The Wedding at Cana: a short story by Jamie O’Connell
As an old painting is restored by stripping away layers, unvarnished truths emerge
The Last Supper by Agostino Carracci that hangs in the Museo del Prado, Madrid. Photograph: Fine Art Images/ Heritage Images/ Getty Images
A cat leans against the gutter outside Dewitt and Windsor. There are no lumps of blood or black streaks of oil across its body. It appears to be sunning itself on the roadside. Charles touches the fur with his shoe. The flesh is soft. The death is recent. Perhaps in an hour a woman will call for it, bottle of milk in hand. Maybe a council worker will arrive and, with the aid of a long utensil, ease it into a black bin bag. Most likely though, the cat will remain where it is, becoming hard and thin as the juices run out.
Leaning in, examining the cat’s features, Charles recalls Adriaen van Utrecht’s Still Life with Hare and Birds on a Ring. He’d gone to Dresden back in his St Martin’s days and there he’d visited the Old Masters’ Gallery. The hare’s eye was the give-away, though the position of its head fascinated him – the beautiful, almost seductive tilt of its neck.
He glances away from the cat and continues walking. Across Payton Square they’ve added an extension to the gallery – a bulging wall of brick and glass on the classic facade. He can’t quite make up his mind if he likes these sorts of additions lumped onto old structures, history layered on history. ‘Honest architecture’ – that’s what they call it. But there’s so little about honesty that is beautiful.
The entrance to the lobby has changed, the inner door now two sheets of glass. Though the classic black and white marble floor has been kept, as has the carved mahogany reception.
‘Cyril.’ Charles smiles as a slim man comes towards him. His hair is thinning. His suit is well cut though his frame refuses to fill it. How long has it been, five... ten years? Everyone he knows has either bloated or withered as the decades vanished.
‘Charles, good to see you.’ They shake hands. Cyril still has that soft handshake. Not clammy exactly, but weak.
‘How are you and Evelyn?’
‘Evelyn is well. Her mother has health issues though at almost ninety what can we expect?’
‘Mrs Bateman is still alive?’
‘We can’t seem to finish her off.’ He laughs a little. ‘Come now. We’ll get you some tea. I want to hear your thoughts on the Carracci.’
Charles follows Cyril through the lobby and up the double staircase. He examines the back of Cyril’s suit; the jacket hangs from his shoulders like fabric from a curtain pole, the wool flapping as though there is no torso underneath it, like a Halloween ghost. Cyril talks about some new acquisitions and his voice echoes along the stark hallway, facts and figures bouncing off the walls, but Charles has no interest in facts and figures.
Inside Cyril’s office a dust-cloth is draped over the ripples of a frame. The room smells of old books; between the paintings of patrons there are rows of leather and gilt tomes. On the desk a bronze plaque reads: Cyril Lytton-Chatfield – Director.
‘This is it?’ Charles asks. ‘It doesn’t hang in main gallery?’
‘Not for years. The blasted varnish is the problem, though that was obvious even back when I was a docent.’
‘I don’t know how you did it. All those dull hours telling people “Don’t touch”, frowning if someone coughed too loudly.’
’But what a view.’ Cyril glances at the sheet. Charles thinks back on those same years, living in cheap studios, meeting the right agents and gallery owners, drinking with them – fucking them when needed. Boredom was not a feature of his youth. Surely, even the finest masterpiece must become commonplace when stared at day in, day out, for half a decade?
‘Tea?’ Cyril asks, walking over to his desk. ‘Perhaps something sweet?’ On the silver tray there are a number of different buns. Charles takes one with pink icing. Many years earlier, Evelyn had laughed at his tastes, saying they’d never evolved beyond those of a child.
Cyril takes a slice of carrot cake and pours two cups.
‘Two spoons.’ Charles watches a flicker in Cyril’s brow. ‘Do you ever hear from the St Martin’s gang?’
‘Hardly ever. I think you and I were the only two who made a real go of things.’
‘What about Peter?’
‘Advertising.’ Cyril makes a face. It is only then that Charles notices the small amount of spit that sits in the corner of Cyril’s mouth. Cyril dabs away the moisture and Charles glances to the side.
‘It’s difficult to survive in the arts.’
‘Survival was hardly a concern for you.’
‘After the war there was very little left.’ Charles finds himself blushing.
‘Relatively speaking.’ Another half-smile.
Cyril nods. The fabric slips off and lands softly on the floor. The frame is simple, three ridges of gold – no leaves, swirls or flowers. Charles takes a step back, surveying the scene of Christ turning water into wine; the vivid light hits Jesus’ cheeks and collarbone. The water that runs from the white porcelain jug slips around his fingers, glistening, turning pink then scarlet, before flowing into an amphora. On the ground beside him more amphorae are scattered, beams of light touching the curves of their handles and lips. The woman who holds the jug is full figured; the drapery of her gown slips seductively off her shoulder, her pale breasts mostly exposed. Kneeling at the other side of the pediment, his disciples throw their hands up in the air in amazement.
