdy, well fitted shelves. They grew out of the deep piled carpet with a seeming ferocity consuming the floorspace with ease. They even hung from the ceiling swinging to and fro on carefully repaired, brass fittings. Rusty hooks dangerously supported the lights, lanterns, wind chimes and mobiles. The objects crept up the stairs allowing room only for Alex’s footsteps, familiar with the route between antique bottles, vases and urns, draped with intricately woven rugs. Tapestry hangings were strewn over the handrails and covered some of the artificial flowers and grasses protruding from containers, they seemed to queue up the staircase in anticipation of some major event worth the endless wait. Every room had new, awesome displays of a cluttered array of the items he loved.
Travelling to the office Alex relaxed on the smooth ride on the tram. He couldn’t let the name ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ escape his mind. It was always there echoing in his memory and distracting the usual methodological approach he took to life outside of his objects. Even the straight lines of figures and the digital display of numbers and earnings did not cease the constant interruption of ‘Elizabeth Harrison’. He journeyed home distraught with longing; longing to see the painting which seemed to lure him towards it.
The painting was still there. It remained untouched, unmoved and seemingly happy in its new home. Alex decided to research into this ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ and discover some facts which could help relieve his mind of the worry of not knowing.
Worry, it did not relieve. After three hours in the local library, leafing through the lists of artists and newspapers in London from 1893 to 1921 Alex discovered the ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ aged 22, young and beautiful, six years before she died. Then he found more photographs, records of her life and family appearing in the newspapers and letters stashed in old wooden boxes in the library stores. Each article lead nearer to 1921 and that was when the shock came.
“Tragically, Miss Elizabeth Harrison was found dead this morning. Her life was cut short at the tender age of twenty-eight and she will be sorely missed by all who knew her,” said one personal entry from someone closely acquainted with her. Another had a less passively sensitive approach with “Shot dead at close range on the docklands, young woman killed.” Alex wandered what she was doing at the docks, then the extract told him.
“Seen to be associating with a group of young gentlemen, Miss Harrison was known to have been engaged to be married to a renowned murderer in the area. It is thought that it was he who delivered the final shot, though many bullets had been fired before she had died to ensure her suffering was made as painful as possible. Police are searching for the men in question but so far no-one can be found. Evidence is scarce and witnesses need to come forward, please.”
The plea for justice was ever present. Alex could not believe that an artist as good as she could have such a history. She had been from a respectable family. Alex’s interest in objects was flailing with Elizabeth to occupy his mind. He searched for more explanation, more detail for reasoning and found a letter signed with the hand he knew so well.
I cannot tell you any other way but with a letter. I am being blackmailed and cannot afford to keep the deal. I know you are not respected and are able to relieve the circumstances. I trust you know what to do. We have discussed the matter many times and I am afraid I cannot keep on trying. My life is torn to shreds, father will now allow me to flee London and the man in question will surely do as he promised if I do not pay. Edward, I would rather you kept our arrangement now the time has arisen. I should never have painted that scene and written those words but now it is too late, it is found out and the secret is out! Please do as I ask. I love you, whatever they say,
So, there was a reason for her murder, blackmail! And Edward, he was the man in question, he was the murderer but by Elizabeth’s request. Alex was intrigued by the story he had uncovered but where was the writing, on the back of the picture? Someone would have found it. But the painting had been forgotten, hidden in a museum’s archives, perhaps it was still there, on the back of the painting, so many years from when it was written.
He tenderly peeled the frame from the paper, gently separating the fragile backing from the thick but detailed splashes of oil paint. It came away very slowly and the decay of the artefact was made more apparent as each particle clung to the place where it had belonged for so many years. It wasn’t the first time this had been done. Noticeable marks could be seen where the same separation process had been used before.
The same clear, scripted hand was revealed on the back of the picture, distinct and purposeful, uncovering the well-kept secret, despite the death which had succumbed to it. Alex let his eyes absorb the words and finally discovered the truth.
“Edward, Franciscus Wold and Elizabeth Harrison vow to this day that we shall be faithful to our purpose. This picture signifies the reality of our promise and sincerity to our country. I, Elisabeth Schmidt, alias Elizabeth Harrison, serve Deutschland, my country for the sole purpose of victory. My fiancé equally vows and we both promise secrecy. This information is classified and true. If any of our attempts to find information fail the ultimate sacrifice will suffice at once.
Signed Elisabeth and Franciscus 1919.”
Elizabeth was a German spy. Fully prepared for the espionage required from her, love for Edward would not stop her from writing an oath somewhere. She was true to her word and believed totally in her country, whatever it did, trained and brainwashed with belief for the good it would do. Alex understood now. The picture was one of peace capturing the moment she was alive for her belief. He studied the picture of the twenty-two-year-old. Did it really matter when you believed so strongly, grasping your role as though fixed in a stout religion, forever believing that that was your purpose in life. Yes, it mattered. It mattered that you got your beliefs right. It mattered that Alex’s beliefs were safe and Elizabeth’s were fatal. She had got it wrong and it showed in the painting so pure and appearing so innocent, capturing nature when it was meant to symbolise a belief in war and destruction.
As he gazed at the delightful beauty of the painting Alex felt closer to his objects than he ever would to this bizarre, crazy world which he could not keep faith in. It was his objects he lived for, just as Elizabeth had died for her obsession.
About the author
Amanda has been writing since she was a child with ongoing work in horror, poetry, short stories and non-fiction. Author of the Missy Dog series for good causes, her book ‘Missy and the Whitts’ is the first one, about her dog Missy who dreams about real history.Missy’s Matters: https://www.consciouscrafties.com/handmade-gifts/missy-and-the-whitts-fun-illustrated-local-history-dog-story-book/