The Feet Affair
By Martin Westlake
'All that remains from the work of Skopas
are the feet. Sometimes not even that'
(Jack Gilbert, from 'Theoretical Lives')
Millicent was in a business meeting when a vibrating buzz announced the arrival of a text message. It was surely Danny. She affected indifference and some embarrassment and pushed the smartphone under her file. Snatching a quick glimpse at the still-illuminated screen she saw that it was indeed her husband. She had, as usual, slipped her shoes off under the table. She crossed her stockinged feet and rubbed them together. The finance director was droning on. Millicent knew what the message would be about. It would read something like ‘I have found something special this time.’ Danny, oh Danny, she thought, a faint smile on her lips. She looked down at her papers. The director had started a detailed analysis of the past year’s sales figures. Since Millicent had gone with him through his complete presentation the previous day she knew she could relax for a few minutes.
What would it be this time, she wondered. She was used to the pattern. Danny had just wrapped up an unusually successful show, so he had some money to burn. And burn it he always did. She sighed. She couldn’t complain. She had always relied heavily on Danny. If it hadn’t been for him she couldn’t possibly have led the career she’d had. He’d been a good and caring father to their two children. He’d made sure both youngsters got through school and on to good university courses. He’d always fetched and carried, advised and admonished, sympathised and supported.
And in the meantime, she’d brought home the bacon. He’d been good about that, as well. Plenty of men would have had great difficulty in acknowledging that they relied on their wives to support their families, but not Danny. Over time she’d come to realise that his ‘finds’ were the equivalent of lottery tickets. Mostly, they turned out to be worth nothing. Occasionally, he might make a little bit of money. Every time he brought one home he dreamed of hitting the jackpot. Ah, Danny.
She wasn’t being condescending. The arrangement cut both ways. He was very knowledgeable about art – certainly much more than she was – and spoke fluently and convincingly. It gave her pleasure to introduce her husband as a gallery owner. Their weekends, when she was free, were spent visiting museums, shows, other galleries and launches – things she surely wouldn’t have done otherwise. Frequently, she had to dress up, which was fun. And of a Monday morning it gave her a kick to hint to her fellow managerial staff that she’d been so culturally active over the weekend.
When she got home that evening the dinner table had been prettily laid as usual and a delicious odour of cooking wafted through the house. She called his name and Danny appeared, wearing an apron, and with a big smile on his face. They kissed and hugged and he asked after her day and she told him about the boring management board discussion and the company’s financial situation. He lit the candles on the table and told her she had five minutes to get ready. She liked this gentle bossing and the way he shut down her work talk so peremptorily. The meal, as always, was delicious but also calorie light. A tuna carpaccio to begin with, followed by lean white meat and steamed vegetables. They never ate dessert. He made herbal tea and they sipped at their steaming glasses and watched the evening news on the television. Afterwards, she waited patiently for Danny to come to the point. He cleared up the dishes and turned the dishwasher on and then he joined her on the sofa.
‘Did you get my message?’ he asked.
‘Yes, my love. I can’t wait for you to tell me all about it.’
‘This time I think I have really bought a find.’
‘Where did you get it?’
‘Jack found it.’
Her heart sank. Jack was one of Danny’s best friends. He was a nice man but, on matters artistic, a complete charlatan. She knew immediately that whatever Danny had bought would be of no value. It was strange that Danny hadn’t learned from past experiences. But there it was. She couldn’t say what she really thought about Jack and she’d just have to humour her husband – as usual.
‘Are you going to fetch it?’
Danny eagerly agreed. He jumped up and went off into his study, humming Holst’s Jupiter. He returned with a long, narrow, oblong package, wrapped in brown paper and tied up with sisal string. She sat forward on her seat.
‘How intriguing,’ she said.
‘Ready?’ he asked.
These games were part of the ritual and she was happy to play them. Danny’s face was glowing red from his excitement. He pulled on the knots and the string fell away. He carefully rolled the string up into a small ball and placed it on the coffee table. Then he slowly and deliberately undid the sticky tape that held the brown paper in place. Finally, the paper came away and he placed it unfolded on the sofa. He held up the object. It was a picture frame. Quite an old one, by the look of it. He was holding it the wrong way around. She could see that the frame contained an old wooden panel of some sort.
