The following is a published piece from our August/September 2o21 issue.
My friend Leo, who was, in a past life, a bicycle messenger, but now – like most of the middle class, young people I know – a student again, once said that the easiest way to get your bicycle stolen was habitual behaviour. Leo was, in general, prone to dispensing life advice despite the fact that he was significantly younger than me, had never paid rent, had never returned home to find his bathroom floor collapsed under the weight of sewage, and had never – as far as I knew – dealt with a deranged, religious squatter (or the consequential bed bugs), avoided repaying a student loan and had never been tied up, whipped and photographed by a cocaine addled, socalled sculptor in the flaky dungeon of a natural wine bar. And yet still he felt qualified to share his inexhaustible pearls of wisdom with me. I believe it’s called mansplaining, and now that he is a student again, I’m sure that some right-on member of Generation Z will be happy to call him out on it.
……….According to Leo, habitual behaviour was the absolute throbbing, spangled red flag to the seedy scourge of two wheeled transportation – if you lock your bicycle in the same place at the same time every day, it will be stolen – and it was that very piece of advice that I first thought of when Margaret struck up conversation with me.
……….‘You’ve lost your little prodigy this afternoon,’ she said, sizing me up indiscreetly. She was referring to Greta, of course: the ten year-old that I had spent every Wednesday with since she was five, ferrying her back and forth between ballet, the conservatoire and her older sister’s climbing club.
……….‘I have,’ I grimaced. ‘How am I going to tell her parents?’
……….Needless to say I hadn’t lost Greta. I was killing time at the teashop on the corner because she had an extra orchestra rehearsal. As much as I put on a front of being the epitome of laissez-faire I am actually quite an attentive nanny, and have been ever since one former charge tried to spear the eye out of another with a fondue fork. I still don’t understand why the children had been given fondue forks. Children can’t even do up their fucking laces. A small novelty fork with a plastic Disney princess 51 handle and blunt, dwarfed tines would have absolutely sufficed, but then, these were the sort of parents who took great pride in their Kilner jar organisation and in the fact that little Maisie preferred sardines to fish fingers.
……….‘My husband was a cellist,’ Margaret said, adopting that tone that the elderly use when they believe young people have a duty to take an interest in the details of their biography. ‘With the London Phil.’
I put the book down on the table, as a polite gesture. Margaret was the kind of woman that you see on the Central Line, or the Northern Line, getting off at places like Highgate or Holland Park. She was the kind of woman who wore men’s linen shirts and geometric jewellery, and had artfully dishevelled grey hair, wore no make up, and carried her possessions about in a tote bag from an independent bookshop, or even in a straw panier with brown, leather straps. In the summer, I imagine, she’d wear espadrilles; in the winter she would wear a cashmere polo neck. The striking difference between Margaret and this sorority of ageing, privileged, neo-bluestockings was that she looked genuinely dishevelled, and there was something about her – about the way she rubbed her bony thumb along her bottom lip, and her alarmingly direct gaze – that was a little unnerving; the opposite of composed, genteel, elegance.
……….‘I see you walk back and forth past here every Wednesday afternoon,’ she said, seizing upon the implication of the closed paperback on the table.
……….‘I’m a substitute helicopter parent.’
……….She giggled, eyes jagged. ‘I’ll join you shall I?’ Unexpectedly nimble, she darted into the unoccupied chair opposite me. ‘He was an awfully talented cellist,’ she said ‘But then Franz came from a very artistic milieu.’ She audibly italicised the last two words. ‘His father was a great Expressionist painter. Would you like some of my cake?’
……….I glanced down at the great, expressionist disaster that had once been a slice of Victoria sponge and politely declined. She shovelled a forkful of it into her mouth, oblivious to the resulting shower of crumbs, and carried on, mouth full.
……….‘We actually met because of his father – indirectly of course – his poor papa Gus wilted away in a concentration camp as far as I’m aware, which one was it again Sarah dear, can you remember?’
……….Ah well, that explained it. I felt a fleeting jolt of sympathy and decided not to bother explaining to the old duck that I wasn’t actually Sarah.