Charles squints, looking closely at the hands. It’s always the knuckles and fingers that amaze him most. Their scale is almost too big, as if he wished to show off his skill, reminding Charles of the hands in Supper at Emmaus.
‘Beautiful,’ he says, glancing at Cyril. It always surprised him how a work of art could change how he felt in his own skin, a tingling sensation running through his body. Not exactly erotic, but sensuous.
‘The varnish.’ Cyril moves close to the picture, examining the porcelain jug.
‘They thought they were preserving the paint.’
‘Vandalism.’ He gestures at the millions of little brown cracks that cover the canvas, a patchwork of age, like the burnished surface of crème brulée. ‘Can you imagine how it will look if we removed all this muck.’
‘The chiaroscuro is remarkable.’
‘So you’ll do it?’
‘There isn’t a man alive who knows more about oils. I mean the portrait of Her Majesty is one of the finest commissioned.’
‘Are you sure it should be removed?’
‘My whole life looking at that awful layer of brown,’ Cyril says. ‘Now I can do something about it.’
The cat is gone. In the gutter lies a flattened bottle of cider. Charles thinks of the owners of Dewitt and Windsor trying to maintain the image of their bespoke establishment, in a constant battle against the reality of London outside. He glances at his watch. The gallery will open in five minutes. The image of the woman with the jug comes to his mind and he thinks about uncovering the smoothness of her breasts, millimetre by millimetre, with a cotton bud and spirits. It’ll be a resurrection of sorts, smoothing the discolouration and fine lines from her décolletage, returning her to youth; her breasts will become, once again, the kind that he would’ve masturbated to as a teenager. But would it be the right thing to do? After all, erasing what one didn’t like about history is a dangerous business.
He wonders if Evelyn might come to the gallery and he ponders over her name, as he often has in the past. Even when they’d first met he’d thought it’d never quite suited her. It’d been his final year show in St Martin’s and he’d spied her gazing at his still life of a pheasant lying dead on a silver platter. She held a glass of sparkling water in her gloved hand; he was on his third top-up of wine and he asked her was she enjoying the exhibit.
‘I was a sitter for one of my friends.’ She glanced over at a series of portraits at the far side of the gallery space. ‘Evelyn Bateman.’
‘A pretty name.’
‘I was named after Evelyn De Morgan. You know the artist?’
‘You haven’t the tragedy of a pre-Raphaelite woman.’
‘I don’t suppose I do.’ She turned back to the art. ‘You’ve no prices on your paintings.’
’People can make an offer.’
She smiled briefly at this, before saying,
’I suppose all artists think they’re geniuses.’
’We’d create nothing otherwise.’
Cyril has organised a large space for him to work. The Carracci looks incongruous out of its frame in a largely white room, like a surgery, all the utensils sterile and ready to operate.
’Would you like a radio?’ Cyril asks.
’No, thank you.’ Charles gazes closely at the canvas, looking at the sepia colours from a series of different angles. He can feel Cyril shift from foot to foot. With a slight cough, Cyril says.
’I’ll leave you at it.’ The door closes. Charles sits on the upright stool, adjusting the series of dials and knobs to change its position. Swiveling the magnifying glass over the canvas, he is struck by the look of his own hands, massive under the lens, exactly as Carracci might’ve painted them. Nothing is spared, the lines around the knuckles becoming crevices, the hairs sprouting out of the folds. How dirty and imperfect everything looked so close up: the white spots on his thumbnail (a lack of zinc, his first wife previously claimed) like chalky whips of cloud across the vast expanse of nail; his cuticles, which seem perfectly adequate from a normal perspective, look ragged; and the orange and blue stains on his forefinger from the residue of oil paint, made transparent with white spirit.
He’ll start in the top left-hand corner and work his way across the canvas (so his right palm won’t touch the cleaned sections). It seems likely there’ll be many days working on the shadows at the edge of the painting. Likely, he won’t tackle the breasts till next week at the earliest.
Six-thirty pm. Charles squeezes the back of his neck as the lift doors open into the lobby. He wonders if he should’ve said goodbye to Cyril but, as he stands outside the office doors his knuckles raised, for some reason his hand drops back to his side.
‘Charles.’ Downstairs, a gloved woman waves across the reception.
Evelyn still has that formal post-war look; it appears rock music and the ‘sexual revolution’ has bypassed her. And yet, there is something stylish about auburn hair that waves down the right side of her cheek.
‘Congratulations on your OBE.’ She kisses him. There is a faint hint of Chanel from her clothes. ‘We were all so proud.’
