He set about his practice with the thoroughness of an auditor.
Trying to remain inconspicuous, he spent the remainder of the afternoon in the gallery, looking not at the pictures but the people.
The lesson from the lecture was simple, but very hard to implement. The presenter Lily had been good on theory, but not on practice. How do you choose what you see? How do you choose the Mona Lisa and not the world behind? Do you shut your eyes, breathe in, and then suddenly look at a person? Do you focus on them, intently? Do you take a swift glance and look away, so as not to see the world ahead of them? Maybe you repeat that, and slowly build up a picture of the person you are looking at, a kind of composite with no time to add the baggage.
He sat on one of the benches in front of an Edwardian portrait.
A woman in slacks and long top was examining the picture next to his. She was going to die in thirty-four years’ time. Damn, it was too quick. It caught him off guard.
A man entered, bushy haired, holding a satchel, dying in ten. A pair of women, both grey haired, gone in seven and twenty-three.
He put his head in his hands. What to do, what to do. His watch said four-thirty: he had about sixteen hours to master it, providing he didn’t sleep.
He heard a soft footfall and looked up at an elderly gent with a cane and reflective spectacles. Eleven years.
Damn, what was the trick to this?
He stood up as a group entered, and tried to ignore them, but their years kept flowing about them, fifty, sixty-eight, forty-two, eighteen. He spun around and sat down again. He saw a young woman enter and followed her unblinking as she strolled about the chamber. She noticed him staring at her and walked briskly out to her demise some seventy-three years hence. Two children danced in and remarked ‘Boring’, and left quickly. Good long lives ahead of them.
There were more deliberate footsteps, and he saw a guard approaching him. He stared at the man who said,
‘Excuse me, sir, are you okay?’
His stance was assertive, squared legged in front of Geoffrey, presumably in case Geoffrey made a sudden move.
Geoffrey smiled wanly, looking directly up into the man’s face.
‘Are you alright, sir? Is there anything I can help you with?’
Holding the stare, Geoffrey stood up slowly. He hadn’t seen the guard’s death. He studied the man’s face. Solid, clean shaven, impassive, clumpy eyebrows that could do with some attention. A small scar on his cheek, bronzed skin.
‘Perhaps you might come with me, sir,’ the guard was saying.
‘Yes!’ Geoffrey spun around and glanced at satyrs on a canvas then turned and hugged the guard. ‘Thank you thank you thank you,’ he said as he released the stunned guard. He turned and almost skipped out of the room.
He heard the guard walking after him, but saw Lily in the next room talking to another person.
He set his focus on her. “Lily!”
She turned away from the person she was talking to and smiled at him. He kept his gaze on her as he approached.
‘Hello there,’ she said.
He kept looking at her. She smiled and waited as he kept looking at her.
‘You were the gentleman in the presentation, weren’t you,’ she said. Geoffrey continued looking at her intently, without any vision appearing. Maybe this was the answer: keep the focus on the Mona Lisa, don’t let it drop. ‘I didn’t get your name though,’ she said after a longer than acceptable pause.
In the back of his mind Geoffrey realised he needed to reply, but was scared that he might drop his concentration. He dropped his gaze.
‘Sorry,’ he said in attempted humour, ‘I was just choosing what I see, focusing on the Mona Lisa and not the background.’ He heard her chuckle and lifted his gaze again, and refocused.
‘Well, that’s a practical approach.’ She flicked her hair back and returned his gaze. ‘And tell me, whom do you find more attractive, Lisa Giocondo or Lily Anderson?’
‘That’s easy,’ said Geoffrey and smiled. ‘I much prefer the one who’s alive.’ He was concentrating hard now, desperate not to see anything more than the woman in front of him.
The guard arrived. ‘Is this man intruding, Lily?’ he said. She turned away from Geoffrey.
‘Oh hi, Jacob. This man? No, not at all. He’s a valued attendee at a lecture I just gave and we thought we’d catch up afterwards.’
The guard eyeballed Geoffrey suspiciously, snorted. ‘Okay then Lily, have a good afternoon.
‘I wander what that was all about?’ said Lily after the guard had left. Geoffrey shrugged.
‘Well, would you care to grab a coffee from the cafeteria?’ said Lily.
