When Mary thought back to her days at the hospital it seemed like another life. At first it had all been perfect: that was when James was still there. Each day he’d meet her off the subway and pull her eagerly to share his latest discovery. One day he’d taken her to a jewel of a park. Surrounded each side by tenements, it still caught the late afternoon sunlight, turning the scrubby patch of grass into a meadow as lush as any from home in Ireland. Another time he’d introduced her to espresso; they’d drunk the bitter brew from impossibly tiny cups and stayed up all the nerve-jangled night. She’d made three mistakes on the ward the next day; never again.
Best of all, though, had been the junk shops, or ‘Antiquarian Specialists’ as most of them were styled. That was where she’d first found the painting; or perhaps, it had first found her. James had pointed out the door of the shop. You wouldn’t even know it was anything other than a private residence; the boxes stacked outside looked more like someone’s discards, or a particularly disorganised moving day, rather than items for sale. But James had worked it out. He’d noticed the worn gold lettering on the single, dusty window, and had ventured inside. As soon as he’d seen it, he’d known he had to bring Mary in there.
The door had opened slowly, with no bell-tinkling arrival. The interior seemed gloomy after the day’s sunlight. Mary’s eyes adjusted quickly, and she pushed her way through the makeshift aisle towards the back.
James paused to look at the cluttered occasional tables where tin soldiers marched around a porcelain teapot. Then he’d heard Mary gasp.
She was standing at a stack of paintings ranged against the back wall, pulling each one toward her and peering over it to see the artist’s work. ‘James, look!’ she breathed. He joined her and leaned over to see, but in the gloom it was hard to discern more than an outline of cottages. Looking at Mary, though, he could see it was more than that to her. He nodded to the question in her eyes: ‘Yes, we’ll buy it.’
But it was different now. Now, when Mary emerged blinking from the subway station each evening there were no outstretched arms to meet her, no joyous discoveries to make. Instead she trudged alone back to the flat, eager to release her feet from the tight-laced sandals and to rest.
Each evening was the same. It had started as a ritual, and now was a habit. Mary would brew a pot of tea in the square-handled teapot, light a cigarette and sit on the green vinyl sofa. The wreaths of smoke and steam would swirl together in front of her as she gazed toward the painting. As she stared, her eyes became unfocused and she felt herself falling, falling closer until she was walking on that pathway. She could feel the mist of the air and hear the cowbells from the neighbouring field. Each evening she had come closer, come closer… soon she would be able to raise her hand and knock at that closed door.