Mary is actually still alive. And incredibly, she is still working. I don’t know why I didn’t realise before how famous she is, possibly because sculpture isn’t something I’m interested in, but she is acclaimed, honoured and hugely successful. Mary Reid, O.B.E., whether that’s for her artistic contribution or her charitable work, I’m not sure, but she’s certainly somebody.
And so, I arranged to see her. Wikimeets listed contact details for her East London studio. I emailed, explaining that I am the daughter of one of Mary’s oldest and closest friends and she agreed to meet me.
It would have been quicker if I had taken the Underground, but I’m paranoid about the trains and the tunnels since the gas attack three years ago. They keep saying it could never happen again since they installed super sensitive detectors, but I’m not so sure, so I travelled from Tooting to Hackney on the E-bus, checking my route with my I-map , which told me the journey should only take an hour.
I passed the time rereading the biography I downloaded, to remind myself of the highlights of her career. Honorary doctorates, the Venice Biennale, international prizes; her work is exhibited in major international collections and fetches phenomenal sums from private collectors.
And the whole way, I was also asking myself why I was making this journey. I hadn’t told my mother I was going to meet Mary and I really didn’t know how she would react if she knew. After re-reading her letter I thought she would not want me to know that Mary had meant so much to her. And I didn’t know how Mary would react either. Perhaps she would want to send some words of comfort. But I was curious to meet this woman who had such an influence on the people closest to me and was mentioned by all of them.
Her studio is actually in a workspace and apartment complex in an old warehouse, in an area that used to be known as the creative hotbed of London about 20 years ago. Now it’s become so expensive and so exclusive, with high spec flat conversions all around, that all the young creatives and geeks are swarming round Peckham and Deptford.
I was buzzed in instantly once the entry system recognised me from the profile photo I sent when I confirmed the meeting. Take the lift to the third floor, announced a disembodied male voice, echoing slightly in the steel and brick foyer. I did as instructed and when the door opened, I was greeted by a tall black man with cheekbones carved from ebony. “Miss Reid is waiting for you outside,” he said, leading the way through a lofty room to a wide terrace, bordered with glass and steel, giving a view of the surrounding streets and the park. Gigantic galvanised steel urns, planted with airy bamboo and clipped cones of box, were spaced along the balcony at regular intervals in the warm spring sunshine and at the far end, sat beside a glass table and sheltered by a large cream canvas canopy, was Mary, in a wheelchair. Her hair was shorter and silvery now, her face older, with a ragged scar over her right eyebrow, but it was definitely her.
I hadn’t expected her to be incapacitated, but I concealed my surprise well I think. “Thank you so much for letting me come here,” I said, holding out my hand. She took it in hers, old with veins and spots of age, the fingers heavy with silver rings set with turquoise.
“I’m delighted to meet the daughter of an old friend,” she said, her voice deep and rich. She turned to her assistant, “We’ll have coffee out here, Ahmed. It’s such a lovely day. Far too good to be cooped up inside.”