The gallery was bathed in the soft amber light of late afternoon, streaming in through the large glass window of the ceiling, stretching its yellow fingers out across the wooden pews and mahogany floor, touching those who sat there with warming halos of sunlight.
Mirandolina had been a cleaner for many years. Her hands were rough, the skin dry and peeling back from her brittle fingers nails, her throat thick with the scents of false meadows and acrid lemons of disinfectant, her back having developed a slight curvature with the passage of time. She went by mostly unnoticed, those who did give her a second glance seemed to look right through her, merely depositing something in her cart, and then walking away again as if Mirandolina didn’t really exist at all.
That afternoon, the gallery was busier than usual. There had been breaking news that morning; the prominent reclusive artist Thompson Shay had passed away at his home just shy of seventy-five. The gallery had been thrown into uproar, the demand for ticket sales almost overwhelming, the modest gift shop struggling under the strain of the excessive need by tourists and regular visits alike to own his work in whatever form they could. Books and postcards and canvas bags flying out of the shop as if everyone had suddenly remembered how wonderful Thompson Shay was, and needed to be touched by his genius, however vicariously.
Someone brushed up against her and slipped into the cart a rolled up newspaper. Mirandolina caught sight of the face on the front as she saw it disappearing down into the dark plastic depths, and careful retrieved it before it could be spoiled by any of the old coffee cups or crisp wrappers or moldy fruit that had collected at the bottom. She unfurled the paper deftly and looked again at the face on the cover. There he was, Thompson Shay, the man who had painted all the delights that now hung on the walls of the exhibit around her. His face looked contorted and slightly wary, as if he has suspected all along that such a photo would one day grace the front of a national rag to announce his passing.
The sun had moved around the sky, and Mirandolina noted that the gallery was beginning to empty now. Happily, she took the moment to sit down undisturbed on the smooth wooden pew closest to her, and looked up at the painting that hung there. There were no crowds now, no television cameras, no eager journalists and experts to pick apart his artistry and extol on the great majesty of his work. Mirandolina lived for moments like this, when she could be alone with herself.
The painting in front of her showed a young exotic looking woman, her skin a yellow ochre, her dark black hair rolling down past her shoulders like the frets of a stormy sea, her almond shaped eyes looking straight out fearlessly. She was poised like a cat, her naked body partially covered by the small child she held in her arms. Mirandolina smiled back at the young woman looking out at her. Many who came to look at this enigmatic creature had debated whom she might be, where she had come from, what she could be thinking, but Mirandolina knew the answer to all of these questions. No one would ever guess it of course, but the young exotic creature was indeed she.
Mirandolina remembered the first time she had seen the artist. He was so small and pale she had wondered how he had survived so long in the world. His tiny eyes were magnified by his rimless glasses, his shoulders red from where the sun had scorched him through his thin white shirt. He had a heavy bag slung over his raw shoulders, and his knees were soiled with paint. He had looked to her as if he might be blown over by the warm breeze at any moment.
“I wonder,” he had said to her quietly. “I wonder, if you might let me look at you? I should very much like to paint you.”
He had been embarrassed, almost apologetic when he had come over to speak to her, but as soon as he opened his mouth and his words poured out, she was taken aback, his voice filled with a confidence that belied his shy appearance. Mirandolina had not entirely understood the meaning behind what he said, his tongue had formed words in ways she could not quite comprehend, but she had nodded and agreed because she liked this pale nervous boy, who was so different from all the other strong silent men around her. She recalled fondly how her daughter had not been afraid of him either, but instead had run towards him to pull at his sweat soaked white shirt and find what secrets he had hidden in his mysterious shoulder bag.
He was a stranger, but naked in front of him she felt safe. She was vulnerable to him, but he did not make her feel afraid. As he painted her, she could not see the form which was emerging from his brushes and paints, but she could feel each stroke as if it were directly against her skin, a cool tingling sensation which would fuse the two of them together forever. After he had finished, he beckoned for her to release her pose and come and take a look. Her little daughter had run over and reached out with delight, desperate to touch her canvas face, to confirm it was truly she in the painting. Mirandolina had kissed him then. He was cautious and gentle, caressing her body as if it were a landscape, tracing her moles and calling them the constellations that joined together to create symbols of old.
