A saga of everyday life in the Big L and a wry look at contemporary culture
I’m late. Clarissa will have gone in without me. What then? Quinn rushed across the Millennium Bridge towards the Tate. Its monumental design, with its huge central chimney, loomed over her as she dashed into the Turbine Hall. She arrived, breathless, at the entrance to the Exhibition. Around her, several posters boldly announced: “Picasso 1932 — Love, Fame, Tragedy”. There was no sign of Clarissa. Oh no! She’s gone on in without me!
‘There you are!’
Waving her arms in the air, Clarissa emerged from behind a crowd of what looked like American tourists. All were somewhat overweight, dressed in jeans and tee-shirts and wearing sneakers. The ubiquitous bum bag hung around their waist. A few sported knapsacks, complete with bottled water. It was as if they were in uniform.
‘Sorry I’m late.’ Quinn fumbled with her coat, removing it and placing it under her arm. ‘Had to run to get here.’ She breathed deeply.
‘Should I have expected anything else?’ There was a twinkle in Clarissa’s eye. ‘I can’t think of an occasion when you arrived on time—even for your exams.’ She grinned and grabbed Quinn by the arms. ‘Come on, I’ve got us VIP passes.’
‘How did you manage that?’ This is special!
‘There’re a few perks to being a junior curator here, you know.’
‘I’m jealous,’ because you spend all your time working with art.
‘And so am I. Getting to work for the Prime Minister! I bet your dad had something to do with it.’ Everything really, as you know perfectly well. Don’t rub it in.
‘It’s no bed of roses.’ Should I tell her my problems? Clarissa ignored the comment.
They entered the show. His pictures decorated the walls. Was it really just about one year in Picasso’s life? Quinn couldn’t quite comprehend how anyone could put on an exhibition, even if the painter was Picasso, that only looked at one year’s output. It wasn’t as if he didn’t paint anything at any other times, is it? What about his minotaur series? And his ceramics?
They moved through the galleries in silence. Clarissa stopped in front of “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust”. ‘It’s about love, you know. His marriage was failing, and he sought inspiration and comfort with a woman half his age.’ You mean by having one of his affairs, surely? She pointed at the portrait. ‘His mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter.’ She gestured at the other portraits. ‘She’s in all of these. He was obsessed with her.’ Obsessed? He was hooked. ‘What’s so remarkable is that they were all painted in just the one year. His anno partum.’
‘All in one year, it’s amazing.’ Could I work like he did, a man driven by… By what? Love? Desire? Fame? Addiction?
‘She was his muse.’ Clarissa gazed at “Girl before a mirror”. ‘He’d just turned fifty and was stuck in a loveless marriage. She was twenty-two. You can see the attraction.’ Clarissa went over to a portrait painted in oils and pointed. ‘Here you can see how he saw her: round eyed, with a classical nose—Roman even—and glowing blonde hair.’ She could be me! Clarissa swept a hand around at the other paintings in the hall. ‘It’s always her.’ He was consumed by her. Quinn realised it wasn’t just Picasso. She devoured him.
‘How could he cheat on his wife?’
‘Artists aren’t like the rest of us. Their art is everything. She provided his muse—his passion. Do you know what he said? “Love is the only thing—whatever that means.” It’s profound and silly at the same time.’
‘He was mocking his interviewer.’ And why not? Journalists are pretentious and maybe worth taking down a peg or two.
‘Maybe. But he was a staggeringly intricate—and outlandish—artist.’
‘I don’t believe Picasso’s life is any more complex than anyone else’s.’ Yet, here we’re seeing a man turning his impulses into art, by the day—the hour—the minute. Nothing is being held back. Do we do that? She didn’t like to think what the answer was.
‘But do they paint it?’
‘Well no. But he’s surely not the only one to turn his life into art.’
‘That’s for sure. Think of Tracy Emin.’ Oh, yeah, her bed—complete with condoms. That’s pretty upfront. Makes you, Picasso, seem like a 12A-rated pictorialist.
They emerged from the show.
‘Let’s go get a drink.’ Clarissa led them up to the Kitchen and Bar on the sixth floor. They found a place to sit. ‘What would you like?’
‘A cappuccino, please.’
Clarissa went off to get it. Quinn gazed out at London’s rooftops. The clouds hung over the city. In the distance, she could see a shaft of light where the sun penetrated. The area was bathed in a warm glow. A lucky spot. She could not pinpoint where it was.
Clarissa returned, juggling their drinks. She put them down before resuming her seat. ‘You didn’t want sugar, did you? I can fetch you some.’
‘You think I need an energy boost?’
‘Well, it might be that time of the month.’
‘So, you get the craving.’ Clarissa nodded. ‘That’s the worst time to have any—as I should know.’ Quinn had been a sugarholic in the run up to her periods until her mother had shown her an article about it in Good Housekeeping. It had made her something of an anti-sugar evangelist.
‘Well Jackie started me on it. She said it eased her cramps.’
‘Good for Jackie.’ Quinn sipped her coffee. Not bad.
‘So, how’s things with you? I haven’t seen you since you met that new boyfriend of yours.’
‘Yes.’ Clarissa sat back in her chair. ‘How’s living with Mr Big?’
‘He’s not like that.’ What’s he like? He doesn’t much like crowds, fails to pick up on non-verbal clues and insists everything is always arranged in a particular way—or it drives him nuts. Apart from that he’s a mathematical genius who works endless hours for that hedge fund of his. ‘It’s good.’
Clarissa burst out laughing. ‘That’s the feeblest—and I really mean it—boosterism I’ve heard in a long time.’
‘Well, like any relationships, it’s got its ups and downs.’
‘And my guess is, now is not one of its best moments.’
