Girl in a Gallery
(A cautionary tale)
Her beauty was beyond doubt. She sat at a stark metal desk, in the middle of a white concrete room, sticking addressed labels onto a never-ending mound of envelopes. She worked swiftly, elegantly, but above all nervously. A viewer had said something earlier in the day which she feared Rebecca, the gallery’s proud owner, may have heard. A complete set of mailers ready to wing their way to affluent addresses in London may soften the blow. She had done nothing to elicit the comment, but she’d be blamed for it.
The Couple were middle-aged and smiley. She’d greeted them as instructed and continued with her task – she must never distract viewers from the stars on show, the art. It hung from pristine walls: proud, resplendent, expensive. She listened to their whispered critiques, deducing they were browsers not buyers. They didn’t stay long, browsers rarely did. As the woman pulled the door open to leave, she looked back at the girl, smiled and said to the man, “My gosh, look David, the paintings are framing HER, she’s so beautiful.” The girl winced and bowed her head. Her thick auburn hair fell forward, obscuring her face. The force of the compliment hit her like a bullet in the bowl of her stomach. There would be repercussions – because nothing must deflect from Rebecca’s art.
Rebecca enthused with her usual exaggerated gesticulations, “Sweetheart, you’ve been a busy bee today.” The girl thought her strategy may have worked. The mountain of mailers that would deliver samples of Rebecca’s art to wealthy homes were ready to go. “We’re sure to get an influx of enquiry’s once they receive these enticing nuggets.” The girl had made Rebecca happy; for a fleeting moment she felt accomplished, clever, useful. But those feelings didn’t last long, not when Rebecca was around.
Rebecca’s tone changed, she’d heard the compliment: “Sweetheart, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I would rather you toned down your eye make-up next week, particularly the mascara. You tend to be a bit heavy-handed. It makes you look cheap. At the end of the day we have an image to portray – we’re a classy cookie, not a tacky tart. ”
The girl lived alone in a Brixton bed-sit, far removed from the gilded glamour of Rebecca’s Mayfair manor. On her way home she popped into Boots and purchased the remnants of their lunch-time meal deal for supper. In the communal bathroom she scrubbed off her make-up, checked her bare face, but didn’t linger – she didn’t like mirrors.
The room was her refuge; the place to do the thing that made her feel good. She couldn’t resist the compulsion. Removing her jeans, she placed a disposable razor blade inside her right thigh, pressed and pulled downwards. The searing heat of sliced flesh gave way to warm rivulets of slow flowing blood, giving her the feeling of release she so craved.
She ate the prawn sandwich, drank her orange juice and set aside the oblong of carrot cake: breakfast.
She wore no make-up on Monday morning, to make Rebecca happy. After all, she’d come a long way from her small village in Romania. Rebecca would say: “walking the streets of Mayfair’s a blessing, let alone working in one of its most reputable viewing spaces,” as she handed the girl her small salary.
The mailing worked; the phone trilled constantly and she filled the diary with viewing dates. Rebecca scanned the girl’s hand written insertions looking for wealthy names, when two Mayfair doyennes entered the gallery. Their appearance gladdened the girl – a distraction. Rebecca pounced, guiding them towards her latest piece. She began her sales pitch.
Rebecca didn’t notice the old man sidle in; she never bothered with old people. She punctuated her wordy pitch with a long silent comma, designed for dramatic effect, when the roar of human gas, forced from a loose old anus, ripped through the space, ricocheting off the walls, its unmistakable sound amplified by the gallery’s sparse acoustics. Rebecca, divertingly continued her sell – until the insidious smell reached their nostrils: wretched, old, eggy, with an underlying hint of boiled ham. Overwhelmed, the doyennes launched themselves towards the door, followed by a furiously flapping Rebecca, “You stay there!” she barked at the girl.
Outside they gulped great mouthfuls of un-sulphurous Mayfair air. The old man hobbled slowly towards the exit, pausing at the desk, he turned towards the girl and said with a wide yellow smile, “Was it something I said dear?”
As the girl journeyed home that evening something extremely good happened. At Green Park underground station she doubled up and began to cry; uncontrollable tears of laughter. As her laughter subsided into intermittent giggles, she experienced the overwhelming feeling of release previously only achieved by her razor. Release without pain. It was possible. Progress.
Who’d have thought that healing and insight could come from an old mans fart; she laughed un-self consciously for the whole tube ride home. The girl was becoming stronger.
Nobody knew Rebecca’s age. What they did know is the pride with which she coveted her youthful looks. A full length portrait of her, painted by an art school peer, hung majestically in the upstairs gallery. She would stand by it and smugly ask her audience to compare her painted visage with the real thing, “Can you believe it, I was 24 years old when George painted this, all those years ago – and I’ve hardly altered, even if I do say so myself.” Then came the conspiratorial whisper and girly giggle, “Poor dear George, he honestly looks like he could be my father now.” She would finish with her all important advice to the fawning women within the group, “Sun block ladies. Factor 50, everyday without fail. The sun sucks away youth; arm yourselves ladies, it’s never to late for sun block!” Then came her trump card, “That’s why Calm Models are considering me to be the face of a beauty brand for the mature lady – how exciting!”
