I used to sit by the fire, below the family portrait. I liked to watch the little strips of fabric as they spun around the orange light bulbs, creating the theatrical, heatless flames. Now, looking up at the painting I see it is as artificial as the fire. My brother, Stephen, who had been sorting through the books, asked what we should do with the portrait. Burn it, I replied. He made no protest. Then he asked me if I remembered going to the studio. I did.
I had picked out a green dress; it had a little fish blowing a bubble on the front. Mother’s cotton frock was nipped in at the waist with a very wide skirt. It was a picture dress. The blocks of colour contained images of Spanish design; castanets, a flamenco dancer and a Toreador. Julie wore a dirndl skirt with an off the shoulder gypsy-style blouse, a choice that exaggerated every roll of puppy fat and pasty limb. There were six sittings at the artist’s studio; we all went to the first, but after that it was just mummy and me.
At that first sitting the artist, Lucas Mirren, spent a lot of time composing the family group and then taking photographs. I was ticked off for fidgeting by Stephen who caught somewhere between boyhood and manhood, was going through an unpleasant bossy phase. My father, who was used to having his picture taken, seemed to know what to do, how to sit, where to look. My mother spent a long time re-arranging her skirt; finally the artist stepped forward and helped adjust the wayward fabric. His hands were tanned, large and square, with a scattering of freckles, as if he spent a lot of time somewhere sunny. When I looked down at his shoes, they were covered with multi-coloured flecks of paint and his corduroy trousers had smudges of colour on them. I remembered the pungent smells; turpentine and linseed oil.
Subtle adjustments were made to the lighting and pose. Shoulders were gently manipulated, chins were held between his thumb and forefinger and tipped up or down. Lucas Mirren plucked mother’s gloves from her lap and then he made a joke of not knowing where to put them down, everywhere being so dirty covered in paint, canvases or brushes. He made great play of leaving the room with the gloves and then returning in a clownish manner. I remember him as a tall sandy-haired man, craggy, charming and urbane. I remember him as different.
His studio can’t have been far from our own house, because my mother and I walked if it was fine and only took a bus if it were raining. Although it was far enough for my legs to ache. The banisters were rich mahogany and when we got to the third floor the carpet and brass rods were replaced by thick red linoleum, with tough rubber strips bent over the edge of each step. Small dabs of paint, like a paper trail, showed the way to the studio door. I don’t recall being let into the house; no one came to the door or greeted us. Perhaps the front door was left on the latch, or did my mother have a key? Once I heard music floating up from downstairs, it was turned off abruptly when a telephone rang. I slipped out of the studio and lent over the balustrade straining to hear the distant muffled voice, then a door closed. That autumn I started school.
When I saw the finished portrait I was confused and upset. Where were my little fish and mummy’s pictures on her skirt? I thought it was a dreadful mistake; I thought daddy would be cross. In the finished painting we were all in muted shades, except for our father in his dark suit. At first I thought my parents were too polite to mention the missing textile patterns, they seemed so genuinely delighted with the painting. Years later, when I asked, daddy explained artistic license to me. Artistic license had also shrunk Julie to a slender and attractive form.
I was visiting Julie in Islington; she had agreed to look after my demanding toddler, Chloe. Julie was childless and a generous aunt. Seldom free to roam, I relished my freedom and spent the day in Covent Garden popping in an out of shops and watching street entertainers. I bought a frivolous skirt that matched my skittish mood. By three o’clock, I was hot and I was tired. I settled at a pavement café for an iced coffee, on the opposite side of the street canvases where being carried into a gallery. The gallery owner was fussing and waving his arms. A young woman with spiky red hair was pasting the letters that formed the name of the artist on the window. I looked on as the letter L unfurled, then the U. By the time the name Lucas was complete I felt an odd foreboding. She came outside to check the alignment and returned to complete the surname. The next letter was an M.
I watched the pair inside the gallery deliberating over the hanging of the pictures, then went over. The owner glanced at me and flicked his foppish hair back. Immaculately dressed, he rested somewhere between suave and camp. He glanced over at me expressing mild disinterest, no doubt evaluating the size of my wallet and quickly dismissing me as a potential buyer. I thought I might be asked to leave; the exhibition was clearly not ready, so I asked if Lucas Mirren was still alive and was told he had died a year ago. The gallery owner unwrapped another painting, it was a reclining nude. It was my mother.
