I Feel the Flowers Growing Over Me

Notebook, pen and glass by Jo Wilson

Gillian Muirfield sat in her hotel room, writing imaginary postcards. They were witty, they were allusive; they were robust and ebullient: they were full of arcane facts and pithy observations; and they were unwriteable. How do you write to say that you have run away from home at the age of thirty-eight?

For three days now she had been in Florence, staying in a room without a view and wandering the streets with a camera and a notebook. Dressed in a wide-brimmed hat, a flowing skirt and thick-soled sandals, she had something of the mediaeval pilgrim about her; and indeed she regarded this visit to Florence as something of a pilgrimage. For years, she had felt that everyone in the world but her had been to Florence; everyone had visited the Uffizi and stood upon the Ponte Vecchio; everyone had walked those streets full of pigeons and ice-creams and the smell of roasting coffee, seeing great sights and reading great books and thinking great thoughts; and so, when she finally picked up her suitcase and slammed the front door behind her (an act rehearsed a thousand times in the imagination), she was in no doubt as to where to go.

Now she sat in a dark room, composing postcards she would never send.

Not that she was unhappy. You have to be happy when you see Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Venus. To tread the stones that Dante trod, and Boccaccio, and Leonardo; to kneel in churches where Raphael must have knelt, and Fra Filippo Lippi, and Donatello, too; to sit in cafés where Byron – A thought: Did Byron ever visit Florence? Gillian wasn’t sure. She reached for her Michelin Green Guide and anxiously started flicking through it for a reference.

Two hours later, still unsure as to whether Byron had ever visited Florence, but intuitively convinced that he must have done so, she set out on her wanderings again – a waiflike but politely determined figure threading her way through the bustle of the rush-hour pavements like a leaf making its way down a waterfall. She had no idea where she was going, and no idea what she would do when she got there: moving was everything, moving with Dante and Beatrice, moving with Ruskin and Pater, moving with Shelley and Keats, gliding along on a great stream of poetry and images, of half-formed thoughts and half-glimpsed visions, drifting with the great tide of great souls that had washed this place with the waves of their experience and left an after-echo whispering from the stones, a song that sang, We were here, we were here, we were here … She had to keep moving. If she stopped for a second, she remembered.

Was it on the fifth day? Was it on the sixth? Days were becoming hard to keep apart, even in her diary.

It was sometime after visiting the Boboli Gardens, sometime after reading about Rilke in Florence, sometime after losing her sunglasses and developing blisters on the balls of both feet. She was sitting in an outdoor café one afternoon, pursuing one of her favourite pastimes of watching people and smiling at dogs. The café was a smart one of the kind she tended usually to avoid, but today she had been drawn to it on account of the ice-cream colours of its parasols (strawberry and pistachio) and the almost comical severity of its waiters, immaculate in white jackets and black bowties despite the intense August heat.

Florence street with Boticelli's Venus by Jo WilsonThis was the kind of place, she was thinking to herself, where Rilke might have sat, overdressed for the weather in a tight-buttoned jacket and white spats, or an impoverished but elegant James Joyce, staring out at a misty world over the head of his walking-cane; the kind of place – she had to keep thinking to herself like this, to keep the other thoughts at bay – the kind of place where at any moment a revelation might occur, a message, a meeting … She looked about her at the other people reading their papers and conducting their conversations – and was surprised to see, sitting a couple of tables away, two women who looked unnervingly like herself.

They wore wide-brimmed straw hats, sleeveless blouses, and long skirts, and were both about her age. In an instant she recognized them to be English, as English as she and yet belonging to a completely different species; and her blood froze as she began to home in on their conversation, which was conducted not at great volume but with a penetrating stridency reminiscent, she thought in a moment of inspired loathing, of two horses talking across a gate.

“Okay,” said the woman on the left, tilting her sunglasses as she spoke, “the draughtsmanship’s marvellous, but you can’t call it a great painting, Barbara. I mean, look at his references.”

“Are you judging him, then, by the world-view he inherited?” asked Barbara, toying with the straw in her glass. She was somewhat smaller than her companion, and more sombrely dressed.

“Not by the world-view he inherited, but what he makes of it. I mean, the creation of a unique Weltanschauung is the task of the artist. If there isn’t that synthesis of reception and perception –”

“But you’re presuming, Rosalind, that the creative mind is an autonomous entity,” Barbara interrupted her. “Whereas I thought we agreed that the artist was constructed by the assumptions and aspirations of the cultural context into which he’s born. In fifteenth-century Florence –”

“Ah, but that’s where we differ,” cut in Rosalind, with a rattle of bracelets. “Obviously every individual is a product of the society into which he or she is born. But if the artist’s only task is to reflect the assumptions –”

“I didn’t say ‘task’.