But recently, the girl had noticed something, a pattern in Rebecca’s routine. As the next private view neared, the girl began to look for signs.
A sign – “I’m just popping out for a while darling.” The timing was spot on, a week before the private view. The girl noted she always proffered a non-committal, ‘Popping out,’ a week before a big one. Rebecca was showing a new artist of whom there was talk of Turner Prize nomination, this was huge.
Two hours later Rebecca scurried back into the office, head bowed – another sign. This time though, the girl had good reason to speak with her, and more importantly, look at her.
The renowned artaholic Gnarls Latchkey had been invited to this private view. Everyday Rebecca asked if King Latchkey had RSVPd. He had. She had been instructed not to open anything that looked like it could be from him, so she dutifully knocked on the door and entered Rebecca’s domain with the enticing piece of communication. As soon as she heard the words ‘Mr Latchkey’ her head shot up and her hand reached out hungrily. The girl delayed handing over her booty for a second, enough time to see a tiny needle prick on Rebecca’s right cheek. Rebecca ripped the envelope from her hand and tore it violently open. As she jumped from her desk and whooped, “Gnarles Latchkey is coming to MY gallery!” the girl noted the same invasive marks on her left cheek.
The girl had started to look at herself again. When she felt the urge to self-harm, she would stare at her face in the mirror and look deep inside herself until the need for painful release passed. When it did, she would smile triumphantly and say, “Salut frumoasa mea.”
The gallery was stripped naked in readiness to be dressed by the artists work.
Rebecca raced through the door, scanning the walls for imperfections. The girl noted the raised angle of her cheekbone. The concealer Rebecca had liberally applied to disguise her secret augmentation was losing its battle, bruising broke through. Rebecca caught the girls eye wandering suspiciously along the man-made contours of her face, “What are you looking at sweetheart, what is it? A little careless knock against my kitchen cupboard door, it’ll be gone by Friday. It’s not that noticeable is it sweetheart?” The girl noted the shift – Rebecca, seeking reassurance from her.
The following day the new art was being hung; but no Rebecca. The girl pondered her absence: Rebecca’s favourite time, her chance to command, control and flirt with the ruggedly handsome installers. The men’s machismo juxtaposed with their delicate handling of the art works intoxicated Rebecca; surely she wouldn’t miss her fix. The phone interrupted her thinking.
It was Rebecca, flustered and flappy, “Darling I shan’t be in today, feeling a little bit liverish, need to rest in readiness for Friday. The installers have been fully briefed, so there should be no hanging issues. Please ensure they don’t leave a mark, SPOTLESS sweetheart. I’m relying on you, you’re in charge. And, If any of them use the toilet, please check the bowl for poop marks.”
The installers worked tirelessly hanging the mammoth works. As they were leaving one of them picked up a press release designed to inform the media of the young artists genius. He read intently, his expression changing from interest to distaste. He looked back at the art with disdain before shouting to one of his colleagues, “Ere Mattie, it sez ere that this geyser uses camel shit in his paintings!” Mattie came back in, looked at the art, then his hands and exclaimed loudly, “CAMEL SHIT!” The artists unusual choice of medium was communicated to the rest of the installers and all ten of them marched into the toilet exchanging profanities – “Camel shit – THE DIRTY BASTARD!”
Wednesday came, but Rebecca didn’t. Two days before the private view and she had not yet seen the works, nor had she phoned to ask how things were. Something was amiss thought the girl.
Thursday morning, still no Rebecca. The Champagne arrived. The caterers delivered the utensils. The phone rang: Mr Latchkey’s P.A. confirming his attendance. 5.pm, Rebecca still hadn’t made contact. The girl was emphatically told to only ever phone Rebecca in an emergency. She wondered if this was one.
6.10 pm, Rebecca called, “Darling, I’ve had an unfortunate allergic reaction to some shell fish I ate at J.Sheeky’s. My face may be a little puffy tomorrow. Now sweetheart, you need to do something for me, with the utmost urgency – call Calm models – they’re due to send one of their scouts round to the private view to meet me. CANCEL her darling, I’ll re-arrange another date, rather she saw me at my best.”
When Rebecca arrived the girl told her what she wanted to hear – that she couldn’t notice anything untoward about her face. This sent Rebecca into a delirious spin of deluded delight. She cooed and fawned over the art hanging in HER Gallery. In truth the girl thought her face resembled a stingray. As the afternoon wore on the girl became convinced Rebecca’s face was getting worse.
The gallery was a hive of activity, with an excited, expectant charge in the air. Rebecca fanned around administering orders. When not lauding it over people, she waltzed around the gallery practicing her greetings, reading the names aloud from the guest list, ensuring her pronunciation of the more exotic monikers was pitch perfect. Her greeting for Gnarls Latchkey was rehearsed with great gusto.
With Rebecca lost in her pre-private view theatrics, the girl noticed her face beginning to look alarmingly cartoonish.
