A story I wrote quite a while ago now, based on a famous piece of art (don't want to give it away here!)
Anne could barely believe that she was here in New York, alone. She remembered the way her heart had hammered in her chest as she had booked the flight, hoping as she did so that she appeared casual; a seasoned traveller. The truth was it had been such a long time since she had done anything alone that she could barely stop her hands from shaking as she took back her credit card and accepted her tickets. That she was totally by herself now, with no one to depend upon, was a strange and at times alarming realisation.
Standing outside the Museum of Modern Art the sky was a fine, clear blue. Still marvelling at her new found independence, Anne went in. Her eyes, almost the same shade as the sky above, blinked as they adjusted to the change in light and she resolved to buy a pair of sunglasses later. She had forgotten hers. She could see them in her mind’s eye, still sitting on the kitchen counter top where she left them, at home.
Home; the word triggered a deep and disturbing sensation within her. Home had once meant strength, calm, contentment. Now, unexpectedly single again after all these years, it meant only shadows and loneliness. Thinking about it gave rise to an irrational flutter of fear in her chest to accompany a fathomless and all engulfing sadness.
She tried to shrug the feeling off and take in the exhibition, but nothing seemed to reach her. The place was far busier and noisier than she had anticipated. She had expected the museum to be a sedate place full of whispers, like an old fashioned library. Instead, people seemed to throng around her, pointing out details to one another, calling to each other to ‘come and look at this,’ declaring their distaste or their pleasure, discussing and arguing, chattering and laughing.
Anne felt suddenly cornered and vulnerable; she had made a mistake in coming here. Mindless of the art work, she found she could concentrate only on the ground beneath her feet as she fought a rising panic, trying to get out. That panic quickly became bordering hysteria, blurring her vision and reducing the people around her to nothing more than streaks; formless blue-grey blurs morphing in and out of existence like substantial ghosts.
Breathing heavily and choking back tears, Anne was surprised to stumble upon an empty bench. Sinking down onto it gratefully, she took a moment to compose herself, at last willing herself to look up and at least pretend to observe whatever was hanging on the wall before her, convinced that she must have made such a spectacle of herself by now that people were bound to be staring at her.
She let out a stuttered gasp as a sob caught in her throat, arrested by the force of the painting. A profusion of blues danced before her eyes, racing and chasing across a canvas sky, punctured here and there by startling lights, rendering the blues beyond darker still.
It was a night sky, that much was immediately obvious, but it was so much more than that. The stars did not simply hang there like gentle, passive illuminations; they burned, fierce and alive, an intense contrast that, even so, was not enough despite their fire to challenge the unrelenting blue all around them. Anne, uncaring now of people’s stares, felt herself meld into the painting.
The contours of the hills below the stars were defined and clear, yet it looked to Anne as if someone had raked a fork, or perhaps fingernails, into their deliberate blueness, as if desperate to make the viewer understand the real texture of the night, clawing at the onlooker’s understanding. They could have been the ocean, those indigo hills. They could have been waves, roiling and unstoppable; rising, ultramarine punctuations about to wash the world clean, so powerful were they.
Tears dried unnoticed on Anne’s face, leaving a trail of blue-black mascara on her cheeks as she felt herself sink deeper. The shades were cool and alluring; azure, cobalt, sapphire, midnight. Together on the canvas, pushed and pulled this way and that as if by some strange tide, they seemed to represent an internal struggle that went far deeper than words could ever convey. It was as if they fought one another even as they worked in harmony.
She gave a rueful smile as she recognised this as the reason why the painting had affected her so; how could the artist have known? How could he have set down on canvas her thoughts and feelings; her despair and anguish? Anne had not believed anyone had ever felt the way she had these last few months. Yet here those emotions were, as clear as day in a painting of the night sky, right in front of her.
She could not tear her eyes away from the painting for the longest time. Eventually she realised how much quieter the museum had become. She rubbed her aching neck, gave a gentle sigh and closed her eyes. Behind her eyelids, blues danced and parried as here and there bursts of yellow sparked into flame. She wondered if this impression would be burned onto her inner eyelids forever, her own personal version of the painting, to cherish and hold close as hers and hers alone.
She opened her eyes as heels clicked behind her. A museum attendant, a very smartly dressed woman in a navy suit, gave her a warm smile, “Forgive me for interrupting you, but the museum will close in fifteen minutes.” She glanced up at the painting, “You have been enjoying Van Gogh?”
“Van Gogh?” Anne repeated. But of course it was Van Gogh; how could she not have known that?
“I don’t know if enjoyed is the right word,” she replied honestly, “I feel I have come to understand it, if that makes sense? As if the painting somehow understands me too?” Anne blushed as soon as the words were out, embarrassed to have given something of herself away.
The attendant did not seem to notice her discomfort; she simply nodded agreement, “Art can be a powerful medium. Paintings are often meant for so much more than mere enjoyment, don’t you think?”
Now it was Anne’s turn to smile, “I’m not sure I really did think that before you know, but I do now, most definitely.”
The attendant’s smile faltered a little. Anne was all at once conscious of the tears that had earlier dried on her face and wondered if the swirl of run mascara she knew must be there looked anything like Van Gogh’s night sky. She gave a small laugh and the attendant raised her eyebrows in response, but all she said was, “Well, as I said we are about to close. Perhaps you would you like me to walk with you to the exit? “
How long ago was it when Anne would have grasped the woman firmly by the arm and not let go until she was back outside in the safety and anonymity of the street; an hour ago? Two hours? Five? It felt like an eternity now.
“That’s very kind of you,” Anne said, taking one last look at the painting and this time noting the title ‘Starry Night,’ before she left, “but I think I can find my way just fine on my own.”
S. P. Oldham.