October 11th 2011: Lifelong Secrets
The Guardian
, by Sienna Rachelle

Josephine carried the tray of sugar cookies out onto the patio.  How tiresome these meetings could be.  Half a dozen elderly women already sat around the tables sipping tea and chattering at one another.

“Josie, darling, there you are!” Agatha called.

Josephine smiled and set her tray down.  “Good afternoon girls, how are we doing?” she inquired politely, settling down into the vacant chair.

“Wonderfully!  We’ve just started planning our next benefit, so you really haven’t missed anything other than the pleasantries.”  Agatha replied, dominating the conversation as usual.

“We’re raising money to foster an appreciation of the arts amongst under-privileged children, isn’t that charming?” Bernice explained.

“Yes, it sounds like a very worthy cause.”

“We thought it would be right up your alley Josie, we all know how much you’ve personally supported our arts community.”  Agatha added.

“Indeed.  I would love to be involved in any way I can.”

“Good, because we think it might be time for you to host.”

Josephine felt a nervous flutter in her stomach. “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly.”

“Come now dear, you can’t keep us out of that big old house of yours forever.” Agatha pressed.

“No, absolutely not.  I just wouldn’t feel comfortable.”

The ladies looked slightly taken aback, but Charlotte, with her quiet dignity, immediately stepped in, “You must allow me to host, I have recently updated our personal sculpture collection and I simply must have the opportunity to show it off.”

Josephine felt a rush of gratitude towards her.  The last thing she needed was having nosy Agatha and all her friends poking around the house.

When she arrived home that evening Josephine checked her messages, but there were none.  She didn’t own a cellular phone.  The idea of being constantly reachable and having one’s location tracked unnerved her.  She needn’t have worried about the former anyhow, she rarely received calls.

Pouring herself a brandy, Josephine made her way to the fireplace room.  She stood by the empty grate for a moment, running her fingers over the photograph of her daughter and grandson.  She and Rachel had never been all that close.  Josephine had sent her to the best boarding schools money could buy, given her every advantage, but there had always been a distance between them that neither woman had been able to bridge.  Truly, she had never really been close with anyone.  Even Rachel’s father had been merely a romantic fling, with unintended consequences.  Josephine did love Rachel however, and was very proud of her.  She was a strong, independent woman, who was raising her son on her income as a lawyer, consistently refusing Josephine’s offers of financial assistance.  The boy, Graham, was so clever, Josephine felt confident that he would turn out well.

Downing the rest of her brandy, she made her way around the house.  She checked and locked every door and window, it was her nightly ritual.  She knew, even as she performed the task, how paranoid it seemed, but she couldn’t fall asleep without it.  She had certainly tried; she would lie awake worrying and retracing her actions, constantly doubting herself, until finally she ended up getting up and checking anyways.  Josephine wondered briefly how much of her time was spent trying to keep people out, of the house and her life.

In the morning Josephine prepared a breakfast of toast with jam and half a grapefruit.  As always she topped it off with a pot of earl grey tea with lemon and honey.  She recalled she once made elaborate creations for each meal, but it seemed silly now, all alone in that big house.  Besides, she no longer needed to eat as much as she once had.  A portion of each morning was dedicated to dusting and tidying.  There were too many rooms to do it all at once, so she worked through the house in sections day by day.  She could have easily afforded help, but she abhorred the idea of strangers wandering about the place.  They couldn’t be trusted to follow instructions.

That afternoon Josephine took her weekly tour of the art gallery.  She loved art, and always had.  Her own collection of paintings was impressively extensive.  She had learned to appreciate art from her father, who had been a great philanthropist.  He had told her that everything worth knowing about the human condition could be learned from a painting.  Josephine had donated enough to the gallery to have a wing named in her family’s honour.  Before her father’s passing she had traveled the world visiting galleries, but now she didn’t feel right being away from the house for too long.

It pained her to think of her father, she loved him dearly and conversely hated him.  No, perhaps hatred was too strong a sentiment.  She resented him though, for leaving her alone with his troubles.  Trapping her in that huge empty house while she raised a child, always afraid that something would go wrong and she would lose her.  Somehow she had lost her anyways.

As she wandered the halls of the gallery she recalled bringing Rachel there, when she was a young girl.  Try as she might, Josephine had been unable to instill the same passion for art that she and her father had shared in Rachel.  Perhaps this was the start of their inability to connect.  She often wondered if she had told Rachel everything if it would have made a difference.  No, it did not do to dwell there, she could never have passed that burden to Rachel in good conscience.

