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The Painting – 48 hours to turn back time

The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

The Painting – an overview

This is the text that appeared alongside our posts while The Painting was being published. It was deliberately written like a press release!

When it comes to collaborative writing the Amersham-based group Just Write loves a challenge.

With two publications under their collective belts, the first Spilling the Beans winning the Writing Magazine’s Writers’ Circle Anthology Award in 2014 and the second Delayed Reaction declared a runner-up in the same competition for 2015, the group’s thoughts turned to what next?

Themes came to their creative minds thick and fast; one idea was to base the collaborative stories around a particular object, another idea was to write a series of stories going backwards in time; then came the idea to combine both of these themes and so The Painting was conceived.

Each writer was shown an image of the painting, then the first author set the scene with her contribution of approximately 500 words. The next author then had just 48 hours to write their contribution with the proviso that the story took the plot and action back in time; then on to the next writer and so on … a sort of ‘consequences in reverse’. There was no agreement in advance about characters or settings, just the blank canvas and the prompt of reading the earlier stories.
The stories have been given minimum editing – this is fast fiction in its raw state.

The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

Epilogue – Bridget: New York, 1999

Three o’clock in the morning must be the loneliest time to be awake. I so want to sleep but I can’t. Sleep is for the young and the innocent. The ache in my body reminds me I’m no longer young, and as for innocent…

Maybe I should tell myself a story. Like my mother used to say to me when I was a child. ‘Close your eyes, Bridget,’ she’d soothe. ‘Lie quietly and tell yourself a little story.’

A little story? Maybe a little story about my life – where would I begin?

Stephen, my life began when I met Stephen O’Hanlon. The very name conjured up contempt in our village.

‘Keep away from the O’Hanlon boys,’ my mother would warn me. ‘They’re nothing but trouble.’

She was right. Stephen did trouble me, with his golden brown hair, the colour of the toffee my Ma used to make, and his eyes the green of moss. He was different from the rest of the O’Hanlon brood; gentle and sensitive, aware of the world around him. I took pity on him living with his ruffian siblings, his brute of a father and his pathetic unresisting mother – and pity turned into love.

I begged my Da to let me marry him. He said no many times, and then after Ma passed, the fight went out of him. Deflated, he gave in to my pleas. He even gave us the cottage next to his to live in when we were married. Maybe he thought we’d be a comfort to him.

At first it was wonderful – oh so wonderful. Stephen, away from the rough-house the O’Hanlons called a home, relaxed. He delighted in his painting and we’d spend hours by the river, Stephen tracing the outline of the cottages and trying out all the colours on the palette. Nobody had taught him, he just knew what to do, said the colours ‘spoke to him’. He had a great talent, bringing the scene so vividly to life.  The cottages were his favourite subject. ‘So calm here,’ he’d say. ‘I want to capture the peace.’ Sometimes he’d try to sketch me but he got annoyed that I wouldn’t stay still for long enough. ‘It’s easier to paint the cottages,’ he’d say. ‘They don’t wriggle as much as you do.’ We hung his paintings around our small home; our favourite was the one of the two cottages with the bluest sky and fields the green of his eyes. He had that one especially framed for me. Delicious days…but they didn’t last.

The babies soon came along, first Aileen, then the boys. Life wasn’t so carefree any more; crying babies and relaxed landscapes don’t go hand in hand. Tempers shortened, laughter ceased, and then the loving stopped. No time now to waste at the river’s edge.

‘Get some help, love,’ Da said. ‘You can’t go on like this. These babies are too much of a handful for you.’

Mary Scanlon answered the ad. An angel sent to rescue me and my marriage. A youthful angel, with an air of competence unusual in a girl so young. She sorted us out alright.

They didn’t think I’d noticed but I could see them from the window upstairs. Mary didn’t wriggle when she was being sketched, perhaps that was the attraction.

I knew even before she left us that she was carrying Stephen’s child. I knew as a wife knows.  Stephen only spoke of it once. His tearful confession assured me that he wouldn’t see her again. She was going away and the baby would disappear.  Stephen thought it could be that simple. I wondered if he ever knew that the shame of it killed his pitiful mother.

We tried again, Lord knows, we did. Little Timothy was two and I had another on the way when I heard Mary was back in the village. Visiting her sick father, apparently. Mary had returned bringing baggage with her which surely didn’t help her father in his illness. Grand little dot with toffee-coloured hair, ‘James’ his name was. A village is a small place with whispers as loud as thunder. And the village made sure I heard and knew that Stephen had seen her again – and seen the child.

