We didn’t laugh at the paintings. If you do this job you become familiar with the major artists, and we knew this guy had painted a lot of nudes. Not lithe young beauties or muscular men, but fat, thin, old, scrawny and withered. He even made the pretty ones look a bit rough. I didn’t much care for them, didn’t like being reminded that sooner or later life makes our bodies saggy and hard to control. But I could see why some people were impressed, the ones who like imperfections and want to wallow in realism. And those portraits are worth a lot of money.
Anyway, he was dead, and a crew of us were in his studio to collect some of the paintings that he had never allowed to leave. They were going to the gallery for inspection, where the curator was going to pick out a few for the memorial exhibition and the rest would go into storage before the painter’s family decided to put them up for sale. We were working in pairs, wrapping, crating then carrying them downstairs to the lorry. It had a security door and a uniformed guard inside – it wasn’t inconceivable that some crooks with inside knowledge would try a grab – but none of us had ever known any trouble on these jobs. We were concentrating on handling the paintings carefully, making sure there was no chance of a chipped frame or snag in a canvass. I was with Josh, while Paul and Alfie were working together. One of them made a wheezing sound, there was a whisper then a giggle. I ignored it, we moved a painting across the studio to a bare spot of wall, but I was conscious of an unnatural quiet. The other two weren’t doing anything. We propped the painting against the wall and I looked around to see Alfie staring at me as if there was something he was scared to say.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I think you should have a look at this one.”
“What’s wrong with it? If it’s damaged it was damaged when we arrived. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“No, it’s not that, but you ought to look at it.”
His face was frozen between embarrassment and a big laugh. Behind his shoulder Paul was looking down to the floor. I felt a tickle of irritation but decided to humour them.
“I’ve got an idea you know the model for this one,” Alfie said.
I had to walk a few steps to get a proper view of the picture. It was one of the painter’s nudes, an overweight woman of about fifty, sitting on the arm of a sofa. Her stomach drooped onto her thighs, which were wide enough apart to reveal a thick bush of hair, her hands were on her waist and her shoulders thrown back to show off large breasts. It took a moment for me to look at her face and realised that I recognised her. It was my mum.
I stood still, stared, said nothing. For a few seconds there was silence, then Alfie spoke softly.
“It is her, isn’t it?”
“Did you know about it?”
I could hear him and Paul stifling the laughs. Josh asked who we were looking at. They didn’t answer, that was up to me, but I only had two words.
Mum offered me a cup of tea. I accepted, because I always did and thought that sticking to the ritual might help me stay calm. She talked for several minutes, about how she had been one number short on two successive games of bingo, and the aggro she had with Tesco because it kept sticking the wrong price tags on the shelves, and her friend Peggy being upset because her daughter’s marriage was breaking up. We had both finished our tea by the time she was asked how I was doing.
“Haven’t slept much the past two nights.”
“Why’s that? Something on your mind?”
“I saw something that upset me.”
“What was that?”
I thought about it for a moment. It still didn’t make sense to me.
“We were clearing out a studio in the week, moving a lot of paintings. There was one ….”
I stopped. I was still embarrassed, and hanging on to the possibility this was a massive coincidence. Mum’s expression changed, hinting at a revelation.
“Whose studio was it?”
I told her his name.
“The one who died a few weeks ago?”
That was a surprise. She hardly ever recognised the names of any artists I mentioned.
“Did you know him?”
“I met him.”
She hesitated. It was clear that this was something she hadn’t intended to tell me before now. I prodded her to carry on.
“It was six, seven years ago, a couple of years after your dad died. You know I used to go out for a regular drink with Peggy, after she had divorced Malcolm and before she met Jim. Well this man used to go in the same pub and got chatting to us a couple of times. He was obviously interested in Peggy, especially when she said she was divorced. Then one day while he was getting a drink she told me he had asked to paint her portrait, but she thought he might be dodgy, so would I go to his studio with her to see if it all looked above board. I thought she should be flattered, and that even if he was after a bit of the other there was no harm in it.
“Well we went to the studio together the next week, and when we got there she went right off of him. Nearly all the pictures were of nudes, and they were all … I suppose you’d say natural. They were normal people, looking a bit worn out with all the bits dangling, and flopped out or curled up on sofas or on the floor. We gawped at them for a couple of minutes, then Peggy decided she didn’t want any of it, or any of him. She couldn’t get out of there quick enough, but he offered us a cup of tea and I decided to stay. It might have been because I had never been in an artist’s studio before, and I was curious about why he painted people like that, so I let her go and sat there talking to him.
“He was interesting , and nice enough, and half hour later he asked if he could paint me.”
“In the nude?”
“Well, yes. That’s how he painted people.”
“And you said yes.”
