Authors: Isabel Wolff
Tags: #Fiction, #General
The Very Picture of You
For my parents in-law, Eva and John
Are we to paint what is on the face, what’s inside the
face, or what’s behind it?
‘Ella…? El-la?’ My mother’s voice floats up the stairs as…
‘Sorry about this,’ the radio reporter, Clare, said to me…
‘I will be keeping the sittings to a minimum,’ I…
‘Ella?’ said Chloë over the phone a few days later.
On the morning of Good Friday I prepared for my…
On Saturday morning I decided to give the studio a…
‘Thanks for coming with me,’ Chloë said the following Thursday…
‘Wasn’t the party fun?’ Mum said the following Saturday morning.
‘Haven’t seen you for a while,’ said the taxi driver…
I spent most of Saturday engrossed in Grace’s painting –…
I read my father’s e-mail again and again. As I…
‘So you had a good time?’ Roy asked when I…
I am at the Eastcote Gallery, on the King’s Road,…
Richmond, 23 July 1986
-la?’ My mother’s voice floats up the stairs as I sit hunched over my sketchpad, my hand moving rapidly across the cartridge paper. ‘Where
you?’ Gripping the pencil I make the nose a little more defined then shade in the eyebrows. ‘Could you
me?’ Now for the hair. Fringe? Swept back? I can’t remember. ‘Gabri-
-la?’ And I know I can’t ask. ‘Are you in your room, darling?’ As I hear my mother’s light, ascending tread I stroke a soft fringe across the forehead, smudge it to add thickness, then swiftly darken the jaw. As I appraise the drawing I tell myself that it’s a good likeness. At least I
it is. How can I know? His face is now so indistinct that perhaps I only ever saw it in a dream. I close my eyes, and it
a dream. I can see him. It’s a bright day and I’m walking along and I can feel the warmth rising from the pavement and the sun on my face, and his big, dry-feeling hand enclosing mine.
I can hear the slap of my sandals and the click-clack of my mother’s heels and I can see her white skirt with its sprigs of red flowers.
He’s smiling down at me. ‘Ready, Ella?’ As his fingers tighten around mine I feel a rush of happiness. ‘Here we go. One, two,
…’ My tummy turns over as I’m lifted. ‘Wheeeeeee…!’ they both sing as I sail through the air. ‘One, two, three – and
she goes! Wheeeeeeeeee…!’ I hear them laugh as I land.
‘More!’ I stamp. ‘More!
‘Okay. Let’s do a
one.’ He grips my hand again. ‘Ready, sweetie?’
‘Right then. One, two, three and…
My head goes back and the blue dome of the sky swings above me, like a bell. But as I fall back to earth, I feel his fingers slip away and when I turn and look for him, he’s gone…
you are,’ Mum is saying from my bedroom doorway. As I glance up at her I quickly slide my hand over the sketch. ‘Would you go and play with Chloë? She’s in the Wendy house.’
‘I’m… doing something.’
for the Wendy house – I’m eleven.’
‘I know darling, but it would help me if you could entertain your little sister for a while, and she loves you to play with her…’ As my mother tucks a strand of white-blonde hair behind one ear I think how pale and fragile-looking she is, like porcelain. ‘And I’d rather you were outside on such a warm day.’ I will her to go back downstairs; instead, to my alarm, she is walking towards
me, her eyes on the pad. I quickly flip the page over to a fresh sheet. ‘So you’re drawing?’ My mother’s voice is, as usual, soft and low. ‘Can I see?’ She holds out her hand.
‘No… not now.’ I wish I’d torn out the sketch before she came in.
show me your pictures. Let me have a look, Ella.’ She reaches for the pad.
‘It’s… private, Mum –
But she is already turning over the spiral-bound sheets. ‘What a
foxglove,’ she murmurs. ‘And these ivy leaves are perfect – so glossy; and that’s an
one of the church. The stained glass must have been tricky but you’ve done it brilliantly.’ My mother shakes her head in wonderment then gives me a smile; but as she turns to the next page her face clouds.
Through the open window I can hear a plane, its distant roar like the tearing of paper.
‘It’s a study,’ I explain. ‘For a portrait.’ My pulse is racing.
‘Well…’ Mum nods. ‘It’s… very good.’ Her hand trembles as she closes the book. ‘I had no idea that you could draw so well.’ She puts it back on the table. ‘You really… capture things,’ she adds quietly. A muscle at the corner of her mouth flexes but then she smiles again. ‘So…’ She claps her hands. ‘
play with Chloë if you’re busy, then we’ll all watch the royal wedding. I’ve put the TV on so that we don’t miss the start. You could draw Fergie’s dress.’
I shrug. ‘Maybe…’
‘We’ll have a sandwich lunch while we watch. Is cheese and ham okay?’ I nod. ‘Actually,
chicken – that would be
suitable, wouldn’t it!’ she adds with sudden gaiety. ‘I’ll call you when it starts.’ She walks towards the door.
I take a deep breath. ‘So have I captured
?’ My mother seems not to have heard me. ‘Does it look like him?’ I try again. She stiffens visibly. The sound of the plane has dissolved now into silence. ‘Does my drawing look like my
I hear her inhale, then her slim shoulders sag and I suddenly see how expressive a person’s back can be. ‘Yes, it does,’ she answers softly.
