The Way We Lied

Caroline sniffed and sipped the water that had now arrived. “I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
“Oh, come on, Caroline. Smartly dressed middle class lady ogles pornography. Sheltered respectable mother wonders what her friends and neighbours would think if they knew she had been looking at pictures of pricks.”
Caroline blushed. “Really Mary. You don’t have to be so….. so outspoken.”
“Oh but I do. Don’t you see that bringing you here today is about opening your eyes. You feel uncomfortable because underneath you are wondering what other people here will think of you looking at these pictures. What you don’t seem to realise is that no one else is the slightest bit interested in looking at you and your reactions. They are here because they only want to look at the paintings. And the pictures are designed to shake us, to provoke. They are meant to be disturbing, Caroline. Not all the world is safe, well fed and clean. Much of it is dirty, nasty and dangerous.”
“Yes, I know that, but surely it doesn’t have to be quite so explicit. I mean the Old Masters, Titian, Caravaggio and so on, they painted nudes but they weren’t obscene like these.”
Mary started to laugh, then stifled her amusement. “But darling, each artist has to speak for his time. A wisp of drapery and a dimpled thigh might have done the trick in their day, but in the 20th century artists’ voices have to be harsher. And I’m not saying you have to like it Caroline, I’m just saying be prepared to look, try to listen to what the artist has to say.”
Caroline took a deep breath. “Alright. I’ll try. But can we eat first? I need to fortify myself before facing that stuff all over again.”
Mary laughed and after they had ordered, Caroline said, “Anyway, you haven’t told me yet what you think of it. How do you feel about a room full of naked unmentionables?”
“Pricks and cunts darling. Lose your inhibitions. Actually I don’t really like them, even though I like the real thing very much. But I find the development of the work really interesting and I respect Fred for venturing, no that’s not the right word, for storming into such dark, forbidden territory. And you must admit, if you don’t look too closely at the detail and think too much about what is depicted, the overall compositions are very beautiful.”
Later, when they left the gallery, a crisp wind was blowing from the Thames and the afternoon sunshine was tempting walkers onto the embankment. They walked to the edge of the terrace and gazed out at the ruffled waters and the streams of visitors on both sides of the river. Caroline looked at her watch. “I’m going to have to shoot off in a minute. The kids have gone to friends, but I must get back soon. Are you catching the train home?”
“No, I’m meeting up with some friends in Islington. I’ll probably be back in Elham tomorrow or the day after.”
Caroline pictured her own evening. Nagging the children to finish their homework. Checking that David’s shirts had been ironed. Rushing out to the station when he phoned to let her know what time he would be back.
“That sounds like fun. Islington’s not an area I know well though.”
Mary turned to her. “I’ll take you there some time. There’s a great little theatre. We’re seeing a new production there tonight, with a visiting American. And a friend is putting on a show in a new gallery in Hackney, so I thought I’d pop over there as well.”
After they parted, when Caroline was submerged in the stuffy Tube, she remembered she had wanted to buy a postcard at the exhibition for Helen. Surely she would have been shocked too. But she’d have laughed as well, she thought. And the images she had seen surged vividly to mind, distended, gigantic, grotesque. She closed her eyes and as she opened them again, she briefly wondered if any of the weary commuters had any idea what she had just imagined. Then she considered how she was going to describe the show to David, or if she would even do so.
She had not told him she was going. She had not told him she was seeing Mary, but then she had never mentioned her new friend to him. She had simply said she had some shopping to do in town and would probably have a bite to eat at John Lewis. Oh dear, she was not laden with bags of shopping; no towels or haberdashery to justify her cover story. But perhaps he wouldn’t ask. Perhaps he would be tired. Perhaps he would fall asleep without reaching for her. Their polite, gentle couplings would seem feeble after what she had seen today.

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