Sky by Elle Symonds

I find the painting on the street, on the way back from the pharmacy. Propped up against a large green bin, discarded next to a faded tricycle and a box of tattered books. The midday sun makes the edges of its broken, age-worn frame shine like fire.

There’s a handwritten sign. TAKE ME, I’M FREE.

I stand on the pavement studying this abandoned treasure; its careful strokes, its splashes of colour, thinking of the hands that created it. Wondering who sat before the canvas, how their fingers gripped the brush that made those delicate, sweeping clouds appear so lifelike. In the painting there’s an endless sky, the perfect blue of a summer afternoon. In the centre there’s a hot air balloon rising, rising over a distant hill.

The box from the pharmacy feels heavy in my pocket. My jeans feel tighter today. A corner of the box presses through the denim and into my skin when I crouch to look at the painting, making its presence known. I ignore it, the soft jab in my thigh, and instead concentrate on the picture, on the ruby balloon drifting into the sky. I’m immersed in it, watching it, watching those clouds move, watching them part, until I’m away from the street and the traffic and instead I’m in the balloon’s vast basket, flying through that endless sky, soaring higher and higher until the land beneath me turns into a patchwork quilt of green, sewn neatly together by trees and hedgerows. I watch the trees get smaller, smaller still, and the cars, moving like ants on winding shoelace roads, until they’ve vanished from view.

I decide to keep the painting, rescue it before the owner changes their mind. I reach down to lift it, the broken frame almost collapsing in my grasp. I want to protect the picture from the afternoon sun, the harshness of the breeze. There’s an ache of anxiety in my chest, fear that the rays will fade those perfect brush strokes, diminish the vibrancy of that perfect, endless sky.

At home I prop up the painting beside the newest pile of boxes, labelled ‘KITCHEN THINGS’. Towers of cardboard consume our tiny flat, threatening to topple. Soon they’ll all be unpacked again, their contents placed safely, permanently in the confines of a new home.

The painting is bright in the beige monotony of the room. I stand before it, watching the red balloon make its way up, up into the sky. The candy-floss clouds part as the balloon ascends, higher and higher, becoming smaller and smaller until it disappears from the painting, from view. And I picture myself inside the basket, closing my eyes to the wind, to the heavens. All is well, the painting tells me. All is well.

I tell myself I’ll reframe it. I’ll buy a new frame, and put its beauty on display.

Later I move the painting to the kitchen, placing it on the table as I prep the ingredients for dinner. I admire it as I take the meat from the fridge and chop the vegetables, stir the sauce, mindful of the time. Making sure I don’t keep the vegetables in for too long, or add too much pepper. Giles doesn’t like too much pepper. All is well, the painting tells me.

Afterwards I take it upstairs. I place it temporarily in the bathroom, leaning it against the bath. I look at it as I pull the box from the pocket of my jeans. Stare into the calming sky as I unwrap the small plastic stick, imagining the rush of the wind, my grip on the basket as I await the tell-tale crunch of tires on the driveway. My heart racing, never looking down, just soaring, soaring as I await the lines, the lines that could change everything.

 All is well, the painting says. All is well.

Biography: Elle Symonds is a novelist and flash fiction writer from Bristol, UK. Her words have appeared at Retreat West, 5 Minute Lit, Paragraph Planet and more. She’s fond of the seaside, ghost stories, and filling her house with too many books. You can find her on Twitter: @seventhelle