‘Are you familiar with her work?’ asks someone standing near me. I turn from studying the painting, but he’s already moved on, pausing for an obligatory few seconds in front of each exhibit.
The gallery is small, minimalist, light with off-white walls and pale wood flooring. Not the sort of place I associate with Reda. In spite of what my father predicted, she has amounted to something after all: the Reda Martin Retrospective. I glance at the glossy brochure in my hand with a picture of her taken, I guess, around the time I visited her.
I was nine when I met my Aunt Reda. I knew about her only because the family album displayed grainy black and white photographs of her with my father when they were children. She was absent from the photos of my parents’ wedding and my christening. My parents rarely spoke of her; there was always disapproval in the set of their mouths and I learned not to ask for fear of being reprimanded for prying. Adults had private matters, my mother often said, that were not children’s business.
‘Let Reda see the child,’ I once heard Granny plead but my parents were adamant in their refusal. When I next stayed with Granny alone, I asked about Reda but was told little more than Granny’s children were chalk and cheese, which did nothing to enlighten a six-year-old.
Just after my ninth birthday, my mother sat me down. ‘Grandma is very unwell, so your father and I are going to see her and you are to stay with your Aunt Reda and Uncle Edward for one night.’
In my excitement I almost overlooked my concern for Granny.
‘I’m going on the train to Grandma’s,’ continued Mother, ‘and Father will come after taking you to your aunt. We’ll fetch you tomorrow. I’ve packed your bag. You must remember your manners.’
‘Of course she will,’ said Father. ‘Are we ready?’
‘Give Granny my love,’ I said when we dropped Mother at the station. ‘Tell her I’ll make a card at Aunt Reda’s.’
As we left the station a worry struck me.
‘Daddy, I forgot my crayons. Will Aunt Reda have some for Granny’s card?’
‘You needn’t trouble yourself on that score,’ he said. ‘Remember, Aunt Reda will be upset because Grandma is her mother as well as mine and we’re both worried that she’s ill.’
‘Doesn’t she want to see Granny?’
‘No, she’s already visited and phoned me to say that Grandma wasn’t well and wanted to see me. Grandma suggested you could visit your aunt. You’ll be a good girl, I know.’
Standing now in front of Reda’s paintings I recall the terraced house in Bury St Edmunds, very neat and rather gloomy. After saying hello to Uncle Edward, Aunt Reda took me to my room. We climbed one staircase and then a narrower one to the second floor. My room was south facing with sunlight spilling over a high, old-fashioned bed covered with a puffy patchwork eiderdown. Opposite was Aunt Reda’s studio. Cramped and chaotic, it was the most magical place I’d ever seen. An easel held a mysterious draped canvas. An old table hosted haphazard pots of brushes and palette knives. There were squeezed tubes of paint; smears of colour marking the table’s surface. Straggly dead flowers in a vase dropped papery petals over books and pencils. A few drawings and pictures were displayed, but stacked together were more canvases, faces to the wall like naughty children. Best of all was the smell; linseed oil and turps. I breathed deeply and drank in the heady aroma.
Aunt Reda smiled. ‘You like it?’
I pointed at the canvases. ‘May I see them?’
‘Help yourself. Rubbish from years ago, probably. I haven’t been through them. One or two might be worth hanging on to.’ She picked up a couple of brushes and smeared some paint on an old plate. She removed the cloth from the easel. All I could see was a few lines; it didn’t look very interesting.
I looked through the stacked canvasses. Most were portraits of angry looking women in livid colours. I wasn’t expecting such ugliness and felt overwhelmed with disappointment. I tried another stack and found, between two dark seascapes, drawings on thick, stiff, creamy paper. Some executed in pencil, some in charcoal and others in pen and ink, they were all of the same person; a young man with hair flopping over his left eye. Here he was eating an apple, here smoking a cigarette, here hunched in a chair and here sleeping, his arms thrown above his head, and lastly, lying naked on a bed. I had never seen a naked man apart from a few pictures of Michelangelo’s David. My eyes were drawn to the unfamiliar.
I checked to see if Aunt Reda had noticed what I was looking at, feeling sure she would be angry if she knew what I’d found. She was intent on her work, her back towards me. I looked again at the drawing and found myself studying not his masculinity but his expression, in which I recognized vulnerability. I couldn’t define it, but I knew that the young man was experiencing loss.
I carried on looking through the pictures. There were two of a woman with a baby, reminiscent of a Madonna and Child. The woman was sad and the baby faceless and unreal. Disregarding them I carried on to the bottom of the stack. Here was a painting on canvas stretched on a crude frame. I turned it over and immediately fell in love with it; a still life of a kitchen table with a blue checked cloth, a basket of eggs, a jug and two mugs. On the windowsill sprawled a marmalade cat and through the open window was the barest impression of an apple tree in blossom.
‘It’s Granny’s kitchen!’ I exclaimed with delight. ‘It’s exactly the same only a different cat. Mouser’s black and white.’
Aunt Reda turned. ‘Oh yes, I did it there. My Bonnard phase,’ she said inexplicably and turned back to her work. ‘Would you like it?’
