a flash-fiction piece
“Minding my own business, I was; jest popped out for a drink; the missus’s sister come visiting and I can handle a woman’s company, but two in the bush, you get my drift? I always sez, it’s for a man to decide whether he wants it or no. So, I sez, I’ll go for a snifter, my sweet, and give me regards to yer sister! So, I’m enjoying my lonesome with a glass and it’s slipping down peaceful, when this chap’s come over and what if he don’t settles besides me and bends my ear over a story ‘bout this man he met in a place like this. What a peculiar sight, sez he, I’d never believe it but it were true. It wasn’t that I doubted him, nor any word he spoke, it was jest I couldn’t understand everything he said, his accent, see? He was some foreign bloke.”
The city of Bath has a modest art museum. Its exhibits are not exceptional but it is a gallery and it’s a good place to experience something other than work for half an hour of a lunchtime. After many visits over a long time, I get to see the paintings as you might old friends. I see their familiar sides and then they reveal other things about themselves.
I hadn’t really taken in this funny little painting before, by Rex Whistler (not to be mistaken for the guy who famously painted his mother; that was the American artist, James McNeill Whistler). I snapped it on the mobile phone, it’s easier than describing it in words but I’ll do that as well.
It shows two guys sitting at a table upon which are two quite different drinks. Judging by the glasses, they look alcoholic so we can assume they’re sitting in a bar or pub, though the view out of the window behind them suggests the room is upstairs. Maybe a private room in a pub, or an hotel bar. The signs outside the window behind them don’t appear to be in English, so which of the two men is the eponymous “Foreign Bloke“?
It soon struck me that this painting would make a good prompt for a flash-fiction piece. Actually, galleries are awash with paintings which are ambiguous enough and intriguing to be fiction prompts (rather like The Girl With The Pearl Earring – a whole novel was inspired by that one).
Rex Whistler died in action in 1944, after the Normandy landings. He was a tank commander in the Welsh Guards Armoured Divisions. He was struck by the blast of a mortar shell whilst running between his incapacitated tank and the one following behind. When they recovered his body, there wasn’t a mark on it but his neck had been broken.
During combat service, he was an unauthorised war artist, stowing his brushes in a bucket hooked on the side of the tank. There were official war artists employed as serving men in WW2. It seems a very strange assignment to me.