A Smell of Paint by Anne Goodwin

Anne Goodwin's character prepares for her artist daughter's return home.

Today my daughter is coming home. At last. Her brother has gone to bring her back to the house of her childhood to paint pictures and be mothered back to herself.

Left behind, I shuffle from room to room, arranging curtains, fluffing up cushions, nudging pictures into position on the walls. I'd like to fill the space with the scent of baking: flapjacks and sultana scones and a rich Victoria sponge. Then we might play at cafés again: she, with a tea towel wrapped around her waist, clutching a spiral-bound notebook, me at the table in a dressing-up-box hat and my little finger extended as I sip from a doll's tea cup. Instead, I drift out to the garden to pluck daffodils for her room. Custard-yellow daffodils and double-cream daffodils and icing-sugar-white daffodils with a cheddar-red trumpet in the middle. Perhaps they'll move her to paint.

Not thinking - surely, not needing to think after twenty-two years of mothering - I take the flowers up to the apple-green bedroom at the back. I push open the door and stop short, drops of water shooting out from the vase onto my hand. It's not her bathrobe that lies slumped across the duvet, but mine. Not her Pre-Raphaelite prints that clothe the walls, but mine. Not her lipsticks and lotions that litter the dressing table, leaving barely a gap for the vase, but mine. For a moment I'm disorientated, not by the incongruity of finding my things in her room, but by how right it feels. As if this was how it was always meant to be. Mother inside daughter, like Russian dolls.

I wipe my hand on my skirt and step across the landing to the master bedroom, Ellen's room now. When we heard she was finally coming home I thought, Why not? Why not forgo the bay window and the ensuite to give Ellen a room where she might paint? It's ten years since I had need of a double bed and now that Joe spends so much time at his girlfriend's I'll rarely even have to share the second bathroom.

Going from my room - Ellen's old room - at the back to the double bedroom at the front is like leaving January for July. The light is so much better at the front of the house. It beams on Ellen's old teddy bears lined up along the headboard of what used to be my bed. It glows on the virgin surface of the dressing table, awaiting my daughter's lipsticks and lotions and bijouterie. It shines on the easel standing on guard in the bay window. An artist craves light more than anything. More than food. More than sex. More than life.

I place the daffodils on the dressing table and go and stand by the easel in the window. The view from here isn't as pretty as the view out the back, especially not since I had half the front lawn paved over to accommodate the extra car. But Ellen won't mind. She doesn't do views. These days, she prefers a modernistic form of still-life, a twenty-first-century take on those bowls of oranges, and pheasants ready for the pot.

From the moment she could grip a fat wax crayon in her dimpled fist, Ellen loved to make pictures. Since the days of jagged squiggles across the eternal computer paper I salvaged from work she has been absorbed by drawing, painting, colouring, sketching. Totally self-contained, which was a boon when Joe came along. To look at him now with those butcher-boy biceps it's hard to believe he was such a sickly little thing. Needing so much attention. An ordinary three-year-old would have struggled, but all I had to say to Ellen was, "You do me a nice drawing while I change the baby," and she'd sit quietly at the table with her tongue tucked into the corner of her mouth, scribbling away as if her life depended on it. I could have left her like that for hours.

Joe's biceps came in handy when it came to switching rooms, transporting bedding and clothes and knickknacks between mine and hers. I couldn't have managed to emulsion the walls without him to drag the furniture into the middle of the room. Covering over the brooding cherry-red I've lived with since not long after Pete left. Replacing it with a more subtle apricot. No sense for an artist to have light streaming in through the windows only to be swallowed up by the darkness of the walls.

I was grateful for Joe's help. But he made me wait for it. Wait till Thursday half-day closing before he could spare the time. Too busy with his girlfriend in the evenings. That's why it was all such a rush. If I'm honest, there's still a whiff of paint in the air. I wonder if she'll notice. I wonder if she'll mind. I shouldn't worry; an artist is hardly likely to complain about a smell of paint.

She was never one to grumble, to criticise, to make a mockery of mothering with a slap of words across the face. Only that once; and then, poor love, so sadly completely off target. "You've always blamed me that you didn't finish university," she said, and I was stunned, aghast, first that she could think that and second that she couldn't do the maths. I know she's an artist, but a shopkeeper's daughter should at least be able to count.

