The ad said something like: I can make a lifelike portrait in oils from any photograph. Guaranteed to bring good luck and fortune.
Nothing else, apart from the email address to contact the artist. Of course, curiosity piqued, Sondra emailed the address for more details.
The reply came back more than a week later and Sondra almost missed it, her computer highlighted it as ‘Spam’.
Hello and thank you for your inquiry. I would be most pleased to fulfil your requirements and can offer a guarantee that the portrait will bring delight and good fortune. The guarantee is complex but worthwhile for both parties. If you are interested, please reply to this email.
It was a different email address to the first one but Sondra had a ‘good feeling’ about it and messaged that she was still interested.
She hit ‘Send Message’ and off it went with a little whoosh sound.
Less than an hour later, a request for a scanned bank statement came through.
“That’s odd, I wonder why they need that?” Sondra thought, but as she had next to nothing in her bank, it wouldn’t make any difference to her either way. She printed out a statement which showed a few transactions going out and nothing coming in. She made certain the details such as addresses and account numbers were covered or blanked out before she scanned it; she added the attachment and returned it to her mysterious artist.
Sondra waited patiently for a reply but nothing came back all day.
In the middle of the night the notification for emails pinged on her phone but it barely disturbed her sleep and she rolled over without waking.
Sondra forgot about the offer for the portrait and started her day as usual, feeding her cats, tending to the few pot-plants outside, feeding the birds, and last but not least, herself.
Mid-morning when she checked her emails, her heart leaped. A notification from one of the online lottery sites she subscribed to said she’d been fortunate enough to win one of that month’s prizes. As she’d never won a thing from the site before, even the £25 was a big deal. The next email, from the portrait artist, elicited a similar reaction; her heart lurched in her chest at the wording.
Hello Sondra, I hope you are well. I have arranged a little incentive for you to make up your mind on the offer of a lucky portrait. It’s a small token but nevertheless, I’m sure you will appreciate it; cats and birds are so expensive to feed, aren’t they?
That was spooky and deliciously exciting.
If she was waiting for a sign to accept the offer of the portrait, that email was it for sure!
What do you need for my portrait?
She sent the email without another thought.
The reply to her email came back almost immediately.
I need a recent picture of you – a ‘selfie’ is ok but a good likeness is vital and it has to have been taken less than a week ago.
I need a lock of your hair, to enable me to get the colouring just perfect, and the picture has to be printed out and posted, not emailed. If you can get those things to me soon, I can work out my price and get started on your portrait.
The emails were never signed and the email address stated no gender, so Sondra had no idea if the artist was male or female but she had an instinctive notion that it was a man.
Sondra finally got the printer to print out a good likeness from the dozens of selfies she had to take. The printer behaved like an asshole, running out of one colour ink and then another, the paper jamming multiple times and then another colour running out. She was at the end of her tether where technology was concerned and she jerked the paper out of the printer only to slice her thumb with the deepest paper-cut she’d ever had. Right down the side of her thumb nail, just into the delicate and sensitive flesh not quite protected by the nail. Blood spattered as she shook her hand to try and rid herself of the stinging sensation. She put the thumb to her mouth in an effort to stop the blood and the pain. A low moan escaped past the thumb and then the mumbled swearing started.
She had no more photograph quality paper left so, despite the smear of blood on the back and the tiniest speck of a droplet on the front, she decided to send it anyway.
A week later an email arrived. Sondra tried to be patient and she couldn’t imagine why she was so excited about this particular item but she actually hopped with joy when she saw the notification for the portrait email.
Hello Sondra, I have made a start on your portrait as a mark of faith that you will be pleased with it. Here you are, the preliminary sketches for your portrait and the doorway to your good fortune.
The attached files were small, thumbnail sized pictures and they refused her every effort to enlarge them. From what she could see however, the portrait would be amazing.
That was the start of her run of good luck.
She sat studying and admiring the portrait with a magnifying glass. A knock at the door dragged her from her computer.
