It was a Saturday, and we all know what that means. Exhibition after invariable exhibition when all I wanted to do was nosedive head first into Dorian Gray in the library. And before I could present my symptoms of an unhealthily warm forehead, a cough that without rest, could definitely develop into the whooping cough and plead that “I am just not well, mother!” we had already arrived.
After enduring about as much boredom as I could, I managed to escape my mother’s tentacles and darted from floor to floor of the gallery, hiding behind statue and pillar whenever adults came into view. In my waistcoat pocket resided my pocket watch engraved with the initials V.A. which I often traced with my index finger when feeling lonely.
I had never been given a genuine explanation, you see, I had merely accepted the fact that the only parent I would ever have was the personification of neurosis that brought me here. I learned not to ask questions. But one day when lucid, my mother entered my room and, sitting beside me, presented this pocket watch. With difficulty she articulated, “Colin, I have something for you. It was your…your fathers”, and that was all that was offered. And I think the 12 year-old Colin knew that this watch wasn’t compensating in some miraculous way for the absence of a father, but it consoled him and consolation was more than was offered by anybody else. But as I knew not a thing about him, I was left to dream up my own portrayals of my father, which usually took the form of some dissatisfied-with-civilisation type of character, predestined to conquer never before conquered planets having developed his own unparalleled spacecraft. I envisioned him transporting sections of the
(though I wasn’t sure how) across to planet Feradica, the integral resource for
What I also inferred was that somehow, amidst collecting some of the Pacific and packing enough pairs of socks, my father had accidentally taken with him the magic missing link to this pocket watch. As, for reasons unknown and despite innumerable battery changes, I had not observed one tick in the seven years it had been in my possession. And still, it was as attached to me as a blanky is to a three year-old. Perhaps in the haze of frantic packing he forgot to pack me, for which I’m sure he has never forgiven himself.
The gallery was one of those fabulous, multi-storied contemporary buildings, painted a pearl-white. It was filled with modern delights such as giant pieces of paper with what looked like unintentional paint-splashes smeared across them. There was no coherence to them and the descriptions given didn’t really allay your confusion. What I didn’t know then, I would understand with time. And so, reaching the first floor, I crept through the double doors, panning left and right before discreetly slipping up the stairs to the second floor. Gliding through the opening, with a spring-fuelled step, I was filled with surprise as I fell into a room that hosted a flavourful blend of masterpieces. Sullen yet soulful, I absorbed colour after lurid colour before noticing one particular contrasting figure.
Clad in ebony from boot to brow with pupils larger than the moon, the most bizarre character I had ever laid eyes on was kneeling on the ground before a flawless masterpiece. Odd? Definitely. Yet the notion of him kneeling before a painting bore no comparison to the impossibly enormous magnifying glass he was holding. He looked like he might have been handsome in his youth, an easy on the eyes demi-god that was met with dropping-jaws upon entering every room. But the bags that trailed beneath his eyes now cast shadows across his weathered facial features, and he was so still and alone in his task, whatever it was that I felt empathetic. Alone was served as a side-dish with my breakfast, lunch and dinner. I watched a while as the magnifying glass was moved by its owner, his eyes scrutinizing every grain of splendour, every speck of paint. The most surreal element was that there were at least thirty others in the room and most of them were adults, yet they appeared to evade this strangeness, or impossibly, they did not consider this strange at all. Perhaps this was considered as normal behaviour in the art world, but not to me. The 12 year-old Colin Benedict found this thoroughly intriguing and much more inviting than splashes of figureless paint. What ever could he be looking for? This was a question I needed answering.
I approached slowly, ensuring not to startle him and whispered, “What are you looking for?” This was ineffectual, as he did not move a millimetre. I reiterated. No change. I tried a third time before submitting. But this enigma was one so curious that I couldn’t withdraw my eyes from him. He had no bag with him that I could see, and seemingly, no pockets on his cloak to store money, or keys to a house he shared with another, or a picture of a loved one, no phone – nothing. Only the magnifying glass. And the strangeness, the peculiarity, the mystery, it was wonderful. Regardless of him being unwilling to respond, I knew I had to figure it out, so I turned to the painting.
The image before me was one I was very familiar with, for it was pasted on every billboard in the area, in every carriage of every train and every window of every cafe I had walked by in coming here. It was an encapsulation of freedom, or freedom as some knew it, excluding my 12 year-old self. It was an illustration of a multiplex of retail stores cluttered with dark soulless characters, their faces draped in apathy. Only, there was one face that rather contrasted the collection of ghouls. In the centre was a lady smiling, smothered in green and dressed as the statue of liberty.
What was peculiar- the 12 year-old Colin noticed- was the tablet she was holding. As opposed to saying ‘
1776’ in Roman Numerals, it read ‘Diet or Regular?’ But I didn’t
really grasp it, or what this man was doing. And yet I needed to understand,
something about this whole affair spoke to me. I was particularly interested in
why the statue of liberty had six spikes in her crown where there are usually seven,
and I wondered…could this be the reason for his strange behaviour? Was this a
fake? I had to find out. And so, as confidently as possible, I began…
“There you are! I’ve been looking everywhere for you! Your mother has been worried sick”, the boyfriend
interjected. In my moment of absorption, I’d displaced the idea that they may
have realised I had wandered off. But the only ‘guardian’ in view was Lawrence, so apparently
my mother wasn’t worried enough to climb a few stairwells.
“I... I’m sorry, but I just need to-”
“You just need to come with me, boy!” I hated that he called me that. “We’re going to be late after your little disappearance”, he complained pulling me along.
