The Signature Piece
‘Just here please, on the corner. Thanks.’ Barbara thrust a £20 pound note at the driver as he pulled into the curb. ‘Keep the change.’ Bending to scoop up her canvas shoulder-bag from the floor, her eye was caught by a flash of vermillion under the front seat. On impulse she stuffed the item into her jacket pocket, before exiting the taxi. She glanced at the clock above the station entrance opposite. She was just going to make it. A biting March easterly swept off the Tyne, snaking through the streets, snatching at the hats and scarves of people hurrying between imposing neoclassical structures. Buses queued at obstinate traffic lights. She inhaled their fumes mixed with drifting odours of stale cooking oil from nearby take-aways.
Clenching her ticket to her chest, she cut between the traffic, sprinted to the automatic gates, squeezing through the ebb and flow of elbows, feet and wheeled luggage. She slammed the train door behind her just as the whistle blew, and after a dispute with the disgruntled occupant of her reserved seat she took her place next to the window.
The carriage lurched forward. Relieved to be on board, she closed her eyes and reflected on her meeting with Paul Smart. It had been good; in truth, she was flattered. 'smARTs' had an impressive portfolio of galleries across the north and the new gallery planned for Newcastle was going to be stunning. A fine space to display unique artworks. Slick, clean, fabulous lighting. Quite why she'd been picked to create their signature piece she was still unsure, but it was most certainly a welcome commission. Paul had been complimentary about her 'RE-fresh' environmental art award from last year, so maybe that had some influence. But what to create?
Taking out her notebook she began to jot down ideas and concepts. Word associations with the city; materials, objects, landmarks and institutions. She filled almost a dozen pages by the time she disembarked the train at York.
* * *
Juliette rifled through her handbag. ‘Chanel never had this sort of trouble,’ she muttered to herself putting one glove on the seat next to her. ‘Where is it?’ As exasperated as she was, she couldn't help but recall her mother's smile every time she touched the gloves. Made of the finest soft Italian leather, they had been specially ordered for her sixteenth birthday and become one of her most treasured possessions. A deep, vibrant red, delicately hand-stitched, they had each been beautifully embossed between knuckle and cuff with a tiny swimming swan. Imprinted discreetly below the wrists her mother had even placed a small L and R, knowing how Juliette would often get confused.
The colour stirred images of her mother's lipstick; the shape of her mouth when she laughed; the counterpoint cream gauge stitching and cashmere lining raised memories of her soft skin, radiant with energy. The very sensation of the leather against her fingertips reminded her of her mother's comforting touch. She missed her sorely.
‘We have to stop the train! We have to stop the train! How do I stop the train?’ Tears began streaming from her eyes, dripping onto the cramped table littered with the extensive contents of her bag. ‘Oh my god, I, I can't have lost it, oh my god.’ Then, her voice rising, she pleaded. ‘Someone please stop the train.’
‘I don't believe we can, dear. What on earth’s the matter?’ A woman in a blue box hat asked her from across the aisle.
‘I can't find my other glove,’ she wailed, ‘I must have dropped it at the station or getting out of the taxi. It was late and I was rushing. Stupid! I'm so stupid!’
‘Well, it's not the end of the world is it, dear? These things happen. Don't be too harsh with yourself. It's hardly worth stopping the train for!’ With an arthritic hand she passed Juliette a tissue. ‘You can always get another pair of gloves, can't you?’ What was meant kindly only served to push Juliette into sobbing hysteria.
Further along the carriage, heads began to turn. Juliette's heart stretched to breaking point with each passing mile, overwhelmed by her sense of loss. She dabbed at her eyes with the tissue. ‘You don't understand. They were a present from my mother,’ she wept.
‘Ah, I see. Sentimental value. Sometimes the hardest things to lose, aren't they?’ commiserated the kindly woman. ‘Do I take it your mother is no longer with us?’
Juliette could only nod.
‘Oh, that's sad, my dear. It's hard, losing a parent at any age. Is there anything I can do?’ She shuffled into the aisle seat, reaching across to pat Juliette's arm. They sat like that for a while, with only the clatter of the tracks filling the void, until Juliette's tears eased.
‘It's like I've lost her, losing the glove,’ said Juliette softly, finally looking up. ‘I know I've still got one, but Mummy and I, we were a pair, you see. Did everything together. For as long as I had both gloves, it was as if she were still with me. Now I've just the one, it’s like she's gone.’
