Maud closed her eyes and prepared to jump off the emotional cliff she was teetering on the edge of. She shuffled forward until she felt sick with nerves, took a deep calming breath and waited.
‘Oh, Maud...’ her mother sighed. ‘Not again.’
Maud cringed at the familiarity of those words, and in her mind, she stepped off into the void and plunged into the icy darkness without a whimper. In reality, she was still in her lounge, but being around her mother made her feel like an abject failure and the words she uttered sliced through Maud and filled her with doom. Her mum pushed her to the edge of reason on a regular basis. She wished that for once her mother could try harder to be nice. Surely it couldn’t be that difficult to be grateful for the anniversary gift she had been given and to offer a smile, even a fake one, for the sake of her child? It was the same every year and Maud was finally ready to surrender and stop trying so hard to make them understand her and compliment one of her paintings. It was never going to happen, she realised with a heavy heart.
Maud didn’t mind being boring, not really. She had a sensible job, sensible clothes, a sensible love life… if you counted two overbearing exes and a one night stand who had thanked her, rolled over and was snoring before she even realised he had started! She was ok with not fulfilling her dreams or being outrageous and carefree, she just wanted her parents to pay her a compliment, just once, after years of disapproval and disappointment.
Maud knew that as far as her mum was concerned, she was the most amazing parent who encouraged her daughter to have a responsible career until she settled down and found a ‘suitable’ husband. Granted, Maud was a very good, well-liked and adept teacher’s assistant in the local primary school, but every time she pushed against the boundaries set by her parents for their perfect daughter… ‘Oh, Maud!’
It was ridiculous, she was twenty-four, thought Maud. She wished she had a big glass of wine to slug back, but her mother would disapprove of that too, suggest in horror that she was a ‘wino,’ and hand her the number for AA, which she would have readily available in the little brown Filofax she carried everywhere in her patent handbag. The woman was a menace.
‘You don’t like the painting, then?’ she asked. Her mother tilted her head to one side without a word, her lip between her teeth as she concentrated and her brow furrowing as she looked at the artwork in confusion. It wasn’t the reaction Maud had hoped for. She had spent hours delicately drawing the lines of the little landscape painting of her parents’ house and she felt salty tears scratch her eyes. She refused to let them spill out in front of her mother, though, and bit her own lip until she tasted blood. The painting wasn’t Maud’s preferred style, spidery black lines depicting beautiful animals, filled in with splashes of vibrant colourwork to bring them to life. She had hoped that by toning down her eclectic style and drawing such a personal space as her parents’ home, her mother would finally see the little girl who desperately wanted to paint.
Her father coughed into his hand and looked at his daughter. ‘Well…’ Maud’s heart almost stopped beating in her chest as she waited to hear his response to her work. She turned towards him with unshed tears in eyes shining with hope. He had seen this look so many times and she knew that he hated to disappoint her, but her mum would make his life a living hell if he encouraged her. Her mum saw anything creative as frivolous and a waste of time, and generally her dad agreed with her. He said quietly to her sometimes that he appreciated that Maud enjoyed painting, but her art wasn’t exactly going to set the world ablaze with awe at her talents, now was it? The words had cut into her heart and she’d cringed in pain. She knew he felt that it certainly wasn’t appropriate for a serious young lady who wanted to teach children and catch a husband. The thought of her attracting a layabout artist and spending her days smoking spliffs must horrify him, as he often left articles about wild artists who were living outrageous lives around the house when she visited. He must have gone out to buy the magazines especially, as her mother would never leave anything out on the table otherwise, she was such a neat freak. Maud sometimes wondered how many hours he must spend sifting through the shelves at the newsagents, as how many articles about wild and out of control artists could there be? Maybe he stored them in the garage in a cardboard box? She had never actually picked one up, as that would fuel their obsession. Perhaps he just recycled the same article? She’d have to pay more attention next time.
He moved to the edge of his seat to scrutinise the little work of art and scratched his head in obvious confusion. She hoped he could see it was quite pretty and that Maud had obviously spent much of her free time on it. She could imagine the thoughts in his head, like where would they put such a colourful picture on their mostly beige walls? He looked across at her and must have noticed the unshed tears in her eyes. ‘I wish with all my heart that I could see what you do, but art is a complete mystery to me,’ he sighed. ‘I’m not one for artsy stuff. We have racks of your paintings in the spare room from when you were younger. I’ve put up shelves in there,’ he paused and she could almost hear him add to hide them away, ‘but we do appreciate the effort you put in and are grateful for this year’s anniversary present, darling.’
