Abby Benton dipped her brush into the oils on the palette. Colours swirled onto the bristles, the ochres and flesh tints ready to be added to the portrait. As she layered the paint on the tightly stretched canvas, she struggled with the need to hurry. The whole business had turned into the worst nightmare—time wasn’t just running out; it was bolting away.
“Do you mind moving to the left slightly, Ms Myers?”
“How many times do I have to tell you to call me Victoria?” Victoria Myers set her shoulders in a stiff line and shuffled a little. “Is this the right pose?”
“I’m painting your lips so I would appreciate if you closed them,” ordered Abby with more authority. Teeth always ruined a portrait—they invariably looked like tombstones.
When the mouth jammed shut, Victoria looked like she’d sucked a lemon. “Relax. Just be natural,” Abby called soothingly.
When she’d first met the businesswoman, Abby had been intrigued. Photographs hadn’t done her justice; Victoria was much more vibrant in the flesh—an artist’s dream. Her skin was smooth and flawless; the contours of her cheekbones delicately enhanced the dark eyes which simmered under arched brows and long lashes; her black glossy hair cascaded to her shoulders, and her body was tall and slender. To Abby she was the epitome of elegance, and it was no wonder she’d hit the tabloid pages as one of Australia’s most eligible women. Not only was Victoria a natural beauty, she was also extremely wealthy, one of the major shareholders of the giant coal and iron ore company, Orianis Minerals. Abby hadn’t felt a hint of envy. To be allowed to paint her was a reward in itself.
But after three weeks, Abby’s esteem—or rather hero worship if she was honest with herself—had deteriorated into frustration. Victoria had proven an exasperating subject, constantly on her iPhone. Although Abby was prepared to make some concessions, it seemed hardly fair for Victoria not to give the full posing time. Why she had consented to be the subject of her Archibald entry was beyond Abby’s comprehension.
The guidelines of the Archibald, the most prestigious portraiture competition in Australia, stipulated that the subject had to be someone in the public eye. Three months earlier, Abby had written a letter to the mining magnate to ask if she would sit for a portrait, though she hadn’t really expected a reply. When Victoria agreed, Abby thought she’d won gold lotto. Now she wholeheartedly regretted asking. She’d be lucky to get the damn thing finished.
She glanced at her watch—five minutes before the session was over. Out the window, the light was declining as fast as her mood. She took out her camera and adjusted the settings. “I’ll take some photos, Ms…um…Victoria, so I can continue until the next session.”
Another ring from Victoria’s phone stabbed the air. Abby felt like screaming as the pose again disintegrated. Crap! It’ll take me ages to get it right again.
She tapped her foot on the old sheet protecting the floor; the cover was so stained it could almost be mistaken for an extension of the work. She looked round the room, trying to ignore the phone conversation. The studio was el cheapo, but the dearest rent she could afford. Not an inspiring room for creativity; it was pokey, there was no air-con and the dull green wallpaper had a shitty, tight, geometrical pattern. With a shake of her head, she turned her attention back to the painting. Six sittings and it’s only half finished. Panic stations, girl! At the rate Victoria’s calls appeared, she had been lucky to get ten minutes out of the two-hour sessions, not nearly enough for a canvas so big. And with her new style, she needed all the time she could get. But as much as she preferred to paint from life, it had become abundantly clear she would have to complete the work from photos.
While she waited for Victoria to finish, Abby cleaned the brushes, her temper fraying as the seconds frittered by. “Please, can you ring back later? I have to be somewhere in an hour.” To enforce the words she waved her hands. Oil-tinged turps flicked off the bristles like shrapnel and peppered the Armani dress with coloured blobs.
Victoria said a hurried goodbye into the phone as she lurched backwards. “What the hell!” She quickly surveyed the damage and glared back at Abby. “Have you any idea what this dress cost?” Then with deliberation, she eyed her up and down. “No, I guess you don’t.”
Those words were the last straw. “Excuse me? That remark was insulting.”
Victoria flushed. “Sorry. I’m a bit frazzled. Work has been extra busy lately.”
“Sorry doesn’t cut it, Victoria. You’re not the only one under a great deal of pressure.”
“I said I was out of line. Let it go. Please.”
Abby ignored the begrudging apology—it didn’t salve any of her hurt. The woman obviously looked upon her as a poor relation. She didn’t know why Victoria’s judgmental opinion upset her so much, but it did. “You should think before you speak,” she snapped testily.
