Living with Van Gogh

I’ve been living with Van Gogh for three months now. I don’t get paid for it. It’s been arranged on a strictly voluntary basis but there are a lot of perks and I get to spend time with his paintings. That’s the best part. There is something really intimate about being with them out of hours – those brief moments when I am on my own before the gallery opens or just after it closes. That’s when he says ‘Call me Vincent’ and we fall into an easy way together.

He wants to paint me because I’ve captivated him with my charm. I am always stepping up to mirrors to admire my own reflection. I tease him with my lips. I love to see his passion reflected in the glass. I imagine what it would be like to be in the frame, to be a portrait, oil on canvas, for all the world to admire. Deep down though, I know he is more of a landscape man. Nevertheless, I could knock the spots of Sien – that model he lived with when he was in the Hague. I’ve studied her form. At first I admit I was a little jealous, particularly since Sorrow was acknowledged so widely as a masterpiece, but after a while I was alright about it. That was after Theo had told me that it wasn’t exactly love with Sien but more a matter of mutual understanding.

I look quite elegant in my smart uniform although I am a bit miffed that I can’t alter my dress code. I try to explain to Vincent that it’s gallery policy for all the attendants to look the same. It’s so that we can be recognised by the public. I think he understands. At any rate, he never seems to complain. I try to make up for it in my own small way. I wear different earrings, for example, change my perfume, put blusher on my cheeks and experiment with a variety of shades of lipstick.  I also make a point of going through my entire collection of shoes. I have to be discreet in heels because they make quite a noise when I walk across the floor. I’m sure he notices all these things. After all, a good artist has to have excellent powers of observation in order to succeed.

On second thoughts, I think he would  prefer to see me wearing something brighter – yellow, perhaps. I’m sure that’s his favourite colour. Unfortunately, I have to stick with regulation blue.

“Amy,” he says, “I’m really not fussed.” I love it when he gets technical.

***

We have a fractious relationship. I can never quite give myself to him completely. I’m always worried that someone will come along and steal a part of him from me. It’s happened before and it could happen again. I have to be in a constant state of vigilance. Perhaps that’s why I always make a point of looking at The Potato Eaters just to reassure myself that it’s still there. I know it so well now. I love the way the haunting scene reeks of peasant labour. The expressions on their faces are so intense I can almost hear the table talk. I study it intently right down to the gnarled wood at the weathered edge of the table. I don’t look at the other paintings all that much. Instead, I sit and worry about climate change. I keep all the Met. Office predictions for the coming week bottled up inside. Everything has to be kept at a certain temperature in here. The lighting has to be just right. I’m always having to check the thermometers and adjust the blinds.

Flooding is a constant hazard. I get worked up about the possibility of rainwater coming through the ceiling. I have buckets at the ready in case there is a sudden deluge. I worry about fire and check all the sprinklers. I make sure that the fire extinguishers are in good working order. I keep a check on the electrics and take care that none of the sockets are overloaded. I keep a lookout for trailing wires. I have my walkie-talkie with me in case of an emergency. I know which buttons to press to summon help but despite all that, I’m quite calm, really.

I get concerned when anyone gets too close to you. I worry in case they are intent on doing some damage. It rarely occurs to me first off that they simply want to look at you in more detail or that they are short-sighted and are experiencing difficulty reading the text. I wonder what your subjects think about all this? Do you mind, Sien, when a total stranger looks at you like that? How does it feel, I wonder, when a gaggle of schoolboys snigger at your anatomy? Sometimes it’s better to be admired from afar.

Umbrellas are a hazard. They should, of course, be left in reception. I sometimes have to remind people about that. They look at me as if they have been greatly inconvenienced and then they study my name badge and then they realise that I am on the staff and then they cough politely and utter an apology and then they acquiesce. It’s the same with carrier bags. You never know what’s in them. Spray paint is the worst. I keep telling myself not to jump to conclusions. Reception takes care of that.

***

Living with Van Gogh, I only have eyes for his works. His Sunflowers fill my days and nights. They grow with me all summer. “Oh boy,” I say to myself, “one of these days you’ll turn into one.” I am so full of happiness and very much in love. The intense colours of the Provençal landscape fill me with longing.

On days when the gallery is not so crowded, I sit and make a study of the whole series. I search out those minor differences that set the flowers apart. I love the bright yellow of their full blooms and the dull brown of their decay.

Another day I might look at The Yellow Chair. Most people, on first acquaintance only see the chair but over time I’ve learnt to look a little deeper and so I like to concentrate on the box of onions positioned at the rear. It fascinates me that only a part of it lies within the frame. It’s as if it’s saying “Hey, don’t forget me, I want to be in the picture too.”

For ages now I’ve been looking at that painting of the wheat field – the one with the flock of birds. What a dramatic, busy sky; what a windswept field! Time and again I want to walk down that lonely track ostensibly leading nowhere. Is that where you went to, Vincent, when you shot yourself? And are the crows flying into the painting or out of it? I can never make up my mind.

***

As soon as I showed up for work they said to me “Your task is to be almost invisible. You must move soundlessly from one gallery to the next. You must only speak when you’re spoken to; you must not get in anyone’s way, especially their field of vision. After you have greeted people on arrival and verified their tickets, you must fade into the background. Always be discreet. You must be prepared to stand and remain focussed for long periods of time. You must approach visitors diplomatically when they break gallery rules.”

“Okay,” I said. I am a person of slight build, good looks and few words.

I am also a people-watcher. I like to analyse each person while they examine the paintings. I am interested to see which paintings appeal to them the most and which ones the least. I like to deduce something from that. I enjoy seeing how they are dressed. I try to guess where their clothes come from. I like to see their shoes.

I love to watch couples. They are so engrossed in each other’s presence that the paintings must be a blur. I like to watch those who come to be seen and those who come to be heard; those who talk at length in the hope that others will be impressed and hang on their every word. And then there are the silent types, the ones who take down copious notes and sit on folding chairs.

***

Tomorrow I’m going to turn the tables on you. I sense you’ve lost interest in me. When I wake up, I’ll do what I always do. I’ll put on my mood and then I’ll put on my clothes. This time I will be the centre of attention. Everyone who comes to the gallery will come to see me. I’ll be the one that will make heads turn because I’m tired of being in your shadow, Vincent. I’m tired of shoring up your insecurity. I’ll step into my highest slingbacks and I’ll leave a button undone on my blouse. I’ll ruffle my hair so that it looks as if I have just got up after a long night of love…and I’ll stand in the centre of every room. I will be unforgettable. Everyone will admire me. The adoring crowd will cluster round me but they will not be allowed to touch. As they turn their backs on you, Vincent, I will imagine your jealousy.

Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His work has been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His latest publications are The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014) and The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2015). His work has been translated into Romanian, Spanish and Swedish.

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