She sat on the sofa, knees drawn up to her chest and arms stretched out in front of them holding her masterpiece proudly. It looked so much like him. It wasn’t just the physical features, although her graphite lines perfectly moulded the contours of his stately nose, those deep, dancing eyes, the lips turned tantalisingly upwards at their ends in a constant almost-smile.
More than that, she’d captured something of his very essence. It would be easy to sympathise with those who were afraid that a photograph might steal something of their soul if you saw just how uncanny the resemblance of this drawing was to her love.
She sighed and placed it carefully down on the coffee table. He would be home soon, and she couldn’t wait to give him his present.
She padded through to the kitchen to pour herself a glass of wine, hearing the insistent buzz of her phone as she returned.
Birthday drinks with Rob. Back by eight I promise. Love you.
A cloud of irritation enveloped her, and she immediately chastised herself for being so unreasonable. It was his birthday, right? If he wanted to go for drinks she could hardly stop him. Besides, it would be eight in just over an hour.
She settled back down on the sofa and flicked on the TV.
An hour passed, and then another. The wine had definitely begun to go to her head, dulling her senses though it did nothing to dampen her annoyance. She’d texted him twice now, but of course she’d had no reply.
He stared up at her from the heavy sheet of cartridge paper that held his likeness. It had been the most expensive she could find, a dream to work with. As she stared back at him she realised that something was not quite right. It was hard to put her finger on exactly what: a shadow on his cheekbone, or maybe the angle of the underlying structure itself.
She stood and retrieved her tin of pencils from the bookcase by the window, pausing for a moment to check that he was not about to surprise her. The street below was busy as it always was on a Thursday night, but of him there was no sign.
Even as she made the very first line on the paper she knew it was a mistake. She was way too drunk for this. Yet once she’d started she had no choice but to continue.
She began gently, evening out the opposite side of his face to conceal her error, then adding weight to the lines around his mouth and eyes. Her anger seeped through her fingers, into the lead of the pencil and onto the page. She was angry with him, both the real him and this edifice that would not stop looking at her. But more than that she was angry at herself – for being an idiot once again, for having too much trust in him and none at all in her own judgement.
The solidity of the paper was satisfying as she scrawled deeper and deeper into it. He became monstrous, a parody of himself on his darkest days. His almost-smile became a leer, his nose a beak, the inviting pools of his eyes turning into terrifying caverns of infinite darkness.
She stopped before she had obliterated his features completely, investing the last of her rage into a tightly cross-hatched canvas to amplify the horror of what she had done.
The lead of her pencil snapped, finally giving in, and it brought her back to herself, to their flat and his imminent arrival home. Her hands were shaking as she stood, and as a final gesture she toppled her half-empty wine glass, spilling its blood-red contents across the remains of his gift.
It was then that she heard his key in the lock. He staggered slightly as he opened the door, taking three deliberate steps into the room before closing it behind him.
“Sorry I’m late.”
She didn’t know what she could possibly say, so instead she said nothing.
He didn’t seem to notice, pausing to kiss her clumsily as he stumbled to the sofa. He picked up the ruined drawing that lay in front of him, squinted at it slightly, and broke into a smile.
“This is really good!”
“Are you taking the piss?”
She couldn’t be doing with this now. A row she could handle, but she didn’t have the patience for his insidious sarcasm.
“Seriously, I mean it. Can I take it to the gallery tomorrow?”
Her mouth twisted in on itself, the only outward sign of the scream that was threatening to explode her chest.
“Goodnight. Oh, and happy birthday.”
He was gone by the time she woke up the next day. She figured he must’ve slept on the sofa. The portrait was gone too, and in its place was a note.
Really sorry about last night. I’ll make it up to you I promise. Love you.
She was too hungover to be angry, and just felt really stupid. All that hard work, those hours and hours of meticulous draughtmanship, and for what?
She fired up the computer before heading into the kitchen to make a coffee. There were too many deadlines to be met today for her to be able to afford another minute mired in regret.
It was just after three when the email came in.
It was from the gallery where he worked, but not from him. She recognised the email address as one which had borne news of many a rejection when she’d submitted her drawings in the past. This time though the mood was rather different.
Original, they said. So fresh and exciting. A total departure from her previous work. They were sorry not to have identified it before but she clearly had a real talent, a gift. They would be honoured if she would consider selling this piece for inclusion in their collection.
She had to read it four or five times before the words began to make sense.
Maybe she could forgive him after all.