The dead man lay cradled in the woman’s arms. His flesh was grey with age, his eyes blank and empty. The wound in his side, scarlet once, was faded brown, like the trickle of blood from the crown of thorns around his head.

The ringing of a mobile phone reverberated across the studio.

‘Gil Andrisson.’ He stood, phone in one hand, magnifying glass in the other, his eyes still fixed on the image in front of him.

‘Listen, mate,’ he was saying. ‘I’ve got seventeenth-century France in one corner, 1950s Britain in the other. There’s no way I’ve got room for a pre-Raphaelite … That’s all very well, but this French painting has been torturing me for weeks … Sure. OK. Speak later.’

He put his phone down, went back to the painting.

He picked up a tiny cotton-wool swab and began to dab at the middle of the scar. A dot of bright red began to show through, then another. The wound in the man’s side began to bleed once more.

The dead man lay cradled in the woman’s arms. His flesh was white as clay, his eyes dark and wet. The wound in his side gaped red, like the trickle of blood from the crown of thorns around his head.

The woman held him close, as if, perhaps, the warmth from her body might be enough to warm his cold flesh; as if, perhaps, a mother’s tears might be enough to wash away the blood; as if love alone could raise the dead.

No, he thought, taking a step back from his easel. Not love. Not like this. Her arms are too angular, he thought, her neck too upright. She needs to be more rounded, more enfolding, as if her body might enmesh with his to bring him back to life.

He stood, considering his work. Or should she be accepting, he wondered. Perhaps there was no grief. Perhaps Our Lady was so pure in heart that, just as she’d said Yes at the Annunciation, so she could hold the body of her Son and say to the Lord, ‘Let it be to me according to your word.’

No, he thought. If I am to paint this scene it will be with truth, the truth of a mother holding her dead son in her arms, there will be blood and tears and rage as there was when I held my beloved in my arms and watched him bleed, watched the life drain out of him, as he gripped my hand and said, ‘Avenge me not. Get you somewhere safe. Find love …’

The last words of my beloved, uttered on a gurgling, gasping breath. I gave away my sword to a fellow soldier, said my farewells, and walked. I walked for a day and a night and at dawn on the second day I walked in to this place and asked for shelter. Seven years ago –

‘Brother Francis – ’

His thoughts were interrupted. ‘Father Abbot,’ he said. He saw the white of his robe as the Abbot approached, the swish of its hem against the black and white tiles of the chapel floor, the soft scatterings of light from the late afternoon sun.

The Abbot placed a glass flask of water and one of wine, side by side, on their silver platter by the altar.

‘The altarpiece is nearly finished, then, my son,’ he said.

Francis gave a small bow.

The Abbot came and stood beside him. After a while he spoke. ‘Our Lord is very beautiful,’ he said. ‘He looks …’ He turned and looked at Francis, then back at the painting. ‘He looks like a man.’

Again, Francis gave a nod.

‘And our Lady …’ Father Abbot spoke again. ‘Her grief.’ He raised his hand towards her. ‘It is all too apparent,’ he said.

Francis waited. The Abbot turned to him again. Francis was aware of his gaze, which was warm and fatherly, the blue eyes shadowed with concern. ‘I would not habitually entrust a young monk with such a work,’ the Abbot said, ‘but your talent and skill from your previous life made the decision for me.’ He glanced back at the painting, then went on, ‘You know, my child, that to enter into this place is an act of relinquishment. Of your former self, your former passions. I know you were an apprentice painter, before you ran away to fight. But you must ask yourself, am I a monk before I am an artist?’

In the background they could hear the notes of plainchant, the voices of the monks rising and falling as the choir rehearsed. The Abbot spoke again. ‘You must know in your heart that this work exists to glorify the Lord, not to glorify Brother Francis.’

Francis met his eyes. ‘I understand, Father.’

The Abbot patted his arm. He went back to the altar, arranged the two flasks side by side, then made his way out, his silver rosary swinging at his side.

Francis picked up his brush.

Am I a monk before I am an artist? The words circled in his mind as he surveyed his work. The weeping of Our Lady, he thought. The empty body of her Son … What does that tell me of Creation, other than that a mother can lose all that she holds dear, or that a man can find himself holding in his arms the only being he has ever loved …

The distant plainchant sang out its last few notes. And still we hope, Francis thought, as silence settled. Still we seek for order in the chaos, still we search for signs of God’s love …

The bells sounded, calling him to prayer. He placed a dot of vermilion on the wound of our Lord.


