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The painting had belonged to my aunt. I recognised it instantly. It had hung over her mantlepiece since I was a kid.

“Why-”

My mother smiled and shrugged. “I have no idea. There was no note with it or anything. I suppose she doesn’t want it now she’s going into a retirement home. Too many memories. And you were always so fascinated by it when you were little.”

I looked at the painting with a critical eye. It was decent enough; a pretty watercolour showing my aunt’s cottage, the front garden in full bloom. I couldn’t particularly remember being that interested in it, but I hadn’t been to visit my aunt for almost ten years.

My mother sat down next to me and looked over my shoulder at it. “Do you remember what you used to say about this painting? You had such an imagination when you were that age.”

I frowned. I did remember something about it.

“That’s funny,” I said. “I was sure there were roses in this picture.”

My mother frowned. “I don’t remember them in the painting, but your aunt had roses in the garden until a few years ago. They got diseased and your dad dug them all out.”

I laughed. “Must be a good painting if I’m getting it confused with the real thing!”

I hung it up on the wall; it didn’t really match my decor, but it was decent enough and it would have been rude not to display it somewhere. My mother bustled around, as usual, tidying up after me as if I was still a stubborn teenager, until she had to go and catch the train home.

I turned to look at the painting again. It seemed so familiar, and yet so strange.

I stepped closer. There was smoke, coming from the chimney. Painted perfectly, in subtle shades of blue and grey. That was new. It hadn’t been there when I hung it up.

I shook my head and laughed at myself. My mum was right about my imagination.

Still, it preyed on my mind, and after I’d had a cup of tea I found myself standing in front of it again. The smoke was going in a different direction now, I was sure of it. As if the wind had changed.

And there- I gasped. How could I have forgotten her?

She stood looking out of the front window. Almost invisible; but now that I’d seen her, she was definitely there. Blonde hair and a blue dress, just like when I was a little boy. I remembered seeing her all over the painting. Sometimes, she would be in the garden, hiding behind the bushes or smelling the roses – the roses that used to be there but which were gone now. Sometimes I’d seen her playing hopscotch on the garden path. She was a pretty little girl, with pigtails and a sad face.

But not any more. She was grown up now, like me. And while I’d moved around, gone to university, settled down, she was exactly where she’d always been. In my aunt’s painting.

I stood in front of the painting for hours, waiting to see her move. She didn’t. I realised that I had done the same thing when I was a child. The same rules still applied, obviously. She only ever moved when she wasn’t being watched.

I looked away for five minutes, then looked back. The front door was open, and she was standing there, half in shadow.

I knew what I had to do then. I had to find a way of freeing her. Maybe that’s why my aunt had sent me the picture – perhaps she thought, as an artist, I would be the one to help the girl to freedom.

I took the painting off my wall and rushed through to the studio. I set it up on a spare easel and got to work straight away on another canvas. Perhaps, I thought, if I painted her on another canvas,she’d be able to move between the two.

I spent months on it. Not just one painting; many. I tried watercolours, oils, pastels, pencils. I drew her in every place i could imagine. Nothing worked. She only ever moved through the first painting, and she looked so lonely. She looked as if she knew what I was trying to do. Perhaps she could hear me, talking to her as I painted. Perhaps she could see me. I couldn’t tell. But I knew that she was aware. She moved further forward in the picture. She no longer lurked behind the glass of the window, or stood in the shadow of the door. She stood by the gate, in the sunshine, lonely, sad and expectant.

It occurred to me as if in a flash. The magic that allowed her to move was in the canvas, not in her image. I tried an experiment. My cat, Charlie, was sitting on the windowsill. He had long been a favourite subject of mine. I could have drawn him from memory. There was a nice sunny patch of grass there on the lawn – he would be happy there. I painted him in, as if in a fever, then turned away, holding my breath.

When I looked back, he was in her arms, and she was smiling – just a little bit. I looked over at the windowsill, and he was gone.

I left the studio straight away. I cancelled the milk and the papers, sent instructions to my solicitors, and wrote to my mother. Now I have just one thing left to do – one figure to paint.

She’s waited for me for so long, the lonely girl in the painting, and now I’m going to join her.

© Kari Fay

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