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.
He woke up earlier than usual. The sun was barely up over the chimneys and he pulled his coat tight around him as slunk down the still street. Sundays were the best days for small corrections and seeing something new in dashed off strokes.
It was even colder on the concrete stairs, the acrid smell of piss on the landing stronger somehow. He unlocked the door and stepped inside.
The darkness he had expected was broken by a single pool of light the lamp beside the easel and there she was, sat within it. "It's not bad," she said without turning round. "It's not bad." He was unsettled by the repetition, the Greek chorus of his insecurities singing that she was just trying to convince herself.
"It looks like me," she continued. "But I don't ever see that expression in the mirror."
He laughed, surprising himself. "I don't think it's one you show yourself," he said. "It's the one you reserve for the rest of us."
It formed on her face as he said it. He laughed again and it fell away, a more common confusion taking its place. She wasn't used to hearing him laugh.
Later, she asked him to dance. The radio was on in the background that afternoon, more for her than for him. It tuned down to static as he worked on the painting, an occasional snippet rising up into his consciousness.
She asked for it on to stave off the boredom. He couldn’t let her read a book or watch the TV over his shoulder. “It makes your eyes all wrong,” he said. “The focus is off.”
She shook her head and cracked a thin smile. "That's what a woman wants to hear," she said, "That her eyes are off." He knew what he meant. He often knew what he meant but couldn't get it to make the treacherous journey from inside his head to out of his mouth. In strokes of paint, his intentions were clear. In words, they ran together until the colours were an offensive shade of grey.
"I didn't mean..."
She held her hand up to stop him. "I know," she said.
The music filled the silence for a moment and then as one song swept into the next, she held her hand out to him.
"Dance with me," she said. "It's been a long time since anyone has."
He wanted to say yes and couldn't think of the right words to say no, so they danced.
She liked the way his hands felt on her waist. He held onto her firmly but with a hint of concern, like someone given time with a precious museum exhibit, afraid they might smash it or place their smudged fingerprints on the polished face of history.
At certain points, she was sure he was holding his breath. She found him endearing because he wasn't trying to be. And there was something else but she didn't quite know what it was or want to ask it too many questions in that moment.
She'd done enough therapy to know that some feelings will fragment and fray if you start picking at the ends of them too much. When the song finished, he let go and went back to his easel. She assumed he felt more comfortable there.
"Where will it go, when it's done?" she asked when he came to a natural break, his brush hanging loose in his hand, paint dripping onto the sheets he spread around the base of the easel.
"A show," he said. "In a show with the others. But at the centre. Definitely at the centre."
"I don't have to be the centre of attention, you know." He knew it was a lie. She knew it was a lie. But they let it pass because it was so well told. She sold it with conviction, a glint that would have sparked down the lens.
She thought about what a show meant to him. In his world, the faces he painted were the stars and his was the most unimportant.
There were plenty of artists who put themselves in their work but he scrubbed at the mirror to make sure every trace of his reflection was gone. It seemed a very alien way to live. He shuddered at a stage while she still rushed towards them, even now when the thought should probably have bored her.
She was still big. It was the parts that had got small. Old jokes. Old lines. Old attitudes. She kept them in her head like the trinkets that clutter up bedside tables.
On her real bedside table, a bottle of wine or a stout shoulder of whiskey was always standing sentinel now. A sleeve of pills, all prescribed, legal and fine, just fine, lay slatternly beside it.
She drank to forget. She drank to remember. She drank because drinking was just something she'd done for so long that it seemed to make sense when other things didn't. The drinking didn't affect her work. She'd spun that one up into a mantra. It sounded so tuneful as she turned it over and over in her head.
Anyway, when your average day hinges on mining emotions, some tools to cheat the process must surely be allowed. Her hands didn't shake if she skipped it. At least, they didn't the last time she checked. And big handbags always have room for some breath mints and a small bottle of mouthwash to serve as a guiltless accomplice.
She wondered what he thought of her drinking or if he ever thought of it at all. People don't assume that all coffees are Irish or all lunches are boozy by default.
And the art world has just as many blizzards, doesn't it? Surely every kind of creativity sometimes begs for a kick. When he studied the lines on her face, did he read all of that into them? Or were they just patterns to him? Shapes to be captured.