The water fountain gurgled childishly and there was a comfortable murmur of voices in the background. I was sitting in the main hall in the Victoria and Albert Museum, admiring the almost naturalistic light that immersed everything in a cleanly glow and the sfumato effect it had on the statuary and the architecture. It reminded me of the Romantic etchings of ancient monuments by David Roberts.
I had dropped study for the day and made my way here instead of the library. Although it had been a spontaneous sort of thing, there was another reason that I was here. I had paid the visit as a sort of good-bye.
Just recently, I had been planning to visit the museum with a friend of mine. Unfortunately, and for a complicated number of reasons, we had never gone. The friendship was also over for the same reasons. It had not been a good start to the year for me. I was tired of watching people walk out of my life despite everything I tried to do, tired of mourning. I had had such high hopes for this year, for this friendship. This was life.
But I was always bad at lying to myself. Had I really let go? Was this really a good-bye visit? Had I come to the museum out of defiance – I didn’t need anyone with me, I could still go by myself? Or worse yet, was the ghost of my still living friend sitting on the wooden bench with me?
A lady in braids of lace and a black skull cap walked about opposite me slowly, absorbed in the scenery. Her arms were folded over her breasts. She opened up her mouth into a pitch-black cavern as she did so, like the mouth of a guitar underneath the strings. It was a hugely extended yawn that lasted several steps. I wondered what it signified. Perhaps she was tired. Perhaps bored. Maybe it was even an exhibitionist yawn intended to display teeth – aggression, contempt, superiority.
Across me, above her figure, a couple entered the low balcony which had been divided into three panels, with a flower in the centre and an intricate pattern of borders and Celtic knotwork motifs elsewhere. I thought of Juliet in the balcony scene. The man and woman both had long black hair of about the same colour. It shone in the light. He was slightly overweight and unshaven like me, with a centre parting. She was very beautiful. He stared at what seemed to be a young blonde teen. Or, more likely, I was putting thoughts into his head. She stared somewhere else – at what I could not tell. I imagine it may have been the great black and marbled archway to my far left, perhaps at the central illuminated figure atop it of a mother and a child.
I stared at the water fountain, at an older woman in the centre of the bigger balcony over it, behind the head the great corniced dome of the building. How operatic, how out of my reach everything was. How alien.
In the oval eye of the fountain, against the whirlpool of an eye, the water jetting up in twisting beads of glass. They flew from the very top in excited rockets of energy, only to fall back, way into the pool. Only to try again. They became opaque at the top, not transparent. Like the head of a flower I had once seen in a drawing by Aubrey Beardsley, the same exotic crystal life. The noise they made was everywhere, but no-one stopped to see them for the stones.
I picked up my notebook and began to write. And afterwards, I left the museum and watched the couples ice-skating outside the Natural History Museum for a little while. What do we have when we are alone if not our memories?