The Woman in the Painting

It was Myra who found the painting.

The unremarkable cottage she and Bill had bought in this small country town had been sold technically furnished. Therefore they now possessed, not only the red-tin-roof-two-each-side-of-the-passage-and-one-across house but a collection of shabby chairs, tables and cupboards.

The two bedrooms held rickety beds, odd wicker chairs and strange deep-drawered dingy objects once known, they were told, as "blouse cabinets". They drew the line at these and above all at the matresses.

"I think they're stuffed with uncooked porridge," Bill said darkly as he wrestled them out to the enormous bonfire they were enjoying in the back yard.

In the dark brown kitchen Myra stood on the sturdiest chair to rummage in a cupboard above the smoky stove.

"Ugh!" She said, " I don't think anyone's opened this one for years - it's full of junk."

The word brought Bill back like an elephant scenting buns.

"Anything interesting?" He said hopefully.

Bill was incurably addicted to junkyards, auction sales and all treasure hunts.

"Don't think so - take these - watch out for spiders."

Myra gingerly lifted out a pile of yellowing magazines and paper, and passed them to Bill.

"Can't destroy these," he said as he squinted down at the top few, "they're fairly old - might be a lot of valuable information there. He put them carefully on the old-fashioned deal table, already half covered with his salvage.

"Darling, we're trying to clear up! It's no good if you save everything!" Myra was mildly exasperated.

"What else have you got?" Bill still stood beside the tea chest she was using as repository for rubbish.

She found him a half-dozen picture frames, an ancient biscuit tin full of rusted pens and discoloured buttons, a musty family album and an old oil-lamp, covered in thick greasy dust. She dropped battered cake tins, tea-pot lids, mildewed receipts and broken saucepans into the receptacle with a satisfying clang.

"Look!" Bill was enthusiastic - "this is half full of kerosene. Clean it up and it's invaluable for when the lights fail.

"Heaven forbid!" Said Myra with all her heart.

Bill flipped through the album.

"These are terrific too - ladies in bonnets and blokes with stiff collars - and here's a period piece..."

He held the book for Myra to see. It was the faded print of a little girl seated at a piano - she wore long dark ringlets, a dress with puffed sleeves and a touching air of concentration and importance.

Bearing his treasures, Bill made towards the ramshackle shed that was to be his workshop.

"Hang on," called Myra, "Here's another picture frame - no it's not - it's a painting."

Bill was back like a shot, expecting no less than a Rembrandt. It was not a Rembrandt. It was instead a rather amateurish oil - a cottage with a verandah and a pretty bush garden. Myra examined it more closely.

"Bill - it's ours - it's this house!"

"Mm - so it is - the garden doesn't look like that now, or the house."

"Well, they do really." Myra spoke defensively. "They just need tidying and painting a bit."

"As if I didn't know," Bill groaned, "and I'd better get on with it."

"You're not keeping that are you - it's not much of a painting - I'll have the frame."

"No you won't," said Myra firmly, "I like it."

So, after cleaning and a lick of paint to the frame, it was hung above the open fireplace in their front living room.

Myra and Bill Webb had been married for two years. Those two years they had spent in a pleasant flat on Sydney's North Shore - Myra working too and both saving. By the time Bill's job brought them to this small Victorian town, they had enough for a modest deposit on the old cottage. They knew vaguely that the previous owner had been a very old maiden lady, and that the inheritors were distant cousins only interested in disposing of the property and dividing the proceeds quickly.

Both Myra and Bill found the cottage acceptable because it was sound, though neglected. They agreed that it had possibilities.

Myra loved the garden; native trees had been allowed to remain and many old fashioned shrubs and flowers still struggled to survive in the long tangled grass. For some months the Webbs spent every waking moment and some of their dreamtime planning and working on the rehabilitation of their home. Myra cleaned and polished and weeded and painted - and shopped about for bargain furnishings. Bill cleared and dug and chopped and hammered and pruned and painted - and shopped about for treasure.

The cottage began to more closely resemble the painting above the mantle. On the mantle the oil-lamp too, cleaned and trimmed, had taken up what might have been its old position.

At the end of a year the Webbs felt the house to be truly theirs, and could be pardoned for their pride in its new-old look. The verandah was bright with geraniums in pots and the bedroom wicker chairs, now freshly painted.

