She’s forty years old. She’s been enduring, for what seems like days, the late-November moan of a carless, busless Oxford Street, squirming her way through tourists and pickpockets, edging past death-black memories of last Christmas and time-obscured flashes of what she now thinks of as her scene in An Equal Music. Her polite, private Tourette’s has, slowly, become more forceful, fearful and insistent here, on this ruined, lost, hateful avenue: Romantic. Idealist. Naive, deluded fucking idiot.
She turns the corner, drags her limping, aching body into Dering Street, feels it start to lift, start to lighten, the discomfort dissolving a little. As the physical pain eases, she senses the smothering self-disgust begin to fade. She’ll never belong, of course, never get back what she’s lost, but here in Mayfair she no longer wants to, no longer has to try. Here, the men and women who, she knows, will understand her, lurk in attics and basements and operating-theatre-white ‘spaces’ and grand galleries: some shouting, some winking, all wanting to talk to her, caress her, succour her, take her into their world, their soul, their eyes. Some of them, she feels sure, will succeed in swallowing her whole, if only for a while. Some of them might change her forever.
She pauses outside Annely Juda’s, unsure how to get in, uncertain if someone like her- unannounced, ignorant, alien- is even allowed in. There’s a buzzer system but she’s able to push the door open. She walks up three flights of stairs, past a blank-eyed, pretty receptionist and into a room of bland hostility. Abstract squares and patterns. Wood and paper and emotionless paint. A rush of disappointment: the people who made these don’t want her, couldn’t care less about her pain and confusions, their art merely sneering and revelling in its cleverness and otherness, disdainful and male.
She hauls her sadness up another set of stairs and into another room. Kossoff is here: a revered figure, seemingly, in this new world, in his seventies now, expressing and creating since her parents were young, living a life in parallel to hers but never directly touching it. Wandering from painting to painting, she finds Hawksmoor’s mad, beautiful, wrong Spitalfields church- the church she’s always loved- hidden behind the artist’s guarded blurs, reluctantly emerging, dense, green and fog-wrapped. She begins to like this man, to like his calculatedly astigmatic, far-away intimacies, his focus on a single tree, his pitying, partially-hidden, proud faces of people with a battered nobility and knowledge of how hard it is to just be. She knows this man would like her too.
The sun’s shining now and she wanders out again into the new London, unsure where she’s going but feeling more understood, her mind clearer, more spacious, the desires and terrors pushed back, in retreat. She walks past Sotheby’s, turns back, hesitates for a second and then strolls in, daring the security men to challenge her, to tell her she doesn’t belong. Russian icons and paintings and pieces of exquisite tenderness and self-abasement greet her. She wonders how we create such beauty from such delusion. She wonders at our ability to create money from beauty, finding herself looking at price-tag first, object second. She wonders why everyone in the place looks like a villain in a ’60’s Bond film.
£30,000 for a Veneto-Cretan icon. £80,000-£100,000 for a signed Mozart manuscript. The same for the weird, wonderful, bright, bubbling, sinister Tselkov that she knows would look brilliant in the sitting-room of her flat and that would hug her with amusement and empathy every time she started constricting, withdrawing, obsessing.
She determines to take some of the Russian’s insane spirit with her out of the place, hold onto it, possess it for a while. As she steps out on to New Bond Street, though, a siren screams suddenly, slicing the cold air and her thoughts, an old man curses, emptying himself of the day’s fear and she shivers, shakes and feels the lurking tears again. The sharp, blue-green colours of the jolly madman abruptly fade, replaced by the familiar muddled grey of her wondering and tight hope. She takes a breath, sets off again, moving on, knowing this might be all she ever has.
She finds Flowers, eventually, enters a room of airy blandness: more meaningless abstraction, more mirrors to her lifelessness, her exhaustion. She’s here, she knows, to find Peter Howson, here to try and walk in his footsteps, take in some of his energy and verve and sanity and intensity. She wants to ask the woman sitting over there, self-absorbed and content, if they have any Howsons here but she can’t, unsure if it’s a stupid question, unsure if the woman would have to mask a snigger at her foreignness, her lack of awareness of this world. She stares at the woman, watches her own paralysis for a second or two, walks away.