A scruffy-looking bloke stood at the door, sideways on, looking at the heap of debris that had accumulated on the front ‘garden’. “Hello miss, I was wonderin’ if you’d like me to clear that junk from your front yard?”
“Oh, erm, I dunno,” he said. “Fifty quid?”
“Sorry, I don’t have that kind of money,” she said and started closing the door.
“No miss, I mean I’d give you fifty quid for it. There’s quite a bit of scrap in there, you see.”
“Fifty quid?” Sondra thought about it for a moment. “OK, if you’ll take it all, not just the scrap, you have a deal. Thank you.”
He actually doffed his cap as she closed the door.
He knocked again half an hour or so later.
“Here you go, fifty quid as we agreed,” he said handing her a few crumpled notes.
“Thank you,” she said in a daze. She looked at the money and back to the scruffy-looking bloke. After the door closed, if anyone had asked her to describe the man, she wouldn’t have been able to.
If that was an example of the good fortune she could hope for, Sondra would be delighted to commission the portrait.
At the computer, she wrote and sent another email: How much?
The reply came back almost instantaneously and she thought it must have been ready to be sent even as she decided to go ahead with it.
I ask the same of everyone whether they are rich or poor. I saw from your bank balance that you are indeed not wealthy and I will be happy to help you if you agree to my terms.
I ask for a third of everything that comes your way, whether that be by way of a new job, a windfall by gambling, a lottery win (or two), or inheritance. From this day forth, every year on this date, you will agree to put a third into my account or give directly to my agent, and I will continue to guarantee your good fortune. This is a lifetime guarantee.
Do not forget, you are agreeing that I am owed one third of everything that comes your way from the day you agree and commission the portrait.
Please reply to this email that you understand and agree to my terms. I would appreciate it if you would use your own words with which to enter into the contract with me. I find that way it is best; both parties know exactly where we stand.
Many thanks for your consideration, I await your instruction to continue with the commission or to cease and desist. Of course, if I stop, then so does the run of good fortune and you will go back to how it has always been. You may, of course, keep everything you have gained since we began communicating.
Still no signature on the email but Sondra knew what she wanted to do.
Hitting ‘Reply’, Sondra thought about the wording for the contract.
Hello, thank you for your message.
I would like to accept the terms for commissioning the portrait in my likeness and I understand that a third of everything that comes my way from the day I agree and commission the portrait is due to you and I shall pay the amount into your account or to your agent on an annual basis.
In her excitement, Sondra read through only once, checking for typos etc.
It was only after she had hit ‘Send’ that she realised any interest on her money would be considered as ‘coming her way’ too. She decided that was something she could live with. After all, a third of nothing is nothing.
Sondra’s good luck continued that day. It built slowly; a fiver found trapped in the hedge bordering her property, notification that she had won a prize in a local charity’s raffle and buying a lottery scratch card on a whim, she won a hundred pounds. “And this is before I even get my portrait!” she said to herself as she tucked the paper money into her purse.
She watched for emails from her artist notifying her of little changes to be made. The emails sometimes contained a picture of the portrait and she noticed one thing – the background grew progressively darker while her image seemed to glow.
“That’s a brilliant effect,” she said to Sooty her tuxedo cat. Sooty looked up at her, slow-blinked and gave a little miaow to say she understood.
Every time an email arrived with an update, Sondra had another windfall. Anything from the tickets to see her favourite band, to a couple of thousand pounds on the online lottery site.
The updates were irregular but Sondra started playing the system. As soon as a notification came in, before reading it, she’d put a small sum of money on an online lottery ticket. After the draw, she’d check her numbers and only then would she check the email for the artist’s update. The system never failed. A winner 100% of the time. Every. Single. Time.
Because she knew how difficult it would be to keep track of winnings over the space of a year, especially if they were so numerous, she started putting a third away in her Paypal account. That way, it would be there when she needed to transfer it all – in a year’s time.
Sondra grinned when she recognised the artist’s email in her inbox one morning and clicked the lottery site she’d been using. She put her usual £10 on tickets and then, on another whim, she chose a lucky-dip – a randomly generated set of numbers chosen by the lottery site’s computer.
