Afternoon In The Gallery
Tricia Bertram 1 Attachment
AFTERNOON IN THE GALLERY
They were wandering through the various rooms of the National Gallery of Victoria, trying to fill another sad Sunday afternoon. As they entered the final room she froze then sank slowly to her knees. ‘Oh God, it’s happening again’ she thought. It was just like the night in the car park when the policeman had said ‘I’m sorry to tell you there is the body of a young man in the flat’. Her energy, her life force, was leaving her body through the soles of her feet, and her breath was slowing as if it would stop forever.
‘What’s wrong?’ Asked her husband as he grabbed her, trying to keep her upright. ‘Can’t you see it?’ she whispered as tears began to course silently down her face. ‘See what?’ he asked, half supporting, half dragging her to one of the padded black benches that were placed randomly throughout the gallery, unaware he was sitting her directly in front of the painting that was now the epicentre of her world. It loomed huge and dark, threatening to engulf her. ‘The mother and her poor dead lamb’ she whispered, her hands making fluttering motions towards the large painting directly in front of them. The painting, titled Anguish, was painted by, August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck, in 1878.
Her husband looked at the painting for the first time then wrapped her in his arms, gently rocking her, murmuring ‘Shush, shush’ into her hair as she folded into him. As he held her he looked again at the large painting. It was a dark, dank wintry study of a ewe standing on snow covered ground, her left foreleg straddled protectively over the body of her dead lamb. They were surrounded by a hoard of large black menacing ravens. The painting seemed to become larger the longer he looked at it and he had to keep blinking to reassure himself the ravens were not slowly moving closer to the ewe and her lamb. He lifted the hand that had been rolling up and down his wife’s back and wiped the tears that were distorting his vision.
She turned slowly in the curve of his arm so she could again look at the painting that was causing everything inside her to twist and ache. She felt her long gone womb constantly contracting as if labour was drawing to the crescendo of birth. And just as there was no stopping the labour process once it had begun, she knew this wrenching, timeless moment was part of the inevitability of her grief. As she looked into the heart of the painting she noticed the puff of breath escaping from the mouth of the ewe and she could hear the mother bleating her terror and loss into the hovering sky. And there in the snow, where it had seeped from the mouth of the lamb, was the blood tinged mucous she call the death fluid, the fluid she had removed lovingly and reverently from the pale grey carpet on the floor of her son’s flat.
She longed for her son’s ephemeral presence standing beside her, wanting him to help her survive the visceral wrench no mother should know. She first experienced this longing on the day of his funeral, wanting him to walk beside her as she followed his coffin out of the funeral parlour to the hearse parked in the portico. Wanted him to sing with her, When Day Is Done, the Peter, Paul and Mary song she had chosen for their final walk together. ‘If you take my hand my son all will be well when day is done’ the words now a comforting mantra that linked them in some indefinable way.
‘You and your tree hugging hippy music’ he used to say, with the devilish grin that made his eyes sparkle, whenever she had the music blasting around the house while she cleaned or cooked. Back when a ringing phone was just a ringing phone, not something that filled her with fear and ignited her overwhelming sense of impending catastrophe. After his death she’d thought ‘At least there is now an end to the fear’ but grief had a way of rearing up and replaying her worst fears. Fears made flesh by his death, a death she had spent ten tangled, exhausting years trying to prevent. Loving, crying, keening, at times blaming both herself and her son, even making banal bargains with the Catholic God of her childhood.
In the end he made the decision himself and ended a life that had become intolerable for him. Just two weeks before his death they had spoken about his now constant depression and his battle to overcome his addiction to heroin. He had said with gut wrenching hopelessness ‘Mum I can’t live with it and it appears I can’t live without it.’ She had clutched him to her as they sat on the soft pink couch warmed by the winter son streaming into the family room, then pushed back to hold his face in her hands, looking into his eyes as the words spilt out of her ‘Don’t you ever think you would be doing your father and I a favour by taking your life’. ‘Hold me Ma’ said this 26 year old man with soft golden hair and eyes that no longer sparkled. Her son who she had loved and conversed with from the moment she knew of his existence, growing slowly inside the protective folds of her body.
She turned to her husband, hand shaking she wiped a stray tear from his chin. He took her hand and folded it over his arm as they sat quietly together continuing to absorb the impact of the painting. One of the gallery guards walked over and stood quietly beside them. After looking for a time at the painting the guard said ‘It takes some people this way, not many just a few’ then walked to the other end of the room. They sat for a little longer then dragged themselves off the bench and walked slowly towards the door where the guard was standing. ‘Take care now’ he said, as they made their way out of the gallery.
Link to Painting