A Short Story by Max McCoubrey
Claire made her way through Merrion Square toward the entrance of the National Gallery. The day out was a well-deserved break from her responsibilities at home and, as she neared the impressive building, a flush of freedom warmed her face. It felt as if she’d escaped from jail. She walked along the granite ramp, through the grand columns, and, once inside, she reached for a copy of the gallery map.
She’d spent many hours lost in wonder, roaming the halls of the gallery, admiring Irish masterpieces, Italian Baroque, and Dutch masters. But Claire was on a mission to see a particular painting. She’d watched a documentary about how artist Gareth Reid won the honour of painting Graham Norton’s portrait, and she wanted to view it for herself. She found room twenty-three on the gallery map and headed in that direction.
Claire made her way into room twenty-three and, in the exact moment that she saw Graham’s portrait, she also saw a man standing in front of it. There wasn’t any part of him she didn’t recognise. There in front of her were the long legs that had wrapped themselves around her, the arms that had held her when sobs of shock racked her body, and the lips that could deliver the sweetest kisses she had ever known in her twenty-nine years on this earth.
As if he could sense her presence, he turned slowly toward her and away from the portrait. The years fell away as he searched for recognition. Finally, it came.
“Claire,” he said softly.
A flicker of a smile fought its way from the corner of his mouth and tried to make the journey to the centre. His eyes registered shock. She let his once familiar name fall.
The name jumped from her lips and waltzed into her heart as if it had always been there, which in a way it had. It had been so long since she had entertained it and she was surprised to find that its use sent a sprinkling of warmth thru her like a lit firework on route on its sky journey to light up a million dark places.
Another visitor to the gallery, an elderly lady, intent on seeing Graham Norton full on in centre tapped Leo on the shoulder and said, “You’re masking my view of Graham, dear.”
Leo took two steps to the right and even though that brought him nearer to Claire he made no attempt to greet her warmly. He stood awkwardly and remainted silent.
She cleared her throat.
“I saw you on Graham’s television programme a while ago, you played beautifully.”
He didn’t answer. She thought he looked well. The scarf around his neck brought out the blue of his eyes and his black frock coat gave him an illusion of mystery. She remembered that his sartorial elegance always made him an imposing figure and marvelled at how mature he had grown in the years since she had last seen him. He still had a preference for black shirts and black jeans.
“Yeah, I’m on a clock,” he motioned to his wrist which didn’t have a watch on it. “I promised Graham I’d look in on his portrait and I’ve done that so….”
She watched him walk away, pull the big white door open and her eyes stayed with him as he pressed the button on the lift. When he had disappeared, she stood looking at Graham’s portrait for a long while. Lost more in remembrance than the present. She eventually wandered away and went in search of the William Orpen painting of Count John McCormack.
She overheard a little girl ask a question.
“Who’s the man in the statue at the front?” The little girl was looking out the window.
“That’s William Dargon,” the lady pointed to it. “The people of Ireland would not have this lovely gallery if it wasn’t for him.”
Claire was still lost in thought. She was thinking of piano man and the day he had come to audition for her late night gig. After he had wiped away all competition and secured the booking, he had not thanked her. Instead, he had set his boundaries.
“I’m just here because I need some new equipment,” he had said emphatically.
She wasn’t sure if this was honestly or rudeness, but she listened anyway and forced a smile. She was tired. She had to take what she could get, attitude or no attitude.
Playing pop or popular music was ‘selling out’ in his opinion and he played it only to save the money the philistines paid in and then he’d run away as fast as he could with all the jazz lessons he could afford and a Hammond organ with vibrato, reverb and harmonic percussion.
She tolerated the derision night after night until one time when she was tired and hungry and fed up waiting to be paid and she suggested he leave, or else hand back some of the money as a protest.
“Couldn’t do that,” he said sarcastically, “that’s the only reason I am here.”
Claire tried to push back the memories but they grappled with her and won. Now, mentally, she was in the car beside him as they drove to Limerick.
