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Chris Payne

The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

Episode 6 – Mary: New York 1995

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.

Short story - Suspense

The ravine

If I keep my eyes shut, he won’t see me. I repeated the thought like a mantra as I crouched in the middle of the gorse bush, my arms wrapped round my knees and my head bent to avoid the prickly branches.

Caitlin would be all right, I told myself. She knew how to take care of herself. Since we’d first met I’d been able to tell that she had an understanding of the world that was far beyond my own. I clutched my knees tighter and tried to numb my screaming thoughts by thinking back through the summer and how we’d met.

I’d first seen Caitlin on the lip of the ravine. My mother had sanctioned a rare route through the ravine, from the garage where our car was being repaired, but had lagged at the entrance to chat to an acquaintance. I’d trudged slowly ahead, savouring the shade after the blazing heat of the garage forecourt. As I walked, I had been tearing leaves from the bushes I passed and dropping them behind me surreptitiously. This was my favourite game, used to pass the time in school lunch-breaks as I waited for the bell to welcome me back inside. I would create a leaf trail across the playground; then, from my lessons, I would gaze out of the window and try to see where I had been.

Reaching the steps that marked the end of the ravine and the climb to my own neighbourhood, I had snapped off a final twig and sat down heavily on the bottom step to wait for my mother to catch up. She became nervous if I moved too far ahead. As I’d shredded the twig to a small, dry pile at my feet, I had heard a sound from above and glanced up. An elongated figure had been standing at the top of the steps, haloed by the sun. I had lowered my dazzled eyes and heard light footsteps descend.

“Why were you pulling all those leaves off the bushes?” had been the quiet question.

I had flushed as I’d realised my secret game had been noticed. My eyes had focused on a thin girl, about my age. She was dressed in denim shorts and a boy’s T-shirt and despite the heat, she’d looked cool. I had become conscious of the sweat pimpling beneath my thighs and the tight elastic pull of my smocked dress across my chest. I’d looked back down the pathway, but my mother was not yet in sight.

Dropping the shredded twig, I had looked away from the censure in the calm blue gaze and focused on the bush I’d violated. Finally I had answered in a mumble, “I was . . . playing Gretel.”

I remembered feeling a shift as she had registered what I’d said. She had smiled slightly. “They’re breadcrumbs? I thought it was Hansel who dropped them. Gretel didn’t do anything till she pushed the witch into the oven. You need to be Hansel.”

There was a pause, then she had continued, “I could be Gretel, if you like.”

It had been at least ten minutes before my mother puffed up to find us deep in acting out the babes in the wood beside the bottom of the steps, and by then the friendship had been set.

From that day, Caitlin had become my daily routine. I would push back from the luncheon table, wiping my milk moustache, and pack my backpack with a selection of props. With it bumping awkwardly from the handlebars, I’d ride my Chopper ten minutes to the ravine.

I never told my mother where I was going. She hadn’t noticed that I’d changed the route I took on leaving the house; she still thought I went daily to our local, manicured park, where I’d spent the previous summer watching the cricketers and the other children’s games. Although she’d been polite when they met, I knew she wouldn’t really approve of Caitlin: I’d never met anyone from that side of town.

We would hardly see a soul on those summer afternoons. The ravine was too out of the way of the town centre to attract any shade-seekers other than the occasional garage mechanic on a cigarette break. Even then, its coolness was only an advantage in the mornings; by afternoons, its depth turned the air stifling and the swampy creek at the bottom gave off unpleasant smells.

The ravine was an anomaly. The deep and narrow fissure created a rough divide between the sprawling, tree-lined avenues where I lived and the industrial and council estates past the town centre. I’d seen photos of splendid gorges in other parts of England and understood that our ravine was related to these, but it lacked their grandeur. It was as if it had never quite grown up.

Too big to ignore and too small to exploit, the ravine was an inconvenience the city could do without. The council had grudgingly laid a brick pathway through it, and wide steps that climbed to approach my neighbourhood. Then after that, it had been left largely alone.