 

“Do you like Renoir?”

Josephine jumped slightly, startled out of her thoughts.  “Um, yes.  I have always been drawn to the impressionists.”  She looked up at the man she was speaking to.  He was taller than her, without looking awkward, and his stance suggested confidence and a calm demeanor.

“Personally I prefer surrealism, but I appreciate the beauty of the impressionist perspective.”

Josephine raised an eyebrow.  “Don’t you find them to be a tad fanciful?”

“Not at all.  I think there is quite a lot to be gained from exploring that path of thought.”  He smiled warmly.  “Pardon me, my name is Phillip.”  Then offered his hand.  She shook it.

“Josephine.”

He bowed his head in acknowledgement.  “Would you do me the kind honour of continuing this conversation over lunch?”

Josephine felt herself give a slight blush.  “Well, I don’t know about that.”

“Please do consider it, I have only the purest of intentions.”  He smiled again, and it won her over.

“I suppose I have a little time.”

 

“My father didn’t like to travel by the time I was born, but as soon as I was old enough he would send me on trips.  I was fourteen when I first saw The Starry Night.  It changed me, I can tell you that.”  Josephine smiled, lost in her memories, and sipped her tea.  “I think the moment I was truly hooked on paintings was when I saw my first Titian.  It was Diana and Actaeon at the National Gallery of Scotland.  I must have stood in front of that painting for almost an hour.  My taste has changed tremendously since then, but I will never forget that moment.”  They sat there silently for a moment, reflecting on each others’ experiences.  “I haven’t been to Europe in so many years.  What I wouldn’t give to walk through the Louvre again.”  Josephine said wistfully.

“What’s stopping you?”  Philip inquired.

“Oh I couldn’t go now, I’ve got too many responsibilities here.  I can’t just drop everything and take off anymore.”

“Life is short.  Especially from where we are standing.  Don’t walk away from what you want.”

Josephine wasted no time before delving into the liquor cabinet that evening.  How had this become her life?  She downed two brandies almost instantly, and poured a third.  She had declined Philip’s offer to meet again.  How she had longed to say yes.  To talk with him more, to take him to her bed.  They could spend the rest of their days traveling the world, visiting the great galleries, eating the best cuisine, making love in a different hotel each night.  It was a fantasy.  She couldn’t allow herself these things.  She had a duty after all, she was cursed to spend the rest of her days in this house.  Alone.

Her mind buzzing from too much brandy, she felt she had to see it.  She made her way to the door, punching in the twelve digit security code.  Then step by step, descended into the basement.  At the end of the hall was the padlocked door, and she unlocked it with the key she kept round her neck.  There it was, in the centre of the room, the secret that had cost her so much.  There was the painting.  Her father had shown it to her when she was just a girl, telling her that is must be kept secret.  All her life she had shouldered that burden.  The painting that her father had stolen, over ten years before her birth.  The painting that was now presumed destroyed by the arts community.

He had made her swear to be its guardian when he died.  She mustn’t allow it to be discovered, she mustn’t tarnish the family legacy.  She lived in fear of someone discovering the secret, that she would be sent to prison and lose all dignity.  “Are you happy now Daddy?”  She shouted through her drunken haze.  “I’ve kept your damn secret!  It’s nearly done me in, but I’ve kept it.”  She held back a wave of tears, and reached into her pocket.  She pulled out a lighter, flicking it almost unconsciously in her hand.  How many times had she thought of destroying it?  Of just burning the thing and having it done with?  She never could though.  Each time she looked at it she was filled with wonder.  A feeling of power and responsibility.  The world should see it, after she was gone.  No matter what it would mean for her name.  No matter what it had taken to keep the secret this long.  It was beautiful and fascinating, a true work of art, Josephine thought, standing alone staring up at it.  What was the sacrifice of one woman’s life next to that?

*

Sienna Rachelle is a writer, musician and performance artist from Winnipeg, a small, cold city in the centre of Canada.  She lives with three dogs of varying sizes and four other humans of varying temperaments.  She enjoys reading fantasy novels, watching science fiction television and scuba diving with sharks.  Sienna can be contacted at : sienna dot rachelle at yahoo dot ca

 


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