The Portrait

Oscar Pendergast glided up the steps two at a time defying his advancing years, the familiar and rhythmic clip-clopping of his shoes against the marble easing the growing angst within. He could still hear the incessant giggling of the school children roaming the corridors below. A museum was no place for noise, never mind a gaggle of runny nosed brats, but would that impudent teacher listen to Oscar? Not a chance in hell, apparently he was creating a scene, not those precious little angels.

Oscar reached the top step, pausing to tap the base of the alabaster eagleü that perched at the top of the staircase, looming large over all those below, searching for its prey. One tap, two tap, three tap, he didn’t know how he had started this ritual, it was the only way he could walk down the dimly lit corridor in front of him. He passed by the less popular, uglier, paintings that lined the walls; there were no Monet’s, Picasso’s or Gauguin’s down here. This wing housed the ‘dregs’ of the gallery, the casts-offs, the family members asked to stand at the back of the wedding photographs. But Oscar paid them no attention, not even a cursory glance, all he was focused on was the floor tiles.

‘Must not step on grey, or for the rest of the day, you’ll pay.’

A few more tiles stood between Oscar and his goal. He was here to see a special lady. She had become a regular part of his life. The Old Maid With Bucket. She wasn’t the most attractive lady Oscar had seen; in fact there was something downright repulsive about her. Those piercing brown eyes, the imperfections in her skin and the dark, bristle-like hairs on her arms had captivated Oscar. He could open up to the Old Maid and she wouldn’t judge. She was the only person he felt comfortable around.

Their paths had crossed by pure chance. Oscar had been trying to escape a buffoon from Salvation Army who insisted on waving a collection can in Oscar’s face. It wasn’t the reluctance to give to charity that caused Oscar to seek refuge; it was the coughing emanating from the buffoon’s mouth. Germs! Oscar had no option, he had to run and as fate would have it, he found sanctuary in the steely eyes of the Old Maid hanging on the wall.

‘Hello sweetheart,’ cheered Oscar as he stepped into the Old Maid’s resting place.

‘Hello yourself.’

Oscar wasn’t alone. There was a woman, a stranger, sat on Oscar’s spot, the spot he had carefully selected. It was right in front of the Old Maid, there was minimal glare and the exact amount of draft from the overhead air conditioning; it was perfect, except now it wasn’t.

‘Don’t you just love the use of chiaroscuro?’

Oscar ignored her, eyeing his spot with a scowl.

‘Would you like me scoot up?’ the stranger smiled, patting the spot next to her. Oscar shuffled, nervously digging around in his overcoat pockets . He pulled out an unopened pack of tissues, placing one carefully on the spot next to the stranger before tossing the rest into the trashcan in the corner. He sat down, still scowling at the person sitting next to him.

‘What do you think she is thinking about?’ pondered the woman, oblivious to Oscar’s uneasy state.

‘You’re in my spot.’

‘I just love the depth in her eyes. You can tell there is a lot going on there,’ the woman continued.

‘Why are you here?’

‘Huh? Oh I come here every day on my break. Judy,’ she said offering out a hand.

Oscar jerked back in revulsion, ‘I’d rather not sweetheart, if it’s all the same to you.’

Judy shrugged her shoulders and looked back at the painting. Oscar still had a scowl on his face as he unbuttoned his overcoat. He slipped a hand inside and produced a carefully wrapped sandwich inside two cellophane bags. He removed the first bag, folding it exactly four times, placing it by his side. He removed the second bag and folded it six times, placing it on top of the first. He started to unwrap the cellophane, before stopping in his tracks. Judy was staring at him.

‘I, uh, I like to keep my food fresh.’

‘I don’t think you’re meant to eat in here,’ said Judy as she stood up, ‘but enjoy. This, whatever it is, has been interesting.’

‘You’re leaving? Thank you Jesus,’ said Oscar, scrambling to pull out another pack of unopened tissues from his pocket. He cleaned the spot vacated by Judy.

‘Same time tomorrow?’ said Judy as she walked down the dimly lit corridor.

Oscar stopped his frantic cleaning of the bench, ‘Huh?’

‘I was talking to the painting.’

Oscar looked at the Old Maid with defeat, ‘It’s either me,’ he looked back towards Judy, ‘or her.’