A tiny wipe revealed a glimmer of something unexpected.
Issy dabbed a little more. Usually at this stage in the restoration process things were fairly predictable. Carefully stripping away years of crusted, split varnish brought surprise only at the occasional glimmer of newly uncovered topaz or aquamarine amongst the other murky hues.
Restoration was slow and steady: an indoors archaeology uncovering brush by brush, and dab by dab.
Issy directed her eyes towards the rain-spattered window and the poster on the wall in front of her weekday worktable. Its message: ‘Life is not about the pursuit of pleasure, but about the pleasure of pursuit’ always resonated.
Eyes refreshed, she looked down at the table again – and all was as she’d left it. The painting still glinted like raindrops on the windowpane, but the glint wasn’t the expected flaky yellowed sheen of aged varnish – it was an inner glow, seeming to originate inside the paint, as if tiny LEDs had been implanted. Of course, she’d seen pictures like that in the local household bargain superstore, but they were generally corny Christmas scenes in which stars glittered festively, and this late nineteenth century portrait wasn’t one of those.
She scratched her head: implanted lights certainly weren’t something she’d encountered before during the 11 years she’d worked at the museum.Puzzled, but not concerned, she opened the window next to her desk, and picked up her bag. She desperately needed air, and, even more desperately, a coffee break.
As she made her way to the door and to the welcome chattering release of the museum’s staff room, her phone summoned her with a gentle harp arpeggio – a ring tone specially assigned to Karen who’d doubtless be asking what time she’d be finished work, so they could meet up for their date. Issy reached for her phone to answer, already excited at the prospect.
‘Issy, are you there?’ said Karen’s voice, the accent a little more midlands than northern. It was a voice that Issy loved, and a voice she longed to communicate with, but each time she tried to pull the phone from her pocket, it evaded her hands. She reached down to it but it appeared she was no longer solid, or was it that the phone was no longer solid?
‘Issy,’ she heard, ‘Issy, come on, love’.
How could she hear Karen without having touched the phone? And why couldn’t she pick it up? She looked around for inspiration but all she could see were those twinkling lights. Even from her position at the door she could still see them lightening and darkening, flickering and falling, like a chaotic Christmas tree. And there was a sound too, like a tiny occasional but quickening beep.
‘She’s there,’ a voice said. A man’s voice this time – rich and bassy. ‘Keep talking, Karen, all the evidence about unconsciousness indicates that she’ll understand everything you say, even if she doesn’t remember it afterwards.’
Unconscious? Issy spoke the words ‘Help me, Karen!’ but silent screams came instead.Her shout was an empty action, devoid of muscular activity, though rich in intended compulsion.
‘Issy, you were in an accident,’ said Karen, hesitantly at first. ‘At work. Do you remember? There was a bomb inside a painting you were restoring. The experts say it’s been there years, just waiting to be triggered. You were so lucky you weren’t next to it at the time, but you have cracked your head pretty badly. The police think the frame must have fallen to the floor in a gust of wind from the open window, and the fall triggered the explosion. But you’re OK, Issy. There’s nothing majorly wrong with you, so you have to wake up. Please…’ Karen’s voice wobbled as she spoke, and her hand which had been holding Issy’s moved further up her arm and began shaking her lightly.
‘Come on, kid, you can do it. It’s me, Karen. You’ve got to come back. You owe me a dinner date. Pizza and Stella – your favourites! And I have an important question to ask you.’
A few minutes of thoughtful silence.
‘Sod it,’ said Karen, ‘I’m asking you now. I’ve been working myself up to this for six months’. She cleared her throat. ‘Issy, will you make me the happiest woman in the world, and agree to be my wife?’Silence. ‘I’ll keep asking, you know. Twice a day every day, if need be.You might as well say yes now.’ Yes, yes, yes, yelled Issy, unheard.
Uncomfortable, the doctor left, soon to be replaced by a student nurse. He was tiny, with a freckled nose and an infectious grin. ‘Would you give us half an hour or so, please? Just to take her to x-ray and do a few tests. Go for a coffee. We’ve got your number and will ring if anything changes.’
‘Coffee? I just had one, but I guess another won’t hurt.’Karen bent over Issy’s unmoving body and laid a gentle kiss on her forehead. Issy sensed the tiniest aroma of coffee on Karen’s breath, and re-remembered the twinkling lights inside the picture. Her hand reached out for coffee. Her eyelid twitched. Her finger flexed. Her fingers clasped, not a coffee cup, but the waist of her partner.
‘Hey,’ said Karen. ‘Hello there. How are you feeling? Do you want some water?’
‘Yes,’ croaked Issy, blinking and squeezing her eyes together. ‘Yes.’
Karen began to move to get the water. ‘No, don’t,’ said Issy.
‘I’m just getting you a drink.’
‘I don’t want a drink. I’m accepting your proposal.’
‘I think you two need to be alone,’ said the nurse as he left the bedside.
‘I think we do,’ said Karen, stroking Issy’s shoulder.
‘Yes,’ said Issy again. ‘And I’d kill for a coffee.’