Handsome waiters stood like sentry’s, balancing bubbling flutes of champagne on solid silver trays. Rebecca surveyed the scene, ensuring all was present and correct to receive her viewers. The girl sat at the desk with the guest list, ready to tick them off as they arrived so that Rebecca could keep her vengeful inventory: i.e. those that didn’t turn up would never be invited again. As Rebecca did one final review of the artworks the girl looked furtively at her from beneath her fringe. The skin on her right cheek seemed to be stretched and straining.
The first guest arrived, a young, funky looking lady. Rebecca immediately switched herself on, offering her hand, “Rebecca Crandle. Welcome to the private view. And your name sweetheart?” The young lady helped herself to a glass of champagne and said, “Lovely to meet you Rebecca, I’m Charlotte Roche.” The girl couldn’t find her on the guest list.
Charlotte began looking at the paintings while Rebecca looked at the girl, expecting her affirmative nod that she was on the guest list. When the girl spun a worried ‘no’ Rebecca switched to imperious mode, “Do excuse me Charlotte, there seems to be a problem, it’s invitation only and you don’t appear to be on the guest list.” Charlotte smiled, “Oh, I do apologise – I should explain, I’m from Calm models, one of their model scouts. Your assistant did call to cancel. It’s just that I’ve heard a lot about this artist and thought It OK to come along anyway. I hope it’s not a problem?” Rebecca flew into an apologetic flap while trying to show Charlotte her best side – unfortunately she didn’t have one on this evening.
The guests began to arrive thick and fast. Rebecca worked the room enthusiastically, paying particular attention to Charlotte, ensuring she saw her height and figure in all its gracious glory.
The girl noted the Rolls Royce arrive and informed Rebecca of Mr Latchkeys’ arrival.
The girl caught Charlotte’s eye; staring, scouting her – surely not, she thought.
Rebecca swanned towards the door to meet her star guest, while Charlotte walked determinedly towards the girl.
A young boy accompanied Mr Latchkey. Rebecca greeted them with a contrived mix: awe, respect, mutual interest. She steered him towards the desk where she had noted Charlotte talking with the girl. This wasn’t on, the girl wasn’t employed to socialise. She would assert her authority in front of Mr Latchkey, impress him with her no-nonsense attitude to slacking staff, show him what a tough cookie Rebecca Crandle was – a serious player in the ruthless world of Art.
Rebecca heard Charlotte say to the girl, “You’re absolutely what we’re looking for, such a natural and…” Rebecca cut the scout off with a firm finger, “Darling, Mr Latchkey has arrived; can you ensure he’s accounted for and get back to work please…” The boy pointed at Rebecca and asked his Father, “Daddy, what’s wrong with her face?” All eyes followed the boys pointing finger, finally focussing on Rebecca’s pulsating cheek.
Her skin split and spat an angry green stream of smegma, which landed with an alarming force onto Gnarles Latchkey’s crisp white collar. He glanced down, then back up, in time for another shot of poison to splatter his forehead. The snottish slime, slid viscously towards his aghast open mouth. As it entered his oral cavity, he gagged, spluttered – his face contorted in revulsion.
The sorry thing was, Rebecca looked on bemused. She had no idea that her synthetically enhanced cheek had exploded over Gnarls Latchkey. She looked around her gallery searching for the source of this disgusting attack. All eyes were on her; assuming they were admiring glances, she began to take advantage of her audience by attending to the unfortunate Mr Latchkey.
“Get this woman away from me!” he screamed. The girl handed Gnarls Latchkey a tissue and guided him sympathetically towards the toilet. Her heart sank. She hadn’t done what Rebecca had asked. She hadn’t checked the toilet bowl for poop. She recalled the installers had used it frequently. She opened the door and hoped for the best – but it wasn’t to be.
Incensed – Mr Latchkey flew back into the gallery – shouting, “Rebecca Crandle, your toilet is full of SHIT! Your walls are full of SHIT! And it’s quite evident that your face was full of SHIT!” And with that Mr Gnarls Latchkey and son were gone.
One week later
Her real beauty had been discovered. She sat in the sumptuous offices of Calm Models, ready to sign the contract so coveted by Rebecca. She would be one of the global faces of ‘Nature’s Intent’ a high-end skin care range aimed at all women of a certain age, whose looks were un-tampered by invasive procedures. She sipped champagne; for the day was a double celebration. It was her birthday; she had turned 45. More importantly, she had become a confident woman. Nobody would stunt her growth or treat her like an underling again.
She reflected on the irony of her years working for Rebecca: Whilst she secretly self-harmed to release her hurt, Rebecca turned to secret invasive cosmetic procedures to maintain her shallow values. The resultant harm she bestowed on herself meant that Rebecca became the reluctant poster woman for, The Adverse Event: a warning to women everywhere to approach the procedures being peddled to them by the cosmetics industry with caution. Conversely, the woman who once worked in a Gallery was about to become an empowering face for the mature woman. Where age had gifted her with wisdom and affirmation of her natural beauty, it had cursed Rebecca with self-hatred and public humiliation.
She was ready to flourish and fly into the world: naturally, beautifully, 45 and proud.
Gerard Francis is a hugely talented writer currently living in London, UK.
Girl in a Gallery is his third contribution to SolQu Shorts.
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