Friday, 12 September 2014

Art by A.J. Grace-Smith

Running late sorry! Start without me or you’ll freeze. Will find you when I get there. Soon as poss! Tim x
            It was supposed to begin at Tate Modern at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. The location had been his idea. Being early had been hers. Her idea hadn’t been a good one.
            Clarissa pulled her coat collar higher, snuggling into the folds of her scarf as the wind tried to insinuate sly fingers down her neck. She looked at her phone again: he didn’t want her to freeze. And there was a kiss. Clarissa didn’t text kisses unless she meant them, and she wanted this arrangement of tiny pixels to mean something. So she went in.
            She’d been here once before. There had been piles of white cubes in the Turbine Hall, like enormous sugar cubes. Everyone had been blown away by the concept - or claimed to be - but all Clarissa could think about was Dougal and the Magic Roundabout. The theme tune had stuck in her head for days afterwards. Now the Turbine Hall was bare, the cool air filled with the ambient heat of people who had come to Look at Art. Clarissa could smell coffee.
            The cafe was crowded, the barista harassed. An elderly couple in matching raincoats dithered over the muffins, and a trio of mothers with identical baby travel systems - over-engineered beyond the simple designation ‘pram’ - tutted loudly in their Breton striped tops, and expensively swishing hair, babies balanced on yoga-toned hips, while the toddlers tottered, or clung to the maternal leg. How did these women happen? They might as well be jewelled lizards; Clarissa could not imagine ever becoming such a thing.
            The Matching Raincoats found a muffin that was just right, and now the Perfect Mothers began to dither, rummaging in oversized smooth-as-butter leather bags for baby wipes, for purses, for phones. What should they have with their decaf soy mochas? Was the lemon drizzle cake organic, was it Soil Association certified? The barista’s smile stayed nailed in place, a grimace of good service. The volume of impatience behind Clarissa intensified. Another small eternity passed, while the air conditioning made her head spin, and at last it was her turn. She smiled at the barista as she handed him the right change, but he was already taking the next order before he’d finished frothing the milk for her latte.
            Caffeine and biscotti revived her. She eked them out for as long as possible, willing Tim to arrive, and her phone to ping. But her phone didn’t ping, and Tim didn’t come, and the queue stared, willing her to move so that they might sit down. She was going to have to Look at Art, alone.
            It wasn’t that she didn’t like Art - she always though of it like that, capital A - but she was unsure of it. The dislocation between perception and her own response made her feel fraudulent, anxious that people would see through her. Sometimes she felt so self-conscious that her thoughts took on a life of their own, and she would see them spilling out of her head, in different fonts and colours; sentence strings, fragments, exclamations and questions. Always lots of questions.
            ‘You should write.’
            ‘Excuse me?’ Clarissa turned around. She had an impression of dark hair, dark eyes, black-framed glasses. Red lipstick. And amusement.
            ‘I can see you thinking. Stop worrying about the art, watch the people. Watch how they look at art. You’ll be all right.’ She walked away.
            The words Looking at Art sailed away across the Turbine Hall. Between the caffeine and the crowds, and The Writer - and Clarissa knew she must be a writer - the afternoon was kaleidoscoping into the surreal. Of course The Writer couldn’t see what she was thinking; an absurd claim to make. The Writer stopped by the escalator; she had a notebook in her hand, which she waved at Clarissa with a flash of red smile. Clarissa looked away: it was too preposterous.
            But, she might be right, about Looking at Art. Not looking at the Art, looking at the people looking at Art.
            Still nothing from Tim.
            There was a free exhibition on the second level, Poetry and Dream. Waves of people surged in and out, tides of chatter and colour and peopleness, enough to make her head spin, while the not-word peopleness bowled over their heads in dark blue Helvetica.
            She had to begin somewhere.
