Shooting ButterfliesBy: Marika Cobbold
Light is energy, making visible anything that produces it;
also anything that receives and is illuminated by it, such as the moon
and virtually any other object we see.
The Remarkable thing about this morning was not that it was Grace’s birthday; after all, that occurred once a year so by the time you got to forty you should have ceased to be surprised. Nor was there much to say about the day itself; she walked down Kensington High Street to get the paper and it was muggy and overcast, the air so heavy with pollution you felt like offering it a hand to rise.
Back home, there was nothing odd about the toaster malfunctioning, Grace’s two slices of white bread getting caught and having to be prised out piece by piece, nor about the tea turning cold before she remembered to remove the teabag. And she had expected cards; she had friends, after all, and Mrs Shield. No, what gave the day its unusual quality was that the postman, when he arrived, handed her a present from her dead lover.
She tore open the tattered brown paper parcel with its US stamps, thinking it might be a present from her Aunt Kathleen. Inside was a picture. She lifted it out and turned it the right way, gazing at the painting as if she had found a pink, breathing baby beneath a heap of rags. Outdoors, it was murky; leaden sky, charcoal asphalt, and the dirty white of the 1960s concrete building opposite. Indoors, the picture brought its own light.
There was an envelope hidden in a pocket of the wrapping. It had been opened and sealed again with a couple of bits of tape. On it was written simply Grace. It was his writing. She put the envelope down on the table, shook herself and then she looked again. It was still his writing. She picked the envelope up and tore it open. Her heart was hammering in her chest as she read on, but her hands remained steady; it was her training.
My darling Grace,
I came across this painting on my walk this morning. You were working and I was strolling through Chelsea, frightening passers-by with the stupid grin on my face as I thought of seeing you in just a little while. I found it at the back of a small antiques shop and I knew you would love it. I was told it wasn’t for sale. I thought I recognised the building in the background and when I saw Northbourne House actually written next to the signature I knew I had to have it. Don’t ask me how I managed to talk them round, but I did.
And don’t ask me what the sea is doing not far from that house – artistic licence, obviously – but I wonder if the figure at the edge of the painting is your ‘ghost’.
I’ll send the painting to you when we are far apart, as an emissary of my love. Poor ghost, I know how he feels as he gazes at the girl on the beach; I know how he longs to be with her.
I love you, always and for ever,
She read the letter three times and with each reading her heart beat faster and she grew dizzy and short of breath and had to sit down. She was in her kitchen, surrounded by familiar things; the sky-blue painted cupboards and the old gas cooker that she never got round to replacing because there always seemed to be something more urgent, or at least more interesting, to do with the money. There was the small tray with bottles of olive oil and vinegar, the jars of different teabags, her pot of honey. In front of her was the battered oak table that was too big for the room and on the wall behind hung the double row of black and white photographs, each of the same forlorn seascape, each taken at a different time with the sea in a different mood. She looked at it all, disconnected, floating like a leftover balloon in a factory sky.
The painting was the kind of gift – remarkable and utterly right – that he would send her; but two years after his death? Grace was not one of those people who discounted miracles; she just didn’t think them likely. He was dead and, this being life, there would be no resurrection.
She propped the picture up against the back of one of the kitchen chairs. She looked at what he had looked at; there was a time lag of over two years, but they were sharing a view: the house brooding in the background, the dark-haired girl seated by the water’s edge, the figure gazing at her with such longing, and all washed in a light so clear it might have been sieved through a fine muslin cloth. The sea was playing in shades of blue and, beyond, the horizon was endless. Grace had seen such light and such horizons in the past, in other places, but never from a window at Northbourne House. And A.L. Forbes, who was he? She had never heard of a painter of that name, yet this was not some amateur effort but the work of a true artist.
She turned the letter over in her hand and it was then she noticed the scribble on the back.
Well, Grace, I found this touching little note and the accompanying ‘artwork’ while going through the last of his stuff. As I can’t believe even the thrift shop will want it, I am passing it on to you. Maybe he had second thoughts about giving it to you; an unexpected lapse into good taste, perhaps. But that we’ll never know now, will we? I wish you joy of it.