This is not an ordinary blog, but the only way I can think of to reach out to you, my sister. I know the chances of you reading this are very, very, small, but I live in hope. It may inspire others to find their pathway in life too, so please read even if your name isn’t Deenah.
Deenah, I want to explain what happened after I left home, so you can understand the person I am today, and hopefully forgive me.
I wish I could be talking to you in person.
I’m sorry for my impulsiveness, although the only regret I have is not seeing you for…it must be over five years now. I wonder where you are living. I imagine your home is beautiful, and filling with happy babies. Ow, that thought struck my heart with joy and sadness at what I’m missing, but I know I only have myself to blame.
Nadia watched Jake pull the door open with one hand whilst the other swept through his wild hair. If he was trying to smarten his appearance, he was wasting his time. Nadia lowered her head and the ghost of a smile graced her lips. Jake Peterson, the local University art teacher and heartthrob of many a student’s dreams. She’d seen him here, attending the gallery’s shows, pausing to admire a worthy painting, or wrinkling his nose in dismay at what some people call art. She had watched him drinking coffee in the Cup and Kettle, so engrossed in a book that he didn’t notice the tipping of the cup paused mid-flight, until a drip landed on his jeans, adding to the artwork of stains.
‘Oh, Jake darling, how pleasant to see you on this miserable, grey day.’ Jessica glided across the gallery and placed two perfectly formed air kisses either side of his stubble-shadowed cheeks. Her eyes flitted across his dishevelled appearance and her nose twitched.
‘Jessica. You’re looking as wonderful as ever. How’s business?’ He glanced around the pristine room.
‘The art world is a fickle one.’ Jessica sighed. ‘I hope you ensure your students understand only the very best succeed. High-profile art demands attention to detail, and appearances are everything unless they aspire only to be a teacher. So often they look like they have thrown clothes on with no thought to the impression they are giving to the world.’
Nadia sucked in a breath. Her boss was so incredibly rude, and yet Jessica was fawned over because a word in the right ear could make or break an artist, regardless of their talent.
‘I like being a teacher.’ Jake’s jaw muscles tightened. ‘Being the first to see raw talent blossom is humbling. Helping students to find their focus and watching them grow from failures and experimentation is satisfying. I’ll never fit the glamorous world of art you inhabit, Jessica.’ He gestured at his clothes. ‘But I like to visit occasionally, and I love the recent exhibitions. You’ve captured the artist’s work in the positioning of plinths and lighting in such a unique way.’
‘You are gushing. It does not suit you.’ Jessica held up a manicured hand. ‘I presume you are here to ask a favour. Shall I put you out of your misery or would you like to waste your words?’
‘Jessica, I know I ask every year, and you give me the same answer, but I’m hopeful. One day you may take pity on the students who have only my example to follow and say yes. I’ll beg if you like?’
‘I know you can beg.’ Jessica’s chic red lips curved upward. ‘We may live in different worlds now, but I do remember when we were embarrassingly young and foolish.’
Nadia frowned. Was it possible that Jessica and Jake had been in a relationship? She studied the polished woman and the scruffy man and shook her head.
‘Could they have the small gallery and your expertise for a weekend? You can choose which work is displayed.’ Jake pushed his shaggy fringe from his face.
‘No, absolutely not. You know my policy is only to show those who have proved their place in the art world. I have no time for amateurs, however…’
Jake waited and pushed his hands deep into his jean pockets. His lips parted. To Nadia he looked like an infatuated teenager gazing at his favourite film star. She returned to her work on the computer, arranging a catalogue for the artist who was exhibiting in the small gallery.
‘I am sure my assistant would be willing to give some advice on display to your students. I know that you have plenty of suitable spaces in that ancient building you teach in.’
Jake’s eyes widened. ‘You’ve a new assistant? Since when?’
‘The past three months. You must have seen her on our open evenings.’
Jake shook his head and frowned.
‘Nadia.’ Jessica gestured towards the sleek, white information desk and Jake looked across the room.
Nadia stood up and nodded but Jessica beckoned her over.
‘Nadia, this is Jake, who presumes to place amateur pieces of…’ her lips turned down ‘…art in my gallery. I have told him you are welcome to advise his students at the university. It will be a good experience for you.’
Nadia suppressed her desire to back away and extended her hand towards Jake. ‘Hello Jake, I’m pleased to meet you.’
Jake shook her hand with a firm, warm grip, sending tingles of fear up her arm, and a smouldering heat to her face. ‘It’s good to meet you Nadia. Sorry I didn’t acknowledge you when I walked in, I wasn’t aware there was anyone but Jessica here.’
Nadia smiled and withdrew her hand. She had perfected the art of being quiet, and unnoticed.
‘I remember seeing you at the art shows.’ Jake smiled at her. ‘But I didn’t know you were Jessica’s assistant. Would you share your knowledge with my students?’
