Projects like this came up once in a career. You could go fifty years cleaning up muddy Fattoris and Signorinis and all sorts of French tat, and never get a chance like this. They’d drawn straws for it – well, brushes – and Sarah had won. Luck of the draw, she’d said modestly as her colleagues congratulated her, but in truth she knew every inch of those brushes, down to the tiniest flecks of varnish on their handles.
The first step was to remove the painting from its ancient-looking frame. After extracting two dozen tacks from the back, she pressed it firmly from the front. It didn’t budge. She ran a knife along the join between the frame and the painting, exploring the places it might be stuck and gradually working the back board loose. As she did this, the entire piece creaked, again and again, like groans escaping from a tight throat. Old wood, she tutted, and turned it over again. Probably not been touched for decades.
This time when she pressed, there was a dull crack, and the frame lifted off easily, leaving fragments of plaster behind. She set it carefully on the table and returned to the painting. With one cotton-gloved hand, she rubbed a few loose fibres off the glass behind which the sacred image lay. She heard another crack, but this time it was abrupt, searing. Beneath her fingertips, the glass had split in two.
No matter, she told herself as she lifted it off. She examined the surface for shards of glass and reached for a dusting brush from the case behind her. Not unheard of, for an old piece. Brittle old glass. Nothing to worry about.
When her gaze returned to the masterpiece, she froze. What was happening? Where was it going? It was as if the colour, in all its bewitching intensity, was evaporating, leaving only a pastel shadow behind. In a panic, she reached for the lamp, fumbled at the switch, extinguished the light. The painting was escaping, and it was all her fault.