I stepped backwards; my shoulder caught the edge of the door. I took an urgent breath, recovered and continued my walk around the edge of the gallery. From the canvases my mother stared back at me, holding my gaze, blatant and cool, with an undeniable sexual frisson. A fleeting memory followed; the tender removal of her coat, Lucas burying his face in my mother’s silk scarf. The gallery lights glared white and hot, I became lightheaded and weak. That they were lovers was clear to me. When did that start, before the family portrait or later? Was the portrait just a ruse, a way of spending time together? As I progressed around the gallery so too did the images of my mother. I stared at her aging flesh, the inky rope of her veins, the translucent soft tissue and historical tan marks; a relic of our family holidays in Brittany.
I wondered when she could have posed. I guessed it was during the school day when daddy was abroad. Her nakedness was unsettling. Our mother was sensuous, elegant and self-contained. Our mother, who made Victoria sponge and fish paste sandwiches and met me from school everyday. Who asked about what I had been doing in Miss Eliot’s class, and when I was old enough and polite enough to enquire about her day, would reply, nothing much, housework…baking. Sometimes she would sing or hum a tune, while I skipped home beside her. I always thought she was happy.
My scrutiny of the paintings aroused the curiosity of the gallery owner, who asked if I was an admirer of Lucas Mirren? I found myself telling him that Mirren had painted a group portrait of my family, I told him it was mawkish, he flinched at the word. He went on to explain that artists have to eat, he was trying to be charming, but underneath I sensed his contempt. He asked if I knew the model. I lied and said I did not. I knew he had detected this lie. He explained that Mirren had not presented a canvas of Rachel for years, that Mirren devotees wondered what had happened to her. I guessed that such speculation would include her death. But our mother wasn’t dead; she was very much alive, about now she would be asking my father what he wanted for supper. Father had retired, that surely ended her career as model, muse and lover. The owner was talking at me, he mentioned the private view and he dropped the catalogue and an invitation into my bag. I kept looking at his mouth, the rapid movement of his tongue and the saliva connecting in viscous threads; the heat was overpowering…the lights…his words…my mother. I made for the door and fled.
I missed my stop; the bus had already reached the far end of Essex Road so I struggled past the standing passengers and walked back to Islington Green where I dropped onto a bench.
My parents had a model marriage, or so I believed. They had their disagreements and irritations, but amongst their peers their relationship was held up as an example. A marriage to aspire too, an aunt stated, as I prepared for my wedding day. My late, failed marriage made me feel that I had let the side down. It was growing dark and the homeless were beginning to select their benches for the night, I gathered up my bags.
Julie had cooked pasta and opened wine; I went to have a shower. When I returned to the living room Chloe had upturned the shopping bags, and found the toy giraffe I had bought for her. The skirt lay in a heap; the catalogue lay next to it. Julie swooped down and plucked it from the floor, she turned the pages. I tried lamely to pacify her. Reasoning with my sister always was impossible. Julie, drama queen and snitch, who ran to our parents and blurted out everything, from illicit smoking, to dire exam results; I could always rely on Julie to expose my flaws and misdemeanors with relish and at the most inopportune moment. Ours was an uneasy alliance.
Returning from the gallery the following day she said that they were far worse than she could have imagined, sighting the painstaking level of detail. She said that they made Lucien Freud look myopic. I laughed at that, replying that I thought that they were tender and refreshing; celebrating the form of an aging woman. But Julie called it a twilight age; she said the paintings were repugnant and disgusting. Then more thoughtfully she said; daddy’s face still lights up when she enters the room. For how much longer I wondered.
The Sunday papers carried reviews and a feature article with full colour photographs. Mirren was enjoying a revival. A week later my father’s car left the road. His injuries were slight, although he was never quite the same after the accident. Mother descended into a small interior space, she no longer sang or baked. Her memory failed her, a stroke heralded the end.
The air in the house was heavy and stale and all its little faults; broken window catches, dripping taps and leaky guttering, took on a significance previously disguised by activity and harmony. Sadness was present in every lifted corner of wallpaper and each inadequately wiped stain. Stephen threw the painting onto the pyre and together we watched as the flames lapped the edge of mother’s skirt. The paint seared, peeled and lifted. A palette of vivid sparks flew off into the night sky, as if the Spanish pictures hidden in the under-painting celebrated mother’s vivacity and gave flight to her spirit.