After the open-air night drawing class, the teacher invited anyone who felt like it to repair to the pub afterwards to have a drink and maybe something to eat and maybe a discussion about art. On the way to the pub I’d nipped off to the cashpoint. By the time I got to the pub, the night drawing gang were already seated around a cosy table with their coats off and my bird had saved me the place between her and the art teacher.
I squeezed in between them and took in the new faces ranged opposite me. They were two women and a bloke. The younger of the two women was a straight-backed, handsome, pleasant-looking woman with whom I fell in love on the spot. The elderly woman smiling humbly beside her she introduced as her mother-in-law. Actually, her new mother- in-law, she added — she’d remarried recently. I hadn’t noticed either of these women at the night drawing class — maybe for the simple reason that it had been dark.
Next I shook hands with the chap. He hadn’t been to the night drawing class, he said, though he was in fact an artist and sculptor working mainly in aluminium and steel. He and my bird were old friends, he said, and he happened to have a house in the town. She’d called him to tell him which pub we were in, and he’d come along to hook up and say hallo.
Beside me, the art teacher already had the pub roast dinner in front of him and was busy attacking it with his knife and fork. The meal was part of his payment for taking the class. ‘Hungry?’ I said. All he’d eaten was a bowl of soup all day, he said, his mouth full to capacity.
I looked across at the handsome woman and she looked levelly back at me. Amazingly, the attraction was mutual and so strong that we came to a tacit understanding that there was no point hiding it. It wasn’t flirting merely; it was more like the shock of recognition.
I tried to guess at the rest of the sexual politics going on around our cosy table. The art teacher fancied my bird, of that I was certain. I think he had designs on her body. Even with his head in his roast dinner there was something going on there, you could tell. The sculptor who’d popped up unexpectedly: something was definitely up there, too; his deferential manner towards her hinted at sexual attraction. My bird, I was confident, fancied me, and I fancied her, but I don’t think she fancied the art teacher much. Whether she fancied the sculptor or not, or whether it was all one-way traffic, I couldn’t tell. Her tastes are sometimes unpredictable.
Out of the blue, the sculptor said to the art teacher, ‘So what do you think of Damien Hirst, then?’ Maybe the gambit was a vulgar ideological litmus test. Maybe it was ventured in the same kindly and community-spirited way that a favourite Uncle on Boxing Day says: ‘Now then. Anyone for charades?’ Who knows. I wasn’t paying much attention. I was too busy searching the eyes of the woman opposite.
Then her mother-in-law, before now bowed and unforthcoming, laid a fist on the table and said, in a wonderfully thick Black Country accent, ‘What I want to know is this. I am sitting here at this table and all the time I’m wondering who’s with who. Because I’ve not got the first idea.’ Pointing at the sculptor, and then at my bird, she said, ‘Never mind this Damien Hirst or whoever. Who are you with? Are you with her?’ The sculptor shook his head vehemently. My bird was giving nothing away. ‘And what about you?’ she said, warming to her theme and pointing a finger accusingly at the art teacher. ‘Are you with her, then?’ He looked up from his plate with his mouth full to bursting and emphatically shook his head. This left only me. She looked surprised. ‘So it’s you, then, is it? You’re with her.’
But before I could affirm or deny it, my bird, slightly less testily than one would have expected, said, ‘No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!’ and everyone laughed. Everyone, that is, except me. Pointing at the mother-in-law, I said staunchly, ‘I’m with you on this one, love, because I’d also like to know who’s with who here.’
But nobody took this seriously either, and they all got back to the subject of Damien. The art teacher finished his mouthful, unhurriedly wiped his mouth with his paper serviette, cleared his throat, and said, ‘I wouldn’t like to make a value judgment about Damien Hirst, to be honest.’ ‘It’s you,’ said the mother-in-law, refusing to be choked off so easily, now pointing an accusing finger at the art teacher again. ‘It’s you, isn’t it? You’re with her, aren’t you?’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 24 November 2012