mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Sport 10: Autumn 1993

♣ Elizabeth Smither — Extravagance

page 45

Elizabeth Smither


The farm was poor, low-lying, its driveway pitted with milky puddles, the colour of untrustworthy eyes. And the house, white with a curiously vibrant orange roof, skin and hair tones of certain redheads, had no sense of placement. It seemed, from the way it slumped on low foundations, to have estimated the worth of the land and none of my aunt's parties could relieve its spirits.

Inside were red-haired cousins eating from bowls around a long scrubbed table, and against one wall, ready to be dragged forward if the occasion demanded, was a church pew. There were two kneelers that had come with it: on one an elderly dalmatian was resting her head in an angelic pose; the other was under the table as a footstool.

Red hair, white faces, pale eyes under an orange roof, and white timber and white puddles in the drive, made me think I had come among ghosts or creatures as strange as a family by Goya. The male cousins were to my eight-year-old measure immensely tall, as well as silent. They pushed their chairs back, mumbled and went out, as though the land was in immediate need of their efforts. It probably was but little showed.

Our little family from the north was on a kind of tour. My brother and I wore the topcoats favoured by the Royal children: chocolate velvet collars, double-breasted, biscuit colour, with the buttons stuck on like raisins. Pockets with flaps. Coats that could keep out any social inequality.

We crossed on the inter-island ferry and moved about the landscape in an old but exceedingly well-preserved black Pontiac which had belonged to a baker. It had a circular rear window and its spare tyre rode above the running board, like a colostomy bag. My father was attracted to it by the silence of the motor. Inside it you could converse as normally as in a room; in fact my mother often turned to Douglas and me in our buttoned coats in the back—the Pontiac had no heater—and urged us to keep our voices down.

page 46

The car was so we could escape and not 'be beholden', an expression my parents were fond of. Like a motorised calling card we could be handed in and whisked away, as in a previous generation one was not 'at home'.

'I can see Caroline and Douglas are getting under your feet. We'll take them for a drive,' my father would say to his second sister, our Aunt Agatha. 'I have a parcel to post, if you'd be so obliging,' she might reply and the whole excursion became legitimate as my mother struggled into the front seat with a huge parcel on which I had been allowed to press down with my middle finger. Once or twice our parents took us for an early tea to a fish restaurant, recognising that food was a kind of discipline.

The first aunt we stayed with, Aunt Hermione, warranted no escapes. Widowed after her soldier husband drowned in a lake, she sat between us on our drives, directing us to gardens, graveyards where there might be relatives, and once an old abandoned mansion—'except for a mad woman,' she whispered. 'Why, Sophie,' she said, addressing my mother, 'it could be me."Never,' my mother responded. She was fond of Hermione who knew how to turn sheets and budget for treats. On Aunt Hermione's insistence we stopped a little distance along the road 'in case the poor woman thinks we are visitors', and walked slowly back. 'Do you remember the tennis parties, Martin?' she asked my father. Then, sensitive that mother had not played, she hoisted Douglas up and asked him to guess the shapes of once topiaried trees. 'A rooster, do you think? What do you say, Caroline? Perhaps it was a duck?'

'Hermione's remained a child,' my mother said to my father that afternoon when she had insisted Hermione lie down for an hour or two to rest her nerves. Aunt Hermione didn't appear nervous to me, just eager, as though she wanted to drink every experience up. We had gone on talking about the hedges and their mysterious shapes long after the others. Why did they do it, I wanted to know, and was it a certain type of gardener? Were the hedges shorn like sheep?

My father's second sister, Aunt Agatha, had my mother's full approval. She kept Black Orpingtons, but at a proper distance from the house. Their run was large and hygienic, their water trough scrubbed and clean; they sank their black talons in what looked like packing straw. They looked quizzical as though debating whether Douglas and I deserved a brown egg.

My mother and Aunt Agatha sat over an afternoon cup of tea—neither believed in drinking with meals—discussing spring cleaning. When my page 47 mother hesitantly mentioned Aunt Hermione's wall hangings—birds and flowers and forests and one entwining family names—Aunt Agatha agreed they should be taken down and beaten.

