A short story in 4 Acts
Act 1. The Studio
The truth of the matter was I had never seen him face to face. Which made things worse with the police, as I had to be the one giving the first statement. I must have sounded phantasmagorical because their faces remained still and in full disbelief when I actually failed to provide a physical description to link the criminal with the deed. I can still recall that particular moment when I was asked to provide more details about his appearance and justify his existence. I was, in all reality, unable to do so. I was, however, more than capable to retrieve, with clarity, all the details about his day-to-day life. And it dawned on me, for the first time, that my point of view was nothing but a mere illusion, a figment of my imagination.
See… it all began when I moved into the flat — the classic story of a 35sqm box of matches. My entire life was playing inside of it, in a surround, borderless system. The fact that I was working heavily at the museum and needed a lot of rest in the evening did not bring any comfort to the situation either. I also feel compelled to raise a toast in the name of shabby residences with delicate walls and simple glass windows from the 1900s. Not that new buildings blessed with drywalls would be any better. But at least you get the comfort of a more intelligent building equipped with a fire escape. All of that contributed to our lives coming together. Mine and my neighbor’s of course. The enigmatic figure from behind the wall. My mysterious partner, my day-to-day challenge, imaginary friend, and ultimately — my endurance test.
The studio itself had a bit of charm, I must admit. I had chosen it in a hurry; did not spend too much time dwelling on the subject — I needed to move to Madrid that summer, because of work arrangements and I had chosen it just by looking on a website online. I did not care much about what type of flat I was going to live in and picked a building downtown, in a pleasing area of the city, with open balconies facing an interior picturesque patio. I got charmed by the Andalusian/ Moroccan style of it all, even if the heart of the capital. On the terrace, there was a table for four. Quite idyllic one might say, even if that table always made room for only one person — myself. Let’s not hurry in saying I led a solitary existence. As the story unfolds, so does reality. And the reality was — HE was always with me. But we will get to that part later.
The flat had a rustic décor vibe with its wooden shelves, ceiling beams, beige walls and a floor with blue and white diamond pattern tiling. There was, however, one disrupting factor in terms of the general design and vibe. An imperfection of such impact that made it all borderline hilarious, especially through the light of my line of work. On the wall above my bed, at a perfectly balanced distance from left and right and at the ideal height between my head and the ceiling, stood hanging — proud yet delusional — a huge painting of the 90’s UK zero size fashion model and socialite — Kate Moss. Her perfect figure and smile dominated the entire room, owning the air in such a manner that it made you wonder if perhaps, her long-lost descendance was actually coming from the heart of Spain! At a second glance, that initial thought vanished completely as what Moss mostly embodied was celebrity fashion glam and a vicious hard-partying lifestyle. A detail to season it all — the painting was a nude. It never crossed my mind to take it off, as, in a strange, peculiar way, she was one of the inhabitants as well, living rent-free in the studio.
That was also the year when I diversified my English vocabulary. Little did I know what a language expert I was about to become, in learning to explain sounds.A squeak on the floor. Of course, the floor squeaked. Vintage wood flooring cheers to that! And there was enough of it from behind the wall as my neighbor spend his day walking around, dragging materials and fabrics on the ground. Some were heavier ones, they clanked when being moved. Some were lighter — those had a softer brush and reminded me of a broom sweeping the floor gently. Sometimes, quite often, he was dropping things on the ground that would crash, clunk, thump.
A pounding on the wall. A nail? What was he doing? He was hanging a painting. In the precise place as my Kate Moss. Now she had a twin on the other side. I could not stop thinking about the fact that it might just be a frame shot of Naomi Campbell…The entire situation was becoming obsessive.
Time was ticking away and not to my advantage. And since we talk about time, he had no sense of it. An insomniac by nature, for him night was melting into day and vice versa. It was the only time in my life when I wish I was a night owl. The problem was that I could not sustain the late-night special as I was working. Well — in all fairness so was he! All night long, as mentioned. With a splatter here and a squish there; a whoosh to the left and a splat to the right. Just enough to make my mind travel to the land of the Death and beyond. And yes, I admit, there were nights when I had dark matter flooding my thoughts. A boom in his face.
Act 2. The balcony
‘What does good death mean?’ The voice sounded modulated and firm and it came from his side of the balcony. A bit croaky; slightly mysterious. Toneless. I knew he directed that question at ME. Yet I could not reply. The question itself was so abrupt and deep. Was he actually expecting an answer? I composed myself. After all, this was our first verbal interaction.
‘An end free from distress and torment?’
‘Simplistic view. Death is never free from distress’
‘I spend little to no time thinking of death’ — I reply, still dazed on how this conversation started and how it had taken shape
‘That is because death is not yet upon you’ — as he replied, I could feel a faint smile in the transition of the words. ‘A good death is the one where you step into your own immortality.
