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Margaret and the Dali

It rained, of course. It was Glasgow in December: what else would anyone expect? Despite the rain though, Ann’s mother was set on the idea we should visit the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, the city’s finest and favourite.


“Christmas will be here before we know what’s what,” she said. “Before we know it,” she went on, “the holidays will be over.”


Margaret’s meaning was clear. She and Ann’s father would have taken the train back to Exeter. Two trains. At the busiest time of year.


“And who can say,” Margaret asserted with finality, “who can say when Arthur and I might ever make it back?”


My mother-in-law was being crystal clear. Neither Margaret Lydford nor her husband Arthur were getting any younger. They could be dead before they caught another two trains to Glasgow.


The rain was immaterial. The girls would be supervised by their doting grandfather. The rest of us were going to the gallery.


I drove.


Margaret sat next to me on account of her legs and her stick. We had little to say. Ann sat behind her mother, perched on the edge of the seat and leaning forward, her head seemingly suspended in mid-air between me and her mum. Now and then, Ann tapped lightly on her mother’s shoulder to point out places as we passed.


“There’s the university halls mum. Remember when dad drove me here for my first term?”


“Oh yes dear.”


“And there’s the restaurant Jamie and I had our first date – lunch at The Koh-I-Nor – ten per cent off for students.”


“That’s nice dear.”


Ann was working hard but Margaret was her insufferably polite and disinterested best. As for me? I knew my place. I kept my lips tightly zipped and drove.


By the time we reached the gallery all the parking spaces for people with disability were gone. No surprise there then. Margaret would have to walk through the rain from the wrong side of the car park. At least we had one of my brother’s golf umbrellas in the boot. Nevertheless, I did not expect those hundred yards or so to be anything but awkward. Frosty is the best I could hope for. So, while Ann helped her mother out of the car I rummaged around for the umbrella. By the time I extracted it from the train wreck of my existence, Margaret and her daughter were standing arm in arm at the closed car door. Margaret’s ebony walking stick steadied her weaker leg. Ann stood proudly next to her.


I paused. They looked so alike despite the difference of almost forty years. Margaret was still tall, not much shorter than Ann whose striking beauty and height had first caught my moderately drunk, student’s eye. At a John Martyn concert as it happens. And as I looked at mother and daughter, I was struck by … I’m not sure exactly.


What was it I saw in Margaret in that moment? An elegant older woman preparing to step forward with purpose, accompanied by her eldest daughter, for sure. But something else too.


“Here we go then,” I said, handing the brolly to Ann.


I expected a comment, a look at the very least. But no. Margaret, with her infuriating capacity to wrong-foot everything you think you know about her, treated the prospect of a hike across the car park like water off a duck’s back. We set off through the rain without a murmur of complaint. In search of the Dali.


Margaret was, I think, a woman on a mission.


We accessed the gallery through the staff entrance at the rear. That was the advice for people they labelled ‘visitors with restricted mobility’. The building is a monument to Victorian Gothic: a grand staircase at the front, towers on all four corners (and several points between) and enormous windows that would grace a French Cathedral. Quasimodo would be happy. Access for determined older ladies with walking sticks and knees shot to hell, however, had never been at the forefront of any architect’s mind. We found the bell-push at the back door’s Romanesque arch. A sign read ‘Disabled Entrance. Please Ring’. So, we did.


I would not have been surprised if Baron Frankenstein’s evil assistant Igor had hauled back that great oak door before us. But when it swung open it was the cheery face of a man who introduced himself as Frank - from the Attendant Team – who welcomed us in.


“Follow me,” said Frank. “We’ll take the short cut through the store.”


We followed Frank through a door off the gloomy corridor into which we had stepped from the car park. We entered an Aladdin’s Cave of artefact repair. We passed cluttered alcoves, cages and benches of dishevelled exhibits of every shape, size and form in every possible stage of deconstruction, disrepair, reconstruction and rehabilitation you could imagine. There were stuffed birds and animals on one side of the aisle; a one-eyed polar bear whose good glass eye followed us across a room, and too many owls adjacent to what might have been a wallaby resting on its side like roadkill. Elsewhere there were suits of armour, muskets and swords. Beyond them, the sequestered ranks of paintings no longer on public display or awaiting their next turn.


