“What’s that?” I asked.
Ella stood, biting her nails in that way she does, thinking. Or perhaps she was removing lamb from the wrap we had just eaten in the gallery café, shared half and half, me cutting, her choosing. No way was she considering the blast of light in the middle of the painting we were standing in front of.
“I don’t know,” she said. She wasn’t even looking at it.
To me it resembled a nuclear explosion over Mordor. Perhaps a dwarf was hiding behind the trees on the rocky outcrop to the left. Or a watcher?
“There,” I said, pointing to draw her attention.
Her hand dropped.
“I wanted to kill you,” she said.
Hold on a minute. Start again. You’re at an art gallery, expecting some sort of critical explanation of a painting from an art student and you get a death threat instead? Maybe I was missing something or maybe I just needed to work harder at being good company. I leant in to inspect the painting more assiduously. Down at the bottom two men, who wouldn’t be warlocks at all as that would be childish, were hidden in the shade, one heaving forward as though fighting a mighty wind.
Ella’s boots squeaked. I reached out to stop her going.
“I wanted you dead,” she said.
Wow. I gripped her arm, not daring to look at her or indeed at anything other than the painting. And now I was staring at it, really staring at it, I became genuinely perplexed. Mountain Sunrise?
“Methinks it depicts a totalitarian state.” I embellished my statement with an arty motion with my free hand. I wanted her to laugh at my pomposity, burst that wanting-me-dead thing, tell me she’d been joking.
She shook her arm loose.
“Not China though,” I said. “Chinese have those straw hats.”
Her nails shot back between her teeth – index finger, clamp, middle finger, clamp, ring finger, clamp, clamp.
“I stayed with him till he died,” she said.
I knew that, and Ella knew that I knew, so why did she have to go and say it when I’d invited her out for a fun day together, doing stuff she liked?
“I stayed.” Stop. “With him.” Stop. “Till he -”
“How did that make you feel?” I’d heard it’s what you’re supposed to ask. It’s what people want to talk about, how things make them feel.
“Do you care how it made me feel?” she asked.
Did I care? Sweet Jesus how I cared. I cared enough to drag her out for the day, didn’t I? I cared for the teeth picking and smelly woollen hat. I even cared for the mud flecks on her trousers. Shit, I loved it all, always had done. Always would.
“I think you feel like one of those men,” I said, “down in that dark place.”
She looked at me now. Great, a successful metaphor.
“We need to walk towards the sunshine.” I pointed to the peak of the mountain where the sunrise fluoresced, a line of white-yellow and orange.
Had she nodded? Awesome, a brilliant metaphor with so much mileage, loads of stuff about struggling to heave ourselves out of a valley choked with the soot of death. She tutted. A great huff of a tut. Fuck the metaphor.
“It made you sad,” I said.
She didn’t react.
Perhaps it was her immobility that that encouraged me to reach out and pull her hand from her mouth. To hold it.
“So sad that you can’t feel any sadder.” As I spoke, I began to fill with my own sadness. “Because it simply isn’t possible to go on feeling more and more sad.”
I’d never thought that through before. Never actually put those words together, but as I did, my own sadness brimmed up, and the longer I tried to work out what to say next, the fuller I became until I feared I would overflow right there in the middle of the gallery. So I looked at the painting and thought about the beasts hiding in the trees, and how just over the brow of the mountain where the sun was appearing, a good magician, one with a wand and a hearty laugh and, yeah, while I was at it, a fuck-off brilliant sense of humour, was saying, ‘Ho, ho, ho. Now, isn’t this the damnedest of things.’ American apparently, and Santa at that. ‘That friend of yours escaped into this stupendous world. He’s become a flying dragon.’ More children’s story teller than hot-shot comedian. ‘What jolly japes he’s having.’ The inconsistencies made me chuckle.
“All we need -” I started.
She snatched her hand back.
“There’s no we,” she said.
It would have been OK if she’d shouted or spoken in a voice which conveyed her murderous intent. But her words were tiny and as timeless as the breeze that passed across the sunrise.
“Alone you do not make me we,” she said.
I peered harder at the painting as though trying to work out the artist’s signature, but really I was trying to hide a snigger. I didn’t make her wee. How Mark would have loved that. He’d have been snorting saliva from his nose.
“You should have stayed with him,” she said.
I wanted to tell her I couldn’t. He was unstoppable, high on speed and spliffs, a fucking stupid combination to head off in a fucking car. He would have killed me too.
“I wasn’t his minder,” I said.
“You’re not mine either.” She turned and squelched away across the gallery floor in her worn down boots until only the noisy silence that empty spaces generate remained.
Ella had never needed to wish me dead. Didn’t she know I already was.
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