‘Collisions in the Void 1952.’ Gil studied the painting which leaned up against the studio wall. It was an abstract of lemon yellow and pale grey, criss-crossed with spidery black lines and dotted with circles in black and white.

‘The next victim, then,’ she said. Her voice was light behind him.

He turned. ‘Belinda. When did you come in?’

‘Just now.’ She flicked her hand at the grey and yellow curves. ‘When did that arrive?’

‘Yesterday. William in Notting Hill bought it at auction. I said I’d clean it up for him. It’s a bit derivative but he thinks the chap should be better known.’

She peered at it more closely. ‘It’s very damaged.’

‘It was originally on the wall of a private aerodrome near Telford.’

‘You’re kidding?’ She looked at him, her grey eyes wide under her blonde fringe. She almost smiled, and he tried to remember how it had been when he used to make her laugh.

‘It’s true,’ he said.

The lightness faded. ‘Well, I hope William pays you more than he did last time.’ She glanced at the painting again. ‘Collisions,’ she said. ‘Like atoms, then?’

‘I suppose so,’ he said.

‘It was on the telly today,’ she said.

‘What was?’ He picked up a cotton bud and dabbed at the painting’s edge.

‘Atoms. How they’ve found out that there’s matter and anti-matter at the same time,’ she said.

‘When was this?’ He searched among his bottles for a solvent.

‘The lunchtime news,’ she said, ‘at work. They’ve smashed something, some little tiny thing, you know, and they found these even smaller things that could be either matter or anti-matter but luckily they spend more time as matter and that’s why there’s stuff rather than not stuff. It was really cool but then one of the girls switched channel and we had to hear about the Duchess of Cambridge or someone instead.’

‘You should change your job,’ he said.

‘Makes no difference to me,’ she said.

He straightened up. ‘You could have an interesting job,’ he said. ‘Like the art library, before.’

She looked at him. ‘Before I left to have a baby, you mean?’

He fell silent.

‘I don’t care what I do,’ she said. ‘Supermarket checkout is fine by me.’ She wandered across the studio. ‘And what’s this one?’

‘It’s a Pieta. Part of an altarpiece, they think. Seventeenth century. Anonymous. It was only recently discovered, in a private house in Geneva.’

For a moment she was silent. ‘How old was he?’ she asked.

‘How old was who?’

‘Jesus. In this.’

The question surprised him. ‘I don’t know.’ He glanced at her. ‘In his thirties, I think.’

‘She had longer than I had, then, didn’t she.’ She turned to go.


‘Mary.’ She faced him, her eyes briefly locked with his. ‘With her son. She had years. Not days.’ She took a step towards the door.

‘Will we – ?’ He called to her. ‘I mean – is there supper?’

‘I’ve already eaten,’ she said.

He heard her feet on the studio stairs, heard her go back into the house.

He wondered, not for the first time, how rage could be so quiet; how anger could be found in silences, in turnings away, in a cold dish of pasta left out for him on the kitchen table.

He poured a glass of red wine, took a large sip, placed it on the ledge next to his palette.


‘“The Lord telleth the number of the stars …’”

Brother Francis looked down at his bowl of soup, as Brother Simon recited the Psalm from the head of the long table.

‘“… he calleth them all by their names. Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite …”’

The monks listened, eating. Francis found himself resenting their silence. He was seated opposite Brother Dominic, who’d come from a house in Paris and was staying for a few days. At break yesterday, Dominic had been telling him about the brothers of Port-Royal, about their testing of Creation, their machines for calculation, how they walked up mountains with flasks of quicksilver to prove the void.

‘“Praise ye the Lord,’” Simon was saying, ‘“Ye fire and hail, snow and vapours, stormy wind fulfilling his word …”’

Francis bent his head to his soup and thought how he would like to know more about this void.


Belinda crossed the room, wiping a glass with a tea-towel, and placed it in the cupboard. ‘Private house in Geneva?’ she said. ‘It makes me cross.’

Gil looked up from a plate of something that had once been stew. ‘What does?’ he said. He was aware his voice was forced, an expression of interest that he didn’t feel.

‘A thing like that, that Jesus one. It should be in a museum where everyone can see it.’

‘They can’t all be in museums,’ he said.

