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Their faces materialised suddenly in the fog, an instant snapshot in the gloom. The girl wasn't at all what I'd expected, but I recognised her right away.
She looked younger than her age, could easily have passed for seventeen or eighteen, though I knew she was in her twenties. She had lank blond hair and a stick-thin body wrapped in several layers of clothing. Her features were pinched and angular. They might have been attractive if she'd been smiling, but she wasn't. In fact, her expression was glacial.
And she was about to go into the Turk's Head with my husband.
The traffic in Sturford High Street had slowed almost to a standstill, allowing me plenty of time to examine them both. It's always odd when you unexpectedly glimpse someone you know well, like catching your brain unawares. There's a moment when you see them the way a stranger would. In that brief flash, I saw Gus as a man of almost fifty, tall and distinguished-looking, sure, but with more grey than black in his hair and with a care-worn, almost haggard face and untidy clothes. The next moment, knowing it was Gus, I rejigged my view to fit the man I loved: those features so full of character—he was far more attractive than most men half his age; his battered tweed jacket and rumpled cords the mark of his bohemian lifestyle. After all, no one dresses in a suit and tie to paint pictures. And it was hardly surprising if he looked worried. Gus had a lot on his plate right now.
To be precise, he had Jenny Sayer.
It would have been hard enough for him to deal with his stranger niece even if she'd been diplomatic about it all, but she hadn't. In the first place, she'd been over from Australia for six months before she got in touch. Then she refused to come and stay at Grays Orchard with us, saying she'd prefer to stay at the Travelodge four miles away. Two days before her arrival yesterday, she'd insisted on having some time alone with her uncle before she'd so much as consider meeting up with me.
'Who does she think she is, for God's sake?' Gus had demanded when the letter arrived bearing her final condition. 'It feels as if we're on trial. I'll tell her not to come. Either she sees us both together or not at all.'
But I persuaded him to see it from her point of view. Scary enough to meet an uncle you've never clapped eyes on before; much worse when that uncle is an extremely successful painter. If she thought it was going to be easier this way, what was the problem?
'Okay,' Gus conceded finally, though it was obvious he wanted me along to help out, 'we'll humour her. God, Carol, what would I do without you?'
He thought it was kindness that made me smooth the path for this unknown girl, but mostly it was plain curiosity. Jenny was a link with the world he'd lived in before we were married. Long before. In the days when I was still a child and Jenny hadn't even been born.
I was still wedged in the traffic when they reached the entrance to the Turk's Head. Gus stood aside to let his niece precede him. She seemed uncertain how to deal with this courtesy and her narrow face was pinched with tension. Either she wasn't used to men who let her go through doors first, or else she saw it as a sexist put-down. When he put his hand on her elbow, she shook him off. And then, as she went ahead into the pub, she stumbled on its uneven threshold and Gus had to grab her by the arm to stop her falling headlong.
Poor old Gus, I thought ruefully. It doesn't look as though his long-lost niece is giving him much joy. The traffic began moving again. I glanced back towards the Turk's Head. Gus's long back was framed by the pub's eighteenth-century doorway, then he was swallowed up by the darkness inside and vanished from sight.
For a moment I thought of trying to find somewhere to park so I could go and join them. Given half a chance I was confident there'd be no difficulty persuading Jenny to see me as an ally, and Gus would welcome the support. I checked my watch. Damn. I'd promised Brian to be at the site when the buyers came round at one.
On the outskirts of Sturford, just past the roundabout where the bypass joins the main road near the Travelodge and the new Superstore, the traffic picked up speed, although the fog was getting denser. I switched on my headlights. Outside the dingy Elim chapel a sign handwritten on neon orange paper proclaimed: Give your worries to Jesus: He'll be up all night anyway; it made me smile and I made a mental note to tell Gus that evening. Poor old Jesus, I thought, having to wait up all night listening to people's moans. For a moment I felt quite sorry for Him. Still, at least He wouldn't have to put up with mine.
'What a shame it's foggy for your first visit to Grays. It's such a beautiful house.'
Her eyes were unflinching. 'So? Doesn't bother me. It's just a house, isn't it? Nothing special.'
'We-ell ...' I glanced at Gus but he avoided my eye. 'It must have meant a lot to your mother.'
Jenny shrugged. 'Nothing to do with me, though.'
I'd been back at the house only twenty minutes and already I was on the point of giving up. Normally I can thaw out the most icy of guests, but Jenny was determined not to play. Small talk obviously wasn't her thing. I wondered what the opposite of small talk was—big talk, presumably—but I had a hunch that wouldn't be right, either. You had to feel sorry for the poor girl, coming all this way from Australia to find her roots and with the shadow of that tragedy looming in the background: hardly surprising if she was making heavy weather of it all. Her resistance made me more determined than ever. Later, when I remembered my efforts to make her welcome at Grays Orchard I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. I ought to have hammered a 'No Trespassing' notice at the bottom of the lane and barred all the doors, but of course I didn't.
