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Stolen Talent

by Sarah Fiddelaers 2 years ago in art
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It seemed that genius was not only uninheritable, it was also unteachable.

Olivia, standing in the gloom of the garden shed, one hand holding a paintbrush thick with paint, the other holding her short brown hair back from her face, glared at the mountain. Ben Cruachan dominated the view through the small window. The rounded mountain rose from the blue haze of the Dividing Range and sat impassive and lordly above the smaller peaks.

She dropped her paintbrush back onto her palette and sat down on an old crate, anxiety tightening her chest. Ben Cruachan was just another shape in her crowded, messy painting. There was no sense of his majesty or power to draw the eye. Olivia rubbed at her forehead with a paint-mottled hand. The painting was so noisy she could hear it jeering at her. It had her father’s voice. She folded her arms across her chest, wrapping her oversized t-shirt close, tapping her bare foot on the concrete floor. A shrill bell clamoured in the house behind. Why Grandma, who liked her day-time naps, kept such a klaxon of a telephone she couldn’t figure out.

She looked towards her workbag and then back at the canvas. She hated her dependence, and yet, she didn’t seem to be able to function without it. The world didn’t understand that genius was not an inheritable trait. Father, certainly, had never understood. Olivia reached for her work bag and pulled the tattered black note book from it. She opened it, always careful to skip the title page, and thumbed through, taking in all that this little gospel had to offer.

Page after ivory page, she watched as the sketched lines changed and took shape. She read all the annotations, even though she knew them by heart, until she got to the centre page, where all the anguish of the earlier sketches gave way to perfection. With her finger she traced the lines of the picture, for that’s all they were. Six little lines that formed incomplete shapes, but a full picture in her mind. Olivia closed her eyes and brought to mind the beach landscape depicted so effortlessly. The shoreline, the horizon, the jetty, the distant shore, one small line in the midst of a great space to depict the agitation of the ocean, and a wavering semicircle for the weak winter sun.

It had been a crystalising moment, looking on that sketch. She knew exactly how to paint it, as though she’d been born for such a moment. Our Beach had been her quickest, most exhilarating, and best work. She often heard masterpieces described as though the artist had poured all their genius into it, but that had not been her experience. Her genius had been drained from her, like the drawing of poison from a wound.

Olivia opened her eyes and turned towards the window, trying to find the defining lines of the view. She couldn’t do it, she couldn’t balance the composition. Her genius had been bled from her, spent and, it seemed, would not be replenished. She’d wasted all her talent on a painting she could never show anyone.

A rumble sounded from the house as Grandma pushed up the kitchen window.

‘Olivia-!’ she called, ‘Are you still out there?’

Oliva got to her feet and waved out the door to her grandma.

‘Be right in,’ she called.

She dumped her brushes in a cup of turps, and then scraped the paint from her palette. The little black notebook she closed carefully and secreted back in her workbag.


In the kitchen Grandma was swishing boiling water around a teapot. Her movements were agitated and she sloshed some of the water onto the kitchen bench.

‘Sit down love,’ said Grandma, pouring the tea into two china teacups. ‘I’ve a confession to make.’

Olivia sat down on a rickety wooden stool and waited.

‘You know the picture you gave me?’ said Grandma, pushing a blue and white teacup towards her, ‘the beach one I love?’

Olivia frowned. She’d given Our Beach to Grandma because she did love it, but more to the point, hanging on Grandma’s bedroom wall, there was no chance that anyone would ever see it.

Grandma looked up, her cheeks pink in her soft, pale face. ‘You do remember, don’t you?’

‘Yes of course,’ said Olivia, taking a large sip of scalding tea, burning her mouth.

‘It’s won a prize,’ said Grandma proudly, her eyes not quite meeting Olivia’s frown.

Olivia glanced at the calendar, trying to work out when the parish fete had been. Hadn’t it been months ago? She took another, more cautious sip of tea.

‘Oh,’ she said, trying to sound happy, ‘I really only meant that picture for you, Grandma.’

‘I know you said that, but it’s such a good picture Liv. Something like what your dad used to paint before—,’ she trailed off, the flush fading from her cheeks and her eyes growing watery. ‘Well, he’d be proud. It’s your best work yet.’

Except it wasn’t her work. It was stolen ideas. Olivia felt her cheeks grow hot at the thought of it, even as her stomach grew cold at the memories of her father’s impatience with her slowness to grasp the things he tried to teach her. She was his stupidest student, he said it often. It seemed that genius was not only uninheritable, it was also unteachable.

‘Anyway,’ said Grandma, her voice determinedly bright, ‘I thought you could do with the money as well as the recognition.’

‘There’s a cash prize?’ When had they brought that in? The most she’d ever won from the parish fete was a voucher for the local General Store.

‘Twenty thousand dollars,’ said Grandma, triumph lighting up her smile.

Olivia’s heart froze. Her skin went cold and the brightness of the sun through the kitchen window hurt her eyes.

‘Twenty thousand dollars?’ she repeated. ‘From where?’

