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Dougie McHale

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The Girl In The Portrait Chapter 1

Elie

The beach is long and sandy, curving like a crescent moon. Stone steps descend from wooden doors that sit in a protective wall hiding the gardens of large houses and cottages along the length of the beach. When the tide is out, as it is today, it stretches at least a hundred yards from the shore.

He is not alone, he never is, people come to walk their dogs, and couples stroll in long padded coats shielding themselves, hunched against the biting wind that whips over the wet ridged sand. The potent smell of seaweed hovers around black rocks, as little pools of seawater wait for the incoming tide where children explore under the watchful eye of statuesque parents.

The sand is wet and sticks to his shoes. He almost stands on a dead crab and watches as a dog catches its scent, puffing nostrils combing the sand in frantic anticipation. He walks alongside footprints, and paw prints, and wonders about the lives of those that left these marks.

Wisps of clouds float across the crystal blue sky, and on the horizon, a dark bank of menacing grey seems to patiently wait, and he watches, as a sweep of rain falls. It fascinates him how quickly the sky can change its mood.

Mark wonders if it is raining in Edinburgh. He is missing the streets, the buildings, the rush of civilisation, its presence around him. Some days, he feels he is in exile.

For the past few weeks, Mark has been renting a friend’s holiday cottage in Elie, Fife. His friend and business partner, Joann, an art dealer from Edinburgh, had bought a holiday cottage a few years earlier. Amongst a certain business type, buying a holiday cottage in a coastal village in North East Fife is the latest hip purchase. Such ventures are not always appreciated by the locals, as the owners often only visit during the summer months, at weekends, and seldom contribute to the local economy.

On the outside, the cottage has all the hallmarks of a nineteenth-century building, but inside, it reflects Joann’s modern taste. She has spent a small fortune installing a German designed kitchen, an ensuite and further bathroom with their imported Italian tiles. The bathrooms themselves are the cost of a good-sized family car. These days, Joann rarely uses the cottage and has put it up for sale. Mark’s self-isolation is coming to an end, viewers will arrive next week, and he has already taken advantage of Joann’s goodwill towards him.    

It has become his habit to go for a walk twice a day. Early in the morning, he wanders along a grassy headland towards a white lighthouse where he watches as the River Forth meets the North Sea. To his left, is a stone tower, it has probably been there for hundreds of years and he wonders, each time he looks upon it, what it might have been, what function did it serve? He keeps forgetting to Google it.

This is his favourite time of day. As the electric orange light of Elie shimmers like a heat wave, he watches crimson light streak an ice blue sky, diffusing cloud in salmon and fiery peach, a spectacular light show that dilutes the River Forth in a violet sheen.

Each day, after his second walk, he has lunch at The Ship Inn where the young waitress smiles warmly now he is almost a regular. He has become a familiar face, and pleasantries are often exchanged when he is out and about in the village, buying milk or bread.

He visits St. Andrews once a week for his household shopping. He loves the drive. The road is like a ribbon, threading along and hugging the contours of the coast. He takes the coastal route in his 4 series BMW and is so enamoured with the views that he has, at times, just avoided leaving the road and ending up in a field. The land is flat, fertile and green. He passes through villages: St Monans, Pittenweem, Anstruther and Crail. He will turn left, pulling away from the coast for a while until the skeletal ruin of the old Cathedral comes into view and the contours of the town’s skyline emerge.

At this point, he can take in the sea again and the large seagulls that glide above the foam waves. It is the time of year when the sun hangs low, blinding the unprotected eye; he often must shade his own with his hand as the sunlight pushes at the windscreen.

He often parks the car, unfolds his limbs from the seat and walks a stretch of beach lying just beyond the road.

One time, he stopped to let three long black cars of a funeral cortege pass. The occupants staring into space, solemn expressions, hinged to their grief. The car with the coffin was adorned with flowers and a bouquet that said, ‘Mum.’ It reminded him of his own mother’s funeral. Even now, her loss can catch his breath, something in his day can trigger the reaction and it folds over him like a blanket.

He often wonders about the heart attack that killed her, the disease that took his mother from the family. Is it now spreading inside him, and if not, is it just a matter of time?

 

Her eyes are green, mesmerising green. She smiles a greeting now. It was not always like this. She averts her gaze most mornings as they pass each other, going in opposite directions. Mark is always heading for the beach; she disappears into a lane amongst the cottages.  He often contemplates following her, but always thinks better of it; it wouldn’t do to draw attention to himself after all.

One afternoon, whilst sitting outside at the Ship Inn having a drink she walks towards him. Should he say hello or just nod a greeting? She makes the choice for him.

‘Hello again. We need to stop meeting like this people will start to spread rumours.’ She smiles at him with white teeth.

Mark returns the smile. ‘Maybe they already have.’

‘I wouldn’t be surprised.’

‘I’m Mark by the way.’ He extends his hand.

‘Gill.’

‘We keep meeting each other.’

She smiles. ‘I know. I’m not following you, honest.’

‘Would you like a drink?’

‘No. I’m fine. Have you moved into the village?’

‘I’m just staying for a few weeks.’

‘On holiday?’

‘Not exactly.’

‘Sounds mysterious.’

‘Not really. I’m staying at a friend’s cottage.’

‘Where are you from?’

‘Edinburgh.’

‘Nice. Not far from home then.’

‘If I get bored I can be home in an hour or two.’

‘You’re still here so you’re not bored.’

‘I like it so far.’

‘It’s a big change from Edinburgh.’

‘A nice one, although I’m starting to miss it now.’

‘Will you be going back soon?’

‘I will, I need to see to a few things,’ Mark says reflectively.