“We don’t usually come this way,” said Frank, “but it takes us to the big lift.”


And straight ahead of us there was indeed a big lift. It may have been the largest lift I’ve ever seen. A family of four could have lived in it quite comfortably.


“It’s for the bigger pieces,” said Frank, “Present company excepted, of course.” He laughed uproariously at his joke which, I’m sure, he re-told to every visitor with restricted mobility who entered the cavernous space.


“Where would you like to go madam?” Frank asked Margaret.


“To see the Dali,” I interjected.


Frank ignored me. “Of course, madam” he said. “Never doubted it.”


Frank pushed a button then stepped back out of the elevator. As its vast doors began to close, he spoke to Margaret again. “It’s on the second floor, madam. One of my colleagues will meet you.”


The small gallery in which Salvador Dali’s painting was displayed had no one in it when we arrived. We were lucky. The portrait of Jesus Christ on a cross, floating in mid-air above the Bay of Port Ligat, hung alone on the wall to the left of us. A squat, square leather couch occupied the centre of the room. It was on the edge of this seat that Margaret positioned herself to look at the painting.


Peace to contemplate the work did not last long, however. We heard a booming voice before its owner entered the room, followed by his loyal flock. A gallery tour.


“Our next painting,” we heard the voice announce, “was voted Scotland’s favourite work of art. It is, of course, Salvador Dali’s magnificent Christ of St John of the Cross.”


`The tour guide, a short, meticulously appointed man wearing blue suede loafer shoes, drainpipe trousers, lavender-coloured shirt and a tartan bowtie, parked himself to the left of the painting. His group followed him to the invisible periphery of polite engagement where they formed an arc of appreciation around the Dali, two deep; a band of dignified pensioners out for a self-improving Sunday, three students from Japan still wearing their emergency rainproof ponchos, two women who had opted for the art gallery as a safe first date, families seeking to fill the long days of school holidays with worthy pastimes, dragging along recalcitrant teenagers, disinterested six-year olds, an infant fast asleep in the safety of the baby-carrier suspended from the neck of that afternoon’s parent on duty.


The talk continued. “The painting was acquired by the gallery in 1952 for £8,200 which was five times the cost of the average family home back then. As you can imagine the purchase caused something of a stir although the painting has more than repaid its purchase price. The gallery’s director at the time, Mr. Tom Honeyman, was what you might call a canny Scot. He bought the artist’s copyright too, and more than forty years of postcards, prints and posters do go a long way. Mr. Dali is reported to have said the image came to him in a cosmic dream – complete – as you see it before you now.”


I zoned out. Instead, I watched tour group members shift their postures, shuffle their feet; one man yawned. To my right Ann looked at other paintings. Margaret sat alone on the couch, no longer able to see Dali’s Christ. If I didn’t know Ann’s mother better, I’d have sworn she was in a trance as she stared blankly in the direction of the painting. Wherever Margaret was it was not with us.


The voice of the volunteer guide caught my attention again. “And now,” he called out, “we shall make our way to Sir Roger the Asian Elephant.” The eyes of children lit up as the group departed. We were alone once more with the Dali.


Ann sat down, beside her mother then leaned over until her head was almost resting on Margaret’s shoulder. “What do you think mum?” Ann asked.


Margaret came back from wherever she had been. “It’s smaller than I remember it,” she said. Then paused, measuring it up perhaps.


Ann filled the gap that had opened up for no apparent reason. “Shall we find a cup of tea mum?” she asked.


“Let’s,” replied Margaret, who placed her weight on her walking stick then started to rise from the bench. I moved to help, took Margaret’s arm and steadied her as she rose to her feet.


“Thank you, James,” she said, looking round at me.


I was surprised when our eyes met. Was that a tear I saw running down Margaret’s cheek? I couldn’t help but wonder what that was about.


We found the tearoom which was mercifully quiet. Margaret was not a fan of what she called cafeteria dining. Ann took off to place our order at the counter. Margaret and I selected a table next to a window looking out over the park towards the river. As we settled, curiosity got the better of me. I had to know, so rather more directly than was normal for the non-conversations Margaret and I usually shared, I simply asked her.


