This story is dedicated to Vincey Delaney in response to kind words and support, offering me much encouragement.
The wall clock broke the lingering silence shrouding Eleanor's isolated cottage and she yawned as the chime signaling midnight faded until deathly quiet once again held sway.
"A nightcap, I think" she murmured, using the strength of her arms to lever her frail body out of her favourite comfy chair, slowly getting to her feet, brushing away a loose strand of grey hair, forcing it behind her ear. "I'll sleep better with a brandy," she continued, stifling another yawn, pulling her homemade shawl tightly around her shoulders.
She poured the amber liquid into a shot glass and stared at the dying embers of her small log fire. Living deep in the English countryside had its advantages; gas central heating was not one of them. Eleanor did not mind though, reasoning that not having the convenience of gas and electricity was a small price to pay for the peace and solitude such a humble existence provided.
Pushing against the doors of the 'nonagenarian club', a ripe age to still be getting along by oneself, Eleanor felt rather content with the life she had lived. Despite being a relatively attractive girl in her youth, and middle years, she had remained single. Of course, she had known men, but their appeal quickly faded once they discovered that all Eleanor really desired, was a serious loving relationship, a quiet life and someone with whom to share those long winter evenings. However, she had discovered that such a man was impossible to find and eventually, settled for her own company.
With her brandy consumed she decided against putting another log on the fire, her gaze becoming transfixed on the powdery white ash lying against the charred wood, thinking how the contrasting image would look on her next canvas. Being an accomplished artist, she was forever absorbing the little oddities that go unnoticed by most people. Such imagery of nature had become her trademark, the intricate marbling of stone, colouring of a butterfly's wing or now, the crazed patterning of a half-burned log. Everything possessed character and beauty and Eleanor's ability for exposing nature's gifts had made her paintings highly sought after.
She yawned again and shivered as a noisy gust of wind whipped around the cottage, flicking under the eaves like an untamed living thing, the force rattling the ancient guttering in its rusting brackets. "The unrelenting promise of winter," she sighed, absently rubbing her thin arms, "another desolate season of coldness spent alone." Life, Eleanor mused, did not so much sneak up on one, but sped on ahead, unnoticed, so when we arrived, we had not realised it had already gone.
A tapping noise broke into her musings and at first she thought it was just the guttering learning a different tune before it eventually came tumbling down. "That'll be more expense," she complained, only the tapping grew louder and became more insistent and it also appeared to be coming from the rooms above rather than outside.
Eleanor stood at the foot of the stairs, her heart racing, her knees weakening so she had to support herself against the doorjamb. She felt sick and dizzy and swallowed hard as she wondered who or what it could be? "Hello?" she ventured, her voice trembling and anxious, "who's there?" She received no reply, but the tapping instantly ceased. "I'm not afraid," she lied as she peered up the inky blackness of the stairwell. She ambled into the kitchen and lit a candle, wondering how the intruder, if indeed it was an intruder, had entered? There were only two rooms upstairs, the art studio and her small bedroom, both of which had bolted windows that had been locked since mid-autumn so confusion was now added to her fear.
Returning to the stairs she began to climb, the flickering candle casting grotesque shadows all around her, the dark retreating across the landing before the encroaching light. First she checked her bedroom and unsurprisingly, found it devoid of anything threatening. The window catch was secured and there was no evidence that anything had been disturbed.
On approaching the art studio she noticed the door was slightly open and she paused on the threshold, thinking of all those flickering atmospheric horror films from her youth. Films featuring vulnerable females who always, often stupidly, stepped into the waiting jaws of danger and Eleanor recalled how she had then vowed never to behave so idiotically. Now here she was, all alone, investigating suspicious tapping sounds.
"Could just be a mouse: couldn't it?" she asked herself. Accepting the mouse theory on the surface of her mind she quelled her underlying fear and stepped into her studio. In the warm glow of candlelight everything appeared as it should, apart from the painting on the easel. Eleanor stepped closer, her heart skipped a beat and a chill rippled over her body making her skin tingle. Was this her painting? It looked similar, a representation of a wealth of trees, silver birches, reflected off a moonlit lake, but now there was a man standing by the water's edge. Not only did Eleanor not paint figures, but the most startling aspect of this strange addition to her painting was that the man was naked.
Eleanor stared, her mouth agape, knowing she had not painted him, so why was he there? Had someone broken in and . . . then she screamed as the man's head turned and looked right at her. She dropped the candle as she backed away, at least, she thought she was backing away but actually, found herself moving closer to the painting that was now seemingly illuminated from within taking on a life of its own.
"Please, no," she wailed, her heart hammering in her chest, her eyes caught by the man's penetrating gaze as his hand emerged from the canvas and grabbed at her thin, pale wrist, pulling her toward him. On the verge of fainting Eleanor saw her hand slip into the painted world, only it was no longer old and frail with protruding bones and blue veins, but taut and firm, fleshed and bronzed, like the hand of a much younger woman. Eleanor gasped in disbelief as her whole body slid into another world, a world of her own skilled creation.
The man smiled as Eleanor, now also naked, examined her body flushed with the vigour of youth. "Be not afraid Eleanor, I am he for who you searched, but could not find."
Eleanor looked into his deep blue eyes and saw the man of her youthful desires. "But how, why? Who are you? I don't-"
The man placed his finger upon her lips. "You tell me who I am Eleanor, you have more talent than you ever imagined," he bade her to turn and Eleanor looked back at her cottage bathed in moonlight. "Your loneliness has ended; I am the happiness you denied yourself all these years."
Eleanor was deep in shock. "Does this mean . . . in the real world, am I-?" she began laughing, she couldn't help herself, this wasn't happening, then she sobbed and clenched her eyes against the pressing tears that threatened to well over.
When she opened them again, pale early morning sunshine played along her nakedness, only now she was no longer young, but saggy and wrinkled. She was lying on the floor of her studio and by her side, a pool of hardened wax showed where the candle had fallen and burned itself out next to her clothes in a dishevelled pile.
"That was lucky," mused Eleanor, her eyes then instantly flicking to the painting. "Hah," she laughed, to see the man was still there, looking at her, his eyes seemingly beckoning. Struggling she got to her knees and using the easel for support, pulled herself to her feet, took one last look at what had been her studio for the last sixty years and then stepped into a world of her own creation where her man, Harry, she would call him, embraced her.
* * *
Graham Pemberton, Eleanor's art agent, stared at the unusual painting, her final piece, unfinished and unsigned, that he had kept for himself as it was so unlike her other work. Eleanor's vanishing had been a mystery that filled the press for weeks until something else came along; then she was all but forgotten by the media.
Because of the pile of discarded clothes and her spontaneous personality, most had assumed that on a whim, she had taken herself off for a swim and drowned in the nearby lake that eventually fed into the river system and then the sea, but her body was never found. Graham truly loved Eleanor's final piece, it was so different and occasionally, from the corner of his eye, he thought he saw the figures moving. How very strange.