A short story . . .
It was Raymond’s suggestion. I understood art about as much as I understood Chinese, so I was never inclined to visit art galleries. I like the colours, I appreciate the skill; the talent involved. I understand that there’s talent. Well, most of the time—as Bob Dylan said. Other times . . . Well, I just don’t know.
Like I said, it was Raymond’s idea, and it sounded like it would be a nice thing to do; I don’t see my brother often enough and if I’m to be completely honest I don’t get out often enough myself. Not since John became ill. And when I do get out it’s usually to visit him at the nursing home. Once a month at the home there’s a support group for the spouses of the residents of the home. One of the women there—Julia—she calls it the “Sad Bastard Get-Together” (SBGT). I laugh at that, even though I shouldn’t. I like Julia; she sees the humour in the sad side of life. She said there’s always a sad side (and don’t I know it), so why not try paint over it with humour?
Like an artist painting on a canvas, I guess.
At the support group they encourage you to be more active; become involved in different activities; join clubs; be more sociable. Now that’s all well and good, but I don’t drive, and with the miserable weather we get here most of the year I don’t want to go out half the time. And as for being more sociable; well, that’s all well and good, but any time I go out it’s always with couples, because almost all of my friends are married and have been for over thirty years. And I know that’s the way it is, because that’s the way it is. But it can be a little hard. It’s hard being around couples all the time when you remember what you had; when you instinctively reach for that hand.
Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. That’s not important. At the SBGT they encourage us to avoid indulging in negative thoughts; not to spend too much time swimming around in the past. So, I shouldn’t do that, I guess. And in any case I’m not a very strong swimmer—never have been. But sometimes I forget that I shouldn’t linger on those thoughts. Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older.
But the trip to the gallery . . .
It was a Saturday and as usual it was raining. I had taken the bus from the shopping centre to town, which left me only a few minutes’ walk from the gallery. Once I’d rambled up the cobblestone street I found Raymond standing at the entrance in his rain jacket. He’d always wear the same rain jacket, even if it was a sunny day. He has a gloomy disposition; always has, always will. John used to call him “Smile Awhile”. John always liked to joke and tease, but not in a mean way.
Raymond and I have similar faces. We both share a petit, stubby nose and a big mouth, as if one was compensating for the other. But while Raymond has always had cheeks decorated with freckles, my skin has always been clear and soft, thank you very much. That’s one thing I’ll hold on to, please. Raymond’s black hair—like mine—is greying in places. He has these narrow eyes which have become narrower with time. You see, his eyelids droop, like curtains, and so there’s not much of an opening for his vision, but he never looks like he’s squinting—just gloomy, like I said. Me, I’ve got my mother’s eyes: big and blue and full of surprise. Although there isn’t much that surprises me anymore.
We kissed each other on the cheek and Raymond smiled in his usual way: as if it took a tremendous amount of effort. He paid the admission, and I thanked him, and we began to wander around the gallery. See, Raymond’s the cultured one in our family; he’s the smart one — the educated one. The one who went to college. Of course, I couldn’t go to college because I was running the family home from the age of fifteen; my mother needed all the help she could get because she was ill, and my father was out working most days. We were a poor family: Me, Raymond, and our sisters Debbie and Cassandra, all shared the same room growing up just outside Dublin’s city centre. The three of us sisters would pile ourselves into the same bed—which was good for keeping warm during the night, and for those moments when we’d hear a noise and become scared—and Raymond had his bed to himself. Considering our financial constraints, the fact that Raymond got to go to college is a miracle in my book. But he did, and he’s reaped the benefits of an education. And I don’t begrudge him that one bit. He teaches now, at a college out by Crumlin.
The gallery was quiet for a Saturday, or so I guessed; I don’t know what’s busy for that place. Raymond would comment on paintings every now and then; saying things like “isn’t the use of vibrant colours here marvellous,” and “the despair’s in the work; isn’t it obvious? This captures a moment in the artist’s life—a moment of despair. It all over it, isn’t it?”. He would look at the works in different ways; every now and then he’d place an elbow on a wrist and a hand under his chin, and would tap his lips with his index finger as he studied a painting. He’d seemed displeased in many instances. I just looked at them and liked the ones I liked and didn’t think much about the ones I disliked. When we came to a painting, “A convent garden, Brittany”, by a man I’d never heard of named William John Leech, I asked Raymond what he thought of it. In it a very pretty woman holding a book is looking up at something, maybe the tree, maybe the heavens—I don’t know. Behind her there are a number of women looking away so you can’t see their faces. There are branches and leaves and flowers in the foreground.