            The first room was crowded. Clarissa wove in and out of the chattering groups, looking for a quieter spot where she wouldn’t be swept away. Where Art was free to look at, people came in shoals, in packs, in pairs. I’m flotsam, she thought. And blue flotsam floated above her.
            ‘I can’t tell whether I’ve seen this one before; I don’t recognise the frame.’ A middle-aged woman with elegantly coiffed silver hair plucked fretfully at her companion’s jacket. Clarissa looked at the painting: a headless, limbless female torso next to a pile of bananas.            
            ‘The painting is what one usually goes by,’ she felt the words leave her face, heard her voice shaping them, watched them circle the woman’s head. They couldn’t be stopped. Elegant Coiffure turned, and stared. Cold eyes flicked once, twice, measuring Clarissa, marking her. Dismissing her. Clarissa swallowed the urge to giggle. It might be a good idea to avoid caffeine for the rest of the day. If Tim did turn up she didn’t want to be giddy. Or, giddier. She checked her phone.
            A starfish caught her eye. Sand-coloured and dainty on a cerulean background, it wore a single shoe. It was dancing. She watched it wave at the passing people: they didn’t see. The starfish waved again. Clarissa waved a finger back. She knew the starfish was smiling.
            Her phone chimed: just an email.
            The walls of the next room were colourful with anti-fascist propaganda posters. Clarissa didn’t want to linger here, but manoeuvring was hampered by students humming with earnest interest. She spotted The Writer; she was watching a tall youth, his protective arm proprietary around a shorter girl, with a deliberately messy chignon. He was explaining her country’s history to her, her accented English interrogating his easy Americanisms. He was too glib, Clarissa thought, and also, from what she remembered of modern history, largely wrong. She watched The Writer roll her eyes, while writer flitted around the room, the letters separating like a flock of spiky birds, coming together again in perfect formation. A gap opened in the crowd as the letters flew into the next room, and Clarissa followed, the hated feeling of being left behind tugging at her hand, pulling her through the press of people.
            The further in she went, the less real she felt. Perhaps she wasn’t real. Perhaps she only existed in The Writer’s imagination. Perhaps it was the other way round. But no, there The Writer was, watching people Looking at Art. Watching her. Watching her thoughts as they spooled out of her head in ribbons of typography. The Red King, or Alice: Clarissa couldn’t work out which she was supposed to be.
            ‘Assume you’re real and keep going, ‘ she muttered. The Writer looked over and nodded.
            Clarissa caught up with a shoal of younger students, and this time she stayed in their midst, letting their chatter wash over her without trying to grasp at translation. The meanings were clear enough: gestures of impatience, trying to impress each other with how carefree, how cool, how unimpressed they were. Flirting and laughing and bickering. They were exhausting and exhilarating to watch. She couldn’t remember ever having been like that. Random words overheard and understood thronged overhead; salope, copain, de rien, ta geule, je m’en fou. None of them were talking about Art, or even London. They had brought their own world with them, and saw no reason to try any other. But of course, they are only young, she thought, and that is all that matters.
            Funny, she’d never thought of herself as not young before.
            ‘You’re certainly not old!’ The Writer’s voice in her ear again, or perhaps only in her head. Clarissa wondered what Tim and his pixel kisses would make of this, of her. Or she of him, for that matter. As first dates go this was going nowhere yet.
            In the spirit of optimism she reread his last message, while optimism sparkled above her head in red and gold. It would be nice to hold onto optimism, like a balloon. And despite the lack of new Tim pixels, optimism stayed with her.
            She must be real.
            Elegant Coiffure and her companion were in the next room, examining the frame of a Picasso nude. Clarissa wanted to avoid them, but the painting held her there, arrested. Clarissa gazed and gazed, entranced, wondering, even a little sad, until optimism nudged her gently on the nose, reminding her to be hopeful too. For here was Art that showed everything she wanted to feel, the reason she had logged into a certain dating website, the reason she was here now.
