The painting breathed out an air of chill misery.
I have stayed in many a B&B in my travels from auction to auction, so have seen enough bad art to last me three or four lifetimes, but this was something different. It was beautifully painted in shades of grey, the only colour being an out of place streak of red.
The subject of the painting was a house on the corner of a lane. Leafless trees stood along the left hand side of the road, gaunt in their winter sleep. On the right stood the house. It seemed to have turned away from the viewer, grey walls punctuated by four small dark grey windows, no door in sight. Between house and road stood a low stone wall with a deep dark crack in the centre of it. The road was streaked with snow and that short thin brushstroke of scarlet. Frost picked out the lines of the roof tiles.
I shivered. It was winter now, perhaps in summer the painting would be pleasingly cool, but I could not understand why anyone would hang such a painting in a bedroom, and why anyone would paint it in the first place.
For me, though, the most disturbing thing about the painting was the familiarity of the scene. I knew that I had seen that place, that house, before. I also knew that I had not.
My dreams that night were disturbing and left me feeling disoriented, even though all memory of them faded as soon as I woke.
A husband and wife ran the B&B, and at breakfast I asked Mrs Blake about the painting.
‘It’s by a local artist,’ she said. ‘Do you like it?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘That is, it’s very well done, but somewhat bleak. Does it show a local scene?’
‘Yes, it’s a house near the end of Catsbritch Lane. It’s still standing.’
‘It’s a very old name. No-one knows what its origin is.’
‘And the artist?’
‘Nora Logan. She died in the ‘90s, but a lot of people have her paintings around here. I know the one in your room is very wintery, but it’s atmospheric, don’t you think?’
‘It is indeed.’
An atmosphere of deep cold and gloom.
Though I deal in paintings, Nora Logan was a name unknown to me. From the single painting I had seen it was obvious that she had considerable talent. Perhaps I might discover her for the Art market. Some research was in order.
The internet knew nothing about her either.
I went to the auction I had come to Shuckleigh for and bought a couple of nice pieces. Afterwards, as I was waiting to collect my lots, I had the opportunity to corner one of the auctioneers and ask him about Nora Logan.
‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘she was quite well known in the town. A lot of people have her paintings, but they never sell them. She used to give them away. One day she would turn up on your doorstep with a canvas she’d painted for you. Apparently they are very personal items, I’m not sure why. I’ve seen a few. Very good, all of them, but strange.’
The local librarian gave me a summary of Logan’s life — nothing of note; wife, mother, grandmother, the usual progress. The only thing interesting about the woman was her self-taught skill with a paintbrush.
Tired, I went back to the B&B and extended my stay for another day. While I was paying in advance for my room, I asked Mrs Blake about the painting and the artist.
‘She gave it to my grandmother. Just turned up one day without a word of explanation and handed it over. Worried my Grandparents no end because generally speaking there was always something significant in the painting for the person who got it — and it wasn’t often a good thing. But as far as I know they never did see anything in it for them. Grandma left it to me because she knew my Mum didn’t want it and you can’t just throw a thing like that away, can you?’
Mrs Blake knew of others who had Nora Logan paintings and she said she would ask if anyone wanted to sell.
That evening in my room, I contemplated the painting and the powerful feeling of recognition it gave me. I supposed that I must have been somewhere like it in the past, but I could not bring the memory into the light. Perhaps it was nothing more than the emotional effect of the painting, some magic in the harmony of the tones, the near absence of colour and a sense of sorrow in the lonely house with its cracked front wall, failing to protect it from the intrusive eye of the viewer.
The following morning Mrs Blake told me that none of the people she had contacted were willing to sell their paintings.
‘It’s as I thought,’ she said. ‘They’re not to be sold, only given as gifts, as Nora gave them herself. I think people believe it would be ill luck to take money for them.’
‘Do you believe that?’
She smiled and shrugged, so I think she does.
I am perfectly willing to be ruthless in my pursuit of profit, but in this case I sensed my dreams of introducing a new artist to the market fading rapidly. I decided to let the idea go, and left the B&B that morning.
Shuckleigh is an odd and confusing town, and I took a wrong turning on my way out, driving down a long straight lane past a small development of ugly new houses and out into the country. There was nowhere to turn on the narrow road, so I just kept going, possibly a little too fast for the frosty conditions. Though I was paying no particular attention to the uninspiring view of gaunt, leafless trees, a sudden shock of recognition hit me. A bend was approaching, and on the corner stood a grey house with a low stone wall in front of it.
Time seemed to split in two at this moment. I continued to drive along at speed, but I also took my foot off the accelerator, slowing, staring at the house. A small child darted into the road in front of me. In both of my split selves I braked and the car skidded on the icy road. The one who had recognised the house was going slowly enough to stop, the other could not. A woman ran out after the child who had stopped in front of me, eyes wide, mouth open.
There was a bump, the child was thrown into the air, the car smashed into the stone wall, my head into the side window. Or, the car fishtailed, but stopped in time, and my head thumped against the side window.
I sat behind the wheel, shivering, unable to tell which version of reality had actually happened. Then I saw the woman scoop up the shocked child, and I began to believe that things were really all right. I got out of the car, still feeling the alternative course of events in the pit of my stomach. It was hard to get my breath.
‘I’m sorry,’ said the woman. ‘Are you all right? You’ve bumped your head. He ran away, I only turned around for a second. I’m sorry.’
She kept apologising and her son began to cry.
‘I’m fine,’ I said at last. ‘Just a little delayed reaction.’
She offered to make me a cup of tea. I declined.
‘But tell me,’ I said, ‘the wall in front of your house — did it ever have a crack in it?’
‘No,’ she said, puzzled. ‘It’s older than the house and if it had ever been cracked you’d still be able to see the repair, I think.’
I walked up to the wall, remembering where the crack should have been, and found no trace of it. I wondered what else Nora Logan foretold in her paintings, and when I would ever be able to forget the alternative events she saved me from.