A young woman faces the most important interview of her life in her quest to become an artist
Rose looked at her watch: it was later than she’d thought. It was essential she leave with half an hour to spare. A minute later and she was certain that fate and the London transport system would combine to hijack her in revenge for her rashness.
One way or another, she would be bringing her portfolio back with her today. Since submitting it four weeks ago, the apartment had looked bare; she was in the habit of decorating the place with her pictures. Just now she could only see half the peacock feathers painting, poking out from behind a screen.
She must hurry and finish breakfast: she focused on her cereal. Mozart began climbing up the easel in the corner.
‘Will you get down?’ She sprang up, prised his wriggling body from his perch with one hand and dropped him on the floor. He meowed and flicked his tail, stalking off to the other corner of the loft apartment, sitting down with his back to her. Last time he’d climbed the easel he’d got stuck and she’d returned from shopping to find him stranded at the top.
‘Sorry,’ she said, hoping dropping him from a whole two feet up hadn’t hurt him.
This is why she didn’t want a cat of her own. Quite apart from the stereotypes she wished to avoid. She was too impatient. To her cats were still creatures that belonged outside, on the farm, keeping down the rats, not inside, pampered. It was a good thing she only had Mozart for a few months while her friend was travelling.
She returned to her breakfast. The kitten was washing his paws, still with his back turned. Rose picked up her spoon, took a mouthful: her eyes bulged briefly before she managed to swallow. Taking a deep breath, she got up and emptied the bowl into the bin under the sink. Why had she never noticed before how strong the smell of oil paint was in here? It was making her nauseous. She was fooling herself she could eat on a morning like today. It was just like back in school before an exam. She’d often thrown up if she’d made the mistake of actually eating a meal. And today was worse than any exam. The whole of her life so far seemed a trajectory leading up to today. The result of today would determine whether everything, or nothing, had been worthwhile.
Scuffling noises bought her back to the present and she looked over to see Mozart, having found a peacock feather she’d used in a recent still life, turning in frantic circles on the floor as he destroyed it. How Samantha, his owner, coped with him in her serene, well-kept house Rose couldn’t imagine.
She collected her coat, checking once more that the interview letter was in her bag. Her body was clammy and the wool cardigan she was wearing felt itchy, but it was cold outside. Calling goodbye to Mozart, she rushed through the door – a necessary precaution to beat him to it.
‘Rose, my darling, sweet girl, have you been hiding in your room for an eternity?’
She winced and turned from double-locking the door to see her neighbour, Jameson MacPherson, on the stairs with a paper and shopping bag. The conflicting emotions of pleasure at seeing him and desire to get out of the building deprived her of speech.
‘You’ll never guess who I ran into at the shop -’ he began, then seeing her face stopped. ‘Oh, good lord, is it… today?’
‘Yes, it is today,’ she said, trying to keep her voice normal.
‘Oh my dear, you should have said! Well, go, go. God speed and all good fortune to your venture.’
‘Thank you,’ she murmured and dashed past him, trotting down the stairs, hearing him call as she reached the front door below, ‘May you return triumphant, dear girl!’
As she hurried down the street to the underground she hoped she hadn’t been rude. She must make sure to go and see him later. Jameson was the person who understood most how much this meant to her. More than the girls in the office, who saw her as the eccentric, artistic one, more than her own family, who were in bemused awe of her new life.
On the tube, after checking her watch and reminding herself to breathe, she settled into her seat. It had been that picture of her mother that had started all this.
Well, that wasn’t quite true. Since she was a little girl, she’d been getting into trouble, being found sketching a farm cat, or the tractor, or the men bringing in the hay, or the front door, with her tattered sketchbook on her knee, when she should have been doing other things. Her brothers and parents got used to seeing Rose’s sketches everywhere about the house; their startling resemblance to the objects in question ceasing to be of note. But her mother would collect them whenever she found them among the general mess and stash them all in the draw under the dresser.
