The painting was finished. Henry knew that, not by looking at it, but by realising that whatever it was that had left his hand and heart and found its way out onto the canvas among the colours and shapes was gone. It had become itself. There might be parts of it that he didn’t like- he hadn’t quite captured the delicate fall of light on the left hand side of the window for instance- but there was nothing more that he wanted to do. It was no longer his business. He could breathe again.
Susanna was tired of sitting. She looked at him questioningly, wary of his temper if she hadn’t heard him right.
“It’s done. You can move now.”
She closed a silk robe around her naked body, shivering slightly from the draught and came round behind the canvas to look. It was important not to say anything. He watched her, hoping that she would stay silent but wanting to hear what she thought.
There was a short silence while she searched for the words that he might want to hear. He would know immediately if she lied to him, but sometimes finding the truth was difficult. He expected her to know and sometimes she just didn’t. They stood off from the painting like two wild creatures, frozen in a moment, unsure whether to fight or flee. Finally he won, as he always did and Susanna spoke quietly, eyes downcast.
“It’s rather…….. bright.”
“And I am horribly fat.”
A slight smile crossed his lips.
She raised her chin sulkily.
“You always say that you must paint what you see.”
He was pleased- she was learning.
“And not what is there. Quite right.”
“I think I like it.”
He turned her to face him.
“You think you like it?”
She smiled. He was playing at being angry but that could quickly change into the real thing. Not this time- she knew what to say. Sometimes saying the right thing was easy.
“I mean I do like it- I like it very much.”
She kissed him gently on the cheek.
“Especially the light shining on the wall by the window.”
He sighed. There was still some way to go.
“Thank you my dear. You have been very patient.”
“Patient……… and fat.”
He turned away and started to gather his brushes together ready for cleaning. Sometimes he allowed her to do that for him but not today. Instead she allowed herself to enjoy the curve of his back and the delicacy of his wrists as he bent over the sink. He was not handsome- not at all. It was the intensity of his looking that was irresistible. Knowing that she would be watching him he turned and threw her a grin.
“You are not fat.”
She rearranged her robe carefully and preened herself, stroking her hair back from her face. It was about time he said that. He had still painted the fat though. Every bit of it.
“When you paint someone else do you sometimes think that they are more beautiful than me?”
“But do you?”
There was no answer. Just the running of a tap in the butler’s sink and the smell of turpentine. She didn’t expect an answer. He always refused to be drawn into those kind of conversations. When they made love she could be sure that he wanted her at that moment and that had to be enough. She was more beautiful than his first wife, that was undeniable. All the hard work that Charlotte had put into helping him build his career, keeping the world at bay so that he had nothing to think of but the canvas standing in front of him, had come to nothing when he had first seen Suzanne. She had relished his desire the first time that he painted her, without once touching her, and she had known what was coming. She had felt every brush-stroke. It had been new and exciting but things had changed now. She was no longer a slim, dark eyed seventeen year old. It could happen again. There was something in Charlotte’s face when she brought William round for his weekend visits that made it obvious she knew it too. It would happen again. All it would take would be a knock at the door.
“Are you pleased with it?”
What she meant was, are you pleased with me. Did I do well for you? Was I good enough?
Was the problem her? Was she good enough?
“I may alter some of the background- but probably not- nothing for you to worry about. I won’t need you.”
Of course he didn’t need her. Henry didn’t need anyone. Only his work. His indifference to mankind was completely without prejudice. He did care, sometimes, but on his own terms. He did as he liked and she had learned not to ask. What you didn’t know couldn’t hurt you. All you could really hope for was the chance to face the fierce gaze of his selfishness for long enough to be remembered for ever, because his work was good, very good, nobody should be in any doubt about that. His work would last and she was the one who had set fire to his talent.
She stood in front of the painting and looked at it quietly.
“I don’t know what you see in me.”
Much later, Art critics would talk about colour and line and the boldness of her gaze, the light in her eyes, the delicacy of the skin tones and, yes, the unsure handling of the paint on the left of the window, but all she could see was her own self, chilly and rather bored, and her fine bones covered with rather too much flesh, sitting on a cane chair that had already appeared in twelve paintings. She preferred his early portraits of her, when he had taken her into his arms as soon as he had put his brush down but she would say that, wouldn’t she? She had not needed to ask whether she was beautiful in those days and she could remember what the young girl staring out of the canvas had been thinking. Those sittings had been long and intense. His work had been precise and detailed back then, with tiny obsessive brush-strokes and his frustration had sometimes brought her to tears until she finally learned how to please him simply by sitting still. He had taught her many things, patience, resilience, suffering, passion.
When the knock at the door finally came, eighteen months later, and Suzanne answered it the girl standing there was heart-stoppingly beautiful. There was no decision to be made. Henry would adore her. She was everything that he searched for. Young, unspoiled, innocent. Enough like Suzanne for her to be reminded of what she had once been. A perfect blank canvas for Henry to remake in his own image. She might as well have brought her bags with her. He would devour her. The poor child had no idea…………
“I know this is a bit of a cheek but I’m an Art student and I wondered if Mr Mitchell would mind having a look at one or two of my drawings. I doubt that they’re any good but anything he could say to help would be…… you know.”
The girl’s voice trailed off. She was expecting to be sent on her way and that would be easy to do. Very easy. Except that the work which Henry would produce when he saw that face and long sinuous body would be better than anything he had done before. Suzanne might not know much but she knew enough to know that and nothing mattered more.
She smiled wearily and held out an arm, inviting the girl in.
“Don’t worry. I’ll let him know that you are here. He won’t mind. He’s working but he’s due for a break.”
The girl walked in, peering anxiously around her, and Suzanne followed, knowing that her future had changed. It would only take one look.