by Paula R C Readman
Mojito: 3 mint leaves, white rum, lime juice, syrup.
On the billboard before me an old poster flutters. Torn and tattered by wind and rain it announces to the world that once there were only nine of us, but a newer advertisement, partially covering it states that the latest exhibition by the renounced artist James Ravencroft now contains ten sensational works of art.
Six months ago, I worked, with my friend, Jude as a picture hanger in the fashionable Kasmin Art Gallery in London. To some, I was the quieter one. Naturally shy, I guarded my expressions by allowing my shoulder-length dark brown hair to fall forward, so I could avoid making eye contact.
Though when needed, I could be forthright.
Jude was the complete opposite. She was out-going, with her fiery red-cropped hair. Romantic by nature, Jude with her bubbly personality, could sometimes be a little naïve, too.
When it came to our job, we both took it seriously and could be quite outspoken on what we liked and disliked. Jude always said that one day my frankness would get me into trouble, but invariably I laughed it off.
One morning when we arrived at work, the manager called us into his office. He informed us that the trendsetting artist, James Ravencroft would be launching his career at the gallery. He expected us to be available to help at the evening’s event.
Two days later, when we arrived at the galley for the evening’s event to our horror, we were required to wear some sort of statement uniform that made us look like a pair of hookers. We stood self-consciously at the gallery entrance, handing out glasses of cheap wine to welcome the influential aesthetes of the contemporary art world to Ravencroft’s swanky first exhibition.
At the end of the evening as the connoisseurs raised a glass to toast Ravencroft’s achievement, Jude and I were having our own celebrations. In the ladies’ loos, we stripped off the ghastly outfits relieved to be wearing our own clothes. After Jude reapplied her more subtle shade of make-up, she raised a glass.
‘Cheers, Tina,’ she giggled. ‘Here’s to the last we’ll see of Ravencroft’s creepy exhibition, and especially him. Let’s get out of here and go somewhere we can party until dawn.’
I shook my head, and declined Jude’s offer. Too stressed out by the evening’s event I was desperate to get home, so I agreed to lock up.
As I watched Jude and the rest of our colleagues bustle away arm in arm, their laughter floating back to me. I slipped the gallery key into my pocket and set off in the opposite direction. My thoughts returned to the dreadful paintings. Early tomorrow morning we would be in to pack them up ready to send them off to their new owners.
I hurried the best I could in my ankle-breaking shoes along the empty street, with its smell of traffic fumes and takeaways towards the bus stop on the corner. Relief washed over me as the bus came into view.
Then without warning the darkness to close in on me and when I woke I found I had become part of an unknown city within a Ravencroft painting.
First, I need to explain something of what came before so that everything will make some sort of sense.
No one could describe Jude and I as professional art critics. In the course of our job as picture hangers, we have to work out how best to exhibit the paintings. Jude and I would discuss our thoughts and opinions on what the artist’s work was saying to us. Unbeknown to most viewers, there’s an art to showing art, a scientific way of guiding the viewer around the exhibition, to show off each piece as a single entity, allowing every painting to reach its full potential.
Six months ago, when Ravencroft’s art arrived in our gallery, Jude fell completely in love with it. I found the nine paintings the artist had titled ‘Roofscapes’ somewhat bizarre.
Each painting was funereal in my mind. They depicted a sombre city roofscape that went unnoticed by the public as they hurried about their business. I tried to get inside the artist’s mind as Jude and I hung them.
‘Don’t you just love them, Tina?’ Jude said as she held one end of a massive frame while standing on the top of a ladder. ‘Don’t you think they possess a kind of dark beauty?’
I nodded, as I tried to stay focused while balancing at the top of my ladder. Once I had secured my end of the painting, I stepped down.
Jude was right; the paintings did have a kind of beauty.
It lay in the artist’s brushwork. He revealed to the viewer a secret panorama above the streets. The rain-washed grey slate roofs interspersed with blood red tiles roofs, ornate stonework of angels, gargoyles, and demonic creatures that inhabited a world above our heads.
At the centre of Ravencroft’s paintings, he had depicted realistic angel-type figures. I found subject matter unnerving. It verged on torturous. Their beautiful faces showed pained expressions as though they suffered in silence.