Run, all I wanted to do was run as far away as possible. And yet I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay in the home I knew, stay with my father … stay with Stephen.

‘Aunt Sarah will take you and the children,’ Da said. ‘Go – get away from it all. Go to New York. I’ll give you the money.’ Da took control. He booked our tickets and organised my life while Stephen stayed away, out of reach of my father’s fury and my misery.

Dazed, I started packing things for me and the children; confused tearful children who didn’t know what was happening. What would I need for a new life in America? I had no idea. All I knew was that I would miss my home with every beat of my heart. Wandering around the house I stumbled into the little room off the kitchen, not really a room more like a large cupboard. Stephen used it as his studio but that was too grand a word for it. Brushes and paints were stacked against half-finished watercolours on rickety shelves. I picked up a pile of paintings, strewn on the floor and leafed through them. Scenes of the village, our cottages and the river … and then one of her, her arms above her head, a curious knowing smile on her face, the top buttons of her blouse enticingly undone.  I screwed the painting up, then took pleasure in tearing it into little pieces, watching the knowing look become disfigured and ugly. I snatched up the paintings of the village and the cottages. These little pieces of home would come with me – and I would take ‘our’ painting too.

I went into the little sitting room and took the painting off the wall, ‘our painting’, the one of our cottages and the peaceful blue sky. Wiping the tears from my face I gazed at the picture – it had been changed. The once blue skies were now grey, painted over randomly and hurriedly by a troubled brush; the air of the painting, once hopeful and bright, was now sombre and depressed.  There was a face at a window I hadn’t seen before. So Stephen knew I’d been watching them. Was this to be Stephen’s parting message to me? I jammed all the paintings in a box and put it next to the cases to be sent to America, unsure whether I would ever bear to look at ‘our’ painting again but determined that Stephen would not have it.

On the day we were due to leave I wanted one last walk around my village, a chance to say goodbye. I left the children with my father telling him I needed a little time on my own. Just as I reached the shop I saw a woman with a pram coming up the hill. She parked the pram on the small cobbled pavement and went inside the shop. I knew who she was.

I’d like to say that reason left me, that my brain ceased to function, all those excuses but they would just be lies. I didn’t know how it would work out but I knew what I was doing. The child didn’t cry out as I took him from the pram; didn’t cry as I hurried home with him and put him into Timothy’s cot while Da was outside with the children. Didn’t cry when I bundled him into Timothy’s pushchair, the blankets obscuring him from view.  Didn’t cry as I hurriedly said tearful farewells to my father and hustled the children into the waiting taxi. ‘Sssh,’ I said to Aileen. ‘It’s a secret.  Mummy’s bought him at the shop – a little playmate for Timothy.’ A little bit of Ireland that your Dad won’t miss. It was easy to smuggle him onto the ship. Everyone wants to help a flustered mother with a young family. Twins, everyone thought he was Timothy’s twin. When we got to New York Aunt Sarah looked after all of us, and Collum too when he was born six months later.

And for years it worked. Life in America was good, after a while. I struggled but with Aunt Sarah’s help I managed.

And then Mary disrupted my life once more. Sixteen years, she told me, sixteen years she’d scrimped and saved to come and find her child. Stephen hadn’t wanted her to know where I was but when Mary told him she had the money and was going whether he liked it or not he gave up the fight.

I let James go. He wanted to be with her anyway when he knew who she was. Said he would never forgive me.  I didn’t tell the others the truth.  A loner as a child and a rebel as a teenager they just thought James had left home. He’d never been one for settling down to anything, always a restless spirit.

Strange thing was, a woman turned up at my house a few years later. Said her name was Laura and she was looking for James O’Hanlon. She had a little child with her. Well, I couldn’t help her.  I said the last I knew of James he’d gone off with his mother but Laura seemed surprised that I wasn’t his mother. She said James had abandoned her. ‘Like father like son,’ I told her. ‘Bad lot, the O’Hanlons.’