‘Come on, darling! Don’t tease!’
‘Oh, all right then,’ he said. ‘Ta-da!’
He turned the frame. Millicent had to stifle a laugh. She made it into a cough.
‘Are you all right, my love?’ Danny asked.
‘Yes, sorry. Something went down the wrong way.’
She recovered her poise and took a longer look at the picture. The frame – an ornate, gilded baroque confection – contained a wooden panel depicting a pair of naked feet and the bottoms of a pair of bare legs against an indeterminate browney-bluey-green background. She put on her glasses, stood up and drew closer to inspect it, feigning interest. The painting gave off a faint damp cellar odour.
‘What is it?’ she asked.
‘Well, that is the question. What indeed is it?’
‘Come on, Danny, don’t talk in riddles.’
‘Honestly, Milly, I don’t know exactly what it is, but I am convinced that it must be from something important and valuable.’
‘Explain,’ she said, adding an encouraging smile.
‘Well,’ he began, ‘I’ll take the frame off and then you’ll see.’
The wooden panel was fixed into the frame by a series of small wedges. These he was able to pull out, one after the other. With great care he placed the frame on top of the brown paper on the sofa, then he prised out the painted panel and, holding it by the edges, showed it to her.
‘Do you see?’ he asked.
‘I’m not sure what I am supposed to be seeing, dear.’
‘The legs above the feet. They’re cut off.’
‘Why, so they are.’
She could see now that the wood had been sawn off quite crudely.
‘In other words, these feet used to belong to a bigger picture. I imagine they were cut off in order to enable the rest of the picture to fit into a particular frame or space.’
‘Ah! So, the hunt is on to find the rest of the picture, is that it?’
‘Well, maybe, yes. But that might prove impossible. For a start, we cannot know for certain that the painting to which they belonged has survived – let alone been catalogued.’
‘I have never really thought about it, but what you’re saying is that there might be paintings out there that nobody knows about and paintings that used to exist that nobody knows about. Have I got it?’
‘And these feet might belong to one of those sorts of paintings?’
‘Yes, they might do. On the other hand, they might not.’
‘So, what’s the next step?’
‘Well,’ Danny placed the painting carefully against the back of the sofa, ‘we have to study the painting and try to establish as much as we can about it. We need to look for clues about its origin.’
‘But Danny, why don’t you just take it to an expert and let them inspect it?’
‘Have you any idea how much an evaluation of a painting by one of the respectable auction houses costs?’
‘Are they very expensive?’
‘Very,’ said Danny. ‘There are cheaper people, but I wouldn’t trust them. Anyway, we don’t know whether the painting is a valuable one. I mean, I trust Jack, of course, but he told me in all honesty that he couldn’t vouch for the painting’s age or anything like that. I have a hunch this is going to turn out to be a valuable piece of work, but I can’t know for certain – yet. Until we have a better idea I am not prepared to spend money on an expert valuation. We’ll inspect it ourselves.’
That night, Danny carried the painting through to their bedroom and placed it on top of the chest of drawers opposite their bed. Millicent, already in bed with a book, watched him as he undressed and put on his pyjamas. He was still a fit and handsome man. She felt a vague erotic urge, but it was soon gone. Better not during the working week, anyway. Danny was standing in front of the chest of drawers. He had rigged up a lamp to shine on the painting.
‘The first question we must try to answer,’ he declared, ‘is whether this painting is ancient, old – by which I mean the last one hundred years or so – or modern.’
‘It looks quite old,’ said Millicent helpfully.
‘Mmmm….’ Danny stepped back. ‘The frame is definitely ancient.’
‘How do you know that?’
‘It’s very heavy. The wood is old. The plaster has been hand-carved. The nails look heavy and have rusted and tarnished. The gold leaf over the plaster has distinctive lines in it. A modern fake wouldn’t have that.’
‘A fake?’ Millicent put down her book.
‘The painting could be a forgery, my love.’
‘But Danny, who on earth would want to forge a painting of a pair of feet cut off just above the ankles?’
‘You never know. Anyway, maybe the frame was made for another painting. All I am saying, though, is that the frame seems genuinely ancient, and that’s already a first important indicator.’
