A grimy Victorian building with a slate roof loomed above me like a derelict tomb as I climbed the entrance stairs of the Hackney public baths, passing by whirring gym equipment, men puffing and slumped over exercise bikes. Walking to the change area I opened one of the cubicles, putting on my costume before following the hallway to the pool. A lifeguard sat on a chair, while lanes had been roped off for swimmers, an instructor bellowing directions to school kids who dipped and dived, splashing beneath the ropes. Lying back in the water, I began backstroking down the lane, relaxing into the warmth of the water and the rhythm of my body, swimming back and forth along several lengths of the pool.
Spinning around, and pushing off to do another lap, somebody brushed past me, crashing and flailing; so I swam breaststroke for a while, dodging the wide flapping and thrashing movements of his arms, following behind like a smaller vessel, watching a larger one in danger of veering off course. The lifeguard raised his eyebrows as I swam past, pulling a face, and after a couple of laps, I stood by the side, as the swimmer, an elderly man, swam down the centre of the lane.
Once he reached the end of the pool, he pulled himself up, wheezing and gasping for breath, his skin loose and gathered in folds above pale swimming trunks which drifted and billowed like the tattered remnants of a silken parachute around spindly legs.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, wading over to me, still gasping for air. “Was I in your way?”
He began talking to me about the pool, how the council had cut back on finance, and I listened patiently, but I began to get cold, and noticed Jack through the window, waiting for me in reception. He was raising his eyebrows quizzically, sitting on the edge of the seat, as if he was supposed to be doing something.
“I’d better start swimming,” I said to the man. “My husband’s waiting for me.”
“Oh I’m so sorry,” he said, looking embarrassed and flustered. He collapsed back into the water, and I swam a few more lengths. Then I got out and told Jack what happened.
“I thought the guy was harassing you,” said Jack.
“No, No. He was just an elderly man who wanted to talk.”
In the afternoon I took the tube to the National Gallery, still thinking about the old man in the pool, and as I climbed the steps to the gallery, I began ruminating about the fragility of the human mind and body, the certainties of an earlier time.
I walked straight to the famous Van Eyck portrait of the betrothal of Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, and when I found it, a large group of people were peering at the mysterious Arnolfini. He stood in the centre of the portrait, a slim, middle-aged man with a long pallid face, the elongated effect of his face and body exaggerated by his black velvet hat, the large crown and broad brim casting a slight shadow. I studied Arnolfini’s full-sleeved black shirt and dark billowing tunic with its fur lined hem, which revealed the sheen of black stockinged legs and feet. Heavy, pale wooden sandals had been placed on the floor to the left.
The painting always gave me the creeps as Arnolfini had a slightly sinister appearance and I never knew why. When I looked at the painting now, Arnolfini’s expression was definitely funereal or sardonic, the eyes heavily hooded and turned inwards; a slightly mocking cruel expression and I wondered who he was mocking, the viewer or someone else.
As if in a signal or greeting, Arnolfini held up his right hand, side on, while his left hand was extended, holding his wife’s extended right hand. There was a sense of intimacy; a grey, wooden planked floor, the room, dimly lit, by the wintry tone of a late afternoon dying light. The chandelier, which hung from the ceiling in the centre of the room, seemed to produce no light, only a lightened sheen of sections of the light, which contrasted with the heavy tones of Arnolfini’s clothing.
Arnolfini’s wife had a completely different appearance, youthful and innocent, as she stood to his left. I don’t know if Arnolfini’s cynical expression indicated the joke was on his wife, as he was reputed to be a womaniser and there was such a curious contrast between the two of them.
As I stood looking at the painting, a French tour group gathered around and I listened to the interpretation of the painting in French. The solitary candle in the chandelier was the bridal candle, and a symbol of God’s all seeing eye. An ornate mirror had been placed on the wall between the couple, positioned directly below the chandelier, while a small dog stood between them, a symbol of fidelity, apparently, a sliver of light from a window providing the only illumination in the room.
There was a gargoyle on the wall between them, and its grimacing smile seemed to mimic the mocking smile of Arnolfini himself. As I looked closer, I noticed two mysterious figures reflected in a convex mirror behind Arnolfini and his wife.
I was still studying the gargoyle and the figures, when the guide commented on the gothic nature of the room, the gothic chandelier, the gothic drapery of the woman’s dress, and again how the chandelier represented the all seeing nature of God. I decided that God, or whatever he represented to Van Eyck, must be the light in a dark and confusing world.
“The two mysterious figures reflected in the convex mirror behind the couple are Van Eyck himself and another witness to the couple’s betrothal,” the guide was saying in French.