Nadia looked at the floor. ‘I’m no expert. I’m sure you can find-‘
‘Nonsense.’ Jessica snapped. ‘You have been with me for three months.’ Jessica clicked her heel on the polished floor. ‘I will leave you to sort out the details. Make sure it is in your own time, Nadia. I expect your priority to be this gallery.’ Jessica turned away with a flick of dismissal. ‘I want to see your ideas for the catalogue as soon as.’ She entered her private office but left the door open.
Nadia twisted the thin bracelet on her wrist and controlled her breathing.
‘Do you know the Cup and Kettle?’ Jake asked. ‘We could meet when you finish work. I wouldn’t like you to get into trouble.’ He glanced towards Jessica’s office.
‘I can be there just after five, if Jessica is happy with my first proof.’
‘Okay.’ She dared to look up into his green eyes.
He grinned and left.
Nadia stared at the door. The gallery felt as empty as her knotted stomach.
‘The catalogue won’t arrange itself.’ Jessica’s shrill voice echoed through the room and Nadia hurried to her desk. She enjoyed her job, but not the way Jessica treated her. It was strange how she had swapped one dominating person in her life for another, but at least this one paid, and wasn’t going to try and marry her off to some second cousin.
The aroma of roasted coffee beans mixed with herbal teas wrapped a blanket of comfort around Nadia. Although the café was only half-full, the clatter of cups, chatter of voices, and hiss of steaming water was a welcome contrast to the quiet of the gallery. She soaked it in as she walked to a table near the window. This was the perfect spot for people watching. She enjoyed the contrast between the warm, chaotic, social, inside world, where people let down their barriers like peeling off their outer layers of coats, scarves and hats, and the cold outside, where people walked with a purpose, keeping social niceties at a brief nod or smile. Except for Jake.
He strode along the pavement, stopping to chat to everyone, with his ready smile. He didn’t wear a hat and his light-brown hair was teased by the wind into curls before being whipped up as if static had taken a hold. He flung his escaping scarf over one shoulder before entering the café and waded through the tables, pulling off his long coat as if it were a cloak, swishing it across the table next to her. Then turned and bowed in apology to the woman who grabbed her coffee from harm’s way. Her frown dissolved into a smile when he looked at her, and she insisted that no harm had been done, despite wiping her hand with a tissue once Jake had turned away.
‘Hi, Nadia. Sorry I’m late. You ordered yet?’ He sat down, and his long legs bumped her neatly placed feet beneath the table. ‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to kick you.’
‘You didn’t, and I haven’t. I mean… I’ve not been here long.’
‘What would you like? My treat?’
Nadia asked for a mocha with cream. Jake smiled and asked the waitress for two mochas.
‘Let’s live a little, we’ll have sprinkles on the top, and two cinnamon buns please, Kate.’ He looked at Nadia. ‘Please tell me you like cinnamon buns. They make the best.’ His eyebrows raised as if to say everyone liked cinnamon buns.
‘I do, thank you,’ Nadia said and put her hands on her lap.
‘I’m curious, how many times did Jessica ask you to move the pictures in the catalogue?’ Jake leant forward, his elbows on the table. ‘And how similar to your first design was the final one?’
Nadia smiled. ‘You know Jessica well.’
‘Do you enjoy working for her?’
‘Yes.’ Nadia blinked in surprise at her answer. ‘I’ve learnt more in the last three months than I did in the three years at my last job.’
‘Where was that?’ Jake intertwined his fingers and leant his chin on them.
‘A small gallery in east London. Although he sent me on courses and workshops, the manager had his own set formula for displaying work. No deviations to enhance the artist’s style, no extra lighting or music to accompany the work. Jessica may seem like a tyrant, but she likes to show art in the best way possible. She has high standards and high expectations of everyone, including herself.’ Nadia stopped, aware that she was rambling. She bit her lip.
Jake relaxed back in his chair. ‘Sorry, I’m bombarding you with questions. I can’t believe you’ve lived and worked here for three months and I’ve not seen you. What d’you do when you’re not working?’ He slapped his hand over his mouth. ‘There I go again, asking questions.’
Nadia was relieved when the waitress arrived with their order.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘Yes, thanks, Kate. As usual that smells, and looks, divinely sinful.’ Jake closed his eyes and sniffed the steam from his drink.
Nadia wrapped her hands around the mug before lifting it high enough for a frothy sip. ‘This is wonderful.’ She placed the mug carefully on the table and laughed at the white moustache Jake now sported.
He wiped the cream away with his finger, licking it clean. ‘Can’t waste it.’ He took a huge bite of the cinnamon bun. ‘This is great too. I love this place. You been here before?’
‘Yes.’ She came in almost every day after work, or in the morning if she was working an afternoon shift.