‘It might be worth a bit.’
‘Probably, Milly, yes.’
‘Well, that’s a start as well, isn’t it?’
‘I can tell you’ve been discussing money today!’
She smiled back.
‘How can you tell if the painting is old, Danny?’
‘There are other indicators,’ he explained. ‘The wood panel certainly seems to be very old.’ He picked up the painting, turned it around and brought it across the bedroom so that Millicent could inspect the back. She studied it.
‘It seems to have had a spot of worm.’
‘Yes, and the holes look real.’
‘What? Are you telling me people fake woodworm holes?’
‘Of course, Milly. They use a special drill.’
Privately, she had her doubts about the likelihood of a skilled craftsman spending hours with a special drill faking woodworm holes in the back of a painting of a pair of severed feet, but Danny’s tail was up. She watched as he carefully placed the painting back on the chest of drawers.
‘So, what next?’ she asked.
‘Tarnishing,’ Danny said. ‘Tarnishing and craquelure.’
‘You know the drill,’ Danny said. ‘The older a painting is, the more tarnished it should be. All those years of wood, tallow and tobacco smoke should create a patina, and if the painting hasn’t been varnished – and this one hasn’t – then it should be possible to scrape it off.’
‘Have you tried?’
‘I’m going to try right now,’ Danny replied. She waited while he fetched a paper knife from his office. He brought the painting to the bed, sat down, placed it on his knees, then took the knife and slowly, carefully, scraped away in the top left-hand corner, where the painting was obscured by the frame.
‘Look,’ he said, lifting the painting and pointing to the corner. Where he had scraped the painting the browney-bluey-green colour definitely seemed to be a shade or two lighter.
‘Well done, Sherlock,’ said Millicent. ‘And craquelure?’
‘Take a look.’
He held the painting close to her eyes and she could indeed see a network of cracks and fissures, particularly in the lighter paint used to depict the feet.
‘So, we have a rather ancient painting, do we?’
‘It looks like it,’ said Danny. ‘Craquelure can also be forged, of course, but if you feel the texture of the paint on this picture you can sense that it has been built up in layers – glazes. No, I think we’re looking at a genuinely old, maybe ancient, painting.’
Millicent put her book on her bedside table and turned off her reading lamp.
‘Danny, my darling,’ she said. ‘I think I’m going to call it a day.’
‘Of course, my love.’
Danny came to bed and turned off the main light. She turned her back to him and tried to get to sleep, but she could sense that he was still awake and sitting up. She tossed and turned to communicate impatience, but Danny interpreted her movements as a sign that she was still awake.
‘Milly?’ he said.
‘Yes, my love.’
‘May I ask you something?’
‘Of course, my love.’
‘I can’t work out what colour the feet are. What do you think?’
‘Does it matter?’
He turned the light back on. She gritted her teeth, sat up, plumped up her pillows and leaned back against them. Danny seemed oblivious to her sighs.
‘What’s the problem?’ she said.
‘Well, Milly, take a good look at them. Are those feet supposed to belong to somebody who is brown-skinned or white-skinned? Or do they just look brown because of the tarnishing?’
‘There’s only one way to find out really, isn’t there?’
‘Yes, I suppose you’re right, but I daren’t scrape away at the feet in case I damage the painting.’
‘Why does it matter, darling?’
‘The colour could tell us more about the possible identity of the owner of the feet. I have a hunch that the feet belonged to a saint of some sort.’
‘Mmm,’ said Millicent. ‘It’s possible, I suppose. I’m going to go to sleep now, Danny.’
‘Yes, of course, my darling. Good night.’
But still he hadn’t finished.
‘I’ve had another idea.’
‘What’s that, my darling?’
‘Maybe the feet were intentionally dirty.’
‘Yes, like a disciple or a saint who had been walking on dusty roads.’
‘It’s certainly an idea.’
‘Yes. But if, on the other hand, the feet are clean under all that tarnishing, then the artist probably depicted somebody who was well off and not in the habit of walking in sandals on dusty roads.’
‘Goodnight, now, Danny.’
‘Or whose feet had been washed. You know how important that ritual used to be.’
