[Fiction] Friday Challenge #142 for 12th February, 2010
A family’s life changes dramatically after they are bequeathed an old painting in the will of an obscure relative.
“That picture just really creeps me out. Great Aunt Mavis had a weird taste in art,” Jason commented. “The frame looks like a kid has used macaroni and shells and spaghetti and mashed them together and stuck them on with wood glue. And anyway, why do we have to have this monstrosity looking at us everyday.”
“Because Great Aunt Mavis left this to us in her will and we should respect her wishes.”
Stephanie piped up, “She smelled funny. She smelled like old people. And that picture looks funny.”
“Come along dear and we’ll get you something to drink.”
Jason stood transfixed, despite his uneasiness, and stared at the image within the macaroni frame. The old woman in the painting wasn’t Great Aunt Mavis; she was from another era altogether with a starched high necked blouse and black jacket. Jason couldn’t work out whether she looked like a domestic servant or matron of an educated social class. At her neck was a brooch that looked familiar, an oval shaped ivory piece. Jason remembered that his mother had one in her jewellery box. It was an heirloom given to her by her mother.
He shook off the whole thing and retreated to his bedroom where the cacophony of sound overwhelmed the ability to solve a simple quadratic equation.
The portrait took a place on the sideboard with the panorama of family portraits, overlooking the family dining room table. Jason shifted in his seat so that he could keep an eye on the picture. Somehow he felt that if he didn’t eat his vegetables the woman in the picture would disapprove in a way that was part-mother and part school principal.
“It’s nice to see that you are expanding your palette beyond deep-fried and sugar-coated,” his father said.
Jason shrugged it off and asked to be excused to continue some overdue homework.
The next Wednesday, Jason arrived home after school to find a strange woman vacuuming the lounge room.
“Where’s Mrs Andrews?”
The vacuuming stopped and the woman straightened, holding an old fashioned posture and looked directly at Jason.
“I do not believe we have had the pleasure of an introduction. My name is Mrs Cartwright and you, I believe, must be Jason. I am Mrs Andrews’ replacement.”
“Mum never said anything about getting rid of Mrs Andrews.”
“That is correct, but all things in time must change and now I am in charge of keeping this domicile in a neat and proper fashion.”
Jason grunted and sauntered off to the kitchen. Passing through the dining room he noticed that the portrait from Great Aunt Mavis was face down on the sideboard. Silently he approved of the picture not looking at him.
“Please keep the kitchen tidy and refrain from drinking the milk straight out of the carton.”
Jason paused mid-gulp and wondered how on earth she knew.
“You are just like every other young man who wants to be a man, yet still behaves like a child,” came Mrs Cartwright’s clipped voice from the lounge room as the vacuum cleaner started up again.
The Wednesday routine with Mrs Cartwright soon slipped into habit with Jason, but she unsettled him, just like the woman in the portrait. One afternoon as he sat at the kitchen bench with a biscuit and cup of juice, Mrs Cartwright entered and began wiping up the invisible crumbs.
“You have a wide range of reading material in your room, Jason. You have great works of literature like Shakespeare, illustrated stories and some secret material I suspect you do not want your parents to know about.”
Jason felt his stomach turn. “It is quite remarkable that you are fascinated with images of women who are exposed in their nakedness for page after page. It is quite shameful of those women to be exposed themselves for the entertainment of men. Such lechery is unbecoming.”
Jason turned to protest his privacy. Mrs Cartwright stared back and said, “I have been watching and observing. You have made some positive changes, but there is still a way to go.”
He skulked out of the room and threw a backwards glance at Mrs Cartwright. He met her eyes and looked down, taking a quick notice of the brooch clasped at her throat. He hid out in his room until she had left and then dashed back to the sideboard. The picture was upright and there the woman sat with the similar brooch.
The next Wednesday, Jason put his plan into action. Waiting until Mrs Cartwright was cleaning in the bathroom, Jason padded down the hall and into the lounge room. Glancing back, he could still hear Mrs Cartwright. He ducked into the dining room and saw the turned down picture. Reaching out he turned it over. Within the frame he saw nothing; there was no woman in the picture.
“What is this? Harry Potter? People can move in and out of pictures?”
“Yes, but not in the way that you think.” Mrs Cartwright stood at the other end of the table.
“That brooch. Where did you get it?”
“It is mine. And I can see that your mother has inherited it. It is my link with this time.”
“So you’re dead?”
“The link between life and death is paper thin, but I exist between the two. Cleaning house keeps my mind occupied.”