The child was a cute little thing. Naomi I think her name was … no wait, Niamh, that’s it. I remember thinking that James had not forgotten his Irish roots, giving a babe a name like that. ‘My child will grow up never knowing anything about her father or his family,’ said Laura. ‘Where I come from family is important.’ I took pity on her. ‘Wait a bit,’ I said. I went to the cupboard in my bedroom and from the very back of it pulled out Stephen’s paintings, the unfinished ones and ‘our’ painting in its ornate frame. They’d been in hiding there for years.

‘This is the village in Ireland where we all came from. James lived there for a bit when he was small.’ I showed her the scenes of the village and the cottages. ‘James’ father painted these,’ I told her.

‘Look, Niamh,’ Laura said. ‘This is where your Daddy came from.’ She pulled the little girl onto her lap and let the child’s chubby fingers grasp at the frame of ‘our’ painting. ‘You can keep this if you want,’ I said, handing Laura one of the unfinished paintings … but after she’d gone I saw she’d left it lying on the chair. Looking at the pictures again and talking about James had brought back painful memories for me. I quickly gathered up the paintings, taped them up in a box and stored them away in the attic. I thought that maybe one day I’d summon up courage to look at them again.  As for ‘our’ painting, that was too much to bear. I took it to a junk shop the next day.

Never heard from Laura or James again. And never knew what happened to Mary either.

Well, that’s my little story – not quite what my mother had in mind for me when I was a child. I’m just glad my Ma never knew it.

Perhaps I’ll sleep now.

The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

Episode 11 – Sean: Lisnagroob, 1935

The church sat atop a sea of freshly fallen snow, looming out of the dusk as Sean approached. The previous night’s storm had blanketed the graveyard and had covered the winding path up to the front door. Sean’s footprints followed him in a straight line; the most direct route to God was across the dead.

He stamped his feet clean of powder once he was inside and paused to compose himself. It was as cold in the church as outside but at least he was out of the wind. Flickering candles picked out the altar, rows of silent pews, a font, but gave up little heat. He hadn’t expected to feel the warmth of the Lord’s love but its absence disappointed him nonetheless. Stepping into the confessional he awkwardly made the sign of the cross as he sat down.

‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. My last confession was…’ He faltered. He couldn’t recall how long it had been since he’d confessed. It was a habit he’d slipped out of after he’d married Aoife and especially after Mary had been born. She’d been a difficult one, arriving early and struggling through her first few months, beset by illness. They’d almost lost her a couple of years ago in the winter of ’33. She was gripped with fever and he, Aoife, Dr O’Halloran and Margaret, his new health visitor, had sat with her in shifts, wrapping her in cool towels. Father Flynn had come down from the church and sat with them, leading the prayers. Twice she’d stopped breathing. Both times Margaret had revived her, forcing breath back into her lungs even as Flynn began his final administering.

‘It’s alright Sean. Take your time. You’ve been through a lot.’ The priest spoke in a reassuring but firm, low tone.

‘My last confession was three years ago, Father. Before the wedding. Before the wedding and now, here we are, after the funeral. Perhaps if I’d come more often? Been more diligent?’

‘God forgives. He sees the repentant man and he forgives. He didn’t take Aoife from us because your faith was found wanting Sean.’ Flynn sighed. He had never had cause to question his own resolute belief and he sometimes wondered if some understanding of doubt would better equip him to bring the waverers in his congregation back into the fold.

‘I know Father. That’s why I must confess.’ There was a long pause as both men sat in silence. One searching for the right words, the other giving him the time to find them. Sean lowered his voice to barely a whisper. ‘I knew she was messing around. I saw the way he looked at her. Joseph Ryan. Up from Cork originally he was. Always boasting about how he’d be leaving for America one day. It was hard for her, you know? I was at the school all day and she never really took to motherhood. When we nearly lost Mary something changed in her, it was like she was scared of getting too close to her again. When I found out about the baby… Found out it was his…’ Sean broke off, shaking his head. A sudden draught made the candles in the church leap and lean, some of them blew out and the confessional pitched further into darkness.

‘What did you do child?’ asked Flynn.

‘I took her to that place in Ennis,’ he answered softly. ‘The parlour of Parnell Street, that’s what they call it. No questions asked. Pay your money and your wife’s mistake goes away and you never speak of it again. Except something went wrong. Was that your God, Father ? Was that his punishment for her for adultery? Or for both of us for killing the baby? Is that why he took her as well?’

