At age eleven, Ria Ofor was caught in a fire that left her facially-scarred. Devastated by the apparent rejection by her father, Ria, now twenty-seven, is a gifted sculptress but lives a semi reclusive life. Avoiding art galleries and their consequent publicity, she sells her artwork online, scraping a living through online sales. But when she’s hit with a repossession notice on her home, it rocks the shaky foundations she’s been living on.
On borrowed time, Ria must land a gallery contract in order to survive. That means stepping out of her comfort zone and coming face to face with what she’s spent the last sixteen years trying to avoid: rejection. But competition for lucrative gallery contracts is cut-throat, and Ria soon discovers that some artists will stop at nothing to keep the spoils of London’s glittering art world for themselves. Torn between the events of her past and the lies threatening to destroy her future, Ria is faced with a decision that could change her life forever.
RISE is a standalone novel.
Ria appreciated the beauty of the headless female sculpture standing before her. A sculpture without its head has its own particular beauty. Strong sculpted legs, intricately crafted torso, and powerful shoulders—the beauty of creation.
She squatted in front of the sculpture and ran a slender hand over its flanks. The modeling clay she had chosen had done its job, its durability ensuring the legs of the sculpture came out strong and smooth, the hips gently curved. Seven weeks into the making, this piece would be larger than any piece she had previously sculpted and certainly more challenging.
Here in her art studio, which spanned the basement of her small house in London’s Island Gardens, clay statues of ancient kings and queens graced the long wooden shelves resting against ivory walls. A small sink sat at the far right against the wall beside a large white storage cupboard, snug beside a two-seater. A small stereo, which she only turned on when sketching, rested on the table beside it.
Time to begin the head, she decided, as she rose gracefully to her feet. Creating the head was her favorite part. If the legs, shoulders, and torso possessed their own particular beauty, then how she created a sculpture’s head showcased its personality—laughing eyes, a slanted mouth, and a molded chin. These would bring out the figure’s humorous manner.
A slim young woman with close-cropped, tightly-curled black hair, Ria had a dewy, dark chocolate complexion. And with a delicate oval face, even the faded pink burn scars that ran from the apples of her cheekbones down to her collarbones couldn’t spoil her classic beauty.
She reached for her apron and tied it around her long-sleeved white T-shirt and soft faded blue jeans. Sculpting was an arduous and messy work, but one of the perks of being a full-time sculptress was that she went to work in her most comfortable clothes.
She moved to where the armature waited atop the worktable. Shaped like an egg, an armature’s rigid metal framework ensured effective structuring of a sculpture’s head.
Collecting an armful of old newspapers from the storage cupboard in the corner, she rolled the papers into balls and then began to fill the armature with them. Once thoroughly packed, she secured the head in place with a small plastic bag. Now for the clay. She took a moment to relish the solid, yet light weight of it in her hand. Then, detail by detail, piece by piece, she began adding more and more clay to the stuffed plastic bagmoulding and smoothing it against the bag’s slippery surface. She hummed as she worked, following the measurements she had set out when the idea had first come into her head. Her deft and skillful fingers, armed with her trusted sculpting chisel, manipulated the clay.
The sharp slap of the letter box upstairs stopped her. She stretched her arms high over her head, working out the stiffness in her shoulders caused by bending over the armature. She crossed to the sink and washed her hands, then proceeded to leave the studio, heading up pink carpeted stairs to the ground floor.
She plucked the white envelope lying on the doormat. Early morning sunlight shone through the glass panel in the front door, and the click of women’s heels sounded on the pavement outside as they carried a neighbour to work. Once the morning rush was over, as everyone had either left for work or school, she would go for her daily morning walk and then fuel up with a green juice.
She broke the seal of the envelope and pulled out the letter.
Dear Ms. Ofor,
Account No: 17032007-55GM Property: 55 Garden Mews
Please be informed that payment due on the above-referenced account has not been made. We have made several unsuccessful attempts to contact you. Our records show that your account is in arrears by £11,509.
Please make arrangements to clear the outstanding amount within 28 days, otherwise the case will be escalated to our solicitors, whereupon they may be forced to take legal action resulting in the repossession of the property. If you have since made arrangements to clear the aforementioned amount, please ignore this letter.
