Later you will blame it on the pints. Three pints, post-lunch. Post a lunch that wasn’t even lunch. Three pints and a bag of crisps, if you’re honest in the retelling (if you were ever to dare to tell this story), is what constituted lunch. Did you even have breakfast? You won’t remember. The finer details will shortly be crowded out.
Three pints in a lazy afternoon wandering the city. That was earlier. You step sweating into the Royal Hibernian Academy to get out of the heat. In Dublin! Getting out of the heat! But it’s true. The gallery is blissfully white and clean and cool. It smells like putty — you’re not sure if it’s the art or the walls. The main hall is Tuesday afternoon-empty. Quiet as a funeral parlour. It gives unfair advantage to select paintings and leaves others clowning for no one.
Which is not to call the space funereal. Or rather, to retract that inference. Soft light lounges over everything. The wood is alive under it. You are feeling pretty fine. The warm mass of stout sits in your belly like a good meal. The pieces benefit from your mild addlement. Everything looks sharp, evocative, well-finished. You suspect even as you admire that nothing is quite so good as you imagine it to be right now.
Passing slowly along the wall, eyes half-focussed from six feet, you are surprised by an emergency exit. You almost take it for an installation; it is so rhythmically positioned in the row of canvases. Even once identified it still seems strange in this space, a glass doorway leading straight onto the street. Here in your cocoon. You come a little way out of your reverie and consider walking out. Back out into the world. You decide it’s probably alarmed. You forget it.
A woman enters the room talking loudly into her mobile phone. You picture yourself turning to her, staring pointedly and giving a near imperceptible shake of your head. Once you’ve finished picturing yourself doing this you realise that this is, in fact, what you have just done. The woman turns instantly but without acknowledgment and walks out, phone to her ear. Banished.
This move from you is so alien to your normal character that your sense of unreality is greatly bolstered. You couldn’t be a drunk as all that? Perhaps it’s the heat, the day off. The woman is gone and the room is once again empty. It feels truly empty, like you yourself are not even present.
Returning to the paintings your thoughts turn, as always, to acquisition. Which would you buy if you could? Small red stickers mark the pieces sold already. You don’t bother looking at the price list discreetly listed by the door. You can’t afford anything but pints and paperbacks and park benches. Almost everything you like has been sold, which is oddly reassuring. You could have something here next year. The annual idea.
Choose one. Choose a favourite. The thought comes almost urgent. Pick the one you will own. The answer is there, parked from the moment you entered the room. A thickly daubed canvas of marine greens, no more than two feet wide. Red sprites dancing in its depths. You’re a sucker for colour. The artist is recognisable as no one particularly recognisable. It’s probably quite cheap, which is more than you can afford.
After finishing the circuit you return to your painting. Swoop in, pull away. Begin at the top left corner and work your way to the top right. Then section the canvas into manageable pieces and zig-zag down. You find yourself leaning around to see how it’s fixed to the wall. Simple hooks. The paint is roughly textured. Peaks and valleys up close. The form fades as you approach. It is a different painting from a distance.
You’re imagining taking it. You picture yourself reaching out and touching it. Once you’ve pictured yourself doing this you realise that this is, in fact, what you have just done. An alarm sounds immediately. It’s a shock. In that moment it’s a shock because it’s a loud noise, but even later you are shocked such a small exhibition had alarms fitted to the art. All is decided in the shrillness of it. It seems like the deed is already done although, later again, you see that of course it wasn’t. But the canvas comes off the wall in a fluid movement. Just like an art heist in a film.
The emergency exit is alarmed also. The two alarms fall into one other until you’re twenty paces down the street. From there you can only hear the door alarm, and soon it’s fading also. If anyone shouted you did not hear them. You wait for the scuff of running on the footpath but nothing comes. Within minutes you’re just a pedestrian with a painting under their arm.
Your sense of disengagement begins to wilt under the afternoon sun. The canvas feels very real at your side. Guilt forms a little part of your growing unease, but the main part relates to CCTV cameras, or the possibility of them. The painting will hang in your sitting room, waiting for someone to recognise it. Someone surely will, despite the artist’s relative obscurity. You will be always waiting.
You sit down on a canal bench to think, forgetting for a moment that you’re a thief holding stolen goods. Look at the painting. It’s different again under the bright sky. Duller looking, but not unpleasantly so. The canalwater in your peripheral vision is close to the same colour. You sit and wait for walkers to pass, then step forward quickly and push the canvas into the soup. It is not so buoyant as you imagined. You have to jig it around before its edge slips under the stone lip of bank, fully immersed. The coldness of the water is a further intrusion of reality on your now beleaguered senses.
As you pat the frame flush against the wall, your arm wet to the elbow, you see a cloud of mixed opacity form under the surface. It looks like mud raised from the bottom, but your arm comes out streaked green. The paint melting into the reeds. Soon you will have stolen nothing at all.