By any measurement, Helen was a beautiful woman.
She had the sort of frame that never crumpled clothes- all willowy and slender like the girl she had never quite stopped being, despite the beckoning of middle age. Her light brown hair was shoulder length and perfectly behaved, swaying around an oval, symmetrical face. Her eyes were a startling shade of green and her skin smooth-brown and lightly freckled like a perfect beach pebble.
Hers was an effortless beauty, undefeatable by fashion mistakes or bad hair days. It was built around a kind of elfin simplicity that could render her enticingly vulnerable in jeans and old sweaters yet was also stunningly sophisticated in a silk dress. She even woke unruffled like some character from a toothpaste commercial,
Men stared, following the arc of her limbs in the corner of their eyes, thrilling to the inching up of the hem of her skirt or the brushing back of wind-wisped hair behind a perfectly formed ear- and Helen hated it. She loathed the way they flattered her and competed for her attention. She hated it too when despite her best efforts they turned to jelly as if she was some kind of Kryptonite to their not-so-Super man.
Women, however, tended watch in envy- in the same way that they might stare at glossy magazine pictures of models wearing clothes they could never afford. Some wanted to be near her, as if to bask in her reflected beauty, whilst all the time probing for cracks in the lovely façade through which they could find her gloriously wanting.
Helen had discovered early in life that hers was a kind of beauty that did not seem to draw people in- rather it had an exclusive quality like an invisible force-field. People would stare at her, then step back deferentially. This had become the unconscious defining characteristic of Helen’s relating and communing with others; she lived at the centre of a curated space, like a roped-off podium in an art gallery, a rare and expensive exhibit that should be appreciated only from hushed distance. Helen herself was insightful enough to be aware of the phenomenon, but not to understand the cause of it. In most social situations she found it impossible to fully close the gap.
As a surprising late and only child, she had never needed to compete for attention, it was given to her as if by divine right. Neither did she have to work hard to please her care givers as they seemed satisfied just to polish her exterior, to dress her, display her and reverence her.
This might suggest the ideal circumstance for creation of a self-centred spoiled child, but Helen had never really become selfish. She loved her doting parents and wanted to make them happy so she attended the ballet classes and competed in the gymkhanas. She learned to play piano competently and to provide entertainment at her parents’ dinner parties. It had been easy and undemanding to fulfil her mother’s mostly benign longings for genteel accomplishment and ornament her father’s advancing years with soft, if tedious, Sunday afternoons of companionship.
Despite growing up in this comfortable suburban idyll, Helen was always aware that something was missing, although she was never quite sure what it was. She felt it like a kind of emptiness – like finest food never tasted, or some vital person she had yet to meet. Like the violet edge of a rainbow it fringed everything she did. It was most noticeable in her unconscious yearning for more, despite guilty conviction that she already had far too much.
Over time she learnt to suppress this longing; to dismiss it as middle class cliché and the faux-ennui of privilege, but it was rather like the ache of sensitive teeth that could be triggered anew by small changes in the weather. It could often surprise her.
Helen knew that being the object of adoration also brought also great responsibility. She was the source of some kind of divine blessing on this kind and generous couple into whose life she had been inserted unexpectedly. She learnt her part well, but still the distance was there – that roped-off and poorly understood space across which she watched the others watching her.