‘Old news, I’m afraid.’
‘That’s never old news. Not that I’m surprised.’
‘You may have frittered away your nights but you were at your easel by dawn.’
‘You’re waiting for Cyril?’
‘His meetings.’ She sighs.
‘A coffee while you wait?’
‘Why not? I’ll leave a note at reception. A Martini perhaps? Or is it too early?’
Evelyn places her fur trimmed coat on an armchair in The White Hart and peels off her tan gloves.
‘How are you finding Cyril’s Carracci? I hope he isn’t being too demanding.’
‘Cyril or Carracci?’ Charles asks.
‘Both,’ she laughs.
‘I’ve been deep in a woman’s bosom these last two days. It’s not all suffering.’
‘I can’t tell you what it means to him.’
‘And how are the children?’
‘Both are at Cambridge. Law and medicine. Mother is very disappointed.’ Charles smiles, thinking of the colourful Mrs Bateman.
‘No artists in the family? That must be a relief.’
‘Better to avoid high-risk occupations.’ Her expression remains that pleasant smile. He’s managed to do that wonderful thing: get her to think, even momentarily, about the past. Those few short weeks after his graduation: a trip to the cinema, two dinner-dances, and a midnight walk up Brighton Pier. After the walk, he’d snuck her back to his studio and drank cheap wine. His lust felt incontrollable and he’d tried to undo her zips, his hands shaking, till she laughed and said in a very professional way, ‘Shall I?’
He’d blushed, though hid the shame by nuzzling into her breasts. A few minutes later he took her to his small half-dressed bed. When he woke up, worse for the wine but ever so much in love, he’d leaned over and asked her the question.
‘It’s just infatuation.’ Evelyn shook her head. The wave of auburn hair looked untouched, though he was sure he’d put his fingers through it. ‘You’re the affair a girl has before the real thing.’
Every time a sentence began to form, he realised there was no response to give. In the end he said,
‘I suppose it depends what you want, a happy life or an interesting one.’
‘You know, Cyril claims to have seen every Carracci.’ Evelyn sips her Martini.
‘I’m not sure what we artists would do without the likes of Cyril.’
‘You compare yourself to Carracci.’
‘We artists are a deluded breed.’ He glances around the smart dark-wood bar-restaurant and thinks how lucky his life is. He thinks back to the latter years of the war when he was too young to fight. Born a decade earlier, there’d be a strong chance both he and Cyril would be dead, buried somewhere along the coast of France. He’d lost an uncle, his mother’s brother, a handsome devil with a mind for mathematics. Instead, he was middle aged, restoring a Carracci in a gallery, and thinking about petty things.
She laughs again, her way of brushing off anything that resembles seriousness. He feels resentful; perhaps he’d only been infatuated because he’d never been able to possess her. In the end, she might’ve ended up like all the other women, like his first and second wives, nothing more than a passing romance followed by a slight sense of regret. Still, there was something unaccountable that she had married Cyril, of all men.
Cyril leans forward over Charles arm. Charles glances sideways, disliking the presence. Once again, there is a slight drop of moisture in the corner of Cyril’s mouth.
‘I thought you were going to wait till the reveal?’
‘The Board insisted.’
Charles puts down his cotton bud and stands up. The two men take a few steps back and survey the two-thirds of the picture that has been uncovered.
‘It’ll be a sensation,’ Cyril says.
Charles smiles. He can feel the happiness radiate from Cyril’s face and recognises it for what it is: the joy of a creator. Cyril, who’d resigned himself in St Martin’s as having only average talents, is experiencing the sensation of artistic purpose. And who was to say that facilitating the restoration of great art was not every bit as important as the art’s creation?
‘You’ve not finished Christ’s eye?’ Cyril points towards the dull looking iris.
‘Not till last. I wouldn’t want to risk it getting smudged.’
‘Take every precaution.’
Charles straightens up, suddenly aware how arched his back has been while over the canvas. Cyril frowns.
‘You need air... lunch perhaps. No. No. I insist.’
Glancing out the window of The White Hart, Charles can make out Dewitt and Windsor. Maybe he’ll treat himself to a new suit when the cheque for the restoration arrives.
‘Evelyn said you had a wonderful time catching up,’ Cyril slowly inches into the leather chair.
‘We always did get on.’ Charles glances down at the menu: pot-roast pheasant with cider & bacon; duck breast with honey; caraway, beetroot and grapefruit salad; and venison steaks with stroganoff sauce & shoestring fries. All rather rich for lunch.
The waiter comes and takes their order.
‘I’d suggest claret if I didn’t need a steady hand,’ Charles jokes.
‘As an act of loyalty, I’ll join you on the sparkling water.’ He pauses. ‘You notice it, I see. A stroke. Two years ago.’
