Authors: Janie Bolitho
For Teresa Chris, my agent and my friend
It might have been a Tuesday morning in mid-November but the traffic on the A30 heading up the county was slow-moving. No caravans and camper-vans now, the holiday season was over. But in the distance, seen easily on the long, straight stretch of road, was a tractor towing an empty, mud-splattered trailer. That, in conjunction with the incessant rain which was impairing visibility, was delaying the vehicles ahead. No dual carriageway here, no way of passing, a case of being patient until the farm vehicle turned off or found somewhere to pull in.
She wound the window down an inch or so. On either side of her the countryside was flat. Nothing but bracken, brown and rain-sodden, so very different from the picturesque coves and golden beaches of the coastline. Ahead lay Bodmin Moor, Rose Trevelyan’s destination. She had memorised the directions given to her over the telephone by Louisa Jordan. There were, she
had told Rose, no signposts, merely a track which led to the house.
The wipers swept sheets of water across the windscreen as the sky darkened and the rain fell more heavily. It was a dismal, foreboding sort of day but not to Rose who was looking forward to meeting the two sisters and discovering their exact requirements. ‘If you reach Jamaica Inn you’ve gone too far,’ Mrs Jordan had told her in a pleasant, well-modulated voice.
The tractor turned into a farm gateway depositing dollops of mud from the trailer wheels in its wake. The smell of manure hung in the air. In a nearby field sheep bleated plaintively. The cars in front speeded up, Rose followed suit. Bisland was signposted. ‘Go past that turn-off,’ she had been instructed. ‘About two miles on there’s another left turn, ignore that one also, then take the very next left.’ The track leading off the main road appeared as no more than a small gap in the straggling winter foliage. Rose indicated and swung on to it, the suspension protesting as the car lurched over the potholes. There was nothing to indicate a dwelling, no house name carved on a piece of wood at the entrance to the track, no clue at all that anyone lived there. Sisters, not
young by the sound of Louisa’s voice, but voices were deceptive over the telephone. Recluses, maybe? Soon she would know.
Very slowly she followed the track for a mile and a half. Ahead she saw a house, first its chimneys and roof, then the rest of it came into view. The landscape seemed flat but could not have been or the building would have been visible from the road. It was a typical Cornish farmhouse, built of granite, except there were no outbuildings. It was almost square, two-storeyed, with four windows set equidistant from the solid wooden door.
The track simply ended. There was no garden in front of the house, the moors closed in, surrounding it, claiming it for their own. Glad of her leather boots, Rose got out of the car and sloshed through the puddles. No lights shone behind those windows and the smoke which arose from the chimneys was obscured by the rain. But Rose could smell the pungency of wood-smoke. She wondered if she had made a mistake, had come on the wrong day, despite the Rover parked at the side of the house. But seconds after she had rapped the heavy iron knocker against the solid wooden door it was opened.
‘Mrs Trevelyan, how lovely to meet you. Do come in. I’m Louisa. We weren’t sure you’d make it on such an awful day.’
Rose stepped inside and wiped her feet on the rough doormat. The flagstoned passage ran the length of the building, straight to the back door, the top half of which was of dimpled glass surrounded by panels of stained glass. Doors opened off both sides of the passageway, a staircase ascended on the left-hand side. The banisters were substantial, ornately carved and probably original. Rose was shown into a room at the back on the right.
‘My sister, Wendy,’ Louisa Jordan said, nodding towards a smaller, older woman who sat by a fire which roared up the chimney. Its flames cast shadows over the maple furniture which glowed like the syrup from the sugar of the tree.
‘Hello, I’m Rose Trevelyan.’
Wendy stood up and shook her hand. Her skin was smooth but her grip was firm. She was not as old as her hunched pose had suggested and when she smiled it was easy to see she had been attractive in her youth. ‘We’ve laid a tray. I’ll fetch the coffee while you get yourself warm. Sit by the fire, my dear.’