Rescued shrubs and cut back bushes flourished. The tin roof and the house itself were newly painted. The dark brown door sported a find of Bill's - a brass door-knocker which shone as though it had been there for ever.

Within, the house had by simple means been made lighter and brighter; a window enlarged here - another put in there - light paint, bright materials, a minimum of heavy furniture or draperies.

Myra liked the results achieved by cooking on the old wood stove they had retained. Bill kept plentiful supplies of cut wood in the shed, and Myra enjoyed picking up her kindling under their own gum trees.She was also happily beginning her first pregnancy.

It was a sultry, steamy Thursday in mid January. A storm promised, but Myra had been deceived before; anxious for her garden she had been watering until late.As she coiled away the hose, lightning flickered; the first rumbles of thunder came, and the world darkened.

Bill was always later home on Thursdays and Myra was unhurried as she came into her kitchen. This was high summer - salads and cold meat were all she would prepare tonight. She had picked a few roses as she came indoors. She gathered a bowl and water, and took them through to the living room.

As she arranged her flowers, her thoughts quiet and untroubled, she was aware of the intermittant flicker of lightning beyond the darkening window. Her eyes lifted to the painting above the mantle. For one brief instant, she saw, and totally accepted that she saw, a figure where none had been before - in the now half-open doorway.

She went quickly to the switch and flooded the room with light. She stood at the hearth and gazed up at the painting - she tried to remember her impression of the figure - a woman - small - something white - an apron?

There was no woman there now - only the garden, the cottage, the shadowy verandah with the door barely ajar as it had always been.

"An illusion," Myra told herself, "the dusk and the lightning. She turned off the light and returned to her kitchen.

She told Bill later - laughing - a little uncertain. He showed polite interest - but she could hear,, as though he had said it, "Heavens, it's true then - pregnant fancies already."

The threatened storm broke in full fury. Myra was rueful about the watering. Bill commiserated as they relaxed after washing up.

"Never mind, this should last the garden a while. Listen to that lot." He cocked an ear to the sound.

The first heavy downpour made music on their high tin roof, but as the deluge increased it became more difficult to make themselves heard. Bill went to make sure all windows were secured and discovered a leak in a corner of the pantry. He had just set a bucket on the shelf under it, when an enormous crash of thunder and brilliant flash of lightening coincided with total power failure.

Bill was not dismayed.

"Now," he said triumphantly as he fumbled his way back to Myra, "now you'll see the advantage of having a far sighted husband"

He felt for the oil lamp, found matches.

"Hey presto!" he said as the wick caught, bowed and wavered, then grew tall and steady to throw a mellow glow over the room.

"Oh you are clever!" Myra sounded satisfactorily sincere.

There was something soothing about the heavy rain outside, the flashes and rumbles of the storm, and the gentle light within their own safe room. Bill and Myra exchanged smiles that shared the thought and the moment. Myra's eyes went past Bill's shoulder to the painting. Involuntarily, she gasped and clutched at Bill's arm.

In the lamp-light, the little woman stood poised outside the door. She wore a long dark dress - and, yes, a white apron - her eyes, deep hollows of shadow, seemed turned to Myra and one hand was half-stretched towards her.

Bill was all concern.

"Darling, what is it? Are you ill? Is it a pain?"

"The picture, the picture. She's there," was all she could say.

He followed the direction of her eyes and turned to lift the lamp higher. In the full light, there was the garden, the verandah, the barely open door, and nothing more.

Bill tried to be reassuring but it was not a success. Myra understood that he needed reassurance himself. After all, it was a bit early in her pregnancy for hallucinations.

She gathered herself together and agreed that it was a trick of the lamplight, the shadows, the storm. But constraint lay between them and their cosy security was gone - for that night at least.

Afterwards, Myra never entered her living room without a quick glance at the painting. Often she saw only a flutter of white, the merest glimpse of a figure. Sometimes, usually late in the afternoon, she saw the same small woman and the supplicating hands. She decided not to mention the matter again to Bill.

Summer passed and autumn was half over. They had begun again to light fires in the living room and for at least half an hour nightly Myra wrestled with a lumpy piece of knitting - as a sort of pregnancy obligement. She could never imagine the thing finished, any more than she could imagine the baby - but she had faith that they might arrive together.