They both sat silently for a long time before Flynn offered up a prayer and talked of penance. He remained in his seat long after Sean had left. Against all that he’d been taught, against all that he knew, this was the worst sin he’d borne witness to. It was an affront to God. And yet, sitting there in the dark, he felt the first pinch of something new. Doubt.

The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

Episode 10 – Mary: Lisnagroob, 1946

Mary Scanlon scrubbed the soft dry earth off the last of the potatoes, only satisfied when they looked like clean little sun freckled faces, then she dropped them with a satisfying plop into the large pot gently simmering on the stove top.

They would take at least an hour without having a fierce boil, then she would drain them and leave them to steam in their heat, so their new skin cracked open to reveal the snowy soft potato inside. With a good quarter pound of fresh butter to soak into them and the left-over ham, it would be a simple supper and all the more satisfying for it.

Her father was not due home until six at the earliest. He had a meeting with Local Education Board in Ennis. He was determined they should allow his small village school to expand so the local families would not have to send their older children all the way into Ennis for their senior school education. The local farming families backed his plans, and more importantly, so did Father Flynn. So Sean Scanlon was half way there with his campaign. It wasn’t just his ambition to be the Head Master of a bigger school, or the standing that would bring him in the village; his campaign was also a welcome distraction from his loneliness as a widower of twelve years.

Mary didn’t remember her mother; she was so young when she died. And she did love her father, after all there was only the two of them, but she was sick of the hearing the debate about schooling that she herself had finished with, and she was bored at the thought of the long summer holidays lying ahead of her with little to interest her in the sleepy village.  It was the only reason why she had agreed to help out Bridget O’Hanlon who was ‘struggling’ and sure the babies would be fun to play with for a while.

At least she would get paid and could act the lady in Ennis on a Saturday with all the scarves and make up she could buy from Skillen’s. Bridget was an odd one, so quiet and remote; she hardly spoke. It was Bridget’s husband Stephen who did all the talking. He seemed to sense her nervousness. He was so friendly and welcoming.

For the first time she felt as if she was being talked to like she was a grown up and not a school girl. He had even smiled and shaken her hand when they first met; his grip was warm, dry and soft. Not the hand of a farmer at all.

Mary went to her room and flopped heavily onto her bed, pulling out the dog-eared copy of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier from under her pillow.  She longed for the life of beautiful clothes, jewels, glamorous parties and afternoon tea trays creaking under the weight of fairy cakes and chocolate éclairs.  But most of all she longed for the older, richer more knowing Maxim de Winter.  The village boys with their gawky smiles and uncouth ways were but children in her eyes compared to handsome, worldly Maxim.

She let the book drop to her chest and stared out the window, sighing wistfully.

The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

Episode 9 – Mary and Stephen: Lisnagroob, 1947

He had tried to get a job, of course he had, but jobs in Ireland were scarce especially when you were unskilled. He had never worked the land like his brothers. He had never liked hard labour, never seen the point of it actually. No, he was more artistic; he needed to express himself. His father had called him a big sissy, but he didn’t care. All he needed – all he wanted – was his paper and paints and he was happy.

Of course he knew what everybody in the village thought of him and his family. They were called the awful O’Hanlon boys, and he was embarrassed by that, but when he had married Bridget things had changed. He had gained respect along with a wife and, for a while, he had been content. He had been painting more than ever and had even managed to sell a few of the paintings. That gave him some kudos in the village and with Bridget’s family – at last.

What he couldn’t bear though was how Bridget had changed. Once the first baby came along she seemed to have become another person and somehow he couldn’t reach her. She seemed bowed down with the responsibility of caring for the child, and of course by the time the second child came things had become just too much for her. ‘Thank goodness for Mary,’ he thought, not for the first time. Mary was in between deciding what to do with her young life once she had finished school, so was more than happy to earn a little money while she made up her mind.

It was the hottest of summers. Stephen lay in the long grass, staring at the cottages, staring at the home he and Bridget had lived in for what seemed eternity now. Her family had owned the cottages since the 1800’s, and they had been handed down from generation to generation. Bridget’s father Michael had reluctantly agreed that she and Stephen could live in the smaller one once they had got married. Of course Stephen had had to be grateful for this and, of course, Michael never let him forget how grateful he should be.

That afternoon Stephen had picked up his paints and brushes and was busily sketching the scene, the two cottages to the forefront, with another, distant, in the background. As he painted, lost in the moment, he saw her coming through the long grass. It was as if he was seeing her for the first time.