I tried again. Shoving the chicken in the oven, I said, 'Anyway, you're here at last, that's the main thing. Gus and I were afraid you might not come down at all.'
There wasn't a flicker of warmth in response to my smile as Jenny said, 'I wasn't going to, but the cards made me change my mind.'
'You know, tarot cards?' Her Australian inflections blurred the distinction between statement and question. 'I had a reading a couple of weeks ago and the woman came up with this really weird combination. She couldn't work it out until I told her about this place and my dad and ... well, you know, everything. She said me coming down here was meant to happen.'
I laughed. 'You don't really believe in all that fortune-telling nonsense, do you?' It was the wrong thing to say, but I thought I'd better get in before Gus crushed her with his scepticism. To my surprise he didn't respond, merely regarded her thoughtfully. Trying to make amends, I added, 'I suppose it's fun as a game, but it doesn't mean anything.'
'How do you know?' she demanded. 'Just because it's not scientific.' She turned to Gus for support. 'You don't think it's nonsense, do you, Gus? Your friend Raymond would have known what I was talking about. I bet you used to do all that stuff here in the old days: tarot and I Ching and ouija boards. Didn't you?'
'We may have done, but I'm afraid I can't really remember. It was all such a long time ago.'
Jenny looked disappointed and no wonder: Gus, normally the most generous of hosts, was going out of his way to be super-formal and polite. Each time he spoke to his niece—and that was only when he had to—it was as though he was using long-handled tongs: rigorously correct but keeping her at arm's length. It seemed to be up to me to set her at her ease.
So I said lightly, 'Oh, Raymond Tucker, he was always off with the fairies. You can tell from those paintings Gus did of him, can't you, Gus?'
Without even a glance in my direction, Gus said coolly, 'I don't know, Carol. I never really thought about it.' Which was just plain ridiculous, as well as making me look like a fool.
I was beginning to get annoyed. Not only was I working overtime to make Jenny feel at home, but I was also doing all the preparation for supper. Normally on Friday evenings Gus took me out for a meal, or else he rented a video and cooked pasta to eat at home. I work hard, and by the end of the week I enjoy a bit of spoiling, but either Gus had forgotten what day it was or he was too disoriented by the arrival of his long-lost niece to function properly. And Jenny clearly wasn't the type to offer assistance. So I washed and chopped vegetables and tried not to feel resentful.
Jenny said to Gus, 'That tarot reading was all about you. Well, you and me, obviously.' She slid me a defiant glance. 'No one else.'
'Really,' said Gus.
I said, 'What does your mother think of all that?'
'We never talk about it,' said Jenny flatly. She leaned across the kitchen table towards Gus, turning her back on me. 'Gus, do you still have any of those portraits you used to do?'
'No. Unfortunately both exhibitions sold out.'
'Why's that unfortunate?'
'I would have liked to destroy them all.'
Jenny tilted back in her chair. She looked shocked. I said swiftly, 'Both the exhibitions were a huge success. Gus's dealer said he could have sold all the paintings five times over.' I knew that because Gus still dealt with the same dealer, who kept saying, even though after twenty-five years he must have known it was pointless, 'Shame you don't do portraits any more, Gus. I could have sold those first two exhibitions five times over,' or anything up to ten times over, depending on his mood. Oliver always went on to qualify his remarks with 'Of course, someone with your gift's got to do what comes naturally. Can't be expected to paint to order.' But he invariably said it wistfully, as though painting to order was precisely what he wished Gus would do. The still lifes and abstracts he did nowadays sold well enough, but nothing since had matched the success of those first two exhibitions.
I said, 'You've seen the reproductions, though.'
Jenny looked cagey. 'Well, some of them, in magazines, that sort of thing, but it was ages ago and to be honest I wasn't all that interested.'
'Surely Harriet showed you the catalogues?' I asked.
'She may have done. I can't remember. She doesn't like to be reminded of all that. You can understand why.'
'All the same ...' I dried my hands. 'Oliver did Gus proud with the catalogues. Apparently they're collector's items now. We've got them both. I'll get them for you.'
Gus stood up. I thought maybe he was going to volunteer to fetch them himself, but instead he remarked, 'Don't bother now, Carol. I don't suppose Jenny's interested.' There was the shadow of a warning in his voice. I ignored it, because I could see that, though she'd never admit it in a hundred years, Jenny was consumed by curiosity.
So I said cheerily, 'Of course she is. Aren't you, Jenny?'
'I don't mind either way.' But her grey eyes were desperate.
'Maybe tomorrow,' insisted Gus.
'No, no, I'll get them now. I know where they are.'
I couldn't think why Gus didn't want me to show Jenny the catalogues, and I was amazed by the fury on his face as I went past him to the door. I was undeterred. The girl might be rude and awkward, but she still had the right to see the paintings that had made Gus and her parents famous, however briefly. Probably Gus was just being modest.