‘I suppose you prefer that yellow one anyway. The atom one.’ She took a dish cloth and began to wipe the draining boards. ‘It looks like my Nan’s curtains,’ she said.

The conversation seemed to have ended.

She began to dry another glass. ‘You see, that’s the problem with you,’ she said, suddenly. ‘You don’t see it any more. They’re all the same to you.’

‘That’s not true –’ he began.

She interrupted him. ‘All you see is the stuff. The wood, the filler, the paint …’

‘It’s my work,’ he said.

She shook her head. ‘Whoever painted that Jesus one, with Mary there …’ She stopped. ‘Who was he?’

‘Well …’ he took a breath. ‘It’s a very skilled work. He must have known a thing or two. Maybe an apprentice in a studio, often the eminent painters had people working under their name – ’

‘I don’t need to know his history.’ Her voice was tight.

Gil poured himself another glass of wine.

‘What I mean is,’ she went on, ‘whoever painted that poor woman with that dead Jesus … he was speaking for us all. But you just don’t see it, do you?’ She stood in front of him, winding the tea-towel round and round in her hands, her eyes threatening tears. ‘At this moment, somewhere in the world, a mother is holding her dead child in her arms. There are loads of us, all round the world. And you can’t even bring yourself to say our baby’s name.’

She dropped the tea-towel on the table in front of him and left the room.


The candles flickered in the chapel. The cross on the altar threw towering shadows in the darkness. Francis dipped his paintbrush into the paint and thought about Brother Dominic and the experiments in Port-Royal.

The void, he thought. How can there be nothing? If God created all of it, how can there be gaps? And yet, perhaps, God is so great than he can bring into existence Everything and Nothing, all at once.

The pale flesh tones glinted in the candlelight. Francis took a step back to view his work, then another.

His elbow brushed against the altar tray, and the flask of wine wobbled, fell, smashed against the floor.

Francis watched the spreading red stain against the black and white squares. A flash of memory, of rough wool soaked with red, of the life draining from a soldier’s face.

This is what Mary knows, he thought. That nothing will bring him back. However much she loves him, love is not enough. When Casimir died, when I held him close and watched his eyes grow dim, something broke within me.

His paints shone wetly in their mussel-shells. This is my faith, he thought. That my brush should stain itself in red like this, and, through me, speak truth. It will speak of loss to those that have lost, it will speak of love to those that have loved. It will allow for our continuance. It will say, that there can be Creation, or there can be the Void, but for now we are all still here.


The radio burbled in the shadows of the studio. Gil, sitting in the pool of light from the anglepoise lamp, felt soothed by the words which settled in the silence around him. In their bed, she would be lying awake, as usual. Neither of them slept much these days, but there was no point pretending. It was better to work.

‘… the Einsteinian model only goes so far …’ the voice on the radio was saying. It was male, authoritative, slightly Germanic, owning the phrases curved space-time, vacuum polarization …

Gil wandered across the studio. What could I have said to her? he thought. Fourteen months ago it happened, and I don’t know how to make it better.

He stood in front of the black and white atoms, noticed how the lemon yellow lost its lustre in the shadowy light.

‘… the effect is not strong enough to explain matter’s dominance in the Universe…’ the voice was saying. ‘… true measurement is only possible through collision …’

How have we come so far from what we were, he thought. That day when I met her, six years ago, nearly seven. When I walked into the library and there she was, new to the job. I thought she was lovely. She was unfamiliar with the system, confessed she’d made a terrible mistake. I said, you tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine. So she blushed, and whispered to me that the day before she’d managed to lose an original sixteenth-century first edition, she thought she’d locked it away but her supervisor had found it out on the shelves where anyone could have walked off with it … And I said, that’s nothing, mine is much worse. ‘Go on,’ she’d said. And I’d said, ‘I have to confess that I’ve got an overdue library book and there’s at least a thirty pence fine to pay.’ And she’d pushed back her hair from her face and laughed in that lovely shy way of hers …

‘… to establish that B-mesons,’ the radio was saying, ‘which fluctuate between matter and anti-matter states, tend to spend more time as matter than anti-matter …’

And then it all went wrong, Gil thought.

He went over to the Pieta. He picked out a fine paintbrush, dipped it in cadmium red. ‘… We may not have seen the face of God,’ the voice was saying, ‘but we might have glimpsed his toe.’

He reached out to switch off the radio. His arm caught the ledge, and the glass of wine, left there from before, smashed against the black and white tiled floor.