Mary fascinated him. It wasn’t just her ability to manage the home so well, where Bridget failed, but something almost ethereal, untouchable about her, a dreamlike quality.

Her hair was falling around her face and she swept one side behind her ear, unaware that she was being watched. But Stephen noticed everything. The way she was coming towards him, her cheeks flushed, the heat of the day making her glow slightly, as she came nearer to him carrying the bread and eggs that she had fetched from the nearby farm. She was humming slightly to herself. Stephen laid down his paints and brushes and stood up. Mary jumped. She had been so far away in her own thoughts.

‘Oh my goodness! You scared me,’ she said. ‘Didn’t see you there.’

Stephen smiled. ‘Sorry, didn’t mean to frighten you,’ he said…

The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

Episode 8 – Sean and Mary: Lisnagroob, 1948

When Mary went to work for Bridget and Stephen, Sean was relieved. When she was a child, they had been each other’s world. As she had grown up, he had hoped she might do well enough in her exams to train as a teacher and join him as one of his staff, even, one day, to take over from him.  But she had disappointed him. Her marks dropped. She grew bored and disaffected. She took up reading magazines and tawdry novels. She hauled Aoife’s old dressing table from the spare room into her bedroom and spent hours brushing her hair with her mother’s old chrome-backed brush.  She asked for pocket money, which he could not afford, so it seemed a good idea when she replied to the advert placed by Bridget for a live-in mother’s help.

She enjoyed the work there. She told him of the children’s antics, and Bridget’s moods, of the books they had, and Stephen’s paintings.  Bridget said good things of her, and soon the arrangement was made permanent.  She was allowed to live in a smaller cottage, hardly more than a shed, and paid quarterly.  The children were well turned out when they came to school and to church, and it was clear Mary loved them.  She seemed contented to live her own life with the family, and had no interest in walking out with any of the local boys.

One day she brought one of Stephen’s paintings home. It was a picture of her, in a chair, in a patch of sunshine, with an impish smile. It was a good likeness, not just of how she looked but the life of her.  He did not know why but it made him uneasy, as if there was a connection which he had lost. He told her to take it back. Then there was a change. Now when they spoke, she said little about the children, and never mentioned Bridget. It was all Stephen this and Stephen that. One evening he had snapped.

‘You’ve got a crush on him, haven’t you?’

‘No I have not!’ she retorted, colouring. ‘He’s an artist. He speaks to me of higher things. You wouldn’t understand.’

‘Well, just you be careful, Mary. He’s an O’Hanlon, whatever airs and graces he may give himself…’

She had stomped upstairs and not come down again. At breakfast next morning, she refused to sit with him and had left early. He feared she had fallen in love. Within the week, she was back home, angry and tearful, saying only that she had rowed with Bridget and been dismissed. He guessed at the cause of the argument, and was secretly glad. And then he found another of Stephen’s pictures, in her room, and was scandalised. He told her it had to stop. The next day he heard her being sick upstairs. In the morning. She began to put on weight. The signs were unmistakeable.

Sean was aghast. His world began to cave in. Everything he had built up – the school, his position in the community, the esteem of the people that mattered – was about to be smashed. It would destroy both of them. But there could be no abortion. That was out of the question. He went to see Father Flynn and put it all before him.

‘Don’t worry Sean,’ the priest had chided. ‘Nobody need ever know if we act quickly. Mary will have to go to a convent in the North where they take in unmarried mothers. She will have to stay there until the baby is old enough to be adopted, and find a job up there – there’s plenty of work in Belfast – and maybe come back when she has found a husband. I know the Mother Superior there. I’ll phone her this evening. But we need to move fast…’

The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

Episode 7 – Maggie: Lisnagroob, 1949

They have to move fast is what Maggie was hearing all over the neighbourhood. She guessed, of course she guessed. No one was going to spare her this juicy gossip bit of gossip, not her, the stuck up Maggie Donnelly, who had married so far beneath her because she had to. Well, like mother like son, she knew they were whispering. It was late in the evening and Maggie sat staring into the flames of her kitchen range fire. The only sound was the ticking of the grandfather clock, the one good piece of furniture they still had which had not been sold or broken. She had brought this to the marriage, and feared for it most of the time. But what’s the point now? she thought. It won’t be wanted by Bridget.

