She glanced around the empty gallery. The squawking gulls and bustle of St. Ives harbour seemed distant. It was like walking into Aladdin’s cave, but squared and white-washed. The treasures didn’t glimmer, so much as sing with silent possibility. The desire to be pulled in through the frames and tumble into an alternate universe pulsated: it was a need. Which one would provide the next fix, the connection – a truth? As the gallery hooked round to the left, so the techniques shifted. Each artist spoke a different language. She ran her fingers along the gloss of inky sketches, peered into the mind-boggling detail of large Cornish landscapes and wondered at the control of the water colours. But what she craved was the scratchy crests of garish oil paintings.
Curving around towards the beckoning burst of natural light, she skirted past the final paintings impatiently. Flicking her head back, guiltily, to cast a final eye over the remaining numbers, she swung her body around, in line with a dusky painting that seemed to sway about its hook. It was not garish, or exciting to touch, but its rhythmic whisper invited exploration. Bold in stroke and subtle in colour, it was like a visual massage. She stared blankly, meditatively, still.
“What do you see in it?” A short, grey-haired man said, plainly from beside her. She looked from his face to the flowing mauve brush strokes, the waving sunset. The sky was squeezing the last drops of day light into the ocean, like the final splash of lemon into a salty margarita – from which the painter had surely sipped.
“I’m not sure, but I like it.” She said, wondering if he was the creator. “Is it one of yours?”
She studied his wrinkled profile – he seemed reluctant to look back. Focused on the twilight world, indifferent to the peaceful, pastel tones, he shrugged.
“Yeah, it’s mine,” his American drawl dug into the final syllables. Looking up, he fixed his eyes briefly on hers. “I always wonder what other people see. These are my paintings.” He said waving his arm over the final stretch of canvases. The brush strokes seemed to dance across them. Nothing was linear, squares were an impossibility in his worlds. The colours jumped beyond the deep, muted tones of that first dreamy coastline she had fixed upon.
“They’re real, these paintings. All of them. They’re originals. No one seems to want originals anymore, though.” He flapped his arms at his sides, staring off into the middle distance. “They just print them.”
The disdain curled his top lip. She looked back at him, inquisitively.
“That’s right, prints are cheaper – no one wants to buy paintings anymore.” He shook his head, disbelievingly, looking down at the floor. He turned and began to lope back towards the light. “What do you think of these?”
Standing at the side entrance of the gallery now, she didn’t know where to start: the exterior wall was laden with further works. More colourful, more precise, more detailed.
“I love them, they remind me of Van Gogh – there’s so much movement.” She waved her arm and looked back, shyly now. “They’re vibrant.”
He scrunched his nose. His paint splattered shirt was stiff against the breeze. “Nah, not like Van Gogh.”
Pausing a moment, he reflected: “You see, I’ve got tinnitus. It’s horrible, I can’t seem to get into it like I used to. It’s affecting my painting…Like this one.” He drew his hand down to a comparatively standard painting. He had a point she thought, it doesn’t sing.
“Maybe.” She said, “The energy is different, but it’s still a good painting.”
He scrunched his face again and shook his head. “Painting helps, it’s a distraction, but when it’s bad, it’s just constant – just ringing – I can’t relax.” He turned out to the street and looked across the harbour. His eyes seemed small behind the frames of his glasses. His clothes nearly swallowed him whole. “I can’t get into it like I used to. It’s just disjointed, or something.”
Defeated, he continued to moan: about the tourists who would rather go on a speedboat ride than buy art and the people who dared vote ‘Brexit’, before lamenting that he had nowhere else to go. “St.Ives is not what it was.” He said, flatly. But her mind was rolling with the waves, out to the lighthouse far beyond the harbour. She drifted, like a loosely tethered buoy, away from the voices – back to where it all began. The horizon was just a smudge and somewhere, the sky wrestled with the waves. What if they were to finally meet? It would surely have to be under the veil of dusk, once the aqua blues are laced with the pinkish hues of their sun. He has seen their tango, she thought sadly. He’s painted their lust. But somewhere in that beautiful twilight, he lost his grip. The brushes slipped. The margarita emptied. The moment passed.
He looked up to her now, wonderingly. “But what’s it like out there – London is it, yes – are people still buying paintings, over there?”