By Toby Roebuck
I could capture a glance, freeze a smile, find emotion in the stoniest of faces, but I could never paint two people next to each other. Cheeks drooped. Eyes lost their lustre. Mouths looked like misshapen fruit. One person, fine. Two, and it all fell to pieces.
For years I thought I was doomed, worthy only to paint leaders of industry and family ensembles. Then I met Joe and Amanda Swallow. They showed me a different type of ‘togetherness’. It was a valuable lesson, delivered with subtlety and intelligence.
* * *
They arrived in Newhampton to little fanfare, taking up an average semi-detached next to the Post Office. As I took my morning coffee at the café over the road, I saw their belongings being unloaded: a piano, a pineapple lamp, a tiny leather rhinoceros that presumably functioned as a footrest. Eccentric possessions for Newhampton, somewhat bohemian, artistic even. They’d piqued my interest.
About a week later I overheard my neighbour Mary talking to the church-warden. Amongst the bulletins of local gossip was a reference to the ‘nice looking young couple’ that had moved into the thatched cottage on the high street.
‘Any children?’ asked the warden.
‘Not as far as I know.’
‘Well that house would be rather small for kids, I reckon.’
This kind of practical consideration usually comforted Mary. But her reply sounded regretful. ‘Shame,’ she said. ‘Not to have kids. Considering they’re such nice looking people.’ It was an odd thing to say, intimate yet judgemental. ‘But they are young,’ she qualified, as if generously accepting their challenging ways into Newhampton. I wondered how these people could bring out the aesthete in Mary, a woman of strict routines and overbearing pragmatism.
Every day for two weeks, through each morning coffee, I stared at their house without so much as a glimpse of them. I assumed they were afternoon people. Not up before ten, lounging luxuriously through the day, too young and bohemian to notice the morning slip into afternoon. I imagined them getting up late, pulling on Japanese kimonos, throwing their feet up on the rhinoceros and tapping open some quails eggs for brunch.
At the end of two weeks I relented to curiosity and put one of my business cards through their letterbox.
The next morning Joe called. It was about eight-fifteen. I assumed this was a rare early start.
He sounded understated, almost apologetic. I was expecting a bellowing Oliver Reed-style raconteur, or the sublime hushed tones of a fragile poet. But instead I heard a quiet croak inviting me for an ‘initial consultation’. I was disappointed, but still intrigued enough to sketch a quick prediction of them.
* * *
Two days later I was knocking on their front door. They greeted me, side-by-side, sharing equal space in the doorway. Mary was right – they were certainly nice looking. All cheek bones and slender wrists, arched eyebrows and lithe limbs. A slender, dark and elegant couple. To my mind, they evoked images of Middle Eastern vice: furtive meetings in the corners of souks; the flash of burnished skin beneath a niqab; Arabian nights and harems.
By Newhampton standards, their house had an air of the illicit. The rhinoceros was pride of place, commanding the room from a central position. Dark leather sofas lined the two long walls. A television hid inside an oak cabinet, as if embarrassed to reveal its true function.
Amanda invited me to sit on one sofa and they took their places on the other. They seemed to predict each other’s movements, as if their progression around the room was a choreographed performance.
‘We liked your business card,’ said Amanda, her voice thin and toneless.
‘Yes, we loved it,’ Joe added. ‘Beautiful little embroidered bits at the end of the letters.’ Although chirpier somehow, Joe spoke with the same dying whisper as Amanda. Their intonation was identical. Yet there was the tiniest difference in their style of expression, as if you were hearing the same tune, played on the same piano, but in different keys.
The conversation passed in an airy exchange of whispers and solicitous smiles. Their company was narcotic. Everything slowed down, clouded over, as if shrouded in incense. I found myself staring at them, taking in little of what they said, focusing on their faces and the smooth lilt of their voices. Their strange unity fascinated me. There was no boundary between them, no tangible divide, no place where one started and the other stopped. At one point I realized they were picking at each other, tugging at miniscule arm hairs and fiddling with the skin of hands, unselfconsciously grooming like baboons.
