The taxi horn sounded again. Behind the glass, oblivious to the bright, spring morning, Roz fretted and fumed. She was late and getting later. Celia would already be there now, waiting and growing anxious.
Roz had been looking forward to this day for weeks and she didn’t want it spoiled in any way. She was to meet her cousin at the National Gallery, one of their favourite haunts in the old days. As the taxi inched forward, Roz remembered.
She pictured her younger self lighting the lamp in their shared rooms, glancing through the diamond window panes down into the courtyard below, its red brick reflecting violet against moon-whitened stonework. They had cycled along the Embankment, sunlight glinting on the grey river and there was the stillness of the library and the comfortable weight of thinking and learning. She had so loved the quality of considered words and the satisfaction of language used well. It was such a golden time.
How had life since become so cheerless and grinding?
The change began when both women married, their lives diverging.
Roz frowned. She hoped that Celia’s marriage was untroubled, better than her own. Roz’s husband, a decent man, was often consumed by his obsessions. At such times Roz tended to withdraw into herself, the better to survive unscathed. A day’s escape to London was a welcome release from care, but Roz felt guilty at her happiness. She thought affectionately of her partner in life, while acknowledging that she was never more fond of him than when he wasn’t actually there.
Another loud blast of the taxi’s horn shattered her reverie. The traffic was thinning and the cab could move on. Roz drummed her fingers on the scuffed black leather seat as she crossed the Serpentine.
In the Gallery Celia stood before a painting in a different kind of dream. She studied Claude’s coolly delineated columns, made solid by the low sunlight. They were so different from the molten golden forms, wrought from light itself, in the Turner paintings hanging on either side. In the painting’s middle distance St Ursula was about to depart for a sea voyage. Celia smiled.
She admired the lucidity and balance of the painting, but especially liked it for having a woman at its centre. Though had she been leaving such an idyllic place, she was sure she wouldn’t have looked as happy as St Ursula did.
Celia glanced at her watch and began to re-trace her steps to the central hall to await her friend.
Was all was well with Roz?
For many months, she had not sensed anything amiss, but their telephone conversations had grown shorter and more infrequent. Something wasn’t as it should be. Or was this feeling just a reflection of her own dissatisfaction?
Celia sighed. She and Roz had married at the same time, their hopes high. At first it had been magical – the tender shock of being loved, buoyed up by joy and the certainty of happiness. She regularly conjured up that early magic as a bulwark against present reality. Her husband had grown jealous, his spirit meaner as the years passed and sometimes Celia disliked him intensely. Which left her with a dilemma.
She had always wanted a family, but she delayed and deferred pregnancy, reluctant to link herself irrevocably to him, who would be the father, even though her promise had been given long ago. And time was running out.
Then she spotted her friend, tall and willowy, hurrying up the stairs and looking strained and tired.
Overwhelmed by affection and care, Celia waved with enthusiasm, determined not to allow her anxiety to show. Roz smiled in response, her face lightening and Celia laughed with reflected pleasure.
‘Hello, how are you?’
‘It’s good to see you.’
The women embraced.
‘Sorry I’m late, I got stuck in traffic. Have you been waiting long?’
‘No. Anyway, I’ve been in Arcadia.’
‘Oh, you’ve done the Claudes without me. Did you find our maidenly saint?’
‘Of course,’ Celia took her friend’s arm. ‘Come on. Let’s go and look.’
They roamed the gallery, delighting in the known as well as seeking out the new. As they walked and talked each covertly scrutinised the other with as much attention as they gave to the paintings.
Celia noticed the concealed shadows under Roz’s eyes, even as she took pleasure in her friend’s familiar, wry intelligence. Roz revelled in her friend’s undiminished capacity for delight, although she perceived a new sadness beneath Celia’s glossy, nut-brown surface. Yet she felt more content in her friend’s company than she had for a very long time.
At ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’ they paused, eyes flickering over Pan and the Bacchantes, who danced with cymbals and tambourines in pursuit of the princess.
‘Can you remember how this used to look?’ Roz said.
