WRITTEN BY MARGARET SKIPWORTH
Receiving a gift of a picture of her beloved dog whisked Jennifer into the past – but perhaps also the future?
Jennifer forced a smile as she studied the brochure for the art studio. “Thank you, Lisa. That’s a fantastic birthday present,” she told her friend and colleague as they enjoyed lunch in their favourite restaurant.
Lisa’s cheeks flushed. “I know it’s an unusual present…”
“Honestly, I’m delighted,” Jennifer said quickly. “I couldn’t have asked for anything better.” She took a sip of white wine.
All my other pets have been immortalised in oils so it’s only right that Pepper should have his portrait painted.
She smiled wistfully. Her ex-husband, Dan, had painted their first pet, a hamster, shortly after they were married. During the six years they were together he’d painted rabbits, a gerbil, a cat and two goldfish. Dan had framed all the “masterpieces” and they were now on the wall in Jennifer’s dining room.
Since Jennifer had acquired Pepper, a Yorkshire Terrier, from a dog rescue centre three years ago, she’d been talking about having his portrait painted but so far she hadn’t got round to doing anything about it.
“The studio isn’t exactly on your doorstep,” Lisa said, interrupting Jennifer’s thoughts. “But, I did quite a lot of research online and the artist at Creative Canvases seems to be the best in the area.”
“The paintings in his brochure are certainly impressive,” Jennifer remarked, flicking through the pages. “And the reviews are very good.” She took another drink of wine. “It’s only about 15 miles to the studio and Pepper doesn’t mind being in the car, so the distance isn’t a problem.”
Lisa stirred sugar into her cappuccino. “I’ve booked the initial consultation and the first sitting, but there’s no obligation. If you don’t want to go ahead with the portrait, after meeting the artist, the studio will refund the money.”
Later that day, Jennifer rang her sister to thank her for her birthday card and to share the news about the portrait.
Andrea gasped. “Wow! That’s a thoughtful present.”
“Yes, it’s really kind of Lisa,” Jennifer commented.
“You don’t sound very happy about it, though, Jen. What’s the problem?”
Jennifer heaved a sigh and confessed, “Creative Canvases is Dan’s studio… my ex-husband, Dan,” Jennifer said, rolling her eyes.
“Oh, I see. That could be awkward.” After a moment, Andrea went on, “Are you sure it’s your Dan? I mean, I thought after you split up he moved to Canada.”
“He did. He went there to train as a ski instructor. But that was over 14 years ago. The last I heard, he’d moved to New Zealand.” Jennifer picked up the brochure from the coffee table. “But it’s definitely him, Andrea. The surname’s the same and the blurb in the studio booklet mentions that he lived abroad for a number of years. Apparently, he came back to this country in 2012 and did an art degree. He studied in Italy for a while and then returned to England to open his own studio.”
“So presumably Lisa doesn’t know about Dan?”
“She knows I’ve been married but I’ve never spoken to her about Dan,” Jennifer said. “And, after the divorce, I started using my maiden name, so Lisa wouldn’t have recognised Dan’s surname.”
“What are you going to do?”
Jennifer bit on her lip as she allowed her mind to scroll back to her marriage.
At first, she and Dan had been very much in love and happy but after a few years their relationship started to unravel. Neither of them had been to blame. They’d simply reached a point when they’d wanted different things out of life.
They’d married when Jennifer was 18. She was working in an insurance office and Dan was a mechanic in his father’s garage. Jennifer liked the small town where they’d been brought up and would have been content to settle there. But Dan was an outgoing, outdoorsy person who craved travel and adventure. He hated the monotony of his work and often talked about looking for a more interesting and exciting job.
When his brother told him about an opportunity to learn to become a ski instructor in Canada, Jennifer knew it was the beginning of the end of their marriage. He didn’t want to stay in England and she didn’t want to move to Canada.
Going through a divorce had been stressful and painful but there had been no animosity between them and, although they hadn’t kept in touch, they’d parted on good terms.
“So, will you keep the appointment?” Andrea prompted after several minutes.
“Yes. Definitely,” Jennifer said, her mind made up. “There’s nothing between me and Dan any more. But out of curiosity, I would like to see his gallery. And I don’t want to disappoint Lisa. Anyway,” she added with a laugh, “I’ve promised Pepper he can have his portrait painted.”
A few weeks later, Jennifer drove to Dan’s gallery. Her jaw dropped when she stopped the car and saw the studio. It was a double-fronted building and much grander than she’d expected.
Examples of Dan’s work were displayed in the windows and, although Jennifer knew little about art, the words stimulating, vibrant and accomplished flashed into her mind.
Some of the oil paintings were scenes of the places he’d visited while working abroad, but there were also paintings and charcoal drawings of beauty spots Jennifer recognised in England. Alongside these were portraits of well-known local dignitaries and pet portraits.
Jennifer frowned. Surely this place was too posh for a feisty Yorkshire Terrier? She was tempted to forget the whole idea and drive home. But an impatient bark from Pepper reminded her that Lisa had paid for the consultation, and so it would be churlish to cancel.