I left mesmerized and a little confused. I’d been in their house for twenty minutes yet knew nothing meaningful about them.
But without remembering how, I had committed to draw their portrait. Business had been agreed. I was due to return in a week’s time for preliminary sketches and photos.
* * *
I felt it was a positive move, a good deed, a sign of Newhampton’s inclusivity and openness. But when I mentioned my new commission around town, I was greeted with a mixture of suspicion, concern and contempt. Sheila Jones, who ran the florist, said the Swallows were snobs and had no place here. David Jones, my erstwhile drinking partner and Sheila’s husband, said they had twice ignored invites to tennis club social events. David, ever the faithful husband, concurred with Sheila that there was ‘something spooky about them’.
Jeff from the grocery shop was horrified when they inquired about home deliveries. Once he had recovered from the shock, he told them he was nobody’s delivery boy and they should come into his shop like every other decent member of the community. To his mind, the Swallows were ‘work shy poshos’.
But the worst report came from Suzanne Cleary, the wife of a local entrepreneur. She had seen them walking around like they ‘had just bought Newhampton in a game of monopoly’. She said they were ‘snooty weirdos’. Upon closer analysis, I discovered that her view was based on their tendency to walk along pavements one behind the other and not smile when someone passed them.
* * *
‘So how did you meet?’
They grinned at each other. ‘In Brighton. We were eighteen,’ said Joe.
‘Well that’s pretty young,’ I remarked. ‘By modern standards.’
They laughed. ‘Perhaps we’re old fashioned,’ chuckled Amanda.
Their laughter was restrained, as if the joke might offend me. I felt excluded. ‘Childhood sweethearts then?’ I asked uneasily.
There was no reply, just muffled giggles. I re-positioned my camera and asked them to sit a little apart, as much to break up the jollity as to get another shot. I’d been making simple sketches and taking photos for about half an hour. It was a useful way of gathering compositional ideas for the final piece. They were willing subjects, happy to re-locate to different rooms, bring in a lamp, sit at new angles, anything I wanted. But there was a sense they did it in body not in mind, to keep me happy while they got on with the more important work of melting into each other’s company. Their world seemed impenetrable.
I studied them through the viewfinder. ‘So you basically grew up together?’
It was intended as harmless small talk. But they stiffened at the question, bodies tensing. Through the magnification of the camera lens, I saw Amanda twist minutely and recoil from me. ‘No,’ she answered, staccato quick.
‘No, that’s not how it was at all,’ Joe said, bristling. ‘I grew up in Canada, just outside Vancouver, middle of nowhere. I was a teenage exile, you know. Came over here when I was eighteen and met Amanda pretty much immediately and that was pretty much that.’ Once Joe had accepted me, he proved to be an expansive talker. He still spoke in hushed tones, but would unfurl soft meandering anecdotes, seemingly for his own purpose as much as mine.
I stood up and looked at them. Without the framing of the camera shot, I was aware of how small they were. Even though both very tall, they were slight and without much physical presence. They looked lost in the room.
‘So we didn’t grow up together, you see,’ Amanda clarified. ‘Continents apart, in fact.’ She had the same ethereal delivery as Joe, but without his tendency to elaborate. Her speech was pithy and quotable.
I sensed their unease, reproached myself then wondered why. As the only other person in the room, it was reasonable to think I was the cause of their discomfort. But I knew I had stayed within the realms of acceptable conversation. Surely any awkwardness emanated from them, not me. ‘That’s not what I meant,’ I explained. ‘I consider myself to have grown up with plenty of friends from my late teens and twenties. There’s still a lot of growing to be done, so in a sense you’re growing up together. That’s all I meant.’
This soothed them. They edged apart. ‘Well I guess we did then,’ agreed Amanda.