‘I might see you around then.’

‘I was just leaving. I could walk with you if you want? I missed my usual walk today. I usually go to the beach. You’re welcome to join me.’

‘All right.’

Mark drinks the remainder of his coffee. They walk along The Terrace and South Street before reaching the beach. Mark can feel his shoes sink into the sand. Gill pulls off her sandals and rests her hand on Mark’s arm to steady herself.

‘I used to play here when I was a girl.’

‘Have you always lived in Elie?’

Gill looks out towards the waves that are rolling towards them and secures a stray hair behind her ear.

‘No. I went to Manchester University and studied English Literature and History with all my East Neuk innocence and returned fifteen years later my innocence long vanished.’

‘What did you do after university?’

‘I was a journalist in London, The Times, The Telegraph, all the highbrow broadsheets. I travelled a lot. I was a foreign correspondent. That’s how I met Robert; he worked in Paris at the time.’

‘Oh.’

‘It’s ok. We’re not together; we’re having an amicable separation, a mutual break. He’s in New York working for the New York Times.’

Mark nods.

She pulls a cigarette from a packet. ‘Do you mind?’

‘No. Of course not.’

‘Do you want one?’ She gestures with the packet.

‘I stopped years ago.’

‘I wish I could.’ Gill turns her back to the wind and lights the cigarette inhaling with relief.

‘What brought you back here?’

‘London was like a goldfish bowl. When I did escape, I was always working, and I began to hate the constant travelling. Robert got the opportunity to work in New York. It put a strain on us. That’s part of the reason why I came back.’

She looks at him. ‘I shouldn’t be telling you this dumping all my woes onto you.’

‘It’s fine. Honest.’

He feels her gaze on him.

‘What?’

‘What do you do… when you are not here, aren’t you working?’

The wind is tear-inducing and it catches her hair again which she flicks from her face. Gill inhales her cigarette avidly. Her skin is pale, but her cheeks have a slight rose tinge to them. Her hair is dark and wavy, her eyes snare him, and Mark feels he can stare at her face forever.

‘I’m an art dealer.’

Gill looks at him curiously. ‘I’d never have guessed.’

‘Why not?’

‘You don’t look like one.’

‘We have a look?’

‘Well, you know what I mean; people have a certain impression of what people look like according to their professions.’

‘They do?’

‘Well yes. I think most people do. You buy paintings for a living. You’re the first art dealer I’ve met.’

‘There’s more to it than that,’ Mark says, starting to feel hurt. ‘I work with collectors, sometimes museums and represent various artists. I specialise in Italian art.’

‘It sounds fascinating.’

‘I have a gallery in Edinburgh and one in London. We’re not big players but we do all right.’

‘We?’

‘Yes. Joann, she’s my partner in the galleries. It’s her cottage I’m staying in.’

‘How do you become an art dealer?’

‘I read History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. That’s where I met Joann. We were both from Edinburgh.’ Mark smiles. ‘There’s nothing more gratifying than to sit in a room surrounded by visual beauty that inspires the soul.’

‘Very poetic. When you put it like that, it sounds the perfect job.’

‘It is.’ Mark says, visibly pleased.

‘Are you any good, I mean not everyone can be an art dealer. I suppose it’s quite an exclusive profession.’

‘I have confidence in my eye. I follow my curiosity. I also have an open mind. I trust my instincts, but mostly I must be true to myself. I constantly visit studios, galleries and museums, exhibitions, read the headlines, listened to word of mouth. That’s how the gallery grew.’

‘Are you a big player?’

‘We do all right. It keeps a roof over my head. It’s funny that we keep bumping into each other. I suppose it’s inevitable really with Elie being a small place.’

‘It gets busier in the summer. I’m not sure if I’ll still be here to see it though.’

‘Why is that?’ Mark asks.

‘I need to work. There’s not much call for a foreign correspondent for the East Fife Mail.’

‘No. I suppose not.’

‘I’ve got an interview with The Scotsman next week.’

‘I hope it goes well.’

‘Thanks.’

A small piece of glass catches Gill’s eye. She picks it up and turns it in her hands. The cobalt surface is cloudy and smooth to the touch.

‘What’s that?’ Mark asks.

‘It’s called sea glass.’

He leans forward to get a closer look. ‘I’ve never heard of it.’

‘It’s just bottles and glass that have been broken, and then smoothed by waves and currents. Some people collect it. You can make necklaces out of it.’

‘I love the colour.’

‘You can get all different types of colour. Green and blue are my favourite. I collected it when I was younger.’ This memory of her past invites her to once more turn the sea glass in her hand before she places the shard in her pocket.

Mark feels a damp breeze on his face and looks at the sky. ‘I think it’s going to rain, we should start to head back.’

Gill gestures to a gap between the houses. ‘There’s a path just up there. It’ll be easier to walk back.’

‘I’ve been staying in Elie for nearly three weeks and you’re the first person I’ve had a real conversation with. I didn’t realise how lonely I was.’ Mark thinks for a moment. ‘What are you doing later tonight, have you any plans?’

‘I was having a quiet night in… again.’

‘Why don’t I make us something to eat? Come around, say about seven. Don’t worry, it’s not a proposition just an invitation.’

‘What’s your cooking like?’ Gill asks, toying with him.

‘I’ve never had any complaints.’

‘Ok, seven it is.’

‘I’m staying in Fountain Street, number nine.’

‘I know.’

He raises his eyebrows. ‘You do.’

‘You’re already the topic of conversation amongst… let’s see… certain available females.’

‘Ah, I see.’  Mark feels his face get hot.

There is a pause. ‘But I wasn’t one of them.’ Gill announces.

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