The car drew up in front of the gallery and Lady Sandy was handed out by the doorman. She drew her pashmina closer around her bare shoulders, keeping off the chill evening air, as he inspected her invitation, then smiled and thanked him as he wished her a pleasant evening and waved her inside.
The interior of the gallery was warm and lit with soft, bright lights that fell indirectly on the paintings, leaving the centres of the rooms in shadow. Suave young waiters with achingly trendy haircuts wove their way between the guests with champagne and nibbles.
He did. Excusing himself from his adoring public he stationed himself opposite, mirroring her pose. The orchid between them trembled when he spoke.
‘Been a long time, eh?’
‘Two or three years I should think,’ she replied.
‘I didn’t think you’d come tonight, busy as you generally are.’
‘Life has calmed down again, thankfully.’
‘Michael usually comes though, less in his diary than you,’ he commented. ‘How is he, by the way, why isn’t he with you?’
She sipped champagne. ‘We’re on rather a break, really, haven’t spoken in nearly a year’
‘Are you? I’m sorry; I didn’t know there was trouble.’
‘Oh!’ she laughed. ‘No, not like that. He wanted to do this in-depth report, you know the thing, getting photos no one in the civilised world has seen, living in the wilds of somewhere or other and we were starting to take each other for granted, so we decided to not speak while he was away and when he came back he wouldn’t tell me. We’re waiting for fate to throw us together again.’
‘How can you do that? Be apart and hope it all works out?’
‘I’m madly in love with my husband and I trust that. Oh, but then you never were good at separation. How is Sarah by the way? I didn’t see her when I came in.’
He pointed over her shoulder, ‘She’s keeping Hen out of my hair.’
‘Shall we say hello?’
Together they made their way across the room to where a smallish woman with dark honey coloured hair and limpid green eyes who managed to make diamonds and a couture cocktail dress look vaguely frumpy was listening to another woman whose fashion coda was clearly if you can’t be chic be odd.
Bert slid his arm over Sarah’s shoulders and kissed the top of her head in a familiar gesture. ‘Can you still hear me, love, or has Hen talked both your ears off.’
‘C’mon mate, get over it and get in the gallery, ‘s not like you won’t know anyone here,’ Simon said, throwing his arm over Michael’s shoulder.
‘And that would be precisely what I’m worried about.’
‘I can’t imagine why,’ Gav replied with a grin, grabbing Michael’s other shoulder. ‘You’re much too square to be our third wheel.’
‘And yet I’m not comforted.’
The three men made their way inside and soon after Michael found himself abandoned by the couple, Gav’s ex’s nipple piercing holding no interest for him.
He meandered along, attempting to locate a waiter carrying champagne in glasses and not just a bottle for top-up, and occasionally glancing at the artwork. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Bert’s paintings, he did, to the extent that a pair hung over the desk in his office, but he found most of them easier to digest after he’d had a few.
He turned to face one of the younger members of the art groupies he called his friends. Her short, spiky lilac hair topped an outfit of doc marten boots, tutu and a snug t-shirt that said ‘lets do it in the rothko room.’
‘Hello, Charly.’ He pointed at her top, ‘Weren’t you permanently banned from Tate Modern for trying that?’
‘Yeah, but I changed my hair and they haven’t caught me since.’ She took his hand and dragged him away. ‘Follow, I know where they’re stashing the empty glasses and I’m dying to get drunk.’
‘You know, oh, I suppose it’s rather bad form to tell you now. Well, I’ll say it anyway, you do look rather lovely tonight, you know. I should take you out to these things where you have to get dressed up more often. Yes, I like that idea. Ah, here we are,’ Victor handed his invitation to the doorman and motioned to his wife to precede him inside. ‘I’ll take some notes and get the work end of things done with and then I’ll come and find you and be sociable, will that be alright, darling?’
‘Ah, a woman who manages herself when you go out, one of the things I love about you.’ He kissed the side of her head and strode into the gallery, notebook in hand.
Mary watched him disappear into the crowd before checking her coat and then wandering into the main part of the gallery herself.
‘I always feel awkward having to talk to her.’
‘Because, Bert, she’s your ex-wife’s best friend,’ Sarah replied.
He gave her a puzzled frown. ‘She’s my friend too, you know.’
‘I know. But that’s not the point.’ Sarah sighed. ‘Every time I see
‘She makes you feel haunted?’
‘Yes, more or less. Like one of the paintings in the gallery of your mind has come to life.’
‘So, where is the red menace this evening?’
‘If you mean Flora, probably some dusty theatre archive.’
Charly shot him an ineffective withering glare and emptied the champagne bottle into their glasses. ‘I meant your wife.’
‘I have no idea,’ Michael said, taking a sip. ‘Why else would I have come with the poster children for young, trendy and gay?’
‘Well, you certainly don’t meet those three requirements for their club. So, she’s cut you loose and you’re going to fall in love with me?’
‘Hardly. I’ve just come back from a long-term photographic assignment, we decided when I left that we wouldn’t speak until fate threw us together once I returned. Rediscover the pleasure of seeing someone across a room and knowing you want to spend the rest of your life with them.’
Charly laughed. ‘You’re a romantic old bastard. How do you know it will work?’
He swirled the champagne in his glass, ‘I’m madly in love with my wife. I don’t need to know anything else; I trust that and all the other pieces fall into place.’
‘But it doesn’t stop you wishing your boyfriends or girlfriends or whatever you’re dating these days were more like me.’