He stared at the spreading wet stain. In his mind he saw his wife holding their baby in her arms. The baby was ash-white, sprawled, eyes rolling in his skull. He could hear the noise around them, tubes and pumps, surgical gowns, too-bright lights. And then the lights had dimmed and the gowns had gone, and they were left alone, with only her soft keening as she clutched her baby to her breast, saying his name, over and over again.

The moon had risen, edging the skylight with silver. He saw the curve of Mary’s arm, the bend of her neck, as if the warmth from her body might be enough to warm him; as if love alone could raise the dead.

Joe, he thought.

I never held him. Not then. And now, not ever.

He looked at Mary’s face, half shadowed in the moonlight.

‘Joe,’ he said, out loud.


The chapel windows were bright with the morning.

Francis took his place in the monks’ stalls. He had worked all night and the painting was finished.

He glanced at the stain on the floor where the flask had broken. It was barely visible, the glass all swept up, a new flask stolen from the Abbot’s cellar standing on the tray.

The monks filed in for Mass.

Francis saw the Abbot glance at the painting. He wondered what he saw. Did he see self-glorification? Did he see disobedience? Did he see the passion of the artist put above the service of the Lord?

One of the monks stood up to read. ‘“The Lord stretcheth out the north over the empty place. He hangeth the earth upon nothing; He binded up the waters in his thick clouds, and the cloud is not rent under them. He hath compassed the waters with bounds until the day and night come to an end …”’

There might be nothing. But instead, there is all this, Francis thought, as the Abbot began the Eucharistic prayer.

There is the sun, Francis thought. There is the moon, the stars, the firmament …

The Abbot held up the chalice of wine. ‘“This is my blood, which was given for you …”’ he intoned.

Wine into blood. Francis glanced across at his painting. He thought about the crimson wounds on the sacred body. He joined the line of monks to take Communion.

When Mass was over, the monks began to file out. One of the younger brothers, a novice, approached him. ‘Francis,’ he said. ‘Father Abbot wishes to see you.’

‘Of course,’ Francis said.

He stood in the empty chapel. He looked about him, at the apostles on the rood screen, the bright glass of the window, the altar flecked red and blue with sunlight. He leaned against a stall and traced a finger round the carving of a nightingale.

He went to the painting. He took off his scapular. He lifted the panel from the easel, wrapped it carefully in the soft white fabric and walked to the chapel door. In the cloister, instead of turning right towards the Abbot’s quarters, he turned left. He walked through the kitchen, out into the kitchen garden. He skirted the edge of the potato patch, lifted the latch on the garden gate and found himself outside.

He leaned against the old stone wall, feeling the warmth of the sun against his face. Then he tucked the painting under his arm and began to walk, down the track towards the town.

The dead man lay cradled in the woman’s arms. His flesh was sharp white, his eyes liquid black. The wound in his side was bright blood red.

Gil heard the door open behind him. He put down his paintbrush.

‘You’ve been here all night,’ she said.

‘Yes,’ he said.

She came and stood behind him. ‘It’s very beautiful,’ she said. ‘It looks like it’s just been made.’

He felt suddenly very tired. He turned round and took hold of both her hands. ‘You were right,’ he said. ‘About mothers, and all that. About the painter speaking for us all.’

‘I was?’ She blinked in surprise at his words, or perhaps it was the unfamiliar touch of his fingers. She raised one hand to his face and touched his cheek. ‘Have you been crying?’

He let go of her hand. His voice when it came was a sigh. ‘I never held him,’ he said. ‘He was there, wasn’t he, his little body … so pale … they’d closed his eyes, hadn’t they? I could have picked him up. I could have said goodbye, but I …’ He took her hands again, gazed down at her. ‘Joe,’ he said.

She nodded. ‘Joe,’ she said.

He wrapped his arms around her, felt the warmth of her body against his own. ‘I’m sorry,’ he murmured into her hair. ‘I’ve been so wrong.’

She shook her head, her face still buried in his chest. ‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s me who was wrong…’

‘Not you,’ he was saying. ‘It’s me …’

He tilted her face so that their eyes met.

‘Don’t say it,’ she said, but she was smiling, her eyes sparkling through tears.

‘I wasn’t going to,’ he said, smiling too. ‘I wouldn’t make a stupid joke at a time like this.’

She dashed at her eyes with the back of her hand. ‘Not even one about an overdue library book?’ she said, laughing now.

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