Fog creates a denser kind of silence. The apple loft, which Gus still uses as a studio, is just across the courtyard from the kitchen where we'd been sitting, but on this particular April evening, it felt a mile away. It's a tall building; the ground floor is used as a garage and general store, and there are outside steps leading diagonally up to the loft door. They were slippery with damp, and moisture was dripping from the eaves. It felt more like November than April and even the birds were silent.
I pushed open the loft door and went in, realising as I did so how rare it was for me to be alone there. I took my time: Jenny was hardly going to miss me and I could use a few moments of solitude to prepare for the evening ahead, which was clearly going to be hard work.
A rustle—maybe a mouse in the roof space—made me turn round suddenly, almost as though I was expecting to see one of the Grays Orchard group standing by the window. It always catches me unawares that way, like an echo left on the air. Maybe that's all ghosts are, just echoes on the air.
Sometimes I wonder if it is possible to miss what you've never known; if it is, then I think I must miss the years when Grays was full of the sound of laughter and argument and song. The house is too big for just me and Gus, though we'd never dream of selling it. Sometimes I fantasise about inviting the Grays Orchard group back, so they can see how happy Gus is again, with me. I'd make them all so welcome, Harriet and Raymond and Pauline. Even Katie. But not Jenny's father. Never Andrew.
I turned back and took the two catalogues down from the shelf. The first one was called simply Gus Ridley at Grays Orchard. On the front cover was a portrait of Jenny's mother, Harriet, carrying a long-necked white goose. Even I, who have no pretensions to artistic appreciation, could see why that first exhibition had been such a knock-out success. Gus had depicted his friends enjoying their make-believe pastoral idyll—Andrew Cleaning his Gun, or Pauline Feeding her Chickens—but had done so with an ethereal, otherworldly quality which saved the paintings from being chocolate-box attractive. Sometimes, when I was living my less glamorous life, I imagined Gus doing a whole new series of portraits: Carol Scoops Gloop out of the Drain or Carol Nods Off in front of the Telly. But that wasn't going to happen, not ever, even though I'd look good in a picture. Gus hadn't painted a single portrait since the group broke up.
The second catalogue had the most famous of Gus's paintings on the cover: Being Katie. It has been called one of the great celebrations of erotic love in the twentieth century: Katie had obviously been stunning, and she and Gus must have been very much in love. So much so that Gus had never really settled with anyone else until he met me.
This second exhibition was called Shadows in Eden and you could see why. The light was different in these paintings. There was an ominous quality even in the sunshine, a shadow darkening the radiance. Still, when he was under pressure Gus sometimes darkened his paintings. Once, in New York, a few years after the Grays Orchard group broke up, he'd blacked out a whole series of paintings just before they were due to go off to an exhibition. It was the reason dealers were still wary of him. I wondered if he was doing it now: he'd certainly been different since Jenny got in touch with us, though it was difficult to pinpoint exactly how.
There were canvases stacked against the wall, one or two finished works on a shelf at the far end. Semi-abstract flower paintings were his speciality these days. They did look darker, but it was hard to tell.
Just as I was about to leave I noticed there was a canvas on the easel, covered with an old sheet. Gus always encouraged me to see his work in progress, so I had no hesitation about lifting the corner of the sheet and hooking it over the apex of the easel.
I gasped and stepped back suddenly.
It was a portrait, a portrait of his niece, the first portrait he'd attempted in nearly a quarter of a century but totally unlike anything he'd ever done before. This was a quick sketch, with all the power and intensity of first impressions.
Poor Jenny. If she was aware of how her uncle saw her, no wonder she had veered away from him outside the Turk's Head.
Nearly the whole canvas was taken up with a huge, funnel-shaped flower; it might have been a hibiscus or an amaryllis or a mysterious jungle bloom. It was a deep browny red, the dark red of liver or drying blood or the swollen lips of a woman's sex. Emerging from its fleshy petals were the head and torso of a young woman—Jenny, obviously—though if I hadn't seen her at the Turk's Head at lunchtime I'd have thought this was a demon figure from one of Gus's nightmares. Her skin wasn't a normal human colour at all; it was pale, almost blue, like the skin of a corpse, and it was pulled back so tightly over her skull and the bones of her body that it made her look like a hideous caricature. Her cheeks and breasts were grey shadows. She was pathetic and repellent at the same time. She was in pain, but it was the kind of suffering that made you want to run away, because nothing you did would make any difference. Most obscene of all, at the point where her body emerged from the mouth of the flower, the girl's torso ended in the half-formed curled legs of a foetus. It was grotesque, like being forced to witness the exposure of some foul secret that should have been left in darkness.
'What's kept you so long?'
Excerpted from Surface Tension by Joanna Hines. Copyright © 2002 Joanna Hines. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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