I’m writing this to you at your workbench, in your studio. It seemed the most fitting place to do so. I can feel my own eyes peering down from every almost-finished portrait. Remember when you told me, early on, that I had “a beauty that can’t be justified by paint”? At the time, I took it as a compliment, a comfort. But the world has turned, and I realise now that it was a polite way of defining what you later saw as my “inherent ugliness”. I realise now that this was code for your own inherent ugliness – that which lives within you – the bitter disappointment at the failure of your own art.
Did you hang all of these paintings up to torment me, or yourself? It’s a small, spooky little room with too many corners and too many eyes.
Dogs are yapping at one another in the street.
I’ll try to make this as concise as possible.
Alice, I have decided to leave you. I decided this morning, on my way back home. Chances are, I’ll change my mind by the time I’ve finished writing this, and I’ll tear up the letter. Or I’ll burn it ceremoniously in the living room. I have a few days left to figure out where to go and what to do.
I wonder how your exhibition is going? Despite everything, Alice, I’m happy for you. All you needed was the right muse.
Let me explain.
On Friday, after you left for your big show, I found myself at a loose end. Of course, I really ought to have planned something, make good use of my free time. But I’d almost forgotten about it, if I’m honest. So, I did what I always do when I’m struck restless by melancholy. I had a tidy up. I started with the living room. Not much there. In my domain, there has been precious little living. A cup I had left on the coffee table that morning. A few stray petals that had escaped the flower press sometime this week.
I moved to the kitchen. There were remnants of your late-night snacking. I imagined you mid-bite, dropping everything on the countertop, in a sudden fit of brilliance – rushing to your studio. I have never understood how you found Rich Teas so inspirational.
The stove needed a good clean. There was oil all down the front, and food stuck all over the hob. But this seemed too much of an undertaking for a tidy-up. So I went upstairs, to our bedroom, where I knew for certain that you’d left clothes scattered about the place from your last-minute packing. There’s something immensely satisfying about a full wardrobe, when all the hangers have been used up, and nothing expects to be put away.
The bathroom was in a bit of a sorry state. You hair was all over the sink. Your make-up bag was spilling out into the bath. I’m sure you can picture the scene.
And so I ended up in your studio. It took me a few moments to have the gall. I know you hate it when I go in there, unannounced. I’ve watched you put away all your things enough times, after you’ve finished with me. I know it by heart where everything goes.
“A place for everything, and everything in its place.”
Your studio was the only room in some semblance of order. I sat down at your workbench, facing into the room, and studied myself in each painting, one by one. One of me, side profile, my complexion just a little off. Another – me lying down on the floor, surrounded by fruit. My body is perfectly rendered. It looks alive, as if I’m wriggling. I could never sit still. But my eyes – and the fruit – are perfectly dead.
And there was a new addition – nestled between two old portraits of me. It was a draft. One of your “necessary mistakes”, but done in your new style of distant, blurry group scenes. The ones you’ve doubtless selling discussing just now. This one, the one in this room, was instantly familiar to me. I got up. I squared up to the painting. I looked down a table, across a row of guests, and into the eyes of a girl, sitting with her elbows on the table, her hands cupping her jaw. Fingers spread out across her cheeks. A look of melancholy. I recognised the pose, but not the girl. Her eyes were vivid green, her dark brown hair done up in a collapsing bun. Strands dangled over her face. I had seen the picture before.
I went back to our bedroom, to my chest of drawers. I pulled out the artefacts of my pre-Alice life. The lock of my mother’s hair in a glass trinket box. Ticket stubs from shows. Petals everywhere. And then the ring – the engagement ring from Angus. I sat down cross-legged on the rug, ring in my hands. Angus Pendheath. One of the guests in the group scene, wasn’t he? Sat next to the girl. The girl with the collapsing bun. A snapshot from Angus’s wedding to Edith Cressing, where I sit absent-mindedly amidst the celebration – staring down the table at the photographer? So I pulled out my albums. My pre-Alice albums, full of photographs instead of flowers. Eventually, I come to 1967. That year seems to have been particularly inspirational for you. I make it about five photographs missing.
The year before I went to university. The year before I met you. The year Angus proposed to me, and the year I turned him down. I wonder if Edith ever knew she was the back-up wife.
I don’t know what you’ve done with them, but I’d like them back. Hidden them, I expect, so there can be no proof of your plagiarism.
I started a second, more thorough tidy up. I couldn’t find them anywhere. In the end, I went back to your studio. The girl you have painted in place of me is perfectly rendered. Perfectly alive. Her expression leaps out of the oil – a twist about the vivid green eyes and mouth that tells of faint regret.
You already know why I turned down Angus’ proposal. But I never told you what he said to me that evening, as the crowd cheered as someone popped the first bottle of champagne. Edith was on the other side of the table from Angus, who was sat next to me. She had been placed there, so he said placed there so that he could look at her better. So he said. But that meant we looked like the married couple in all the photographs. He leaned over to me, and whispered to me. He said – “I didn’t want to look at you all evening. I still think you’re the most beautiful girl on God’s Earth.” I was just fumbling for a reply – a reproach, no less – what a scandalous thing! – when a toast was called up, and the photographer came along. He wanted a picture of the happy couple.
I didn’t raise my glass. Instead, in a glummer over what Angus had said, I rested my head in my palms. As I remember it, my hair was done up quite neatly.
The photograph you used was one of a few where the photographer had managed to leave out poor Edith altogether. Angus sent it to me. Either he thought it would change my mind, or he was simply punishing me.
I don’t look at my photo albums often. In fact, I’m more likely to forget about my life in Turnshaw altogether. I suspect you know that. I suspect you thought I wouldn’t want to look back – so you could take the photograph from me. Reimagine me as the girl with the collapsing bun. I went back to the painting. A fully-realised, fleshed-out painting, not like the ones of me. Everyone around the table, including Angus, is out of focus and blurred out. Except for the girl. The focus is on the girl. But she isn’t me. I don’t know who you’ve based her on, but it certainly isn’t me. My hair is less full, my eyes are blue, my cheeks are less round and you’ve painted her without make-up.
You prefer a blank canvas, when you’re painting me.
Well you’ve thrown me back into the past. I was at a loose end this weekend, as you know, so I packed a small case, and set off for the station. One of the few advantages of this house is its proximity to ways out.
All the way up to Turnshaw, I thought of Angus. His funny way of walking, almost bobbing on his feet. The way his brow was constantly furrowed, as though he was always passing judgement. He was by no means handsome. But while the train rattled me into a daydream, as I stared out of the window at the passing suburbs, I cast my mind back to 1967, and decided that I had, in fact, loved him.
This will sound silly to you, of course. I just wanted to be closer to him. Closer to both of us, as we once were, in 1967. Yes, I knew I wouldn’t find him there in Turnshaw. I sat in one of those new aeroplane-style booths. Newspapers all over the plastic table kept me and the couple opposite apart. I felt a knot in my stomach when I realised I might very well bump into Edith. I wondered if she knew – about Angus and me.
Beren Reid | February 2018