She could feel his eyes follow her when she moved from painting to painting. With watchful pace he kept a devoted distance. Yet each time she turned he looked away, hastily pondering Pissarro’s wooded landscape vaguely before him, or peasants resting, or the 19th-century artist’s white-bearded self-portrait.
She had travelled to New South Wales for the weekend to attend the exhibition. The event was going to Melbourne, but not for three months, and she did not want to wait.
The collection was impeccable in detail, mostly oiled or etched. She had spent four hours meandering through the corridors of the painter’s life, and now stepping out through the freestone columns of the gallery, she squinted. The late-Spring sun slanted across park lands, and cast shadows of foliage on the ground.
She found a bench under a big oak tree and sat down. In the far side of the lawn, a group of friends was lying on the grass. One was strumming on a quiet guitar. She pulled out a book and started to read.
Someone came and stood in front of her.
“Hello,” he stretched out his hand. “My name’s Ryan. How do you do?” — it was him. She tasted a strong British accent in an afternoon-cocktail voice almost like English Cider.
Extending hers she smiled, “Hi.” He sat carefully down at the other end of the wooden seat.
He told her he was a visitor from London. His seminar had ended a day earlier than schedule. He would be flying on to Auckland the following morning. This was not his first time here but because he was always busy with conferences or research meetings he had never actually seen the city.
“What are you reading?” he asked.
She held up the book to show him.
“I’ve got this,” he raised Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. And grinned. She smiled, and went back to pick up the sentence where she had left off. Ryan thumbed over the page-thickness of the big book without opening it as if there was braille on its skin.
Then turning his body to face her, his big long arm on the backrest between them, he said, “Listen, I was thinking that, perhaps, we could, if you’re alone, and I’m not too repulsive that, maybe, you and I could perhaps wander the place together.”
For a brief moment he lowered his eyes that were as potent as his mop of hair. “I can, I mean, I can be quite funny, really,” he lifted his eyes again to meet hers as a wavy strand fell across his strained forehead.
She got to her feet. Slinging her bag across one shoulder, keeping it away from the lace-strap of her white cotton top that had an open-flap back, so that it rested against her back jeans-pocket, she said, “Well, let’s go then.”
Ryan leapt to his feet.
Standing by his side, she realised how tall he was. His checked shirt was tucked casually into faded denim. And he walked with long easy strides. She put on her hat.
They hopped on a bus and headed to the back. “So, what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a financial analyst,” she replied.
“Yeah? I always treat my analysts at the hospital with proper respect.”
“It wasn’t a first choice; how I fell into it is a bit of a narrative.”
The wind was parading behind them; she pushed her hair away from her face.
“To cut the story short, my father persuaded me that finance was the closest thing to music that was practical. He told me that since I understood music, and I understood mathematics, I had to understand numbers.
“In high school I had to keep telling myself that just as Bach’s Goldberg Variations rely on symmetry to transition from theme to variation, so might exchange, so might currency. I still do. From time to time. In periods of forced delusion.” she said.
“I played the organ when I was a boy. The last time I played I was 12. At my grandfather’s funeral. Midway through the procession I saw my grandfather sitting there beside me. And he was there, right there, next to me, watching my fingers. I told my parents afterwards, but they pulled me aside and told me that dead people were gone and never came back. But I knew what I saw. And I knew it was him.”
“My late father was a disciplinarian. He made me practise for hours a day with my eyes shut. And he watched my fingers closely. He loved it when I could play well. Mozart, Debussy, Chopin. He just didn’t think I could make a career out of it.”
The bus took them on a loop and they got down near where they had got on. St Mary’s Cathedral stood robed in her regal gown at the top of a flight of steps, catching an oblique sliver of the late afternoon glow on the profile of her young ancient face.
Enveloped in the golden sandstone and carved nave and stained glass they sat down on a pew, looking up and around them. There was no one else.
“Churches have a certain serenity that’s special to me,” she said with unconscious softness. “The first time, though, I found myself in a church was when my cousin died from a sudden illness. We were both 14. It’s been so many years. I have grown up since. But she, I suppose, is still 14.”
“I’ve never been religious, but everytime I walk into a church, I feel the pain of people who come here to seek comfort, looking for answers. It amazes me that suffering and peace can join in one common place for generation after generation.”
Ryan took her hand from her lap; and she let him.
As they walked towards Circular Quay the sky was a sea of flames perforated with cloud chasms. The soft light made their skin tones sing. There was a family pushing close behind. They let them pass. The parents were struggling with a handful of three young children.
“My life actually started off as something of a tragedy,” Ryan said, still holding her hand. “My parents had not wanted me after four kids. And, I guess, because they resented my existence, I spent my childhood also resenting it.” He paused looking towards the harbour. “Then as I got older I decided that if I just accepted my life as hard, it makes it easier to be happy when something good happens.”
“I was a bit luckier then,” she replied. “Our parents doted on us, my brother and me. And my father was successful in his profession, so we mostly got what we wanted, although he was strict … and my relationship with him was not always happy.”
Just as Sydney Harbour Bridge was coming into sight Ryan brought her hand up to his lips. “It’s funny how I tell you things I don’t normally tell people.”
She glanced up at him, and smiled. They walked on in silence.
She liked Ryan. She liked the way he collected himself. And the way his mind trod. She liked how his temple throbbed a little when he thought; how his eyes dropped her into a well of sadness. And how they connected with hers. She liked his big hands. His close-cut nails. The way he looked at her. There was something about him that made her feel reckless.
“Give me a word, Ryan,” she said, calling him by name for the first time. “Any word, anything random.” She did not explain why.
And Ryan did not ask. With little thought he said: ghost.
As if it was something he had simply taken out from inside his breast pocket.
That night, at dinner, while Ryan was off to the bathroom, she found a piece of paper and scribbled on it:
I shall forever be haunted by the eyes of the boy who saw his grandfather’s ghost
And slipped it inside the cover of his book.