That was it. I couldn’t pretend that he had painted a woman who just happened to be a ringer for my mum. She had stripped off and sat on the arm that sofa for him, tits out and legs apart for all the world to see. I was silent long enough to make a point. Mum looked awkward, as if she had half hoped that this conversation would never take place. Then I asked a question.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
“Well, I don’t know. I suppose I thought you might be upset.”
“More upset than my mates at work all getting to see you in the nude?”
“Who saw it?”
“Alfie, who you met at my party and who’s had a cup of tea in here. And Josh and Paul in our crew, and I bet they’ve told everyone in the company, and at the gallery, and all their mates as well!”
“I’m not shouting.”
“Well you’re getting aggressive.”
“Well haven’t I got the right? They’ve emptied his studio so they can use some of the paintings he kept in a big exhibition. They might choose that one of you. You might be hanging on a wall in a gallery showing it all off for everyone who wants a look.”
She was quiet for a moment, as if I had raised something she had never considered. I pushed the point.
“So how do you feel about that?”
“I don’t know. I suppose it’s not bad.”
“Well I saw the painting when it was finished, and I quite liked it.”
“You liked it?”
I felt my anger rising. She was meant to feel ashamed, or at least that she had been manipulated.
“I did,” she said. “It’s a long time since I saw it, and I remember it showed the fat on my belly and thighs and that my tits were sagging, but that’s me, and it made me look proud of myself.”
“Proud!” That made me more angry. “You look like a bloody porn model!”
“I mean it’s not as if you curled up and hid anything. You were just sitting up there with your legs open inviting anyone to take a look.”
She stared at me. Her eyes grew red and watered, angry and hurt. I knew I had gone too far, but I was still too angry and hurt to admit it. There was an awkward silence for nearly a minute, then she stood up and walked out of the room. I sat there and stewed.
Two minutes later she returned with a plastic carrier bag. I was close to being ready to say sorry, but before I could speak she pulled a magazine out of the bag. One look at the cover brought an awful recognition.
“You lost track of this one,” she said. “Forgot that you had tucked it under that bit of loose carpet under your bed.”
The cover of the magazine showed a young woman wearing nothing but a thong, sideways on and pressing herself against an open door. Everything inside was a lot more explicit.
“I found it a few months after you moved out,” Mum said. “Left it there in case you ever remembered and came back. I didn’t want you to know that I had found it. Well now you do know.”
I remembered the magazine. It was left over from my mid teens and had inspired a handful of fantasies. Mum waving it in my face wiped out all my other feelings.
“And want to know something else.” She fingered through the magazine, stopped opened a few of the spreads then stopped. “This is where I got the idea for the way I posed.”
She pushed it in front of me. I had to take it, opened at a spread where most of the right hand page was taken by a photo of a young woman with long dark hair and sultry eyes. She was sitting on the arm of a sofa, shoulders back to show off her large breasts, legs apart to reveal a streak of pubic hair.
“I suppose you liked her,” Mum said.
I thought back. To be honest I didn’t fancy this particular girl and she had never been the subject of one of my fantasies.
“Well, no Mum, but …”
“I did like a couple of the other girls in there.”
There was only one thought in my mind: “Oh fuck!”
It was the first time I had been invited to one of the receptions. I wore my suit and a new tie, and had decided I was going to drink wine even if there was beer on offer. I went along with Mum, but a lot of people wanted to speak with her – the artist’s family and friends, the curator, a couple of art critics, someone who owned a gallery – so I took a glass of wine and wandered around the exhibition. It was busy, full of people schmoozing and there to be seen, but also with plenty who were excited by the occasion and in awe of the artist’s work. I looked at the paintings, appreciating things that I had never seen in the artist’s work before and understanding why they would sell for tens or hundreds of thousands. I spoke with a couple of people who recognised me, gallery staff who knew me as one of the shifters and were impressed by the reason I had been invited. I spoke with a couple of strangers as we looked at paintings, sharing opinions of what we saw then about other artists and other exhibitions.
After nearly an hour I looked across the room and saw Mum among a group of people. She had been to the hairdresser, bought a new dress, and put on her gold necklace, giving herself a little glamour for the evening. She was obviously enjoying all of the attention, and looked confident, talking as much as the people around her. An older guy in a pin striped suit seemed to have spent a lot of time talking with her, and they were both laughing over something one of them had said. I wondered if he was interested.
I went back to where they had hung her portrait. It was the third time that evening I had looked at it, still appreciating I didn’t feel embarrassed any more. I was impressed by the way she sat upright on the arm of the sofa, acknowledging that her body had its rolls and wrinkles but proud of the way she looked. It was in her eyes, a bit of daring that led her to take off her clothes and made her beautiful. A young woman appeared at my side, stared up at the picture and smiled.
“This one’s lovely,” she said.
“Exactly what I was thinking.”
“I wonder who the model is.”
“It’s my mother.”
The woman looked around at me. Her smile had broadened.
“Really. She’s lovely.”
(A nod to Lucien Freud, one of the great characters of Britsh art.)