A Family Likeness

A Family Likeness

“. . . it could never be lost.”

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A Family Likeness 


Before you read, Discuss the role played by support of friends and time in healing the painful emotions connected to great disappointment or loss.

“Livy, do you think you’ll feel like coming out on Friday?” asked Melanie hesitantly. She’d been building up to asking for at least ten minutes, though she didn’t know why she couldn’t even ask a simple question anymore. Olivia didn’t answer; she merely shook her head without bothering to look up. They continued to walk along the road in uneasy silence.

Melanie was getting tired of trying to get things back to normal. Patience didn’t come naturally to her and she couldn’t get used to having to think about every word and action in case Livy was upset by what she said or did. Yet she felt she had to try, because after all, they were best friends, and best friends stood by each other for better or for worse . . . Olivia’s whole attitude said very clearly, leave me alone, just let me get on with it, and Melanie was often tempted to do just that. And the worst thing was, she was almost relieved that Livy wanted to be by herself so much, despite the efforts she was making to get her out. She wasn’t exactly easy to get on with any more, and she looked so miserable that everybody round her felt miserable too–either that, or guilty because they weren’t miserable. Sometimes Melanie wondered what it must feel like to have a parent just die on you as Olivia’s father had died on her. But the subject was too big and too awful to be contemplated for any length, and Melanie could only push it to the back of her mind as one of those imponderables, like being put in prison for something you didn’t do, or living through a nuclear war.

“I wish you would start coming out again,” said Melanie, feeling the need to give it one last try. “There isn’t any point in moping, he wouldn’t have wanted you to . . .” Melanie faltered here; why did she have to mention Livy’s father? She might cry or something, which would be awful. But Olivia’s face didn’t change, she just continued to plod homewards in the mechanical, uninterested way she’d adopted since the funeral last term . . . Melanie suddenly realized it had all been going on for at least three months. How long did the being miserable last? Maybe you never got over it.

Melanie became aware that Livy hadn’t even attempted to respond to her question. “Aren’t you going to say anything then?” she said crossly, though she wanted to be kind.

“Sorry,” said Olivia. “I just don’t want to come, that’s all.”

“OK, fair enough,” said Melanie, but she tried to say it gently.

They fell into silence again. There was a limit to Melanie’s ability to converse with someone who didn’t want to talk back–or couldn’t talk back perhaps. Vaguely, Melanie sensed there were things that Livy wanted to tell her but couldn’t put into words. She’d been so silent since it happened, a silence that at times conveyed an angry hostility but at others held nothing but sadness. Melanie was barely able to deal with either. At fifteen, she was beginning to see just how complicated life could be and the idea of spending the next sixty or seventy years in a state of bewilderment was a daunting prospect. She hoped that age would bring wisdom but she had her doubts. Her mother, father and elder sister weren’t showing much. Of course, she might manage to be different–wiser, more sensitive and more aware, but if her progress with Livy was anything to go by, she was doomed to a life of ignorance. If only Livy would let her do something, instead of shutting her out all the time . . .

They turned off the High Street and walked towards Olivia’s gate. Livy began to fumble in her pocket for her keys. “Do you want to come in?” she said.

Melanie looked at her in surprise. Of late, Livy hadn’t seemed able to wait to put the front door between them. “Yes, all right,” she said, not really relishing the prospect. Her mother had said that Mrs. Everson’s grief was such that she was cracking up under the strain. Melanie had never seen anyone cracking up and she wasn’t sure she wanted to.

“You don’t have to come,” said Livy, clearly sensing her reticence.

“No, I’d like to, thanks.”

The house hadn’t changed, that was something. It was full of nice things, books, plants, pottery and pictures–sketches mostly, done by Livy’s dad. She wondered if it hurt Livy to see them on the walls. It would have hurt her had she been in Livy’s shoes . . .

