Category C: First Place (2016) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: Belinda McCormick
Title: Lifting the Veil
‘It’s uncanny,’ says Michael. He flicks the edge of the photo with the back of a finger and glances across at me.
‘Hmm,’ I say.
He shakes his head and leans forward onto his elbows, resuming his study. Every so often he draws breath. Then some other detail captures his attention and his words go unspoken.
I consider the snapshot framed between his forefingers and thumbs. Even upside down, it’s obvious. My mother was the very image of Audrey Hepburn. Her little black dress isn’t quite a Givenchy but her dark hair is worn in a French knot and she sports a pair of the same oversized sunglasses the actress favoured. She may as well have stepped straight off the set of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But more than their physical resemblance, they shared that otherworldly grace; an elusive elegance that saw my mother sashay from place to place, like a figure skater gliding over smooth ice.
I always felt club-footed and gangly beside her.
I cross my arms and sit back, resting my shoulder-blades against the back of the chair. I can’t help but wonder what else Michael will see.
My mother’s life had begun to unravel long before the photo was taken. Mote by mote, she was torn apart, unable to find her centre amidst the chaos of her soul.
The signs are there in that picture if you know what to look for.
I see it in the way her fingers grasp one another, white-knuckled and stiff, across the trim tautness of her waistline.
She wouldn’t have known it yet but she was pregnant with me at the time. The prolapsed uterus she told people was the result of a collision during a basketball match prevented her from ever carrying another child to term.
My fingers lace together, seeking comfort in each other as I’m reminded how easily her mishaps were explained away. Not for the first time I find myself regretting the impulsive boast about my mother’s looks on the night Michael and I met.
We were at the going away party of a mutual friend and I had no idea who Michael was. He made a beeline for me, leaving a swathe of fluttery young things in his wake. I only noticed him because of his height. That and the way his face lit up as he stalked across to my side of the room.
I remember glancing around with mild interest at the people on either side, each looking as bemused by the giant bearing down on them as I must have. He was almost on top of me before I realised I was the object of his attentions. I had started to step aside, worried he would juggernaut right through me, but he hauled himself to a stop in time to steady me with his hand. When I regained my composure enough to look up at him, he was standing feet apart, hands on hips, square in front of me. He sucked his breath through pursed lips and gave me the most disconcertingly frank appraisal I’ve ever had. Then he spread his hands and told me I had the most exquisite bone structure and I just had to let him paint me. I thought it was a come on, and shot back a comment that if he liked my face, he would have loved my mother’s.
Six weeks and a completed portrait later, here I am awaiting the grand unveiling. As a work-in-progress, Michael has refused to let me see it. Even today, he insisted I show him the promised photograph first. It is the only surviving picture of my mother, and I struggle to appear calm while he decrypts the story of the woman in the print.
I concentrate on breathing and remind myself of the defiance I see in that image.
Despite the forward curve of her shoulders, my mother’s back is straight and her head is high. She pointedly refuses to look at the camera. Instead she gazes over the photographer’s shoulders, somewhere off towards the horizon. Even though her eyes are hidden behind sunglasses, the muscles along her jawline are so tight, it is clear that she is gritting her teeth, hiding her dentures.
The story went that she had foolishly walked behind my father one day while he practiced his golf swing. He’d joke that she damn near ruined his club. My mother lost most of her front teeth in that particular accident. She hated the false ones, saying they were too big for her mouth and turned her smile into a rictus.
‘She was very beautiful,’ Michael says, recalling me to the airy warmth of his light-filled studio.
For a moment I can’t speak. I just nod and smile as he hands the photograph back across the table. I let out a shaky breath and meet his gaze.
‘Sorry,’ I say. ‘I just miss her, you know?’
He narrows his eyes at me and purses his lips. I pray he won’t ask any questions. Not now, not today. He holds my gaze until I find it hard not to fidget. Then he squeezes my hands, gives me a sad little smile and releases me.
‘Well,’ he says, lifting an eyebrow. ‘My turn.’
He slaps his hands on the tabletop and stands, full of mischief and secrets. Then he waltzes around to my side, bows with a flourish and extends his hand like a courtier. He pulls me to my feet, drawing me slowly towards the back of the studio where the portrait waits.
The canvas seems to grow larger as I approach. There is something different about it today. Perhaps it’s the drop sheet covering it, or the fact it’s turned towards me. Whatever it is, I feel it as a palpable presence, one that has been growing all afternoon. A sense of disquieting anticipation settles over me as I draw near.
Michael has placed a chair in front of the canvas. I smile and step around it, then close my eyes in an effort to settle my rollicking stomach.
‘Are you ready?’
Michael’s voice sounds disembodied. I expect it to come from beside me but it emerges from behind the portrait, taking an eternity to reach my ears. I wasn’t even aware he had moved. I take a couple of calming breaths and gaze over at him. He stands with one hand on the drop-sheet, ready to reveal what lies beneath.
‘OK,’ I say, and close my eyes again. ‘Tell me when.’
The sighs of the sheets are loud in the hush. I clench my fists and dig my nails into my palms to stop myself from peeking.
‘When,’ says Michael.
I open my eyes and there she is; my mother lost and forlorn, hidden always behind a painfully beautiful façade.
Trying to blink away half-formed tears my attention shifts to Michael. He’s watching me, feet shuffling while he waits. I have no words for the gift he’s given me, but on some level I understand. I don’t need to hide anymore.