What Albert Told Marilyn


(Shortlisted November 2012 SSC)


“Goede middag”

Sebastian presented the menus to the only couple in the dining room, automatically wiping the table with a cloth. He was shattered. He’d worked till 4 a.m. then Laurens  dragged him from sleep at 9, begging him to do his shift. He’d agreed, but now regretted it. He hated the dead afternoon shift and should have been editing film he’d use for his finals in November. Four years hard study. To think he’d been naïve enough to believe all he needed was talent! The world was teeming with it. The thought depressed him.

“Hi, we’d like some drinks and something to eat,” the woman smiled up at him. He looked at her for the first time. His backbone quivered with electricity.. Confused, he looked at the man, who still scanned the menu. Sebastian looked back at her. The blonde hair, dark brows, and blue eyes, even the clothes – it was impossible. Trembling, he managed to ask

“What can I get you, Madame?”

“The best and biggest bottle of champagne you have, two treble Scotches, heavy on the ice. Plus two avocado bacon salads,” she replied, gently taking the man’s menu and handing it back with her own. Sebastian couldn’t move.

“Pardon, excuse me Madam” he stammered, feeling his head and heart collide.

“It’s just that you look….so much like….you remind me of…..Marilyn Monroe”.

“I am  Marilyn Monroe!”

She threw her head back and laughed, with huge enjoyment. The way the light fell, the whiteness of her against the black leather seat was exactly as Philippe Halsman’s lens had caught her in the 1950’s. He admired Halsman’s work, liked his techniques, ancient though they were and now felt as though he was standing in Halsman’s shoes.  He felt disapproval like a jet of steam from the man’s direction.


Aware he’d been gaping, Sebastian turned away. He hardly made it to the kitchen, where he sat down heavily on a stool. Jean- Luc, the cook, was resting his bulk on a chair, feet on a dishwasher and nearing the end of a bottle of good burgundy. Still lamenting the departure of his latest boyfriend, whom he’d quite loved, melancholy moved about him, yet the bottle had gone some way towards shifting this in the direction of hope.

“Two avocado bacon, Jean Luc….. “

Sebastian flopped forward, his head between his knees, exhausted.


Jean- Luc raised an eyebrow. Sebastian sat up, feeling despair at how it would sound.

“ You won’t believe this – I know it’s crazy, not even possible – but Marilyn Monroe is out there. Really. Come and look.”

Jean-Luc met Sebastian’s pale, earnest gaze levelly.

“Cherie, when I finish this bottle I will be Edith Piaf too, and every man in Paris at my feet!”

He laughed from the belly, where he delivered the last of the wine then jumped up on nimble feet to busy himself with the order.

Sebastian cursed his own stupidity. How often had he sworn never to leave home without the camera? The clever black and white stuff he’d taken in this place, honing his skills, was forgotten as he realised the greatest opportunity of his life would go unphotographed, unmarked.  Instinct told him that even if he had remembered the camera, it would be an impertinence to intrude on them.

He went out to the bar, desperately seeking  Bart, some proof he wasn’t imagining this.

“Bart, give me a minute, just check something out in the dining room?”

Bart held up two fabulous cocktails to the group, swiveled dramatically and announced   “Two Mojito’s……” in his mad accent, and they were plucked from him with a giant cheer.

“I’ve got 8 cocktails to make, Seb! It will have to wait……”

“Come on Bart, half a minute even, please…”

“Can’t, Seb, I won’t get a tip from this lot if I leave…..is the place on fire?

“No, but I need…..”

“Ten minutes, they’re already impatient….”

He walked off grabbing bottles from the shelves as he spoke.


Sebastian made the drinks himself. His hands were shaking, he spilt the Scotch and cursed. He had to steady himself. She was out there, and nobody would even look.  While mopping up the mess, he took ten very deep breaths in an effort to slow down the physical strangeness he was feeling. If he didn’t look at her, he’d cope. He delivered the tray, with slightly shaking hands, and set it down. The champagne popped,  he poured it into Marilyn’s glass. The man put his hand over his glass when Sebastian leaned towards him, continuing to look outside to the garden. His suit – charcoal, double-breasted, clearly hand sewn – was cut narrow across the shoulders.  It was dated, out of place on a warm October day. Yet something in his bearing showed absolute certainty this was choice, not misjudgment. Marilyn smiled into Sebastian’s eyes.

“Do you mind if I ask you something, Madame?”

“Of course not, sir” she answered merrily, the iced bubbles easing the way.

Questions of Olympic profundity fought for precedence. His head was racing, bursting. Had she been murdered? How many dimensions are there? What is time? Is there sex after death?

He only managed a dismal “Why are you here?”  and felt himself go scarlet at his own idiocy.

“In the Hague, you mean?”