Perhaps that was the trouble–up until then their lives had been similar; so similar that they’d been drawn to one another since their first day of school. They’d spotted each other across the playground at the age of just five because they looked so much the same; each had short curly hair and golden coloured skin and later they’d discovered they each had one black parent and one white, that they lived two streets apart and that they both had a birthday in the last week of August. They’d always felt like twins–until last term, that is. Melanie was beginning to realize that if Livy’s father could die, then hers could too, that nothing was safe or certain. That was why she felt afraid . . . Why had it been Livy’s father and not hers? It could so easily have been her own father who’d died in that accident. Who or what decided things like that? Did it make it better or worse to believe in God?

“Would you like something to drink?” said Livy. “There’s cola in the fridge.”

“They put teeth in a glass of that stuff and they just disintegrated.”

“Does that mean no?”

Melanie smiled. “I guess it does. Have you got any fruit juice?”

“Orange or grapefruit?”

“Orange please.”

They sat and looked at each other across the kitchen table, aware that just now, in choosing drinks, they’d almost had a normal conversation.

“Where’s your mother?” asked Melanie.

“She’ll be back later. She said she’d get some shopping.”

“Is she OK?”

“Why shouldn’t she be?”

Melanie shrugged. They both knew the answer to that, but perhaps it was better to avoid it.

“Would you like a sandwich?” said Olivia.

Melanie wasn’t hungry but Livy had lost so much weight that you could get two people into her jeans. Maybe if she agreed to have a sandwich, Livy would have one too. “What have you got?”

“Ham, cheese, banana, liver pâté . . .”

“Cheese. I’m thinking of becoming a vegetarian.”

“Are you?” said Livy. “I tried it once but I only managed to keep it up for a few days.

Mum got sick of cooking three separate meals, one for her, one for me and one for dad . . .

“Cheddar or Edam?” she said briskly, drawing the subject away from her father as if she’d moved there inadvertently and had been stung by the memory.

“Edam,” said Melanie, “it’s less fattening. I’ve decided I’m going to have a healthy body–do you know how many people die of heart disease each year?” She stopped abruptly. How crass could you get? She just had to talk about dying. It was rather like needing to laugh in church; the more you didn’t want to do something like that, the more you just had to do it. She’d be discussing the cost of funerals next.

Livy began to butter some bread. Melanie noted with satisfaction that she was doing two lots. She looked around the kitchen and her eyes rested on the wall opposite. There was a portrait of Livy’s father there–a self-portrait, she supposed. Some time before his death, he’d been hailed as the most outstanding black painter and sculptor of his generation. There was a book about him and he’d been on television.

“Mum put that painting up,” said Livy. “I know she thinks of him a lot but she won’t talk about him. I wish she would.”

“It’s a nice picture,” said Melanie. It was an inadequate thing to say but she couldn’t think of anything more. She focused her attention on her sandwich, chewing steadily. Livy finished hers.

“Would you like to see the others–the other paintings?”

No I wouldn’t like, thought Melanie almost fiercely, but she sensed that an honour was being bestowed on her and that it was important to Livy. It was also the first gesture of friendship to come for some time, so she grasped it quickly. “Yes, all right,” she said.

The studio was at the top of the house. They went upstairs slowly. “I haven’t been in here since he died,” said Livy, and Melanie couldn’t think of an answer.

The room was light and airy–window spanned one wall. All around were the trappings of an artist: easels, paints, brushes. There was a black plastic bin full of hardening clay and a powdery dust on the plain wooden floor. As they walked, their footsteps were imprinted on it. Some of the paintings were six feet high. Melanie felt awed by their stature and vibrance. And everywhere, black figures surrounded them, with elongated necks and large heads–heads large enough to house the spirit; Melanie remembered the description from the programme.

Olivia wandered around, and Melanie watched her with anxiety; what loss was she feeling now? Yet she seemed more relaxed than she’d been for some time; the room seemed to hold something that eased the pain.

“How do you see yourself?” Olivia asked suddenly.

“How do you mean?”

“Do you see yourself as black or white?”

“I don’t know. Neither, I suppose. No, black.” 

Olivia nodded. “Me too. That’s why what he did was so important.”

Melanie knew what she meant. Part of her own sense of herself was somewhere in these paintings and sculptures. How much more was it there for his daughter?

“I wish I was like him,” Livy said.

