“Holy shit!” I squished my face against the plane’s window. “Holy fucking shit, we’re actually in the air! Look there, Liya, those are people! They’re like specks, oh my god!”
Liya buried her face in her hands. “People are looking, Xiao Zhou.”
“Is that the harbour? Oh my god, it’s the harbour! That’s the harbour we deliver our paintings to!”
“Xiao Zhou, stop.”
“Kevin! Kevin, can you hear me?!”
Liya dug her nails into my earlobes. It took no strength, and yet it felt like a red-hot poker, searing me from ear to toe. I screamed out for my mother. For a moment, I could see heaven’s gates. I saw his lordship, Shangdi, greet me on his jade throne.
Then I fell back to my seat on Earth. “Ow! That hurt!”
Liya was too busy apologising to the passengers around us. “Sorry for the disturbance. Sorry, sir. Sorry, ma’am. It won’t happen again.”
They gave us a final judging look before returning to their champagnes and caviar. If anything, it was probably exactly what they expected. How else was a chinaman going to react when you put him on an aeroplane?
“It’s really a great view,” I said. “You don’t want to have a look?”
“No thanks, I don’t like heights.”
“You’re the one who said this was all super safe. Aero-dynasty or something.”
“Aerodynamics,” she corrected. “And no amount of knowledge and understanding can make someone feel safe in a giant metal box fifteen kilometres in the air.”
“We’re fifteen kilometres in the air?!”
Liya reached for my ear again and I shut up immediately. She opened up a thick book, while I returned to staring out the window. The city of Shenzheng had long vanished from view, obscured by a river of clouds. Those plumes of white seemed so tangible, as if I could just reach out and pluck them from the sky. Yet, when the sun angled from behind, their light was splayed like orange fingers. I had never seen such a majestic view before.
“I wish I had brought my art supplies,” I said. “I would’ve liked to paint this view.”
Liya licked her finger and turned a page. “Maybe some things weren’t meant to be painted.”
“But it’s such a beautiful sight. It deserves to be immortalised.”
“Is it immortalised because it’s beautiful, or beautiful because it’s immortalised?”
“I don’t understand.”
She shrugged. “Sometimes, things are beautiful because they don’t last.”
I glanced out again. “But what if I forget it?”
Liya put down her book and wrapped her fingers around mine. She rested her head upon my shoulder, eyes closed and smiling gently. “Then you’ll still have the memory of the first time you flew with your wife.”
Once we got to Belgium, it was an easy stroll through customs and security. I imagined most people would bring luggage, but for us, our backpacks were almost empty, save for some sparse change of clothes. We were told that all our art supplies would be provided for us, which to be honest, I was quite looking forward to. This was the longest I had been without a paintbrush in my hand, and after a long day of new things, something familiar would be very welcome.
Out of the airport, it was easy to pick out our escort. He stuck out like a sore thumb from a sea of white faces
“Mr and Mrs Zhang?”
He had a cardboard sign with Chinese letters written on it. They were our names, some of the few characters I recognised.
“I’m with Lao Wei,” he said. “Welcome to Bruges.”
He led us to his car, which would’ve been a luxury brand in China, but in Belgium, nobody batted an eye. Half the cars on that very street were more expensive.
“Long flight?” he asked us, starting the car.
“I wish it was longer,” I said. “It was a wonderful view.”
“Belgium is full of wonderful views. I could recommend spots if you want.”
“I don’t think we’ll have time for that,” said Liya. “We’re here for business.”
“Oh, relax.” I poked her cheek. “Lao Wei will be so happy with our work, he’ll give us a few days of vacation here. What’s good around here, driver?”
“The Belfry of Bruges is essential,” he said. “There’s a lot of churches with wonderful architecture.”
“Any art galleries?”
“Yes, the Groeningemuseum. Very famous.”
“Groeningemuseum!” I turned to Liya. “Jan van Eyck! Bosch! Gerard David!”
“If we have time,” she insisted.
“And how far are we from Amsterdam?”
“Maybe three hours by train.”
