Whispers in the Gallery

fiction by Carys Crossen

Whispers in the Gallery

          The exhibition draws some vitriolic online comment from anti-choice groups, and security receives a back-covering brief about potential threats and/or vandalism from management. 

          The guards sit through it, stolid and stony-faced, ossified graduates of scrapyards and university campuses and supermarkets. They’ve faced down thieves, drunken students wielding traffic cones, criminals with butterfly-knives concealed in their puffer jackets like adders’ teeth. This bastion of culture, with its gilded frames and buttery lighting and overpriced tea-towels in the gift shop, is a bloody cakewalk in comparison.

          Security arrives for the morning shift. Martin, ex-nightclub bouncer with Michelangelo shoulders and Marie, top-heavy with sparrow-legs concealed beneath regulation trousers. They fix themselves in their niches and stare blank-faced at the gallery, unframed canvases blotted along old-blood walls. Abortion Pastels. By some woman from Portugal. Paula Rego, that was it. The canvases display sturdy female figures, contorted. With buckets.

          Martin flicks his eyes towards Marie. He wants to ask if she knows anyone who had an abortion – a termination, doctors call it – but knows he can’t.

          The gawkers arrive. Some old gits in ill-fitting suits who scrunch up their mouths and move onto the pretty landscapes. Art students, some swooping hawkish to examine lines, the colours, the composition. Others lolling around, ostentatiously bored. A few down-and-outers, sheltering, groups of chatty tourists, women with prams and toddlers and an air of desperation.

          Martin drifts into his habitual daydream of Everton, a pub and a pint. Two women, both with cloudy hair, drift into his line of vision, murmuring.

          The words coat and hanger hook his ear.

          ‘Poor love,’ one of the women sighs. ‘She were desperate. Boyfriend was long gone, of course.’

          They shuffle away, to Martin’s concealed pique. He slides back into his daydream.

          He’s pulled out of it twenty-eight minutes later. A black-haired woman with a red scarf bisecting her neck is whispering to her companion, another woman in a formless brown coat.

          ‘My auntie used to do them. In a room upstairs in the pub,’ she’s confiding. ‘This was before my time, my mum told me after she’d died. Some were unmarried girls, but she had a lot of married women. Too many mouths to feed already. She only charged six quid.’

          They drift away, but Martin can’t find his daydream this time. So he listens.

          The murmurings gather all morning. Everyone has a tale to tell, or bequeathed to them. Castor oil and a hot bath, says one woman. Knitting needle, winces another. 

          More: she threw herself down the stairs. 

          More: she was raped, you see. 

          More: family didn’t want a scandal. 

          More: it was the local doctor, did them in secret. 

          More: bungled backstreet job – she couldn’t have kids after. 

          More: caught an infection, poor girl. 

          More: her husband was ill, she couldn’t be pregnant or they’d sack her.

          Martin forgets about the football match that weekend. He wonders what used to go on in the backrooms at his local. He stares into the paintings, which have dissolved, become translucent and resolved themselves into mirrors.

          2 pm. End of shift. He lumbers off with Marie.

          ‘Christ,’ he blasphemes. ‘Some of the stuff they were on about...’

          ‘Doesn’t surprise me,’ Marie shrugs, some unspoken vibration in his voice telling her who – what – he’s referring to. Then, with atypical tentativeness: ‘does it bother you?’

          Martin considers. 

          ‘Not bother, exactly,’ he confesses. ‘I’m just... there were so many of them. I didn’t realise.’

          Marie stares at him. Teeters; jumps.

          ‘My sister had one,’ she chucks at him. ‘An abortion. She was only seventeen and the condom split. Her boyfriend was a nice lad, said he’d help out whatever she decided, but she wanted it gone. Our dad was an alkie, and he used to get... rough.’

          Martin feels his lower jaw dangling and brings it back under control.

          ‘Hell,’ is the only word his brain supplies. Then: ‘was she okay?’

          ‘She were, yeah,’ Marie affirms, faux-casual. ‘It was all legal by then. She got sorted. She thought she’d feel guilty after. But she were just...’

          Marie removes her gaze from him, eyes tracking some memory in the middle-distance over his shoulder.

          ‘Relieved,’ Martin suggests. Marie nods.

          ‘Yeah. Relieved.’

          She checks her watch. 

          ‘Got time for a coffee?’

          ‘Yeah,’ he says, before it occurs to him to refuse. Unnerved by the rawness of their recent intimacy, he carries on, the words sliding from his mouth now. ‘You know, I wanted to ask if you knew anyone who’d done that. Had an – a termination. I didn’t like to ask.’

          Marie chuffs. A sound that isn’t quite a laugh.

          ‘Well, now you know,’ she says, and strides off in search of coffee. Martin follows in her wake, footsteps muffling the murmurs still creeping from the gallery where the slabs of canvas dangle from their hooks.

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Carys Crossen

Carys Crossen has been writing stories since she was nine years old. Her fiction has been published by Mother’s Milk Books, The First Line journal, Dear Damsels, Cauldron Anthology and others. Her first monograph is forthcoming from University of Wales Press, and when she isn’t writing she’s reading/contemplating nature/walking dogs. She lives in Manchester UK with her husband.