……….‘No but you really wouldn’t believe how Franz and I met. No one ever does.’ She leant in enthusiastically, eyes perceptibly gleaming and knuckles whitening as she gripped the dainty fork. ‘You see dear, I actually had more in common with Gus than I ever did with dear Franz. I too am an artist.’ ……….Artist. In her mouth the word crackled with reverential, camp glitziness. ‘But although I made a great deal of money, I could never do it under my own name – one of the great injustices of my illustrious career. You see dear, I am one of the greatest forgers of the century.’ She let a farcically pregnant pause swell: ‘I suppose you’ll be far too young to remember when all of Gus’s lost work – all those magnificent, chaotic ones that Goebbels and co. had got their mitts on – were miraculously rediscovered in a cellar in Duisburg in 1962?’
……….I always resented that. I resented it when old people assumed that their juniors lived in a temporal vacuum. Like when I was a teenager and my Dad would hear me playing Lou Reed and he’d say, in total disbelief, ‘How on earth did you find out about Lou Reed?’ as if the internet, Virgin Megastores and The NME didn’t exist. Incidentally, I hadn’t the slightest idea what she was talking about. Even so, I couldn’t help but suspect that Margaret had more than a touch of the fantasist about her.
‘Anyway that was the first and the last time that Franz and I ever collaborated on anything. After that he became awfully prissy about the whole thing. Though of course he was more than happy to live in the house that my extracurricular activities bought us.’ She washed down the remains of the cake with a theatrical gulp of tea. ‘Men.’
……….I held my palms up in agreement. ‘Men!’
……….‘Yes. That’s why I killed him,’ she said plainly, with a winning smile. Managing to discretely swallow back the tea that I’d almost snorted out through my nostrils, I coughed and laughed appreciatively at her deadpan delivery. Margaret’s sense of humour had obviously not been dented by senility.
……….‘Perhaps you would like to come and see them?’
……….‘Some of my tributes,’ she said. ‘I don’t like to call them forgeries. It sounds so unsavoury. I live on this street. Why don’t you come and see them whilst you’re waiting for Greta?’
……….I glanced around the café and, driven by my inability to say no and my natural inclination towards snooping, I accepted. I thought of all the suspect men I’d deemed fit to go home with at the ashy ends of dawngrazing nights, and I figured that Margaret was probably a thousand times less threatening.
……….‘I’ll just go and pay.’
……….‘Oh no, don’t worry dear, Sarah will pay. She owes me anyway and you’ve only had a cup of tea.’
……….I felt my face twitch into a stiff grin. This was awkward. ‘Please. Let me pay.’ I insisted, gently placing my hand on her hers (crepe paper skin, a couple of carbuncular rings). ‘It would be my pleasure.’
……….‘Well suit yourself then.’ She turned to the vacant chair next to her, ‘And Sarah, will you go on ahead to put the heating on at home? That single glazing will be the death of me!’
……….I held on to the pained grin and made my way over to the counter, feeling hyper-conscious of every movement in my body. The waitress looked at me sympathetically, ‘Sarah paying again? Bless the old dear – just a bit dotty I think. A real sweetie though. Here’s your change.’
……….I thanked her, pocketing the coins. Margaret was already standing by the door. ‘Sorry about Sarah,’ she said, ‘She can be a bit funny sometimes – she is a princess. She expects everyone to just dote on her. That’s why she goes all quiet like that.’
……….Out in the greyish light the vague squeak of foreboding that I’d felt in the dim, crepuscular warmth of the teashop was easily swallowed and replaced by a sense of smug virtue. I could still be in that teashop at that very moment – scrolling through the Instagram feed of an ex or just generally frittering away my selfish, trivial life – but instead here I was walking an old lady home – an old lady so lonely that she had an invisible friend. I felt how I imagined St. Francis of Assisi must have felt when he bent down from his horse to kiss that skeggy leper. Visions of a bonafide, redeeming and unlikely companionship blossomed out before me like the soft-hued montage of a life insurance advert. Maybe there’d even be a legacy in it; Margaret did, after all, own property in North London. As we skirted (appropriately) past the cemetery she said,
……….‘Of course I wasn’t at all connected like Franz was. I’d worked myself up from nothing. I grew up in a tiny village on Anglesey and my father was a druid. It’s why Sarah and I get on so well. I’ll let you in on something, Sarah’s more than a little bit witchy. It was Sarah who commented on you and Greta walking past every week. She noticed the two of you well before I did, actually.’