Time for a drink. The pub’s pretty empty, the landlord happy to serve her at her table. She watches him flirt with the barmaid, feels cold suddenly, pulls her coat tight round her. She sits, waits, tries hard to notice how she is, to stay in the now, to participate in these moments. The wine and baguette finished, she pays, looking into the barmaid’s eyes and wondering if the girl’s beauty and vigour really mean any more than the overpriced food or the Take That song gnawing away in the background or the Sky Sports channels drawing all eyes toward them.
There’s a long, noisy queue of Italian tourists outside Abercrombie and Fitch and she has to squeeze through them into Saville Row. She thinks about John Lennon, thinks about X Factor, hears Imagine in her head, finds herself chewing over the word ‘bespoke’, grins momentarily to herself. She walks the length of the Row and turns back again, thoughts of home springing abruptly forward. She pushes aside a sudden choke of tears and heads down towards Piccadilly.
She walks up the stairs in the Royal Academy, nods to Turner on one side, Gainsborough on the other, but gets little response from either, beyond a harsh male solemnity and a black disapproving scowl. She tentatively enters the first room. It’s packed; she feels, immediately, surrounded and suffocated by hammered-home religious symbolism, by the disconnected, awkward, calculated medieval faith and fire, by the colours and textures of men intent on persuasion and control. She rushes through, then, from room to room, scanning, urgently seeking something real, sensing a restrictive, trapping chronology, a movement from flat to full, from French to German to Italian to Dutch to American, from certainty to uncertainty, from birth to death to birth again. The Baroque’s burning intensity lifts her for a while, its vivid passions, its manipulative viscerality, enfolding and invigorating- chiaroscuro: light/dark- but, as she moves further through the years, the morning’s sense of ennui and cloudy oppression returns, now re-doubled. All the memories of Him and his weakness and his pain come rushing back, all the hurts and bitterness, all the missed opportunities and self-loathing. She winces as her self-flagellation becomes more acute, more spiked, more scraping and tearing. She turns and half-runs back through rooms full of oblivious paint and frames and dead men and women, back down the steps and out into the chilly courtyard. She sits on a bench, breathing fast and shallow, and waits. It always goes eventually. It always goes.
She goes back in. She needs to find them, the people who can tell her it’s worthwhile, the people who can tell her we all suffer, we all struggle, we all celebrate, we all desire. She wanders around, waiting for them to come to her. And they do. Schiele’s strange, sharp, wary, loving distortion of lesbian sensuality, Munckacsy’s beautiful, impressionistic Dusty Road, Kokoschka’s stunning, searing, bloodied, ruthless Veronica’s Veil, tempting the religious out of faith, luring the secular into it. The Sleeping Girl is overwhelmingly sad and delicate, a rendering of femininity that makes her feel proud, somehow. No-one knows, they say, who painted it. Maybe no-one did.
She can feel the tears again when she looks at Da Vinci’s drawings, stops short, paralysed for a few seconds by their grotesque, terrifying pazzia bestialissima. She savours the phrase, turns it round her tongue and mind. She can see clearly that this man understands her, knows he’s a man- a bit like Howson?- who recognises men for what they are, a man who can see it and transform it into a power and a compassion that makes her feel a little safer, five hundred years later.
The freedom she’s been starting to feel is wrestling, still, with the ancient darkness that’s always defined her but the fight is forgotten as she enters a room that unexpectedly jerks, stirs and arouses, reminding her of old intimacies and love and the visceral and the tactile and the electricity of passion and want. She stares at Stuck’s Kiss Of The Sphinx, drinking in its lust and terror and doomed desire, its tormented connection/disconnection. She stares at the forlorn eroticism of Vacsary’s Golden Age. She stares at Merse’s Skylark. She stares at Dore’s Young Woman With A White Scarf. She whirls round and round, staring at each painting in turn, repeatedly, stops finally, stares back into herself, and knows, at least for now, that she’s OK. She knows- with absolute, final, exhilarating certainty- that she’s so much more than the thoughts and fantasies and disease and memories and scars.
She smiles, whispers her goodbyes, leaves and gets the 63 home.