Under Two Shires Oak – Episode 03

AT that very moment Grace was seated on an uncomfortable upright chair at the window of the outhouse that Lord Alderarche’s new stepson had set up as his studio, and was looking anxiously out into the courtyard.

Her apprehension was nothing to do with the tall, intense-looking young man alternately standing at the easel ahead of her and pacing around it. There was an energy about Philip – Phil – that Grace had liked immediately.

When he’d first mentioned he’d like her to “sit” for him, she’d been wary. She had heard things about lords of the manor and servant girls. Not that Phil was that type. But you did hear things. And despite her nervousness, Grace smiled now as she recalled Francesca and Evie’s first reaction when she’d told them about the painting!

However, she’d agreed to do it and now, at the end of the third week of their sittings, she was pleased she had.

“I hope it won’t be too boring for you, just sitting there,” he had said on that first afternoon.

Boring? No such thing! She was fascinated by everything. The strange smells of linseed oil and turpentine. The texture of his brushes – sable, he said. She shivered with pleasure as he swept one against her lower arm to demonstrate its softness. The glorious colours of the paints, whose very names sounded like poetry.

“Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber . . .” she read aloud from the tubes beside his easel at their first sitting. Quietly, just to herself, but she looked up to find him smiling at her in a way that sent another shiver through her.

“The earth colours,” he said. “They’re what’s needed for you, Grace.”

She’d never considered it that way, but it was true she had reddish-brown hair and hazel eyes. His own eyes were a clear, piercing blue that seemed to sharpen when he was concentrating hard, looking first at her, then at his canvas, and then back at her.

When the portrait was finished she thought it magnificent, a work worthy of any gallery.

“But I’m not sure it’s me. Do I really look like that?”

Did she look as pretty as that, was what she meant.

“In that case,” he replied, “I’d better do another, if that’s all right with you?”

Of course it was all right with her! As the first portrait had neared completion she’d felt sad as she anticipated the end of her afternoons here. She’d tried to put it down to the fact that sitting for him was a welcome change from routine. But was it more than that? She couldn’t deny the extra care she took before her mirror these mornings.

Maybe she was just a servant, but she was no fool. She knew Phil had been living in London before he’d come up to visit his mother. He’d have girlfriends there, sophisticated girls like Francesca’s cousins.

Yet, he seemed in no hurry to return. Once, Grace had pondered whether she had anything to do with that. She liked to think that they had become good friends over the weeks – they talked non-stop about all sorts of things and made each other laugh.

On second thoughts, maybe she was fooling herself. But sometimes the way he looked at her, the way he was looking at her now . . .

“Do you like working here?” he asked her, seeming to snap out of some reverie of his own.

“In a way. I like the house, and caring for the beautiful things in it.”

“Even though it isn’t yours?”

“I’ll never have anything like this!”

She thought about Evie’s family’s little cottage, tied to Mr Maun’s job at the pit. Grace’s own mother was dead and her father gone missing in the war. If they’d still been here, perhaps she’d be living with them somewhere like that.

“What about your family?” Phil asked as though reading her thoughts.

“I haven’t anyone close.”

“You have close friends.” Grace had many times mentioned Francesca and Evie to him. “Pardon my curiosity, but do you wonder if Evie ever feels jealous of Francesca?”

Grace didn’t like the question.

“I’m sure she’s not. We all just got on so well from the start. Sometimes it’s like that, isn’t it? Someone becomes special to you straightaway.”

Even though he’d put aside his paintbrush, Phil’s eyes darkened in that way she thought of as his “artist’s gaze”.

“Sometimes it’s exactly like that, Grace.” There was an intensity in his tone that spoke straight to her heart. “You are very special to me, you know. I look forward to seeing you each day.”

He stepped towards her chair.

“Keep still,” he whispered. Reaching down, he flicked something from her hair. “Oh, it’s just a fly. I thought it was a wasp.”

Grace stood up in alarm, not so much because of the fly but because her heart was thumping. The next thing she knew was that she was in his arms and his lips were on hers, and she knew by the way he kissed her that he felt as she did.

Alan Spink

Alan is a member of the “Friend” Fiction Team. He enjoys working closely with writers and being part of the creative process, which sees storytelling ideas come to fruition. A keen reader, he also writes fiction and enjoys watching football and movies in his spare time. His one tip to new writers is “write from your imagination”.