“It’s not Borris on Ossory.” he said exasperatedly. “It’s Borris in Ossery, don’t you know anything?”
She had been relaxed beside him for once and was telling him a funny story about their last piano player fixing their car when the fan belt went in Borris, by using her tights.
He was missing the point of the fun story.
“It’s a medieval Irish kingdom which existed from the first century until the Norman Invasion in the twelfth. Do you understand that?”
He changed gear and stole a glance at her to make sure she had heard him correctly. She had not spoken for the rest of the journey.
Claire brushed her hair away from her face and for no logical reason began to smile at the memory.
She heard the little girl’s voice high above the whispers of the public viewers. “What’s a turret?” and immediately Claire knew she was talking about Ireland’s favourite painting, “Meeting on the turret stairs” by Burton. She waited for them to leave and then alone in the room stood in front of the painting and reflected on it.
A moment of unrequited love captured in talented brush strokes. She heard a noise.
Leo was standing with the gallery map in his hand. “The guy who painted it…”
“Butler. I know”
They stood together aware of a strong vibration.
“Time has been good to you,” he finally whispered.
His voice brought her to a faraway place. The rasp in it always had attracted her, but today, it held a power over her too. She remembered how once it had made her feel safe.
After a show in the midlands of Ireland in the mid-winter, during a storm ,they had packed the car with their three encores ringing in their ears and Leo , deciding he would drive for the first hour of the journey home sat into the driver’s seat and turned the ignition key.
He turned it again. Again nothing.
His voice was a flat as the battery. “Did you leave the interior light on?” he said accusingly.
She opened the door and took out her overnight case.
“Tomorrow I’ll call the AA,” she said. “I’m staying here, you figure what you’re going to do and we’ll meet whenever you have done that.”
She encountered his stony face again, at the reception desk. She was looking for a room. So was he. The receptionist told them she had only one double left. Claire booked it and he followed her wordlessly.
“You can use the bathroom first,” she said throwing her bag on a chair by the window and turned on the muted television. The light was like that of a silver moon.
He said he wanted to apologise for being rude and told her he had a lot on his mind. He felt he had a vocation and had, after much deliberation decided to enter a seminary. She felt a salty tear cascade from her eye and bunji jump to her shoulder. It was closely followed by others and they were even more closely followed by sobs she found difficult to control. If she could have saved her privacy by bolting out the door, into the car and driven to Dublin she would have but she was trapped.
He was staring at her with disbelief in his face and she was mortified. His shock was apparent. He was not the only one who had not expected this reaction. Instinctively he reached for her uplifted face and comforted her.
What had followed next was the unforgettable part. She blinked and marvelled at how the painter had captured the longing in the eyes of his models.
She shifted her gaze from the painting to Leo. She saw in his eyes an expression that told her that he had lived a lot since that night the best part of a decade ago. Those blue eyes were wiser now. They had seen a lot of life. He had made adult decisions and leaving the seminary was one of them. “I had some bad experiences. It wasn’t what I thought it would be” he was all he was prepared to say.
“Could we start again please?” He moved behind her and looked over her shoulder “I would love to begin again.”
She turned around and looked straight at him. His face was so famous now. His music sold in millions. She looked at his familiar fingers.
“You’re so well known,” she pushed a stray hair away from his face.
“That wasn’t what I thought it would be either,” he kissed her fingers.
She took her hand away, reached for her business card and pressed it into his. “All my contact details are there,” she pointed to the list of information under her name. “This was an unexpected meeting so you may need time to think.”
“I don’t need time to think.” He looked closely at the card. “I’ll be in touch first thing in the morning!”
“Enjoy the painting,” she whispered and left him alone in the room.
Claire walked into café to calm herself with a cup of tea and, even though she didn’t notice him, Leo had followed her and was standing by the stairway, the fingers so familiar were putting her details into his phone.
Max McCoubrey is a freelance writer living in Dublin Ireland. Her background is in show business and she often draws on her experiences in her stories. Her work has been published in Qutub Minar, Pioneer Magazine, Ireland’s Own and Little Gems.