‘From the gallery up in Melbourne. I saw a bit about it in the paper just after you gave the picture to me, so I entered it into their competition.’ Grandma was still avoiding Olivia’s eye.

A wave of petrified nausea swept over Olivia from the pit of her stomach.

‘It’s a prestigious prize, so there’s no need to be embarrassed about it,’ said Grandma, frowning at her as she reached for a biscuit. ‘They call it the persi-phone, or some such thing.’

‘Persephone,’ mumbled Olivia. She swallowed the saliva that was beading in her her mouth and tried another smile. ‘I’m not embarrassed, I’m, well, shocked.’ Olivia closed her eyes and buried her head into her hands. ‘Oh gosh,’ she said.


Olivia couldn’t answer. She was concentrating on breathing through her nose, one nostril at a time like her hypnotherapist had taught her. She heard her Grandma put her cup down and then felt her hands on her shoulders, the rough skin catching on the cotton of her t-shirt.

‘I know it’s hard for you work with your dad’s voice in your ear,’ said Grandma, stroking her hair. ‘But I want you to believe in yourself Liv, the way your dad would’ve if he hadn’t been so unwell. I won’t be able to do the believing for both of us forever.’ She dropped a kiss on the top of Olivia’s head, and Olivia, her throat thickening with love for her undauntable grandma, gave an undignified sob.


Olivia’s cheeks burned as she stood next to Our Beach at the gallery, award and bouquet of flowers in hand, staring out at a sea of photographers and journalists. He would know.

The moment Our Beach appeared in the paper and found its way onto Gilbert’s breakfast table, he would know she had his notebook. He would see the composition first, before the colour even worked its way into his visual cortex, and he would recognise it as his.

She hadn’t stolen the notebook, she reminded herself, forcing a smile as the camera’s started flashing, she’d rescued it. But for her, Gilbert’s notebook would be a soggy, ink-stained mess right now. She breathed deeply, trying to hear the journalists' questions over the buzzing in her ears.

Of course, that was only half the truth. She had found the notebook lying on the bench of her favourite, lonely lookout during her beach holiday last year. And it had been about to rain, so naturally, she’d taken it with her. She ought never to have looked beyond the title page, she ought to have handed it into the police and been done with it. But Gilbert O’Connor had only written his name, no address, and Olivia, who’d given into temptation and peeped into the pages, was loth to part with it.

What could the police do? She reasoned with herself. She was an artist, and this Gilbert was clearly an artist of some skill, she’d a better shot at finding him than a coastal police station. And she could keep the notebook, just a little longer. She could learn from this Gilbert O’Connor.

Only she hadn’t been able to learn, her old stubborn stupidity had refused to let her, and so she’d stolen from him instead.

‘Can you tell us about your technique Ms Croft?’

‘Olivia, why is this so removed from your previous work?’

‘Is this a legacy from your dad?’

Her dad. That’s why there were so many of them here. Come to see the product of that mad, tormented genius. He was still taking credit for her work, even from beyond the grave. Olivia’s jaw tightened as she looked at them all, watching her, waiting for some terrible, fascinating detail about her dad.

‘Is this all your own work, Ms Croft?’

The smile dissolved from her lips. She looked into the expectant faces of the crowd, caught in a moment of clarity. She was just like him. She’d taken this Gilbert’s work and made it her own, just as her father had used to do to her.

A gallery attendant stepped forward and handed out prepared media statements to the press. Olivia stood petrified with indecision.

‘I see you found my notebook,’ said a voice at her elbow.

Olivia started and saw a man standing beside her, his brown hair a mess, crooked spectacles pushed up on his nose, an ugly, lumpy wool cardigan hanging off him.

‘Gilbert O’Connor?’ she whispered. Death would be a kindness in this moment, one she didn’t deserve.

She was not her father.

Olivia straightened. Opened her mouth to apologise.

‘Did you recognise it?’ Gilbert asked.

Olivia frowned, her mouth still open.

‘I found it in the archives, while I was researching my book on your father. I’m here to apologise. I’m a huge fan, you know, of your work. I feel like an idiot for trying to keep it from you,’ Gilbert shoved his hands into his baggy trousers and looked at the floor.

Olivia closed her mouth, wondering if she were hallucinating. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘The sketch, in the notebook. It’s one of yours.’

Olivia stared.

‘According to your dad’s diary, you did it on a holiday when you were four, and he was blown away with the simplicity and intimacy of the linework. He spent the rest of his life trying to re-create it, trying to unpick your genius so that he could apply it to his own work. If you’ll forgive me,’ said Gilbert, looking up at her seriously, ‘I think it sent him mad.’

Olivia’s mouth was open again as she tried to understand what Gilbert was telling her. She remembered that beach holiday, a child’s thrill of her father’s interest in her work.

‘I was keeping it back, I wanted to make a big splash with my book, turn the art world on its head,’ Gilbert gave a wry smile and shifted his feet. ‘But I guess your guardian angels thought you’d had enough people stealing your thunder, and took things into their own hands. I’m glad,’ he said simply, glancing at Our Beach, his eyes lightening with admiration, ‘and I’m sorry.’


About the author

Sarah Fiddelaers

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