When the artist had left, she hadn’t been sad. She had known all along that it was to be this way. But there had been other sadnesses in Mirandolina’s life, and after the death of her daughter’s father she had chosen a new path, coming to this city to study art. In her homeland, there were no such places of education, and her mind had been filled with the ideals of a new, urban life to come, away from the isolated country she had always known and called home. But the reality was somewhat different and harder to bear, and her shoulders grew broader as she took the decisions that needed to be made for their survival in this strange land. With no other option left to her, she had begun cleaning. Some found it degrading, but not Mirandolina. She enjoyed making things clean again, hovering on the outskirts, watching and observing those around her, making things beautiful again. The language of this place was still hard for her ears to translate, but it didn’t matter, she spoke with her eyes and read images and paintings instead of books. .
As she sat silently on the wooden pew, Mirandolina became aware of someone at her elbow, and turned to see a well-meaning tourist gesturing a hag of rubbish and empty water bottles in her direction. Mirandolina rose obediently, letting this stranger offload her no longer desired items into her cart. She noticed that one of the guides was looking at her quizzically, and she hurriedly pushed her cart away to the other end of the exhibit to try and make herself invisible again.
As she pushed the cart along, she passed by the other canvas faces. Women she had never met, naked like she had been, exposed for a moment in time that was captured for posterity, their souls forever snared by the net of his genius. She never felt jealously, that they might have been his favourite, of the moments they must have shared with him. Instead, she felt a sense of something conspiratorial, as if they all shared a great secret that was hidden in plain sight.
She headed into the back room of the gallery, removed her tabard, put away her cleaning products and emptied her cart until there was nothing left inside but the ghost of an empty plastic bag. She looked at herself in the dimly lit mirror of the staff locker room, and wondered who the stranger was looking back at her.
Outside, she waited in the pink light of early evening. Hurried businessmen pushed past her roughly, eager to catch their last train home and be free of their suits and obligations for the weekend that stretched out ahead of them. There were drunken whoops too as youngsters headed out for the evening, hanging around each other’s necks like monkeys, and well groomed friends tottered towards one another on high heels, giving perfume scented greetings of open embraces and expensive wide smiles.
Behind her, a warm hand slipped around Mirandolina’s waist.
“Let me take that for you, Mum.”
Her daughter took the bag from her shoulder, and her mother gratefully accepted her help.
“Come along Mum, or we’ll miss our train.”
Her daughter gestured back towards the train station, where people were pouring in like ants, and her mother nodded her understanding. As they walked away from the gallery, she turned back, just for a moment. Mirandolina sometimes wondered why she had never told her daughter that it was she in the portrait. Perhaps because it would mean admitting too many lost hopes and dreams. Perhaps because it was the last secret she had left in the world, the one thing she had for herself.
She allowed her daughter to steer her through the throngs of people. Tonight she felt lighter, as if a question had been answered. She would never admit it, even to herself, but she had always hoped he would come back to her, that the famous Thompson Shay would come and find her again. Now, she knew he never would, and the comfort that gave her was strange in its finality.
She held onto the sticky railing as she made her way unsteadily down the train station steps, until they had reached their platform. The wind of the impending train blew hard in her face, and she closed her eyes to let it streak through her hair and cleanse her of the day’s toils.
Carefully, they boarded the carriage and took a seat at the end, a young man standing so that Mirandolina and her daughter could be seated together. As they sat down the train roared into life, pulling away from the platform and rocking her gently. Mirandolina watched as a poster for the gallery exhibit disappeared from the station wall behind her, the image of the artist as a young man, and then suddenly the train shot off into the blackness of the tunnel, and the face of Thompson Shay was lost to her forever.
Sadie Miller is a writer living in the UK. Her biography on her mother was published through Aurum Press.