Ria’s stomach dropped somewhere below ground level, and the noose of the repossession notice only tightened further around her neck, almost choking her.
She had failed.
The knowledge brought a sour taste to her mouth, and salty tears began to trickle down to her cheeks. She had tried everything she could to sell her art: special offers, first buyer discounts… You have tried everything except what you really should, she admitted silently and squeezed her eyes shut. The scars have faded, she reminded herself. They’re not as disfiguring as they once were. No one will stare at you if you go out; no one will point or grimace, she reassured herself.
Face damp with tears, she looked around almost desperately. Her heart pounded. How will I sculpt? Where will I sculpt if I lose my home?
Her walk and juice forgotten, she returned to the studio with heavy legs. From the storage cupboard she pulled out the lowest drawer. The pile of threatening letters she had received over the last nine months stared up at her like hungry wolves. A shudder raked through her.
She needed to be strong, she told herself. She wiped her eyes and then moved to the teak filing cabinet beside the storage cupboard. She placed the letter atop it, then with a deep breath, opened the bottom drawer. Art magazines and industry journals were stacked neatly inside. Please, she begged silently as she rifled through the drawer. Please still be here.
Her trembling fingers hit a cool glossy cover—Sculpting Magazine, last month’s issue. She held it to her chest for a moment, closing her eyes and attempting to steady her racing heart. She opened her eyes, flipping through page after page until she found what she was looking for: the monthly snapshot of an art agent. This issue profiled one Meg Fuller, president of a boutique art agency called the Art Room. As an art agent, Meg Fuller placed artists with art galleries throughout London.
Only in Ria’s most private moments did she allow herself to imagine what it would be like to be a commercially successful artist. But then she would think of people’s stares, comments, and rejection, and shrink back into herself.
She looked up at the portrait of her deceased uncle Jonas that took pride of place on the wall. After she had graduated from Rayners Art Academy six years ago, it was he who had helped arrange the financing on the flat. She had loved the compact space at first sight.
“You helped me buy this place,” she whispered to his smiling face, as she maintained a grip on the art magazine. “You encouraged my love of art. You started me on this journey.”
It was Uncle Jonas who had introduced her to art at age ten. A successful surgeon who hadn’t had children of his own, he’d spent a lot of time with her and her older brother, Dominic. One afternoon, he had taken them both to visit the Canbury art gallery in central London. Stepping into that gallery had been like stepping into a warm, enveloping cloud. Light poured in from the huge wall-to-wall windows, highlighting paintings that graced the white walls, while eclectic sculptures stood atop tall pedestals. Uncle Jonas had engaged with other gallery visitors about the displays, all of them speaking in awed whispers and hushed tones as they studied the different artwork. Dom had been bored. Ria smiled at the memory of him impatiently hopping from one foot to the other, desperate to leave in eager anticipation of the car exhibition Uncle Jonas had promised him once their time at the gallery was over.
But she hadn’t been bored. She’d been enthralled. Uncle Jonas had asked a member of the gallery staff to answer any of her questions, having sensed her interest, and for the next half an hour she had been given a full lesson in the art of bronze sculpting. After that day she had focused much more attention on her art classes at school, and this continued throughout her college years. Her father had been dismissive of it from the start. She recalled how his blunt, “Most artists can’t afford to feed themselves,” had only added strain to their already fractured relationship.
And now, standing in her studio years later, her father’s words went around in her mind. But he was wrong, she decided. And she would prove him wrong. She looked across the room at the sculpture she was currently working on. “I can fix this.” Her eyes narrowed on the sculpture again. “I have to.” With her free hand she quickly pulled her phone from her handbag beside the worktable and looked down at the art agency’s number again. She dialed it.
A young woman answered on the second ring. “Good morning. The Art Room. Layla speaking.”
“Hello.” Be confident, Ria ordered herself and sought to make her usual low voice strident. “Can I speak to Meg Fuller, please?”
“Who can I say is calling?”
Ria drew a fortifying breath. “Ria Ofor.”
“Just a second.”
A moment later a different female voice spoke. “Ria Ofor?”
This was it. Throat tight with both fear and anxiety, Ria swallowed and answered. “Yes.”
“This is Meg Fuller. I recognize your name, Ria.” The agent’s warm and enthusiastic voice eased Ria’s nerves a little. “I’ve seen several of your pieces on the Platform website but have never been able to find contact details for you. Are you calling for possible representation?”
