Art Pact 123

"The forgeries of time," said Portin, sifting through the heap of photographs with her fingers. She seemed to be staring at all of them at the same time, not searching for one individual picture but viewing them as a photo-mosaic or some enigmatic gestalt. I waited for her to clarify her point, but she declined by inaction, continuing the hypnotic movement. First she plunged her arms elbow deep into the box of pictures, then withdrawing them slowly she would raise up two handfuls of photos, letting those balance precariously at the edge of each hand tumble back into the pile. Eventually she would be left with only a couple of photographs which, after barely a glance, she would release again by declining her palms. Then the process would begin again. I marvelled at how she was able to perform it without repeated paper cuts, but Portin seemed perfectly comfortable.

"How long is she going to be here?" Raquella whispered. She was scratching nervously at a red sore on the inside of her left thigh, and her gaze was roaming around the room. She was afraid to look away from Portin, but afraid to be caught looking at her, so she looked from one thing to the next, never settling on an object for her attention but always moving, moving, returning to Portin in between times as though the old woman were simply another thing that had got in the way of her glancing. I had always thought of Raquella as young, but measured against Portin she seemed positively a child, notwithstanding the fullness of her body. It amazed me that I could ever have felt such strong desire for her, and I suspected myself of "unpleasant tendencies", as the papers had termed it.

"The forgeries of time," Portin repeated. "Our memories, which neither depict accurately nor profoundly the truth of the events they represent. We believe that we know a thing to be true because we have experienced it, but those experiences contain within them the seed of their own decay."

"Yes," Raquella said, then yelped as Portin turned an eye on her. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be," said the older women. "You see it, for a moment. Unlike this one"--she pointed at me--"who claims to be clever but sees nothing."

"Pardon me." I said. Portin laughed, trawled another haul of photographs out of the box and let it fall again. At the last moment, however, her left hand darted out and caught a picture as it fell from her right palm. She paused, as if for applause (I did not feel keen to oblige), and then raised the photo up so close to her face that it was almost touching her nose. She studied it for a few seconds.

"Here," she said, turning to present it to us.

It was a small group in evening dress - four men, three women, all relatively young, plus a girl child of two or three, surrounded by fronds of pot plants in what looked like a particularly opulent hotel lobby. One of the men, the second from the right, his arm around a young woman of roughly the same age, was me.

"When was this taken?" I asked. "I don't remember-"

"Of course not," Portin snapped. "Look again."

The man second from the right was not me, of course - it was my father, perhaps a decade before I had been born. The woman was not my mother, but I thought that I recognised her. The feeling was so strong that it seemed at any moment her name  might spring out of my mouth, but it remained that way, like the feeling before a sneeze or an orgasm that would not come. I reached for the photo and Portin allowed me to pluck it out of her fingers for closer examination.

"I was sure it was me," I said. "He looks so-"

"Foolish," Portin said. "Yes, the resemblance in that respect is startling. The woman is Cettey Tiller, the others are unimportant. Friends of theirs who did nothing remarkable."

"What about the girl?"

"Especially the girl," she said, and in that phrase betrayed herself. I said nothing, though. I studied my father's hair - the same as mine, such styles must not be subject to the vagaries of fashion. His clothes I thought I recognised, but it seemed to me that the fit was too good, that the clothes would suit him more comfortably were they stretched across an expanding belly, their buttons double-stitched and reinforced by the patient needlework of my mother to take the load they were not originally designed for.

"Where are they?" Raquella asked. "It looks nice."

"Perceptive again," Portin said. I caught a smile from Raquella at this unexpected praise, but she still did not stop worrying the sore on her leg. I grabbed her wrist, circling it with my thumb and index finger, and took it away from the wound. "The place is the Grand Corvenius, now demolished. You see, memories decay so strongly that they can even destroy the objects of which they were formed. But this"--she tapped the back of the photo so that my father and his companions jumped at me for a second--"this is better than memories, and worse. Here is a moment trapped, sealed away in silver so that it will be preserved forever."

"Not forever," I told her, and my eyes glanced towards the fire.

"Nitpicking," she said dismissively. "Young woman, tell me what you see in this picture."

"I don't-" Raquella began.

"Tell me," Portin repeated.

"Oh. Well, uh, these people are going to a party? The girl they've brought along, but no-one wants to be responsible for her. I don't think any of them are her mother. A sister, maybe?"

"A sister, yes," Portin said, turning to me and grinning. "You see, this moppet is more perceptive that you have ever been."

"The man at the front"--my father, she meant, although she did not know that--"and the woman are in love."

"Quite," said Portin. "Quite."


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