‘Sorry, my love. Good night.’
He turned off the light.
When her alarm went off the next morning she found Danny was already up and standing in front of the painting.
‘Good morning, my love,’ she said.
‘Morning, Milly,’ he said. ‘What do you think? Could those be stigmata?’
Millicent got out of bed, found her reading glasses, then trod across the carpet to the chest of drawers. She gave Danny a peck on the cheek then donned her glasses and looked closer.
‘They look like smudges to me,’ she said.
‘Yes. They look like that to me, too. But it could be as a result of some overpainting.’
‘It used to happen a lot. Most famous paintings were overpainted at one stage or another.’
‘Later artists tried to ‘improve’ paintings or cover over nudity or recycle canvases.’
‘You think somebody tried to paint over stigmata in those feet?’
‘It’s a possibility.’
‘Why would they do that, Danny?’
He sucked in air over his teeth.
‘Well, I don’t know, Milly. It might have been a painting of the Christ. Maybe some later artist wanted to transform it into a saint of some sort…’
She was applying her eyeliner when Danny knocked and appeared in the bathroom door. She could see in her magnifying mirror that his eyes were bright with excitement.
‘You’ve given me an idea!’ he said.
‘Yes, yes. Hurry up and come back to the bedroom!’
Millicent finished her makeup, gave her hair a last careful brush and walked through to the bedroom.
‘There you are,’ said Danny impatiently. ‘Now, take a good look at the picture and tell me what you see.’
‘A pair of feet, Danny.’
‘Yes, but what are the feet doing?’
‘Doing?’ She knew she had to be careful not to upset him. ‘They just seem to be standing there, Danny.’
He nodded his head slowly.
‘Standing, you say?’
‘Are you sure of that?’
‘Well, now that you mention it, no, I’m not sure.’
‘Could they be floating, do you think?’
‘I mean, hovering above the ground rather than standing on the ground.’
‘Well, it’s possible. It’s difficult to tell with that background. Why might it matter, Danny?’
‘Because if the feet are above the ground, and if those were stigmata, then this panel would be the bottom of a representation of the Ascension. Do you see? Those feet could well belong to Jesus Christ himself.’
‘Now, there’s a thought. But who would want to cut off Christ’s feet like that?’
Millicent gave her husband a kiss and made her way to the kitchen. He always made her coffee and had laid out a plate with a knife and a piece of fruit. She ate her pear and drank the coffee hurriedly then shouted thank you and goodbye and rushed out to her car. As usual, she got stuck at the traffic lights at the beginning of the long road leading to her company’s buildings. They always took an age to change. She suddenly thought of a way to humour her husband. She picked up her phone and texted him.
‘If it was the Ascension, wouldn’t the artist have painted marks to show which direction Jesus was travelling in?’
He replied long before the lights changed.
‘Maybe,’ he wrote. ‘Maybe the marks are obscured by the tarnishing. But normally they didn’t paint marks. They weren’t necessary. There was only one bloke who could rise vertically like that – JC.’
That evening Danny’s mood seemed strangely overcast. She was curious, but knew better than to depart from their rituals. Danny had made an excellent pumpkin soup, followed by a Caesar salad with fat-free croutons and light mayonnaise. They sipped their herbal teas and watched the news and then switched to the comfy chairs.
‘So,’ she ventured, ‘what news about the feet?’
‘I’ve had doubts all day,’ he said.
‘It was your message, really.’
‘I’m sorry, Danny. What happened?’
‘It’s not your fault, Milly. Actually, it was more my reply, anyway.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, in the first place I was wrong about Jesus being the only chap to float up to heaven like that. Plenty of saints did it too or, rather, plenty were shown rising up like that, as a sort of metaphor for their ascension to heaven.’
‘So, it could be a saint – with or without stigmata?’
He looked at her sharply for a moment.
‘Yes, it could. Or it could be somebody who hasn’t risen yet.’
‘I don’t get you.’
‘I mean it could be a depiction of a future ascension.’
‘You mean on the Day of Judgement?’
‘But the feet do seem rather alone for the Day of Judgement, don’t they? Wouldn’t there be lots of saints and what have you heading upstairs?’
