Clang, Clang, Clang, Clang.
A man with stooped shoulders tossed a coin into the dry fountain and shuffled slowly towards the museum. The iron gates kept him at bay, and he knocked four times on the tough metal.
Clang, Clang, Clang, Clang.
The damp day had declined into a dark night. The city sweltered with the cold humidity, leaving a balmy texture upon the streets of crooked terrain made of cobblestones; the buildings, oppressive and ominous, stood tall and loomed over the few passerby’s in the evening’s nest. The city, dressed in sepia from the dull lamplights, dotted infrequently throughout the passage of the historic district, was quiet. The life of day went stark and lonely, as a festive balloon bobbed sadly with dwindling helium near the dry fountain.
This is Birmingham.
Clang, Clang, Clang, Clang.
The Man looked upward to reveal a partial glimpse of his face; a ruddy complexion, with a deep, clear piercing eye with soft whiskers protruding from his chin. He scratched his face and pulled his collar higher to shield himself from the misting wind.
Clang. Clang. Clang. Clang.
The balloon skidded down the way, abandoning the man awaiting entry.
The gate opened by a small stunted lady.
“You’re late,” she said.
The Man shuffled past her without a word, or look or expression.
“Have a good night.” The stunted lady locked him inside and briskly ran into the sepia descent into darkness.
Like a shadow, the Man roamed the corridors. Small echos of his shoes; leather, laced tightly, gave soft thuds on the marbled floor.
The Restorer, tucked away solemnly in a small studio, attempted desperately to maintain the life within the paintings; the oil, the decaying canvas— a constant battle of preservation. Her eyes drooped during these long days where antiquity was her only companion. A day without artificial light was a hope, a dream. She heard soft thuds approaching, a friendly reminder that she was not alone. Her head peeked outside of the studio door that remained ajar during the evening hours when the museum was closed. The Man stopped and met her stare. In the silence between them he breathed in heavily, drinking in the stench of alcohol and pasty mud. The Restorer asked a favour, to look after her studio and the precious works that lay bleeding, while they slowly dried.
Watch them. Please.
He didn’t mind.
She stepped out for a cigarette.
He waited. He tapped his left shoe. He looked down the corridor, first to the north, then to the south. Nothing moved. A gentle hum murmured from the humidifiers that controlled the temperature of the museum. Nothing stirred. No mice or rats scrambled in these hallways. Nothing lived. And he liked nothing.
Ten minutes passed, quickly and without notice. The Pre-Raphaelite remnants hung with a haughty disposition of grandeur and myth, but at night, they spoke of nothing. The Rosetti’s, the Millais’s, the Hunt’s; silent. Another picture dead on the wall.
He waited longer. No signs of the the Restorer, no signs whatsoever. He slunk through the crack of the heavy wooden door and moved himself inside of the small studio. Four walls, no windows, and a tall, towering ceiling. One bright light spread the length of a dark yet humble painting titled, The Last Chapter. A restoration in progress. The lady reading by candlelight tried desperately to finish the novel before the candle extinguished. The Man was desperate for desperation.
In the corner of the studio, a finished project stood in a deep shadow. An earthly 17th Century piece of grand proportion boasted a setting of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph resting on a plain en route to Egypt. Their donkey, was illuminated. It was freshly painted in albino colours; the sacrifice of a holy ritual. The Man walked closer to it, the thuds of his steps softer with each closing movement. He placed his face right up to the red eyes of the donkey. He breathed in deep, the intoxicating fumes of the resin, pigment and solvents. His eyes fluttered, and enjoyed the gentle high.
His eyes, darker in the shadows, pressed upon the texture. It smudged the pristine paint of the donkey’s left thigh. He squinted, the blunder was noticeable. The Man shot up and scrambled to the table, the fumes and stenches of used colours and drying pigments scattered across his mind. All the open paint was dry, flaking and unusable.
A closing of a door rang resolutely down the hall. It was the Restorer on her return. A small tinkle of keys marked her journey back to the small studio. Each step let out a louder chime.
He looked at the painting, maybe he could leave it. She would never notice. Of course she would notice. Who wouldn’t notice. He picked up a scalpel and without blinking he dug the delicate knife into the web of his fingers. It bled. Slowly, but freely; the red urine of life. And there it was. A small dollop of red. He took a pallet and let the blood drip into a small reservoir. The discordant chime coming closer and closer and he shook with pressing time. He ripped out a lock of his hair, a small delicate wisp of brown held tight between his fingers. He dipped it into the coarse blood. It clung obediently. He slashed it onto the canvas, on the leg of the donkey. It dripped, as blood does. It looked like a real wound. And it was.
The chiming stopped. The door opened, the creak echoed high into the narrow ceiling.
She smelled of cigarette smoke, now stale in living memory. She stared.
The Man told the Restorer he admired her work. She nodded and held the door open for him.
He walked down to the Pre-Raphaelite corridor, and went straight to a particular painting. It was hung at the perfect height, the face of Dante Gabriel Rossetti staring straight into him. His eyes, cold and dead like his own. Clear with madness.
In the morning, the painting was returned to its designated spot in the gallery, where it still stands today, blood and all.
~ Charlotte Newman