The phone rang, dragging his attention from the columns of numbers. James glanced automatically at the display as his hand reached for the receiver…and stopped. He’d had enough for one day. He watched the vibrating phone as it rang insistently, staring at it with unforgiving eyes. The damned thing ruled his every moment. He waited. Yes, there it was; the text to please call the office urgently…
For a moment he seemed to stand outside of himself. Was this any kind of life? Constantly at the mercy of telephones and emails, meetings and contracts? Given his own choice he’d have studied art, not commerce.
Looking up from his desk, James gazed at the painting above the marble fireplace. Pale curves caught the last of the evening light. Lithe and lissom, she was nevertheless the skeleton in the family closet. They had never discovered who had modelled for the old man. Not that he had been old when he painted her. The mystery of her identity was a bit of family folklore now but it had caused a scandal at the time. Who was she? Not one of the servants in the great, rambling house; grandmother would surely have recognised her. The painting left little to the imagination after all. One of the workers from the old man’s mill, perhaps?
It was all a bit weird. The old man had been married for his purse; one of those arranged affairs where the new money of industry had repaired the fortunes of an impoverished but old family. Grandmother, herself as much of a pawn in the game as any, never really forgave him for being a self-made man. She had approved of his hobby of painting, though. It was fashionable and his work drew a certain amount of attention. For a while he had her polite approbation.
Then he had painted the girl. According to the family tales, Grandmother had hysterics when she saw the picture and refused to speak to her husband for the rest of their days. It hadn’t been long. The old man had disappeared soon afterwards, presumably hand in hand with the mysterious maiden.
The painting had been consigned to the attic. He had found it, years later, and brought it down to hang in the study. James remembered the gradual discovery of the family scandal. It had filled in a lot of the blanks that bothered him after his own father had left.
He sat back in the big leather chair and gazed at the young woman in the painting. She stood naked, save for a token veil, with one hand on the old oak tree that grew on the bank of the lake. James knew the spot well; he had played there as a child and dreamed his way to manhood beneath its branches. He knew her well too. She haunted his daydreams, glimpses of her hair, golden in sunlight, and skin as pale as snow. He had heard her laughter in the rippling surface of the lake and wondered if the estate was all he had inherited from his grandfather. Always a strange fascination in the painted eyes and her knowing smile.
The phone rings again. He stares at it until it falls silent, then quite deliberately walks away from the desk and out of the garden door. The last rays of the sun gild the distant surface of the lake as he begins to run.
Vague echoes of memory call him on to where the white form waits beneath the oak.
She looks around, just once, as she steps onto the flaming surface of the water and smiles…