He still hadn’t seen her future, so was tempted to see how long he could keep up the contact, but he also wanted to practice on others. ‘Sure,’ he said.
He walked with her. ‘I thought your comments in the theatre were very astute,’ she said.
Geoffrey was staring intently at another person. thirty four years. Damn. He winced then gathered courage to return a definite focus to his companion. ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘I was distracted by a painting.’
Lily smiled and said, ‘The Janet Alderson? She’s one of my favourite artists, from the sixties and seventies. She’s Melbourne based, in her eighties now, but has a great legacy. We don’t normally show her but I persuaded the director to let her out of archives for a spell.’
Geoffrey smiled. ‘You love your artists.’
She touched his elbow and said, ‘I’m free the rest of the day. I could give you a private tour if you’d like.’
She was beaming up at him, bright, eager and deathless.
He pondered the invitation. Coffee would have him sitting staring at others while talking to her. That would be rude. Walking around would give him more opportunity to observe others.
‘Do you have any particular collection you’d like to see?’ Lily asked.
Geoffrey pulled his gaze from a man with a cane and thick glasses, and who had ten years left.
‘Any particular collection?’ said Lily.
‘I don’t know much about art,’ said Geoffrey. ‘I’m interested in how people see.’
‘Oh well then,’ said Lily. ’I’ll take you to the Australian gallery and we can explore how the Europeans have seen the Australian landscape since1788.’
‘Will that be crowded?’ said Geoffrey.
Lily touched his arm and said, ‘It’s pretty popular but not too bad at this time of day. There’ll be privacy.’
I don’t want privacy, thought Geoffrey, I want people to practice looking at.
He followed her around to the Australian section only half hearing her say, ‘I noticed you chatting with Sonya Beidecker before the presentation.’
‘Sonya Beidecker. She’s a stalwart of the Gallery, and a major benefactor. We always say she’s just here for the free champagne and the matchmaking, but she has been very good to me after I broke up with my last boyfriend ten months ago.’
She bumped into Geoffrey and said, ‘Oops, just around here,’ and they turned into a hall of landscape paintings.
Geoffrey leered at the security guard seated in the opposite doorway. Nothing, just a woman in dark uniform staring listlessly at the room.
‘This is good, this is good,’ said Geoffrey.
‘Oh good, you like it,’ said Lily.
Geoffrey paused a moment. He had not realised he had spoken his thoughts out loud.
Lily grabbed his arm. ‘Okay, a whistle stop tour on how Europeans have seen the landscape.’
He padded after her as she described the history of Australian landscape art, all the while looking longingly at other visitors to the Gallery. There were less than he wanted, but he made the most of the few that were wondering about the Gallery, while trying to look interested in what Lily was saying.
Of those he was able to take a good look at, he saw only a few visions. It was those he glanced at that were more often accompanied by their hospital beds, home beds, and what looked like a heart attack victim. He was pleased to find if he focused carefully he did not experience any visions. The question was though if he could focus and not look like he was focusing.
She has stopped and was facing him directly. ‘I know it sounds cliched, but personally I have always loved Whiteley. His curves are so sumptuous and erotic don’t you think? Even the hills and river lines, they are so passionate and sexual.’
Geoffrey noticed the hall they stood in was vacant, save for he and Lily. She was beaming up at him again. A guard approached them and advised that the Gallery had closed. Lily replied that Geoffrey was a special visitor and would be here a little longer. Geoffrey turned and looked determinedly at the guard. There was no vision. The guard looked at him oddly. He smiled, and said ‘Hi.’ The guard left.
‘Normally we have Friday drinks in the staff room,’ said Lily. ‘I could get you in there, or we could find a place to eat nearby. I know an intimate restaurant called Bon Vin in Darlinghurst that serves fabulous French inspired cuisine. Why don’t I book us a table? You’ll love it.’
Geoffrey looked down at her keen face, her bob cut, the elegant eye shadow, the red lipstick. Her hand was on his forearm.
He felt pressured to accompany her, but cognisant of his greater obligation, to prepare for Lucy’s arrival tomorrow morning. But here was a woman he had just spent an hour with, without seeing when she died. Here was possibility, a clean slate, someone who seemed keen, and who knew nothing at all about his ability. Lucy was wary, she might arrive tomorrow and reject him. Absolute candour did not always produce the best outcome. Sure, he’d been honest, but at what price if Lucy left him?
