Lotta’s husband, Vik, was good at presents, and this year he had excelled himself. This year, he had commissioned a painting for his wife’s birthday. It would be a family portrait. Vik and Lotta both had curly hair – his dark, hers fair. Their children had curly hair too. They would make a wonderful composition, Vik thought, and when he showed the painter photos of them all on his phone, she agreed.

He had chosen a female artist, believing a woman would be sympathetic to the subject. Her name was Eve. Eve could paint from photographs, but she suggested some sittings would be helpful. These would take place in secret and would be easy to arrange, as Lotta commuted to London and often didn’t arrive home until after the children’s bedtime.

Eve arrived for the first sitting wearing her clothes inside out. The label of her green silk blouse fluttered at its seam. She had ink-stained hands, and her fingernails were blackened from charcoal. Her straight hair fell down her back like a cape. Vik noticed the way his daughter stared at her, bewitched by her jangling rings and necklaces, her belt buckle and curious bangles.

She asked the children how they wanted to pose, suggesting they might like to be painted holding a beloved toy, or an object. The boy, Jack, chose to stand wielding the longbow he had made at a mediaeval workshop the previous summer. India sat cross-legged on the floor, as she did at school, hands neatly clasped in her lap.

‘And you,’ Eve asked Vik, ‘how would you like to pose?’

They discussed whether he should stand, or sit, or kneel next to his children. Eve smiled a lot when she spoke, and seemed to pant slightly. Vik found himself asking her questions – about her painting, about its composition and her technique – just so that she would keep talking in her charming, breathless way. He chose to sit in the wing-backed chair inherited from Lotta’s parents.

‘Wonderful,’ Eve said, bobbing around, her jewellery tinkling, while he moved the chair into position. She narrowed her eyes, squinting at him, as he sat motionless, his hands resting on the arms of the chair.

‘It gives us useful height,’ she said.

He enjoyed the feel of her eyes on him, and the sound of the scratch of her brush. When she moved close, he could smell roses.

‘What’s Mummy going to wear in the painting?’ India asked, fingering the lace trim of her Best Dress. ‘Not her work clothes. She looks like a man.’

Vik watched his daughter pluck at her tights, pulling the fabric away from her leg and watching it ping back, and he knew that she was as in love with Eve as he was.”

In the early stages of the painting, as Eve identified each figure in patches of bold colour, her movements were swift. But over the weeks, as she closed in on them, refining their detail, she worked more slowly, and she would duck behind her canvas for longer periods before reappearing to squint at them once more. Jack was always the first to tire, so she would begin with his figure, and once she was satisfied, she had what she needed, she would send him off to play. Vik watched his daughter pluck at her tights, pulling the fabric away from her leg and watching it ping back, and he knew that she was as in love with Eve as he was.

‘You’ve really captured something,’ he told Eve one afternoon, when the painting was almost finished.

‘Yes, I’m pleased with it,’ she said.

They were standing next to one another staring at her work. She tucked her brush behind her ear and a thin ribbon of brilliant-green paint streaked her hair. Vik was afraid he would explode with desire.

‘Paint… in your hair,’ he croaked, reaching out to tease the offending strand. A smell of warm coconut reached his nostrils – her shampoo, perhaps. Panic rose in his chest. He needed to find a way to carry on seeing her once the painting was finished.

He turned his attention back to the portrait.

‘My feet look a bit… funny,’ he said.

‘They’re not finished yet.’

They both stared at the painting. It made him look handsome, with his manly features and curly hair. The chair he sat in was handsome, too, high-backed, with printed upholstery.

‘They look a bit funny,’ he said.

The expression on her face grew serious, so he added, ‘Well, I suppose they are funny, aren’t they!’ and he held out a leg to demonstrate the comedy of his own body.

‘The angle of them, though,’ Eve said, frowning at her picture, ‘it’s not right.’

She dabbed at the man’s feet in the painting. The tuft of her brush flared and flattened as she pressed it against the canvas. Softly, softly, he thought to himself. Slowly does it. Maybe he could book painting lessons for the children? Or as part of Lotta’s birthday present, even? Anything, in order to keep Eve coming to the house, to keep her in his sights.

Vik sank back into the bed, sleepily satisfied with the surprise he had pulled off. He really was excellent at presents. The children danced around their mother, tugging at her arms, asking her if she liked it.”

His wife’s birthday was on a Saturday, which worked out nicely, he thought. She could have a lie-in and open presents in bed with her breakfast. No need for her to be rushing out of the house like she did on weekdays. He placed the painting ceremoniously at the foot of their bed the night before, draping it in a piece of velvet from India’s dressing-up box.

‘Oh, what’s this?’ Lotta propped herself up higher against the pillows, putting aside the work she had been doing. ‘Presents already?’

Vik glanced at the bedside clock, noting that it was past midnight and therefore technically her birthday.

‘You’re not allowed to look until the morning,’ he told her.

‘The kids are so excited.’

That night, he dreamed about Eve.

‘Wake up! Wake up, it’s Mummy’s birthday!’

As he turned over, he sensed the empty space in the bed beside him before he opened his eyes.

‘Wake up, sleepy head,’ Lotta said, setting down a tray laden with toast and coffee.

‘I should be doing that,’ he mumbled, his mouth thick with sleep.

‘I was up anyway,’ she said. ‘I’m not sure the kids can hold out much longer.’

Now it was Vik’s turn to bank up the pillows behind him and sit up in bed.

‘Can I?’ Jack bleated. ‘Can I?’

At his mother’s signal, the boy whipped off the velvet to reveal the painting. Lotta gasped.

‘Oh!’ she exclaimed.

Vik sank back into the bed, sleepily satisfied with the surprise he had pulled off. He really was excellent at presents.

The children danced around their mother, tugging at her arms, asking her if she liked it.

‘I do. I really do,’ she said.

They ran from the room and he watched her prop the painting against the wardrobe, sitting on the end of the bed to study it. Her shoulders tightened, as if she was trying to stop herself from crying. She really was moved, he thought, taking a cup of coffee from the breakfast tray, and it was no wonder – Eve had done a fantastic job, capturing the light and bounce of their daughter’s hair, the intensity of their son’s frown, and his own, well, his own manliness, there was no other word for it. He took a sip of coffee.

‘Where am I?’ his wife whispered, turning to face him.

Her morning eyelashes were pale without their mascara.

‘Where am I?’ she asked once more, her voice cracking.

He looked at his wife and he looked at the painting. The tang of the coffee gave him a sudden urge to run out of the room. He took another sip, hiding his face in the cup to give him thinking time.

From She-Clown and Other Stories (Myriad Editions, £8.99)

 

Hannah Vincent is a novelist and playwright. She studied Drama and English at the University of East Anglia, completed an MA in Creative Writing at Kingston University, and a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Sussex. She teaches Creative Writing on the Open University’s MA and life writing on the Autobiography and Life Writing programme at New Writing South. She lives in Brighton. She is the author of two novels, Alarm Girl (Myriad, 2014) and The Weaning (Salt, 2018). She-Clown and Other Stories is published in paperback by Myriad Editions.
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Myriad in 100 books
Myriad Editions is an independent publisher based in Brighton, which since has developed a distinctive style of publishing original fiction, graphic novels and feminist non-fiction. With She-Clown and Other Stories, published on 26 March 2020, Myriad reaches the landmark of 100 new books, and is celebrating with book giveaways to reading groups, open fiction submissions and a 30% discount on online sales of all books until 31 March.
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