Neck over shoulder, I watched as the figure that had captivated me became smaller and smaller, yet somehow the magnifying glass retained its enormity. I would return tomorrow. I had to. The several hours that followed were a blurry haze of paint and sculptures. Before I knew it, the day had passed. My mother came in my room, kissed me on the cheek, told me to be nicer to “Your new father”, and left. How could she impose such an important title so passively? Did she care about me at all? “New father”. This implied that I had the current presence of a father-figure that had replaced one I had before him. I could confirm neither.
My mind struggled to locate the off switch that evening, resulting in a solid two hours of sleep. But as I woke, I felt I was already going to be too late. That did not stop me. I pulled on my lucky red jumper and after promising that I would be home from “The library” by two, I took a forty minute tube ride before escaping the station. Hordes of militant shoppers, businessmen and -women interspersed with scatterings of snowflakes made for one hell of a challenging journey across town.
Fortunately I was tiny and drunk on adrenaline. I had just two hours remaining before mother would realise I had borrowed twenty-five pounds from her purse without consent, that the library books I was returning were in my room and that I had not taken Stevie for a walk, which I was riddled with guilt about. So I hastened, traversing the bridge. And suddenly I was at the entrance.
My heart’s thud escalated. How exciting. More exciting than anything I had ever done. I had travelled all the way across town – by myself! I survived it! And yet as I walked in, my motion slowed to the extent that I was almost immobile.
Was it not a little excessive, this whole thing? Why had I been so attracted to this man? Why did this quest hold such a great value that I just had to come back? The truth is I didn’t know. All I knew was that if I had tried to leave the gallery in that moment, I might probably have definitely spontaneously combusted. I pushed through the door and stumbled into what seemed like a much larger foyer than yesterday. Everything seemed so much bigger than when I had adults accompanying me. Perhaps I had miscalculated the spikes. And what if I was wrong? What if the man was just strange? These reservations hindered me in no respect whatsoever. Masses of people were buying tickets, and my curfew was fast approaching, so I had no choice but to find an alternative. At about this time, I conveniently noticed the single guard surveying the ground floor.
It was decided: as soon as his attention was deterred, I would make a break for the stairs. So I waited, and waited, and waited some more. And then…somehow…my wish was granted. A lady in blue came into view. She asked the guard to take a photo of her with her family, which he probably shouldn’t have done. But he did. And I seized the opportunity. Ever so calmly, I headed straight for and then conquered the flight of stairs. The second level of stairs soon fell away behind me. I moved into the foyer and glancing to the left, my eyes immediately fell upon the man in black.
Gulping, I moved closer towards him, until I was directly next to him and opening my mouth, gesturing with my left hand, “I-“
“There you are you little rat! How dare you enter the gallery without having purchased a ticket? How did you ever get up here?”
The guard accused a boy in red at the other side of the gallery.
“I ought to throw you out!”
I turned and tugged on the man’s velvet jacket. He did not respond.
“Oh it wasn’t you was it? Well then who could it have been?” The guard patronised, before noticing in his peripheral vision, me…Colin Benedict.
“What do you think you are doing? Take your hand off my son!” The mother of the accused yelped.
“Oh dear, please do accept my apologies”. Turning, “It was you I saw”, he snarled rapidly marching towards me.
“Uh oh”, I tugged some more, “Listen Mr, the reason I came here today is because I saw you studying this painting yesterday and, well, I noticed something peculiar and felt it would have been wrong not to tell you-”
“YOU! Come with me at once, you have much explaining to do!” He clutched my red jumper, splashes of snow falling onto and yet not discouraging his tight grasp.
The man in black turned, “Wait…please, just a moment.”
“Well do forgive me Mr. Alessandro, but this boy is nothing short of a common criminal”.
Ignoring him, the man in black asked me, “What did you notice boy?”
Raising my left hand, I pointed to the crown.
“Where there are six spikes, there should be seven. Forgive me”, looking at the guard, “but, I think this is a fake.”
“This is preposterous, not only do you commit a crime”, I thought this somewhat farfetched, “but now you are questioning the authenticity of this painting? Apologise to Mr Alessandro at once!”
He then proceeded in reeling off the company policy, and how I was going to be put away for a very, very long time, though I wasn’t sure where, for I was only twelve. And I only half heard what he was saying, as I was focused on Mr Alessandro who didn’t seem to hear a word of this. He lifted the magnifying glass and zoomed in on lady liberty. For what seemed like an eternity, he was fixated on the error. And then…quivering erupted throughout his entire body; every cell excited, every hair stood on end.
This man I would later learn was, in fact, the artist, thus the original was like his own child, completely and absolutely recognisable to him. So many times he had attempted to convince Raymond Craven- the gallery owner- that this was not his work, to no avail. He was, unfortunately, telling Raymond what Raymond already knew.
The man in black took a step back and shaking his head, he smiled.
“It really is true what they say about the bigger picture. Did you come all the way down here to put me out of my misery boy?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“What a decent young fellow! How could I ever thank you?”
I pondered. I had never wanted much, apart from my stupid pocket watch to work. And in this moment, I could think of nothing else.
“Well, for years I have been trying to get this to work. Is there any chance you could help me fix it?” I extended my hand and presented the watch.
His eyes were drawn…his gaze still…he looked at me in a way no one ever had before.
“How do you know my name? Who are you?”
He dropped the magnifying glass. “My name is Vincent. Vincent Alessandro.”
There was no need to trace the engraving ever again. And though I didn’t feel it reverberate, for the first time in seven years, the pocket watch ticked.