Rose did so, sinking into the deep velvet cushion of the armchair. She had come a long way with no certainty of getting the commission. This visit was to discuss the possibility and arrange terms if anything came of it. These women, for whatever reasons, wanted a portrait painted, one of them both together. Two for the price of one? Rose wondered. Within those first few minutes she had been studying her possible clients and their surroundings, her artist’s eye taking everything in quickly, gaining impressions, feeling her way. Wendy was small-boned but sturdy, smartly dressed in a plain brown skirt with a split at the back. Her cream sweater was appliquéd and looked soft and expensive. She was sensibly shod and her greying hair was cut short. Yes, smart, but somehow ordinary now, the smile the only evidence of faded beauty. Her face would be easier to photograph than to paint.
Louisa was altogether different. She was still beautiful. A London cocktail bar would have been a more appropriate setting than a bleak house in the middle of Bodmin Moor. Her pale hair was completely straight, cut expertly from a side parting to fall in two points to just below her ears. Her lilac wool
dress and jacket might be simple but had been designed to show off her figure. Wendy was about sixty, Rose decided, Louisa almost certainly a decade younger, possibly even more. Not farmers, nor from farming families, hard work had not touched their lives, but Cornish even if the accent was imperceptible, the vowels only drawn out fractionally. So what were these elegant women doing in the middle of nowhere when they so obviously enjoyed the good things in life?
‘Let me take your coat if you’re warm enough,’ Louisa said, moving towards her on soft leather court shoes.
‘Thank you. That fire throws out a lot of heat.’ Rose handed her the three-quarter length tan wool jacket.
Louisa took it and draped it carefully over the back of a chair. ‘We’ve had to get used to making it do so. We have no gas or electricity here. Fortunately we do have running water. The electricity people are only prepared to link us up to the National Grid if we’re prepared to part with thirty-seven thousand pounds. Don’t look so surprised, Mrs Trevelyan,’ she said as she sank into the depths of the apricot-coloured settee which matched Rose’s chair. ‘We’re
by no means the only ones in deeply rural areas in the same position. However, we have open fires in all the rooms, plenty of hot water, and the most reliable Cornish range which provides not only the hot water but heat in the kitchen and our cooking facilities. And these.’ She waved an arm to indicate the pretty glass-shaded oil lamps scattered around the room. ‘It’s rather fun, actually, and it means our privacy is not invaded by the hideousness of television. However,’ she smiled at the astonishment on Rose’s face, ‘we’re not totally cut off from so-called civilisation, we have a battery-powered radio, and the telephone.
‘We’re a bit all or nothing these days. We had the option of our own generator but we decided that as five previous generations had managed without one, so would we.’
Not reclusive, Rose decided, because the clothes and haircuts said otherwise. There would be regular trips into Bodmin, or, more likely, Plymouth or Exeter for shopping. Not reclusive but quite possibly eccentric. Rose’s curiosity was aroused. And, as her friends told her often enough, she possessed more than a fair share of that.
And what a house. How different the inside from the dour impression of the
exterior, even allowing for the influence of the weather. Her feet had sunk into the thick carpet of a colour even Rose found hard to describe, except that it toned with the settee and armchairs. Not apricot, but the apricot side of brown. Tall glass doors with leaded panes stood at the back of the room leading out to an area of patchy grass, beyond which the moors stretched into the distance, the horizon invisible, merged with low cloud and blurred by the rain. The furniture was obviously cared for as much as the women cared for themselves. It was a room in which Rose felt comfortable, one which was bright and cheerful and managed to diminish the gloom outside. But it crossed her mind briefly that these women, as a matter of pride, may have dressed up for her benefit and that this might be the only inhabitable room in the place. She had been in similar situations before, where poverty was shamefully disguised. Could they really afford her services?
Wendy returned with the coffee. If this was a façade to impress, it was a good one. The tray was silver, the flowered cups and saucers were crafted from delicate bone china and the biscuits were thin, covered with rich dark chocolate, Belgian or Swiss,
not the sort that could be purchased in village stores. She could smell the bitterness of good strong ground coffee. Mercenary bitch, Rose thought as she calculated that if all their possessions were such, they could certainly afford to pay her travelling expenses and the fee she had decided upon. If they offered her the commission, of course.
It was time to get down to business. ‘What did you have in mind, Mrs Jordan?’ It was Louisa, the younger woman, to whom Rose addressed the question. In households comprising of more than one person there was often a demarcation of roles. Wendy had made the coffee and therefore might be the more subservient. But it was too soon to judge, and it was her sister who stood to pour the coffee.