Despite the recurring figure in the painting, or perhaps because of it, Myra was fondest of this room. Here, she and Bill relaxed and talked, wrote letters, listened to music, or entertained friends. They were not television addicts - their small black and white set lived in the dining room down the hall, for occasional viewing.

One particularly crisp evening, Myra had lit the fire early and decided to do her knitting stint before dinner. She sat in her prized rocking chair waiting for Bill, her hands busy, pleasant dinner smells from the kitchen, fire on the hearth. She felt content and virtuous. She looked casually up at the painting, just as Bill came into the room. She saw that the figure had emerged from the shadows and stood now at the verandah edge. Both hands stretched towards Myra. She saw the face fully for the first time - old - gentle - so sad - begging for - begging for - !

Bill sprang forward only in time to gather her up, tangled knitting and all, from the ashy hearth.

"What's the matter - Myra - tell me - is it the baby - quickly - tell me - put your feet up - would you like a cup of tea?

Bill said all kinds of distracted, disjointed and absurd things, and was so kind and loving that Myra told him what she had seen. She saw trouble come down over his anxious eyes.

"Don't you think I should call the Doctor, Myra darling - this isn't good for you - or for the baby."

"I don't need the Doctor. You don't believe she's there do you Bill? But she is. She is!" Myra drew a deep breath and tried to control a rising feeling of bitter frustration. The need to convince him overwhelmed her.

"Believe me, I'm not imagining this. She is there. She wants something. She begs me."

Bill looked at her helplessly.

"I know you think she's there," he began but - well - she's not there now, is she?

"No. She's not there now. But she is often there - I see her often."

"Well then, why don't I see her?" said Bill reasonably.

"I think it's just chance," Myra said slowly." I'm here much more than you are and she specially seems able to come when I'm quiet and peaceful. Please Bill, believe me."

"I want to," he said miserably. "I wish I could see her, I really do."

They looked up at the painting together. Inside her, Myra was calling, "please, please, if you can - show Bill." But on the shadowed verandah nothing changed.

It was perhaps a week later when friends took Myra to a local drama group performance of LYSISTRATA. Bill declined the pleasure on the grounds that he was enormously busy and must bring work home on that particular night. Afterwards, the friends brought Myra home, stayed for drinks, post-mortemed the play and the players, asked tenderly tongue-in-cheek after Bill's home-work - of which there was no evidence - and at last departed.

Bill had been unusually silent.

"Are you alright darling?" Myra asked as the lights of the car wheeled away. "Is anything wrong?"

For answer, Bill cuddled her close.

"I've seen her." He said very quietly against her hair.

They built up the fire and sat over extra cups of coffee. "Thank you" said Myra's heart, "thank you for coming to Bill too."

Bill was practical.

"It's obvious she wants or needs something. It's also obvious she thinks we can help, so how can we find out more?"

Myra asked her question steadily. It had occurred to her almost from the beginning.

"You don't think - she's a - a victim do you. That she may be - buried here?"

"No, I don't," said Bill sturdily. "I've dug over the garden and epxlored under the house. It's not as though this was a huge place with attics and cellars. Besides..." he hesitated, "it doesn't feel like that."

"Well then, what?" Myra asked.

"The thing is," Bill poked absently at the fire until it collapsed into embers, "the thing is - tonight she had something in her hand.

Myra was surprised.

"I haven't seen anything like that," she said.

"She was on the verandah. She held out her hands..." Bill went on, "...and there was a - paper - or a small newspaper - I'm not sure."

Myra's eyes widened.

"Oh Bill, perhaps it was her Will? Perhaps the people we bought from weren't the real heirs - we could lose the house - oh - do you think..?"

"No," said Bill "I believe it's something different. She wouldn't do that. She likes us." His voice faded and he looked a trifle embarrassed.

"Oh I'm so glad you feel that too."

They were silent for a moment or two, then Bill sprang to his feet.

"Let's be logical," he said, "first - who was she? Was she the old lady who owned this house?"

"I think she is. No logic, I just feel it," said Myra.

"Fair enough. Do you remember the name? Incidentally, who painted the picture?"

"I've heard her name, something a bit different. Bird, or was it Bench?" Myra concentrated.

Bill, who had lifted down the painting to peer at the faint black scrawl in the corner, peered more closely.

"Would it be "Finch", he asked - " S. Finch?"