When it became clear that her mother wouldn’t be here many more weeks, Rose sat by her bed and read to her. As her mother slept more and more, she took to sketching her; myriad lightning sketches from different angles. One sunny spring morning, Rose dug out her oils, wanting something better than a photograph to remember her mother by. She began the painting while her subject was asleep, despite the light illuminating the scene, propped up against the pillows to make her breathing easier. But, as she neared the end, her mother woke up and sat, dreamily gazing ahead, eyes half drooping, a secret smile on her face, knowing her clever daughter was working to capture her likeness. When at last Rose was content it was done, she showed the painting to her mother. After a long while, her mother put her hand over hers and said, ‘You must focus on it, Rose. This art of yours. This is a talent.’
It had been like a permission slip that she hadn’t been able to give herself. And, a year and a half later, here she was, having left the farm to fend for itself, taken a temping job, and working almost every evening on her paintings. A couple of nights a week she went to evening classes, one life drawing, one still life, but the best nights were when she was at home, on her own, painting. Occasionally she’d go out with friends, but that wasn’t the point of being here. Once she’d got where she needed to be, then she could afford to have friends.
Looking back over the year, she had come a long way. Having known nothing about the art scene before moving here, she’d discovered the Atelier was the place everyone talked about for classical artists to train. Three of the painters whose work she’d come to know and love most had gone there. It was just what she needed: two years of intensive training from real artists who knew what they were doing. It would get her where she wanted to be, and give her ambitions official validation. She leaned back in the juddering, draughty tube carriage and tried to relax.
In his room at the Atelier of Classical Art, Jocelyn Peters sat at his oak desk waiting for the next applicant to arrive. There were only three to see today. Two were hearing good news, and one bad. He’d already seen one chap, a bumptious fellow whose portfolio had impressed well enough and who said when asked why he wanted to study here, ‘I didn’t get into Oxford to do PPE, you see.’ Jocelyn had waved him through; he certainly couldn’t do any harm.
He was glad that Tracey, his deputy, was away today. The silly cow was taken up with an affair with a married man, and it was lucky he’d kept on the right side of her. So when she hinted that she wanted to be elsewhere this morning he was able to agree that he wouldn’t mind, in a conspiratorial ‘our little secret’ way. The Atelier’s policy was that two senior staff members must always be present at admission interviews. But he liked a free rein, and, due to his cleverness, nobody was watching.
A knock on the door. Jocelyn closed the crime paperback he’d been reading and put it in the desk drawer.
‘Come,’ he enjoyed the resonant way his voice sounded against the wooden panelling lining his study.
An underling he hadn’t seen before put his head round the door, ‘Miss Rose Jones is here twenty minutes early, sir. Shall I ask her to wait?’
‘No, no,’ he sighed, ‘Let her come in now, I’m ready.’
A girl was ushered in. He went forward to shake her hand, ever the gentleman. She wasn’t at all what he’d pictured from seeing her art work. She was much younger, for a start. He’d wondered if she’d turn out to be a raving beauty. He shouldn’t have got his hopes up, they never did. But he hadn’t been prepared for someone this dowdy.
He eyed her, as she sat in the chair in front of his desk, turning over her interview invitation in her hands. Why on earth had she decided to wear brown? It wasn’t a good colour for her, despite her fresh young skin, and from her paintings, she seemed to know about colour. There was nothing really wrong with her looks, he supposed, but there was nothing really right either. Apart from her mouth. That was notable, full, luscious; a whore’s mouth.
He asked her a few questions about her influences, her motivation for wanting to study, and the direction she saw her art taking. She answered with a quiet resolve that only cemented what he’d already decided.
As she finished answering his final question at some length, he looked pointedly at his watch. She halted.
‘Well, Miss Jones,’ he said. ‘I can see that you’re sincere in your wish to study art. You also applied for the full scholarship here, which is always very competitive. I’m afraid though, that you aren’t the right fit for our programme. You don’t have any relevant qualifications. While we do get the occasional self-taught applicant who is… well, it’s very rare indeed. I’d advise you to study part time and get an art A-level, an undergraduate degree. Come back to us in, perhaps, five or six years’ time.’
The girl looked ill. This might turn out to be more troublesome than he’d thought.
‘Why?’ she said at last, in a whisper. ‘Why would you let me through to the final stage – invite me in - if you think I’m that bad?’
Jocelyn sighed. ‘My deputy, Tracey Burns, likes to try to encourage inexperienced students. Sometimes she puts people through just so we can have a chat with them and encourage them to apply again in future years.’ He met her eyes, wearing the most benevolent expression at his disposal.