This tour, endured by my father, but more satisfying to my mother who was judicious, questioning, always measuring one behaviour against another, was tedious to my brother and me. We resisted playing the piano, if there was a piano, and after one ludicrous failure at reciting, with facial expressions, 'Jonathan Jo / Has a mouth like an "O" / And a wheelbarrow full of surprises' we were not asked again.

Crouched behind the mailbox, Douglas flung a handful of small pebbles at the rear of a speeding car, from the back of which a child was gesticulating. 'Peasants,' he shouted. 'Bird brains.' He had been more humiliated by the failure of his rustic recitation than I knew.

The farm, with its rutted track and low-lying pallid house—a house that reminds me now of a woman in a story by Colette who scrapes her tongue each morning with a little silver scraper—was our last call. I think it was this that made it bitter for my mother: Hermione might have been impoverished but she was frugal and imaginative, she had made a life for herself in pale faded draperies; Agatha was a managerial success, governing her sons and husband on their acres. But Cora with her church pew and too many pale- faced children at a table with no cloth, not even a milk jug but the bottle passed from hand to hand and reposing in a circle of spilled milk—Cora represented something like fear.

For isn't fear the basis of all management? At least that's what I have found. Cigarettes, sex, money—it's only fear that brings them into line, into orthodoxy, into regularity. Cora seemed to have no fear, no sense of self- preservation. The table might be clothless now, the porridge bowls chipped and unmatched but come the next anniversary—any anniversary would do-the little hectic house would flush with another party.

Aunt Cora's parties, given her financial resources, were on the scale of Elsa Maxwell. Who knows how she put money aside: in bottles, tins with the King's head, under the mattress? Or whether there was some special payout. Perhaps she sold the farm truck. Or leased the tractor. Turned the front paddock over to a neighbour's grazing. Where did the liquor come from, some of it in crates or a small dumpy barrel like a fattened pig? And the cloths and serviettes—because there was no bare table now, no milk page 48 stains. And her children, lanky and unpolished, were scrubbed and pink, even their nails shone. They stood about awkwardly, those whose birthday/ engagement/homecoming/coming-of-age it was not. Some of the shyer ones who were most at home among the cows tried to fade into the shadows but Aunt Cora invariably espied them sometime during the evening and pushed them forward.

'I've never seen such ridiculous extravagance,' my mother said to my father as we were driving again, circling, it felt like, a trouble spot, an out- of-control fire, a road that had been mined. Then she began to describe, like a society reporter, the latest party.

'A hundred guests at the very least, a spread fit for a Grand Duchess's funeral, a band hired from heaven knows where, and fairy lights in all the trees. It's a wonder they didn't have the house lit up like the Arc de Triomphe.'

My mother was exaggerating of course: there were a few lights in the trees that one of the lanky cousins was detailed to remove carefully the day following—they were on hire—but there probably weren't any more than sixty people. The band, all greying at the temples, in dark suits with string ties, included a distant cousin of Aunt Cora's. They may have offered their services for free. There was a silver bowl of punch into which one of the cousins (lanky and mischievous) had emptied something and the little rotund barrel was out of sight.

But there was no doubting the atmosphere. The fairy lights hid the ruts in the ground and people spilled out of doors under the stars, holding up hired glasses of fizzy wine. I thought it sounded wonderful. The little white house with its henna roof was properly made up for once, with face-white like a geisha. Inside the band shrieked and growled and made a sound like old car horns and the band leader raised his hand to signal a rumba. Aunt Cora had learnt the rumba in South America when she was a girl. Or was it the samba?

'That disgraceful conga,' my mother went on. 'Heaven knows where it disappeared to or who broke off.'

The line of bodies had circled the house swaying and shouting with one of the lanky cousins (transformed or fortified?) at the head. Later Cora told him she was proud of him and was putting him down for dancing lessons.

When my father didn't reply, perhaps thinking all this sounded desirable—the party was the week before we arrived, so my mother was page 49 combining hearsay with past experience—she went on to conjure the aftermath. Really my mother should have been a writer, a female Scott Fitzgerald.

