The Commission

“Ciao Gabriella,” I called, as I squeezed past the stack of blank canvasses blocking the doorway to the small office at the back of the gallery. Hearing my voice, Gabriella squealed, practically vaulting over a small pile of boxes and pulling me into a tight hug.

 “I’ve been trying to call you all morning! Oh, Bella. You’ll never guess what!” I couldn’t miss the excitement buzzing from her small frame, but I couldn’t resist teasing her.

 “Erm…you’ve just found out that I’ve been awarded the Future Generation Art Prize and we’re splitting the winnings sixty/forty?” She pulled back and slapped my arm.

 “When that happens — and I’ve no doubt it will — the split will be fifty/fifty! Where would you be without me hmm?”

 “Languishing away down in my parent’s freezing cantina, and working minimum wage to save up for new brushes?”

 “Certo!” She said with a mock glare.

 “So, what’s this big news then? Did we manage to make it into the black this month?” She rolled her eyes, grabbing my hands.

 “You have a new commission!”

 I got commissions reasonably often, so that couldn’t be the ‘big news’. She only left me hanging for a moment before her excitement got the better of her

 “…for forty-six canvases!!!” She finished with a little hop, laughing as my mouth dropped open in amazement.

 Was that really only six weeks ago? I’d been so thrilled. It was the largest commission I’d ever had. It even included an all expenses paid trip for my family and me to visit Sydney for an entire month. Australia… we’d never even been outside of Italy. My nine-year-old son, Mattia, hadn’t stopped talking about it since. He and my husband, Marco, had spent hours pouring through travel sites, making a list of all the places they planned to visit. It was a career maker, an open door to future commissions from other hotel chains. It felt like I’d finally made it — certainly a far cry from how I felt today.

 Standing in the hotel reception, my heart in the pit of my stomach, I waited for the hotel chain’s owner to finish yet another overseas business call. The bulging portfolio clutched in my numb fingers, contained my last chance at securing the job. Forty-nine sketches in total, this included a couple of backups as a safety net, just in case any of the first forty-six fell flat. As Greta Thompson’s muffled voice drifted to my ears from behind the thick, opaque glass, I felt anything but reassured. The devastation which followed our last meeting ran on a loop through my mind.

 “Oh no, this won’t do at all!” Greta frowned down at the freshly sketched images scattered across the large conference table. Tutting, she shook her head.

 “What don’t you like about them? Maybe once I add a little colour and…” She waved her hand at the pile with an overly dramatic flourish cutting me off mid-thought.

 “Everything, darling. Just everything!” Taking hold of my arm, she pulled me closer. Forcing myself to focus past the terrible well of despair bubbling up inside, I scrutinised my work again, trying to find whatever it was she found so offensive. I just couldn’t see it. I’d thought the botanical gardens, harbour and opera house would be the perfect subjects for the series. Each one was uniquely ‘Sydney’, and the only guidance I’d been given was ‘capture the essence of Sydney’.

 “Could you try to be more specific? If I had a clearer idea of exactly what you’re looking for then perhaps…”

 “Something unique darling! Something that only you could have painted. I want to see your heart and soul laid out on that page…not just another ‘hotel room’ painting.” The last she’d put in air-quotes as if she wasn’t sure the words themselves would hammer the point home enough.

 “I see…” I didn’t though. I’d spent hours finding just the right locations for those sketches. It hadn’t been easy either. It was my first time in Sydney, and I’d never been very good at following street-maps. Plus, although my grasp of the English language was better than most of the people I knew back home, it was proving no match at all to the thick Australian dialect and strange slang which most of the city’s residents seemed to use. Asking for directions had been like sitting an exam in a subject I’d never studied.

 Hearing her describe them as ‘just another hotel room painting’ was crushing. It gave me doubts I really couldn’t afford to have. Not if I wanted any chance of taking home the promised paycheck. How would I face my family and friends back home, or explain to my son why the new bike he had his heart set on would have to wait for another year. We weren’t poor by any means, but luxuries were in rather short supply at present.

 “Okay… Let me see what I can do.”

 Greta gave my shoulder a squeeze, which I could only assume was meant to be a gesture of encouragement, then swept from the room, calling her PA’s name at the top of her lungs.

 All I’d wanted to do at that moment was go back to my room and have a good, long cry. Crying wouldn’t help anything though. So, shoving my bruised pride aside I’d headed back out in search of my muse.

I was pulled from my dark thoughts by the sound of the office door opening. I tried to achieve a convincingly confident expression, as Greta’s face poked around the doorframe. She was still on the phone.

 “Gio, darling…give me just a sec, will you.” She covered the mouthpiece with a perfectly manicured hand. “Wonderful man, couldn’t manage his way out of a paper bag,” she whispered conspiratorially.

 I didn’t quite know how to respond to that.

 “Is that them?!” She held her hand out for the portfolio, which I was still clutching like a lifeline. I handed it over, but instead of looking inside, she just tucked it under her arm.

 “I’m going to have to be unforgivably rude, my dear. I was expecting to be finished by now, but Gio really can’t cope without me.” She shrugged with a dramatic roll of her eyes.

 “I can come back later…?” I wasn’t sure I could handle the stress of waiting even longer for her review of my work, but it was clear I had no choice.

 “Could you? That would be wonderful, darling…shall we say 8 pm in the foyer?” Before I had a chance to answer she was gone, door clicking shut in her wake.

 What on earth was I going to do for the next six hours? I’d made it as far as the lobby when Greta’s PA came chuffing to a stop at my side.

 “Ms Thompson wanted me to tell you to bring your husband and son with you to the meeting.” My heart sank further, now resting somewhere near the level of my shoes. I nodded, and the man scurried off again.

 Six hours later I was a bag of nerves. It didn’t matter how many times Marco told me that she’d love my work. Even the none stop questions from my son couldn’t lure me from my anxious cocoon of anticipatory misery.

 “I’m so glad you could all make it!” Greta came sweeping into the room — a cyclone of energy and emotion.

 “Ms Thompson, I hope…” She held up a hand.

 “First, Follow me.”

 I felt, rather than saw Marco’s mouth drop open in shock. Greta didn’t see it though, as she’d already marched from the room.

 She finally came to a stop in front of a closed door, which still had ‘under construction’ signs clearly displayed. Ignoring them, she ushered us into the dark space beyond.

 I was about to ask what was going on when she flipped the light switch. My eyes grew wide as saucers as I realised where I was standing.

 “Its…a gallery.” She laughed, clearly enjoying my surprise. Looking around I realised all of the pieces on display were the preliminary sketches I’d handed her earlier.

 “It certainly is, and it’s all yours darling girl!”

 “I…I don’t understand. I thought you wanted the paintings for the hotel?”

 “Indeed I do dear, and the first sketches you gave me will be perfect for that. This gallery is for the wonderful ones you handed me today…and any you might paint in the future, of course. This past month has been about more than just a commission. It was an interview to see if you were the right person to receive our ‘New Talent’ grant — you passed with shining colours. Congratulations!” She put her arm around my shoulder and gave me a squeeze. My son and husband began to clap; beaming smiles on both their faces.

 “You knew!” I accused with a mock glare.

 “They were sworn to secrecy. Couldn’t have them spoiling my fun.”

 “You are a very unique woman, Ms Thompson.”

 “Noticed that did you?” She grinned unrepentantly, and we all dissolved into laughter.

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