Friday, June 1, 2012

The Way Back: an Excerpt

“I’ve been waiting for you, over at the flagpole, over there, for quite some time!”
"Pa! What time…I…I guess I lost track of time. Did you spot Colleen?"
"No I didn't, but I did hear from some more people that talked to someone fitting her description, and they talked to her yesterday,” said Daniel. “She’s here—I can feel it. Have you had any luck?"
"Well, I’ve been talking with Mr., ah—” It only then occurred to him that he had been talking to the man for quite a while; he knew all about the man’s painting techniques and why he chose them, but he didn’t know the man’s name.
The artist finished Andrew's sentence. "Alfred Manning, sirs," he said, in a clipped British accent, without missing a beat in his brush-to-palette-to-canvas sequence.
"Mr. Manning was painting here, and I thought he might have noticed if Colleen had been painting, too,” Andrew stammered, embarrassed.
"It's all right, son. I understand you being drawn to watching Mr. Manning. Even I have to admit it's pretty interesting. Do I take it you haven't actually seen or heard anything of Colleen, then?"
"No, Pa,” said Andrew. “I haven't seen anyone even remotely resembling her. If it's only half past four, we ought to spend the next hour or so looking, I guess, before dinner.” Andrew turned to the painter. “Thank you for putting up with me, Mr. Manning."
"Wait a minute," started Daniel, who had begun to step away and then had an idea. "I was wondering, Mr. Manning—where do you purchase your painting supplies?"
The man paused for this, and he looked at Daniel like he was surprised, like he hadn’t taken him for a fellow artist. He looked like he was scrutinizing Daniel’s figure from the top of his head right to the ground, and making certain judgments about him. "Why, I bring them with me,” he said. “One can't utilize just any random canvas, any cheap brush, you know. Are you a painter?"
Daniel answered the Englishman. "Actually, no. But there is a woman we are in search of—you may have gathered from our conversation?”
"Ah, the woman you are in search of would like to purchase some painting materials?"
Daniel and Andrew looked at each other, their nearly identical smiles mirroring one another. "It's very possible; probable I would say, that she would, or has, need of painting supplies," said Daniel, in a fast tumble of confused words. "But knowing where she might go to purchase her things is hardly going to help us out, now, is it? Unless we're going to wait until she runs out of paint, and stake out the shops, we're not likely to find her that way."
As they stood there, a steady stream of people started to flow out of the grandstand and onto the grassy grounds, and the two of them craned their necks to see as many people as they possibly could. Daniel was about to suggest that he force his way through the crowd to stand on the other side, so that the two of them would ultimately have a chance of seeing more people, when he stopped in his tracks.
He was staring at Alfred Manning' horse and jockey painting.
"Andrew, look at this."
"Look at what?" asked Andrew.
"I didn't notice this when I was looking right at the painting, but on a quick glance, doesn't that person right there—” He pointed toward the busy crowd scene in the background of the painting, "—look like Colleen?" Before Andrew could answer, Daniel squinted at the painting and moved his face closer. "Or maybe not. When I was standing farther away I thought I saw her, but now that I'm closer, all I can see is just this bunch of dots and smudges—no offense, Mr. Manning."
"No offense taken, sir," said Manning, smiling beneath his large bushy moustache.
Andrew spoke up. "Pa, Mr. Manning is of the Impressionist School. He uses bright little touches of color to record his impression of the way the light hits on people and things—he doesn't blend the colors beforehand, and he doesn't record all the little details, either."
"Quite so," said Manning.
"Whatever,” said Daniel. He found the explanation somewhat ridiculous. Art instruction wasn’t the reason they’d come to town. “Anyway, stand back here, Andrew, and tell me what you see in the crowd—what I think is the crowd—in the background."
They both took two steps back, and Andrew' saw it, too. "You're right! That surely does look like Colleen! Mr. Manning, how long have you been set up here?"
"Oh, I've only been here for about an hour and a half, today," he replied.
"Then Colleen must be right here,” said Andrew.
Mr. Manning interrupted, "But the background people were painted when I was set up here yesterday afternoon." The men's shoulders drooped. "The angle of the sun changes so, you know, from one hour to another, that I can only work on a painting for a little over an hour at a time, and then I must come back the next day. At the same time."
At the same time.
"So we can be fairly sure that she was here yesterday, and maybe she was here today," said Andrew. "And we can pinpoint the time, too." The sounds of the people and even his son’s voice had been drowned out by the sound of the blood pounding in Daniel’s head. He was still looking at the painting, and a bolt of fear shot through him, seizing all movement, even his breathing. "Pa!" Andrew cried as he grabbed his arm and stood between him and the half-finished painting. "Pa, what is it?"
Daniel closed his eyes and took in a deep breath through his nose. He hoped that it would not be there when he opened his eyes again. He opened them, and there it was. The painted Colleen seemed to be looking at a specific painted man. And that man was dressed as a colonial soldier. And he was looking back at her.

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