Friday, 10 December 2010

The Picture Straightener

Art Gallery Assistant - Banksy

Another short story. They keep on coming at the moment, but I fear Christmas will now put an end to all fancy. I have had the image of a "picture straightener" for ages but only just got down to writing a story about him.

The Picture Straightener

Harold was a good soul with a warm centre to his world and oak solid posts that supported his life, compassion, integrity and good manners. He was one of those people you just know is decent and kind; a perfect neighbour and a perfect stranger.

Harold worked at the town’s art gallery, one of those people who sit in the corner by the fire extinguisher and just keep an eye on things. It was a good job for him because people liked him and for as long as he could remember he had a real eye for the horizontal. Even if most people thought a picture was hanging straight he knew it was slightly off, and every time he was right if it was checked with a spirit level. He wasn’t paid to do it but each day he walked around the gallery just to check all was hanging as it should be. A slight adjustment here, a tiny tilt there, then the doors could open with pride.

The week of his retirement Harold felt a little sad. He would miss his colleagues for sure but he would also miss the connection he had made with the paintings; some had been there for years. Battle scenes, lovers, vast landscapes, heroes, magnificent red deer - none of them was particularly famous; they were all by lesser-known artists but in his opinion none the worse for that. There was no pressure to admire or analyse them or to stand looking at them with an air of great appreciation. These were just somebody’s attempt at a glimpse of the truth. Harold had never really liked photographs, in his opinion they were snapshots of an instant in time that was fleeting and didn’t represent anything real. Photographs don’t tell the back-story or give us a hint of the lives behind the smiling faces. He much preferred art; it was full of detail that led you to ponder rather than remember. For that reason he had never owned a camera.

On Monday morning of the last week Harold was pleased to see a new painting arrive and placed in one of the smaller rooms set aside for visiting works of art. The small information sign said it was called The Seamstress. What a lovely picture! A young and beautiful woman, with dark hair swept back in a bun, sat in the woods embroidering a piece of white cloth. She was wearing the most beautiful grey dress that flowed down to the ground and the artist had captured the filtered sun softly glistening on the silken folds. Her seat was a log in a glade and she was glancing up from her work as though she had just been disturbed. There was no alarm on her face, just an inquiring look that went past the observer to an unknown figure behind. Harold turned round to see if someone was really there! What a captivating scene, human and natural beauty in gentle light. He called the young woman Florence for no other reason than it seemed to suit. What was she looking at? A lover? A friend? And why sit in a woodland clearing to sew? He stepped back to get a wider view; yes the picture was hung just right. Welcome Florence, I hope you will be very happy here Harold thought to himself. You silly old duffer! She is a painting! But he still felt a sense of pride and joy that she was gracing this B-rated gallery. What a treasure awaited those who wandered in now and then.

Tuesday was rainy, probably not much traffic through the gallery today, why was it that bright sunshine and dreary rain put people off galleries? But Harold still began with his daily straightening round, every visitor mattered and every painting mattered; numbers didn’t concern him. The Muses needed a tiny adjustment, as did The Death of Socrates but otherwise all was well. He found himself hurrying uncharacteristically to Florence, how about that he thought, his last week and still something to look forward to. There she was, still glancing at the unknown, still beautiful – but tilted! “Now how did that happen Flo?” He chuckled to himself, “only known you one day my dear and I’m being familiar already.” The picture had offset to the right, not by much, but obvious to him. He moved it back to the horizontal, gave Florence a smile and carried on with his day.

On Wednesday Harold was well aware that there was not much time left at the gallery. He had plans for his retirement, including going on a safari which had been a long held ambition, but what with family expenses and a wife who had been ill for many years the time was never right. He closed his eyes as he remembered June who had been taken from him 5 years ago. Even now the pain of grief sometimes swept him onto a foreign shore. He had learned to keep still and let the force of the flow roll him over the razor sharp stones, but then slowly the pain ebbed away, back to the darkness of the ocean. God rest you June.

The morning round was uneventful; everything seemed to be behaving on the horizontal front, although Virgin on the Shore was maybe a little out. But in the far room for visiting works of art there was one exception; The Seamstress had once again slipped to the right. He frowned as he looked at the frame. It was definitely offset and, it might just be his imagination, but he thought Florence had moved very slightly too, along the log to the right. It would be indiscernible to most people but Harold’s eye for detail hadn’t let him down yet. Her gaze was steadfast as ever but as Harold moved the painting back to the horizontal he fancied, for a fleeting second, a look of irritation flashed across her face. Now Harold he thought, it is about time you hung up the peaked cap, you are definitely going soft in the head. As he turned to go he turned to look at her – she was straight in her frame and still beautiful but maybe not quite so content?

On Thursday Harold had many things to do. A new recruit was visiting him to learn the ropes, his locker needed clearing out and he had to collect his mug and plate from the staff room. He would take them home tonight and bring a flask tomorrow. His straightening round was a little later than usual but when he did get around to it, yet again Florence was wonky. He was sure now that she had shifted her weight ever so slightly to the right on the log, making the picture tilt to one side. No doubt the public would walk past and not give it a moment’s thought – but Harold couldn’t let it be. Once again he moved the frame back and once again he fancied he saw wave of annoyance sweep across her smooth face. “What is it love? Why do you keep moving? What can I do to make you happy here? My last week and I’ve failed to make it just right.” Tears pricked his eyes, but all he saw in Florence was a questioning look in to the distance.

Friday was his goodbye party. He felt an air of apprehension and for the first time a feeling of emptiness. His house seemed cavernous and he had put away the pictures of June, he couldn’t stand seeing them for hours each day; happy smiles, deep sadness. The months ahead looked worryingly lonely, despite all his plans, family and friends. “So this is it” he thought. “This has been your working life and now it is coming to an end. He hadn’t saved anyone’s life or made the world a better place for the poor, but too late now to have those thoughts old chap.”

He took time over his straightening round; each picture got a slight touch, more for old time’s sake than necessity. But once again Florence had defiantly shifted to the right. He stared at her implacable face, the softness of her hair and her delicate hands. Who are you? As he went to put the frame back he stopped. Her face had changed from questioning to pleading. He moved away to look at her for a long while. Memories of picnics in woods with June and the children flooded back. Logs were great fun to run along and sit on to chat, but he did remember they were never as comfortable as they looked. Annoying bumps and lumps made sitting in one place for too long a chore. “I think I understand Flo” he thought at last. “Well that is ok, I won’t bother you anymore.” As he walked away from her he turned to look for the last time and yes, he wasn’t imagining it, a slight curve at the side of her mouth said thank you.

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