“Yes, I—” Ria had to blink back the image of the bank letter as it threatened to shadow her vision. “Yes.” She cleared her throat and aimed to speak more firmly in an effort to exude confidence. “I’ve been working on a new piece for several weeks. I think it may be of commercial interest.”
“I see. You have an up-to-date portfolio?”
“I do, yes.”
“Good. Why don’t you come and meet me tomorrow afternoon? We’re in Covent Garden.”
Alarm speared through Ria. “M-meet? You mean…face-to-face?”
Ria’s hand grew clammy on the phone. “Can we…can we perhaps negotiate something over the phone…I mean instead of meeting? Maybe…maybe I can email you photos of some of my pieces?” Please say yes.
“I’m afraid not. I always meet any new potential client face-to-face.”
Ria squeezed her eyes shut briefly. How could she reveal her reasons for not wanting to meet face-to-face? She began to lift her hand to her face, but caught herself mid-way, clenching her hands into fists.
Over eleven thousand pounds needed to be paid. Now. She had to do what was necessary. She hoped that, for just once, the chips might fall in her favor. “Thank you, Meg. What time?”
Covent Garden was the heart of London’s tourist district. Its cobbled streets attested to its age, and its bustling market, lively street performers, and boutique designer shops drew both tourists and Londoners alike. It had been years since she had been here, and Ria mused as she exited the tube station. A row of rickshaws lined the pavement just outside. Some riders bargained with enchanted tourists over hire rates, while others sat back to take a rest between rides. Taking a right outside of the station, Ria headed towards the main square. This place still possesses so much energy and vibrancy, she admitted. She wouldn’t admit she had missed it.
“My balloon!” a young boy suddenly squealed. A royal blue balloon flew over Ria’s head. “Mum, catch it quick.”
Startled into glancing up, Ria saw the bright blue balloon in question. She jumped up, catching its long, red string in her grasp, and held it out to the little boy.
“Thank the kind young lady, Jimmy,” his mother prompted.
Brushing his ginger fringe aside, Jimmy stared up at Ria, his large brown eyes wide. “What are those things on your face?” he asked instead.
“Jimmy!” Grasping his free arm, Jimmy’s mother sent Ria a beseeching look of apology as she took the balloon from her. “Come on, Jimmy.”
Ria stood rooted in place, her body as immobile as one of her own sculptures. Only when a passer-by accidently bumped into her did she realize she had been standing in the same spot for some time. Jimmy and his mother had long gone.
Heart pounding, she ran the back of her hand down her right cheek, over the rough texture of unyielding second degree burn scars. Letting her hand drop, she forced her fingers to relax. All thoughts of her impending meeting with Meg wiped clear from her mind, she spun on her heel and headed back towards the tube station, thinking only of home.
Meg Fuller ran impatient fingers through shoulder-length black hair. She rose from her desk and walked out into the main reception area of the Art Room, her emerald eyes narrowing.
At the reception desk her intern, Layla Banes, glanced up. “Still nothing?”
“Not a dicky bird, and I’ve already left two messages.” Annoyed, Meg grimaced. “I’ll try her one more time.” Then she would have to cut her losses. Ria Ofor looked to be a special talent; Meg had seen that for herself while browsing the Platform website several months ago. But she liked artists who knew the importance of communication.
“I’d better head off or I’ll be late for the dentist.” Layla grimaced. “Wish me luck.”
“Good luck,” Meg said, eyes smiling. “See you in a couple of days.” Returning to her office, she picked up the phone and dialed Ria’s number for the third time. Six rings came and went before Ria answered.
“Ria, this is Meg Fuller from the Art Room.”
On the other end of the phone Meg heard Ria’s shocked gasp. “Meg…hi.”
Meg waited a beat. Well, don’t rush to apologize for standing me up, will you? she thought with annoyance. “We were scheduled to meet today at twelve-thirty, remember?”
A sniffle came through the line. “Oh goodness! I-I’m so sorry for—I couldn’t make it.”
Meg’s brows drew together. Ria sounded like she had been crying. “Are you okay?”
Another sniffle. “Yes, I—yes, of course. I’m fine.”
Sure you are, Meg thought with concern and hesitated before asking, “Are you still interested in meeting?”