The snow was so much less substantial than I’d expected. I’d spent most of my plane ride fantasising about thick drifts blanketing the streets, perfectly soft and white. Instead, brackish sludge dribbled into gutters. When it finally did fall, I reached my hands out and it was gone within seconds, melting away with the heat of my bare palms. My first encounter with real, European snow, and it had left me with damp gloves and dirty shoes.
On the taxi ride into the city, I flicked through my book to keep my eyes off the sprawling post-war housing estates that lined the suburban streets. The endless blur of white windows on deep maroon bricks pulled my eyes out of focus. The book — the reason I was there in the first place — quelled my nausea as the taxi driver sped over cobblestones. I turned the pages with care, smoothing the dog-eared corners. I arrived at page eighty-two — her page. She had a strong profile; a wide brow and a slightly elongated nose sat above neat, pursing lips. Her hair— a deep shade of rose red — was held up against the back of her head by a string of saffron beads. Her back was as rigid and straight as a steel ruler. The artist had chosen to paint her in jewel tones — a jade green for the background, a dress of sapphire blue veiled with intricate, amber floral designs. The driver pulled up next to the hostel and I snapped my book shut.
I couldn’t check in until later that afternoon. The breath of the Dutch girl behind the reception desk was heavy with aniseed, and I could see little flecks of liquorice between her teeth as she outlined the route to the nearest supermarket. On the wall behind her was a poster advertising the annual street art festival. The poster showed a run down alleyway saturated with colour, a stark and unwelcome contrast against the dove-grey walls of the walls. The fat, graffiti style font made me cringe. It stank of disconnected middle-aged council members trying to get inside the minds of Gen Y. The receptionist led me down a narrow flight of stairs into the luggage room, where I slotted my suitcase in between a rusty bike and a misshapen row of metal lockers. She smiled at me with blackened teeth as I stepped out into the cold.
The streets were flooded with fast food chains and clothing stores with slick interiors, glass polished so aggressively I could see the peeling skin on my lips when I looked in the window. I tugged at it with my teeth, slowly pulling the delicate curls of flesh away from my mouth. The familiar metallic tang of my blood was a comforting distraction from the streets around me. People hurtled through the streets, led by the cameras strapped to their necks. I dodged the snap crackle pop of their DSLRs, wondering cynically if they’d ever look at those photos again once they went home. Photos with girls just like me skipping out of the frame, turning their faces away from alien lenses and fretting needlessly over travel clichés. Trying to lower their heart rates via concentration alone as the unfamiliarity of the ancient streets began to set in, tearing through the heavy haze of jetlag. The great human waves grew thicker as I approached the museum. Children crawled over the stone steps to the entrance. I stepped over puffy jackets and half-eaten picnics to reach the doors.
Page seventeen of the museum guide advised me that she would be on the third floor. I hauled myself up the stairs, my head throbbing with each pace. I could feel the remains of the plane food — starchy gnocchi in a watery Napoli sauce — bubbling in my stomach. The third floor gallery was painted the deep blue of the Mediterranean sea, dozens of gold-framed sketches and drawings interspersed like stepping stones across the wall. In the centre of the room stood a large glass display case; hers.
Under the museum down-lights, they shimmered just like morning frost. Five necklaces on five black fabric necks. They were much more beautiful than they had appeared in the pages of the book. The edges were sharper, more defined. Cool coloured stones pitted each silver surface. In the centre of the case, the largest necklace bore two little silver sparrows that kissed a blue opal. The depth of the stone was breathtaking. It glimmered and sprawled, just like the nebulas pinned to the walls of my high school science classroom. I imagined Georgie’s fingers running over the still warm silver, caressing each ridge and pausing over each stone.
Beneath the sparkling tangle was a small cream card.
Georgina Evelyn Cave Gaskin (1866-1934) was a British jewelry designer and member of the Birmingham Group. She and her husband Arthur Gaskin worked together, producing jewelry under the name ‘Mr. and Mrs. Gaskin’. Arthur, born in Lee Bank in 1862, was one of the central members of the Birmingham Group. He was one of the most influential artists working in the Birmingham School in the late nineteenth century. Arthur’s work can be viewed…
I didn’t want to read on. Where was she? I circled the room searching for her, finding self-portraits of bespectacled, heavy-browed men and wispy charcoal sketches of women in flowing medieval robes. I searched the museum guide for another mention of her name, but found nothing. I reread the plaque. Beyond this little glass box in an ocean-like room, she might as well not have existed. I left the gallery without looking back.
I felt the museum shrink behind me with every step, as I crossed Victoria Square. The swathes of polyester-clad tourists congregated around a bronze statue of the eponymous Queen. Her lips were pursed, but her brass eyelids rested half open; still watching over the realm, a hundred years beyond the grave. I turned down an alleyway, desperate to obscure the regal façade of the museum. The walls grew narrower as I stepped over broken pallets and rubbish bags. The stench of fresh spray paint filled my lungs with propellant. I came to the end of the alley, and found Georgie. Her monochromatic features scowled at the overflowing bins lined up beneath her, hair dripping red in the places where the paint had been applied too liberally. I reached up and wiped a tear-shaped drop from the wall. As the sun sunk below the cityscape, the streetlights shuddered on, and a snowflake landed right on my cheek.
Images: Tilemahos Efthimiadis
Ellen Cregan is a writer and cat enthusiast from Melbourne. She has just completed an honours thesis on the unsung virtues of biographical poetry. Her work has previously appeared in The Suburban Review, In Brief and Voiceworks.