THE EXHIBITION

I’m screwed.

No, really. I mean I’m completely screwed.

What the hell made me agree to come here anyway? That idiot calling himself an artist’s agent didn’t say anything about how remote this damn place would be. “Not far from Calais,” he said. Not far from Calais, like the hell it isn’t.

The trip was going to be exciting, and I’d never actually been to Calais, or even France, for that matter, but I was dubious about having to pay for the ticket over there, and pay for my taxi. Seventy Euros! Seventy damn Euros to get from the Calais to the art gallery where my exhibition was to take place.

I suppose I shouldn’t really complain about that. The dealer bought thirty of my paintings, even if they were in the bargain auction and going for a price that made me just a little sick. It meant my rent being paid for three months. But, thirty paintings? It should have paid for more than three months. On the bright side, if I went to the exhibition, I’d get paid extra per sale. Yay!

The village was fifty miles south of Calais, along the coast and a bit inland, and sure, the place was beautiful, very quaint, almost to the point that I wished I’d brought paper and paints with me, or at least a sketch pad, but I hadn’t, so after walking around the dozen or so streets in the village, and drinking a coffee in the only, I sauntered up the main road and eventually found the gallery, that wasn’t a gallery at all. It was an antique shop with a renovated barn out the back.

Mr Bouduin, the owner, the daft guy who’d bought the paintings, was in the shop when I went in, and as soon as I introduced myself, his chubby, bearded face lit up. Soon I was sitting at the back of the shop, on a chair next to a small dining table, drinking yet more coffee, trying to explain the influences and inspirations for the paintings he had bought, to a man who barely spoke English.

Awkward.

There was beer and wine at the opening. Actually that would be an understatement. There were close to fifty bottles of wine and a mountain of tiny beer bottles stacked up near the back of the barn. After my fifth glass of…whatever it was…the place started to look a little more like a gallery, and less like it had been the home to a few hundred chickens the summer before. There was alcove lighting, and overhead lighting, and the paintings that I’d done last summer, mostly while drunk, looked quite professional.

I think it was the free booze that brought most of the visitors. I can always tell at these types of functions, when people are clutching that glass, sipping quickly in the hope of getting another one, while wandering round and looking at the artwork as though it was a turd that a strange dog had laid on the pavement, and one that they didn’t quite know what to do with.

The lights went out at around eight. Utter darkness. I was sitting at the back of the hall, slurping on my …eighth?… glass of wine when a collected groan rippled through the forty or so gathered visitors. It was quite a turn out, considering it was in the middle of nowhere.

I heard Mr Bouduin calling for calm, at least that’s what I presumed he was calling for, and a few moments later a light flickered nearby, followed by another, and the chubby Frenchman was placing candles around the room.

It was then that I noticed the very cute woman standing just a few feet away, peering at me. I thought she was about my age, just a little shorter than I was. I was sure that I hadn’t seen her during the evening. In fact, as I looked around I noticed that there were more like sixty people in the place. Somehow in the last twenty minutes, the number of visitors had increased dramatically.

“So you like painting ghosts?” asked the woman. I turned back to her, and smiled. I’m pretty sure the smile was goofy, and I felt a flush in my cheeks. Idiot. I certainly wasn’t used to the attention of women.

“Ahhh… yeah,” I said – chatting was also not my strongest skill – “Ghosts. Yeah. Not sure why.”

She frowned at me then, and shrugged.

I was about to attempt to keep the conversation going when Mr Boudoin interrupted, and ushered me to the front of the hall, muttering something about special visitors from the hospital.

At the front door, and in a babble that I didn’t understand, I was introduced to a number of people just arriving. I saw through the window that a coach was parked just along the road, and there were maybe thirty people getting off, all heading in the direction of my exhibition. So, I stood there, shaking hands and smiling, fumbling for words as they all filed in.

Then, duty fulfilled, I headed back to the table where the wine was, got about half way there and realised that I need to pee, and quite badly.

I stood in the cubicle of the newly renovated storage building next to the barn – where there were now three toilets and a sink – relieving myself and realising that I’d been holding it for way too long. I was just trying to calculate my commission on the paintings – twenty percent extra if I showed up in person at the event – and nearly half of them sold already, when I heard the man throw up in the cubicle next to me.

That was two days ago.

Why the name of the village – Nimoux – hadn’t rung a bell in my mind, I don’t know. I’d seen it all over the news on the internet for weeks before, but somehow completely failed to put the two together. Of course, sitting up here, thirty feet from the ground, in the cold wind, freezing my nuts off, I kinda wish I had.

The news had been full of it. The next big disease outbreak, worse than even Ebola. French doctors had gone out to Somalia, to Hargeisa – the news had said – experts in dealing with communicable diseases. The new quarantine facility in Nimoux would be more than sufficient to handle the evacuation and treatment of the French UN support unit that had been hit by the outbreak while offering humanitarian aid there.

The whole world was on alert for the damn virus, that, just like Ebola a few years ago, seemed to be out of control.

Now, sitting up here on this electrical pylon, as far up as I think can safely climb without electrocuting myself, I’m beginning to question whether they really should have brought the patients home.

I wasn’t up here alone at the beginning. The cute woman – named Evonna, had been sitting just a few feet away from me. But now she is down there, among the crowd, looking up at me.

They came back, you see – the people from the hospital. They came back the next day, after transporting their rather drunk friend home in the coach, while being all full of apologies as they left. They said they would. “We’ll be here tomorrow for the second night of the exhibition,” one of the doctors had said.

Except the drunk guy was a lot paler and sickly looking than he should have been after just a few drinks. I’d noticed that, even if a few dozen supposedly trained staff didn’t. But what was I to do? I wasn’t about to suggest that maybe the guy wasn’t just drunk. And they’d promised to come back and buy paintings the next day.

And they had kept their promise about coming back.

Sort of.

So that’s where I am. Sitting here, up thirty feet of electrical pylon, looking down at the hundred or so faces that are staring up at me, and when I look across the field towards the village, I’m pretty sure I can see more people stumbling around. They all seem to be angry with me.

Yesterday there was a glow in the sky, and a series loud booms that might be coming from where Evonna had said the hospital was.

I can’t get a reception on my cellphone.

I think I left my bag, with my travel cards in the antique shop.

I’m sure that guy down there has his nose missing.

I’m screwed. Completely screwed.