James Harman had every appearance of being a happy and successful man; he was clever, handsome, rich and had a wife who did him credit in every possible way. If anybody who knew him had been asked to give a reason for James to be unhappy, the last thing they would have chosen was his marriage to Catherine. Indeed, she seemed to be his greatest source of joy; beautiful, loving, supportive; perfect mother to their two children, charming hostess to his business associates and sympathetic friend to their wide circle of acquaintances.
It was this lavishly bestowed charm and sympathy which caused James' disquiet. How could she get on so well with his partner and clients without feeling something deeper than mere friendliness? So blind was James' jealousy that he chose to overlook Catherine's equal generosity of spirit towards their female friends.
For James had been brought up in a household where love was rationed and dished out only in exchange for displays of filial and domestic duty. It prepared him admirably for the world of high finance, where everything has its price, but not for life with generous, outgoing Catherine. But he concealed his jealousy from her as well as he was able and, if it did occasionally show, guilt would move him to make amends by being extra loving or by buying her a gift, because deep down he knew that his jealousy was unfounded. And if Catherine ever felt stifled by his possessiveness, she concealed it well, for she was a loving and dutiful wife.
In James' fortieth year - the tenth of his marriage - his business had become so successful that he decided to open an office in Sydney. This would necessitate his absence from home until he was able to leave the new venture safely in other hands, and he experienced much disquiet at the prospect. In his absence Catherine would continue to socialise and lavish smiles on their friends, and imagining her doing so would be even worse than actually watching.
"I wish you would come with me," he fretted, even though the trip was two months away.
"Darling, so do I but I can't leave the children and their education would suffer if we took them out of school for several months. You are an old silly. I won't forget you, if that's what you're worried about. We'll speak together every day and I'll keep your photo under my pillow and kiss it every night before I go to sleep."
But he refused to be teased out of his gloom, so Catherine sought other ways to reassure him. When, in a fit of contrition over his bad moods, he bought her yet another expensive gift, she thanked him sincerely and then said, "Do you know what I'd really like, James? I'd like a portrait of you - a life-size reminder that I can hang in the drawing room and speak to when I'm phoning you on the other side of the world."
Catherine was perfectly sincere in her wish. She loved and admired her husband and thought that a portrait of him would be a splendid thing to have. And she hoped that her wish to possess it would sooth his agitation at leaving her behind, and convince him of her desire always to have him in her thoughts.
James, secretly delighted by this expression of her devotion, agreed to give up a few hours of his precious time to sit for an artist. Catherine's first choice was the distinguished academician who had painted the picture of herself which hung in James' office but the old gentleman no longer took commissions. Enquiries provided her with the name of a young portrait painter, as yet unknown but, she was assured, with a brilliant future.
"So the picture will be an investment, as well," she told James, knowing that this would appeal to his business instincts.
"I'm going to feel very silly," he pretended to grumble, "sitting there trying to keep still. And what do I talk to him about? I know nothing about art. You must come along and give me moral support."
So they both went to the studio of Michael Westerham. Catherine's services as a conversational go-between were not necessary. He preferred to work in silence. At first she thought him tongue-tied and gauche but came to realise that he simply liked to be quiet.
She grew to look forward to Tuesday afternoon. She would settle down on the shabby old sofa, with its faded gold velvet covering, sitting sideways so that she could look out of the window with one lazy movement of her head. Below the floor-length, first-story window lay a main road, a river of traffic, one half of the tide going into the city, the other rushing out to the suburbs and the airport. It was so alive and different from the discreet calm of the street where she lived. And when she tired of watching the outside world she would turn her attention inside, to the enormous echoing room, with its strange clutter, and to her two silent companions.
How distinguished James looked in his dark suit and white silk shirt, the warm light burnishing his thick, fair hair. He was so calm and still compared to the dark young man on the other side of the easel. Not that Michael Westerham was given to extravagant movement but there was an intensity about him which gave an impression of restlessness, of unfettered energy, even when he was concentrating on a minute detail of the portrait.
Every Tuesday during August and the beginning of September, between two and three in the afternoon, Catherine would relax on the sofa, her mind temporarily free of commonplace thought. The studio seemed to her to be like a cathedral, high and hollow, with dust-moted shafts of light streaming in through the high, arched windows. She felt as though the three of them were acolytes performing some mysterious weekly ritual, with the smell of turpentine and varnish replacing that of incense.
The slight air of squalor in the studio filled her with a mixture of distaste and delight, so different was it from her own ordered existence. Michael Westerham himself was clean and tidy in a fashionably shabby sort of way. She noticed that he managed to transfer the slippery oil paint from palette to canvas without getting any of it on himself, apart from the thumb he used to smudge in the shadows and highlights.
He was friendly but impersonal, speaking to James when he wanted him to hold or shift his pose, and to Catherine not at all apart from polite words on their arrival and departure. Perhaps his dark eyes occasionally spoke to her but Catherine ignored their dangerous message like the good and virtuous wife she was.
When the portrait was finished and had been sent away to be framed, Catherine felt quite bereft of her weekly visits to the studio, with its airy windows leading out to another world, the ornate chairs and the broken rocking horse standing in one shadowy corner. Then the trip to Sydney was imminent and the whole episode forgotten in the bustle of preparation.
"You're the only thing I want to take with me," James said moodily as they packed his cases. "Are you sure you can't come?"
"Oh, don't start all that again, darling," Catherine sighed, her patience reaching its limit. "I'm not enjoying this any more than you are. I've told you how much I'll miss you and it'll be worse when the portrait arrives. It's so lifelike but only paint and canvas, not flesh and blood."
James had been gone for a week when the portrait was delivered. Amid much anticipation the crate was opened and a fixing made over the drawing room fireplace, where the painting was to hang. Neighbours were asked in and calls made to friends to come and admire it. Every aspect of the picture was remarked upon: the texture of James' hair, the blueness of his eyes, the authority of his demeanour. All agreed that it was a wonderful likeness, almost like a living presence in the room.
At last Catherine was left alone with the picture. Ever since James' departure she had felt lost and lonely, and she was hoping that this two-dimensional substitute would bring her comfort, especially as that was why it had been commissioned. James had an almost totemic faith in its ability to keep him in her heart.
But as she sat in her drawing room regarding the portrait, with the first mist of autumn nudging the window, Catherine's sense of loss increased. Suddenly she longed to feel the sun stroking her cheek and see it throw her shadow across dusty, echoing floorboards. If she closed her eyes she could imagine that the glazed chintz beneath her fingers was faded gold velvet, and the rushing of blood in her ears the distant roar of passing traffic.
She opened her eyes and stood up, going closer to the picture of her husband as if seeking reassurance from him. But the canvas smelled of turpentine and varnish, and as she reached up and ran her thumb over a smudged highlight, she saw, not James' blue eyes, but the dark, restless, inviting gaze of Michael Westerham.