“I didn’t know you’d seen the painting before?” I said.


Margaret looked at me. Making up her mind about something perhaps. Not me, of course. She had reached that decision years before.


“James,” she said. Margaret insisted on calling me James. “The list of things you do not know about me would fill a book.”


“Really?” I replied, not quite sure if I was surprised by the idea there was more to Margaret than being Ann’s mother or in mild shock at Margaret’s tone.


Ann arrived with tea and cakes. “Really what?” she asked.


It was Margaret who answered. “I was just about to tell your husband I have indeed seen Mr. Dali’s painting before.”


“Really?” Ann replied. She and I were obviously suffering from the same illness. “We’ve not visited the gallery with you before mum, so how …”


Margaret paused again. She was deciding something. “I came to see the painting when it was first unveiled,” she said. “I was working in Glasgow at the time.”


I fell into a trap of my own making. I said, “I didn’t know you had worked in Glasgow, Margaret.”


Ann’s mother looked at me again; more in pity than in anger, I think. There was no need to say more. We had done that conversation already


Ann then joined me in the pit of incredulity we had dug deeply for ourselves. She repeated, “Really?”


Margaret looked at her daughter with something like the disappointment she had viewed me.


“Sit down dear,” she said. “Pour the tea.”


Ann poured tea as Margaret spoke. “I was posted to Glasgow not long after the war,” she started. “Before I met your father. It was raining, of course. When I stepped off the night-train I remember being anxious about the rain because my shoes and uniform would get wet. That’s no way to present yourself to a Ward Sister. Believe me.” We did not argue the fact.


“I’d been sent to Hairmyers hospital, south of the city,” she said. “I suppose it must have been May or June of 1947, I think, because Mr. Orwell was still a patient.”


“You knew George Orwell?” I asked.


“No James,” she replied. “I did not know Mr. Orwell. He was a patient in the tuberculosis ward, and I attended to him a few times. But I couldn’t say I knew George Orwell. I was just one of his nurses. I had trained in TB, if you can call it training. Margaret paused then spoke again, “We did our best,” she said, “but a lot of those boys were too far gone. Mr Orwell was one. Dead within three years.”


“So that’s when you came to see the painting?” asked Ann.


“Not immediately dear,” she replied. “I didn’t see the painting for years. It didn’t arrive until … what did that odd little man say?”


“1952,” I said.


“There you are then.” Margaret continued, “Years after I arrived.”


“Life has its own routine in those places,” she said. ‘There was a constant stream of young men. Servicemen mostly, returning from the Far East and as sick as any I had seen. Locals too. It’s hard to imagine, these days. TB must have seemed like a death sentence.”


“And the painting?” I asked.


“Pour some more tea, won’t you dear,” Margaret said, talking to Ann.


Margaret reached across to the cakes which sat untouched on plates crammed onto the tray beside the teapot. She lifted each plate from the tray then set it down on the table to form a row in front of her. Extracting a knife from the cutlery holder at the table’s edge Margaret began to carefully sub-divide each cake into three more or less equal parts. Carrot cake. Lemon meringue pie. Caramel slice. In thirds. We were sharing, it appeared. That was a first.


Margaret distributed the cakes then resumed. “We admitted a young Scottish lad, William, in the winter of 1951. That time of year is always so cold and grey and wet up here. Numbers always rose. We called it the Christmas rush.”


There was another pause. This time I was sure something was going on. Margaret’s eyes were welling up. Ann saw it too.


“Mum?” Ann asked. She moved her hand to rest it on Margaret’s wrist.


“William was so frail when he arrived, so thin,” Margaret went on. “None of us thought he would last a month. But he did. If I had time for God, I’d call it a miracle, but it wasn’t. It was luck and good nursing and hard work. That’s all. Others died that winter. William lived. There really were no rules about who survived or not.”


Margaret finished her portion of carrot cake. She sipped some tea. Waiting, we said not a word.


“William got better,” she said, “stronger, although once TB sinks its teeth into you it never truly lets you go. Not before the drugs we have these days. But recuperation takes such a long time, years in some cases. Once you’re beyond the critical stage, rest is what you need most so there’s a great deal of time in bed or sitting in chairs reading. We didn’t even have television back then to keep the boys occupied.”