‘You’re very intense, you know?’ she said. “You have a very intense stare.’
He hated letting people down. But thoughts of Lucy clawed his mind. The times he’d shared with Lucy, and the conversations they’d had, especially today’s, had deepened his feelings for her. He was vulnerable now, whereas with Lily he could continue to hide. Lucy now knew him. Knew his faults and struggle and peculiarities. He had to let that intimacy run its course, for if all went well it promised great things.
He contemplated how best to decline her invitation. He thought he’d try being polite at first and if that didn’t work, make himself repulsive.
He said, ‘I’m really grateful for this afternoon, and I have learned so much in your company. I’m sure if we spent more time together it’d be really … productive.’ He saw her shoulders droop. ‘And it has been wonderfully unexpected. It’s just that, well, I have to see other people tonight. Would you mind if I take a raincheck on your wonderful offer? The bistro sounds great.’
Lily smiled wanly. ‘Sure.’ Geoffrey felt guilty and blinked. The room filled with a family of five standing about a bed in a large room. He closed his eyes and hung on, willing the vision to dissipate.
He heard Lily’s voice asking, ‘Are you okay?’
He turned away momentarily, fighting the vision, driving it out of his mind’s eye. After a moment it evaporated. He turned to Lily with such force that she took a step back.
He said, ‘You really helped me. When I said I was interested in how we see, I didn’t think I’d benefit so much from your lecture or the tour you just gave me. Thank you. But tell me this, if I’m not being too intense, if someone said to you they could see the moment you die, the moment of your death, what would you say?’
Lily’s eyes widened and she raised a hand to her gaping mouth.
‘My goodness you are intense,’ she said. ‘Is that what today has been all about for you?’
‘That is really weird. No one has ever tried that line on me before. I’d say it was impossible. More than a bit freakish in fact. Unnerving.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Geoffrey. ‘Thank you for the day.’
As he turned to leave she grabbed him and, staring deeply into his eyes, said, ‘I like unnerving though, it excites me. Please come and see me again.’ And she kissed him lightly on the lips. He didn’t invite anything stronger from her, but thanked her again, and apologised gain then turned to leave.
As he walked out, he felt embarrassed by the interaction, ashamed that he had led her on and appalled that he had been so obtuse. But at least he hadn’t seen her end.
He dined at a restaurant strip at a café on the street, eyeing passers-by as night fell. The corner pub heaved with patrons who spilled out on to the footpath, drinks in hand or sitting at small tables consuming burgers and chips. Neighbouring cafes sold dumplings pasta, sushi. He trained his focus on customers who stood or sat, willing himself to control what he saw.
He met with good success. If he focused carefully on the person he could avoid seeing beyond them to their future. Where he was more casual he was more alert to their periphery, and the visions appeared.
He met with adverse comments too, and was told to stop staring a number of times. Each time he apologised and paused before finding another subject. To his astonishment later in the evening he found he could flip the process, and begin by not seeing a vision, then relax his field of vision and it would appear. He was gaining control, and he hoped he had enough to make the airport greeting a success.
He caught a cab home, flipping between the here and then with the cabbie, alive and dead, alive and dead. He recalled he had done that with Dave very early on, when he had gone back in to see the lampshade, but now he was garnering some mastery over the skill.
He slept fitfully, worried about Lucy’s arrival, and was at the airport early. He stood a little distance from the gate, partly out of politeness, but partly to allow him to take an early view. If it failed he could take the cowardly approach and flee, but if it succeeded he could walk to greet her.
There were a few other people waiting, a mother and two young kids in their pyjamas, a woman he guessed was in her thirties and a very fashionably dressed young man in suit and tie, with a neat haircut and gold earring in one ear.
The door swung open and a stewardess came out, followed by the first group of travellers looking a little unkempt after their overnight flight. He stood on tip toes to see if Lucy was coming and espied a flock of red hair behind a trio of young men in checked shirts, faded jeans and Birkenstocks.
This was the moment.
* * * * * *
Photo by Lesly Juarez, via Unsplash