Maggie had lost count of time. She nursed the last set of slowly darkening bruises given to her just before Billy left for the pub.  ‘This is your fault,’ her husband had said as he slammed the door. The pain of the bruises was almost a relief compared to the pain of disappointment she felt in her son.

Stephen was supposed to make up for everything. He was the one most like her. He had her love of nature, colour and learning. Of all her sons he was the only one she loved. The others were just smaller, meaner copies of their father.

Maggie painfully climbed the stairs to their bedroom. She had a ritual for dealing with the pain of her everyday life. After her husband had gone to the pub she would come and stand by this window, looking out on to the fields and stream and taking some comfort in the beauty of them. Then she would open the bottom drawer of her old dresser, lift up the linen and take out the childish pictures Stephen had drawn for her. She would dream that she was in one of Stephen’s paintings, maybe sitting under that tree or afloat on that stream, standing under that rainbow. Right from the first time he had bought home a picture from school she knew he was born to be an artist. The colours were amazing, the perspective was right, the lines were beautiful. They had the power to stir emotions and take her to another world. He is a true artist, Stephen’s teacher had told her one day. That was the proudest day of her life. Of course Billy ruined it, saying, ‘Don’t turn him into some pansy.’

‘Are you a pansy lad? Well, pansies need dirt and water,’ Billy had said as he pushed Stephen into the muddiest puddle he could find.

After that Maggie would hide Stephen’s pictures, and Stephen had learned to play down his intelligence until he was able to leave home.

‘I’ll come back for you Mum. You can come and live with me and Bridget.’

That was his promise, and now it would never happen.

Maggie carried her favourite picture of Stephen’s downstairs and out of the cottage. It was one of the many versions of the stream by the cottage.  It was unusual because it was set on a sunny day, and the water was peaceful and calm.  The allure of the water was so strong, and as she felt the cold water on her feet and the tug of the strong current start to pull her skirts she knew she would be in this picture forever and the water would not disappoint.

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.

The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

Episode 5 – Aileen: New York, 22 October 2001, 9:45 am

‘You’re about as useful as an inflatable dartboard.’  Aileen watched as her younger brother tripped over the pile of books she had just gathered together, scattering them in all directions. Even in his fifties he gave the impression of a gangly teenager.

‘I told you I wouldn’t be much good at this. I don’t know why you asked me to be here.’

‘Because you’ve got the car and can take all this stuff away when I’ve sorted it. Go and make us some coffee.’

‘Great idea.’ Aileen watched as her brother’s lanky form disappeared down the attic ladder. She wondered just how helpful Collum would be in sorting out their mother’s possessions.  Throughout his life he’d managed to do stupid things but hopefully she could trust him with a drive to the Junk shop.

She sighed as she surveyed the scene around her, a lump forming in her throat. ‘Can’t cry now,’ she said to herself. ‘Gotta get this job done. It’s a daughter’s job and I’m the only one that can do it.’ Her other brothers all lived miles away and Collum was never going to be any use in deciding which of their mother’s things to keep.  Left to him he would have dumped the lot; perhaps that’s just what she should do.  She hated the thought of her mother’s treasured possessions languishing in a junk shop, but what was the choice?  There wasn’t going to be room for extra stuff at the new condo in Florida.

She picked up one of the scattered books and moved it closer to the light, her fingers caressing the frayed edges of the spine. The cover shifted to reveal the first page. ‘Presented to Bridget Sheehan for helpfulness and neatness. St. Luke’s Primary School 1934.’

Aileen smiled trying to imagine her scatty mother as a neat and helpful eight-year old. She put the book down. Reading all the books wasn’t going to get this job done; it was just wasting time. Determinedly she worked through the items, carefully sorting them into two boxes; one marked ‘Keep’, the other ‘Junk shop’.   She looked around the attic hoping that she’d finished when she saw a large brown tightly taped box nestling snugly under the eaves.

‘Collum!’ Aileen shouted down to her brother ‘Make your muscles useful and help me with these boxes.’

‘Can’t make coffee and shift boxes.’ Collum always had a ready answer not to do something.

‘You’ve been ages with the coffee – leave it and help me with these boxes.’

Between them Aileen and Collum managed to get the items down the attic stairs. Eager to open the sealed box Aileen tugged at the tape.  It was reluctant to yield but eventually Aileen prised open the box. Carefully she pulled out a sheaf of papers, half-finished paintings with scenes of rivers, fields and cottages.  She turned to Collum in amazement.