“And you and William became friends?” asked Ann, taking a risk, I thought.


“We did dear,” Margaret answered. “You know I like art. Well, William was a sculptor. We spent time together on the ward talking about art and painters. I would bring books from the library for him to read.”


“And the Dali?” I asked.


“There was such an outcry at first,” she explained, “when folk heard of the price …more than £8,000. I can’t tell you how many years I’d have had to work to make that much money back then. William was more annoyed because he and his friends thought it should have been spent on local artists. They were all rather fired up.”


“William told you this?” Ann asked.


“He did,” said Margaret. “And he suggested I arrange for him to have a weekend pass so we could go to the gallery to see for ourselves.”


“Was that allowed?” I asked.


“Oh yes,” Margaret replied, “once the disease went into remission patients were encouraged to spend weekends at home if they were not infectious. That was part of their care.”


I felt a need to tread carefully with my next question. Margaret was, after all, my 78-year-old mother-in-law.


“That wasn’t quite what I meant Margaret,” I said. “In 1952,” I paused, “was it entirely kosher for pretty young nurses to go with male patients to art galleries on their weekend off?”


Margaret sipped once more from her teacup then moved on to her share of the lemon meringue. We waited until she set down her fork.


“No James,” she said. “That would have been frowned upon.”


“By whom?” Ann asked.


“Everyone,” replied Margaret.


“But you came anyway?” a daughter asked carefully of her mother, “You and William?”


“We did dear,” a mother said directly to her daughter. “We came to see Mr. Dali’s Christ. And we both adored it. William said, ‘to Hell with the price, Maggie. That’s Art!’”


Ann and I looked at one another over the remains of our tea and cakes. I could tell we shared the same thought … Maggie?


Margaret brought us back from the edge. “There’s no need to look like that, children,” she said. “I was younger then than you are now. I spent a magical afternoon here with William. He showed me everything he had loved about the place since he had been a boy. He was particularly keen on a room full of suits of armour.”


“I like that one too,” I said.


“Jamie!” said Ann.


“Then he took me to a café not far from here, on Byers Road. It was run by an Italian friend who was overjoyed to see him. After that we went home to William’s studio next to the goods yard in Ashton Lane,” she said. “I imagine the pair of you know it quite well. You’re always talking about that restaurant you go to …”


I interrupted, “The Ubiquitous Chip?”


“That’s the one,” said Margaret. “And the next morning I left for work. William returned later that day.”


Neither Ann nor I moved a muscle. Then Ann filled the gap as she always does. “And what happened next?” she asked.


“Next?” asked Margaret. She looked closely at her fingertips then at the room in which we sat then directly into her daughter’s eyes before she said, “Next, William’s TB came back like the plague it was. It ravaged his body.” Margaret paused. “It ate up his lungs.” She paused again then said, “Six weeks later he was dead.”


Ann reached again for her mother’s hand. “Oh, mum,” she said.


“Not long afterwards I asked to be transferred to a hospital near my parents in Plymouth. It was a maternity ward so there was less death,” she said. “And no young sculptors. I met your father the next year at a Coronation dance at the navy base. The rest, my dear, is your history.”


We sat silently together at the table. I looked beyond the two women, out the window at the rain which was falling heavily now. Ann held onto her mother’s arm.


Margaret finished her caramel slice then said, “It’s probably time we were getting back to your father. He loves those girls of yours. But they’ll have him run ragged by now.”


Back in the car we waited for the de-mister to clear the windscreen. I already had the wipers going full tilt to fend off the rain. The heater was turned up to the setting Ann calls ‘full Scottish summer’. As I pushed the gear stick into first, Margaret placed her hand on mine. She turned as best she could to look at Ann then back to look at me.


“Jamie,” she said, “your father-in-law knows nothing about my time in Glasgow. I never mentioned it when we met. There was no need.”


Ann spoke quietly, “No need for anyone to mention it now either mum.”


And me?


I kept my lips tightly zipped and drove.


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I wrote this in May 2016 as part of my assessed work for a Creative Writing course at the Australian National University. Now seems as good a time as any to put it out into the world.


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