'Herrick,' my father said, driving away after many kisses through windows and kisses blown from palms, and promises, never to be kept on either side, to write.

'What's Herrick got to do with it?' my mother asked as we turned onto the main road. 'We don't know any Herricks, do we?'

      'Gather ye rose-buds while ye may,
         Old Time is still a-flying:
      And this same flower that smiles today,
         Tomorrow will be dying.'

'Rosebuds!' my mother snorted. 'Cora's far too old for rosebuds. I should have thought that was obvious.'

Listening from the back seat I said what I could recall of the lines to myself—I liked the sound of Old Time—so missed my father's reply. But even I could sense he was not intending aunt Cora should pick half-opened rosebuds from the white bush that grew in the front garden. This bush and its rose called Félicité-Perpétue was her pride and joy and no one was allowed to touch it. Sometimes she wore one of the roses pinned near her shoulder. For the scent to rise towards her nose, I thought, pleased at my own cleverness.

Douglas, as he often did when the atmosphere in the Pontiac became threatening, was attempting to cross all his limbs and features: fingers first— toes were impossible because of shoes—then arms, legs, features, ending up with an eye-roll which was his accomplishment of the summer and which I hated. I gave a little scream and at the same time my father caught sight of Douglas's face in the car mirror. My mother leant over and smartly struck him on the shoulder and added a piece of literary venom: 'I've warned you a hundred times the wind could change . . .'

Then the thunderous air, concentrated about my brother's features, was gone and we rolled on and shortly afterwards someone suggested a song. When we arrived back at Aunt Agatha's we were singing 'Old Black Joe' and both my parents' voices sounded tender.

That was the only tour we ever made. There were solitary visits after, one or other of the aunts would be descended upon, but we never again took the page 50 Pontiac which was used less and less because silence could not compensate for fuel economy. My mother was pressing for a smaller car and a licence of her own. When we visited in future it was by train and ferry and we were collected by cousins in nifty new Fords at railway stations. I no longer had to sit beside Douglas and endure his grimaces: instead I would lean over a ship's rail and imagine I was on a great voyage. Or take lungfuls of train smoke, imagining the red angry sparks that flew into the sky were the eyes of a lover, passionate and bloodshot.

Aunt Cora's lanky tongue-tied sons hardly existed beside two specific cousins. The dashing Fergus who drove his Ford at midnight along the Taieri Flats at nearly 100 mph. The little car rocked savagely but I denied him the screams of fear I knew he anticipated. He managed his mother, Aunt Agatha, with consummate ease. Then there was Aunt Hermione's son, Rupert, who apple-pied my bed before escorting me to a dance at which he was charm personified. I can still remember the shock of trying to insert myself between the sheets and his laughter behind his own firmly closed door.

Compared to Fergus and Rupert, Aunt Cora's sons—I hardly remember whether there were four or five—resembled the Irish setters belonging to the man who owned the local concrete works. Each evening they were released to circle the block and after encountering them for the first time and flattening myself against a wall I realised their supreme disinterestedness. They passed like ghosts, coats rippling, limbs tumbling over like waves, muzzles fixed on private scents. I must have been becoming a prude that year because I found myself agreeing with overheard remarks of my mother that Aunt Cora's socialising was ineffectual. 'It's not as if it adds up to anything. Or advances those boys into jobs. I don't even believe they enjoy it.'

'Fenella might,' my father remarked, mildly. 'I believe she takes after Cora.'

'Well if a husband results for Fenella,' my mother conceded, for she knew not to take her strictures too far. 'Perhaps then it will be some return. But the man Fen marries will need to be a millionaire or own a yacht or a piece of Monte Carlo.'

When Rupert or Fergus visited—separately of course, they had no idea of the other's charm—there was news of banking and stockbroking. Rupert fancied himself as a broker, answering two telephones at once or clasping, when the news was bad, one telephone to his breast. At least this is what page 51 stockbrokers seemed to do.