I was twenty-two when I had her, same age as she is now. I could have got my degree first if I'd been determined enough, if I could have tolerated living away from Pete and his father's butcher shop. Far from blaming her for ruining my chances I'm sorry I didn't conceive sooner. Seems ironic now, the way he let me down in the end, but I was in love and desperate to have his baby.

Ellen's circumstances were different, with no boyfriend to drag her back at weekends, but she didn't take to university either. It isn't easy to go from a small town like ours to a big city campus buzzing with young people and ideas. A small town where everyone knows each other, where there are still shops that close for a half-day on a Thursday, where the rituals of butchering are passed down from father to son, father to son, and the craft-shop-cum-tea-shop puts a teenager's artwork on display.

"Come home," I said. Just as I didn't need a degree to be a mother, she didn't need one to paint. "Come home." I could've looked after her.

The truth is, I suppose, it didn't feel like home anymore; not after he left.

"That's a lovely picture," Pete used to say. "Is that for mummy or for daddy?"

"It's for both of you," she said. "For mummy and daddy."

He bought her oils and acrylics in metal tubes. He bought her a wooden palette where she could set out all those colours with the fancy names: vermillion; burnt umber; cobalt blue. He bought her huge boards and sealed them with white primer. He bought her giant sketchpads with pages thick as greetings cards. He led her to believe she could have everything she wanted. Everything but a home with two parents.

Joe was all right as long as Pete picked him up a couple of times a week to play football, but Ellen was inconsolable. Enough tears for a hot shower; cold shower's what he should have had but it was too late then. "I hate him," she said. "How can he not love you anymore? You're the most beautiful woman in the world."

She looked for comfort where she always had, in her art. And I was to be her muse. Sketchbook at the ready, she'd study me cooking or ironing or watching TV. She said she was planning to paint my portrait. A beautiful portrait. She would show him, she said.

What could I do? She seemed happy enough. At least she had a purpose, instead of sitting around moping. Or playing those mindless computer games her brother was so fond of.

And what mother wouldn't be flattered to have her preteen daughter obsessing on her beauty? But after a while, it got irritating. I'd be trying to catch a quiet half-hour to read a magazine while Joe was off with his dad, or I'd be cursing as I struggled to unblock a sink, and I'd look up and find her staring at me, pencil in hand. "For heaven's sake, can't you go out and play like normal kids?" It was hard enough trying to cope with being dumped without having to double up as artist's model.

She refused to stay overnight at her dad's new place, as Joe did. But she would visit in the early evening once a week after school. She always took a picture to show him and, of course, it always had to be a picture of me. Yet she was never satisfied with the quality of her work. The night before a visit I could hardly get her to bed. Fretting over her painting. Wanting to add that one last touch.

It didn't do me justice, she said. Of course it didn't. She may have had talent, but she was only twelve. But at twelve you don't know you're only twelve. You think you can save the world.

Pete rang me one morning at work. "We're going to have to talk about Ellen."

"There's nothing I can do," I said. "You're the one who left."

"She's not eating," he said.

"She's turned vegetarian. We both have. Can't stomach any more of your meat."

"It's not only meat she's refusing."

"Must be the atmosphere at your place. That woman poisoning her appetite."

He tried to fix up family meetings at the children's clinic. If it hadn't been so cruel it would have been funny, the way he tried to shift his guilt onto her. As if by making out that she was crazy, he could still come across as the doting father. Ellen told him what to do with his family meetings.

After that, she wouldn't even go to her dad's for tea. What could I do? She was old enough to make up her own mind. And giving up that burden left her so much more relaxed. It helped me relax too when she swapped the portraits for still-life. A vase of daffodils. A bowl of fruit. A jug of clotted cream so lifelike you wanted to reach into the painting and spoon it onto a scone.

She seemed contented enough. We were more like friends than mother and daughter. In the evenings, while Joe played upstairs on his computer, I'd put on some old Beatles records, and we'd curl up together on the sofa with the photo album.

