By Helen Mayall
Alice Foley patted the back of her hair. It felt crisp, sturdy. The generous curls were shaped and pinned exactly how she liked them, swimming around her head, two thick strands wound near her forehead to soften her face and plenty of volume up top. Gwladys had done her proud, as usual. Her hair was grey now. No matter, she thought, perhaps the grey added a sense of sophistication, an armour.
‘Do you want a bit more lacquer on it, or will that do?’ asked Gwladys, her soft welsh accent inflecting the question while she looked appraisingly over her work. Gwladys held a mirror up so Alice could see the back.
‘No, I think that will do, thank you,’ said Alice, bending down to get her handbag. It was black, glossy, and box-like, as fixed as a brick. She wore her blue suit with a white blouse underneath, and the string of pearls she had bought when she was appointed Secretary of the Weavers’ Association.
‘You look lovely, that blue really brings out your eyes. Where is it you are having it done again?’ said Gwladys, getting the brush out to sweep up the loose hairs on the wooden floor and folding the towel she had used.
‘At the artist’s studio,’ Alice scoffed. ‘I didn’t even know we had an artist with a studio in Bolton. I thought they might send me to Manchester. He can’t be very good.’
‘Don’t be so snobby, he might be the best artist in the North West.’
‘I certainly haven’t heard of Leslie Barnes.’
‘Are you worried about how it will turn out?’
‘Of course not. I am what I am, he will have to paint me as is. I’m not going in there being someone I’m not. You are lucky I agreed to you doing my hair. I would have just done it myself.’
‘This painting could end up in the gallery.’
‘It’s my work that matters, not a painting. No one will care what I look like in years to come. They will want to know what I did.’
‘I suppose you’re right. But it can’t hurt to be presentable,’ said Gwladys, rushing to find Alice’s coat.
‘Stop fussing, it’s just another day. It’s nothing to get excited over,’ said Alice, shrugging the coat on.
Alice consulted the address she had been given as she stood outside twenty-two Lorne street. It had a double door, which made Alice wonder about the building’s history. There was no sign above it. She straightened her back and knocked.
The door was opened by a young man with dark hair and eyes, probably in his early twenties, Alice thought. His shirt was untucked which confirmed Alice’s worries about the location. She narrowed her eyes.
‘Miss Foley?’ he asked.
‘Yes, that’s me.’
‘Come right in,’ said the young man, waving Alice over the threshold and into a large, cavernous space divided by a curtain. Canvasses were propped around the edge of the room. They were all portraits, either unfinished or hardly started, depicting stiff-looking middle-aged men. ‘Do you want to go behind that curtain, Miss Foley? Leslie is ready. We have been looking forward to painting you.’
‘Have you? I can’t think why,’ said Alice, peeling off her gloves and marching across the room towards the curtain. Behind it was a blank space with only a wooden, hard-backed chair sitting in front of a white wall. A figure was crouched on the floor, wearing a flat cap and a loose periwinkle shirt, arranging an easel and paints. Alice cleared her throat. The figure turned and stood up.
‘Oh, it’s you,’ said Alice, her posture stiffening. She could feel her skin begin to tingle.
‘Miss Foley, long time no see. Did you find us alright?’
‘Laura. What a surprise. How long has it been? It must be forty years at least.’
‘It’s Leslie now, Alice.’
‘Leslie,’ said Alice, pausing now to appraise the person in front of her. She looked the same, but different. Laura was the girl from school who had picked and prodded at Alice’s darned clothes, her Irish Catholic father, and a smell she had been previously unaware of.
‘I hear you have done well for yourself, Alice? Secretary of the Weavers Association.’
‘Not anymore. I’m retired.’
‘Lucky you, some of us have to keep at it,’ said Leslie. There it was, that niggle, that judgement. Alice said nothing. ‘We have set up a chair for you here. I was thinking we would do a profile, with you side on. I like your jacket, by the way; that colour suits you.’ Alice felt suddenly off-kilter by the unexpected compliment.
Alice took a seat. It faced a brick wall with a small window up high, letting some light in from the street up above them. But the atmosphere was dark and dingy, nothing like the studio Alice had been expecting.
‘I’ll get started then if you are ready?’
‘Yes, I'm ready,’ said Alice, turning her head back to Leslie for a moment.
‘Don’t turn,’ Leslie said, firmly. ‘Please. I just need to get everything set for how you are now.’
Alice started to worry about the portrait. She had sat for one before, a good decade ago now, when she was at the height of her career. She had felt confident, in charge, much like she did at the office. This was altogether a different experience. It made her feel like she had come down in the world. At the end. Which she supposed she was. Her confidence was starting to deflate like an old football. Pull yourself together, Alice told herself, sitting up straight with her shoulders back but she still clutched her handbag in her lap with a tight fist.
There was a scratching sound coming from the canvas.