‘Do you mean to keep? For my very own?’
‘Of course. Everyone should have a picture they love and every picture should have someone to love it. That cat was long before Mouser. He was called Coopers.’
‘I’ll draw a picture of this picture on Granny’s Get Well card. I think she’d like that.’
I drew my card, faithfully copying the details in my aunt’s painting, while Aunt Reda worked. Downstairs, Uncle Edward was making tea. While I munched toasted crumpets dripping with butter, Aunt Reda made a sketch of me in charcoal. I thought she might let me have that too but she didn’t offer and not wishing to be greedy I didn’t ask. The following morning Uncle Edward found sheets of brown paper for my still-life. He wrapped it carefully and tied it with string.
My delight at owning the painting was dimmed by my parents’ reaction – my father muttered about Reda’s daubs. I dozed as we drove home, hearing only a handful of their words as they talked softly. ‘Must say, Edward’s a decent enough chap. He’s been a good influence.’
A few days later Father told me that my grandmother had died. Alone in my bedroom I unwrapped my picture and gazed at it remembering the warmth of Granny’s kitchen. I wept knowing I would never see Granny again. I was also worried about Mouser. Mouser, I was told later, had been taken care of.
When I asked if I could hang the picture on my bedroom wall, my father told me it would require special holes for which he didn’t have the right tools. I didn’t persist but carefully re-wrapped it in the sheets of paper, stuck them down with tape and placed it under my bed.
I hoped there would be another visit to Aunt Reda but when I asked, was told that there would not, for reasons I was too young to understand. Soon after, on a warm April day, when my mother did her annual spring-cleaning blitz, I discovered my picture had disappeared. I tore down to the dustbin and there it lay by the bin. Devastated by my mother’s treachery and the near loss of my treasure, I retrieved it and slid it behind my wardrobe, too heavy for my mother to move in her next spring-clean. It lay there untouched and waited for me to grow up.
When Aunt Reda died my mother did not accompany my father to her funeral.
I left home for university and my picture came with me. I spent a good deal of my precious grant having it professionally framed.
‘A Reda Martin,’ said the framer admiringly. ‘Worth something. Her Bonnard period. Her work’s becoming quite sought after, quite valuable.’
Little did he know just how valuable it would become. To fill the gap in my ignorance, I spent the rest of my week’s money on a book about Bonnard.
Aunt Reda’s painting has been my constant companion and for fifty years we have not been parted until I was asked to loan it for this exhibition. Its presence consoled me when my father died and soon after when my mother joined him. Sorting through her papers I discovered answers to my questions that had been avoided in childhood. I learned her secrets and sought solace from the picture’s familiarity.
After her funeral I made my way, once more, to the gloomy little house in Bury St Edmunds. A woman wearing an overall opened the door.
‘You’ll be Mr Edward’s niece,’ she greeted me taking my damp coat. ‘He’s in his study. I’ll bring tea.’
His study was as I remembered, with the old polished desk on which lay three pens in a neat row next to a pile of accountancy books. I doubted the books had been opened for many years.
I was shocked by how old Uncle Edward had become. He looked at me wordlessly and beckoned me to a seat by his chair near the welcoming fire. As I bent to kiss his cheek, he grasped my hand.
‘My dear, you are a breath of life. I always hoped you would come. I miss her every day and you are so like her.’
Edward handed me a parcel wrapped in brown paper and string. Inside lay a book; A Life in Pictures by Edward Martin. On the cover was the same photo that now adorns the glossy brochure.
‘It’s all here for you, my dear,’ he said. ‘I forget so much now, but it’s all in here. There’s a sketch for you too.’
I learned about Reda’s life through the pages of her husband’s privately published book. I’d known about her wartime childhood and the loss of her father in 1944, but the stormy years of her teen-hood, her home-leaving to live in an artists’ commune were new, as was her brother’s disapproval about her illegitimate child, given away with anguish. I learned of her refuge in marriage to Edward.
Her life was also documented by her own work in colour reproductions alongside works of the artists who were her inspiration. There was a still life, similar in style to my heirloom, alongside one of Bonnard’s. I recognised it from my book.
I look around the gallery at Reda’s work, mostly unknown pieces but some familiar. I recognise paintings of the angry woman. I see the mother and faceless child, the drawings of the young man, the very ones I studied as a nine-year-old. I understand his expression now. He was about to lose Reda and his unborn child. I have seen that expression reflected in my mirror when mourning for the losses in my life.
‘Wonderful work,’ gushes a woman. ‘Especially the drawings. The one of the child…’ I follow her gaze to a charcoal of a nine-year-old girl eating buttered crumpets. It is Reda’s only titled piece: ‘My daughter.’
Now living in Melbourne, Lindsay was a founding member of Greenacre Writers and an organiser of the Finchley Literary Festival in North London. She has written one novel and is part way through a second. Several of her short stories and flash fiction pieces have won prizes and she has been published in magazines, anthologies, and on-line. You can find more of Lindsay’s work on her website: lindsaybamfield.blogspot.co.uk