He saw something spark in her eyes. ‘If I should apply again in future years, why shouldn’t I apply now? I know one of the students you let in last year. I think I’m as good as him. Why won’t you let me in now?’
He stared across the desk at her. This plain little girl actually thought she could browbeat him into letting her into his institution. He, the head of art at the most prestigious London Classical Academy, teaching time-honoured methods handed straight down from the old masters.
‘Miss Jones,’ sighing again, he put his hands on the edge of his desk, ‘I really didn’t want to have to be this blunt. But, although my colleague felt she saw some promise in a few of your pieces, we are not in agreement. I find your work jejune, clumsy. You have no natural flair. Some pieces are sentimental in the extreme, while others are straightforwardly bad. Need I go on?’
The girl’s expression had changed into that of someone who’s developed vertigo while sitting on a high windowsill. Controlling himself, he continued, in a more kindly tone.
‘I’m sorry you are disappointed, Miss Jones. I’m afraid though that not everyone who aspires to be an artist possesses the requisite talent. And, if they don’t, it’s better if people are honest with them about it. That said, one never knows… You would of course be welcome to apply again in several years’ time. But, I do wonder if you might be happier if you explored other avenues in life.’
He stood up and reached down for the portfolio, propped up by the leg of his desk. He held it out to her. ‘We are, however, grateful to you for applying. We wish you all the best for the future.’
Rose got up, backing away from him, knocking over the wooden chair as she turned and ran out of the office.
‘What a hysterical girl,’ he said to himself out loud, resting the portfolio down on the desk.
Despite himself, he was drawn to flick open the catches on either side of the handle. He pulled out the sheaf of work within.
Standing at his desk Jocelyn leafed through the girl’s work. There were quick dextrous watercolours of a tabby kitten; you could almost see it moving as it chased its own tail. There was a pensive oil portrait in profile of a beautiful dark haired girl who must be Miss Jones’ friend. The skin texture was so real that he was surprised when he reached out and touched paint rather than flesh. There was an avenue of pink blossom trees, then the same avenue in gold autumnal colours. The ornate gardens of St James’s Park and Hyde Park. Rowing boats and picnicking couples, languorous in the sunlight. Graceful nudes and funny, splashing ducks in a pond that made him smile.
There were a couple of perspective problems in some of the pictures, but nothing that a few weeks of proper tuition wouldn’t fix. Finally, there was the old woman, propped up on pillows, the smile of a saint on her lips, her skin luminous, as though she was half way out of this world already.
It was this picture, simply entitled ‘Mother’, that had sealed it. That had made him tear up the scrawled note Tracey had attached to the portfolio that read: ‘Outstanding! Recommend for scholarship - if ok in interview?’
What right had a young girl of twenty six, thirty years his junior, to be able to produce a picture like that? It was maternal love rendered straight on to the canvas.
He sat back in his chair, his eyes falling on the framed pictures lining the study; apart from the portrait of him by a former student, all his own work. Rigorously accurate studies and painstaking paintings. Dead in their frames like butterflies on a board. He almost never painted these days. He’d got to the position he wanted to be in, so why torture himself further? His own paintings had never satisfied him. They were clever, technical, but, for the life of him he didn’t understand why, there was no soul in them.
As he looked at them, the voice of his famous, handsome father played in his ears from forty years before. One occasion when he'd shown his father a piece he’d spent days working on, hopeful of a word of praise. ‘Oh, think you can upstage me, do you? Fancy ourselves the great artist. Your work is nothing. You are nothing. You haven’t got the talent I have in my little finger in your whole body -’
He snapped the lid of the portfolio shut, cutting off the voice like a radio. His father should see where he’d got now. That would show him. A pity he was dead.
Jocelyn shook his head, ridding himself of ghosts. The damned portfolio would have to be posted back to the girl now. He was glad he’d sent her packing. The little know it all, with her brown cardigan, and her mouth, and her resolve. But, pleasant as it had been to crush her, unaccountably, he felt worse now.
Jocelyn Peters picked up the phone to get reception to come and collect the thing, and to send the next student in.
