by Joe Bedford
The final lot is an unfinished portrait, recovered from the artist’s easel the night of her death. In it, a figure leans forward, their back curved, their hands dropped between their legs, vulnerable blue veins mapped in detail, their eyes pointed up as if begging.
The model is here in the auction-room, sat at the back holding up his bid, arm trembling. The buyers recognise him. Some have stayed just to see how the spectacle will play out.
In the composition, patches of detail stand out from larger, vaguer sections of colour. It does little justice to her mature works. Bidding is low. Her masterpieces have already been auctioned.
Her husband, watching the entire collection pass out of his hands, has shown no strain until now. But the portrait of what seems to be his wife’s lover is too painful to look at.
The subject of the portrait, hunched and emaciated, reflects the anxiety in her lover as he bids from the back. Her husband lifts the room’s attention as he raises a bid against him, a bid on the painting he already owns.
The boy has little money. Everybody knows that. But still his eyes look up towards the auctioneer, as if begging, and his hand rises and falls.
Why her husband is selling, nobody quite understands. Since she was found, the papers have reported his decline: losses, outbursts, poor investment. Still, he has the estate. Perhaps he simply hated her, or loved her too much to keep the paintings. There is an aspect of him in the portrait – the pointed chin, the taut shoulders and neck.
His wife’s lover understands his motivations as little as everyone else.
The boy is looking desperate now. The husband refuses to meet his eye. To acknowledge him would be to acknowledge that the affair had ever taken place, and that there was a possibility she loved him more.
The portrait, left in absence of a note, was little evidence. When they found her in the bathtub, she had been holding photographs of them both.
The bids inflate. Now, with her lover’s head drooping and her husband’s fixed straight ahead, the subject resembles neither. The hands passing between their legs look as if they’re bound at the wrist. Their shoulders are laden. Their eyes are bloodshot and circled with shadow. The subject looks up as if cornered.
The look on their face is neither worship nor surrender. It is nihilistic and determined – a desperate, active look. It is both a confession and a renunciation. It is the look of tearing oneself apart.
The lover lowers his hand; the husband lowers his eyes. As the auctioneer counts down, people are already leaving. Then, a wave from the telephones. Everybody looks up. The auction pauses. A bid, unfathomably high. The two men finally meet eyes. Mutual blame and self-disgust.
Going, gone. The gavel falls, and both are forced to watch as the portrait passes into a stranger’s private collection.
Joe Bedford is a writer from Doncaster, UK. His short stories have been widely published, and are available to read at joebedford.co.uk. He has been Highly Commended for both the Manchester Fiction Prize and the Hastings LitFest short story prize.