The Gates of Balawat, Chapter 1
Sketching in a museum, Ella meets an intriguing fellow traveller.
Her warm-up strokes were bold upon the paper, her shoulder loosening up as she completed large, sweeping shapes in soft pencil. She had been looking forward to sketching in the Assyrian gallery. The statue of Ashurnasirpal II had caught her eye the day before. All those meticulously sculpted little curls in his beard must have been a nightmare to carve and would be equally tricky to get down on paper.
The Near East galleries were usually quite empty at this time of day. The lunchtime visitors escaping their dreary offices were back at their desks and the tourists rarely made it this deep into the museum. Ella liked it that way. She always came in via a small and little-known backstreet entrance, the one the tourists missed because it looked so low key that everyone assumed it was a staff entrance. It almost felt as if she was sneaking in, or as if this were her own private collection.
She had once tried sketching in the Egyptian room, but couldn’t work with the constant jostling, the random elbows carelessly waved in her face, the competition for the only bench, the eager sightseers standing in the way. So she had scoured the museum for the orphan galleries, semi-abandoned at the tops of staircases or the ends of corridors or in the basement where only one lift went. She was getting to know the rhythms of the place, the ebbs and flows of the tourists who circulated like blood cells through the narrow passages, clotting around the most famous exhibits and then pouring out onto the street when visiting time was over.
She made herself comfy on the bench and began to get Ashurnasirpal’s likeness down, beginning with simple lines as she developed a feel for his proportions, his enormous beard, his broad shoulders and long robe, the mace clenched in his left hand. And those big, intense eyes that, even carved in cold stone, had a piercing strength, demanding nothing short of perfection. This towering figure, with his commanding strength combined with the meticulous grooming of his beard and hair, the long tassels of his skirts and his perfect toes peeking out from under the hem, fascinated her.
She caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of her eye and ignored it. People came. People went. Sometimes people stood over her shoulder to see what she was doing. Sometimes they tried to pretend that they weren’t. She ignored them all.
The cuneiform inscription that stretched across Ashurnasirpal’s chest was proving awkward to get right. She wanted to be faithful to the feel of the writing without turning the sketch into a big transcription project. As she worked, a movement to her side coalesced into human form and sat itself down on the other end of the bench. The newcomer started ferreting about in their rucksack. She wished they would just get up and leave her be, but after the brief disruption they settled and so did she.
It was only when her phone alarm silently buzzed in her pocket, reminding her to go home and eat, that she finally looked up at her neighbour. Her hand briefly stilled before she self-consciously continued to pack her stuff away as quietly as possible so that she didn’t disturb a fellow artist. His longish hair needed a cut and hung dark against skin that would always be pale no matter how much sun he took. He was left-handed, as Ella was, and sketched with firm confident strokes.
She quietly stood, making her way around the back of the bench so that she wouldn’t cross his line of sight. She averted her eyes, determined not to glance over his shoulder to scope out his work. She knew how annoying rubberneckers could be and resolved not to be that person. She couldn’t help herself. As she passed behind him, her eyes flicked towards his sketchbook and she found herself involuntarily stopping in order to get a better look.
He was good. His proportions were spot on, his strokes economical, and he worked with a swift self-assurance that made her think that he’d picked up a pencil as a child and simply never put it down. But he wasn’t trying to draw photo-realistically, as she was. He was an entirely different kind of artist, one more at home in graphic novels and comics. She watched with a feeling akin to awe as he turned this ancient lump of stone into something new, something contemporary, something alive.
Ella found illustration easy, but when she tried any sort of comic book stylings, they came out naïve and childish. She loved graphic novels, but she had long ago accepted that she would never be a comic book artist.
As she stared, he stopped drawing and looked up at her, grinning, his inky blue eyes twinkling with amusement.
“Tricky, that cuneiform inscription,” he said. He must have sneaked a look at her work.
“Awkward as hell,” she said, shyly smiling back. “I prefer his beard.”
“Imagine getting halfway through carving all those curls, and then accidentally chipping one off.”
Ella shuddered at the empathetic terror of such artistic disaster.
“At least if we mess it up, we can just rub out the offending lines. Or start again.”
“Much easier,” he agreed.
Ella smiled again and found herself gazing into his eyes for just a shade too long. She felt a wash of heat rise up her throat, turning her cheeks pink, and glanced frantically down at the floor.
“Enjoy your sketching,” she said, giving him a brief embarrassed grimace before fleeing the scene, her heart skittering.
“Waiting for someone?” Caroline asked, as the customer she had just served walked away with his purchases. Caroline was the owner of Fine Lines, the small art supplies shop where Ella worked. She smiled sympathetically.
“No. What makes you say that?” Ella said, not meeting her boss’s eye.