‘Why only nine?’ I asked as I moved my ladder into position ready for the next painting. ‘It makes no sense at all, and unbalances the exhibition.’
Jude gave an exaggerated tut and rolled her eyes. ‘You and your sense of balance,’ she said as she positioned herself, too.
‘One needs a natural flow otherwise, it messes everything up,’ I said attaching the next large canvas to the ceiling pulleys and hauled it up as I climbed the ladder. ‘Remember everything has to have balance. Yin and Yang,’ I continued, as I gave the painting a gentle nudge to swing it towards Jude’s outstretched hands. ‘Night is to day as happiness is to sadness. It’s like good and evil.’
‘Rubbish!’ A man’s voice boomed.
I gasped and let go of the pulley rope. As my end of the painting to drop I was left tottering on the top of the ladder. The sudden shift in the painting’s weight caused Jude to unbalance, and left her clinging to the top of her ladder with one hand as she tried not to drop the painting.
‘Hey, be careful with that!’ snarled the man as he stepped forward. With a single sweep of his hand, the dangling picture found its place and hung dead straight. He turned his dark blue eyes on me. I noticed the way his shoulder-length black hair shone under the lights. In an upper-class tone, he stated, ‘Aesthetics, my dear woman, art is for art’s sake,’
Relieved that the painting was safe, I stepped off the ladder.
‘Ravencroft,’ the man said, offering me his hand.
I ignored his proffered hand, and instead snatched up my clipboard, hoping he would just leave us to do our job.
‘I love your work,’ Jude stated, fluttering her eyelashes and flashed him a winning smile.
He chose to ignore her as he turned his attention fully on me.
Ever since he had walked in with these godless pictures, Jude swooned over this hedonistic, overbearing man in his tight black jeans.
I had kept my distance.
‘Tina isn’t it?’ he said, extending his hand to me again.
I nodded, still not accepting it.
He let his hand drop, unlike his smile. With a nod in the direction of his paintings, he said, ‘You’re doing a grand job, though I expect the public will find something to criticize.’
I lowered my clipboard, ‘Really?’
‘Yes,’ he said, letting the word out slowly. ‘Tell me honestly what you think of my work.’
‘Your work?’ I shook my head. I had no wish to share my thoughts with the likes of him
‘Yes,’ He stepped forward, blocking my way.
‘I see a darkly delicious city alive in the crowded street below,’ Jude said.
Ravencroft turned to her, his smile too sweet, too nauseating. ‘I wasn’t asking you, my dear.’
‘She doesn’t like your work.’ Jude giggled.
‘I see no beauty in them,’ I snapped, forgetting myself. I glared at Jude who just shrugged her shoulders. How could she sell me out for her infatuation? After all the times I had stood by her, even lied for her.
‘So tell me, Tina, what it is you don’t like about my work?’ Ravencroft asked as he ran his slender fingers back through his black mane, lifting his dark locks from his shoulders.
I owed him no explanation. I had a job to do which did not include pandering to the likes of him. However, he was an important client so I reluctantly turned to the nearest painting and studied it for a moment.
In a vast, bleak landscape, painted in shades of grey, dull green, blue, and inky black a semi-naked woman stood on a stone plinth. Her arms constrained behind her as she leant slightly forward, like a figurehead on a ship.
Against the fading light of evening sky, the woman stood at the centre of the painting, surrounded by a host of saintly statues and gargoyles on the side of some Gothic building, possibly a church. I leaned in closer to take a better look.
Something about the picture unnerved me. What I first thought was a necklace around the woman’s neck, I realised was the halter-strap of a restraining bodysuit. It emphasised the shape of her breasts, giving the painting an air of eroticism.
It puzzled me that an artist of his reputation would have made such a blatant mistake as to illustrate the restraint that held his model in situ, thus giving the painting an amateurish feel. I knew the painting was undoubtedly from his imagination. Yet, I wondered why he had deliberately painted in the halter- strap.
Did he work from…still life?
Ravencroft stood directly behind me. I refused to allow him to intimidate me as his hot breath caressed my neck. I shuddered and continued to inspect the picture, trying to make sense of what it was saying to me.