‘Barely at all.’
‘It’s quite all right. Of course, the doctor said I should work shorter hours,’ Cyril says. ‘You’d be surprised the work it takes to keep a half dozen masterpieces well displayed, safe and housed and then persuade the masses to come see them. Thank goodness for Evelyn.’
Of course, Cyril knows nothing about their time together; he didn’t meet her at the St Martin’s exhibition. The following summer, when the invitation arrived to Charles’s lodgings in Florence, inviting him to the engagement party of Mr Cyril Lytton-Chatfield and Miss Evelyn Batemen he immediately telephoned one of their mutual friends just to be certain it was not a bizarre joke.
A stroke might kill him. Charles tries to ignore this thought as he slices into the pot-roast pheasant, the meat a charred crimson.
‘It’s remarkable how you both met,’ he says.
‘She was at our final show in St Martin’s. To think neither you nor I spotted her.’
‘How peculiar.’ Charles sips the fizzling water. How could he, a man named Cyril, have got Evelyn? When had young women begun to make practical choices?
Only the eye is left to reveal. Charles glances at his watch. It’s eight forty-five. The echoes of footsteps faded hours ago. He steps back and sips his cold coffee. The woman’s breasts now have the soft smooth sheen of marble. The folds and lines of the apostle’s hands have taken on a fleshy tone, leaving behind the brownish quality of the varnish. And the wine, no longer dull fluid pouring into the amphora, is now transparent, vivid like blood.
The eye: a dull dot is all that remains on the canvas, like a dirty penny stuck on polished marble. He thinks of the fish he had in the restaurant, the dull filmy-looking orb surrounded by the crispy cooked head, and the cat on the side of the road, its wide bloodshot eye revealing death.
He puts down the coffee and pulls the magnifying glass back around, settling into the raised stool. Using tiny strokes, he glides the cotton over the cornea and the iris. The haze of brown begins to lift. He looks closer, the pigment underneath revealed. He knows this colour, the fleck of blue that tinges the iris, which blends with warmer tones, for a second green before becoming pure brown.
A fine curved line of blue. It’s not azurite, smalt, or ultramarine. It’s Prussian blue. His stomach knots, as if his body senses the meaning of this before his mind has solved the conundrum.
For many minutes he sits in silence, looking at the half-cleaned eye. Finally, he continues with the soft strokes. The whites of the eye become bright like glass, the iris possesses the subtle shifts of galaxies, while the fleck of white on the pupil has the spark of a diamond. The figure is now awake, as close to alive as art can ever be.
The painting is beautiful. It’s not a Carracci but still breathtaking. Lifting his seat out of the way, Charles steps back again, taking in all its elements now restored. Perhaps the painter was a mere enthusiast of Carracci, his intentions were never to steal the name of this great artist but over time records got muddled and nobody could tell the difference below the layer of varnish.
But what to do. Charles takes his coat from the stand. He tries to imagine what it’d be like to spend five years looking at a single painting, admiring its every detail, like falling in love, attracted to the idea of someone – the person they never actually were. He thinks of ex-wives, wondering if they might’ve been happiest had they been left with the ‘idea’ of him. What if his affairs had never been revealed, leaving these liaisons as faint suspicions in his wives’ minds rather than presented facts? He smiles and shakes his head, thinking this last idea ridiculous. Life rarely left one in blissful ignorance.
Charles turns off the lights but through the high windows light shines on the scattered jars, cotton and brushes. He closes the door and makes his way to the lift. As he pushes the button, thoughts bubble up, some more menacing than he’d like. Of course, he could defend his actions and call them ‘honesty’. And who was to say somebody else wouldn’t spot the giveaway in the eye?
The lift descends. Walking into the reception, Charles says goodnight to the porter, who already has his overcoat on.
‘Will I get you a taxi, sir? Mr Lytton-Chatfield said to order one if it looked like rain.’
‘No, thank you.’ Charles walks towards the exit. The lights in the reception turn off just as he closes the entrance door. A cool wind makes a short sharp twinge travel behind his right eye. He imagines the moisture at the corner of Cyril’s mouth and the pained look on Evelyn’s face – the possibility he could make her feel something for the first time in decades.
He sighs, tempted by cruelty. Walking into the square, glancing over at Dewitt and Windsor then towards The White Hart, he slips down a narrow street and feels relief as the gallery vanishes from view.
Jamie O’Connell’s work has been Highly Commended for the Costa Short Story Award 2018, short-listed for the Maeve Binchy Travel Award and the Sky Arts Future’s Fund, and long-listed for BBC Radio 4 Opening Lines Short Story Competition. He has received bursaries from The Arts Council of Ireland, Culture Ireland, Dublin City Council and Cork City Council. He works for Penguin Random House. His website is www.jamieoconnellwriter.com