After this faltering start things got warmer. The gap between us closed and I stayed for another hour. They even confided in me and shared private jokes. When I had arrived, the door to their world had been locked and guarded, but over the course of that hour, even if only by the tiniest of cracks, I edged it open.
As we moved from room to room, trying out new compositions and arrangements, I saw photos of them dotted around the house: beaming into the camera after a beachfront dinner; arm-in-arm on a ferry with Manhattan looming in the far distance; outside a house in a nondescript suburban street. Each photo became an excuse to glean information. I learnt that they’d moved around the world, never living anywhere for more than a couple of years, mainly because Amanda’s job required them to, but partly because they felt the constant draw of the new. I didn’t pick up on Amanda’s job, but realised she didn’t work now. And Joe was self-employed, yet once again, his exact work eluded me. After a life of roaming, they saw Newhampton as the perfect place to settle.
I could see they had lived separate from the world, moving through it yet apart from it. They made no comment about the places they had lived, only how the two of them felt there. Madrid brought out the chef in each of them. Johannesburg made a nature-lover of Joe, but a shopaholic of Amanda. Tokyo, alas, nearly made alcoholics of them both.
The afternoon was a success. I came away with several ideas for the portrait and promised to produce a shortlist from which they could choose just one. But more importantly, I had won their trust. It was only when I referred to them as a ‘husband and wife team’ that the palpable unease returned.
‘Oh, we’re not married,’ chimed Amanda. It was an unremarkable comment, yet she cowered when it left her lips.
Joe jolted forward, almost blocking Amanda from my vision, as if he wanted to obliterate her from this exchange. His eyes brightened and his jaw flexed. ‘Darling, don’t be ridiculous,’ he said cagily. ‘How can you say we’re not married?’
‘Oh I didn’t…’
‘We’re not technically married. But, you know, de facto married.’ Joe’s gaze bore into me as though fixing the truth of this statement in my brain.
‘Like common law husband and wife,’ I said.
Joe leaned back, putting Amanda back in my vision. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Like that. You got it in one.’
‘We’re married,’ confirmed Amanda, finality in her voice.
Their coolness returned. I’d edged open the door to their world just an inch too far and they had kicked me back over the threshold.
I photographed them for another five minutes, just to finish in a civilized manner. They didn’t utter a word and stared vacantly over my head.
Thankfully, the spiky atmosphere dissipated before I left. As I stood in the hallway gathering my coat they imparted personal details without reservation. With no prompting, and barely in context, Joe told me about his teenage rock band. As I kissed Amanda goodbye, she said she loved my accent because it sounded like her first boyfriend.
* * *
My problem painting couples was long-standing. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, I had never been able to do it.
It started with the positioning. I could never place them at a realistic distance from each other. It sounds easy. But the smallest error creates a stiffness that infects the entire picture. A beaming subject becomes a creep when the person next to them is sitting too far away, or too close, or in a position that defies the laws of perspective. And once you know the positioning is wrong, your hand turns to lead, the lines lose their fluency, and every feature, every scratch and shade, is a crime against the unsung art of two-person portraiture. Singles are easy. Ensembles too – people merge, shoulders overlap, and in many ways the group becomes one entity. But with two, they need to be distinct, yet together.
* * *
I soon realised that Joe and Amanda had taken up permanent residence in my head. They didn’t occupy my entire mind, but at any one time, to differing degrees, they were present in my thoughts. At more idle moments I would fall into self-absorbed ruminations on them. Even at my busiest moments – mixing paints, filing tax returns, sweet-talking clients – Amanda and Joe never left my mental landscape. They crept back into the peripheries, found a foothold, took up position and made sure I could never ignore them.
* * *
After a few days, still with no answers, I found myself having dinner with them. They wanted to see the shortlist of compositions I had selected for the portrait. As they said in their hand-written invitation, ‘it would be more convivial to make the choice over dinner’.