“You are like him. Everybody says so.”

“Not just to look at. I want to do what he did.”


“Paint and sculpt.”

“Why shouldn’t you? You’re the best in the school at art–even better than the sixth form.”

“Did you know that his father–my grandfather–was a carver too? And his father before him, and back as far as you can imagine.”

Melanie nodded.

“Then it’s up to me to carry on or the whole thing will be broken.”

“Then carry on,” said Melanie quietly.

“I’m not his son.”

“What does that matter? You’re his daughter.”

Olivia was crying; Melanie was trying not to look but she could see it through the corner of her eye. “You’re his daughter, Liv, that counts.”

“It’s always sons.”

“He didn’t have any sons. Besides, even if he had had them, it would still have been you because you’ve got the talent–anyone who’s seen your paintings would know that.”

“But you see, Melanie, I want to do it in order to be part of a tradition, but as a daughter, I can’t be part of it, I can only break with it.”

Melanie felt out of her depth. She sat on a chair without a back by the window. It was covered with spots of dried paint; it looked like a palette. “Did he say you couldn’t do it?”

“No. We didn’t discuss it. You see, I couldn’t ask him to teach me in case he said no, and he never suggested it. I watched him though, and tried to learn that way. He liked me to be here.”

“Perhaps he was waiting until you were old enough to be shown properly.”

“I wish I knew. I’m not sure whether he would have shown me or not. I want to do it though.”

“Then do it, Livy. Go to art school–do whatever you have to do.”

“It won’t be the way it should be.”

“Nothing ever is. Look, things have changed. Even traditions change–they adapt to suit the times. For your father’s father, and all those fathers before him, daughters were for cooking and cleaning, just as for the white slave owners, blacks were for picking cotton and harvesting bananas or whatever it was. It can all be changed once people realize that it can be . . . Oh hell, I don’t know how to put this, I can’t think how to get it across. But I know I’m right. Your father would want you to be a carver and a painter–he’d probably expect it of you. He wouldn’t think you were less able or less important just because you’re a daughter rather than a son. Livy, just look at his work. It goes beyond men and women; it even goes beyond black and white.”

Olivia looked again. As a small child, she’d watched her father chipping and smoothing rough edges, making something live through the large, shapeless slabs. Figures had appeared as if by magic: men and women and children with long necks and large oval heads, masks with angry, scary faces, horses and strange birds from ancient African mythologies. She’d wanted to emulate him, to carve and paint as he did. Her father had shown her each of the figures he’d created, and told her all the stories. She knew about Anansi and Nyankapon, the First Pinci and Brer Rabbit. Since his death, she’d gone over all the legends in her mind, preserving them as the only link she now possessed with her past–her history. She had been born of a Jamaican father and an English mother, she was British but she was also black, and she’d been afraid that an important part of that identity had been buried with her father. Now she was coming to realize that it could never be lost, just as the spirit of her father could never be lost either; it lived on in the work he’d left behind him and it lived on in her.

Olivia walked round, remembering all her father had taught her, how each piece of wood, each stone held an image waiting to be freed; how the carver simply let it out. She touched each one of the shapes she saw, felt its roughness or its smoothness in her fingertips. She too could free the animals and birds and children trapped in their inanimate materials. And all around the walls, figures looked down at her in paint, in wood, in stone; timeless forms, the spirits of her past brought to life. She saw and felt their colours and was soothed.

She was her father’s daughter; she had the right to inherit his skills.

2422 Wds – FRE 80.5 – FKL  4.8

—   —   —   —   —   —   —   —   —  ERASE THIS LINE AND EVERYTHING ABOVE IT BEFORE SUBMITTING YOUR ASSIGNMENT   —   —   —   —   —   —   —

Question and Answer Sheet for 4C-F01-04 – Family Likeness

1. Identify the qualities that make Melanie a better-than-average friend to Olivia.


2. How does Olivia’s bi-racial heritage and her gender affect her responses to events in the story?


3. In the third-last paragraph, the narrator tells us the story takes place in England. Identify language clues in the earlier part of the story that indicate the story is British.





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