If only she hadn't pushed herself into going away to university. If only she'd allowed herself to come home when it didn't work out.

The social worker at Prince Edward's must have been reading the same pop-psychology book as Pete. She tried to cajole us into meeting with her as a family; not just Ellen and me, but Joe and Pete as well. Ellen wasn't having it. "He's not my family any more. He gave that up when I was twelve years old."

Then the stupid social worker took to quizzing me. Senseless questions about when he left. "What did you do to help her understand that her dad still loved her?"

I stared at her nasty pinched face, her stupid staring eyes. I didn't know what to say.

And then my lovely daughter spoke up. "It wasn't my mother who left."

She abandoned the daffodils. Fruit would rot in the bowl before she would bring herself to paint it. Instead she spent hours in the kitchen concocting bizarre meals: turnip and custard; chargrilled potato sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. Not to eat, of course, but to paint. I didn't pretend to understand it, but I've never been able to get my head round modern art. It wasn't for me to judge, was it?

The sound of a car turning into the cul-de-sac. A tank of a car with a big butcher-boy engine. I creep back behind the velvet curtain. I want to see the relief on her face when she finally comes home.

The 4x4 pulls up by the front door on what used to be part of the lawn. Joe cuts the engine. I wait for the passenger door to open, for her to rush out, searching for her mother, as if she were five years old again and I was meeting her from school. I wait. I can't see inside the car from this angle. I imagine them gathering up the paraphernalia of the journey, the soft-drink cans and the maps and the CDs. I imagine them finishing off a brother-and-sister conversation before being reunited with their mother. When they still don't emerge, I imagine - and with the thought my legs start to shake and I have to grab hold of the easel for support - my son sitting in the driver's seat wondering how to break it to me that he's come home without her.

Oh, relief! The door opens and my daughter steps out onto the block paving. She wrinkles her nose at the unfamiliar smell of home. She shivers in the pale sunshine and reaches back into the 4x4 for her padded jacket. She pulls it across her scraggy shoulders, pokes her bony arms through the sleeves. She looks around and up towards the bay window. My heart is thumping against my chest as I step back out of view.

The car door slams. Brother and sister walk towards the front door. I tiptoe nearer the window to watch them: a hale-and-hearty nineteen-year-old man dragging the suitcase of his shrunken sister.

I hear the doorbell ring. Joe has forgotten his key again. I should go down. I turn from the window and look around the room. A room with apricot walls and a big window letting in lots of light. The room where that skeletal girl out there was conceived. And her sturdy brother. We had no need of light for that.

Nor will Ellen make use of the light in this room. A light like this would send her scurrying into the shadows. She hasn't come back to the house of her childhood to paint. To paint pictures to hang in the gallery on the high street where the shops still close on a Thursday afternoon.

The doorbell again. That young man has no patience. I should go down. My daughter has come home. At last.

I breathe in the sickly sweet smell of paint. It almost chokes me.


  1. Everything about this story grabs you, sits you in a chair, and says, "Read." It's wonderfully written, and compelling. Visual and chocked with emotion. Really good, Anne.


  2. A compelling story that plumbs the depth of disordered love. A strong an engaging read, thank you,

  3. a very powerful and personal piece of work with not a word wasted.

    Mike McC

    1. Thanks, Mike. I do strive for for tightness in my writing, but a canny editor could probably exercise a couple more words!

  4. Wonderfully told - touching on so many themes. I enjoyed it. Bravo!

  5. Oh heartache! You want your baby to come home, but not at any cost.
    The symbols of the butcher - carnal, carnivorous, and juxtaposed against the search for light work well...And painting still lives - they must be still. The reader feels strong empathy for the mother.
    B r o o k e

    1. Thank you and I love how you've picked up on the symbolism.

  6. Great story! The end is heartbreaking. And as someone who has experienced the shifting of rooms in a family house. It does bring issues you wouldn't expect. That was nicely captured.

    -David E. J. Berger

    1. Thanks so much everyone for your kind comments and so glad you liked the story.

  7. Shameless plug, but only because the site doesn't publish bios, but there's more of my writing on my website including my debut novel, Sugar and Snails