It was a delightful affair. I sat in the kitchen on a high stool while they cooked and chatted to me over their shoulders. They seemed to divide their time perfectly between the food and me. Perhaps I was a little drunk, but I thought they were trying to communicate a deep self-truth through the Van Morrison album playing in another room.
Over dinner we talked of travels, picking up the trail of each other’s stories, embellishing them with our own experiences. When I spoke of my trip to Kyoto, Amanda remembered the winter weekend she spent there searching for cherry blossom that didn’t exist. Joe talked of his childhood in Vancouver, which reminded me of a skiing injury picked up there five years ago. We all shared the pain of using the train network in America, a country that despises anyone without a car. I was struck, once again, by how little fondness they had for the places they had lived. They spoke as if every city had oppressed them.
In the smooth flow of the evening I was free of the previous days’ anxieties. By the end of the main course, as Amanda took away our plates, we were held in a state of calm.
Excusing myself for a toilet break, I took a wrong turn and found myself in their bedroom. It couldn’t have been more ordinary: heavily pillowed king-size bed; mirrored dressing table; clothes loosely tossed over a chair. The room was full of framed photos, standard statements of happy coupledom. But one stood out. It hung alone in a corner. It showed a boy of about six standing arm-in-arm with a girl of roughly the same age. They were in a garden, toys strewn behind them, late summer sun casting long shadows. Their postures were immediately familiar – bodies straight and leaning inwards, a barely perceptible space between the hips, tops of heads almost touching, faces held in identical grins, serene in each other’s company. Even through the puppy fat I could see the dark luminous skin and angular features of Joe and Amanda. I briefly thought it could be their children. But genetics is not that simple – parents don’t just replicate themselves. I was looking at my hosts together as children. So why did they tell me they met aged eighteen?
I returned to the dining table resolved to never talk about the history of their relationship. There was too much dissonance, too many conflicts and clashes. Every time I inquired, they either lied to me or made me feel guilty for asking. I was happy to respect their privacy and ignore what I’d seen.
But as I took my seat, I had the overwhelming sensation that I was being patronised. I looked from Amanda to Joe, then back again, and saw nothing but mockery. They greeted me with such glassy-eyed grins, such condescending geniality, that I declared to get to the bottom of it once and for all. It may have been their life, and they had every right to exclude me, but I wouldn’t be lied to.
I settled in my seat, dessert spoon clenched like a relay baton. ‘So you met when you were eighteen?’
‘Sure did,’ confirmed Joe, leaning over his lemon tart.
‘Interesting.’ I paused. ‘I saw the picture of you as children in the bedroom.’
Their faces sank and the air went cold. They flashed glances at each other, but said nothing. I assumed there would be a normal explanation and had expected them to casually justify the lie. But their stiffness, and their scared gazes, told me otherwise.
In a flash their furtiveness disappeared and their faces froze in defiance. I knew why. Having trespassed into their room, this was morally ambiguous territory. ‘It was a mistake, I got lost,’ I clarified, determined not to be knocked off path. ‘Don’t look at me like that. I was looking for the toilet.’
No response, just fierce glares.
Joe finally broke the impasse. ‘Yes, that’s right.’ His voice returned to the tentative murmur I heard when he first phoned me.
‘We knew each other as children.’ It was incongruous, this fragile croak coming from an aggressive face.
‘So why tell me you met later?’ I heard a quivering belligerence in my voice. ‘Not that it’s any of my business. I’m just curious,’ I said, attempting to soften the tone. ‘But why did you lie to me?’
‘We didn’t lie.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘We did meet when we were eighteen.’
‘Right. But you also knew each other as children?’
Joe put his hand on Amanda’s arm. She looked at him, sunken-eyed, tired and resigned. Her lips mouthed something, but I couldn’t make out the exact words. Having gone over it many times since, it was either ‘I love you,’ ‘Go on’, or ‘Not now’.