And, if by a great stroke of good fortune, you design and attain that without any loss of dignity…then know, my boy, that you achieved a perfect ending’
I was to discover that he was a dreamer and a philosopher, a restless mind and an admirer of fine arts. We grew close to one another because of one common passion — painting. Same as me, he was an avid lover of all that revolved around artists and their creations. He was drawn by emblematic people, with high achievements, whose creations had changed the way the world was seen. He was especially interested in the Spanish romantic artistic period and in particular by Francisco Goya. We spent many nights, me and him, discussing darkness and light, the reflection of troubled minds on a canvass and the brilliance that was born from it. The conversations shaped themselves from more general ones, between neighbors, to deeper ones between acquaintances to intensely vibrant ones, between friends. He was, at first, surprised by my area of expertise — he was not expecting me to be the director of the Prado museum. But shortly after, he showed such interest in my line of work that I felt flattered.
I had never met a person that was burning with passion for the art I was working with, each day. His interest, however, went beyond painters and soon he took an interest in my day-to-day activities. Without even realizing it, as days unfolded so did my stories. About my line of work, about the museum, the changes that were happening, the structure of the building and the galleries. I was fascinated by his interest and just as any person attached to vanity would react — I loved to talk and share. And he loved to take notice. We danced the dance away, in a perfect, unique manner. A chasse of words, e mélange of ideas, a unique form of expressing. Two friends on two balconies. Sometimes, a father and a son. And so I forgot to listen to the noise he made and focused on the words. There was no more a desire for a boom on his face. The war was gone and peace had come. I found comfort in the sounds. I knew he was there, I knew he was safe. I was no longer alone.
‘Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx’ — I hear him say one evening, with a low voice
‘Is that a reference to the dog from the floor upstairs? Troublesome animal, but hardly the Cerberus’
‘I’m talking about choices and perceptions. From the boat, the poor soul chose what was more pleasing to the eye. He could not see that beyond the sharp rocks laid Paradise. He was drawn to the much more appealing entrance. The gates of Hell are, more than often, coated with a deceptive layer of beauty. And so it happens that we see and acknowledge only what is within reach and lack the intuition or the strength to go deeper into facts, things, and images’
‘He must have lacked his third eye. See, that wouldn’t have happened if he was a Hindu worshiper’ — I try to joke and lighten the conversation
‘What I’m saying is that sometimes we chose to see what we want to see and what we perceive easier; either from familiarity or personal desire. We open our minds to what we feel acquainted with and appealing. Even if behind the curtains stands the opposite’
‘A lesson for myself, perhaps?’
‘If ever, you find yourself in a position where you realized you mis-judged a person, or closed your eyes to what was real, remember this conversation and don’t be too harsh on yourself. We often can’t see what there is to be seen. Human nature.'
Act 3. The wall
I got the call at about 10 AM that day and I remember I was still sleeping; it was probably why I found it quite hard to concentrate. As per security, I had been at the museum all night long, using my badge from door to door, moving things around and changing layers inside the East Wing. I had not done such a thing. In fact, the last memory I had was sitting on the balcony with him and discussing River Styx and the illusion of life. We drank tea and to be honest, it was the deepest sleep I had in months! So profound that it made me wonder — I never oversleep and I tend to wake up at every sound! And this time, there were 6 missed calls on my mobile. I felt a sharp pain on the back of my head. As if last night was more than just a normal night. I seriously considered sleepwalking. What was in that herbal tea of his?
I look around and the first thing I notice is the lack of noise. He is never this quiet. Perhaps he is still sleeping himself, a victim of the same tea. I try a gentle knock on the wall. No response. I don’t insist. My badge is at its usual place, hanging next to my coat. All is normal, it must be a confusion of some sort. Except for the lack of noise. Except for… the floor of my flat — paintbrushes scattered all over the floor, rag towels thrown on my bed, varnish in one corner and a huge canvas by the window. As I lift my eyes above my head, the view cuts my breath like a sharp object would. I get a sudden dizziness but I finally manage to turn around and look disaster in its face.
Instead of my old companion, Miss Kate Moss, another nude painting was taking its proud place on my wall. And this time the estimated price of my studio’s central piece was slightly higher. By around six zeros higher..
