CW: vague death mention, general heebie-jeebies
Have I ever told you about the time my partner became obsessed with owning a frightening portrait?
I know I have, but it has been long lost in the void of the internet, so let me tell you again, not least because the story I told before is not yet over.
Years ago, Joh and I happened to visit a nearby village, where we saw that the long abandoned pub had been converted into a vintage shop. Since Joh and I love second-hand things and it looked very quaint, we thought we’d pop inside.
‘Converted’, it turned out, was perhaps too strong a term. The inside of the building still looked abandoned. No structural changes had been made. Instead, you walked a meandering path of the pub, around the bar and through the various interconnected rooms, funneled by tables, racks, and mounds of second-hand items. It smelled musty and old and still faintly of beer. The crumbling brick walls were still exposed, the flooring had been removed to reveal the ancient creaking wood beneath.
It was wonderful, honestly. And I greatly enjoyed looking through the odd collection of bags and art and old Victorian devices and wigs and coats and all sorts of other things.
But as I say, it led you on a particular path.
And at the end of that path was the pub’s large brick fireplace. The hearth was long cold, though you could still see a thick layer of soot about it. And above the mantel hung an extremely prominent portrait. Separate from the narrow hall of art we had passed through, in pride of place.
In that portrait was a woman, sitting on a chair. Her hands were folded in her lap. Her feet were hidden by the hem of her dress. She was oddly lit in spite of the shadowy background. Her head hung forward at a slightly odd angle, obscuring her face from view behind her pale hair.
The moment I saw it, I thought, ‘That woman is dead.’ It was a very powerful thought. I’ve always been uncomfortable around death and things that remind me of it, and this portrait screamed of it. I have no idea whether the subject was or wasn’t. In all likelihood, she was alive. Surely the stance confirmed it. But there was an energy about it, particularly in the stillness of this once-abandoned pub, that made my skin crawl.
I stared at it in a kind of shocked displeasure for a moment before turning to leave. But Joh did not follow me. When I looked at them, they were gazing transfixed at the portrait, an expression of awe on their face.
‘It’s so beautiful,’ they said.
Again, I felt a crawling, gnawing sense of discomfort. ‘That’s a death portrait,’ I said, having no idea whether it was true.
‘No,’ said Joh. ‘It can’t be.’ They roused suddenly, as if they’d been in a dream. ‘We need to buy it.’
I began to feel alarmed, because it was very, very important to me that this nightmare-inducing thing not go anywhere in my house. I have enough trouble sleeping as it is. ‘We have nowhere to hang it, and I hate it,’ I said. ‘It frightens me.’
And, you know, I sort of thought that would be enough.
But Joh said, ‘We could hang it in our room.’ The only room in our house with free wall-space. Over our bed, in fact.
‘We absolutely can NOT hang it in our room,’ I said. ‘And it’s not for sale, anyway. It’s clearly a decoration.’
An awful, creepy decoration that I had to admit was effective in creating an atmosphere, even if it was an atmosphere I hated.
Joh said ‘It is for sale.’ And reached behind the portrait and pulled out a price tag.
I was adamant that we wouldn’t buy it, so eventually we left without it. We’ve never really argued like that about a purchase; we largely let each other do what we want with the house, and respect when the other has a strong aversion. But the portrait was incredibly polarising. We both agreed that the photo was otherworldly; but where Joh saw serenity, I saw only an end.
For the next few weeks, Joh would occassionally look distant, and when I asked them what they were thinking of, they would say ‘We should go buy that portrait. It’ll be gone soon.’
And I, distressed, would say we absolutely would not be buying it.
I tried to explain why I hated it. But the lighting I found ghostly, Joh found faerie-like. The uncomfortable, almost mournful way the woman had hung her head wasn’t present in Joh’s mind; they remembered her sitting upright, almost glowing from within. They didn’t remember the way her face was obscured, or any of the details that had so bothered me.
We passed through the village again at the end of the month and again went into vintage shop. As we walked in, I saw that all of their stock had changed. The building was transformed. I was glad; Joh had been right. The portrait was surely gone.
But at the end of the path, over the large fireplace in pride of place, there it remained. Everything else that had not sold had been moved on. But not this portrait. This portrait remained.
‘It’s still here,’ Joh said, smiling widely. ‘This is a sign. We’re meant to buy it.’
We repeated the previous argument and I managed to drag Joh out of the vintage shop once more. Again, the only thing that made any traction with Joh was my insistence that this thing would worsen my already terrible nightmares. They couldn’t understand my feeling, but they at least respected it. Joh stopped asking about the portrait. Life returned to normal.
When we drove through the village a few weeks later, the entire vintage shop was gone. The pub was again abandoned. It was such a quick closure that I was honestly surprised. But wherever the shop had gone, I fervently hoped the portrait had gone with them.
When years later, I mentioned the portrait, Joh didn’t remember particularly wanting it. They didn’t remember any details of it, beyond that it had been nice and they had passingly brought up wanting it. While I was disappointed they didn’t remember it, I was glad that they weren’t bitter I had been against bringing it into our home.
And that, you might think, was that.
But today, years after the vintage shop closed, I got a message from Joh. That message contained a photo of a shop window. And in that shop window is a portrait so horrifically similar to the portrait I remember that all I can think — all either of us can think — is that it must be the same.
Because Joh suddenly remembers the portrait too.
Is it the same portrait? Or does it just share a shocking similarity? Is it perhaps a print of a famous portrait? The frame is different: less ornate. I remember the portrait being larger, though I wonder if that’s just the horror of my memory. I remember the hair wispier. All I can say is that when I look at it, there is a deep feeling of recognition and rejection. I do not want this portrait in my home.
As for Joh: well.