……….I was trying to pinpoint the moment when I’d told her Greta’s name when she came to a halt in front of an elegant, Victorian townhouse. Visions of the legacy proliferated. When she pushed open the door the first thing that struck me was a slithering melody; the plaintive drone of a cello knitting itself into the murky air of the hallway. She sighed, ‘Elgar. Sarah must have put on a record. How thoughtful.’
……….‘Sarah,’ I repeated, feeling anew that ripple of uncertainty gently settling like cigarette smoke.
……….‘This was Franz’s favourite,’ the door clicked shut behind her. ‘Poor darling Franz with his poor, knotted fingers.’
……….‘Arthritis?’ I asked grimly.
……….‘No. The Nazis. They broke his fingers.’
……….‘I thought you said he played with the London Phil?’
……….‘Mmm,’ she hummed, nodding vacantly, ‘Welcome to my Wunderkammer –’ and, gesturing towards a sketch hung up on the wooden panelling of the staircase, ‘This is an original Eric Hebborn!’
……….I leant in closer to get a look. The hallway was so tenebrous – layers of antique shadow folded in over you, and over the fine shafts of silvery light, laced with their constellations of dust – that I had to squint to make out the details. Pen strokes so soft they were exhalations of carbon – the paper plied with smudged ink and each smudge in reality more precise than the weft of a cobweb. Thirteen faces emerged from the reddish-black lines.
……….‘Christ and the Apostles.’ Margaret sighed, lovingly. ‘And look here – I always call this one Thomas – because Eric obviously couldn’t decide!’ She pointed to one of the figures who – on closer inspection – had multiple faces fanning out around his final, fated head. ‘Pentimenti we call that. Very authentic.’
She ran a skinny finger along the length of the frame, ‘And here is Judas,’ she whistled. ‘I love the way he looks a little like Christ. You know, in the Islamic tradition, Jesus himself wasn’t actually crucified at all. Judas was transformed to look just like him and was executed in his place. Isn’t that just ghoulish? Coming to in Gethsemane, raising your hands to your face – the palms wider, the thumbs more squat – and you feel along the bridge of your nose and the hollows of your cheeks – and there’s alien stubble, and a new, raised freckle.’
……….The way she was talking was so artificial, so rehearsed, that I felt as if we were performers being watched. I felt surveilled. Shaking her head in apparent wonder, Margaret led me down the corridor into the kitchen. It was a musty room, tinted with greenish light. The walls were that pale, 1970’s green, with those lead-framed, grid-paned windows with glass so thick and warped by time that the light itself seemed convoluted and reformed by the passing of lives. Light that was dented by age. Over the slinking cello tolled the tonic drip of the cold tap. Through the next door (more brindled, time-tinted glass) was Margaret’s studio. The clutter was phenomenal. Even the walls were cluttered. The one opposite us was obscured with paintings of the same face – her own. A proliferation of Margarets, all at different stages and in different styles: a swan-necked Margaret with the elliptic head of a Modigliani; Margaret rendered in the hyper-real detail of a Velasquez, and then with the blemished, rouged skin of a Lucian Freud. The lurid, dense colour palette of Margaret through the prism of Matisse, and next to it the saccharine, cherry blossom froth of Margaret’s hair sweetened in the style of Renoir. Margaret made horrifying – teeth bared and eyes bulging, like an exposed, demented subject of an Otto Dix. The effect was astonishing. The effect was sinister. I swallowed, and when I finally re-found the ability to speak my voice was a washed out version of itself.
