A painter prepares for his first major solo exhibition by painting an actress who he first captured when he was just starting art school. Now he’s in his thirties and she’s in her fifties. There’s a spark between them but can it and should it ignite into something more?
The actress’ career is a point of crisis. She’s the mother now, not the lead, though her existence in the ‘real’ world is free of children besides her niece, Madeleine, her younger sister’s teenage decision made flesh. The actress is drinking too much and sleeping too little, caught by the ghosts of marriages past and sweet opportunities gone sour.
The actress’ sister Ange is once again in a mental facility, a breakdown casting her away from her daughter and reopening the recriminations of her childhood and adolescence.
The painter too is picking at the scabs of family secrets. What made his mother have affairs? Was his saintly father less good than he remembers? And what happened with the sister who died before he was even a notion.
The Pleasure of Sinking is a book about families, love, loss and resilience. Is there pleasure in sinking? And should you just accept it?
The initial expectations were low. He had painted her portrait when he was younger. She was younger then too but that was one of things you didn’t talk about. She was still young. That was the line and everyone was going to stick to it. Any talk about faded glamour was strictly to be avoided. This was classic glamour, alright?
He fiddled around organising his brushes and needlessly moving the canvas about. She sat still in the chair, staring over his shoulder at the scene in the window – real men at work in the street below, men with shovels and picks, men who knew about electrical currents and pipework.
He looked at the off-white tundra of the unpainted canvas and tried to imagine her face fixed upon it. Then he peeked around it to look at the real thing, shifted into a slight grimace by the sunlight, still beautiful no doubt but harder than he remembered, a divorce dug deep into the lines on her forehead, a decade’s worth of lesser parts and larger drinks stored up in the luggage beneath her punishing eyes.
He didn’t want her to act for him, he explained, he wanted her to just be herself. “I see you’re still an optimist,” she said with a laugh so brittle you could have shattered it with a toffee hammer. He remembered writing the letter he’d sent her before she sat for him the last time, fifteen years earlier.
She told him then it was the oddest begging letter she’d ever received, desperate not for an autograph but to steal her stardom and lock it down in oils.
He’d intrigued her. It was a feeling she hadn’t played with for a very long time. Even then, she’d been famous for longer than she’d been forgettable. It does odd things to a person, pulls them into a fairground mirror that twists them and the world in equal measure.
She didn't talk during the sittings. When his brush made contact with the canvas, it was as though her scene had been muted and paused. But looking at her as closely as he does, he sees how her eyes refuse to stay still, how her glances skitter around the room.
Sometimes she's looking out of the window at the street below, the patrons of the cafe in that fidgety diorama. At others, she is dissecting him where he stands. Her stare projecting the intensity she has stoked up for the screen and tied down in posters and publicity stills.
He feels like she is cutting him into constituent parts, flattening his mannerisms into pieces that could be snapped together to create a character. He wonders, if she had to, could she wear his face and convince the ones who loved him most that it was still him standing in front of them, that nothing had changed besides a sudden leap in his eloquence?
Those nights afterwards, he could picture her green eyes shining out in the darkness behind his own eyelids, like the echo of a painfully bright summer sun imprinted on you when you look away. He was certain she didn't think of him in the hours after the sittings. She might think of the portrait being layered into life or the inconvenience of his footling precisions, asking her to shift her profile by the smallest of degrees.
Sometimes he thought of her like a crocodile, tolerating him as if he were one of those subservient birds that swoop in to pick meat from between their teeth. What would it take for her to snap?
"Are we friends?" he asked one morning as he was setting up. She didn't say anything for what felt like a very long time. It was probably a minute but he'd been chewing on the question for so long that it had entirely lost its flavour. It had sat in his mouth mouldering for weeks now. It took him far too much to spit it out.
"I suppose," she said finally. "Whatever that means." Whatever. That. Means. Couldn't she just have answered yes or no?
He turned his attention to his paints and didn't compose a follow up. She shifted in her chair. Toyed with her cigarettes on the table in front of her.
"I quit once," she said. "For a while." He didn't catch on at first: "Smoking?" He'd distracted himself in his process, elbowed there by his own uncomfortable feelings. "No, no," she said, more gently than usual. "The whole thing."
One night, he was tired and left the easel up and the painting in progress on it. She was never there before him so it didn't matter.
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