At night, the ravine was more popular. It was known as a haunt for teenage parties and Caitlin and I sometimes came across thrilling and inexplicable relics as we explored: circles of charred wood, crumpled beer cans and peculiar objects like dull, squashed balloons.

This had been our kingdom all summer.

It was the hottest summer on record. We explored the secret places of the ravine, built forts and made each other imaginary meals of leaves and bark. The best part was finding virgin corners that we claimed as our own. My favourite was the gorse bush; from the outside it looked an impenetrable mass but we’d found our wriggly way in to a hollow centre where we would curl, invisible, to plan our next adventure.

This was our last afternoon before school would begin again. We hadn’t talked about it but I knew that I wouldn’t see Caitlin again until the holidays, if then. The bus to my new private school left early and returned late, and my mother would be ferrying me to a crammed schedule of activities and classes each weekend.

The two of us were sitting cross-legged on the pathway, playing jacks, when we heard a voice. We hadn’t heard him approach, and having anyone there was alarming: we’d come to think of the ravine as our private space, so rarely did anyone venture through. He was the age of a dad, but he wasn’t in a suit. His thin black T-shirt, grey trousers and sandals seemed an odd combination in the stifling heat. He spoke in a reedy voice.

“Girls, can you help me? My puppy’s run off. Do you think you could help me find him? He can’t have gone far.”

I had jumped to my feet, full of eager Brownie promises, and began peering hopefully into the bushes straight away. Caitlin slowly swept up the jacks and ball and rose, shoving them into her pocket.

“I didn’t hear a dog,” she said.

“No, he’s really quiet. I’m worried he might have gone to the creek and hurt himself. If we all split up I’m sure we can find him,” continued the man. “Of course, if you don’t want to help . . . ” he trailed off, turning away.

“Of course we want to help!” I said firmly. “Caitlin, you take the left side of the pathway and I’ll take the right. We’ll find him, don’t worry!”

Without waiting for an answer I plunged off the pathway and into the bushes, busily planning a systematic zigzag along the whole side of the ravine until I would get down to the entrance again.

I pushed my way through the bushes. It was very quiet. I stopped from time to time and called, “Puppy! Here, puppy!” I hadn’t thought to ask its name. But no noise came back to me, not even an answering call from the others.

Suddenly my foot caught on a trailing vine and I fell sharply, flat on my front, one hand plunging into a muddy clump of grass. I had reached the creek. Winded, I lay for a moment then began to push myself up. As I lifted my head, I saw the man’s sandals close by. He’d approached without noise again. He extended a hand to help me to my feet.

Once upright, I moved to pull my hand from his but his grip tightened. He raised his other hand to grasp my upper arm so we stood like awkward dancers in a stiff half-embrace.

Confused, I stammered, “I haven’t seen the puppy yet.”

His face was twisted into a strange smile and he pulled me closer. “Are you really looking?” he asked softly. “Are you really looking hard?”

On his last word, his firm grip pulled me closer into him until my body was pressed against his. I pulled my head back to try to see his face and in his eyes there was something I didn’t understand. His head bent closer down towards mine and I twisted desperately, trying to pull away.

In that moment Caitlin exploded from the undergrowth like a startled pheasant, a harsh scream erupting from her throat, her hands clawed and aimed towards his eyes. Her whole body weight thrust against us and knocked us off-balance, loosening his grip.

“Run!” screamed Caitlin.

I wrested myself free and stumbled away blindly, panicking. I couldn’t see where I was running and the undergrowth that had been so familiar all summer suddenly seemed strange, and frightening; like Snow White lost in her forest, each tree seemed to leer at me and each trailing vine to ensnare.

As I fought my way through, my panting breath drowning any other sound, my blurred eyes focused on a familiar shape. Trembling, my hands found the weakened place in the gorse bush and I thrust myself inside, heedless of the scratches. I curled up to a ball, trying not to make any move that would expose me.

If I keep my eyes shut, he won’t see me.