“I beg your pardon. Who do you think you’re talking to?” said Victoria, her voice equally as forceful as Abby’s.
Abby swatted irritably at a fly hovering close to the wet paint. The insect deftly avoided the swipe and landed with a splat into the oil. “You’re someone who doesn’t give a damn about other people’s feelings.”
“For heaven’s sake, I apologised, didn’t I? What bee’s in your bonnet? Or maybe I should say fly…” Victoria made a tiny sound through her teeth which Abby took to be a snicker.
She untied the strings of her apron and jerked it off. “It’s no joke. I would have ignored the remark if that was the only thing you’ve done. I’ve had to put up with you denying me my allotted time ever since we started. You’re obviously not prepared to set aside your work for the portrait. You’ve been the most difficult subject I’ve ever had.”
Victoria folded her hands in her lap and her eyes narrowed. “Oh, am I indeed? Well, I’ve got responsibilities which I can’t ignore. You must have known that when you asked me to pose.”
“Then why the heck did you agree? I could have invited someone else who would have been more accommodating,” retorted Abby.
“What a pity you didn’t. We would have both been far less stressed. You make pissing people off an art form.”
“And you don’t? Pleaseeee!”
“Maybe we should quit this before we go too far,” said Victoria, turning her head to look out the window. “How many more sittings will you be requiring?”
“You’ll be happy to know I’ll make this the last one,” said Abby as she attached her camera and pushed the tripod in front of Victoria. “I’ll take some shots to finish the painting and you can get back to your precious office. If you’re prepared to keep still, I won’t keep you any longer than necessary.”
“Good,” said Victoria, freezing in her pose.
Abby manipulated the camera quickly, zeroing in on Victoria’s face, neck, shoulders. Victoria might be a bitch, but she has flawless skin.
“We’re done here,” Abby muttered.
Victoria abruptly rose, imparted a perfunctory word of thanks and hurried to the door.
As she watched her walk off, Abby uttered a parting shot: “If you’re so worried about your damn dress, send me the bill for the dry cleaning.”
Victoria didn’t bother to turn around as she replied, “If you insist.”
As the door slammed behind her difficult subject, Abby was already planning what the finished portrait would look like. She quickly tidied up. In ten minutes she was expected at the Legal Aid building for her evening shift in their translating and interpreting department.
A struggling artist had to eat.
* * *
The next day in her office, Victoria was unsettled as she mulled over the tiff. She knew she should never have personally attacked the artist, but Abby Benton had a knack of annoying her. Victoria’s agreement to pose for the portrait would have to go down as one of the worst decisions of her life. She was aware the tension between the two of them was mostly her fault with her work calls, but Abby had to take some responsibility. Her reaction had been over the top, as far as Victoria was concerned.
When Abby’s letter of invitation to pose arrived, she had been flattered, so she immediately Googled the artist’s profile. Abby’s gallery, though not large, was impressive—the kind of paintings Victoria admired: contemporary with vivid colours. Although the thought of having her own portrait painted was tempting, she had to decline, not having time in her schedule.
However, Victoria unwisely produced the letter as a talking point at a party late one night. “Have a look at this. This woman wants to paint me,” she announced. Her mother’s words of wisdom, ‘when the wine is in, the wit is out’ were the last things on her mind.
“You’re kidding me,” said her friend Annabelle. “Are you going to let her?”
“No way. I’m far too busy.”
“Come on, Vic, it’ll be a blast,” said Annabelle. Her entreaty was enthusiastically applauded amid raucous laughter.
Victoria brushed at a trickle of chardonnay that had escaped the corner of her mouth. “What the hell. Why not?”
“I’ll send her an email now.” Annabelle disappeared in a flash to the study.
In the days that followed, Victoria hadn’t given Annabelle’s enthusiasm another thought; the last couple of hours at the party had been quite hazy. A week later, Abby’s reply turned up.
Victoria went into a cold sweat. The company was extra busy with the downturn in exports, which made her time too valuable to squander. On the horizon loomed an overseas trip to personally negotiate new sales. Before she went, she had so much to organize, but she was committed to the painting.
The whole business had ended up a disaster. Not only had it taken up too much of her time, but the offhanded way Abby ordered her about like a piece of meat to be eaten by the canvas had been demoralizing.
* * *
Abby, completely focused in the artistic zone, painted day and night when she wasn’t at Legal Aid. Her determination to exhibit the real Victoria was reinforced by the bill she received from the dry-cleaning service: the total cost of damage and repair was more than she normally paid for a new dress.