‘This is the house where I was born,’ she said, pointing out one of the cottages to Collum. ‘Granda Sheehan’s house.  You won’t remember – you’re too young.’

‘No, I don’t remember. What’s this?’ Collum was holding a small package bound with an elastic band.

‘Where did that come from?’ asked Aileen, taking the package from him.

‘Must have fallen out of the box when you took the paintings out,’ said Collum.

Aileen turned the package over and as she did so the elastic band disintegrated in her hands. Fragile envelopes fell on the floor.

The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

Episode 4 – Bridget and Michael: New York, 22 October 2001, 11:45am

Aileen stopped looking at the unfinished paintings and knelt alongside the envelopes. She picked up an airmail one, shakily addressed in soft pencil to MICHAEL SHEEHAN, BALLINLOUGH HOUSE, LISNAGROOB, IRELAND, and unfolded the single sheet of ruled paper inside it. The handwriting was on alternate lines, the letters carefully formed.

Dear Michael, Aileen starting reading. We’ll look after Bridget, don’t worry. It’ll take her a while to settle in after all the trouble. Tell her to bring plenty of warm clothes for little Aileen and the boys. We’ll find some things for the baby before it arrives…

Collum glanced up from the box he was rummaging through. ‘Who’s the letter from?’

Aileen turned the sheet over. ‘It’s from Great Aunt Sarah. It must be to Granda Sheenan – he was Michael. It’s dated 1951. That’s when we sailed, and the baby Mother was carrying was you!’

‘So what trouble does she mean?’ asked Collum, sitting beside his sister. ‘Carry on reading.’

‘There’s nothing more about it here. There might be another letter from Sarah.’ Aileen and Collum started to tidy the envelopes. ‘It’ll be airmail, 1951 or earlier. Here! 1950, same pencil handwriting.’ She unfolded the two-sheet letter and started to read. Dear Michael, I’m awful sorry to hear about Bridget and Stephen. I always said those O’Hanlons were a bad lot. It’s a terrible thing when a man lets his wife down that way. And that Mary, supposed to be the mother’s help and all. It’s disgusting. What will Bridget do with the little ones? She can’t stay in her half of your house, even though she’d be near you. She could come here to live with us, get a new start away from the gossip. Talk to her about it but whatever she does that dirty woman must move out of the back cottage…

Collum interrupted. ‘Wow! Who was that ‘dirty woman’? Is that the back cottage?’ He pointed at one of the paintings which showed a third, distant building.

‘I know Mother had help with us children from a woman called Mary. She lived in for a few years. Could it be her?’ Aileen looked troubled. ‘And what was Father up to with her?’ Collum’s mischievous grin suggested that he had an idea. ‘I don’t even want to think about it now,’ she said, carefully re-folding the paper and replacing the letter on the tidy but somehow ominous pile of envelopes. ‘It’s funny to think of Father, Mother and us children in that house with Granda reading these letters.’

‘Wasn’t the sky always grey when you were a kid?’ Even though Collum knew exactly what Aileen would say in reply to his next question, he asked it just to hear her say the words. ‘And did it always rain in Ireland, like they say?’

As he knew she would, Aileen slipped into her mother’s faint trace of a brogue when she replied. ‘Agh, be away with you! And even if it does rain, sure and isn’t that the price you have to pay for an emerald isle?’

Collum smiled: that ‘emerald isle’ thing was a joke of their mother’s, so often repeated that had become a family saying. Like ‘that dirty woman’ might now become…

The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

Episode 3 – Mary: New York, March 2015

Mary Scanlon sighed as she sat back in her chair, pulling her shawl tightly across her shoulders. Autumn was nearly here, she could feel it in her bones.

She hated the New York winters, they were so much colder than the ones back home. The mild, wet weather was the thing she missed most about home. When it rained almost every day you knew where you were, knew what to expect. Here in New York it could change from warm and sunny to cold and windy in the space of a day.

Mary looked around the small living room of the apartment she had lived in since she first came to the USA from Ireland over fifty years ago. Everything looked shabby, a bit like her. She had never had quite enough money to smarten up the place. She had never married and, keen to leave Ireland and see something of the world before it was too late, she had secured herself a job at one of the city’s hospitals. Her salary was reasonable but didn’t run to luxuries like decent furniture or quality clothes.

