Clara nodded, and took a sip of her water, not quite catching anyone’s eye. She stared at the table. There wasn’t any real reason that she should not fit in here. She too liked art, music, drama, she too was one of them, a creator. She understood moods, colours. Pauses.
And yet here today, even dressed in the cotton dress she had worn to sleep in, her hair tumbling naturally down her back, drinking water and talking of portraits, Clara felt like a fake.
She lifted her eyes. The artist, whose clothes were suitably loose fitting with their touch of eastern influence, was holding the company captive with her eyes, which were intent and serious. She was talking of her latest piece, a portrait. Of the light, the mood, the colours.
Her name was Laura Morgan. Esmerelda, Anastacia, Cleopatra – in her head, Clara crowned Laura’s greying hair briefly with names of old that seemed more appropriate. Laura, of course, would despise these names. Or perhaps she would simply walk into a room, one day, and announce that she had changed her name. This season, I feel that it is important that I be called Esmerelda. It is a season to be regal, to channel extravagance. I shall be wearing emerald. For now I shall only drink green tea.
The others gathered at this table in this garden were suitably artistic, or musical, or organic, or in tune with feelings and scents and ideas and dreams. Their talk was laconic but deeply important, one could tell, from the very deepest abyss of the soul. And there was Charlotte, who, reassuringly, was Clara’s friend and age, and not particularly distinguished.
It was Laura, though, who knew. It was Laura whose eyes would look, in all of their intensity, for a moment, at Clara. It was she who knew that Clara was a fake.
Clara wrote. She believed in these things, she believed in art. She read the culture supplements, which supplied her with enough fuel to make meaningful comments. And mean them. And yet – and it was this that Laura could see in Clara’s eyes. And yet, Clara couldn’t take it quite so devastatingly and soul achingly seriously.
‘In this portrait -’ Laura’s eyes flicked from Clara to the general company (the women, hand painted table, flowers from the garden, home made bread, home made jam. Local butter.) ‘The light is wrong. I want to see where it will fall on her face. It is important which parts of her are in shadow, which in light. The shadow is almost as important. What you don’t see, and what you have to guess. I am more interested, this time, in the shadows.’
Yasmin got her camera and Laura posed, turned her head, put her hair back. Made shadows. She looks like this, my portrait. No, angled slightly to the left. Clara watched, and sipped her water. (The others were drinking: green tea, apricot tea, peppermint tea. Charlotte had, now, tried them all.) With the others, Clara watched. But Laura caught her eye, for a second, again, and turned back to the picture.
You’re not one of us, the glance said. You are watching us, you can’t take us as we are but we don’t care, for we are this. And we don’t mind. But do not disturb us any further. Clara shifted in her seat. She was enjoying being here, certainly. Observing this lifestyle. Breakfast together in the garden at eleven o’clock. Portraits. Home-made marmalade.
How did she know? That was the question.
The flowers in the garden were tall, wild, plentiful. Colour surrounded this breakfast, with thick stalks swaying in the breeze, orange and pink and blue and yellow bursting into the corners of their eyes. The other side of the wild mass of colour was a vegetable patch. Ordered, with bamboo, netting, rows. Marrows, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, rhubarb gooseberries. People, in general, had forgotten about gooseberries, it seemed. Perhaps because they looked so like eyes.
‘I am thinking -’ Laura continued ‘of giving her gooseberries for eyes. It will give her a blank look, but also draw attention away from the eyes. People get so fixated on the eyes. And it will further the message that I want to give. It will enhance the shadows.’ It was growing stronger now. Clara was being tolerated, but at the same time firmly pushed out of the conversation. They looked at her, out of a strange politeness, but she was not invited to join in. Were they so fragile?
‘Won’t they look a bit ridiculous?’ Clara spoke, finally, and was confronted, this time, by all the eyes at the table. They did not grace her with words in reply, and she did not speak again.
She had seemingly disturbed the flow of the afternoon, for never again was the conversation or manner so free. Rather it seemed to fall into a series of allotted exchanges about friends and newspapers and times and dates.
They went their different ways, at the end, in different colours and paces and directions, and Clara, somewhat brainwashed, went in what some might have described as a pale green mood. She felt unsatisfied by the event. Was something was left unsaid? And Laura’s glance, her gaze, her gooseberry eyes. Except they weren’t gooseberries at all, they were beetles ready to dig into Clara, and leave her remains on the side, forgotten.
She was still glad, though, to accept an invitation a month later, to Laura’s gallery opening. Or curious, rather. She tried her very best to feel artistic, to think of shadows and light, to dress stylishly but with a flair of artistic disdain. In which, once she had been in the gallery for less than five minutes, she knew she had failed.
Every picture was a portrait, and each gathered around it a group of admirers, who examined the brushstroke, the expression, the layers, the depth, the meaning, the light. Feeling a little foolish, Clara too stared at the pictures, surmised as to the characters of the people presented. There was no doubt that Laura Morgan had a real and deep talent.
And here too, she found that people would cast a look at her, as Laura had. As though she stood out that much, she was not one of them. And then she turned a corner.
This portrait was stark, plain. It was different from the others that the exhibition had boasted. She had expected hidden depths and secrets, but it seemed as though everything that she knew and had been was laid bare and plain before her on the canvas. Her cheeks, her eyes, her soul. Clara shrank from it, instinctively. The head was four times the size of her own. She felt her own presence to be intimidating. She couldn’t look away.
It was shocking. Horrific. As though she had been literally stripped naked, her every thought written in giant letters for everyone to see. This was her face in the morning, with pores open and spewing everything that her face could, when properly assembled, keep hidden.
The face that stared back at Clara was mistrusting, dodging any connection or possibility, frightened. The eyes had a suggestion of gooseberries, everything but the harsh ridges and pits of her skin almost completely in shadow.
Her face started to burn. A step indicated that there was someone beside her, and she turned her lowered head slightly, just to see Laura, who gave her a polite smile, as one would an uncouth girl wandering around one’s gallery.