Sooty leaped up onto her lap and placed her paw on her hand.
“Is that for good luck, Sooty?” she said, gazing down at her beloved pet. “Here we go then.”
She clicked the mouse and sent the payment for the tickets.
Sondra kept the screen with her tickets on the computer but she switched off the power to it and went off to continue her day.
She forgot all about the lottery ticket, she knew she’d won, it was just a matter of how much. What she was most excited about was the update on the picture.
The postman came and went, he brought an invitation to partake in a prize draw for a new car from a local car dealership, political bumph, and a bill.
The bills no longer caused mild panic like they used to, Sondra had enough in her account to pay everything outright as soon as they dropped through her door.
She filled the prize draw card in and put it on the side with the others to post.
Sondra got ready to go out and looked outside to see whether she needed a coat. A white van pulled up outside, part on the pavement and she watched as the driver emerged, went around to the back doors and checked his clipboard. He looked at the house, saw her watching and waved.
Sondra went to the front door, puzzled.
When she saw what the delivery driver was unloading, she couldn’t contain her excitement. The portrait!
The driver struggled up the path, manoeuvring it through the gate with exceptional care. He stood it just inside the house.
Sondra heard a low growl from inside the house and turned to see what Sooty was growling at.
Sooty, tail fluffed-up, sat on the bottom step of the stairs, growling at the portrait.
“Silly kitty, it’s only a picture for mummy,” Sondra said. She turned to sign for the portrait and smiled at the driver.
He nodded, said, “Thank you, miss,” checked the signature and left.
Sooty bolted out of the front door before Sondra could stop her.
Sooty disappeared under the hedge and refused to come back when Sondra called.
Sondra closed the door, she’d come home when she’d had her fun.
The portrait was bigger than she imagined it would be. “I suppose I’m getting my money’s worth,” she muttered.
Brown paper covered the portrait and Sondra peeled a little starting area at the top, and tore a large piece of the paper all the way down to the floor. It made a satisfying ripping sound. The tear uncovered approximately a quarter of the portrait and Sondra looked at it, puzzled. It appeared to be blank with a square of paper right in the middle. She peeled a little more brown paper from it and took the square of paper.
Here is your portrait. I hope it brings you great wealth and good fortune. I recommend hanging the portrait in a prominent position, away from direct sunlight and sources of heat. The oils are still wet and you wouldn’t want cracks appearing like wrinkles before your time.
Hindsight is 20-20 vision. In hindsight, Sondra should have taken heed of Sooty.
The portrait stood in the hall for an hour while Sondra roamed her house, searching for just the right place to hang it. The best place, the only place prominent enough and out of direct heat and sunlight proved to be almost exactly where it had stood since its arrival – in the hall at the bottom of the stairs.
There was no way she could hang the heavy painting by herself but she could turn it around to see it.
Sondra ‘walked’ the portrait around. Picking it up and turning it would be awkward and she didn’t trust either her grip or her strength in her excitement. Lifting it an inch or so at one end, she twisted it on its corner and swung it around a little bit at at time. One corner then the other, until it leaned against the wall; turned 180 degrees to how it arrived.
“Here goes,” Sondra whispered to herself. She pulled the paper away from the frame and stepped back as she pulled, to keep it away from the still-wet oils as she removed it.
She closed her eyes, thrilled, yet wanting to savour the moment. When she opened her eyes and gazed at the portrait, it took her breath away. The image that gazed back at her had a life of its own. The skin glowed with clear, luminous health.
Sondra’s hand went to her face in an automatic motion, to the small patch of acne that refused all her efforts to clear. The bumps on her skin that had been there that morning were gone. Sondra’s fingertips examined her skin, patting across it, just below the right corner of her mouth. Since puberty, that patch had never been clear, yet, just as it looked in the portrait, the skin felt smooth. Sondra leaned in towards the portrait and examined it closer. She had always been self-conscious about a small but prominent mole on her left cheekbone. It caught the eye no matter how much concealer she used. No mole on the portrait and when her trembling fingers searched her face, no mole to be found there, either.
