“It’s awful! Ghastly! Oh Chris, what have you done?”
My teacher and I looked at the portrait I was trying to paint of our new model, Maria.
Peter was right. I’d done everything I could to catch the likeness of the face of the attractive middle-aged lady perched on the chair in our studio, but all I’d produced was an ugly travesty of what looked like someone else, with a gash for a mouth, raggy horrible hair and eyes like two nightmares. It was an unmitigated disaster.
All my life I’ve longed to be a professional portrait painter, and have been coming to Peter’s evening classes for three years now. I’ve learnt everything I possibly can, bought every book under the sun, I’ve tried and tried, and sometimes I can almost catch a likeness of the sitter, but on days like today I almost felt like giving up. The shock was that nice, kind, Peter was usually so encouraging, yet even he had given up on me.
“Sorry, Chris, that was a bit harsh.” Peter was struggling to save my feelings. “It’s not beyond hope. You could try—”
“No, mate, you’re right. This one belongs in the bin.”
I wasn’t alone in my failure. At the tea break I was chatting to my friends, wondering why such a seemingly pleasant looking woman would be so difficult to capture on canvas.
“It’s something about her eyes,” suggested Andrew, frowning to himself as he sipped his coffee. “I worked in a psychiatric hospital once, and I’ve seen that look in people’s eyes.”
“You mean she’s insane, and that’s putting us all off?” asked Jill, who normally was a very good portraitist, even though she’d failed dismally tonight, as we all had.
“I suppose you could say that,” Andrew went on. “When you look into Maria’s eyes, somehow she scares you. I really don’t know why. It’s a kind of gleeful devilment. It scares me witless.”
Back in the class, Maria cast a malicious look across at us as we entered the room, as if she knew we’d been talking about her. A bit later I wandered across to see how Andrew was getting on, and had to stifle a giggle when I saw he had added a broomstick to his portrait, plus a very fat sad-looking black cat at the bottom of the canvas.
But apart from that, the second half of the evening was no better for me. Just as she was leaving, Maria looked across at me, and for some reason her momentary sad expression when her eyes met mine broke my heart. It was as if she was saying ‘sorry’.
Now thoroughly depressed that I’d made fun of her, I pondered on my drive home that maybe I just hadn’t got ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ was. Seems to me that for every creative endeavour, whether it’s writing songs, painting pictures, or penning novels, you can learn all the right techniques from the very best teachers, but without some kind of innate talent, you’ll always be useless. And maybe I just didn’t have that indefinable talent, and no amount of practise was going to make any difference.
And then, as I drove down the country road, with the awful Maria portrait on the passenger seat beside me, something weird happened. I felt the car go out of control, and before I knew it, time had concertinaed into chaos and I felt a loud crunch and heard the bang as the airbag deployed, realising before I blacked out that I had gone off the road and driven into a tree.
Next thing I knew I was shedding shards of windscreen glass, and being loaded onto a trolley by a paramedic, who assured me that I wasn’t badly hurt, but they were taking me to hospital for a check-up.
I was fine, and my car was towed to a local garage. Next day, when I called in to find out how bad the damage was, I took a look at the wreck, checked the front seats for the painting. It wasn’t there, and it seemed that the pick-up truck driver had taken a look around for any items that had hurtled out of the car on impact, when the windscreen shattered, and found my laptop case and a bag of shopping nearby, but nothing else.
Andrew, my friend from the class, had heard about my accident and since he knew I worked from home, popped round to see me the next day.
“It’s very strange,” he told me. “I took the painting I did of Maria home, and the moment my wife saw it, she hated it, told me to get rid of it. I couldn’t understand why she was so angry, but didn’t object when she tore it into pieces and put it on the fire. I was actually quite relieved. I couldn’t bear looking at it.”
“Not much loss really,” I agreed.
“We had a furious row afterwards. I didn’t say much, because as you know the doctor found a lump in her breast a month ago, and she’s started the first treatment, so I reckon she’s got a right to be upset and shout at me if she wants to. But the marvellous news is that today we went to see the doctor for more tests. He was delighted with the results, saying that the cancer has gone completely, and he was entirely wrong about fearing it had spread as he’d warned, and that she’s completely cured. Funning how things go, isn’t it? One day you’re terrified of the future, the next everything’s fine.”
Later that week, Jill phoned me, and explained that she’d had a fire in her study, the same night she’d taken her painting home. “But there wasn’t much damage – just the painting gone and the curtains, but luckily a neighbour saw what happened and they caught it in time. Another strange thing. You know how I suffer from regular migraine attacks? Well I felt as if one was coming on, the day after the art class, but suddenly the headache just went away, and I don’t know why. Almost like magic. I feel different for some reason, and I just have this conviction deep inside, that my migraines won’t come back. Stupid isn’t it, but that’s how I feel.”
The following week at the portrait class, to my relief, Maria wasn’t there. Peter said it was very odd that no one from the college had been able to get in touch with her to ask why she hadn’t arrived as arranged. Even more strange was the fact that the address she had given the college didn’t exist, and the phone number she’d given wasn’t working. Apparently it seemed that she had just wandered in off the street asking for modelling work, come in the evening for our class and never appeared again. She hadn’t even come back to collect her payment.
But luckily we did have a model for that evening. It was dear old Arthur, a retired bank manager with silver hair and autocratic good looks, and he had stepped in at the last minute, bringing his usual warmth and good humour.
And do you know what happened? From the moment I picked up my brush to paint Arthur’s portrait, I knew what to do. I felt as if a switch had been pulled, as if everything had finally slipped into place. I kind of went into the zone, and within a few minutes, I really felt as if I hadn’t just started a portrait, I had actually captured the essence of Arthur.
“My goodness, Chris, what on earth has happened to you?” Peter gave a low whistle of amazement as he stared. Then his smile became wider than I’ve ever seen it as he clapped me on the shoulder. “Do you know, all the time we’ve known each other I knew you had real talent as a painter, yet there’s always been something holding you back. And now!” He stood back and held his hands out to the painting. “There’s this.” He moved closer so the others couldn’t hear. “Between you and me, I’ve only known a few professional artists who can do something as good as this. It’s a talent. It can’t be taught. The brakes are off now, mate, now nothing’s going to hold you back!”
And right inside I knew he was right. Something had changed inside me. All the years of struggling to paint people’s portraits and never somehow ‘getting it’ had finally paid off. All at once, I felt a new confidence, an inner certainty that I did have talent.
I could actually do it.
And now five years later, I reflected that after my portraits of our town mayor and local dignitaries went on view at the town hall, I soon got some prestigious commissions, and was able to give up my job and do what I wanted to do all day long, travelling around the country, painting people’s portraits, seeing them hung in art galleries all over the world, and having the inner satisfaction of knowing that they were really really good.
Did she possess some strange kind of power, to unleash my talent, cure Andrew’s wife’s illness and stop Jill’s migraines?
I guess no one knows.
I’ve seen Maria a few times since then. Usually when I’m worried, or under stress. Seeing her calms me down for some reason.
I once saw her face out of the corner of my eye in a crowd, but when I get closer, she’d gone. And in an audience at the cinema I’m sure I once caught a glimpse of her, but when I looked again she wasn’t there.
Who was she?
Who is she?
Does anyone know?
(Image courtesy of Antonin Tihelka, from Pixabay)