“Okay, then, if the artist’s only function is to reflect what’s going on around him, then you rob him of his freedom to lie. All art is inspired lying.”

“And what about, Beauty is truth, truth beauty?” Barbara’s eyes arched above the rims of her sunglasses as she spoke, and she took a long sip from her drink.

“Well, it’s a lie, isn’t it? It proves my point. Anyway, Keats was a wimp. I’ve never had any time for Keats,” said Rosalind, beckoning to the waiter

Gillian’s blood ran hot and cold as she listened. She had not followed the argument closely; indeed, she had not been physically able to follow it closely, so violent had been her feelings of outrage at what she was hearing. She felt that everything she knew and loved, everything she held most dear, everything she had been clinging on to for so long, was being used by these two women as counters in an intellectual game – the game they played at Oxbridge and the BBC and the TLS, the game that was the privilege of those already privileged by birth and education, by money and accent, by Mummy and Daddy –

Her knuckles, already bony, whitened on the armrest of her chair, and a blackness welled inside her.

And yet – And yet, she thought to herself: What did she actually know about Keats, or about anyone else, for that matter? What had she read – what had she ever had time to read? Snatches of this and that, half-read, half-digested, on the bus, in her lunch break, in the kitchen after the children had gone to bed, books borrowed from the public library and returned unopened, radio programmes rendered unintelligible by the noise of bubbling saucepans and screaming children, visits to the cinema or the theatre called off at the last second because of some domestic crisis – some minor, trivial, all-consuming crisis, the crisis that had been her life for how many years now …? Her hand trembled as she reached for her cup of coffee, which was stone cold as she put it to her lips.

The two Englishwomen had ordered another drink and were now leaning back in their chairs, talking of other matters. It was hard for Gillian to catch what they were saying, but it appeared from their conversation that the Barbara-woman was some kind of academic and the Rosalind-woman some kind of administrator: Gillian heard mention of a lecture tour, a show, a hostile review, an application that had to be written. The names of the great littered their conversation, as did the names of men – any numbers of Rogers and Duncans and Jeremys, whom Gillian pictured as dynamic and incisive figures with broad shoulders and slightly receding forelines, this one a journalist, that one a critic, all of them informed and articulate – opinionated, no doubt, no doubt headstrong and touchy, but all of them full of ideas, all of them making their way and leaving their mark on the world …

“Anyway,” Barbara said, leaning forward again, “I told them I wasn’t interested.”

“Have you tried Princeton?” asked Rosalind.

“Malcolm’s giving me an introduction.

“I do think, though, you ought to reconsider that passage on Correggio.”

“Rosalind, I’m not rewriting it now. Anyway, I’ve got these lectures to prepare – to make no mention of this business with Duncan.”

And so their conversation continued, meandering from university to art gallery, from library to sherry party, always conducted in the same drawled tones, half-bragging, half-complaining, and always assured. Gillian felt a numbness creeping over her as she listened. She felt the world drifting around her. She need not be listening to any of this. She need not be affected by it. She had to remember what she believed in, what she held dear, what she had come to Florence for. All she could think of was Keats. Had Keats ever been to Florence? She didn’t know. It didn’t matter. Here lies one whose name was writ on water.

That was all one needed to know. ‘It’s arterial blood: I must die.’ She could almost hear him speaking the words. ‘I feel the flowers growing over me’, his voice said.

Brusquely, she called for the bill, paying it with much fumbling. Notes scattered on the floor, unwritten postcards were everywhere, she couldn’t understand what the waiter was saying. It didn’t matter: she just had to get out. Overtipping the waiter, or undertipping him, she got to her feet, picked up her things and made her way out through the close-packed tables. The two other Englishwomen looked up as she passed, as if noticing her for the first time, and – in obvious reference to her straw hat – shot her a smile. It was the split-second smile which compatriots exchange when recognizing on another abroad. It was not returned.

Duomo with street by Jo WilsonGillian stood before them. She felt she had to say something. She had to bear witness. And she had no words to say. Her tongue was growing thick and her vision blurred. The two women stared at her in bemusement, their heads tilted slightly to one side. With their blank faces and their broad-brimmed hats they looked like monstrous sunflowers arching up to engulf her.

“Beauty is truth!” blurted out Gillian at last – and started running, running out through the café tables, running out across the piazza, down a street, through an arcade, across another piazza, past tourists in baseball caps and policemen in white helmets, past old women in black and bare-chested youths, through great wafts of pizza and exhaust fumes and coffee, through canyons of sunlight and caverns of darkness, running to the rhythm of all she knew, of all she wanted to know, running her heart out with the dying Keats to save her life.

©Jonathan Steffen, all rights reserved

Photographs ©Jo Wilson, 2012