The rain ricocheted off the pavement and soaked my jeans. My converse were saturated, and the drip from the corner of the umbrella left my coat sleeve wringing wet. I could hear my phone ringing in my pocket and I struggled to reach it, my hands full. Managing to pull it out of my pocket slightly, I crooked my neck to see who was calling. Him. Again. Taking a deep breath I dropped the phone back into my coat as a particularly ferocious gust of wind stole my shelter, turning it inside out. I groaned, throwing it into the closest bin, before getting my bearings and looking for somewhere I could find sanctuary from the storm
I was stood almost dead centre of two open squares: one with low circles of stone steps leading up to university buildings and the other heading down back the way I had come. Straight ahead both open spaces narrowed to a small street eclipsed by the clock tower of an old building. Hurrying over, I could see some stone pillars and what looked like the entrance to somewhere public. Out of breath from the hill I’d just climbed, I tried to brush my hair, now as wet as the rest of me, off my forehead.
I stood in this relative safety waiting for the rain to stop so I could make a run for it to the station but it showed no signs of letting up. My clothes were sticking to me and the cold was finding its way into my bones. As I peered through the glass doors behind me I saw I was at an art gallery or museum of some kind. Signs on the walls advertised current exhibitions, guided tours and opening times. I couldn’t see anyone inside but checking my watch I realised there was still half an hour before they closed. Hoping to find a bathroom with a hand dryer or, at the very least, some kind of towel I could dry myself off with a little, I pushed open the heavy door and found myself in a small, but elegant, lobby. I climbed the stairs to my right, pausing momentarily to watch the storm raging on through arched windows. The sky was an intoxicating mix of grey and gold as the late evening sun cut through the rainclouds.
An exchange was going on in the room at the top of the stairs and I coughed loudly to make sure whoever was up there wasn’t startled by my presence.
“You are an absolute gem, Chris. You hear me? A gem. Call me if there are any problems. I owe you.”
“Don’t you worry, Mr. G. How many times have I locked up now? What could possibly happen? You get yourself off to that play and give Jess a big hug from me.”
A suited man passed me on the stairs, affording me a brief smile as he shouted behind him to the other voice.
“I’m going, I’m going. Thanks again!”
I carried on up the stairs towards Chris and, hopefully, a bathroom. The top of the staircase led into a large circular chamber with a high domed ceiling. Gold framed paintings covered the walls in contrast with the dark salmon decor, but it was not the decor, nor the art, or even the splendour of the glass ceiling that caught my attention. Right in the centre of the room stood a larger than life bronze sculpture of an angel, wings unfolded behind him reaching high above his head. I forgot the discomfort of my rain-sodden clothes and wallowed in his beauty. His hands were outstretched as if to steady himself while his toes tentatively left his plinth to venture to the floor, his face contorted in anticipation of his walking on earth. I shared his pain, wondering if, with hindsight, I would choose to come to this world, to be a part of it, to walk among my fellow humans.
I reached to him, wanting to touch his smooth form, placed my hand in his and, for a moment, I felt he knew me. I was sure he could see right through me. That his immovable eyes saw me as I really was. That he knew why I was here, in a strange city laden with bags and needing shelter. I looked into those eyes as I felt my own fill with tears.
“I can’t go back there,” I told him. “I can’t.”
I was sure he understood and felt only calmness as his acceptance enveloped me. I wished right there and then I could join him in his metallic state of forever, always on the precipice of despair yet never quite reaching it, protected for all eternity from the experience. He would never know if what he feared was how he imagined it, would never join us on land and I envied him that.
I was jolted back to reality when a plump middle-aged woman in uniform spoke to me. I hadn’t seen her appear but I assumed she was Chris and looked for a name badge to confirm my suspicions but she didn’t seem to be wearing one.
“Closing soon, love, better get a move on if you want to see anything else.”
“Oh, no, it’s ok,” I said, trying to steady my voice and covertly wipe the tears from my cheeks, “I’m just here to…”
“Luci? You and most the other visitors” she replied. “I wouldn’t be surprised if half the people that come here never got to the other side. There’s something special about him.”
For a moment I wondered what she was talking about, then I saw the sign by the sculpture’s base. ‘Lucifer by Jacob Epstein’. As the realisation of who and what I had been so admiring of hit home I heard the cleaner locking the front doors.
“Five more minutes and I’m kicking you out,” she said. “It’s just you and me here and I need to go fetch me bag and spend a penny. We can walk out together.”
Dragging myself away from Lucifer I looked for any signs of a restroom cursing myself for not asking Chris when she mentioned spending a penny herself. I was heading deeper and deeper into the heart of the gallery. The silence in these magnificent rooms was intense and I realised I was holding my breath fearful of making a sound.