‘Sugar? Cream?’ Louisa Jordan said as she gave the question some thought.
‘Neither, thank you. Just black.’ Rose picked up the cup by its intricate handle and took a sip. The coffee was excellent. She felt quite relaxed, warm and comfortable as she breathed in the scent of apple wood from the fire.
‘Head and shoulders,’ Louisa said once she had sat down, her own coffee in front of her. ‘It’s more striking than full-length don’t
‘Yes.’ But more difficult, too, Rose thought with momentary panic. Full-length portraits could convey the essence of a person without the total accuracy required of enlarged facial features. A way of standing, a certain way of holding the head or a familiar gesture captured by the artist were often more telling than the precise position of a mole. Louisa Jordan had a strong, handsome face. Whoever painted the sisters together, regardless of how they chose to pose them and no matter what their technique, Rose was certain that the younger one would still appear dominant. ‘May I ask why you want me to paint you?’
‘You in particular, or why we decided to have it done?’
‘Does it matter?’ Wendy, her cup half-way to her mouth, looked over it with an expression of surprise.
‘Yes, in a way. You see, if it’s just for yourselves, for fun, if you like, I would pose you differently from the way I would if the painting were to be hung alongside other family portraits. You see, even with a head and shoulders there are levels of formality and the question of whether you want full
face or profile.’
Louisa laughed. ‘I think we were right in our choice of artist, Wendy.’ She turned to Rose. ‘We very much admire your work, Mrs Trevelyan. We have one of your seascapes in the dining-room. When could you start?’
‘But we haven’t discussed the cost yet.’ Rose was shocked. She was new to this. Normally her paintings were hung in galleries or local shops with a price sticker already attached. They either sold or they didn’t but she rarely met the buyer. Her photography rates were fixed, a price list available to anyone who was interested. Negotiating payment was embarrassing.
‘Oh, we have a rough idea of the going rate. We’re prepared to add another one hundred pounds on top of it and, naturally, we’ll pay all your travelling expenses.’
Rose placed her empty cup on the table beside her. They were obviously expecting great things. Was she good enough? There’s only one way to find out, she decided as she looked up and smiled. ‘Thank you. I could start next week. Thursdays suit me best. I’ll need to make some preliminary sketches first, and possibly take some photographs. Not to work from, you understand, I never
do that, just to capture various expressions. I like to study my subjects before I begin.
‘You didn’t say, what made you decide to commission someone?’
Louisa glanced at Wendy, indicating she should reply. ‘It’s just for us, a whim if you like, a bit of fun, as you put it. There are no family portraits. I have never married, and Louisa’s husband left her. There’s no one who’ll be interested after we’re dead. More coffee, Mrs Trevelyan?’
Rose accepted. A few more minutes of her time wouldn’t hurt, especially now she saw she might have been wrong about the dynamics. It was essential to know something of the people she was to paint before she could capture them accurately in oils, but more interesting was the fact that there was something going on she did not understand, some undercurrent between the two women. Wendy had given her some basic information but the abrupt ending of her speech implied that that was all that she would be getting. Surely vanity was not the only reason they had engaged her?
When she left, Rose was in possession of a cheque for a hundred pounds as an advance towards petrol but with no idea why the portrait seemed important to her clients.
Driving back through the murky late morning she decided it didn’t matter; it was work, therefore it was money and, more importantly, it was recognition. And she was excited at this new opportunity. Only recently had she branched out into portraits, and with more success than she had anticipated. She couldn’t wait to tell Laura and Barry Rowe and, of course, her parents.
The journey was uneventful and she settled into it. Leaving the moors behind she wound through more lush countryside. There were trees and small rivers, full now, running beneath them. Then came the bleakness of tin-mining areas, disused engine houses and mine stacks crumbled in their surroundings of boulders and scrubland and gorse, the only testament to a once thriving industry. But she smiled as she always did, as everyone from West Cornwall did when the road began to dip towards the sea, or the train they were on emerged from Marazion marshes, and St Michael’s Mount could be seen rising out of the bay. She was home.