‘Traditionally, certainly, yes. But the point is that the feet do not necessarily belong to Jesus.’
‘And then, when I looked at the feet again I realized something we’d completely overlooked.’
‘How can we be sure that they are a man’s feet? We just assumed that they must be, but there’s no reason why they have to be.’
‘You mean they could belong to a woman?’
‘Indeed, and not just any woman. Wait a moment. I’m going to fetch it out here.’
She waited while Danny fetched the painting from their bedroom. He placed it against the back of the sofa.
‘The toes do look rather uniform in length, don’t they?’ she said.
‘And the feet are rather narrow, don’t you think?’
‘Yes, it’s true, Danny. They could be a woman’s feet, but who did you have in mind?’
‘Think about it, Milly. Look at the pallor of the flesh. Can you see a hint of green in there?’
‘Maybe,’ said Milly, ‘but it might be the tarnishing.’
He gave her what her parents would have called an old-fashioned look.
‘I’m serious,’ she protested. ‘We just don’t know what the real colours in the painting are, do we? Anyway, who do you think the feet might belong to?’
Danny assumed a solemn expression.
‘Our Lady,’ he said.
‘Yes, exactly. Mary.’
‘I’ve forgotten, Danny, but did she float about as well?’
‘Yes, Milly, she did, but only once she was dead.’
‘Oh! You mean the Assumption?’
‘Yes, the Assumption. It would make sense, wouldn’t it?’
‘It certainly makes some sort of sense, darling. And there were we thinking we had Jesus’s feet!’
Danny gave her another old-fashioned look and took the painting back to their bedroom. Later that evening, as Milly was reading her book in bed, and Danny was once more stood before the feet, studying them intently, he sighed a heavy sigh and shook his head.
‘What is it, darling?’ she asked, trying to get a sincere note of concern into her voice.
‘They’re just so difficult,’ he said.
‘These feet. The more I look at them, the less I understand them. Look at them, Milly! What do you see? Are those the feet of a good person or a bad person? Do they radiate good or evil? Until we can establish that basic fact we cannot know with any certainty whether we are looking at the feet of God or Jesus or Mary or a saint of some sort or whether we are even looking at a representation of the Devil or of an evil figure.’
‘Wouldn’t they be darker if it was Satan?’
‘Maybe. But what if it was Judas?’
‘Wouldn’t his pieces of silver be spread around him?’
‘You are right, Milly. He tends to be depicted with his ill-gotten gains. On the other hand, if those feet are floating, then they could be the feet of Judas, after he’d hanged himself. But my point is that we just don’t know what we are looking at, do we?’
‘No, Danny, we don’t.’
The next morning, he was up before her again. He asked her to come to the chest of drawers once more and study another detail in the picture. It was on the right hand side, at the bottom.
‘What am I looking for, Danny?’ she asked him, putting on her glasses.
‘A possible signature or other mark of authorship,’ he said.
‘You mean that squiggle?’
‘Is it a squiggle?’
She leaned closer.
‘It could be anything, Danny. What do you think it might be?’
‘I really don’t know. But I think I know how to find out.’
‘Oh?’ Millicent said, heading for the bathroom.
‘There are several databases out there. I’ll subscribe to one and see if I can find something similar or identical, even.’
That evening Millicent arrived home with some foreboding. First, Danny had texted her at midday to say that the mark was almost certainly a squiggle and only a squiggle and in any case definitely not a recognisable autographic symbol of any sort. She wondered how much he’d paid for the subscription to the data base (plus whatever he’d paid to Jack, of course). At the same time, she felt that they were gradually moving towards a conclusion in what she was now calling – strictly to herself – the feet affair. Then, in the late afternoon, she received another text message; ‘Increasingly certain feet could have been severed. Danny.’
After the herbal tea and the news on the television, they retired to the comfy chairs. Millicent opened fire immediately.
‘So, Danny, what’s this business about the feet being severed?’
‘Let me fetch the picture,’ said Danny, and off he went to the bedroom. When the feet were once more stood against the back of the sofa, he explained his thinking. ‘Until now, I have assumed that the feet belonged to the rest of a body to be found in the rest of the picture, right?’
‘That’s right,’ said Millicent. ‘It does makes sense.’