‘Dull and crusty,’ Celia replied. ‘It’s so vibrant since it’s been cleaned – so full of life and colour.’
Sky and robes were a rich ultramarine blue, the drapery rose-red and the gem-like stars of the Corona Borealis seemed to glitter.
‘Though it won’t end happily,’ Roz peered closer. ‘Doesn’t she die in childbirth?’
‘Those whom the Gods love die young,’ said Celia. ‘Or do they ‘first make mad’ I can’t remember? Well, at least Bacchus looks presentable, better than a swan or a shower of gold.’
Roz gave a theatrical shudder. ‘How about some quiet domesticity?’
‘The Dutch then.’
The pallid, refined light of the Low Countries replaced the concentrated colours of the Mediterranean, as the friends hunted out Vermeer and the Delft School. The ‘Young Woman’ stood at her instrument, face mostly in shadow, skin and pearls nacreous as the grey light upon the pale walls. Her dark-eyed gaze was assured and her smile self-possessed. Nearby, in another painting, was another young woman, standing in a Delft courtyard with an attentive child, before an archway opening chequered red and white. In each picture, bricks and tiles receded, perfectly.
‘Didn’t they use an early form of camera obscura?’ Roz said. ‘For accuracy,’
‘Oh, I wish you hadn’t told me that. It makes painting seem mechanical, like mere copying.’
Celia envied the immediate and timeless integrity of these quiet scenes of everyday life. What had that to do with accurate lines of perspective?
Roz did not reply.
Celia looked up at her friend’s pensive face.
‘Can we have the Peepshow now, please?’ She said. ‘For diversion.’
So they found van Hoogstraten’s box, the insides of which were painted so as to make the viewer think they were looking into, and out from, a three-dimensional house.
‘How clever he was to understand how we see,’ said Roz. ‘Yet we can work out the trick and judge what’s real and what isn’t.’
‘It’s the way our brains process visual information,’ Celia replied. ‘I read about it somewhere.’
Slightly discomfited, but not knowing why, the women moved on.
It was late lunchtime when, feet beginning to smart, the friends left for the roof-top restaurant of the Portrait gallery next door.
A giant escalator delivered them upwards into the portraiture of Tudor England, sixteenth century eminences of court and church. Such dark-hued likenesses were of people who had, with few exceptions, been condemned to the fire or axe.
For not seeing what was wanted, Roz thought, her mind still running on the box and its perspective. Or for seeing and believing wrongly.
It had rained and, from their table by the window, Trafalgar Square looked glossy. The lamppost baskets along Whitehall swung in the sharp breeze, full of purple and yellow. Skeins of white cloud straggled across a diffident blue sky and the river wound its way towards them, a shifting grey and silver rope.
They chatted through the meal. Roz was careful to be positive and forward-looking and, it seemed, her friend had decided to do likewise. So their conversation had a bright relentless quality. Over coffee Roz slipped into reminiscence.
‘Do you remember Audrey and Bill, from college?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Well, they have a baby daughter now.’
‘Oh! How did you know?’ Celia’s face had paled, she looked aghast.
‘There was a card on the college notice board.’
‘You’ve been back then?’ Unstoppable tears streaked Celia’s cheeks. She sniffed and wiped them away.
‘No – that is to say, only once. What on earth’s the matter?’
‘Had it changed?’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ Roz hesitated. ‘But I think I had.’
‘Yes, I can see how that would be.’ Celia dabbed at her eyes. ‘Oh dear, I’m far too young to regret the passing of a lost and gilded youth.’
‘Really? I sometimes think I do.’ Roz hadn’t meant to say this.
Celia waved at a waiter to summon the bill. ‘I’ll just freshen up. Then I want order, please, structure and pattern, tilting pikes and tubby chargers.’
‘The Battle of San Romano,’ Roz nodded. The mediaeval rooms would not be crowded and Celia might feel able to confide what was troubling her.
The friends walked to the New Wing across the Square, beneath the old central portico, crowded with tourists photographing each other, the column and the distant clock. Through the heavy bronze doors they strode to the large and faded canvas, depicting the Florentine army in battle array. They had always loved the massive horses, like carved fairground steeds, caught in the moment of rearing or trotting, serenaded by the silent music of long trumpets and curling horns. Roz watched Celia search for small things remembered, her sadness seemingly forgotten.