I focused on the woman’s features. The rain had plastered her hair to her head like a skullcap. In the vast gloominess of the roofscape, the only bright colour came from several small ribbons of lustrous red. I traced the ribbons that ran down her ashen face and over her hollow cheeks and I recoiled at what I saw.
Four small metal bird-claw shaped clips dug into the woman’s forehead and held her eyelids open. I cringed at thought of her suffering and stepped back almost standing on Ravencroft’s foot.
Had he really made his model suffer for his art?
I glanced nervously over my shoulder. His pale complexion suggested that he spent many hours labouring late into the night on these paintings. He smirked as though reading my mind.
I swallowed hard, not wanting any contact with him. He bowed to me as he stepped back. I ignored his wry smile and focused on the second painting.
It depicted another woman isolated in a similar position, high up on a building, but this one looked out across an alternative roofscape.
By the time I had finished examining the other seven paintings an icy chill had enclosed my heart. Each painting portrayed different women in a similar sort of setting.
I let my breath out slowly.
Something about these stone-carved women intrigued me. They seemed so familiar. Was it an illusion to the fact that they were still living and breathing? Were they out there somewhere waiting for rescue?
As I straightened, his voice filled my mind.
‘What do you see, Tina?’ he whispered in a lover’s tone.
Jude giggled, breaking the tension. ‘She’s changed her mind about them. Go on, Tina, tell him,’ she said.
‘Are they painted from real life?’ I asked sensing somehow that he knew what I had realised.
‘Roofscapes? Yes.’ He smiled. His eyes sparkled as his lips curled at the corners.
I looked back at the painting he had just helped us to hang - the last of the nine. I nodded in its direction and asked, ‘So that’s painted from your rooftop?’ I emphasised the words ‘your rooftop’ though I did not know where he came from, nor did I care.
‘You could say that,’ he said, in a chilly tone. ‘I paint what I see.’
Jude threw him a puzzled look. She too studied the last painting and began chewing on her bottom lip. A sign I understood clearly that she knew something was awry. She glanced in my direction. I nodded slightly and her eyes widened.
Jude turned to Ravencroft and flashed him one of her dazzling smiles. ‘Well, we must get on,’ she said, in a breathless tone. ‘Otherwise, there won’t be a show tonight.’
The artist gave us both a dismissive nod before leaving.
‘Is there something bothering you, Tina?’ Jude asked once we were alone.
‘Yes, but… Oh, Jude, I’m not sure you’ll understand… or anyone will believe me, but the women in the paintings remind me of…’ I crossed to my handbag, pulled out an old newspaper article. It listed nine missing women alongside grainy black and white photographs of them. ‘See for yourself.’
‘Why on earth do you carry this around?’ Jude asked as she unfolded the article.
‘Why… I’ve always been… well, you know… fascinated by what happened to them.’
Jude skimmed the article before handing it back to me. ‘Yes, I do remember my parents talking about them. ‘You don’t really believe that these women are one and the same?’ she said pointing to the huge canvas panels.
We looked at the blood-stained weeping angels who stared back at us with unseeing, painted eyes. I shook my head in an effort to free my mind and picked up the clipboard again.
I flicked a few pages and studied the details for our next exhibition, before answering her. ‘Well…no. Let’s forget about them. They’re nothing more than an artist’s imagination. After tomorrow, they will be gone, and we’ll only have beautiful, rural landscapes to concern ourselves with.’
As Ravencroft stepped out of the darkness into a pool of light before me, the relief I felt on seeing the bus drained away. I didn’t have time to scream as a numbing pain ripped through my neck. The last image I saw as a cold mist descended was the bus full of people passing me.
Six months after Ravencroft’s first exhibition, in another art gallery, the connoisseurs gathered like laughing hyenas around a collection of ten stony-faced angels. With morbid fascination, they philosophised about the artist’s inspirational theme, his fine brushstrokes, and the significance of the desolation of the roofscape, but no one questioned the dark beauty of his paintings, but me.
I am his number ten: the ever-watchful face above the city, seeing all but saying nothing.
About the author
Paula R C Readman taught herself ‘How to Write’ from books which her husband purchased from eBay. After 250 purchases, he finally told her ‘just to get on with the writing’. Since 2010, she's had 29 stories published and is now busy editing her novel again.