Contact sheet, photos by T.
LONDON, NEW LIFE: Part 21
November. Autumn leaves on the ground and I'm back to the single life with all its possibilities and all its fears. I have no money, I'm confused, sad, curious, excited. I gravitate towards North London since I have a few friends there and find a cheap bed-sitter, coin-meter for electricity, small gas fire to huddle in front of, shared bathroom down the hall. From my diary at the time:
I wake up in a new room. Faded sepia wallpaper stained with strangers' stains, greasy cooking fingers, hair inexplicably stuck to the wall, remnants of strangers' lives hiding in bottom drawers, blonde hairpins, strangers' dust to be swept out and replaced by my dust. An English room, London room, Hampstead room, silent as the grave, grey birds perched on grey branches against the grey sky, melancholy with an un-modern sadness, a monochrome sadness, a romantic, barrel-organ kind of sound. And me, Natalie, in this room, far from my origins, gone the Paraguayan sun, the Mediterranean sun, the American assurance and all my busy kin-folk, gone the man that was my husband - was I ever married? Gone my childish games with God, building blocks for temples, all gone. Only myself and the room and my clock-ticking brain still caught in its routine convolutions, performing its trained seal tricks over and over again, slowing down now, aware that the audience is no longer watching.
I wish I could be swept by a monsoon wind, released from my hold on the everyday, taken over by vastness, by rage - not somebody else's, my own. Great white expanses of canvas upon which to imprison my vision now, not the next day but now, forget words rooms places faces upstairs downstairs receipts lists plans landladies jobs groceries clocks shampoo lipstick mirrors kisses heels clicking down the street the past the future the whole kitchen sink of it, overturn the table and really get going, crack the whip and watch the thundering hooves come charging in at my command and line themselves up for my brush.
My priority is to find a job, any job that will pay the rent and also allow time for what I call 'my work' even though it consists mostly of ideas for work. I'm hired as a sales assistant in a leather fashion shop on the Edgeware Road and in quiet moments (of which there are many) I draw my two fellow workers and the stern, slender Swedish manageress always dressed in tight kinky leather top to toe. This job doesn't last very long and is only one of many that, with freedom as my hidden agenda, I take on in my search for the perfect mindless bread-winning activity. As I begin to feel at ease in my neighbourhood, a house on Adelaide Road and a nearby pub called The Prince Consort become the hub of my social life.
Once settled in my Hampstead room, I get in touch with a young English poet I'd met in Rome months earlier. He had been with a girlfriend and I with my husband, the four of us explored Roman markets together. The poet and I had exchanged glances, nothing more, but messages can be morse-coded by the eyes alone and there was no mistaking the erotic charge that flickered between us. Therefore meeting up in London under the pretense of 'having a drink' inevitably extended into dinner then into bed then into one of those bells which now and then ring. The poet had broken off with his previous girlfriend but neither of us was interested in committment. We spend long weekends making love in my room, walking in Regent's Park, going to parties at his literary friends' homes and talking. Unlike my silent husband the poet is a talker, a maker of well-turned phrases and this is a novelty, especially since many of his fine phrases are about me. I am not in love but flattered, my confidence boosted. But one day, sitting in a cinema together, I'm suddenly overcome by a trembling, a deep sense of loss, of guilt, of Reg's unhappiness. I leave the poet watching the film and go outside shaking, crying, into a bus and a tube to Charing Cross station where a priest with an open face is standing on a soap box talking to a small group of bystanders about Jesus. On to a post office to send Reg a telegram, six words to try and bandage his heart, then back to my room where a note from my sister awaits. She's in Rome, I phone her: how is Reg? He has gone to Positano. I'm relieved but still sad. Later the poet comes back to my room and we spend another night together, another day, breakfast at 5pm,lunch at midnight. My interest in him wanes, he's too young, too unreal for me.The affair lasts for a few months then we drift apart as easily as we drifted together.
What was it about Older Men? Charismatic, dominant older men. Must I accept Sigmund's tedious explanations? The father, always the father at the root of our troubled sexy psyches. How boring. I have another theory: past lives. In one of my past lives (Egypt of course) I had a passionate relationship with an older man, we were meant for each other. Then I betrayed him with a younger man, for fun. My lover never forgave me and swore to punish me in future lives until I learned the lesson. So I fall for older men who respond but are inaccessible or unavailable. The theory doesn't apply to Reg who, although older,. was not dominant and was both available and accessible. Allright maybe the theory is crap.