'You could be a chalkie one of these days,' he said to me, kindly. But I told him I was going to be a nurse. 'Just like dear old Aunt Ag,' he said. 'She'll be pleased when she hears.' Then he went on to lecture me about nurses being ahead of the field, having witnessed birth and death, so odd requests from mere males could not daunt them.

'You mean they might go so far as to imagine their suitors dead? Imagine they were kissing a corpse?'

'No girl I ever kissed could entertain such a thought,' replied Rupert, airily. 'And I suggest you don't go out with any corpse material either. My advice is keep your knowledge of bedpans to yourself.'

'I'll bear that in mind,' I said, rather haughtily. But it was impossible to be angry with Rupert for long.

Fergus took me to the races for the first time and pressured me into large bets. My whole spending money went in the first race. When his sure bet came fourth he encouraged me to open my pay packet—the size of a doll's envelope—and join him in a double. That the results were fourth and last seemed to perturb him not the least and we went into a tent to drink champagne. I forgot to mention Fergus was not solely my escort: two exquisitely dressed women in wide hats came with us and one of them won the Best Dressed Racegoer award. This called for more champagne and when eventually I was returned to the nurses' hostel I felt distinctly wobbly. As we parted Fergus pressed a little roll of banknotes into my hand, more than enough to cover my expenditure.

But generally, because we lived in the North and all our cousins in the South, we had less contact as the years passed. Fergus married a spectacular blonde, moneyed as well as beautiful, and began to rise in banking which to my mother was an indication of thrift. I doubt if she could conceive of a crooked bank officer or an embezzling clerk. Rupert had a number of escapades before he moved on posting to Singapore; he broke hearts and was forgiven; Aunt Hermione thought he was destined for the diplomatic service. Aunt Cora's only daughter, Fenella, received an enormous twenty- first birthday at the Masonic Lodge to which we were invited. My mother replied with a note and looked around for something that would survive in the post. The gold-rimmed invitation stayed on the mantelpiece beside the clock for weeks, like a moral lesson.

'What are Masons?' Douglas wanted to know. 'And why can't we go?'

page 52

He passed a Masonic Lodge on his way home from night classes, its windowless walls as sealed as a bunker. It was numbered like a bunker as well. He was thinking of becoming a journalist and his first assignment might be to crack the Masonic handshake.

But there was one good result of the Masonic twenty-first. Cousin Fenella became engaged to an ironmonger. He was considerably older but he owned a hardware emporium. My mother thought he added a touch of stability but my father only said we could buy a coal scuttle and a pair of firedogs next time we passed through.

So for years, unbeknown to my parents, I carried this seed of extravagance. Or perhaps it was a cell, a rogue cell broken off and loose in the bloodstream. Cruising for years along waterways, gliding through artery walls as though they were Tunnels of Love. Such a cell would be capable of ambivalence. Where to settle? Could something so powerful be yet so dilatory? Later my parents would wonder if I hadn't been seduced by that week-long stay at the farm where the traces of extravagance remained. There was the fridge groaning with leftovers. And still a fairy light in a tree. Or, and this they feared more, and it led to a closer scrutiny of my features up until the fatal day when my profile did finally yield an irrefutable clue, was it something in Aunt Cora herself, something a child responded to, an overpowering liking, a desire for wildness, a madness to imitate. Whatever it was, and I still think it was a trick of light, it was fatal.

When one's character has been marked for excess it is practically impossible to convince the observer that a cautious side may exist, not far below the surface. Hadn't Aunt Cora cheerfully made do with uneaten trays of leftovers, egging her colourless family on as though they were émigrés partaking of strange food in a strange land. She made no secret of this method of budgeting. The animals shared it as well, the dog with bacon bones and the cat with scraps of chicken. She concocted lovely sandwiches with sweet-and-sour fillings and the horses got extra fruit. A bacchanal for the animals, she called it, as gay in her old gumboots as she had been in her unpaid-for dress from Ballantynes.

My mother particularly did not see this as thrift.