"Of course," said Myra excitedly, "that's it! And she painted the picture herself - that's why - how - she's in it some way - oh - oh - I don't know."

"No," said Bill "of course we can't know. Have we met anyone who might remember her?"

"Mrs Burns." Myra answered promptly. "She mentions her now and again but I haven't taken a lot of notice."

"We'll ask her tomorrow" they agreed as they went to bed.

Mrs Burns lived a few doors away in the same street. She was happy to talk of Sarah Finch.

"She was a dear old soul," said Mrs. Burns comfortably, from the youth of her seventy-four years. "played the piano lovely too - right up to the last. Nearly ninety she was. She was always in the garden. Kept it looking a picture too. I never knew how she did it."

In Mrs Burns' own neat garden the red heads of sons and grandsons were often to be seen.

"Yes, I believe she did do painting at one time, but not for years before she Went. To look at? Well, small, always tidy...kind of old-fashioned clothes she wore. Long dresses and a fresh white apron every day."

There was more, much more, but turning it over again and again, Myra and Bill could discover nothing to pinpoint the object of their shadowy visitor's concern. It was not until Bill saw Miss Finch again that they were given a further clue.

"It was a sheet of music," he told Myra positively, "I'll swear it was a sheet of music."

They returned to Mrs Burns. She had been friendly from the moment they moved to the cottage. They were made welcome.

They were reluctant to mention the figure in the painting, feeling this might strain Mrs Burns credulity a little far. Instead, they equated their interest in Miss Finch with their growing affection for her house.

"You did say she played?" They asked.

"A real musician she was. Loved her piano better than anything in the world, she used to say. German it was. If she told me once, she told me a hundred times how it was sent out for some exhibition or other in eighteen something, and her old Dad bought it for her afterwards."

"Forever polishing it she was - 'course it was a lovely looking thing. Beautiful figured walnut and carved cupids and that - brass fittings too, you know - for the candles. She really treasured that piano. Shame really, I'm glad the poor old thing can't see it now."

Myra and Bill hung on her words in a way highly gratifying to Mrs Burns.

"Whatever happened to it? Where is it now then?" They breathed.

"After she Went no-one wanted it. The cousins certainly didn't. Too heavy you see, and needed new felt. Old Arthur - you know Mr Webb, old Arthur Foot at the junkyard down the road? Well he gave them a few dollars for it with some other bits thrown in. Terrible heavy job moving it. His mate wasn't too pleased about that either, so I heard. Said it pulled his guts out. Anyway, it's down there in Arthur's back shed now. Going to rack and ruin. Rats and mice and silver-fish, and I don't know what else. Turn over in her grave she would..."

"We must buy that piano," Myra said with utter conviction.

"But love, neither of us can play. It seems ridiculous." Bill's protests were less than half-hearted.

Old Arthur drove a hard bargain, despite the sad condition of the goods. A piece had been gouged from the lid, the sconces had been removed and tossed in a cobwebbed corner - spiders, mouse-droppings and snail- trails decorated the once shining exterior. But Bill was well known to old Arthur and almost his match as a haggler. Eventually a bargain - mutually satisfactory - was struck.

To the further detriment of Arthur's mate's guts, the old piano stood at last in what a slightly mystified Mrs Burns assured them was its accustomed place. Bill replaced the sconces and camouflaged the chipped lid. Myra began the task of restoring it to its former gleaming beauty...

Their baby was born in July - a girl - small, beautiful of course, and very fair. They called her Sarena - a fancy of Myra's.

The next time either of them saw Miss Finch, her empty hands were folded quietly in front of her apron. She had returned to the half open doorway, where she stood tranquilly waiting, her head turned toward the piano.

Other babies followed Sarena - the Webbs were a happy household in a pleasant home. Occasionally, Myra or Bill saw the little figure, still waiting by the half-open door. They were together when they saw her for the last time.

Sarena had had her first real music lesson, and was eager to show what she had learned. Her parents watched as the small hands pressed lovingly upon the old ivory keys. Suddenly, they turned as one and looked up at the painting.

Miss Finch was there - she seemed to look from the child to the parents. For an instant, Myra and Bill saw her more clearly than ever before. There was peace and joy in the gentle old face.

Then she was gone forever from the shadowy verandah, leaving the door barely ajar.

Norah Boehme