‘I know it seems desperate right now, and at eighty-three I think I know what desperate looks like, but the pain will ease. You know, you could try calling the taxi company - see if they've found it. You never know, they might be able to post it back to you?’ the old lady suggested.
‘Of course!’ exclaimed Juliette, fumbling for her mobile. ‘Why didn't I think of that?’ A short call swiftly quashed her initial flash of hope. She collapsed back in despair.
‘Ah well, it was worth a try,’ said the lady. ‘I had a similar thing happen to me once, with some earrings. But you know, twelve years after I lost the left one, I rediscovered its partner when I was clearing out my sister’s house.’ She sighed, reflectively. ‘She was taken from us too soon, as well; yet, there was my earring, a little dusty, sitting underneath her settee. I remember losing it, and at the time we thought we'd looked all over. It was if she'd come back to me because I'd kept the other one safe, in a jewellery box, all that time.’ She smiled thoughtfully. ‘Sometimes, these things can come back to you in the most unexpected ways, so don't lose hope. Your mother hasn't actually left you. She just has some other things to do. Other people who need her help for now.’
Juliette simply nodded again. ‘Thank you. You've been very kind. I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to create such a scene. I don't even know your name...’
‘Margaret, my dear. My name is Margaret, and it's no bother. I do understand. Why don't you pop all your things back in your bag? Maybe nip and freshen up a bit, too. I'm sure you'll feel better if you do.’ She smiled encouragingly at Juliette. ‘How about a Werther's for now?’ and offered up a sweet.
Juliette and Margaret swapped life stories all the way to London, enjoying a gin and tonic as they passed York, courtesy of Juliette. They arrived into Kings Cross at 19:05, parting ways with best wishes and a hug. Juliette watched as Margaret was greeted by her son, then wrapped her cashmere coat around herself and, now alone, she became aware of a renewed sense of loss quietly gnawing away inside.
* * *
‘I can't do it! I can't do it, Dawn!’ Barbara threw her sketch pad across the bench, narrowly missing a black and white framed photograph perched on the windowsill.
‘Of course you can, Bab's. This is what you do. You say this all the time at the start of a new project, then 'bam', your inspiration hits and off you go at a million miles per hour. Here, have a glass of wine. It'll come...’ She passed over a large goblet of red.
‘I don't know. Not this time.’ Bab's took a sip, ‘I think I've taken on a bit much with this commission.’
‘Don't be daft. You always underestimate yourself. For goodness sake, you are award winning,’ Dawn grinned at her, before gesturing at the photo. ‘What would your dad say?’
Bab's stared at her father in the picture. She wasn't sure where it had been taken, but it had always been one of his favourites. He stood in the foreground, rugged and cheerful, with four swans floating on a river behind him. A striking woman was sat on a wooden bench, between him and the water, pearls strung about her throat. Her chin rested upon her hand, face turned towards him, enigmatic. ‘Probably something along the lines of “just focus on making a start. You can always change it later. Life evolves and so does your work. What's important is to get going.”’
‘Sounds like good advice to me. What are you waiting for?’ Dawn pointed at the stack of junk categorised and stored on shelves lining the edges of the workshop. ‘Where are you going to start, then? Oh, wait a moment. What's this?’ Crossing to one of the collections she plucked out a single red glove. ‘You're such a kleptomaniac, Bab's. No idea where you got this but it's gorgeous. The workmanship is fantastic.’ She stroked the luxuriant leather.
‘Oh, yes. I'd forgotten about that. Found it in the back of a taxi. In Newcastle as it happens. It never ceases to amaze me what people chuck out, drop or leave behind.’ Bab's took it from Dawn, examining it more closely. ‘I wonder? Look here. Is that a swan?’
‘Indeed, it is. How lovely. I bet who ever lost this was kicking themselves,’ said Dawn.
‘You're a lifesaver. I think you and my dad have just given me my inspiration. I can build a piece around this. I've a tonne of stuff coming down from Newcastle from a riverside clean up organised by the Gallery, but this will be my anchor element!’
‘You're welcome,’ Dawn curtsied, almost spilling her wine. ‘Here's to Henry, to your Dad.’ She raised a glass to the photo. ‘Did you ever find out who she was?’ she continued. ‘You were keen to find out about her, weren't you?’
‘Sadly not. Dad was always very tight lipped about her. Took his secret with him when he died,’ replied Bab's contemplatively. ‘Still, he's clearly here with us today. Thanks Dad,’ and she too raised her glass.