Taking a deep breath, she lifted Pepper from his crate.
“Please try to behave yourself,” she hissed as she clipped on his lead.
Once she was inside the gallery, the receptionist showed her to a small studio which was reserved for pet portraits.
Jennifer chuckled as she glanced around her. The room certainly wasn’t as plush as the reception area. The shabby sofa had a few tears, presumably made by unruly animals, and the rest of the furniture, including a desk and easel, had seen better days.
She sat down on the sofa, pulled Pepper onto her knee and studied the portraits on the wall facing her. All kinds of creatures stared back – dogs, cats, horses, snakes, and even pigs and sheep. Some were serious studies and others were cartoons and caricatures. But they all had one thing in common: they were stunning.
On another wall there were several pictures of animals which had been drawn and painted by children from a nearby primary school. Jennifer placed Pepper on the floor and was about to take a closer look when Dan strolled into the room.
Jennifer’s heart unexpectedly skipped a beat. His forehead was creased with lines and he’d put on a little weight since she’d last seen him, but he was still ruggedly handsome and his tender caramel-coloured eyes held the familiar glint of mischief that she remembered so well.
A broad smile spread across his face as he approached her.
“Jennifer, it’s great to see you again. When I saw the name in my appointments, I guessed it was you.” He clasped her hands in his. “You look wonderful. You haven’t changed a bit.”
“I’m sure that’s not true.” Jennifer laughed, relieved there was no awkwardness between them. “You haven’t changed either.”
Dan pulled a face. “That’s debatable.” Releasing Jennifer’s hands, he said, “So, what do you think? Has my work improved since I painted Horace the hamster?”
“You always were a talented artist, Dan.” Jennifer gestured to the pet portraits. “But these are in a different class altogether.”
Obviously pleased by the compliment, two spots of pink appeared on Dan’s cheeks. In a serious tone, he said, “I think, all those years ago when we first got married, I had a rather simplistic view of things that was reflected in my art.”
He narrowed his eyes and gave Jennifer a searching look. “Hopefully, I’ve grown up and have a more mature outlook on life these days.”
Realising he wasn’t just talking about his paintings, Jennifer slowly nodded her understanding.
What made you come back to England?
“After studying art at university here and then in Italy, I decided to open my own studio. I knew there wasn’t anything like that in this area so it seemed like a good idea. Besides,” he added with a regretful smile, “I was missing everyone. My family and… well, I thought it was time I returned to my roots, and settled down.”
When he didn’t say any more Jennifer pointed to the children’s pictures. “These are very good, but why have you got them on your wall?”
“I go to the primary school a couple of afternoons a week to help the kids with their art lessons,” he explained. “I always bring some pictures back here to put on the walls. It encourages the kids to see their paintings on display.”
“Working with children must be very rewarding.”
“It is,” Dan agreed. “It’s purely voluntary but I enjoy it. And you never know, I might be helping to nurture a future Picasso or Monet.”
Jennifer couldn’t stop the look of surprise on her face. The Dan she’d married would never have given up his afternoons to help at a primary school. When he wasn’t working in the garage he’d been too busy enjoying life – canoeing, rock climbing, ski-ing, or planning his next escapade.
She had to admit, Dan wasn’t the only one who’d changed. She certainly wouldn’t give up on a relationship now, as quickly as she’d written off her marriage 14 years ago. The thought crept into her mind that, somehow, they could have found a compromise, even if that had meant leaving England and living in Canada for a while.
Before she could dwell on that thought, Pepper started yapping at Dan’s legs. “He’s jealous we’re not giving him any attention.”
Jennifer bent down and scooped Pepper into her arms.
“Then we’d better discuss his picture.” Dan grinned. “Would you like the portrait done in colour, black and white, or sepia?”
Jennifer gave the question some consideration before replying. “All the other pictures you painted are in colour so I think Pepper should be the same.”
“And would you like a full body portrait or head and shoulders?”
Jennifer shrugged. “To be honest, I haven’t thought about that.”
“Come and look at some pictures of pet portraits I’ve done recently. They might help you decide.” Cupping Jennifer’s elbow in his hand, he led her to the desk and showed her a folder of photographs.
Jennifer’s eyes widened. “These are amazing. They’re so life-like. Do you paint the portraits from photographs?”
“No.” Dan shook his head. “I prefer to have the animals here. That way I can capture their characters. Hopefully, their quirks and idiosyncrasies come across in the picture.” He wrinkled his nose. “Although, I’d rather not have pigs and goats running loose in the gallery.”
He shot Pepper a reassuring glance. “Don’t worry, Pepper, I wouldn’t expect you to pose for hours at a time.” After a pause, Dan said, “If you decide to go ahead, Jennifer, you’ll have to bring Pepper for several sittings.” His lips twitched into an endearing smile and a flicker of hope gleamed in his eyes.
Jennifer felt the years simply melt away. It felt right – and strangely comforting – to be here with the man she’d once loved so deeply.
She felt a warm glow of anticipation ripple through her.
“No problem.” She smiled. She had a feeling she was going to enjoy those sittings very much indeed.