Layer upon layer of oils brought the huge portrait to life, surpassing anything she had ever produced. The portrait was more adventurous than her previous works, with its impressionistic, slightly abstract style, the colours reminiscent of Fauvian art with its bold undisguised brush strokes in high-keyed, vibrant hues. She used the palette knife as well to emphasis the structure and form, and elongated the face and upper torso to a small degree. And without a qualm, for once in her life Abby let her emotions rule her talent. Victoria’s confrontational words echoed in her head as she worked. Ever so subtly, she incorporated all the undesirable traits she imagined the businesswoman possessed, not really aware she was doing so.
Finally, she stood back to study the finished canvas. The colour and composition were exactly the effect she had striven for. But as she assessed her work, Abby’s mind moved from critiquing its artistic merit, to the overall likeness. Even though it was more an intricate coalescence of colour rather than a distinct form, Victoria was still instantly recognizable. Abby swallowed as she stared at the canvas, and comprehension of what she had produced sank in. And the entry was due—she couldn’t change anything, the oil would never dry. In the painting Victoria was no longer a child of Aphrodite. Encapsulated in a background of fiery reds and oranges, she looked rather like the devil…
In early July, Abby received the news that her portrait of Victoria had been chosen as a finalist. She gulped, proud of her achievement though worried. Her anger gone, she realized the enormity of what she had done. Victoria Myers was going to murder her, or worst-case scenario, sue the pants off her.
Not that she could blame her. Abby should have been more understanding about Victoria’s work. She was, after all, the CEO of a very large organization, one that required her full attention. After she bundled the canvas off for the Archibald judging, Abby had gone about her daily life in trepidation. Whether she won the competition or not, the painting would be viewed in the Art Gallery of New South Wales for a lengthy period, as well as being posted on the Internet to flit merrily around the world in cyberspace.
After a phone call informed her that she had won the coveted Packing Room Prize, she seesawed between exhilaration and apprehension. Congratulations poured in all day, reporters wanted interviews, and her portrait of the mining magnate flashed on the screens in nearly every home over the vast country. Reduced to television-size, the painting made Victoria look even more stark and forbidding.
As much as she was proud of her work, Abby was besieged by guilt. She had admired Victoria for years for having reached a top executive position in a male-dominated profession, and now she had set her up for public ridicule. Why had she let the woman get to her like that? Abby fervently prayed Victoria wouldn’t come to the awards ceremony.
* * *
Just as Victoria strolled out the boardroom, her phone rang. She checked the ID: Annabelle. With some relief, Victoria reminded herself she’d had enough business for one day. The shareholders’ meeting had been particularly gruelling; everyone wanted huge dividends which were not possible in the current fiscal climate. The shareholders should have been darn grateful the company’s share price was holding its own.
“Hi Annabelle. What’s up, chick?”
“Did you watch the news tonight?”
Victoria frowned as she caught the quaver in Annabelle’s voice. “I’ve been in a meeting all day. You sound strange. What’s happened?”
“You better get on the Internet and look at the headlines.”
“What am I supposed to be looking for?”
“The Archibald Packing Room Prize.”
Victoria felt a flush of pride for Abby. Though they had parted so acrimoniously, Victoria hadn’t been able to fully discard the image of the artist from her mind. There had been something about her…“Did she win?”
“Yes, but…just ring me when you’ve seen it.”
“Okay. I’m about ready to go home so I’ll look when I get there.”
“Do it now, Vic.” The words came out as a loud screech.
Victoria stared hard at her phone and hurried to her office. Her fingers drummed impatiently on the polished desk as she waited for the site to pop up. The photo of the portrait morphed onto the screen; all she could do was stare. The painting was brilliant; there was no question of that. The style was arresting, the colours superb as they melted together in harmony. But as the full extent of how she had been depicted sank in, hurt and betrayal rushed through her.
She hit the Print Screen button on her keyboard, and settled in her sturdy leather chair to study the image. A mass of vibrant colours was her first impression. Abby had incorporated in her usual impressionistic style a slightly abstract variation. She’d captured Victoria’s likeness to a T (her imperious cheekbones were hard not to recognize), but her elongated form, in a stern, unsmiling mien did not make Victoria attractive. Far from it. She looked rigid and unforgiving. And added to that, the fiery background smacked of an apocalyptic battlefield.
Was that how Abby saw her? Hell!
Victoria heaped a double shot of coffee into a cup to boost her flagging spirits. She swallowed a mouthful—its bitterness matched her mood.
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