‘No,’ she grumbled, ‘it doesn’t.’
Victor stood staring at the large canvas.
H Alfred, one of his favourite contemporary painters, the one he was certain to expose his students to, specialised in landscapes, though they were not just any landscapes. He had a surrealist touch to his suggestive vision of the English landscape, the work one would expect from the man being hailed as a cross between Constable and Dali, with a dash of two dozen other modern masters, and there was something else as well. If you turned your head and unfocused your eyes a bit, or indeed simply had a good amount of champagne to drink, they seemed slightly alive.
The painting before him was a wild, blurred, windy meadow with long grasses and trees bent in the gale. There were practically no details, just broad brushstrokes suggesting the elements, with one exception. In the middle distance a perfectly detailed figure of a woman walked away from the viewer.
He thought she looked familiar.
Another painting. Soft, modulated colours that could have been a sunrise or just some paint on the canvas, the bottom edge covered with creature-like flowers.
‘The symbolism of the painting says that you are going to come home with me tonight where we will make mad, passionate love until dawn.’
‘My right breast missed you too.’
‘But I’ve got a glass of champagne in that hand.’
‘Here,’ she reached down and took his glass. Michael lifted his hand to hold her other breast, pulling her back to rest against his chest. ‘How long have you been back?’
‘About a week.’
‘Are you going to kiss me?’
‘In a minute. I missed holding you more.’
Bert was having a moment in one of the smaller rooms away from the pressing crowds of drunken admirers. He shared the room with a woman in the far corner who didn’t seem to have noticed him and he thought of teasing her neglect of the artist when Sarah walked in and spoke his name.
Two things happened.
The woman turned around. They recognised each other.
For an eternal second no one breathed and then they remembered they were English.
‘Bert, how lovely to see you again.’
‘Mary, what a pleasant surprise.’ They shook hands because they had to do something and any more was too close and personal for people who had not seen one another since the day they signed the divorce papers.
‘I’d, uh; I’d like to introduce my wife, Sarah.’ He motioned for her to join them in the middle of the room and Sarah approached, knowing she was about to meet the woman for whom there was no equal. ‘Sarah, this is my… well this is Mary Poppins.’
Mary smiled and extended her hand. She was nothing if not polite. ‘How do you do?’
‘It’s a pleasure to meet you,’ Sarah replied, though her voice was hollow and suggested it was anything but. ‘Bert, I’m going to ring home and check on the kids.’ The mother’s effortless excuse to retreat from any situation.
Mary watched her until she disappeared into the crowd in the room beyond. ‘About seven weeks.’ She turned to Bert, ‘Is that your third or fourth she’s carrying?’
He wasn’t surprised she noticed; he’d long stopped being surprised by anything she did, how far her eyes could see. ‘Third, we only found out last week.’
‘Does it make you happy? Having children?’
She didn’t ask what he meant and he didn’t elaborate.
‘And the modern world, it suits you.’
‘I suppose it does. I had to find a place somewhere.’
‘I always thought,’ she paused. ‘I was once jealous of your place in this world, but now, seeing what you’ve made of it… I suppose I’m proud, in a way. I knew you, once, and I don’t regret it.’
He glanced at her and understood. They couldn’t hurt each other any more. Not even with what might have been.
‘Are you still… working?’ he asked.
‘In a way. Much less travelling now, though I still go off from time to time, but I helped to found the Umbrella Centres and it keeps me busy.’
‘I’ve heard of them, you do good work. You always did. In some ways it’s a pity you couldn’t work on us, but on the other hand….’
‘The most important thing about Sarah is that she’s always there, isn’t it?’ Mary turned and took a few steps away. ‘The one thing I could never be. I know how that feels, the thing I like best about Victor is his utter unchangeability.’
That did surprise him. ‘You remarried?’
‘In time, yes.’ Her gaze at him was calm and level. ‘He’s a professor and I come and go and the only things that seem to change are the shirt he’s wearing and the book he’s reading. He’s very constant. It’s hardly a love affair but we’re good company for each other.’
‘Do you think it’s fair?’
‘Probably not, but what in life is? We both made that choice, we settled for what was comfortable, what made us feel comfortable, because at the end of it that is exactly what we needed and there is a kind of happiness in it. Love can be very difficult to live with.’
He wanted to challenge her but he didn’t want to lie.
Sarah walked in then. ‘Bert, it’s getting late, we should think about leaving.’
‘Of course. Good bye, Mary.’ He shook her hand again, ‘It was good to see you again, we should do lunch sometime.’
‘Yes. That is what people do. Sarah, how nice to have met you. Good bye, Bert.’ She turned and walked out of the room without looking back.
She found Victor and they left, stopping for a late dinner on the way home. There was good conversation and wine and the opera tomorrow and while his affection for anything other than his study was vague he was constant and made her smile and never asked for more than she could give. And the pleasure they each took from the company of the other was enough.
What you need has to be enough…
Bert took his wife in his arms and kissed the top of her head. She was steady and dependable and always there. She was the mother of his children and would be again. She made his life comfortable and happy and gave him everything he needed.
‘Let’s go home, love,’ he said to her, and a name is sometimes as good as a feeling.
…because you can’t always have what you want…
Sandy and Michael lay in bed together, the line of their bodies an intimate curve, a caress maintained even in sleep. A closeness maintained no matter how far apart they were. They trusted their love; it always brought them home to each other.
…but if you’re very lucky, what you need will be everything you want.