Much of her furniture and possessions had been bought at charity shops or junk emporiums. Even the painting. Mary stared at it from her chair. Looking at it always made her pulse race, which worried her slightly, as her doctor had recently told her that her heart was failing.

She had had the surprise of her life when she had spotted the painting in a junk shop. She kept asking the shopkeeper where it had come from, who had brought it in. He couldn’t remember, or couldn’t be bothered to. It was just a dusty old picture by some amateur, as far as he was concerned. He wasn’t paid to give his customers a running commentary on the provenance of each item in the shop.

The thing was Mary recognised the scene in the painting. Two cottages in the foreground built very close together, as if they were best friends. A third cottage in the background, slightly aloof. It was definitely the same place.

Mary knew the large cottage in the foreground well – she had worked there as a Mother’s Help in her teens. Her employer, Bridget had been quite incapable of running a house and bringing up a brood of children. Mary had loved working there.

But she was a lonely old lady now with few friends – even these were not real friends like she had back home. Looking at the picture she felt waves of nostalgia wash over her until she could hardly breathe. Had he painted it? she thought, and how on earth did it end up in New York?

Staring at the painting, Mary felt a heavy pain in her chest. She pulled her shawl more tightly across her as the world went dark and she let out one last sigh.

The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

Episode 2 – Niamh: New York, May 2015

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.

The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

Episode 1 – Niamh: New York, June 2015

‘Oh, yes! Delicious,’ said the art dealer.

That diamond chipped accent, thought Niamh, would skewer even a Duke. She assumed it was put on to impress the New York art market.

‘The exquisiteness of the subdued palette, absolutely delicious.’

Naimh watched as the art dealer, Algernon Horace Montague-Smythe, (surely another sop to the New York art market – no-one would call their child that) put an eye-glass in to his right eye and bent over the painting to carefully examine the fine detail. He muttered to himself about brush strokes and subtle tints.

Niamh’s friend, Patrick, had found this Englishman. An interior designer, Patrick thought he knew something about art. ‘It doesn’t fit here,’ said Patrick, when Niamh had proudly shown him her purchase from the junk shop. ‘I think the frame is worth more than the painting.  Sell it and buy something contemporary. There are plenty of good young artists trying to make their name. Buy them now and it will be a good investment.’

‘I can’t sell it.’ Niamh was surprised how the thought of selling appalled her. ‘I know I’ve seen it before but I don’t know where. I feel it’s trying to say something to me.’

‘It’s saying sell me and buy something modern. I’ll find someone to look at it for you.’

Niamh realised Patrick didn’t understand her feelings so she didn’t talk about the painting anymore. She did agree to take it to the dealer Patrick found, mainly to see if she could find out more about the painting and the artist.

‘It’s a good example of Stephen O’Hanlon’s work,’ said Montague-Smythe taking the eye-glass out and straightening up. He was an Irish artist working in the 1940s and 50s.’

‘O’Hanlon’s work was fixed in the style of 1900,’ continued Montague-Smythe. ‘Abstractionism, existentialism and all the other -isms walked straight past his easel.’

Niamh wasn’t concentrating. Bad lot the O’Hanlons was swirling around in her head. Where had those words come from?

Montague-Smythe was consulting various sale catalogues and the internet. ‘Seems he came from a place called Lisnagroob in Ireland. He exhibited once in London.’

‘London?’

‘Yes and Dublin in the late 1950s. His style wasn’t popular then but it is coming back into fashion. Prices for his work, especially the cottages, his signature painting, are rising. He did many versions of them.’

‘Is he still alive?’

‘I don’t know. There’s nothing about his death that I can see. He could be but he’d be very old.’

Niamh thanked the dealer and hurried home. Once there she took out her laptop and Googled ‘flights to Ireland’ and ‘Lisnagroob’, wondering what she should pack.

The Painting - 48 hours to turn back time

The Painting – 48 hours to turn back time…

Tension is mounting in Just Write HQ (which is not a glamorous writing shed, sadly…)

The twelve authors’ contributions are currently being lightly edited and sprinkled with suitable ‘illustrations’ before being put in to a hot computer for publishing. The first installment is the most recent, and each subsequent episode takes the story back in time. If that sounds complicated to read, think how hard it was to write! And yes – it’s a rod we made for our own backs but we enjoyed the challenge!

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