Sondra gasped as a thought crossed her mind. The selfie she’d sent had been ‘photo-shopped’ - edited and manipulated to perfection. Minor flaws removed or glossed over and the artist had then painted her portrait from that image.
The result was spectacular; the portrait could have graced the front page of any fashion magazine and Sondra’s eyes brimmed with tears.
She spent hours studying the portrait and running off up to the bathroom to check the differences. There were none. It struck her at last, as the sun began setting, that it was the work of either a master artist or magic. She laughed at herself but even to her, her laughter sounded hollow and a little bit scared.
Sooty didn’t come home that evening.
In the morning, Sondra shouted for the cat to come in. Sooty stood in the middle of the front garden and meowed in a particularly plaintive voice; the tone she used when she was hungry. Sondra took her dish of fresh food to the door to try to entice her pet inside but she wouldn’t come in. Eventually, Sondra left the food at the side of the step and hoped the cat would come to her senses when the weather changed.
The portrait stood leaning against the wall and Sondra studied it every time she passed. An idea occurred to her and she went to her neighbour’s house. She knocked and waited for her to answer the door. Sondra took a step back when a young man opened the door rather than her expected female neighbour.
“Oh, hi, I was expecting Di to answer the door, sorry,” Sondra said. She laughed at herself as she apologised. “Hi, I’m Sondra, I live next door. I’ve come to ask Di if she’d help me hang a picture, is she in?”
“Hi Sondra, I’m afraid Di doesn’t live here. She moved out last week. I was about to call round at yours to see if she’d left a forwarding address but I guess that question’s been answered. Still, I’ll come round and help if you’d like?”
He closed the door behind him as he followed Sondra back to her house.
Sooty sat at the door scoffing her food as though she’d never had a square meal in her life. Sondra scooped her up and took her inside before she had chance to protest. Sondra closed the front door behind her neighbour before putting the cat on the floor.
“Wow, that’s some portrait,” the neighbour said. He leaned forward to take a better look. “It’s a great likeness, the artist has caught every nuance. That’s some talent.”
Sondra blushed with pleasure at the compliment, even though he wasn’t complimenting her, it felt like he was.
“Yes, I’m delighted with it, that’s why I wanted it hung here,” she said, indicating with her hand to the wall she’d chosen.
“It shouldn’t take long. Do you have a drill?”
She nodded and went to the kitchen, returning with a small box of power tools and assorted DIY kit she’d accumulated over the years.
“I’ll make a cuppa while you’re doing that,” she said and left him to it.
“Can you come and give me a hand?” he called as she finished making the tea.
“Sure, I’ll just put the tea in the living room,” she said.
They hefted the portrait between them, and it hung on the two hooks the neighbour had installed.
Sondra took a step back and admired the portrait. It hung at the exact height she wanted – a shade higher than her, as though the portrait wore heels and the real Sondra wore flat shoes. She grinned and nodded. “Perfect,” she said. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. I’m Joe by the way,” he said and held out his hand.
Sondra took his hand and shook it. His touch lit something in her stomach and she looked into his eyes for a brief moment, blushed again, let go of his hand and took an involuntary step backwards.
Joe caught her elbow before she fell over the box of tools.
“Are you ok?” he said, his voice filled with concern.
“Yeah, sorry. I suppose it’s the excitement of the portrait, I feel a little overwhelmed.”
“Come on, let’s get you sat down,” Joe said, leading her by her elbow into the living room.
Joe stayed long into the evening, they chatted and joked about anything and everything. Eventually Joe’s stomach growled and the sound was too loud to be ignored.
“Oh wow, look at the time, no wonder you’re hungry,” Sondra said. “Do you like Indian food? I know a nice restaurant, nothing fancy, but their onion bhajis are superb. My treat for the portrait hanging service.”
“Well, if you insist,” Joe said.
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All images from Pixabay