‘Can we talk while you work?’ Alice asked.
‘I prefer to concentrate on what I'm doing. Keep still please.’
Alice felt like she was at school again and Laura, no Leslie, was the teacher rather than a fellow student. Leslie’s long-standing hostility was going to be cut into the canvas. She began to tell herself it would be red; it would be black. She should have worn her funeral suit. Alice was beginning to feel hot.
‘Would you like me to open the window?’ asked Leslie.
‘If you wouldn’t mind,’ Alice wondered where this apologetic tone had come from, she never said things like that. She was always very sure of what she wanted and happy to vocalise it. That’s what she was known for. Perhaps she was getting soft in her old age.
‘John, get Miss Foley a glass of water,’ Leslie instructed her assistant, and one was soon brought. Alice took small careful sips before the glass was removed and the painting began again.
Alice thought about what she had done since she had last seen Leslie. She had achieved her original aim of leaving the mill and getting the big job at the union. Alice had wanted to get women’s voices heard and she knew she was now far from her humble beginnings. As a child, her family could barely afford coal, and now she had a house of her own and as much food as she liked. It had changed her; she knew it had. Alice had needed to be resilient, to equal those men pushing against her at every turn.
Night school had made her. She had gone every Tuesday evening after her factory shift. After the Great War, she had been sent to a summer school in Bangor which had not only given her the practical skills she needed but it was where she met Gwladys. She wanted to forget where she had come from, but in her retirement, she found herself giving back to the institutions that had helped her along the way. Now Alice gave lectures to local young women, telling them what she had learnt.
But as Alice sat there, she realised how much pride she took in being in charge. And how it could soon crumble. Once the work was taken away, what was she left with? Maybe it was the most important thing of all. Someone who had been there for her all this time, the woman who loved her. Alice knew she did not appreciate her home life as much as she should. She had taken Gwladys for granted. Her career, one promotion after another, had distracted her further from it. Gwladys deserved better.
The daubing, scuffing sounds continued. It was the most violent painting style Alice had ever seen. It sounded like Leslie was painting a wall, not a person. She started to worry about how she would look, and her knees began to tense from being in one position for so long. Alice wondered how Leslie seemed so sprightly, her slim joints bending here and there with apparent ease. She was the same age as Alice, in her seventies, and yet she bent over and crouched like a much younger person.
Alice wondered why Laura had changed her name. Alice wanted to ask her, but she felt she could not, she was unlikely to get a polite response. Perhaps people took her art more seriously, or were more likely to commission her if they thought she was a man. Like all those female writers Alice loved. Alice admired Leslie for that, she knew herself how women had to adapt to be successful in a man’s world. The world was not yet equal.
The light was beginning to fade. John lit the lamps in the room and checked his watch. Alice was starting to wonder whether she should ask to leave. Normally she would jump up and bolster about, but here it did not seem appropriate somehow. Minutes passed.
‘Right, I think that’s about it,’ said Leslie. ‘Would you like to look?’
Alice braced herself. She knew she would not be happy with it; she never was. And having Leslie paint it did not give her much confidence. She knew art could never be objective.
Alice got up from the chair and walked over to the canvas. And there she was, powder blue suit, a regal countenance, flattering colouring.
‘Well,’ said Alice, pausing. ‘That is not what I expected.’
‘Do you like it?’
‘Yes, very much so. You are talented.’
‘Thank you. I might just need you to come in one day for touch ups.’
‘That’s fine, just let me know when,’ said Alice, picking up her handbag and pulling her woollen coat around her, before leaving as if in a trance. She felt as if her life had swum around her mind all day, as if the experience of being watched had allowed her to re-assess what mattered.
‘How did it go?’ said Gwladys, taking Alice’s coat from her and kissing her on the lips.
‘You’ll never guess who the artist was. Shall we have a cup of tea and I'll tell you,’ said Alice, clasping Gwladys’s hand for a moment.
‘Of course, I can’t wait to hear it,’ said Gwladys, squeezing back. Alice bent down to pull a bunch of flowers out of a shopping bag and handed them to Gwladys.
‘I do love you, you know,’ said Alice, looking into her eyes.
‘I know you do, but it’s not like you to say so. Thank you for these, they are beautiful.’
‘I know I don’t tell you enough.’
‘You are not always the best at talking about your emotions. What happened today?’
‘It was a ghost, I suppose. The past coming back to remind me who I am, who I was. As I sat there, I realised the job, what the painting was for, was nothing without you. You are my greatest achievement.’
Gwladys held Alice’s hand to her.
Helen Mayall lives in Bolton, Lancashire and has been shortlisted for the Bolton Octagon Theatre, Earlyworks Press and Henshaw Press short story competitions. Helen is currently a student on the Creative Writing MA programme at the University of Manchester in the UK and is writing her first novel.