I pumped the air. “I can’t believe this is really happening! Not only are we in the middle of Europe, but we’re so close to the Van Gogh Museum! Oh Liya, if I knew the direction I’d just start running!”
“Then thank god you don’t know the direction.
The driver pointed out the window. “It’s that way.”
“Don’t encourage him!”
I remembered audibly gasping when we saw our new studio. By all standards except our own, it wasn’t much of an upgrade from the canning factory. Essentially, it was just a moderately sized flat, but it felt like so much more. There was a lounge, a toilet, a kitchen, and oh heavens, a window. A quaint little window. No longer were we secluded to a tiny squabble of the world; we were now part of it. We could poke our heads out, breathe the morning air and taste the autumn rain. We could shout at the top of our lungs, “We are here, we exist,” and we would be heard.
“If anyone asks, you are Mr and Mrs Liu, tourists from Hong Kong.” Lao Wei dropped a folder on the dining table. “In here are your living expenses. There’ll be two men outside your door. If you need anything, talk to them. If you want to speak to me, do it through them too. You can go for a walk if you want, but they have to be with you. Does that all sound clear?”
“That sounds amazing,” I said, still gazing out.
“That sounds fine,” said Liya.
“Great. Let’s get down to business then.” He slid out a sheet from the folder. “I won’t tell you the whole plan, for both your sake and mine. Suffice it to say, all you need to do is finish this painting for me and then you can get paid and go home. The piece you’ll be forging is Van Gogh’s 1888 painting Vase with Five Sunflowers and you’ll have two months to complete it.”
I paused. “What did you say?”
“You’ll have one month.”
“No, the painting.”
“Vase with Five Sunflowers.”
“Van Gogh’s Vase with Five Sunflowers?”
I spun around. My eyes went to Liya first, to check if she was hearing the same thing I was. She shrugged. Either she didn’t know or she didn’t care.
I looked back at Lao Wei. “We can’t do it.”
“If this is just nerves, Mr Zhang, I assure you it’ll pass.”
“No, no, this is not about nerves.” I crossed the room and stopped in front of him. “Vase with Five Sunflowers doesn’t exist.”
“It’s a matter of perspective and chronology. Past, present, future. It existed, it doesn’t exist, it will exist.”
“Xiao Zhou,” said Liya. “What does he mean?”
“Van Gogh drew seven sunflower paintings,” I explained. “Sometime in the early 1910s, a Japanese man called Koyata Yamamoto purchased one of them: Vase with Five Sunflowers. He had it shipped to Japan and displayed in various exhibits, but during one of the exhibits, the painting fell from its hinge and damaged its frame. Enraged, Yamamoto stored the work in his home and never showed it in public again. About twenty years later, as the War of Resistance was coming to an end, the American military conducted air raids all over Japan...”
“And Yamamoto’s house was burnt to the ground,” Lao Wei finished. “The painting went with it.”
Liya cackled. It was half out of surprise and half out of some morbid humour she derived from the loss of art history. She pulled out a thin piece of rolling paper and brought her lighter to it. Within seconds, the fire spread from corner to corner, until the whole thing was ablaze. Liya threw it into the air.
A moment later, it floated to the floor as crumples of smokey black ash.
“There’s your painting,” she laughed.
Lao Wei maintained a smile. If he felt slighted by Liya’s joke, he made no show of it. “Very charming, Mrs Zhang, but I’m afraid we’re not letting you guys go so easily.”
“You can’t be serious,” I said. “You want us to forge a painting we’ve never seen?”
“Of course not. The real thing might be gone, but we do know what it looks like.” He produced a photograph from the folder and passed it to me. “Although I will admit it’s rather blurry.”
Liya asked, “And what are you going to do with a forgery of a painting that everyone knows is destroyed?”
“You two deal with your side of things, I’ll deal with mine.”
I glanced down at the photo and felt a terrible chill shoot down my spine. I couldn’t tell what it meant at the time, and it wasn’t until now that I could put words to it. It was a pained sense of something wicked about to come, and the horrifying realisation I might’ve rushed into a job I didn’t understand.
I gripped the photo so hard I creased it. “Lao Wei.”
“This photo’s in black and white.”