‘I guess there was something…when I was a little girl…’
It had taken a long time. For forty-five minutes Anna had been trying to find a way through the teenager’s prickly defences (there’s nothing wrong with me, this is a total waste of time).
Anna didn’t raise her eyes from her notepad; she’d learnt that eye contact could sometimes discourage a confidence.
‘It was Jenny’s tenth birthday and we had this big barbecue in the back garden. I would’ve been about nine, I guess. Lots of family were there and my dad’s younger brother, Uncle Karl, turned up. I didn’t know him very well, he was sort of estranged from the rest of the family…’
Outside in the back garden a magpie suddenly burst into song as if it was a beautiful summer’s morning not a dreary autumn afternoon.
‘It was so hot me and Jenny put our swimsuits on and spent all afternoon messing around in the paddling pool with our little cousins.’ She fell silent as if considering how to go on. ‘Anyway, I was sitting in the paddling pool on my own when Uncle Karl came over and knelt down beside me. We watched Jenny chasing the other kids with the hose and he kept saying how pretty she was and what a stunner she was going to be when she grew up. I could feel him looking at me, really sort of staring at me and then he said, “You’ve got a really ugly face, did you know that? I’ve never seen a little girl as pig ugly as you are. You’re never going to get married with a face like that.’ Then he just stood up and wandered back to the others…’
Anna looked at Rebecca now. The seventeen-year-old’s face was disfigured by plastic surgery; her lips were bloated, her nose reduced to a nub of flesh, her cheeks swollen with Botox. Since she’d turned fourteen she’d had seven cosmetic procedures, forcing her mother to give her consent each time by throwing tantrums and threatening suicide. Now she wanted another operation on her nose and her mother was refusing to allow it until she’d had a psychiatric assessment.
‘I’ve never told anyone that before…’
‘How did it make you feel?’
‘I don’t know…shocked…embarrassed…I went straight inside and studied my face in a mirror. And Uncle Karl was right. I was ugly.’
‘Had anyone ever said anything like that to you before?’
‘Why were you so sure he was right?’
Rebecca didn’t answer.
‘Why did you believe a virtual stranger, someone who was an outsider even in his own family? Why did you believe him over the people who loved you?’
‘I don’t know. He wasn’t worried about hurting my feelings, I guess. He wasn’t frightened to tell me the truth.’
‘So it was “the truth”. It couldn’t have been malice or mischief making…?’
Rebecca shifted uncomfortably on the sofa and plucked at the tasselled seam of the cushion she held to her stomach. She glared around her at the ornaments on the mantelpiece, the reproduction of The Hay Wain, the taupe shade of the standard lamp, as if she wanted to take an axe to them.
‘Tell me more about this Uncle Karl,’ Anna said. ‘Where is he now?’
‘He died in a car accident. In Spain. Drove his sports car into a brick wall. My mum thought it was suicide but no one could say for sure.’
‘What did he do for a living?’
‘This and that – real estate mostly, I think.’
‘Did he ever marry?’
‘No. He had various “partners” but no one stayed with him very long.’
There was silence save for the soft hissing of the gas fire.
‘If you don’t mind me saying, he sounds quite troubled to me. Not someone whose judgement I’d put a great deal of faith in.’
Rebecca shrugged. Whatever.
‘When he said those horrible things to you at your sister’s party,’ (Anna knew she was about to take a risk, but she had to try to connect), ‘why didn’t you just tell him to go fuck himself?’
Rebecca laughed. The f-bomb, as Anna had hoped, just brought them a little bit closer.
‘I don’t know. I was only nine. And he was an adult. Anyway, he was just calling it as he saw it – Jenny was much prettier than me. I was the ugly sister.’
Anna picked up her iPad from the coffee table.
‘Your mum gave me a USB stick full of photos of you and Jenny when you were children.’
‘I know,’ Rebecca said. ‘Embarrassing…’
Anna opened the file and scrolled through the photos. They were digital snapshots of an enviable middle-class childhood – Rebecca and Jenny on the beach at Saint-Michel, riding their ponies at a gymkhana; the two sisters surrounded by an embarrassment of riches on Christmas day, playing badminton in the back garden…
‘Jenny was very pretty,’ Anna said.
Rebecca gave her a poisonous look. Tell me something I don’t know.
Anna found the photo she wanted. It showed a little girl, aged about ten, dressed in a fairy costume.
‘She looks particularly beautiful in this one.’
Anna held the iPad up and Rebecca leaned forward so she could see it better.
Anna waited a few seconds, still holding the iPad up. ‘The only thing is, though, Rebecca, that’s not Jenny, that’s you.’
‘No, that’s Jenny. I was never in the school play.’
‘I know you weren’t. I Photoshopped your head onto Jenny’s body. It’s you.’
Rebecca took the iPad from her and studied it.
‘The truth is, you and Jenny were actually quite similar looking as children. When I looked through the photos I kept getting the two of you mixed up. How could that happen if she was the pretty one and you were the ugly one?’
Rebecca contemplated the iPad in puzzled silence.
Anna looked at her watch. The hour was up.
‘I think we’ll leave it there today and make another appointment for a fortnight’s time.’
Rebecca handed the iPad back with a dismissive shake of her head. ‘You can do anything with Photoshop.’
Anna was about to say that she’d done very little to the image when Rebecca stood and let the cushion fall to the floor. She stared at Anna, defying the psychiatrist to ask her to pick it up.