With a seductive gaze, The naked Maja by Francisco Goya was looking straight into my eyes, with her unique prude smile in full contrast with the dare of her body — slightly tilted towards me, as if in a try to defy my presence. As I was standing there, in a perfect state of numbness, looking straight in the eyes of my scandalous new roommate, my perception of time began to alter — I had stepped into a bizarre state of mind. A Buddhist monk would have been envious at my meditation state as I must have stayed in the same position for at least an hour, unable to move. Somehow, instinctively, I knew that the painting was the original. But my conscious mind refused to acknowledge such a fact and I begin to laugh. A nervous, unrestrained, maniacal laughter. And with every sound that I made I felt more and more desperate. And soon the laughter took another form and it all turned into a silent and convulsive seizure. Tears started falling from my eyes and my heart raced to unprecedented speed. With the last logic I had left, I realized I was having a massive panic attack. I saw the Maja tilting her head to the left and easily getting up to a sited position. She began to laugh at me — an alluring, immoral laugh. One of the pillows she had underneath her body fell from its place and rolled to my feet. Softly touching my leg, I felt the luxurious texture of silk on my skin. The room started spinning at a velocity I could not control. I thought I heard Maja speaking to me before I collapsed into an unconscious state of mind.
The cameras from the museum were all unfunctional for 20 minutes straight and then magically started working after this timeframe. The room where all the Goya paintings were gathered for the re-organization was intact. Nothing was missing, nothing was misplaced. An entire team was gathered to assess the situation, obviously. Nothing was found out of place. As I entered the East Wing, my heart was racing madly. How can everything be at its place? I lifted my eyes and looked the painting straight into her eyes — the Maja was there. She was there, hanging in her usual place, just as I had left her the previous night. I seriously doubted my mental health. What strange sorcery was overcoming my mind? And then, as I approached what was supposed to be Goya’s masterpiece, it dawned on me. I instantly felt my shoulders heavy. Like an invisible hand had just placed a heavy piece of solid metal on them and left. It took just 5 seconds for me to feel as if the same hand had slapped me hard on the face.
The frame. The frame was new. The painting was a fake. Of course it was. Because the reality was that the original one was hanging in a studio flat downtown Madrid.
Contrary to my initial belief, the police investigation took days in a row. They did their right diligence and experts were asked to come on-site — not one, but 3 paintings in total were exchanged for fake ones, on the same night. In vain I tried to explain. The fact that I had the Maja in my flat did not help my situation either. They did look into his flat, at least they granted me this last request. The place was clean and empty. No pieces of furniture. Except for one single thing — on the wall, stood hanging, as expected — my roommate and forever witness to my own downfall — Miss Kate Moss. If only she could speak!
Act 4. The aftermath
My level of education, absence of previous issues with the law and my constant work for the community granted me a shorter sentence than what a normal person accused of forgery and theft would get. Yet my general desperate, psychotic attitude threw me in a State mental institution. The official medical diagnosis rested written on a piece of paper — acute psychosis and paranoia. A condition accepted with resignation — in all fairness — there were days when even I doubted reality.
I was spending my days in a resigned routine, walking hand in hand with the sentiment that all there was to live was lived and all hope had vanished. There were moments when I closed my eyes only to imagine and recreate paintings in my mind. My favorite artistic exercise was to imagine a paintbrush stocking the air in soft movements as if handled by an invisible maestro. A strange way of easing my mind. A bit distressing really — I was counterfeiting with the power of my thoughts. But since I was already accused, I assumed it did not hurt anybody.
One year had passed without any significant events. The main leisure room where we all spent our afternoons had a plasma TV that was being used by the caretakers to play relaxing music. News were not seen with good eyes, as they could trigger random seizures. However, from time to time, one of the nurses was switching the channel to the 7 PM bulletin. And so it happened, by a twist of destiny — that I was there to see it.
‘Famous Goya painting was found in the house of a local man in the small Bolivian city of El Alto after his death from cancer. The piece of art was reported stolen, just one year ago, from the Prado museum’ — the news reporter had said, in an affected voice
‘Apparently, the flat belonged to a local hero, a man known for his philanthropic efforts, a so-called Robin Hood for the poor. Sustaining the local culture and social life in the city for the last year, there was never any suspicion as to where the money had come from as the person had lived and worked in Spain for a long period of time in the field of art auctions. If there is a question mark as to the authenticity of his money, none is raised in regards to the painting. A pure original, as evaluated by experts’
For some strange reason, the face of the news reporter started to melt and in an unrealistic mélange of colors and commenced to take another shape — a beautiful, timid yet daring face; one that I knew so well and that had spoken to me before — the Maja was looking straight into my eyes and her lips were moving.
Since the news was made public, there were immense gatherings of people standing outside the house premises, with locals bringing candles and flowers to commemorate the life of their savior, who, as explained, invested most of his money in schools, local medical centers and assisted several financially challenged families
The camera got closer to one woman who looked troubled by the news.
‘Why have you come here today?’
‘To bring light and ease his road into eternity’
The Maja looked straight into my eyes, laughed cynically and said :‘He finally gained it’
And it was at that very point I realized I had finally become a lunatic, a person worth to be in an asylum.