“You like it?” he asked.
“Do you?” I replied.
“I do. I’m a great admirer of Leech: I share his love of sunlight.”
“Then why do you still live in Dublin?”
Raymond smiled and placed a finger over his lips as he looked at the painting.
“Do you like it?” he asked again.
“I do,” I said as my eyes lingered on it. “It’s like life, in a way, isn’t it?” I said tentatively.
Raymond turned his head to me; I wasn’t used to talking about art.
“How do you mean?”
“Well,” I began, and hesitated before continuing. “We can see her face. She’s very beautiful. You want to look at her. It’s like we’re the ones looking at her through the leaves and flowers there at the front, isn’t it? But the other women; they’re just there. We can’t see their faces.”
“I don’t know. I think it’s like life; only a few will be seen and the rest will live in the shadows of others.”
Raymond nodded. I don’t know if that’s what the painting meant. I don’t think it did: I don’t know very much about art.
“It’s his wife, actually.”
“It’s oil on canvas. Beautiful execution.”
I nodded as once again Raymond tapped his finger against his lips.
It wasn’t long afterwards that we came across the tank. It wasn’t a very pleasant sight—not to my eyes. There were a number of people around it. It was hanging from the ceiling and was a few feet above the floor. There was a big fish in it, surrounded by blue liquid. The big fish’s mouth was open and its razor-like teeth were on display. It must have been around 6 ft long. It was a horrible-looking thing. We got closer and a few of the patrons moved along. There was a sign in front of it that told us the name of the piece:
In the Eyes of the Beholder—Death or Life
“This is the piece everyone’s talking about,” he said excitedly.
“It’s a fish,” I said.
Raymond nodded again.
“It’s a lancetfish,” he said. “That liquid is a formaldehyde solution. It slows the decomposition process.”
I took a step back, walked around the tank, and inspected it. The fish was skinny, and its fin was tall. It’s dead, I kept saying to myself.
“It’s like it’s alive, but it’s not,” I said to Raymond.
“So it seems.”
“Why put a dead fish in a tank?”
“Why not?” he said.
“Is it art?” I asked Raymond.
“It’s in the gallery,” he replied.
We stood in silence for a few minutes, staring into the eyes, the mouth, the soul of this dead lancetfish. I felt sorry for the thing; it shouldn’t be there on display like this, I thought.
While we were standing, looking at the fish and the tank, my phone rang.
Raymond looked at me with disapproval. I hunched my shoulders apologetically. It was the nursing home calling. I couldn’t let it ring out; I’d missed the last SBGT, maybe there was something they wanted to update me on. I walked away into a corner where there was no one else and quietly answered the call.
“Mrs. Callaghan?” came the voice of a young woman.
“Yes—Mary. Mrs. Callaghan makes me feel ancient—call me Mary. Is everything all right?”
“It’s fine, yes, nothing to worry about, Mary. John’s just been worried and has been asking us to contact you.”
“What’s wrong? There’s nothing wrong, is there?”
“No, no. Not at all. John just wanted to tell you to remember to bring his cigarettes when you’re coming up next.”
In the background I could hear John.
“I’ve only five left,” he was saying.
“Yes, I have some there for him. I’ll be up later today.”
“Okay,” said the young woman. “John just wanted us to call to make sure.”
“Okay,” I said. “That’s okay.”
The rain had stopped when we left the gallery. Raymond waited with me until my bus arrived. I hugged him and we said we’d do it again soon. He trundled off in his raincoat as I waited in line to get on the bus.
On the way to visit John, as the bus travelled along the river, as the traffic crawled tediously, I thought about that poor fish. Then I thought about the beautiful woman in the oil painting. I imagined her there on that day, in the heat of the sunshine, surrounded by the leaves and flowers, and all that beauty. Then, after all the hours her husband had spent on the work, he would reveal it to her.
When I got to John’s room I opened the door slightly before stopping. I imagined the artist’s wife as she approached the door to the room where she would see the painting for the first time. She’d see herself on that canvas; she’d be the focus of attention for years to come. I imagined the excitement, or the apprehension, as she prepared to enter the room and see the work her husband had made for her. Still I stood outside the door. Then I closed my eyes and entered the room.