Another story from one of our favourite writers:
The White Horse
The Gallery was situated on a hill overlooking a river and small town, built into and around an old farmhouse. Suzi arrived puffed from her walk up from the station, awestruck by the beauty of the place seen in the cold December light. It was an extremely exclusive gallery, the new English branch of an internationally famous Art House Suzi had never heard of before her college supervisor mentioned that they were looking for extra staff.
Art School graduates are two a penny people had told her, and as she had only just about started as a first year student perhaps she might have to lower her sights and accept any job that was going whilst she was “making a name for herself”. But this one had sounded marvellously glamorous! She had no idea what an “invigilator” might have to do in an art gallery, and when she rang the number quoted they were rather vague about terms of employment and pay, but for a seasonal job it seemed too good to be true. She could learn so much about the commercial side of the art business and study new and innovative works. It was a really rare opportunity for anyone living in the depths of the countryside where gift shops only sold local landscapes, animal portraits and crocheted tea cosies. Her idea of art came from the great collections and a vivid imagination.
The Gallery didn’t open until 10.00 but she was there well ahead of time and for several minutes gazed around the outside of the buildings, fascinated by the large scale works on display. There was a series of larger than life pink animal figures in one yard, a huge black spider in another.
The manager of the gallery, or whoever it was that came after she had waited several minutes at the door, gave her a very cautious welcome. He rifled through some papers on the reception desk, gave up on what he was looking for and showed her where to hang her coat. Then he thrust some notes into her hand and led her to one of the white walled rooms. It was dark except for a large screen showing an unsettling seascape. The sign above the door said “Dystopia”. She was told to sit in the corner and watch that visitors didn’t touch anything at all. There were very few visitors and not much to touch in that room anyway but the remarks of the viewers as they went through her room were enlightening. They were not the sort of people she normally met, with strange but obviously very expensive clothes. She had a stool to sit on in one corner and was sorry that the dim lighting prevented her reading the notes. The artwork was in itself was interesting, even mesmeric; sitting there in the dark she tried to understand it, to get inside the head of the artist – but after three hours was becoming very bored.
At about 1.30 an aloof woman with long sets of beads swinging across her rather flat chest came to take her place and pointed out the little room beside the kitchen where she could eat her sandwiches. Other staff seemed to be very busy, too busy to talk. The waitresses hurried past – in fact she rather wished she hadn’t stressed her art school aspirations when she was interviewed on the telephone, it would have been more fun to be rushing about with plates up her arms than sitting in silence in a darkened room!
At 1.30 she decided her break was up so found her way back through the cloakroom and the shop to the reception desk.
“What shall I do now?” she asked the supervisor.
“Oh – ah – yes, you’re new aren’t you? We need someone in Gallery 13”. He hesitated, looking at her thoughtfully, then gave a small shrug. “You’d better follow me”.
Suzi was led through a series of fascinating galleries, all of different heights and dimensions. They were elegantly lit, with just a few sculptures and even fewer pictures on the walls. Really the gallery itself was far more amazing than any of the work in it she thought, rather guiltily. However, it was a little comfort to notice that in every room there was another young woman sitting on a stool guarding the contents. They were an unsmiling bunch, mostly bent over catalogues.
Suzi and her guide traversed an open garden space and followed a corridor to its far end to reach Gallery 13. There was another stool in the corner and another sheaf of notes waiting for her. Well, that would give her something to do because what viewers there were were enjoying their lunch elsewhere at that time of day. She found herself in a huge white space with just a little natural light coming from the clerestory windows and some clever spot lighting. It was very austere and very impressive but cold, too cold, like a Romanesque cathedral or a morgue.
Alone again, she solemnly inspected each art work. There were only two very large pictures on the far wall, in streaky black and grey. Around the room were well spaced objects that were hard to interpret. One was a small ceramic bowl carefully placed to catch a very occasional drip from the ceiling. Another bowl held what on closer inspection appeared to be a human ear. There were two driftwood sculptures bearing unlit but dripping candles, a misshaped copper vase, the head of a screaming child, and an outsize scimitar with drops of dark red blood clinging to it.
But even as she went around the gallery her eyes could hardly leave the centrepiece, a life sized white horse on its back, legs frantically kicking in the air. It was so accurately sculpted, so lifelike, it seemed almost to be moving, in fact writhing on the floor. She knew it was verboten but could not resist tapping lightly to find out if it was really made of pure white marble. The head was raised off the floor, nostrils flaring, its mane tangled underneath and mouth gaping in a silent scream. The long white tail trailed out across the floor space. She was still gazing at it when her first visitor came in. He asked her what the pictures represented (she had no idea) and how much the copper vase was. There were no price tags; looking it up in her notes she could see why. If you needed to ask you couldn’t afford it. The price of the horse, however, was omitted.
She spent a little while trying to memorise the titles in the catalogue and to answer a few other visitors’ questions. Was there really a hole in the roof? Couldn’t they mend it? Where was the toilet?
The few people who came and gazed at the white horse were silent as they walked around it. They frowned and pointed. When she dared leave her perch she approached it again and peered more carefully. They’d been pointing at some sort of neat stitching that seemed to be holding the edges of a wound together over its belly. Being all white it was not easy to make out, but she began to realise that the skin was drawn back from part of the torso revealing some of its intestines. And the sinews of the front legs were on display, again with the skin flaps turned back. The eyes were full of pain and horror. It was not just a beautiful horse stretching its limbs and scratching its back on the ground as it had first appeared, but a half flayed animal in its death throes, beautiful in stony agony.
Suzi loved animals and horses in particular. She drew back in horror when she realised what she was looking at and retreated to her stool. The catalogue just said “White Horse”. By four O’clock daylight was fading and no more visitors came. The gallery had only opened a few months earlier, it had not had time to attract critical attention. There were no sounds of life anywhere nearby and Suzi began to wish she had tried for a job delivering the Xmas post. She was an extrovert, practical girl, moved to tears by the thought of a tortured animal, horrified at the imagination of the artist. It made her think of bullfighting, the little girl napalmed in the photo from Vietnam, Dachua concentration camp. Art is supposed to make you think.
Confined in a room full of enigma and torment Suzi shrank away from its implications. She was very alone that afternoon, a girl who’d never been much alone at all in her short life. She tried to distract herself with activity. She could empty the dripping water bowl for a start and leave it clean and empty. The scimitar had thick cobwebs on its hilt and the human ear needed dusting. If she lit the candles it would cheer the place up a bit, after all it was Christmas time and a few more drips wouldn’t hurt. When she could no longer avoid looking at it she wondered what she could do for the poor horse. A vet would have shot it. The best she could think of was to stroke its nose and cover the gaping wound of its gaping belly with a piece of unidentifiable material draped over one of the pieces of driftwood. There was complete silence inside and outside the room, cold as it was and increasingly sinister.
She fled. She simply left the gallery, grabbed her coat and scarf and headed off for the station, down the hill as fast as her legs would carry her. Heavy mist covered the hillside, a fox barked and the sound of a horse’s high pitched whinny followed her as she ran.
When the gallery supervisor went round to secure each exhibition space for the night he was surprised and furious to find one of them deserted. Someone had been interfering with the precious artworks too. The candles were dripping all over the place and something was altered in ever exhibit. He had a quick look at the horse, the most valuable thing in the gallery, and it seemed to be the same. But had it had its eyes closed before? It looked strangely at peace now, its legs no longer thrashing so wildly, but he put that down to a trick of the light and hastily locked up for the night.
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