Sun, 13 Jul 2003

The Painting

By Kirk Coningham

Romantic eyes saw a passionate man. The more discerning observer saw compulsion and obsession with a hint of madness. The man himself was happy with both descriptions, happy with any description that was not ordinary.

He was terrified of the ordinariness he saw all around him, of the ordinariness that he had inside him. His fear had set him on a lifelong search for a grail of sorts; a quest for the extraordinary.

He wanted plug-in accessories that would make his ordinary soul something more, something bigger.

He first collected interesting people. Using family money, he went to interesting places and sat with interesting people, living vicariously in the shadow of greatness. This worked for a time, but he found all of these people, these artists, musicians and statesmen, were tainted with liberal doses of ordinariness.

Now he had turned to art in search of the extraordinary. The money was long gone and he had to work to support himself and his obsession. He worked quietly and steadily with his fear of the ordinary held at bay through the knowledge of his quest.

It was on a bright hot house day in Jakarta that he found his grail. He was visiting from the Netherlands on business, and opted for a look around the streets to fill in time between appointments.

He was assaulted by the closeness of the foul air, busy people and the hint of decay that was everywhere. He ducked off the street into a second-rate gallery for a dose of air conditioning.

The walls were covered in more of the same. The same average ordinary art that he had seen the world over. But there was nothing ordinary about the old painting that sat stacked against others in a dark corner of that unlikely gallery.

This art was not like this.

The painting neither carried a mood nor transformed perspective. It did not enhance, or degrade, the real world view. No, this was art that forever shifted that view, not as a nagging or even cherished reminder, but as a sweeping, crashing, fundamental force of nature. It was extraordinary, breathtaking.

He didn't even try to act coy for the bargaining process -- the expression on his face gave everything away at once.

"How much do you want for this painting?" He didn't really care what they asked, he was no longer rich but he would get whatever it was they wanted.

"Excuse me Sir, I'll just check for you," the immaculately groomed woman disappeared in a rustle of pale blue and white batik.

He picked the painting up and walked it into a square of sunlight. It was beautiful, magnificent, it bought tears to his eyes and bumps to his skin. It needed some restoration, it was old, a hundred and fifty years or older.

The shop owner engaged him in conversation. "I see you have an eye for art, sir, it is quite beautiful is it not?"

"Yes quite," Gustaff replied testily in his clipped European accent. The painting was of a youngish woman with a strange smile and long dark hair. Her face was covered in a see-through veil that had been painted with unbelievable precision. "Do you know anything about the painting?"

"Not much other than it is very old," he said. "It came as part of a collection last week from a deceased estate."

The owner walked off as the saleswoman returned. "I am very sorry, sir, that painting is sold. Perhaps you would care to look at some others?"

"No. I don't want to look at any of the rubbish you have on your walls. I want this painting. Find the person who bought it and tell him I will give him double what he paid. Do it now," he dismissed her with a wave of his hand.

Seeing the man was agitated the owner came back. Before he could say anything Gustaff challenged: "Why do you have paintings on display when they are already sold?" The owner didn't wish to offend by saying the painting was not actually on display; he tried another tack.

"Sold is it? Well sorry, but that's probably for the best. My staff hates it. They say the woman in the painting is a witch. They say the painting is bewitched and can only bring sorrow and death, as it did to its last owner. Silly superstitious nonsense of course, but you can't be too careful."

The saleswoman returned with bad news "The man who bought the painting doesn't want to sell it, he said not at any price." The woman was happy to see the arrogant man disappointed.

"Give me his name, I will talk to him directly and we can work something out."

"Sorry, sir, we can't do that. I can give him your number if you like and he can contact you if he wishes."

"I want the name and number now!" he screamed so suddenly that everyone in the gallery jumped.

"Please calm down, sir," the owner said. "Come to the back room and I'm sure we can work something out."

Gustaff left the gallery with the name and number and without the million or so rupiah he had in his wallet.

He canceled the next leg of his working trip and called his bank. He wanted a quick loan, US$50,000 ought to do it, but the bank didn't hesitate: "No," they said. "You are already so far behind on other loans."

Gustaff went to his Jakarta-based fix it man. Telephone calls were made and a deal was done. "Fifty thousand in cash, to be paid back with 20 percent interest in 30 days."