‘Oh. Well…’ I say as she turns to face me. ‘That’s good. Especially as I don’t really remember him any more. And I don’t even have a photo of him, do I?’ I can hear sparrows squabbling in the flower beds. ‘
there any photos, Mum?’
‘No,’ she says evenly.
‘But…’ My heart is racing. ‘Why
‘Because… there just… aren’t. I’m sorry, Ella. I know it’s not easy. But…’ She shrugs, as if she’s as frustrated by it as I am. ‘I’m afraid that’s just… how it
’ She pauses for a moment, as if to satisfy herself that the conversation has ended. ‘Now, would you like tomato in your sandwich?’
‘But you must have
photos of him?’
‘Ella…’ My mother’s voice remains low, but then she rarely raises it. ‘I’ve already told you – I don’t. I’m sorry, darling. Now I really
‘What about when you got married?’ I imagine a white leather album with my parents smiling in every photo, my father darkly handsome in grey, my mother’s veil floating around her china-doll face.
She blinks, slowly. ‘I
have some photos, yes – but I don’t have them any more.’
‘But there must be others. I only need
.’ I pick up my heart-shaped rubber and flex it between my thumb and forefinger. ‘I’d like to put his photo on the sideboard. There’s that empty silver frame I could use.’
Her large blue eyes widen. ‘But… that simply wouldn’t
‘Oh. Then I’d buy a frame of my own: I’ve got some pocket money. Or I could make one, or you could give me one for my birthday.’
‘It’s not the
, Ella.’ My mother seems helpless suddenly. ‘I meant that I wouldn’t
to have his photo on the sideboard – or anywhere else, for that matter.’
My heart is thudding. ‘Why
‘Because…’ She throws up her hands. ‘He’s not part of our
, Ella, as you very well know – and he hasn’t been for a long time, so it would be confusing, especially for Chloë – he wasn’t
father; and it wouldn’t be very nice for Roy. And Roy’s been so good to you,’ she hurries on. ‘
been a father to you, hasn’t he – a wonderful father.’
‘Yes – but he isn’t my
one.’ My face has gone hot. ‘I’ve
a “real” father, Mum, and his name is John I don’t know where he is, or why I don’t see him and I don’t know why you never ever
about him.’ Her lips have become a thin line, but I’m not going to stop. ‘I haven’t seen him since I was… I don’t even know that. Was I three?’
My mother folds her slim arms and her gold bangle gently clinks against her watch. ‘You were almost five,’ she answers softly. ‘But you know, Ella, I’d say that the
the father, and Roy does everything that any father
do, whereas… John… well…’ She lets the sentence drift.
‘But I’d still like a photo of him. I could keep it here, in my room, so that no one else would have to see it – it would just be for me. Good,’ I add quickly. ‘So that’s settled then.’
‘Ella… I’ve already told you, I don’t
any photos of him.’
She heaves a painful sigh. ‘They got… lost…’ She glances out of the window. ‘…when we moved down here.’ She returns her gaze to me. ‘Not everything came with us.’
I stare at her. ‘But those photos
have come. It’s mean,’ I add angrily. ‘It’s
that you didn’t keep just one of them for me!’ I am on my feet now, one hand on my chair to steady myself against the clamour in my ribcage. ‘And why don’t you
about him? You never,
talk about him!’
My mother’s pale cheeks are suddenly pink – as if I’d brushed a swirl of rose madder on to each one. ‘It’s… too…
?’ I try to swallow, but there’s a knife in my throat. ‘All you ever say is that he’s out of our lives and that it’s better that way, so I don’t know what
…’ Tears of frustration sting my eyes. ‘Or why he left us…’ My mother’s features have blurred. ‘Or if I’ll ever
him again.’ A tear spills on to my cheek. ‘So that’s why –
why I—’ In a flash I’m on the floor, reaching under the bed, and dragging out my box. It has
printed on it and Mum’s best boots came in
it. I get to my feet and place it on the bed. My mother looks at it, then, with an anxious glance at me she sits down next to it and lifts off the lid…
The first drawing is a recent one, in pen and ink with white pastel on his nose, hair and cheekbones. I was pleased with it because I’d only just learned how to highlight properly. Then she takes out three pencil sketches of him that I’d done in the spring, in which, with careful cross-hatching, I’d managed to get depth and expressiveness into the eyes. Beneath that are ten or twelve older drawings in which the proportions are all wrong – his mouth too small or his brow too wide or the curve of the ear set too high. Then come five sketches in which there is no hint of any contouring, his face as flat and round as a plate. Mum lifts out several felt-tip images of my dad standing with her and me in front of a red-brick house with a flight of black steps up to the dark green front door. Then come some bright poster-colour paintings in each of which he’s driving a big blue car. Now Mum lifts out a collage of him with pipe cleaners for limbs, mauve felt for his shirt and trousers and tufts of brown woollen hair that are crusted with glue. In the final few pictures Dad is barely more than a stick man. On these I have written, underneath,
but on one of them the first ‘d’ is the wrong way round so that it says