……….She was rooting through a cardboard box full of paper. ‘It is.’ she muttered. ‘I believe, as a woman, that it is of the utmost importance to be in control of your own image,’ she stood up straight, her fist full of photographs. The face, that before had been lit up by impish charm, was now distinctly serious. ‘I don’t really think you’re in control of your own image at all,’ she spat. ‘I think you’re probably the kind of young woman who likes to arrange herself prettily on a man’s bed when he goes to the bathroom to piss aren’t you?’
……….My mouth formed a few incoherent consonants and after a moment – suspended by a thread of shame that I couldn’t quite grasp – Margaret started to laugh and said ‘My dear don’t look so guilty. We’ve all been conditioned that way.’ She threw her free hand up in exasperation at the wall, ‘Even those are just spare rib paintings,’ she croaked. ‘Come here though and I’ll show you the real way to resistance.’ ……….I noticed, as I approached her, that the cello had stopped. I heard the needle lift with its little, automatic click, then drag and thud back into place.
……….‘Now look at these photos!’ She grinned childishly, spreading them out between her thumb and her forefinger like a deck of cards.
……….‘Don’t tell me you’ve never received one of these before?’ she hooted. ‘The newspapers would have it that girls your age started getting them in secondary school! Look at this one. Really vile. The shaft looks like a walnut…’
……….‘Yes,’ she said breezily. ‘Dick pics.’
……….Dick pics. The words in her mouth were farcical.
……….‘I collect them. It’s so funny to watch men attempt to do what we’ve been trained for all our lives, and to fail so spectacularly. I had the idea a few years ago. A woman I knew was left by her husband of thirty-something years and it was all so sordid. Such a cliché. He was a dentist and he left her for his nurse, Denise. Denise with a c – can you imagine? De-nice.’ She shuddered. ‘Anyway the scorned woman had her revenge. The prat of a husband still used the name of their dog as his password for everything, and he didn’t think of all those indiscreet photos he’d sent De-Nice. When he came home from work that evening, he found the entire living room plastered with grainy, pixelated print-outs of his wilting manhood.’ She burst into delighted laughter, and all at once the warmth of it, and the naughty glint in her eye, put me at ease again. The nightmarish, surrealist aspect that the grey afternoon had taken now waned. The strange encounter felt enchanting. I’d had a strike of cinematic good luck. I’d run in to an old lady who may have just been an artistic genius, who collected ill-advised, sexy selfies and furthermore might one day leave me a threestory house with a garden in Hampstead. The experience was sure to be anecdotal and enriching in every sense.
……….‘So you collect dick pics?’ I asked.
……….‘Yes. I decided at a very young age that I didn’t want to be anybody’s muse. And now all I have to do is sign up to some tacky online dating site and they’re just all flocking to be mine. I just used Sarah’s photo for my profile. I mean – no one’s going to send a picture of their todger to granny, are they? Or maybe I’m being naïve…’
……….‘And Sarah – she doesn’t mind that you use her picture?’
……….‘Oh no my dear. Sarah is a great supporter of the arts.’
……….‘Yes. Other than the self-portraits and some of the tributes, Sarah’s the only woman I’ve ever painted. I told you how I made my career – how I paid the bills. But my artistic practice has always been all about the male nude. I want to study them. Dissect them. Pin them like beetles. Put them in little frames. Categorise them. Elevate and exhibit them. Do to them what they’ve always so wonderfully done to us.’
……….Margaret’s manifesto didn’t strike me as particularly original, but then, the woman had spent her life making copies, after all. Her brand of premillennium pop feminism was endearing. The idea that I could have ever felt uneasy with her became absurd again. She was an old duck. By now, she was walking away from me, back towards the bookshelves. Then, from somewhere beyond the room, from upstairs, I suppose, I heard again the weight of a needle drop, and heard it trail along the little channel of vinyl until the air filled with music, with the swell of a clarinet.
……….‘Ah. Dvorák.’ Margaret breathed.
……….Now I felt it again. The smallest twinge of disquiet. As if on cue (though it must have been something in the score, surely) I heard the faintest press of footsteps above us.
