In keeping with gallery etiquette, and painting examination, he sat on a bench facing the work. Hard as it is to separate the conscious action from the unconscious movement, he says he didn’t see her before he sat down.
As the various elements began to emerge from the painting under his scrutinizing gaze, and described the work’s flagrant symbolism and questioning mirror, she coughed.
He turned toward the cough, and found her.
She coughed again, and apologized for it.
“Sorry,” she said, adjusting her mask.
“Oh, no, not a problem,” he answered, “there’s a lot of it about,” he said, and regretted it.
“There is, yes,” she replied, to make him feel less stupid, he believes.
“I have a Fisherman's Friend,” he then says he offered, with questioning eyebrows, raised, on further probing.
Unfortunately, she didn’t know that a Fisherman's’ Friend is a cough lozenge, with a symbiotic mix of menthol, eucalyptus, dextrin, tragacanth, and capsicum.
“That’s great,” she said, with what he described as a sympathetic smile, “I’m pleased for you.”
There then followed a period of awkward silence, while he worried on the best way to address this misattribution of his medical offer for an aquatic acquaintance.
“Oh,” he finally managed.
“Oh,” she asked, momentarily pausing her exit strategy.
“Ohhhh,” he moaned.
“Oh,” she asked again, a little intrigued.
“Oh, I meant I have a cough drop.”
“A cough drop?”
“Ohhhh,” she echoed again. “Ahhhh.”
“Yes. Not an actual ...”
“Right. Got it. I see.”
“OK. Sorry about the mis …”
“No need. I thought you meant you …”
“Yes. That I had a friend who …”
“Yes. Silly. I didn’t …”
“No, no problem at all.”
He looked down at his hands for a distraction and rubbed them together as if sanitizing, nervously and for too long, he says.
He saw she was staring at his hand rubbing.