Van Gogh’s sunflowers creak in their mustard-and-cream vase as brightly clad visitors whisper and exclaim; sweeping from room to room in ceaseless eddying waves. The child Picasso so lovingly painted opens her arms, the darling white dove rustles and coos, and Salome (who’s been waiting a century) lets out a shriek. Her dress, white silk with rose trim, is smattered with a sticky line of blood as John’s head hits the floor with a resounding thump; his eyes stare directly at her. This is really not what she expected.
Herod bares his teeth in a smile.
“A new dress is easily acquired,” he murmurs.
That final group see none of this; they are more interested in the taste of cold beer than dead art. But there’s nothing dead in this room. In the growing twilight, in the dark, under each coat of paint, each bubble of dried oil, life shimmers. The crowds pass but their whispers are collected – fodder for the hungry paintings.
Louis-Auguste Cézanne reads his paper with an intense focus; ignoring his neighbour who mutters over her rosary. He has made two hundred and fourteen complaints about her constant, ever more desperate prayers. I know. I’ve had to read them.
“That bloody woman,” he roars, “is driving me mad.” I beg to differ; he’s been as mad as a hatter for decades.
As the very last tourist departs, night floats through the building and the Old Woman with a Rosary oozes from her canvas into the expectant air of Room 45. She whispers a longing to pick one sunflower, just the one.
“Barking,” Louis growls from the safety of his frame.
I place myself in front of her and try hard not to stare. The first glimmer of security lighting trickles its way between oily brush strokes, making her seem somehow brighter, less melancholic. I’m afraid if I touch her she will smudge, even worse, if she attempts to walk through me her image will be imprinted on my starched white shirt. Forever.
I’ll be a new exhibit, pickled by Damian - like that poor shark.
“Old Woman,” I say, “Those sunflowers need water, and you don’t have a vase.” There’s a long pause. Oil drips on the gallery floor until her gaze lifts, shoulders stretching, fingers counting her rosary, turning, turning.
She’s crying. Salt tears mixing with the brown and purple of her dress, dark water sliding to puddle, oil on wood. I give her my hanky, the one with my name embroidered in yellow and gold, a gift from my husband when he cared enough to bother, but her fingers stick, their imprint staining the ironed cotton, and now she’s inconsolable, her longing so great she’ll end up as nothing but an oily puddle – if I can’t dissuade her.
So I point to the sunflowers, touch the stems, those strange blobs and ridges of yellow and green, praying the alarm won’t sound.
“They’re yours,” I say.
The Old Woman sits with her Rosary. She is looking down, her back hunched with concentration, but if you really look, you’ll see her glance left every now and then, making sure no one gets too close to her beloved flowers.
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