……….‘Would you like to see some of my sketches of Sarah?’
……….More footsteps. I felt that no, I really wouldn’t.
……….From one of the shelves, Margaret took down a tatty sketchbook. Threads of the spine were coming loose, and both covers bulged with extra leaves, stuffed in and swelling the book to double. Every time she said the name now I felt the blood thicken a little on it’s way up to my head. Stupidly – irrationally, I told myself – my chest felt hollow. Margaret was making her way back towards me, thumbing through the pages with love.
……….‘Here we are,’ she said, ‘This is a good one. Look at this one first.’
……….She pushed the sketchbook into my hands, and before I even had time to register the image I knew that it wouldn’t be pleasant. My limbs stiffened. My organs lurched like they do when you almost fall off a bicycle, or trip in a dream just as you’re skirting the edges of sleep. The face (biro, stitched onto the back of an old receipt) was rendered in almost microscopic detail. Every line was perfectly accurate – photographic. Alarmed, I flipped to another page, and another. I felt the horror of it prick my flesh.
……….‘It’s a real delight, drawing someone you love so dearly.’
……….I tried to stop myself but I couldn’t help but turn page after page after page; page after page in seeming infinity. A kaleidoscopic, magic lantern swirl of them – the same features in proliferation, on an endless loop. The face was perfect. Not a single feature misplaced or incorrect. I knew it well enough – the face was mine.
……….I was vaguely aware of Margaret’s gaze, pinned at my eye-level. I dragged mine up to meet hers. She was eyeing me with agitated enthusiasm.
……….‘They are good, aren’t they?’
……….I managed to draw up a smile. ‘Yes.’ My voice was quiet, not at all like itself. ‘They’re brilliant.’ Apparently of their own accord, my hands returned the sketchbook to hers.
‘Let’s call Sarah down again,’ she said. ‘She always likes to look at them.’
Now the footsteps above our heads were unmistakably real, and not at all part of the score.
……….‘Yes,’ I heard myself saying. ‘But I really should go. For Greta. I’m late.’
……….I thought of the dark corridor, of the front door with its stained glass panels at the foot of the staircase. I backed out of the studio slowly, unable to unlatch my gaze from her, following me softly, with that banal smile set on her face. The kitchen again, with its wavy, jaundiced light, and then into the dark folds of the hallway. Thomas’s doubting, concertina heads and Judas the doppelgänger. At the foot of the stairs, my hand reached for the door. Margaret called her name. Her voice was shrill. The music paused as someone lifted the needle and an excruciating semitone of silence followed. Then, in a voice that was disturbingly familiar –
……….‘I’m going out ‘round the back Mags!’
……….The door handle was cold and rigid in my grip. The thump of footsteps collected and unfolded out down a staircase, though apparently not this one.
……….‘Servant’s staircase,’ Margaret grinned.
……….I tugged at the handle again, and from the back of the house, another door slammed shut. The air felt empty – or at least less dense. Now all I could hear was the rattle of my own harassed breath.
……….‘Oh well, that’s a shame,’ Margaret snapped back and hummed brightly; let her elegant hands – the fingers all engraved with the rhizomes of age – flutter down onto my forearm. ‘She wasn’t being rude, avoiding you like that. I suppose she just didn’t want to be late.’
……….‘Late?’ My voice, that minutes before I’d heard replicated and projected upstairs came out in a limp croak. Margaret applied the faintest trace of pressure into the nubile pillow of my arm.
……….‘Well, to pick up Greta from her lesson of course. She’s ever so diligent.’ Footfall right around the house and then – for a second – the blurred silhouette of a figure through the panels of stained glass. Sarah rapped her fingers on them gleefully and giggled in my voice before turning on her heel. Margaret looked down at my watch.
……….‘Alles gut! I think she’ll be just on time.’
To discover more content exclusive to our print and digital editions, subscribe here to receive a copy of The London Magazine to your door every two months, while also enjoying full access to our extensive digital archive of essays, literary journalism, fiction and poetry.