I’m not a killjoy, it’s just that I have a problem with birthdays. You see, on my 10th birthday my mother had a heart attack. There was a knock at the door. I rushed downstairs expecting a doctor. Instead it was a postman with a parcel for me. She died.
Today I am 30. When I feel depressed I scribble my worries down, put a score by each one, then write them out again, in order this time. I take down my old list from the wall and put the new one up. I start reading from the bottom. When a problem’s solved, I put a line through it. This is my system. I’m not saying it works for everybody — it doesn’t work for me — but if you’re thorough it uses up an hour a day, which can’t be sniffed at. Today as usual the bottom line reads “Money”.
I can’t paint much when I’m in this mood — I’m a Realist. I’m meeting Sue for lunch. I met her through a singles column a few weeks ago. I want to like her — I know how rejection hurts — so first I fantasize about watching paint dry, in the same way that if a swimming pool is cold, I first splash myself so that I’m shivering before I get in.
We meet at a wine bar as we often do on Wednesdays. She arrives dressed like a PA for an important meeting — looking ten years older rather than more formal. As the first course is cleared she hands me a birthday card. How did she find out?
“I know how you suffered,” she says, getting a parcel from her bag. “I want you to have this.”
It’s shaped like a coffee-table book but the way she hands it over makes me realize it’s lighter than that.
“Go on, open it.”
I remove the brown paper. It’s a painting, immaculately bubble-wrapped. She waits as I rip off the sellotape. People turn towards us.
“You shouldn’t have,” I say, holding it at arm’s length. “It must have cost a bundle.”
“Sometimes you know at first sight.”
“Let me guess. Late 1800s?”
“Maybe. I know how you love Expressionists,” she says.
“I think it’s more Impressionist really.”
“My mother bought it on holiday once. It meant a lot to her. I put it in the loft after she died. A bit small but the frame’s nice.”
I don’t know what to say. We carry on the meal as normal. We peck cheeks and she returns to work. When I get home I prop the painting on the mantlepiece. I think about wrapping it up and returning it to her with a note saying that maybe we shouldn’t see each other again, but decide to take a closer look first. It’s old; I can tell that by how some colours have faded faster than others. It isn’t square in the frame so I undo the back. Where the frame had covered the canvas is a signature — Auguste R. Surely not. But the more I look, the more curious I become. I take it straight to my friend Jack, an ex-art lecturer who prices artworks for the local Oxfam shop.
“You know what this is, don’t you?” he says, taking off his demi-lunettes.
“Minor, but we’re talking twenty grand.”
Walking home I wonder whether I can just sell it and run. Jack has contacts. But no, the guilt wouldn’t be good for me. Then I have an idea.
My first attempt at a forgery failed. Even after adding mud the paints were too bright, and it was difficult to slowly replicate the rapid brushstrokes of the original. Then I found a library book about the techniques of famous forgers and over the weeks perfected my art.
All the while I kept meeting Sue. I think she liked the idea of going out with an artist. She’s kind and caring, and though she doesn’t understand art, she’s tolerant. I realise she’s easily underestimated — a slow burner.
When I had made a good enough copy I put it in the frame, wrapped it, and gave the original to Jack to sell. That evening I went over to Sue’s. We were going to see the latest Spiderman film. I waited until the last moment before giving her back the painting.
“I really don’t think I should keep it, Sue. It has too much sentimental value for you.”
“No, really, Tom, I want you to keep it. There’s more where that came from.” She blushed. “But I gave you the best one. Some of the frames are really grotty.”
“You have more?”
“About ten. Want to see them?”
I think I had an over-romantic notion of living together before I met Sue. Relationships can be like partnerships. Why pay rent on two houses when one will do? She gives me space and security — something to stop me from drifting. Life with her has its ups and downs, which is all I ask for. Worst is when she comes home from work and tells me about her day, but she thinks artists are dreamers, so I’m allowed to lose my concentration sometimes. Once I’d replaced all the paintings with my copies I suggested she should take one of them for evaluation, just in case. I said I knew someone who’d do it for free, an ex-lecturer. She came back with a smug expression. “I told you they were worthless, didn’t I. I do know a bit about art, you know”. But she was wrong — when I had a drink with Jack later he confessed it was one of my best works.
Tim Love lives in Cambridge, UK. His poetry and prose has appeared in many magazines, most recently in “Transmission” (Manchester) and “short fiction” (Plymouth).