‘Oh.’ Crumbs fell from his mouth. ‘I’ve never seen you.’
‘That happens a lot.’
‘What?’ He picked the cinnamon-bun morsels littering his jumper between his paint-stained finger and thumb and popped them in his mouth. ‘Crumbs?’
Nadia laughed. ‘Not being seen.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ He screwed up his nose. ‘Large family?’
Her eyes widened. ‘No. A family with, ah, different ideas on life.’ She nibbled the side of the bun and sighed. Her shoulders relaxed, and they munched in silence.
Jake waited for her to finish eating before he pulled a tattered diary from his coat pocket, rummaged in the other for a chewed pen, and dumped them on his plate.
Nadia wiped her fingers and lips with the serviette before opening her shoulder bag. She positioned a pristine notebook and an enamelled, slimline pen on the table.
Their eyes met, and Nadia bit her lip.
‘I don’t think this is a good idea. I’ve never spoken to art students before. I won’t know what to say.’
‘I think you probably know more than you realise, and the students will be glad to have a break from my nagging.’ Jake said. ‘All you need to do is look at their displays and make some suggestions for improvement. I would hazard a guess that Jessica’s ideas for display recently haven’t entirely been her own?’
Nadia blushed and shook her head.
‘I don’t want to use too much of your time. Jessica shouldn’t assume you want to spend your non- working hours in another art environment.’
‘The time’s not a problem. My official working hours aren’t full-time.’
‘But you don’t want to spend time out of work talking about art? I can understand that.’
‘No, it’s not the art. It gives me a thrill when new paintings or sculptures arrive at the gallery. Jessica has vetted the quality beforehand, but I only see photos. The real item is so much more.’
‘I don’t think my student’s art will live up to what you’re used to seeing. Is that the problem?’ Jake twirled the pen in his fingers.
‘No. I like amateur art but I’m not good at talking to people. I’m better in the background. I’m not Jessica. I don’t know if I’ll be any use to your students. I’ve never done this before.’
Jake opened his diary and flicked through the pages full of cramped writing and coloured smudges. ‘They’re a good group and will appreciate any comments and help. You don’t have to worry. Please say yes and try it once, if it makes you too uncomfortable, I won’t ask again.’
Nadia pushed away fluttering nerves and an underlying feeling that Jessica was once again manipulating her. She would’ve known how persuasive Jake could be. ‘Okay, I’ll try. What are they displaying?’
‘Paintings and sketches mostly. The exhibition’s in a fortnight, so they’re busy deciding what to show, and how to mount or frame. Uh, would you like to see what they’ve chosen, or wait until they’ve hung their work?’
Nadia frowned, now she’d agreed she’d better sound professional. ‘I’d like to see what they are choosing first, maybe I can give some suggestions for mounts and frames? But I don’t want to step on your toes.’
He laughed and ran his hand through his hair, making it look more windswept than the wind had.
‘No, I’m afraid displaying artwork isn’t my forte. Which is why I beg Jessica every year for space in her gallery. I always hope that the students will benefit from her professionalism and prestige.’
‘How many students are there? Could they visit the gallery? We could look at the work on display and I could explain the process.’
His face crinkled along well-established smile lines. ‘There’s twelve preparing to display their work this term. I stagger the groups because the room we use for a gallery is not large enough for more. They learn from each other’s mistakes, and successes too.’
‘Twelve,’ she gulped. ‘I can manage twelve.’ She twisted her bracelet and Jake’s eyes were drawn to her wrist.
She pushed her sleeve up and managed not to flinch when his finger brushed her wrist as he turned the delicate silver bracelet, peering at the design.
‘My sister gave it to me. It’s Arabic.’
‘Very unusual and pretty.’
‘Thanks.’ She pulled her arm away from his warm touch, opened her notebook and clicked her pen into action. ‘So, date and times.’
‘When will Jessica not be at the gallery? Don’t want to flood her world with amateurs.’
‘Oh.’ She bit her lip before grinning. ‘Tuesday morning Jessica is out from ten until twelve.’
‘Perfect, I’ve the group all morning, so can prepare them beforehand to make sure they are on their best behaviour.’ He scribbled a note in his diary, then squinted. ‘Hopefully, I can read that later.’
Nadia’s writing was as neat as her appearance. ‘If the gallery visit is useful, I could come and see their work on Thursday afternoon? I finish at three.’
‘I’ll not be with them until four, but I can arrange for one of the students to meet you at the entrance to the art building.’
‘Okay. We’ll confirm it on Tuesday morning.’ Nadia snapped her notebook shut and clicked her pen, placing them back in their compartment in her bag.
Jake pushed his diary into his pocket and then almost tore it pulling out his phone. ‘We should exchange phone numbers, in case there’s a problem.’
She gave him a gallery card. ‘My number is on the back.’
Jake entered the details into his phone and sent her a smiley icon.