She turned back to me and said, “I long for the air of the countryside, but London is far more convenient for me these days. I can do all I need to do far more easily here. It’s everything I need now; home, office, studio, all under one roof.” She stared at me, then said, “You’re very like her, you know.” And then she was silent, waiting for me to speak, while a tray of drinks was carried out and placed on the table.
“Yes, everyone says I’ve got my mother’s colouring. It’s the hair, I suppose.” I instinctively touched my fine straight blonde hair, tucking it back behind my ears.
“No it’s not the hair, it’s more the way you hold your head.” She looked at me intently with the bluest of eyes. “Turn that way,” she gestured towards the balcony, “Now pull your hair back over your shoulder with your other hand.” I did as she asked. “There, I can see it now. The neck. She had a very beautiful neck.”
“She still has,” I said, letting my hair fall over my shoulders and turning back. “She’s very ill, but she’s not dead yet.”
“Of course. I read your message. So why have you come to see me?” She held her head erect, staring at me again with those piercing eyes.
I hesitated, then said, “I thought you might want to know she hasn’t got much time left. I suppose I thought you might want to see her or send a message.”
“You could have told me that in your email. So why have you really come here?” She sat there, an elderly woman in a wheelchair, but she didn’t look frail or vulnerable. If she could be like this in her eighties, and I think I’d calculated she must be about 85, how imposing, how commanding must she have seemed all those years before? She was upright, her eyebrows arched, her tanned skin emphasised by her crisp white shirt, the cuffs folded back to reveal strong sinewy wrists and hands. I could only see a sliver of denim below the hem of her shirt, as her legs and feet were enfolded in a soft dove grey blanket.
And she was so direct, with her voice, her eyes and her manner, that I knew I had to tell her the truth. “I came out of curiosity. I wanted to see you for myself.”
She laughed. “And why would you want to do that?”
“Because I know that my mother loved you. And because you seem to have had such an enormous impact on so many other people’s lives too. My father, my aunt, my uncle….” I stumbled, shaken by the half smile on her bare lips and the glint in her eyes. Then I told her about the letters and, after some hesitation, how I felt guilty about taking them and she laughed even louder.
“How very quaint, how awfully Enid Blyton,” she said, fingering the scar on her forehead. “You surely don’t think I’m responsible for all those people? They were all quite independent adults, after all. I must have met hundreds of men and women in my lifetime who could say I’d influenced them. And I suppose some would say it was for the good and others might say the reverse. Am I meant to be the moral guardian of them all?”
She was right, of course, but I still needed to understand, so I persisted. “I wanted to make sense of it, that’s all. I didn’t understand then and I’m not sure I do now. So I wanted to know more about you.”
She smiled then, not cynically, not mockingly, but with gentleness and said, “Come with me. Then you’ll understand.” She pressed a button on the arm of her chair and it began to glide forward with the faintest whirring sound and she led me inside the cool airy interior and over to the lift. We entered and it carried us in silence to the ground floor lobby, where I had first entered the building. Opposite the lift door was a huge studded plate of steel, stretching up to the ceiling, which slid to one side when Mary pressed a button in the wall. Beyond was a cavernous hall, where several figures were at work, some drawing, some moulding clay, another sanding a bulbous stone form representing an enormous curved woman, her belly ripe with the child just emerging between her outspread legs.
“They aren’t art college students,” Mary said. “No one here has had a formal education. They haven’t been channelled into compartments, pumped with theories, they have come here to develop their potential, to grow and explore. That’s always been my mission in life.” She turned to look at me, then said, “I never tell people what to do, what to think, I just help them to find out for themselves. I may question their ideas, their motives, their ordered lives, but I’ve never made demands. Does that answer your questions?”
“Not entirely,” I said. “I wanted to know what sort of person could have such a powerful influence and especially to know what sort of woman could entrance my mother.”
“Come closer,” she said. I stepped towards her. “Kneel down,” she whispered, and I did. I knelt beside her wheel chair, facing her, my arms by my side. She lifted my hair with both her hands then bent forwards and kissed my lips. Her mouth was dry but still sensuous and I smelt, oh not the smell of an old woman fragrant with lavender soap and powder, but the musky scents of oak woods in autumn, beaches of silver sand and bleached shells and markets heavy with spices.
“Now you know, my child,” she said.
And I did.