            Seated in a chair as opulently curved as the model, half her face obscured by her lover’s as he leaned from behind to administer a kiss, the nude stared at those staring at her.
            Clarissa’s phone chimed.
            Almost there. Where are you? X
            A bigger kiss, a capital Kiss, and butterflies now danced inside her. Optimism grew bolder, and spiralled around her head with added glitter.
            In the surreal and dreamy exhibition x
            She felt brave, returning his kiss. She felt sparkly. And the nude smiled her half-smile, eternally receiving her lover’s adoration.
            In the next room, the last room, Elegant Coiffure’s companion had been left to fend for himself. Hopelessly angular, his arms hung off his shoulders in a way that suggested if he were to remove his russet jacket, they might come off with it. The jacket at least had the virtue of making his mustard coloured trousers less offensive. Clarissa loathed mustard coloured trousers: they tried too hard to bespeak moneyed bohemianism. Real bohemianism shouldn’t try to be anything, let alone impersonate itself. Suppose Tim wore them? The horror! Mustard coloured horror zigzagged across the floor. Clarissa trod on it. Mustard Trousers was blinking at a desert landscape, ignoring the frame. She wondered what he thought of the exhibition, and the people looking at it. And if he realised that he too was an exhibit.
            Another painting caught her eye: a seated woman, white blouse slipping off her shoulder, with a small dog in her lap, in a room where the angles, the proportions were subtly wrong. Her long skirt was plain, her hat a black wing poised to fly. She looked serene, immutable. Capable. This woman knew everything necessary to live. How to bake bread, nurse a child, plough a field, sing a song, tell a story, laugh at a good joke, make everything clean as new. How to love. How to endure. How to lay out the dead. How to dream. How to wait. She kept secrets.
            The dog yawned. It tried a half-hearted scratch, then settled again. The woman smoothed the dog’s neck, and she smiled straight at Clarissa. Then she too settled back into position, her blouse never quite falling from her dusky shoulder, dreaming with her eyes open.
            And then, the tiniest not-quite noise. The dog, not quite shifting his hindquarters. There was no mistaking the look of resigned disgust on the woman’s face.
            Mustard Trousers waved a fastidious hand on the other side of the room. Elegant Coiffure had rejoined him, her stickily lipsticked mouth shaping a moue of revulsion. They turned, and glared at Clarissa. Mortified, she didn’t know whether to die of horror or give into giggles.
            ‘I’d go with giggles,’ The Writer suggested. She had already succumbed. Clarissa gave in, doubled over, tried to breathe and laugh at the same time while her ribs ached and her eyes streamed.
            And that was how Tim found her.
            He was smiling, on the verge of laughing with her, and she managed to squeak out something that sounded like hello. Or it might have been help. They were neither quite sure. it didn’t seem to matter.
            ‘Hi. Sorry I’m late. Did you drop this?’
            He handed her The Writer’s notebook. Clarissa looked around, but The Writer had gone. Opening it, she saw the name and contact number on the flyleaf were her own.
            She wiped her glasses.
            ‘Shall we get a coffee? You didn’t mention that you write. C’mon, let’s get this date started and you can tell me what’s made you laugh so much.’ He held out his hand.
            He was nervous, Clarissa realised. His hand shook ever so slightly in hers, so she squeezed it, gently. He returned the pressure.
            Tate Modern was Clarissa’s new favourite place, and Looking at Art was fun, and coffee was amazing, and Tim was lovely, and those pixel kisses were going to be real.
           A trail of butterfly kisses followed them out into the Turbine Hall, glinting in silver and gold.

About the Author: A.J.Grace-Smith lives and procrastinates in Gloucestershire. She has had a handful of short stories published online, (her very first was published by The View from Here in 2012: and is supposed to be redrafting her first novel. She spends too much time on Twitter as @Eryth, and blogs a bit at . Sometimes she can do yoga without falling over.

Image: (c) Chris Blakeley