The interest was outrageous but Gustaff didn't care, he had thought of nothing but the painting since he had first seen it, overwhelmed by his desire to own it.

Four days later he went to the home of the painting's new owner with a briefcase. The owner was friendly enough but guarded, obviously concerned about Gustaff's arrival. His wife looked worried.

"I want the painting," Gustaff said. "I don't want to haggle over price. Here, take this." Gustaff flicked open the case to show the money in U.S. bank notes. "Now give me the painting and I'll be on my way."

The owner of the painting was Javanese. He didn't let his displeasure at the arrogance of the man who had just barged into his home show. He smiled softly. "Can I get you something to drink, tea perhaps?" his wife offered.

"I haven't come for tea, I have come for my painting."

"In that case," the Javanese man said, "Our business here is over. Please take your money and leave. I do not wish to sell."

At the first sign of protest two guards appeared from the back of the house where they had been told to wait. They picked the struggling and swearing Gustaff up and threw him in to the street.

The wife was scared and angry. "That man is trouble, and I hate the painting anyway, just give it to him, sell it to him. I don't like the way you look at her."

The Javanese man laughed and turned his back on his wife to look once again at his beautiful painting. He had left the office early so he could sit and look at it. The previous evening he had sat down to drink of its beauty only to be roused at dawn by his angry wife. He had sat countless hours looking at her, and could think of nothing else other than spending countless more hours doing the same.

Gustaff had other plans; no more Mr. Nice Guy, he would have the painting stolen.

He arranged another appointment with the loan shark.

"I need something stolen, can you arrange that?"

"Everything is possible given money and time. I will introduce you to some acquaintances; you will need to negotiate directly with them. I am a businessman, not a thief. Your business with these people will be none of my concern."

Three days before the burglary, the security guards at the house had received the equivalent of five years salary in return for information about the layout of the house and the location of the painting. That night they had received another five years salary each before leaving the home and family unguarded.

The thieves made their way easily through the house to the painting. The first thief was reaching for the painting in the dark when the lights of the room blazed on. A wild-looking man ran at them with a pistol. He fired once, hitting the nearest thief in the head and dropping him where he stood. The other thief stepped inside the pistol and pushed his blade into the Javanese man's heart.

The wife screamed as she ran into the room to see her husband falling to the ground. Before his slashed heart stopped beating the husband shot from the floor, pushing a bullet upwards through the chin of the second thief. The wife watched blood splatter the painting and thought she saw the woman's smile broaden behind her veil.

Gustaff was not overly concerned. The husband was gone and he thought he could persuade the wife to part with the painting. He called a tactful ten days later to offer his condolences, and $25,000 for the painting. The wife thanked him for his condolences and said, "$50,000". She wouldn't budge.

Gustaff went back to the loan shark. "I need another $25,000," he said matter of factly. "Well that might be difficult. After you pay me my sixty thousand dollars in, what is it?" he checked his ledger book "three days time, then we can talk again."

For the next three days Gustaff tried everything. He had failed, but in the end it didn't matter.

"Go away you silly little man, can't you see I am busy?"

Gustaff tried to dismiss him with a wave of his hand. "You will get your money, but I don't have it yet."

Logic and arrogance told Gustaff that as he was a foreigner they could not just kill him. "Even then," he rationalized, "there is no point killing me because, if they did, they would never see any of their money."

Gustaff was wrong.

At a nod from the man, the tall man next to him aimed a small pistol at Gustaff's left foot and fired.

He screamed as he fell. The pain was excruciating. "What? What have you done? You idiots. You will get your money, but not now. What have you done?"

"I understand you still have $25,000 of my money? Where is it?"

Even through his pain Gustaff could think of nothing but his painting. "You can't have it, I need it." Another shot rang out and Gustaff's knee cap shattered like a dropped saucer.

He screamed again in agony. "You can't have it, I need it, it is my painting, mine."

The third bullet cracked his skull like a melon.

Word spread about the white man who had been killed. Newly respectful debtors rushed to settle up with the loan shark.


Drawn by the smell of smoke, the new security guard ran into the house. He had not seen the young widow douse the painting with kerosene and set it ablaze with a candle. He did see the painting on the wall in flames, and he saw the lady who stood in her night dress watching it burn. She had a strange smile on her face.