She shifted slightly, looking upwards at him.  He could see her luminosity and how the camera could never find a wrong angle for her – there just wasn’t one.

“Well, it’s a long story. Years ago I met Einstein….. Albert.  You know the one I mean?”

The man stood abruptly, wordlessly heading in the direction of the toilets. She frowned at his retreating back, as though conquering an impulse. Her voice lifted.

“Albert could talk about any subject under the sun. He taught me so much. He had the most amazing mind yet he could explain difficult things simply. You know he had a thing about time travel, he was certain it was possible.”

She looked exasperated, yet went on.

“I never got the hang of what time was, but – crazy isn’t it? – we’ve done what he said, moved through time today.”

She changed gear suddenly.

“Look, I just think out loud all the time, that’s my problem. Of all the things Albert told me, the thing that stuck most in my mind was what he said about that painting of Rembrandt’s, it’s called Lesson in Anatomy?”

It was a question.

“Anatomische Les,” he answered, still looking into that face.

“Yes, that one.”

Her voice dropped away.

“Well, he described it as the most mysterious and remarkable painting on earth. It was my greatest wish to see it and this very day, I finally did. Have you seen it?”

Sebastian felt a stab of guilt as he nodded. He’d seen it once on a school trip years ago, hanging in the Mauritshuis two minutes from here and never thought about it since.

Inclining his head towards the space beside her, he asked,

“Who’s the man?”

A look of disbelief crossed her face. He tried to recover the moment by asking

“ I mean, why are you here together?”

He had no idea where these mindless questions were coming from, where they were going.  Her eyes softened.

“You know he was the father of seven children, isn’t that something? I sort of hoped we …..”

Why could he not understand her answers?

“How is it possible you are here?”

He was colourless now.

“Are you asking ME to explain metaphysics?”

He smiled, disarmed.

“But how  is it possible?”

He was amazing himself with his own persistence.

Her reply was measured. Eyes down, she slowly drew an immaculate, scarlet fingernail across a horizontal split in the wood.

“If you want something deeply, for a long time, you can come back for a little while.”

She raised her lovely eyes to his.

“ I’ve waited so long for today, for the timing to be right.   We’re off back home for a few hours after lunch. He ‘s convinced Barack Obama will be re-elected in a landslide again and wants to take a look at him up close, see how much he’s changed.”

She looked for a reaction, he knew it, but Sebastian could only blink. She smiled at him, a heartfelt smile.

“ You’re so young….. This is my perfect day.”

With that she poured champagne into the unused second glass and offered it to him.


“Proost!” replied Sebastian.

They saluted each other gravely, then drank deeply. His head was reeling. He felt the man’s return in raised hairs on the back of his neck. Without turning, he removed himself, and the empty glass, to collect the salads.

Jean-Luc had wandered out to talk to the gardener.  Sebastian collected the food and delivered it, shaking, to the table. The couple had been deep in conversation, heads together, voices low, though they were still alone in the dining room.

Returning to the kitchen, Sebastian rested his face and hands against a fridge, needing the feel of something real and physical to fortify himself.  Outside, voices puffed and floated about, back and forth, up and down, seemingly at a great distance. The painting appeared in his head. He was back in the Mauritshuis with the whole class, standing to the right of it.  The prone body of the prisoner lay fully stretched out, perpendicular to them, longer than from the left side. There, though the body seemed dwarf like, it had dominated the scene. Chest raised grotesquely, feet pointing directly at them, the human form was the central theme. Now the teacher was pointing out how the seven surgeons and the lecturer had gained prominence, putting the body much more in perspective.  Yes, it was spectacular and miraculous, he was  glad to be reminded of that.  Marilyn Monroe had come back from the dead to see it!

“Dining room!”

Bart stuck his head round the kitchen door and yelled. Disoriented, Sebastian scrambled to find his pad to add up the bill. Hurrying out, he almost ran into the man in the bar. The piercing blue eyes seemed somehow familiar, but no name, nothing came to mind. Waving away Sebastian’s attempt to write a bill, the man put two hundred US dollars in his hand.

“Thanks, keep the change.”

Sebastian offered his hand in thanks. The man’s grip was hard, dry – but real.

Marilyn leaned forward to apply fresh lipstick in the huge mirror, pouted at herself, put the lipstick in her bag, then straightened her white poplin dress. The man linked arms with her and she seemed to recede into his side, becoming much smaller. Sebastian hurried ahead to open the door for them. Though he felt such significance in the moment, again he felt inadequate in rising to meet it. Yet he must ask.

“What’s death like, being dead?”

The man’s eyes seemed to look through him. Sebastian, surprised, saw tenderness. He was too young to recognize pity. In a soft Boston accent the answer came.

“Well, son, it’s really just..….more of the same.”

They went out into the afternoon.

–       –     –







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