'How can self-induced famine be thrift?'she demanded. 'Why, you might as well say the starving people in Ethiopia are recovering from a party.'

page 53

'You're thinking of Rio, my dear,' my father interposed. He knew, if she didn't, that her strange comparisons, so easily dismantled, hid a passion for world order. If only the people of Ethiopia had had a carnival and dancing until they dropped.

'I abhor extremes,' my mother said, her voice shaking. 'Too fat, too thin. I never realised it before. Those famine expressions are worse than opera, worse than some horrendous woman in horns.'

'Horns, what do you mean, horns?' cried Douglas. 'Mother, you are tiresomely hard to follow.'

'The one to get it can have another helping of pudding,' said father. 'Opera, of course. She means opera. A great fat soprano at the end of Wagner. Hair to the ground and horns to the heavens.'

'I still don't see what that's got to do with the famine in Ethiopia.' 'It's a circle,' explained Douglas, scooping more raspberries onto his plate and strafing them with whipped cream. 'Thin and fat are equally to be abhorred, dear sister. By the way I think you're putting it on a bit.'

My mother's agitation with extremes was not helped by news of Aunt Cora's bankruptcy. The farm, never profitable, would have to be sold and the stock sent to the works. Aunt Cora had tried for a loan wearing her best hat and party manner but had been turned down. 'The humiliation,' my mother fumed. 'The same bank manager who was at her parties.'

News of the catastrophe came in letters from Aunt Agatha and Aunt Hermione though their styles were markedly different. Aunt Hermione sent some of her own savings to tide Cora over and some vague advice about the courage of cutting one's losses. Aunt Agatha delivered a pent-up homily of staccato sentences and underlinings which, in an earlier generation where underlining and crossing the paper at jaywalking angles was customary, would have turned the pages black. My mother, trapped between her horns of thin and fat, criticised my choice of skirts. 'If you don't watch yourself you'll be like Aunt Cora around the hips.'

'And the hips are the seat of fiduciary management,' Douglas added, rocking dangerously back in his chair. He was fond of the word fiduciary that year, a coin-counting word, every syllable precise.

Rupert had written from Singapore as if one of the family stocks had fallen but the firm was still in good hands. Fergus sent a postcard. Guess this is like the sinking of the Titanic. Still at least Cora would have gone down with page 54 a hat on. How about the fatal resemblance, Caro. Any manifestations?

For I had confided in Fergus once, thinking his two years' superiority might offer some suggestions about moving a fixed image. I used extravagant language, comparing myself to that Spanish resistance fighter frozen in the second the bullet enters him. Patently this was absurd. Other impressions, Fergus said, will override it. Spend less on clothes or something, make some conspicuous saving that will begin to undo it. Perhaps utter some pleasing clichés, such as the prodigal son, refreshed from fatted calf and a bath, must have done to please his father.

No manifestations, I wrote back. None, none. How did he never get called extravagant himself? Perhaps this was the root of my mother's concern: unlike cousin Fergus I had no rock-solid foundation, such as a bank vault. The frothy cherubs and pillars were not supported by safes. It was useless to explain to Fergus that it was not clothes or shoes—for which I had a great weakness—twenty-four pairs at last count—but an angle of my face caught in a blinding light, a trick of chiaroscuro, the face lifted above the candle, the presage that seals the character as Donne half-mockingly sealed himself in his winding sheet. My mother was a novelist manqué who had seen the way into my character as a painter chewing the end of his mull stick sees his way into a portrait that will take weeks. How could Fergus who always provided the wines and champagne for Christmas and instead of being chided was greeted as a reformed Scrooge understand that? While my gifts, chosen with agony and meant to express uniqueness, were always far far too much.

It must have been the Christmas I gave my parents a mirror—my mother commented on the shape as I brought it into the house on Christmas Eve, 'I hope that's not a mirror'—that Aunt Cora and Uncle Henry went to live in a seaside town, right on the seafront in a cottage.

'Someone's holiday home, I expect,' my mother sniffed. She had apologised about the mirror which when unwrapped showed the Brisbane Botanic Gardens where she and my father had courted. Luckily I had recognised it from an old snapshot.

