Niamh had always found the junk shop off 32nd Street rather an irritation. The detritus of someone else’s past spilled across the pavement and she frequently had to step into the gutter to avoid it on her way to and from Whittle’s Law. She rarely glanced at the eclectic display, other than to ensure she didn’t trip up. But today, she had to look. The sidewalk was completely blocked by an ornate table and four chairs. Their over-stuffed seats had clearly supported one too many over-stuffed backsides in the course of a hard life. Across the table top someone had carelessly flung a large painting – an image which halted Niamh in her tracks, one foot already in the street.
The frame of the picture was as rococo as the furniture upon which it lay, hinting that it hailed from the same source. But Niamh was transfixed by the painting itself. Her eye was drawn to the two cottages at the heart of the piece. They leaned into one another like an elderly couple and rested on the edge of a towpath, skirting the banks of an ancient stream. The nearer cottage seemed to emerge from the hillside as if it had struggled out of the land itself in some preceding century and the tree-dotted turf led up to a ridge which marked the boundary of their land. A neighbouring cottage looked on from some distance, and in the foreground, alongside a primitive fence, was a mound of earth, at odds, somehow, with the timelessness of the scene. But casting a pall over the whole scene was the sky – a storm sky, black and threatening. There was a suggestion of Lear’s heath, with the coming storm merely a metaphor for wild and dark events lurking under the apparent tranquillity.
Niamh noted all these details in a single glance but they were secondary to a revelation which took her aback. She recognised this place. She knew it. She couldn’t possibly have been there. She was New York born and bred – but she had seen it. Somewhere. On a complete whim she went into the shop to ask the price.
‘House clearance,’ was the brief response. ‘Some old Irish lady. No will, no relatives so…the state called us in to clear the place. Unsigned work – if you can take it now, you can have it for $50.’
The deal was done. Niamh struggled back to her apartment, stopping frequently to rest the painting against a wall or lamp post, and now it was leaning against the Ikea shelving in her ultra-modern apartment – a complete anachronism against the white walls and clean lines of 21st century urban living.
Niamh stood back to study it again. Some old Irish lady…Ireland…she’d never been there…her mother had told her there was Irish blood in her father’s family but…how did she know this scene? Niamh stood back further and narrowed her eyes – then opened them wide as she saw what had eluded her until that moment. There was a face. Someone indistinct was peering from the upper window of the nearest cottage. The expression was too distant to be discernible but there was an air of entrapment, of menace, enhanced by the stillness of the scene and the brooding sky. What was the artist trying to tell her? The picture had come to her down the years, from his brush into her life and she would find out. She was an investigator, for goodness sake. And here were the bones of her own mystery.