“I knew these people…once…It was a long time ago…”
She looked like she needed to talk, some fragmented ghost of a memory rattling around the caverns of her mind seeking to find a voice. So I pulled up a chair and sat down beside her and prepared to listen. After all, it is what I do. Listen. I listen a lot. People tell me things, always have. Seems to come from nowhere, the torrent of words, the secrets and the shames. I never judge. That is for the Man above not me.
A waiter came over. Smartly dressed with slicked back black hair, just a hint of grey kissing his temples and a smile that reached his rich brown eyes. I noted he was deferential without being subservient, in a very European way. I liked him and resolved to leave him a good tip. I saw he liked her, a lot. Did she like him? It was difficult to tell. There was a story hiding behind his smile, but that would be for another time. Right now was her time. She had something to say and I had a strong intuition I needed to hear it.
I ordered a pot of English Breakfast Tea, toast and marmalade, “Make that for two, please,” I glanced at her and she nodded her approval at him.
“Très bon,” he rewarded us both with a smile, hiding just a soupçon of merriment. This man did not take life too seriously at all. He really was very handsome and as he walked away a delicious hint of citrus and spice lingered in the air.
“Mmm,” I sniffed appreciatively “Do I detect patchouli and sandalwood?”
“Indeed you do. Top notes and base notes. Quite enticing, isn’t it? Clive Christian 1872,” she replied with authority and I wondered if she was the one who had gifted him a very fine bottle of cologne.
We sat in comfortable companionship in the beautiful glass roofed Courtyard. Soft pink stucco walls wrapped the restaurant with the elegance of a bygone age. She asked me if this was my first visit to the Wallace Collection. I smiled and told her I often came here to Hertford House and take yet another admiring stroll through the sumptuous rooms of the museum, admiring the works of fine art, especially paintings depicting angels. I told her my Mother had first brought me here as a little girl.
“Mummy are Angels just make believe or are they really real like the elves with their black patent shoes with big silver buckles and fairies with their gossamer wings in my big picture book?” I had made earnest enquiries.
“Indeed they are Evie,” Mummy had replied, “Would you like to see the lovely paintings of the Angels in Hertford House? We shall look at suits of armour and you can see for yourself knights who protected princesses were very real too! We shall have tea and toast and yummy jam when we finish. ”
My Mother always had a special way of making the most magical things sound a natural part of everyday life. I missed her and gazing at my elegant companion momentarily wondered would Mummy have looked just like her if the sickness had not came and took her away much too soon. Would we be sitting here now recalling my delight at the moment I had gazed on the beautiful paintings of Lords and Ladies of long ago. Entranced by the many treasures housed in the Wallace Collection, I had moved from one sumptuous and ornate gallery to the next, each filled with armour, fine porcelain, ornate snuffboxes and gorgeous fireplaces and rococo chandeliers. And I had seen the Angels. And I had believed.
I saw I was under close scrutiny, “I like it here,” I told her, “ I like it a lot. It’s been a long love affair,” I said.
She smiled and told me she loved it too, had been visiting the imposing Georgian house, standing proudly on London’s Manchester Square, for as long as she could remember. She said that she loved the Gainsborough’s and Fragonard’s. She smiled in appreciation as she divulged her favourite painting and said she found Scheffer’s “The Ghosts of Paolo and Francesca Appear to Dante and Virgil” hauntingly beautiful. She said it made her cry. She told me she hugely admired the serenity of Velázquez’s black veiled beauty “The Lady with a Fan” and shared she was intrigued by sculptures depicting veiled beauties. She wondered if Raffaele Monti’s emotive statuette really depicted a Circassian slave? Perhaps, she postulated, she was truly free and her beautiful veiled countenance was an allegory for her seeing ‘beyond the veil’ into numinous realms. She said her name was Evelyn and she had a town house close by in Crawford Street, she was a Writer and she was glad of my company. A lot of words as one would expect, but not what she really needed to say.
I shivered involuntarily. Crawford Street was a place I knew well, having grown up in an elegant stucco fronted Georgian house. In different circumstances I would be living there now, but for the premature loss of my darling Mother. That house held many happy memories and I had vowed one day to return, that it would be my home again. Meeting Evelyn was proving to be more than a touch synchronistic.
Our tea and toast arrived.
“Those people…?” I tried to engage her to take my mind away from wandering down dark avenues from the past.
I poured tea, fragrant with freshly pressed leaves, from a pewter pot into our cups and she added the milk and sugar. The toast was good. I ladled on rich yellow butter and a generous helping of deliciously bitter marmalade and as I savoured the flavours I waited for her to speak. You can have an intuition on what they may say, sometimes hear the words before they actually speak them. Then when they do speak, the emotions come in, sometimes softly flowing, sometimes a tidal wave. And I have it all hitting me, sometimes it’s hard to remain inscrutable, to just listen. But it is about them, not me, so they never know I have eyes that look into their distant pasts and possible futures, their right here, right now’s or just how much I know…
She was different. Looking at me quizzically with intelligent eyes, and with a start I realised she was reading me reading her. A feint smile. I winked at her, knowingly. We laughed conspiratorially.
Sunlight, delicately streaming through the glass roof caught her hair. Cool blonde with strands of silver pulled off her face by a black velvet band. A woman of a certain age, but what that age was I would be hard pressed to say. Quietly understated elegance. She wore pearl earrings. Beautiful pearls, soft as moonlight. I admired them.
“Indeed yes, they are beautiful. Tears from the moon.” Her eyes misted. I reached over and covered her hand with mine. A simple gesture, speaks more eloquently and deeply than words ever can. She had long slim fingers tipped with manicured nails varnished the colour of her pale pink pearls. Her hand was surprisingly cold.
“Those people…” I encouraged, knowing the earrings held the key to her story, as did love. Was it lost, unrequited, had her heart been broken or did she carry the heavy weight of human frailty having inflicted pain and hurt on another? I munched my toast waiting for her to reply. The toast here is really very good. My reward for patience just a flicker behind her grey eyes, a wry smile and the deafening sound of silence. Perhaps a guilty conscience lay behind her insouciance? I truly hoped not.
Suddenly I had a very strong desire to know and held her gaze searchingly. I saw the relief in her face as the waiter returned with a fresh pot of tea and she took the opportunity to slip her hand away from mine, the shutters were down. The moment had passed. I got she was uncomfortable with my touch, the warmth of another human reaching out to her. I wasn’t sure if she would tell me her story, or keep her secrets to be shared only with the ghost living in the caverns of her mind. With a start, I realised I could not read her, looking into her eyes all I saw was myself looking back, my pale pink pearls catching rainbows of light as the sun danced through the atrium.
She may well have a lifetime of stories to tell, but I was going to have to live them before Evelyn shared our secrets with me, Evie…