As I passed through the round room I discovered a small cafe on my left. There was a sign on the wall pointing in the direction of the toilets. Grabbing a handful of napkins I hurried inside, aware of the few minutes I had been given, and located a hand drier on the far wall. My coat had largely dried off by now but I aimed the drier at my jeans as I patted my face with the napkins and tried to fix my hair into something less bird-nest-like. Again my phone rang in my pocket. I took it out, saw who it was and muted the sound, placing it by the sink and taking a few steps back as if my proximity to it made a difference. I let it ring out three times and stood watching his name flash on the screen as it buzzed on the side. When it finally stopped I splashed my face with some cold water and searched for a lipgloss I was sure I had put in my coat pocket. I could hear heels walking across on the floor outside and thought how uncomfortable they must be to clean a big art gallery in. Then, realising how long I must have been in the bathroom, I abandoned my task and dashed out, not wanting her to think I’d done a run for it or having to wait around for me.
As I pulled open the heavy door I caught a glimpse of something silver turning the corner back into the hallway ahead. Confused, I too turned the corner and found myself in the entrance to a labyrinth of square rooms, each one connected to another. All bar the first were in the same style of decoration as Lucifer’s chamber, one midnight blue, another in emerald green, all covered with large golden-framed paintings depicting what looked to be religious scenes in a pre-raphaelite style. Many of the rooms had statues in the centre, but nothing as magnificent as Epstein’s. The white walls of the first room allowed the light from the glass ceiling to create an illusion of depth in the rooms beyond; although they were of equal size they seemed to get smaller the further you ventured. From the doorway I could see a woman in the distance. She wore a silver evening dress, the kind fashionable in the 1920s, and as it glittered the light reflected in glass doors just behind her. Her dark hair was pinned up on her head and she looked at me over her shoulder.
I followed after her, hurrying through the green room, and into the blue as she seemed forever unreachable ahead of me. She stopped as I opened the doors she had been reflected in and waited for me. Something unexplainable told me she wanted me to go to her. She disappeared after leaving the blue room and a small hallway stopped our chase. There were two doors in the passage, one leading left, and one right, both offering darkness. I looked through the glass of the door on the left, cupping my hands around my eyes, hoping to see a glimmer of her, a clue to which way to turn. Seeing nothing I turned to my right and repeated the process, taking care not to mark the glass with my damp hair or warm breath, but again, no luck, I could not see any sign of her.
I pushed at the door, thinking I would get a closer look inside and some clue as to the mystery woman’s direction, but it was locked shut. My stomach fluttered as I realised she must have turned left, my desire to find her surprising me with its intensity and I tried the other door. It too was locked. I looked back down the corridor from which we had come, still nothing to indicate what had happened to her. No shimmers of old lace, no tap tap tap of dancing shoes, no enticing backward glances over uncovered porcelain shoulders.
I headed back into the blue room, ignoring the display cabinets in the centre and the creations on the walls, and once again feeling the cold in my bones, I shivered. Echoing her actions I was compelled to stop at the doorway and look over my shoulder and my eyes rested upon a painting, partially obscured by door frame, in the passage of locked doors. I turned and rushed back to get a closer look and there, in the painting, was a beautiful woman, with porcelain skin. She was dressed in antique lace which shone as it sprawled across the golden bed on which she lay, her face highlighted by the reflection of light in a vanity mirror.
I tried to consider a logical explanation for what I had experienced, I’m not normally one for fantasy and I was sure there must be a perfectly reasonable way to explain what I thought I had seen. As I walked back the way I had come I looked back and forth between the painting and the passage of square rooms. Each time I entered a new room I would turn and look back at the painting, checking from different angles. Hoping to catch a glimpse of it through a glass cabinet, glass doors, rooms with strange lighting from high glass ceilings, something scientific to explain my visions perhaps. I saw nothing. The further I was away from her the more I ached for her to appear, straining my ears for the enchanting sound of her shoes on the polished wood floor. I pictured her face, far too clearly for someone I had been so far from. As I felt he had known me, so I felt I knew her and I could almost hear the peals of her delicate laughter as I began to accept I would never see her again.
By the time I reached the round chamber I had convinced myself it was some trick of reflection, light playing games with my mind and chastised myself for wasting the cleaner’s time as I ran around with such nonsense in my mind. I hoped I hadn’t been gone too long and that she would accept my gracious apology. I had left the bags containing my life on a bench just outside the round room and they still sat there, unmoved. As I picked them up and headed toward the steps to the lobby. I saw the cleaner in front of me, stood still, with a small smile on her face. I smiled back, thankful she didn’t seem concerned at the length of time I had been gone when I realised she was looking beyond me. I started to speak, to get her attention and, without looking at me, she put a finger to her lips indicating silence. I turned to follow her gaze, and as I turned I saw that there was no bronze statue in the centre of the room. Unsure how I had missed this on entering the room I looked beyond the empty plinth to the direction I had just come from. My heart tugged, my stomach lurched and somehow I knew what I would see before I saw it. I looked down the passage of connecting rooms and drew breath. For there, in the centre, as the last evening light shone down through the ceiling Lucifer danced with a woman dressed in lace.