Barry Lee Thompson - Portrait

The scratching of the pencil as it moves across the paper. ‘Have you sat for a portrait before?’ he said. His name was Evolet. He advertised for subjects so he could practise faces.


I’d already asked if he’d prefer me looking down, or up, eyes open or closed. ‘Just be yourself,’ he’d said. ‘Read, if you like.’


I said I’d use the time to sit quietly.


I found his face interesting, its concentration, a slight frown as he worked out where and how to place marks on the paper. He caught me looking and said I had a naturally smiling expression. That’s when he asked if this was my first time. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Once before, when I was very young. On holiday.’


It was 1974. I didn’t tell Evolet the year. Too revealing. And the year doesn’t matter for the story, although it does to me. The place, like the year, is unimportant, though if he’d asked for either I’d have told him. I was six years old and wanted to have my portrait done by an artist near the beach. On the esplanade, easel set up in the sun, she worked in pastels. The artist signed the picture when she’d finished. Her first name began with an ‘A’, and the whole was hard to decipher. I rubbed a patch of colour, and a dusting came off the paper and onto my fingertip.


I was delighted with the picture. We went to drop it off at the guesthouse so it wouldn’t get damaged. ‘Go and show it off,’ said my parents. It was the middle of the afternoon, and quiet in the guesthouse. I ran down to the kitchen. ‘Look,’ I said, to our waiter, and the chef, and the manager, Mr Brackston, who had a soft spot for me. ‘I just had it done.’ They all rushed to look, and something came over their faces. ‘You could have smiled,’ one of them said. I could tell they were all thinking it. Even Mr Brackston, with his soft spot, his way of pulling out my chair at breakfast and dinner.


I paused. ‘Go on,’ said Evolet, not lifting his eyes from his work.


‘My parents put the portrait away after the holidays, and now it’s somewhere safe but I don’t know where.’


‘So since then, what happened?’ said Evolet.


‘Maybe I’ve laughed a lot since then,’ I said. ‘What you see now is remnants.

Echoes of laughter.’


Maybe it’s all surface.


The scratching of the pencil …


‘I think I’m done,’ he said.


‘Already?’ I said.


‘I work quickly.’ He turned the picture around. The face was unsmiling. ‘

Do you think it looks like you?’


Photographs, do they look like us? Does anything? Have you ever glanced

in a mirror and thought, oh my god, who is that?


I considered the portrait that night when I was alone at home. Its unfamiliarity unsettled me, so I put

it away, somewhere safe.