“Oh, the way you stare at the door every time it opens.”
“Do too. So what’s his name?”
“I don’t know…”
“Aha! So it’s a guy! Is he cute? Where did you meet him?“
Ella finished stacking the new watercolour sets on the shelf and sighed.
“Yes, he’s cute. No, I don’t know his name. And I met him at the museum. Sort of.”
“How did you know?”
“Why else would you be hoping he’d show up here if he wasn’t? Unless you’re hoping he’s psychic?”
Ella made a derisive snort.
“Well, if you want to pop off early today...” Caroline said.
“Nah, it’s OK, I’ll keep to my schedule.”
Working two part-time jobs was tiring but it gave her a chunk of time late afternoon that she’d miss out on in a nine-to-five job, time perfect for going to museums, art galleries and exhibitions.
She arrived at the National Museum a little after her normal hour, entering through the locals’ entrance, as she thought of it. Through the Eastern rooms, from China through Myanmar, up through Mongolia, then Eurasia, and finally she passed through the Gates of Balawat to Assyria. It was a journey around the world and back in time a few thousand years in just a few short minutes.
Built nearly three thousand years ago to hang at the entrance to the Temple of Mamu, the goddess of dreams, all that was left of the original Balawat Gates was a series of eight brass strips that once bound huge wooden planks together into monumental doors. She paused, as she always did, to admire the exquisite workmanship. The ancient Assyrians dreamt of war and sacrifice and grinding their mortal enemies under the wheels of their chariots, if the friezes were anything to go by. She wondered if they would explain what was going on, but realised that even if they did, she didn’t have time to study them. Or a ladder.
She didn’t linger. Impatience tugged at her like a chihuahua straining at the end of its lead, yappy and annoying. She moved through into the next gallery with her good friend Ashurnasirpal II, her eyes scanning the room to see if she would be lucky. Her heart fell a little to see that she had the place mostly to herself, but she shrugged it off and took up yesterday’s position to continue her study of the mighty Assyrian king.
She sketched. She was becoming familiar now with the sweep of the massive beard, with the knit of his brow, the purse of his lips. So engrossed was she, she barely registered the constant trickle of tourists in the gallery, not even when one of them stood behind her for a moment to look at her work.
But then, as the figure sat at the other end of the bench, a little jolt of recognition pierced her concentration. She glanced up and the jolt became a lurch. He glanced at her and smiled, she returned the smile coyly and looked away. That smile! The way it lit up his face and sparkled in his eyes!
Ella tried to find words, something to say, some way to open even the briefest of conversations, but came up blank. All her options, all her ‘Do you come here often?’s and her ‘Are you a professional?’s died on her lips, the syllables tasting of dull grey ashes. She peeked at him again, a sideways glance that she half hoped he would notice so that he would be the one forced to find the words, but he was already drawing, already spirited away into his own private world.
The silent alarm on Ella’s phone began to vibrate. Time to go.
“Will you stop with the sighing?” Caroline said, in mock frustration.
“Sorry,” Ella said, meekly, looking at the clock again although she’d only just checked the time.
“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this besotted.”
“I’m not besotted!”
“Oh, I know the signs! That faraway look on your face, the constant sighing, the way your eyes are glued to the clock. It’s young love, alright.”
“It is not! Seriously! I barely know the guy.”
“Ah, but something deep in your heart tells you he’s the one, doesn’t it? Or at least, he’s the one until you get to know him a little better and discover that he bites his toenails and can’t cook an egg without burning the water.”
Ella huffed. “Not true,” she muttered.
“Go on with you,” Caroline waved Ella towards the door. “You’re good for nothing today. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that it’s taken you half an hour to count that order of calligraphy pens.”
“I need the hours.”
“You can make it up when we do the stock-take.”
Caroline made shooing gestures until Ella gave in, picked up her bag and left.
It was Thursday, so it was Thursday Lates and the museum would stay open until 10pm. Ella hoped he’d show again. She didn’t have a shift at the pub tonight, she’d swapped with Miles so she could stay at the museum until she was frogmarched out by security.
But her sketches were weak, her lines hesitant, her technique poor. Her neck and shoulders were tense, her movement coming stiffly from her wrist instead of flowing from her shoulder. Part of her wanted to throw the whole evening’s work away, but she didn’t, she kept everything. There was always a lesson, even from poor work, and today’s lesson was… she had no idea what today’s lesson was. Maybe that would become clear tomorrow.
She wanted to leave early, wanted to go home and stop wasting paper, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to go. Whilst she was still here, there was still a chance. But eventually the last of the tourists left the gallery and she took the impatient scowl of the museum security guard as the hint it was.
He had not come tonight.
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