‘Exactly. We grew up together.’ Joe squeezed Amanda’s arm and pulled her towards him, drawing her head into his chest. ‘And we met when we were eighteen.’
In that moment I saw the contradictory truth of their lives and knew, for them, nothing could be more normal. It was as if a dirty light had been cast on everything. As Amanda sank into Joe’s chest, and their breathing synchronized, I remembered the way they picked at each other’s arms, the eerie mirroring of each other’s movements, the points of facial commonality, the merging of two physical presences in the camera lens.
I gathered myself. ‘And what about Canada? I suppose you were never there.’
Joe released snorts of laughter. ‘That’s actually true. I moved there when I was five.’
‘He went there with dad,’ said Amanda, head still lodged in Joe’s body.
‘And she stayed with mum in Brighton.’
* * *
Two people can be hewn from the same rock, divided and split apart, yet materially the same. And once you know that, once you see a couple as just two identical people, it’s easy to draw them together. These days, as I look at two potential subjects, I just think of them as the same person, whole and yet distinct, seeking to converge. And the rest flows from there.
I thank the Swallows for that lesson every day of my working life.
* * *
I waited ten days before painting their portrait. It wasn’t that I needed time to accept. I just needed space to grow. My method of perceiving had been challenged and I needed to recalibrate my sight.
The sessions themselves were calm and purposeful. It took two days, which is quick by any standards. It was one of my best, and certainly my first successful couples portrait. The Swallows thought I had ‘captured something indescribable’. I knew what they meant, but they were wrong. It’s perfectly describable. It’s called ‘union’.
They were very physical during the sessions, frequently caressing and hugging. But it was neither a challenge nor a careless slip. It barely registered with me. In fact, if anything, I felt pride in being privy to a secret.
My relationship with them settled into one of quiet understanding. I was not at all shocked or repulsed. I was drawn to their outsider status, impressed by their isolated happiness. We never became close but regularly enjoyed each other’s company, discovering a shared love of food, walks and, of course, art. In their tastes – Miro, Goya, Valazquez – I sensed a tendency for the macabre, not to mention an obsession with all things Spanish, no doubt picked up in their brief stint in Madrid.
Their relationship was only discussed on one other occasion. It was towards the end of a drunken dinner and the conversation had turned to the joys of solitude. I was extolling the virtues of living alone when Joe, with no preamble, said, ‘That’s why we told you.’
Puzzled, I asked him what he meant.
‘That’s why we let you in, back when you painted us. We discussed it, you know, before you forced it out of us. Well, once Amanda had let the cat out of the bag we could see how freaked out you were and we thought about how best to – ’
‘So why me?’ I interrupted, desperate to see myself through another’s eyes.
‘You’re a loner. You don’t quite fit in here.’ Joe smirked, relishing the shock of this statement.
Amanda smiled indulgently. ‘Yes,’ she added. ‘You reminded us of ourselves when we were kids living apart.’ She thought about this. ‘Apart from everything.’
Joe looked amused. ‘But of course we had no idea if you’d be okay with it. You could have been a raging fascist for all we knew.’ He rolled his eyes mockingly at the prospect. ‘But there was something….’ He trailed off, not needing to say the rest.
They left after two years. It had been low-key. I was their only friend and beyond me they had few acquaintances. They wouldn’t tell me where they were going next. They never stayed anywhere too long and never maintained old contacts, they said, to keep their world fresh from the past.
They promised to write, but only did once. It was the first Christmas after they had gone. I received a simple card, a watercolour robin on a tree. Inside, the generic greeting read: ‘Thinking of you at this time of togetherness.’
* * *
Toby Roebuck is a documentary-maker from London who writes short stories in his ever decreasing spare time. He’s had stories shortlisted and longlisted for the Fish International Short Story Prize. This is the first he’s had published in an online magazine. He tweets at @TobyRoebuck1