“The words “Jan Van Eyck was here” are inscribed above the mirror in Latin, and Arnolfini’s hand is raised in recognition of the visitors who are entering the room. The painting is an official document recording the marriage.”
I turned back to Arnolfini’s strange smile and the innocence of his young wife. Perhaps Van Eyck was having a joke, as the symbols seemed to be laden with irony, Arnolfini, the materialistic, womanising self-made man, and his wife so meek and innocent, or perhaps it simply represented a view of the time.
I left the room and continued walking through the gallery, passing by paintings depicting religious scenes with the sea or a river in the background; a curious mixture of spiritual transcendence, an awareness of mortality and death, a desire to seek God or the nature of God beyond and within. A pinnacle from an altar piece by a Florentine master in the 1370s, possibly the monk Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci, depicted the New Testament story of how Mary Magdalene originally mistook the resurrected Christ for a gardener; a dark hill, with two simple trees in the background, beneath a burnished orange or golden sky.
Christ was holding his hand up as Mary Magdalene held out an ointment jar, reaching over to touch him with her other hand, while Christ held out his hand, telling her not to touch him, “Noli me Tangere”, but rather to instruct the apostles he had risen from the dead.
I moved on from the painting, entranced by this sublime world, passing by a depiction of the crucifixion by Jacopo di Cione in gold, pinks, reds and blues. Christ was flanked by the good thief, whose soul was being carried to heaven by angels, while devils held a brazier with burning coals over the bad thief’s head.
Then, an odd painting, by Uccello, which revealed St George killing the dragon. Interestingly, the Princess Titania had placed a girdle around the dragon’s neck. Most depictions of the St George legend showed the princess fleeing as St George slew the dragon.
The pale sculptural structure of a cave dominated the picture on the left, a darker yawning interior like a sea cave to the right, while the diminutive figure of the princess in profile, stood before the cave, the pallor of her skin contrasting boldly with its darkness.
She had yoked the pale green dragon with her belt while St George who was on horseback speared it with a lance, blood pouring from the dragon’s gaping, fanged mouth. St George was wearing metallic armour, while behind him and to the left, the leaves or trees extended and transformed into a mysterious, dense clustered spiral. On top of the cluster and the adjacent trees, there was a cloud image, and the same dense cluster of spiralled bubble shapes like foam; a translucent white on the outer side of the spiral, transforming into a deeper pinkish purple as the shape spiralled and twisted towards the centre. An odd geometric pattern of grass had been placed in between the cave and the trees, in front of the figures; a pale green field and hills in the background, a sliver of moon and clouds in the sky.
As I wandered through the gallery, I seemed to be moving through a world full of symbols and illusion; imagery to focus the mind on the themes of death, consciousness, creativity, sexuality and spirituality.
Eventually I arrived at a bizarre painting called “A Heavenly Body”, a 1496 abstract vision from Revelations of the end of the world, a celestial apparition in the form of a yellow body with a tail appearing from dark clouds; and then, moving on, Holbein’s “The Ambassadors”, a distorted skull on the centre of a floor, recognisable only from the right, while a silver crucifix had been placed on the wall as a reminder of God and mortality.
I continued walking through the gallery until I arrived at a portrait of a young man with a melancholy expression, and an inscription on his cap “Alas I desire too much”. What was this young man thinking, I wondered? Did he want to escape being human?
“I went looking for Sean, the friend I’ve lost contact with for 20 years,” said Jack when I arrived back at the hotel. “I took the bus to Clapham and by coincidence I ran into Tom Simpson, another friend of Sean’s, who used to belong to that famous rock group.”
I knew who he meant. They’d put out a well-known song, which was currently playing on television as the theme of a commercial.
“Tom must be living off the royalties for the song,” said Jack. “Apparently Sean was living in London for quite a while and he only just recently left for Cornwall with his new girlfriend. She comes from an aristocratic family in the area, but Tom had no idea of Sean’s address and no way of contacting him.
In spite of Tom not knowing Sean’s whereabouts, Jack seemed happy that Sean was alive, jubilant in fact. After all, Luke, his best friend had died recently, so it was fantastic that Sean was still alive.
Jack’s smile flickered briefly, illuminating the dying shadows of the room.
“Did you like the paintings at the gallery?”
“Yes, it’s a different world,” I said. “But in many ways, things remain the same.”
It was late in the afternoon now and we left the hotel, wandering down to the Thames, discussing the commonalities in our relationship; creativity, humour, love. But also, the problem of independent parallel lives, little money, stress and disappointment. We continued strolling along the embankment, passing by a young man staring down towards the scurrying leaves on the surface of the canal, and I remembered that young man in the painting who desired too much, as we followed the embankment, along a path opening out towards the river and the wild surge of the sea.