Spotlight on A Portrait of my Love by Jennifer Young

Jennifer Young is an Edinburgh-based writer, editor and copywriter. She is interested in a wide range of subjects and writing media, perhaps reflecting the fact that she has both arts and science degrees. Jennifer has been writing fiction, including romantic fiction, for a number of years with several short stories already published. Thanks You For The Music, which is set on the Balearic island of Majorca, is her first published novel.


Jennifer Young

Jennifer Young’s A Portrait of my Love follows new adult Skye.  Here is an excerpt:

I had a problem.

Me. Skye Ashton. Just-turned-21, a student approaching my last year at university, with the richness of life spread in front of me like a confusing patchwork counterpane, its acres of patterns and textures waiting for me to make my mark on them, to forge my own path through their knotted maze of colour, their swirls of emotion. Balanced on the edge of everything and a little bit scared to step off. Dreaming all the dreams that girls of my age do, of a career. Running my own business. Turning the tedious studies of the business management classroom into a real-life adventure. Running my own marketing consultancy. Being a serious player.

In love.

No, not in love. Afraid I was in love.

That was the problem.

I sat in the window of the Edinburgh flat I shared with my older sister, River, balancing my phone on the palm of my hand and weighing up my options as I watched the comings and goings two floors below — the elderly couple with their groceries, the summer visitors pointing their cameras to catch the sharpness of the city skyline against the clear blue sky, the children bowling along to the play park.

Should I call Zack or Leona? It was Leona’s birthday and although I’d already texted, she could be needy and liked attention so perhaps we should speak. She’d give my mood an instant injection of some feel-good chemical that few people were able to produce — a zest for living, for doing, one of the things that attracted me to her.

That was the case for phoning Leona.

Phoning Zack, by contrast, was a bad idea. Whenever I spoke to him my heart pounded in my chest and my blood pulsed much more quickly round my body. And if that was a feel-good drug in itself, its side effects sent me accelerating towards a crazy lack of control; and I hated being out of control.

Zack or Leona? Holding the phone out into a pool of sunlight, I counted to three. I wasn’t normally so indecisive. If River had been there she’d have stood no nonsense. Call Zack, her voice instructed me in my head. Youre in love with him. But River was out who-knew-where in theory at work, but she hadn’t made it back to the flat from the night before and I had no idea where she might be. And no matter how sensible, someone else’s wise words are no good when you say them to yourself.

Zack or Leona? Leona or Zack?

I took the easy option, flashing a finger across the screen until Leona’s number appeared in front of me like magic. ‘Call Leona’ urged the screen. But still I hesitated.

Zack’s was the voice I yearned to hear, even though he was at work and the chances were that all I’d get would be the businesslike message on his voicemail. That would be enough, for now; that fix of feel-good folly.

In the end my indecision paid off and I was ridiculously relieved when the phone rang and spared me the wrong choice. ‘Mum. Hi.’

‘Darling.’ My mum’s voice, warm and full of life just like Leona’s, burst out into my ear. ‘So glad I managed to catch you. All well?’

‘Of course.’ My mum — a happy hippy who wanted nothing more than to teach the world to sing — never failed to make me smile. Sometimes, in a reversal of the traditional mother-daughter relationship, I lay awake at night worrying about her as I wondered what on earth she’d get up to next.

‘And River? I couldn’t get her on her phone. I left her a message.’

Used to River’s casual comings and goings (and far too accustomed to clearing up the regular relationship car crashes which too often accompanied them), I shook my head. ‘She’s going out with friends after work, I think. And she was out with Nat last night so I didn’t see her.’

‘Oh, is that the new man? Have you met him? Do you like him?’

‘I haven’t met him yet, but I expect I will soon.’

‘Aren’t you lonely in that flat by yourself with River at work? All summer?’

River was older than me, her ship of life becalmed early in an accountant’s office which she hated. Like Mum, she flitted like a hippy butterfly from handsome flower to handsome flower. ‘It’s still early in the summer. I’ll find a job and that’ll keep me busy.’