Rose had no memory later of the journey from the art school back home. Praying she wouldn’t meet anyone on the stairs, she got back into her flat unseen and walked across it unseeing. Shaking, breathing deeply, she reached the small white bed and fell to her knees, elbows propped on the cover, sobbing. She cried so hard and long that eventually she slithered sideways and lay on the floor, her face an inch from the counterpane.
Mozart pattered across the floorboards and nosed at her hair. Becoming aware of him she reached out and scooped up his little body, holding him against her as she continued to sob. He stuck out his paws, mewed, squirmed out of her grasp, taking off to the kitchen area and watching her from behind the stools.
She sat up, gasping, wiping her face, and considered whether there were any painless ways to kill yourself. After a little while, she concluded that killing herself seemed a lot of effort. And, if it didn’t work, that would be worse. So she got into bed and lay, still and cold on the covers, until, hours later, she fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.
Knocking pulled her up out of deep sleep. She staggered out of bed, becoming aware that her throat was painful, and answered the door, eyes half closed. Jameson’s face above the chequered neck tie he habitually wore, was hopeful, wondering if celebration was in order.
He found out very quickly what had happened. Immediately he bustled upstairs to get cake, and bustled back down, forcing her on to one of the kitchen stools, made tea, adding a drop of whisky he’d bought down, and plying her with Madeira cake and sweet, alcoholic tea.
‘Look here, old thing,’ he told her, while she sipped her tea. ‘You can’t let this sort of thing get you down. It doesn’t matter what they think. What does that fellow know?’
Rose muttered that he was Head of Art at the Atelier.
‘I don’t give a damn what art school he’s head of. If you know you’re an artist then you are. No one can stop you, if that’s what you are.’ He gesticulated with the conviction of his words, spilling tea on the sideboard and wandering up and down looking for a cloth to wipe it up, just avoiding stepping on Mozart.
Rose nodded and agreed, not wanting to show him he wasn’t helping. Jameson would say all this: he was a semi-retired theatre director, used to encouraging the luvvies, throwing about false praise and reassurance.
Only Rose knew that something inside her had died. It had been broken in that panelled study today. Yes, her bumbling art teachers, her mother, and Jameson said she had talent, but it didn’t mean anything if only people who loved her thought so. Today she’d heard the truth from someone who had no reason to lie about it.
On Monday she returned to work in the office. It really wasn’t so bad. What was wrong with just leading a normal life like everyone else? Why not have friends and go to the cinema and flirt with men. Why hanker after the moon?
The following weekend Rose took her paintings and materials down to the big skip round the corner. She was done with this. Trying to be an artist had caused her nothing but pain. She felt a huge burden lifted from her when she returned to see the empty flat. She would never paint again.
Maybe she could decorate like a normal person now, and not live in something that looked like a school art department forever. She began thinking about colours, and wondering if she’d have to check with the landlady before repainting the place.
Going out more, and having one or two of the girls from her office round to supper, Rose found there was pleasure in companionship and laughter that surprised her. The next couple of times she saw Jameson he asked how things were going in such a way that she knew he was really asking if she’d resumed her artwork. It was too painful to try to explain to him that it was over.
One Saturday morning, Rose had fed Mozart and was watching him eat, reflecting that he’d be going back home tomorrow, when the doorbell rang. The postman staggered upstairs under the weight of a huge flat parcel. She signed for it, a sense of foreboding building. As she’d feared, it was that now hated object, her portfolio.
Rose opened it and scattered the pieces on the floor, standing back to look at them, pale with renunciation; ready to gather them up and put them in their rightful place in the skip.
They were not the glorious things she’d once imagined. She could see flaws in every one now. But, the longer she looked at them the more she thought of the word ‘jejune’, and how she couldn’t find it here: instead she saw the essence of what she’d tried to capture. She picked up the portrait of her mother and put it on the kitchen counter, propping it against the wall.
Mozart padded through the remaining pictures, sniffing speculatively at these foreign objects. He sat down in the middle of the patchwork of paintings and sketches, on one of the few bare areas of floor, and began to wash himself. The sun slanted in through the attic windows to the left, lighting up his stripes against the scuffed floorboards.
Before she knew it, Rose had a lined sketchpad that was meant for shopping lists in her hand and snatched up a pencil. She began one of her lightning sketches. This would make a great basis for an oil painting. She knew the title already: ‘Cat in a sunny studio’.