'Your intentions are good,' she said, patting my forearm. 'But then so were poor Cora's.'

'I think we should leave it rest,' my father said. 'A beach cottage is not a stable after all and even if it was there's nothing to be ashamed of.' The ironmonger who had married Fenella had taken it seriously though page 55 and insisted she not invite her parents for Christmas. Instead Aunt Hermione had descended on Boxing Day with loads of gifts and Agatha and my father sent cheques. I had discovered that if I said very little and kept my newest shoes out of sight—they were peeptoes of the most blinding red— my mother's fretting and censure of me might seem neurotic.

I lie awake in my cell in the nurses' home, determined before I sleep to examine my conscience. Isn't conscience character? Straightaway I realise this is ludicrous: the conscience-less do not fail to exist. Dorcas, my neighbour, has posted to her bedridden father a valuable sheepskin underblanket. She sees it as part of the National Health and would do it for all her relatives. My mind goes round in circles, condemning Dorcas and then praising her. It occurs to me this circling is the same as a cat going to sleep and I must hurry.

Was the image that compared me to Aunt Cora false? What if my mother had been turned the other way? Why am I so overcome by a conjunction of planets? Soothsayers never apologise when they are wrong, I recollect, and this fills me with anger. Is my mother ever going to say, 'I thought once you were like Aunt Cora but I was wrong. You are more like Aunt Agatha.' This will fill me with anger too, for the energy I have expended on investigation. I have given my life to another's estimate, another's history. I have become inextricably entwined with one aunt on a circuit of aunts. What should have been merely picturesque: the gaunt farmhouse, the rumours of parties, has passed into myth and legend. It is unbearable, I think, to be both human and myth. I am no heroine and I cannot conceive of retaining poise in a maelstrom.

And then, since extravagance always has a monetary component— perhaps this is the largest part of it—I begin to worry about my chequebook which is once again overdrawn. I have bought a hideously expensive pair of snakeskin shoes, seduced by the faint hiss they make as the heels touch, as though there is whispering in grass. But what if the whispering says: Extravagant, extravagant.

This is the reason my nightly musings lead nowhere. I plunge straight from the heights of myth to some trivial detail. I pull the bedclothes up to my chin and console myself that tomorrow is payday and the crocodile shoes, like those rooms of animals we have consumed in a lifetime, reputed to pass before our eyes in heaven, will pass into oblivion. Oblivion is page 56 legitimate because it has no images. Then I fall asleep and there are rooms of shoes and rooms of animals that have been made into shoes and Aunt Cora wearing my red shoes as she disappears up the driveway of the farm. I catch the glow of a red shoe in one of the puddles.

There are two images—no, three—of Aunt Cora, my mentor. I have given in now and accept her as that, thinking submission can put me on my guard. I don't wish to spend my whole life in denial but to live. They are images I accept without any embroidery, as one accepts a diagnosis from a doctor one knows is blunt and fair. 'Is this spot extravagance too?' 'It has the appearance, I am afraid. But since we have caught it early. . .' I am regarding myself as 'we'.

The first image is decidedly painterly. A winter scene by Van der Velden. One of those so-European tales of hardship: Dutch courage in the jagged mountains. Aunt Cora and Uncle Henry—Uncle Henry dies soon after and he's already frail and hanging back in this—seek a loan from Fergus's bank. Fergus is now a manager, a very early promotion. Naturally he turns them down. He even seems, like Pilate, to be washing his hands. Aunt Agatha regards the approach with horror and writes more than her customary blackened pages.

The second has no visual equivalent, unless it is perhaps Bathing at Asnières by Seurat. Faces indistinguishable by flecks of blinding light. A Seurat face could be as large as Mount Rushmore and still be indistinguishable. Aunt Cora—Uncle Henry is dead now and buried—a last extravagance involving a long journey by hearse—has moved to an apartment which she shares with a young man. I see them sitting on the banks of a river—I don't suppose there was a river within miles—Aunt Cora plumper and with more than her share of Seurat splotches and beside her the stork- like legs and long torso of a boy. Seurat, like Aunt Cora, was fond of hats. Perhaps he saw them as light conductors.

