Gustav Carlson’s Autumn Leaves – By Stephen Connolly
The painting had been in the city for less than a month when Johansen decided to steal it.
Not because he liked it or because it was valuable or because he was a criminal. Johansen was a respectable accountant, lived frugally and could not tell one picture from another. No, Johansen decided to steal the painting to outdo his brother Peter.
Peter was the youngest of the family, spoiled by their parents all his life. Where Johansen had studied hard and got a steady job, Peter had drifted around, frittering his money on strong drink and loose women, but somehow always falling on his feet.
Johansen loathed his brother, mainly for the trouble he had caused their parents down the years, but also (though he would never have admitted it) for the fun he always seemed to have, the good fortune that always shone upon him. So when Peter – living at home due to some ‘temporary’ financial difficulties – acquired a print of Gustav Carlson’s ‘Autumn Leaves’ and hung it in his parents’ dining room, Johansen decided to steal the original.
The theft proved simpler than he could ever have imagined, considering he had no experience of crime. On the following Saturday, Johansen visited the City Art Gallery for a reconnaissance. To his amazement, the building seemed deserted. Unknown to him, it was the day of the cup final – Johansen had no interest in football – and the city was buzzing; anyone who didn’t have a ticket was glued to the nearest TV set. The police had been busy all day keeping rival fans apart, out of the bars and moving towards the Stadium.
Johansen eventually found staff and visitors tucked away in an office watching the match on TV. They were far too busy to notice him so he hurried to the gallery containing Gustav Carlson’s ‘Autumn Leaves’, stepped over a rail and removed the painting from the wall. Five minutes later, he was walking out of the building with the canvas rolled up beneath his arm.
‘DISGRACEFUL!’ the newspapers screamed as the police searched in vain for the painting and the thief.
‘Genius!’ Peter declared as the family ate their Sunday dinner beneath their print of ‘Autumn Leaves’. ‘Walking out with it in the middle of the match? Genius!’
This would all have been balm to Johansen’s soul, had he not been furious at his portrayal in the media. According to the police spokesman, the images caught on the gallery’s CCTV footage showed a man so unremarkable that there was little hope of identifying him.
Unremarkable? thought Johansen. Me?
Alone in his apartment, he gazed at Gustav Carlson’s ‘Autumn Leaves’, feeling more resentment than triumph.
The next step was probably inevitable.
‘Don’t be so hard on him,’ Johansen’s father protested as they bickered over yet another mess from which Peter had had to be expensively rescued. ‘He’s just naïve.’
Johansen scowled at the print of ‘Autumn Leaves’ hanging on the wall.
And once again inspiration struck.
‘SUCCESS!’ the newspapers blazed when Peter was arrested. And if the police were puzzled by his lack of resemblance to the figure in the CCTV footage, at least – thanks to Johansen’s cunning substitution – they had found his fingerprints on the painting.
There was a sensational trial, during which Peter’s disreputable past was brought up in court and blasted across the press. He was quickly convicted and given a lengthy prison sentence.
Johansen comforted his heartbroken parents, confident that he would soon take his rightful place as the head of the family.
And then Gustav Carlson died.
Within days, the value of all his paintings had shot up. ‘Autumn Leaves’ was sold for an immense sum and the newspapers had a field day.
‘DISGRACEFUL!’ they screamed and in furious editorials they protested at the exorbitant prices of paintings when ordinary people were going without.
And to Johansen’s horror, Peter became the hero of the hour.
‘A MODERN DAY ROBIN HOOD!’ the newspapers called him and began a campaign for his release. A technicality was found in the original trial which lead to an appeal. In a gush of popular sentiment, Peter was pardoned and released.
The new owner of Gustav Carlson’s ‘Autumn Leaves’ died and in his will bequeathed the painting to the city. Within a month it was back in the Art Gallery, on the very wall from which Johansen had stolen it. The Gallery even asked Peter to the unveiling.
Johansen took to drink, convinced that he would never be free of the cursed painting.
At the unveiling ceremony Peter met a society girl and after a whirlwind romance, they married. Her father gave Peter a job writing for his newspaper. Johansen found himself having to read Peter’s opinions on a daily basis.
Johansen’s drinking reached alarming levels, he lost his job and his world fell apart. Finally, one terrible day he was arrested while attempting to throw acid over the painting that had so blighted his life.
Peter and his new wife came to visit him in the secure hospital to which he had been confined.
They brought with them a present: a print of a famous painting. As Johansen was fast asleep, Peter left it propped up at the foot of the bed, so that it would be the first thing Johansen saw when he woke up.
‘Gustav Carlson’s Autumn Leaves’ was originally read on Corinium Radio. It was published in Stephen Connolly’s short story collection ‘Remember My Name’ and performed at the Bath Fringe in 2017.