‘It’s more faded that I remember,’ Roz said. ‘Or am I thinking of the Florentine painting?’
Uccello had painted three Battles, one of which was in the Uffizi, which they had seen many years ago.
‘Maybe,’ Celia answered. ‘But I don’t think so. It seems more faded to me too.’ She glanced at Roz with a twisted half-smile. ‘Everything fades, everywhere but in the mind’s eye.’
Oh dear. But at least it would come out now, whatever was the trouble.
They wandered on, to find Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait.
Formerly thought to commemorate a specific marriage, its subjects were now deemed unknown, identity lost. Yet they and the objects around them were painted with delicate precision. The woman looked heavily pregnant, folds of verdant drapery falling from her distended body. Her expression was vacant, pale skin against white crocheted headdress. She was waiting patiently, concentrating within herself. Looking at the canvas, Roz wondered how this could be a wedding picture? She shot a sidelong glance at her friend, who was gazing unwaveringly, but half reluctant, at the gravid-looking figure.
Celia turned away and they entered the next room, full of gilded altar pieces of the Holy Family.
‘Families are strange things,’ she said.
‘Hardly a typical example.’ Roz’s eyebrows rose as she gestured at the shining panels, trying to keep up with her friend’s thought processes.
‘Granted,’ Celia was forced to smile. ‘Why do people have children?’
‘Lots of reasons.’ Was this what was the problem?
‘Is it just selfish? And maybe Larkin was right about parents?’
‘Perhaps, but they were probably doing their best,’ Roz said, sensing the sorrow beneath the surface. ‘And we’re the ones responsible for how we live our lives.’
Celia looked at her, eyes wide.
‘One must have joy.’ Celia’s voice was small and flat and Roz’s breath caught in her throat.
Suddenly she needed to get away from the two-dimensional saints, as, it seemed, did Celia. They hurried, as quickly as they might, through rooms and in-comers, out into the square. Down the steps, passed the empty plinth, they did not stop until they reached the impassive lions, bronze shining dully in the sunlight.
‘Most of us turn out fine,” Roz said, panting slightly. At least she had fathomed her friend’s dilemma. ‘Fear isn’t a good reason not to have children.’
‘Yes it is. It’s a very good reason,’ Celia answered, hair blowing across her wet face. ‘There’d be no going back, once I had a child Whatever happened. Things would get even more complicated.’
They looked at the crowds and the fountains.
‘Still, it’s my choice, it’s up to me.’ Shaking her head, Celia smiled, shyly. ‘I think I just don’t want to grow up? And aren’t you going to tell me to pull myself together?’
Roz slipped her arm around her friend’s and the two women strolled back across the Square.
Daylight had all but gone when the train pulled out of Marylebone. Roz could see multiple faint reflections in the window glass, pinpricks of light, as the locomotive cut an arc through north London and out into the countryside. Celia had waved her off, smiling, before beginning her own journey.
Why couldn’t the day last forever?
She tried not to equate the cold dark outside with her return home. A good supper and chilled wine would await her. Her husband would ask about her day, about Celia and Ollie, about the paintings and her journey and she would tell him, but there would be little real connection. Celia was right, one needed joy.
Roz sat, hurtling through the thickening light, as fields rolled by unseen. She struggled to think. One couldn’t run away forever. It was up to her to make her life, here and now. If she wanted joy it was for her to create it. And for that, she decided, one needed to share. The kaleidoscope shifted and Roz’s perspective changed.
Later the train drew into a little halt and one passenger alighted. She walked towards the illuminated sign of a taxi-cab, keeping its appointed rendezvous. Not so long afterwards, Roz got out at the end of the sunken lane which ran to her house. She smelled the soft perfume of the hawthorn blossom in the blackness as she opened the gate and threaded through the damp ferns. Her key turned in the lock and the door swung open on to a warm and lighted hallway.
‘I’m home,’ she called.