‘Because of the way the wood looks as though it has been sawn off, right?’
‘Yes, Danny. You showed me, remember?’
‘Yes, I remember. But take another look at the painting, Milly, please.’
She got up, put her glasses on and did as he had asked her. There were the narrow feet, with their greenish tinge and the toes all at the same level. There was that browney-bluey-green background. What was she supposed to be looking for? As though reading her thoughts he said;
‘Look at the top of the painting, Milly. Do you see?’
‘I only see what I saw before.’
‘That the painting appears to have been sawn off just above the level of the ankles of the legs that belong to the feet.’
‘Are you sure of that, Milly?’
‘Only as sure as you are, Danny.’
‘But that’s just it! I’m not at all sure anymore.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘If you look carefully at the top of the picture, you’ll see that the saw marks don’t entirely coincide with the ends of the legs.’
‘What do you mean, Danny?’
‘I mean that maybe this is a complete picture after all. Maybe it only ever was a painting of a pair of feet.’
‘But why would anybody ever want to paint a pair of feet on their own like that?
‘I’m not sure, Milly, but I have started to look into things. I didn’t get very far with my research this afternoon but I have already found out that they were forever cutting off people’s feet in the Old Testament. And then there was Saint Anthony. He remained intact but restored somebody’s amputated foot. And at the other extreme, there was Saint Arcadius, who had just about everything cut off before he was finally martyred. I haven’t yet found a saint who had both feet cut off but I’ve no doubt I’ll find one. Which leads me to wonder now whether these feet represent exactly what they are – no more, no less; a pair of feet.’
‘Danny, seriously; do you think that painting once hung in a church or a chapel where people prayed to the feet?’
‘I don’t know, Milly.’
The next morning Millicent again awoke to find Danny standing and staring at the picture of the feet. She groaned inwardly. They kissed and hugged and wished each other good morning and then she got ready for work and went off to the kitchen for her breakfast as usual. Just before she left, though, she called for Danny to join her. When he came, she gave him an affectionate kiss and then launched her offensive.
‘Danny, my darling.’
‘Yes, my love.’
‘I have to admit that I was sceptical when you first showed me that picture. But now I’m convinced that the painting is of some significance, and may be of some worth. I’m very proud of all of the research that you have already carried out, narrowing down the possibilities. And I think it’s now time to get the painting properly evaluated.’
‘But that will be expensive, my darling.’
‘It doesn’t matter, Danny. I’ll pay whatever it costs. I honestly don’t mind. I don’t want you to go on struggling with the internet and hypotheses based on guesses and conjectures because you don’t have sufficient access to the best expertise. Promise me this. Today, you should take the painting and its frame to one of the auction houses that you trust. Ask them to have a good look at it and tell them to send the bill to me. Do you promise?’
‘It’ll cost a lot,’ he warned.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ said Millicent. ‘Do you promise?’
‘All right. I promise.’
When Millicent returned home that evening the table was prettily laid, as usual. Danny emerged from the kitchen with a big smile on his face, as usual. He hugged and kissed her and told her she had five minutes before dinner, as usual. The meal was excellent, as usual; char-grilled salmon and salad this time. They drank herbal tea and watched the news and afterwards he cleared everything up before joining her on the comfy chairs, as usual. Here it comes, she thought. The announcement one way or another. But no announcement came. Instead, he spoke to her about his plans for his next show at the gallery. He had already got his preferred artists lined up and was working on a poster and other promotional material. She half-expected him to slip in an announcement of some sort a little later, but there was nothing. She started to read her book but soon grew tired. She apologised to Danny and set off for bed.
There was no sign of the picture in the bedroom. The lamp he had rigged up on the chest of drawers had gone. She had a quick shower and, being too tired to read any further, turned off her reading lamp and snuggled down into the covers. She was on the cusp of oblivion when Danny came to bed. She vaguely heard him moving about in the bathroom and then in their room as he got undressed and clambered into the bed. And then, just as she was about to drift away altogether, she felt the bed quivering slightly. Poor Danny, she thought. Was he laughing or crying?
Author Notes: Martin Westlake is a budding creative writer with several published short stories to his name and a historical novel on the go.