‘I’m sure you’ll find something. You’re so employable.’ It didn’t sound like a compliment when she said it. ‘What a shame about River. I hoped I’d get the two of you together. I have such good news for you. But I can’t keep it to myself any longer.’

Instinct and experience, pulling strongly in tandem, warned me of the nature of this good news before it broke. I traced my finger across the grime of the window. We lived in dusty flat. I’d better hurry up and get a job, because if I didn’t I might have to clean the windows. ‘Neil?’

At the other end of the phone my mum’s laugh rippled through the air like a stream over cobbles. ‘How did you guess? He proposed to me this morning. We’ve set a date for October. No point in messing around.’

‘I’m so pleased.’ I managed a laugh, a semi-genuine one because I didn’t grudge my mother happiness, even though we both knew from bitter experience that it wouldn’t last. Neil was a pleasant enough man — one who seemed to make her happy — but he was just a successor in what felt like a line of stepfathers, real or near-misses. For me Neil would be stepfather number two but he’d be River’s third, though she’d surely take that in her stride. She had no option, really, especially as she seemed hell-bent on repeating our mother’s roller-coaster progress through almost seasonal cycles of love and heartbreak.

‘I knew you would be. We’ll all have dinner together on Sunday. Tell River. Oh, and by “all” I really do mean everyone. Neil’s family as well; or two of them, at least.’

Neil — I scratched my head in an attempt to recollect — had two girls and a boy; River and I had met them just once in passing. Fortunately they were grown up and one of the girls lived in the States. I’d long ago given up trying to keep track of the life histories of these people who flitted so briefly through my life; for a short period my step-siblings, but all too soon gone, like a rainbow when the sun goes in.

‘Brilliant, Mum. So glad you’re happy.’ For now, at least. But she’d be all right in the end; she was blessed with the capability to shed the memories of lost loves along with her tears and move on to the next one, never stopping to think of the inevitability of that relationship, too, drawing to its doom. One thing was for certain, I wouldn’t get married until I was absolutely sure it would last forever.

‘Oh darling, yes. So happy. Tell River she has to bring the new man. What’s his name again?’

‘It’s Nat. Or was that the last one? I haven’t actually met him,’ I reminded her.

Such small details never deterred my mum. ‘Then tell her to bring him so we can meet him. It wouldn’t do if he didn’t know anyone at the wedding.’

If it lasts that long. My smile, a mix of mellow amusement and mild sadness, lasted while I calculated that it was five months to October and by then River would quite likely have moved on to someone else. ‘I’ll tell her.’

‘She isn’t very patient with men, though, is she?’

Like Mum, River expected love to bless her instantly and to last forever. The moment it began to fade, the moment a boyfriend’s desire to stay in and watch his football team on the telly exceeded her passion for a walk in the park, it was over. ‘I don’t think she is.’

‘I’ll have to have a word with her.’

I choked back a laugh. Longevity was relative, after all. Mum always found it quite astonishing that any of her friends were still tied into a first relationship. So dull, I remembered her saying as she patted the hand of stepfather number two (Brian; neither I nor River had taken to him at all). What do they find to talk about? ‘That’s probably a good idea.’

‘And that applies to you.’

‘What about me?’

‘What about your young man? River seems to think you’re getting serious. Surely you’re serious enough to bring him home?’

Zack. Damn him. He would have winked at me if he could have heard the conversation, the way he always winked at me when River was being outrageous. Even the thought of that lazy lowering of an eyelid and the half-smile that accompanied it, turned my heart over, shook it like a terrier with a rabbit and then let it go to calm down again, beat by beat. I licked my lips, almost in fear. Did my mother live like this, wrung out by this tide of emotion every time she fell in love?

Falling in love. Was it really worth the effort?

If it’s fear you feel, it can’t be love.


• • •

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