‘Well he’s disappeared off to Dubai. Now he’s said he’s having to go on to Abu Dhabi.’
Clarissa giggled merrily. ‘You’ve been abandoned.’ She sipped at her drink.
‘Well, it’s not as if he won’t be back. But I could do with some support.’ I just have to talk to someone. ‘There’s this guy Aiden at Number Ten who’s making my life a misery.’
‘What’s he doing?’
‘Well, he continually stares at me. And he’s invaded my personal space.’ She explained several cases of his inappropriate behaviour.
‘Seems fairly innocent to me. I‘d say he sounds somewhat gauche. If you ask me, he probably fancies you and he’s acting stupid as a result.’ Quinn frowned at her. ‘Well Quinn, if you feel that strongly about his activities, you should report him.’
‘That’s difficult.’ She told her about Morton. ‘The whole place is rife with it.’ She recounted Anna’s advice.
‘Wow! You are in a messy situation.’
‘So, what should I do?’
‘Poor you. It must be distressing. For starters, I’d keep a note of every instance. Try to get some witnesses too. You could always try videoing them on your mobile. The more evidence the better.’ She got up. ‘Come on, Quinn, you obviously need a proper drink.’
They headed for the lift. For some reason, one of the Picasso quotations came into Quinn’s mind. “The work one does is a way of keeping a diary.”
* * *
A large banner proclaimed, “London Harness Horse Parade”. Ahead of them, a stream of people was queueing to enter the park. Andrew didn’t think much of the idea of being caught up in a crowd. He turned to his two companions, Tim and his sister Jill. ‘I must be mad agreeing to this.’ His feelings were not helped by ominous dark clouds on the horizon. An April shower would be just what we need. He hoped his anorak would keep out the rain. He had his doubts; it was a cheap import.
‘Mad, Andrew? You have no idea. Just ask Jill how mad this is.’
She flashed him a smile. Lovely! ‘Stop ribbing him, Tim. He’ll be on the next train back to London.’
‘I did explain what we’re going to see. Andrew seemed quite keen. After all, it’s not every day you see drays and wagons. And horses. It’s as if we’ve gone back in time to ol’ England.’
‘Now don’t you get started.’ She put a finger on her brother’s mouth to shut him up. ‘Tim here would bore you to death, if you let him.
Tim pulled his sister’s hand away. ‘It’s a bit of social history. You know, what our great grandparents would have seen on the streets all the time. Horse drawn carriages were pretty much all there was in 1900. And were still in use up to my father’s time. Well, not like in the 19th Century; just a few. He told me he used to watch a rag-and-bone man come around with his horse and cart scavenging for stuff.’
Jill giggled. ‘Just like Steptoe and Son. Did you ever see it? ‘Andrew shook his head. ‘Search for it on YouTube. There are whole episodes available. It’s really funny. It’s about class pretensions and the conflict between father and son. The old man’s always butting in and stopping his son from doing something.’ Sounds just like me and my dad. No thanks.
‘I think it’s a commentary on values. It probably reflects the reality of its time. The old man’s a down to earth grasping miser; his son wants to better himself and has airs and sensibilities. Albert probably had a hard life. His son, less so.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t say too much has changed on that score. Didn’t most older people vote Leave? They’re just like Steptoe father.’ She gave Andrew a winsome smile. She is really quite cute, isn’t she?
Tim tut-tutted. ‘I’m not sure that’s a good analogy.’ She gave him a severe look.
It was their turn to go in. As they passed into the enclosure, Andrew picked up a leaflet that described the event. He noted that the year’s special theme for the parade was a commemoration of the end of WW1. Of course, 1918-2018.
They wandered around, pushing between people to see what was happening. The parade route had been cordoned off, so they joined the sightseers at the barrier to watch as a succession of horse-drawn vehicles and carriages trundled past.
Then came a string of early motor cars, spewing smoke from their exhausts, to be followed by a group of historic motorcycles and, last of all, some ancient tractors. Andrew was quite taken with the display. It made him think how much things had changed. What will our transport system look like in twenty? Thirty years? There’ll be driverless cars. In fact, will anyone still drive? Hadn’t he heard somewhere that young people were now less inclined to get a licence than they used to. He turned to Tim.
‘Do you drive?’ You can be my sample of one. No two; I have a licence.
‘Why? Planning on us stealing one of these museum pieces? I can just imagine myself at the wheel, foot to the floor, escaping at fifteen miles an hour in a put-putting old banger with the fuzz after me, lights flashing. Just like Toad.’
‘Tim! Stop teasing him.’
‘Jill, he’s my friend, he’s made for teasing.’ He gave Andrew an impish grin.
‘Andrew, forgive my brother, he can be an ass, sometimes. No, all the time.’ She gave him a wink.
‘Now you listen here, little sis…’ She put her hands on her hips and he spluttered to a stop. ‘I know, be friends.’
‘Better.’ Do they always behave like this when they’re together? I’ve never seen Tim quite so combative.
‘I think I’ll go for a walk.’ Tim stomped off and soon disappeared into the crowd.
Jill gave Andrew a grin. ‘Cooling-off period.’
‘What’s up? You two don’t seem to get on.’
‘Oh, we do. It’s just we bring out each other’s competitive streak.’
‘And what would you be competing for?’ Andrew had a realisation. What? Me?
‘You don’t recognise my brother’s interest in you.’ He’s gay! I’d no idea.
‘Sorry to disappoint him, I’m quite hetero.’
‘His loss, my gain.’ Are you trying to pick me up? He looked at her in a different light. She was curvaceous and full bodied in the manner of a Titian painting. I wouldn’t say no.
‘Come on, there’s the beer tent.’
They strode off. She put her arm in his.
To be continued…
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious.
Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.