Maud was sure he couldn’t help but notice that she was almost hopping from foot to foot in agitation and her eyes were bright with questions. He looked pained, as if his guts had just turned over. She knew her mum would hide this little painting in the spare room as soon as possible after she had stepped through the front door at home, but hopefully he could see how much it meant to Maud. He gritted his teeth and her heart melted as his shoulders straightened and he stood a bit taller. She could see that he’d decided that for once he was going to stand his ground. ‘It’s pretty, love.’ Maud let out the breath she’d been holding and rushed over to squeeze the life out of her dad in her excitement, until he was laughing and gasping for air.
‘But…’ interrupted Rosemary, getting up. Maud wondered if she had told her dad not to react when Maud gave them another painting and finally to talk her out of this most unsuitable habit. ‘For goodness sake, Maud! You’re a teacher with lots of other ways to fill your days. Why are you mucking about with paints when you should be trying to find a husband?’ Maud’s smile dropped from her face and her dad looked upset. She could feel the gloom returning.
‘It’s pretty,’ he repeated firmly, making Rosemary sit back down in confusion at his forceful tone. ‘We can put it by the window in the kitchen so that we can look at it every day.’
Rosemary’s face went white with shock and she looked like she might faint at the thought of that monstrosity in her pristine cream kitchen, but one glance at her husband silenced her protest. She lifted her face and saw Maud’s slightly unkempt hair and wild eyes and her face softened slightly.
‘I don’t know why it means so much to you for us to have some of your pictures, but maybe we can find a corner for this one if it’s that important. I’m not a monster. I don’t know where you get this painting thing from, Maud,’ she added, getting up and running her hands down Maud’s soft blond hair to straighten out the kinks.
Maud dressed impeccably in neutral tones and her hair didn’t usually have a strand out of place, as she tamed the unruly curls at the ends with hot hair straighteners every day. Even her bungalow, with its stark white walls and modern but functional furniture, was always immaculately clean, even if it was a strange choice of home for such a young woman. Maud’s mum didn’t really have anything to complain about, as Maud did everything in her power to please her parents, other than this one small thing. For some reason her mum had a deep rooted fear that Maud needed to be kept under control in case she started running around naked or dying her hair pink, orange and blue again, like she had as a child.
Rosemary often recalled the memory to Maud. She blamed her own older sister, Maud’s aunt – whom she too often referred to as ‘the annoying one’ – for starting this mess by buying her then five-year-old niece a set of colourful finger paints. For the next few years it had been chaos. Rosemary said her stomach often turned over at the recollection. The beautifully clean walls of their three-bedroom terraced home were spattered with every colour of the rainbow, as Maud decided that they should be ‘smiley colours.’ Her clothes, which her mum spent hours laundering and ironing, began to be covered with pen and ink blobs and smears, which were the faces of their pedigree, non-shedding cat and his rather less salubrious neighbourhood friends. Every surface Maud could find followed suit.
Her mum had initially thought that it was a phase that Maud would grow out of, and yelled at her sister for being so bloody inconsiderate. She got haughty distain in return, and it explained why they still couldn’t stand being in the same room together. As Maud grew up, she learnt not to paint on the surfaces of her home lest she invoke the wrath of her parents, but she began doing odd jobs for extra pocket money and bought paper, pens and an art folder to hide under her bed. Within weeks it had been full to bursting and her mum had wrung her hands in despair at the clutter and nearly kicked the poor cat as she constantly tripped over tubes of paint, which had escaped from the desk drawer. Admittedly, Maud’s room was mostly tidy, but her homework desk overflowed with art supplies and the smell of fresh paint now made her mum feel faint.
Over the years, Maud had realised that her art was a frivolity and she had gradually dwindled to painting only occasionally, until she had stopped altogether. Now she had her own private space, the ‘phase’ had begun again, and her mum was distraught. At least the mess was at Maud’s own house and she didn’t have much time to paint now she had a full-time job.
‘You do seem to be happy here,’ Rosemary sighed, looking around at Maud’s home and mentioning that the kitchen cupboards needed rubbing down and repainting. She watched Maud as she leaned forward and hugged her dad again, dodging away from her mum’s hands, as Rosemary tried to brush a speck of dust from her soft blue jumper and then tugged at the hem of her skirt to straighten it.
‘Thanks, dad,’ Maud beamed at him, generously turning and enveloping her mother in the hug too, making her blush furiously and shoosh her away.