You can tell from this I have begun to visit galleries, and after my nursing training was completed and I moved from the nurses' home—its plainness eventually struck me as a kind of squalor—I went on a trip to Europe. There I fell into a pattern of fountains and galleries: cooling my heels (not literally) by some great fountain with lions or cherubs or spouting fish and then climbing the steps to look at some painting I had chosen from my guidebook. In Florence it was Parmigianino's The Madonna with the long page 57 neck and in London the Turner rooms.

I stumbled out past a guard who had been kind and conversed with me when I asked directions, with one hand up before my face as if blinded. 'Are you all right, dear?' he called. 'Will you come back?"Yes,' I said, closing my eyes like Eurydice emerging from the underworld, against another single image. 'Yes, I'll come back tomorrow.' I had discovered, you see, a concentrated form of extravagance to look at and absorb while I worked out my own.

I remember the art gallery at Leeds where I took this principle a step further and learned to select. In the superior galleries this is already done but here were walls crowded with huge shipwrecks, naiads and naked but oddly modest maidens in a garden, small birds carrying an early form of signwriting, in flowers, in their beaks. I remember standing beside a tall man who seemed to share the same puzzlement.

For here was a Derain tucked and here a Piper, a Hitchens which in a small compass still swept the naiads and anaemic maidens from the room. He smiled and introduced himself because of the friendliness of having to choose. There were attractive men in the Courtauld but they never spoke.

'You make your own fun here, I guess,' he said. 'Isn't that an Utrillo?' It was clinging like a dinghy to an enormous seascape where mermen attempted to board a floundering clipper. I should not have been surprised to see the Apostle Peter walking on the water.

All the good paintings in this gallery were small: a quiet Bonnard, a lush redolent-of-wet-woods Derain, the wrought-iron Piper, the generous Hitchens. But the fantastic paintings were good too: they allowed one judgement and history and morals. Discernment always makes one feel better. And it broke down the barriers between us because Paul—that was his name—suggested we might adjourn for coffee.

'It's a gallery one could revisit.'

I agreed. I thought my sorties to the Tate or the Uffizi, to sit or stand in front of one painting, childish and blinkered. What was I afraid of? Attack by nymphs? Suffocation by garlands? All one needed to do was stand still like Keats's heifer.

We walked—or was I being led?—to a nearby coffee shop and before our espressos were brought I had decided to burden this stranger with my obsession. 'Can it be possible to use art in this way?' I asked after I had given a very confused account of a profile resemblance, a fear of mismanagement page 58 which sometimes caused outbursts of buying shoes. 'I mean, transferring my suspected extravagance to paintings?'

'Like touching wood?' he said. 'My great-grandmother used to paint on wood. Flowers mainly. She was very good at Michaelmas daisies.'

I thought he wasn't listening. Why should the stranger in the train listen? But he went on, 'Wouldn't substitution be better than transference in your case? I take it you're asking for a second opinion. Let me take a look at your profile.'

So I turned my head to the wall where coats were hanging and he regarded me with a clinical eye.

'A touch of Velazquez,' he said at last. 'Have you been to the Prado? But mostly I think it is the Portrait of a Lady in Yellow. Alesso Baldovinetti. Do you know it? In the National Gallery. Perhaps one day I could show you.'

And that's how my extravagance left me—apart from what I inherited naturally. Alesso Baldovinetti's Lady in Yellow has very extravagant sleeves, an amber necklace, and her hair is dressed with pearls. But it is the set of her chin, pushing her lower lip into a thinker's pose, her slightly crooked nose and her glazed inward-looking eye that suggests I shall manage.

And I did meet Paul again in front of her and now we are married.

When Aunt Cora, my loved extravagant Aunt Cora, died, consoled by her young man, I thought of Lowry. I don't know why. Those straitened lives, pallid faces against pallid buildings, buildings and humans puffing smoke, have nothing to do with my extravagant, joyous aunt. And yet the extravagance has vanished like smoke.