Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 25 August 2012

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Then she rented us a luxury apartment at Penzance in Cornwall for a week. Sightseeing was not high on our agenda. Bring cable ties, she’d said. I’ve been a naughty girl.

She went down by train; I drove. I drove due west for three hours through a rainstorm of tropical intensity. My new phone’s blue light winked text messages from her all the way down. One said: ‘Lost my musth. It’s completely gone. Menopause?’

The apartment was called Stanhope Forbes, in homage to the leading light of the Victorian era Newlyn artists’ colony. Stanhope Forbes’s paintings of bustling late-Victorian fish quay scenes, with lovely girls in virginal pinafores, decorated the apartment’s whitewashed walls. The domestic appliances were state of the art — I couldn’t work out how to operate any of them — and the furniture was both contemporary and comfortable. Earlier in the week, she’d sent a photo of the lounge, excited about the possibilities offered by the low, comfortable-looking curves. With her musth now gone, at least the chances of her getting the damage deposit refunded in full at the end of the week had increased dramatically.

In case it stayed away, and we found ourselves with little or nothing to occupy ourselves, I applied for a week’s temporary membership at the gym. Even though I’m a gym member at home, for health and safety reasons I would have to go through the long and tedious process of a three-part gym ‘induction’, warned the woman on the phone when I rang up. The splendid reality, however, was a friendly gym instructor looking me up and down, then saying, ‘See that door there? That’s the fire door. If there’s a fire, you’ll be following me out through it. Have a good workout.’

On the first day we visited St Ives. Middle England was there, possibly in its entirety, like a victorious army of occupation. We took refuge from the crowds in a small bookshop. After browsing for a while, I looked around and saw that she’d picked Fifty Shades of Grey off the shelf and was standing motionless as a statue, utterly engrossed.

‘Listen to this rubbish!’ she burst out. Then she read out a passage of dialogue. It was rather clichéd. I wandered about the shop fingering more paperbacks from the shelves. Another derisive snort from her and she read out a passage in which Anastasia receives a photograph from Christian, plus a message which says (something like): ‘There are 30 surfaces in this picture. I want to have you on every one of them.’ ‘What crap!’ she exclaimed. Then less dogmatically, ‘Isn’t it?’ Eventually I had to prise the novel from her hands, replace it on the shelf and lead her out of the shop.

The next morning, a Sunday, we went to church. Priest and congregation were blatantly Christian, and the incense lay so heavily in the air that it set her hay fever off. As we knelt at the altar rail to eat of the Body of Christ and drink of His Blood, she decided that she wouldn’t or couldn’t and she asked the priest to pray for her instead. Afterwards, walking down Market Jew Street, she spotted another interesting-looking bookshop. We went inside and she immediately made a beeline for Fifty Shades of Grey and began reading from where she’d left off in the other bookshop. My suggestion that I buy a copy was dismissed, however. ‘It’s just crap,’ she said.

After that we went to the Penlee gallery at Penzance to see paintings by the Newlyn school, featuring an exhibition of paintings by Dame Laura Knight. The Newlyn school, I suppose, could be characterised as intensely realistic visions of rural pre-first world war innocence. No doubt the smart thing to do when confronted by a painting from the Newlyn school is to laugh. Personally, I’d have given anything to be allowed to step into one of those paintings and spend the remainder of my days living in that peculiar sunlight among those trusting faces.

‘What do you think?’ I said, inclining my head towards ‘Jubilee Hat’ by Frank Wright Bourdillon. A mother was seated beside an open window, through which we were afforded a view of the bay. She has sewn a coloured ribbon on to the front of her best hat, in preparation for the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations. She is holding the hat up to the light so her small son can also admire it. They are both keenly looking forward to the big day. The father is away with the fishing fleet, one imagines, but family and community life goes on.

She looked carefully at it for a long time. ‘So did you bring those cable ties?’ she said.