T: Part 22
But then I came under the spell of a certain charismatic older man and I can talk about him now because he's no longer on this planet. T deserves a book all to himself but if he had written his autobiography I would have played only a small part in the last few chapters and, being discreet, he might not have mentioned me at all. Never mind, eh? That's what he'd say.
The reason my path crossed T's was one of those coincidences which would seem contrived if you put it in a novel. In destiny's convoluted agenda, had I not married Reg I would not have met T. Miss M was the sister of Reg's first wife who had died in Canada. When I moved to London I of course contacted my stepson with whom I was on friendly terms - he was studying music and had a room near his aunt, Miss M, who lived on the top floor of a house in Swiss Cottage while T rented the basement and ground floor. T's life had become intertwined with Miss M's over the years but they were not a couple in the usual sense though everyone assumed they were. In theory they lived separate lives but beneath the rules flowed a silent, sometimes turbulent river of mutual dependence, duty, gratitude, loyalty, habit and antagonism.
I'd never met anyone like T. He was a cockney lad and proud of it, playing up the nasal twang for effect even though he could do proper Oxbridge English when he wanted to. The BBC commissioned him to record a series of radio broadcasts about his working-class London boyhood because he described it with such humour and authenticity. The broadcasts were made before I knew him but I have a tape of some of them. No one who met T even briefly ever forgot him, not only because of the fascination of his stories but because each person felt uniquely recognised. He saw you, focused on some significant facet of your personality and often gave you a new name. You'd be immediately invited to sit at his kitchen table, along with a crowd brought home from the pub, to eat a huge dinner cooked by him with great flourish and much laughter.
A large part of T's early childhood was spent in hospital, having operations to repair the damage done to his guts when a lorry ran over him as he was crossing the street. He had an impressive network of scars over his chest and belly as proof. Bright and curious, he absorbed every scrap of information that each new experience provided. He knew all about plants, about buildings, was an expert framer - he showed me how to separate a sheet of trembling gold leaf from its book and lay it down gently on the bare wood - and he could repair almost anything. His first full-time job was with London Underground, working on the tracks. But in his spare time T began to paint and to exhibit in amateur shows at his workplace.
When T first met Miss M he was in his late teens. She was older and inhabited an intellectual upper middle-class world totally alien to him. T's mother was the cleaner in her Kensington home. Miss M was a sensitive sculptor and teacher with a gift for detecting and encouraging talent in others and when she happened to see a few of T's early paintings she immediately took the young lad under her wing. Thus began a Pygmalion saga, genders reversed. Under M's tutelage, T began attending art classes, visiting museums, theatres, concerts. She told him what books to read, what music to listen to, but with his ravenousl apetite for knowledge T soon out-distanced his mentor and a few years later, there wasn't much in the cultural lexicon that he hadn't assimilated. His paintings were austere, beautifully constructed still-lifes and he could have made a career of it had he wished to. But he didn't have that ambition and his daily job continued to be with London Underground until he took up photography. Perhaps because Miss M gave up sculpture and started taking photographs, T gave up painting and became a photographer. He devoured every available book on the subject, bought the best camera and all the gear, built himself a darkroom and off he went, becoming so proficient that eventually he was offered a job as photography lecturer at what was then Hornsey School of Art where he was an intuitive and dedicated teacher, adored by students and staff.
"Contacts" - Acrylic on canvas. NdA
The first time I walked into T's basement kitchen - it was a New Year's eve I think - there was a party, music, drinking, dancing. I was with the young poet then and not looking for more but I remember T's eyes and that irrevocable falling falling.
Love is merely a madness; and, I tell you, deserves a dark house and a whip as madmen do: and the reason why they are not so punished and cured is that the lunacy is so ordinary that the whippers are in love too. (Shakespeare: As You Like It)
What with insecure part-time jobs, nightly socialising in the pub and the distraction of desire, I'm not doing a lot of painting. I blame it on not having enough space in my bedsitter and T offers to let me use a spare room in his flat as a non-live-in studio. Yes, there is a not-so-hidden agenda in his offer and in my acceptance of it but it's necessary to tread carefully, not rock the boat, the boat being the long-established structure of his rapport with Miss M. I don't see her as a rival because in my feelings for T there is no dream of a shared future. It's all about now, but a now which must continue indefinitely as long as T recognises me. It's about being lost and found. "There you are! At last!" Again and again.
I start to paint in the spare room where T has set up his old easel for me and I embark on a series based on London Underground.
"Angel Station" - Oil on canvas. NdA