* * *
Juliette loosened her scarf against the heat of the mid-afternoon summer sun. The monthly visit to her mother's grave had left her feeling melancholic. In search of something to lift her spirits she'd taken to wandering the city streets, catching herself scanning the pavements, the gutters, the litter bins. Anything, for a glimpse of her lost glove. She knew it was ridiculous, but she couldn’t help herself.
Laughter attracted her attention. A bohemian group mingled with several suits inside the entrance to a grey stone building fronted by tinted glass. Signage above the windows spelled out 'The Purist' in a combination of psychedelic recycled materials. Intrigued, Juliette ventured in, to be promptly offered a flute of Prosecco and an assortment of vegan nibbles. Browsing the displays, she eavesdropped on conversations about genres of art, pottery and sculpture; about eco-exhibitions and sustainable fabrics. A strict traditionalist Juliette turned up her nose at what she regarded as innocuous framed splashes of colour: 'Art' which she considered could easily have been produced by sitting on top of a tumble drier. She baulked at the price tags.
At the rear of the gallery she joined a cluster of guests grouped around an exhibit hanging on its own, about four meters in height by five in width framed, in polished steel. ‘Not too many homes with a wall big enough for that,’ someone remarked.
Partially obscured, the piece was a frontal image of a swan, wings fully outstretched. An assortment of reclaimed waste materials formed the primary, secondary and tertiary feathers: the elegant neck created from a sequence of discarded footwear. The Tyne flowed around it like an oil slick, set against a backdrop of silhouetted river city landmarks. A woman in front of Juliette stepped away, giving her full view. She moved forward; her gaze captivated by the solitary element of red, sealed behind glass in the lower left corner. A single glove, caught like a fly in amber, forefinger pointing at an octagonal blue sign with the word 'STOP' emblazoned across the middle. She dropped to her knees, breathless: hand raised to her mouth.
‘Madam? Madam, are you all right?’ A waist-coated host hovered over her.
Juliette merely pointed. ‘That's mine,’ she whispered.
* * *
‘Look, Marian, I want this to be as amicable as possible, but really - I can't live without my girls.’ Sat on the sofa Henry cradled his head in his hands, a forest of tiny black hairs creeping above the line of his crisp white shirt cuffs.
‘Nor can I, Henry. So, what are we to do? Neither of us wants to go to court and throw our money at unscrupulous solicitors. We've managed to negotiate everything else flawlessly. Once this is done, we never have to see each other again.’ Marian stood silhouetted by the window, staring wistfully at the quiet flow of the Ouse. Her ivory cheeks glistened with traces of soft silver, a pale reflection of the view before her. Emerging from beneath strands of trailing willow, like actors onto a stage about to portray some great tragedy, a pair of pristine swans drifted elegantly on the shimmering surface.
‘This was always going to be the hardest part.’ Henry replied. ‘It's not like we can just say we'll have one each. This is real. Not some sentimental Disney film!’ He stood, paced the floor then poured himself a glass of whisky.
‘Yes, of course, that's right. Always your first port of call. That's where we'll find the answers. In a bottle! Honestly Henry. Do you have to?’ She twisted her fingers through her pearl necklace, her tone sharp, exasperated. ‘Why can't we have one each? What's stopping us? In fact, I think, under the circumstances, it's the most pragmatic of solutions.’
Henry carefully put his glass down on the marble mantelpiece. ‘Oh my gosh, you're serious, aren't you? But we can't split them up. They're only three and four! Besides, how would we choose between them? I can look after them both, perfectly well, here.’
‘Oh, can you? Between hangovers? I'm sure that'll work out well. No, Henry. If they're staying together, they're coming with me. So, you decide. One or none. I want this sorted, today - otherwise we will end up in court,’ Marian softened her tone, crossing to place her hand on Henry's shoulder. ‘And neither of us want that, do we?’
* * *
‘I have the other one here, with me always. See?’ Reverently Juliette pulled the glove out of her handbag, placing it on the table between them. ‘They were a gift from my mother.’
Surrounded by the buzz and odours of an artisan café, removed from the avantgarde atmosphere of the gallery, Barbara's curiosity was piqued. ‘I don't know what to say. It does look like the one I've used in my signature piece. May I?’ At Juliette's nod she cautiously picked up the glove, turning it over, examining the details. ‘Oh! It's even got the little L where mine has an R.’
‘I was always getting confused. Mummy thought it would help,’ Juliette answered. ‘So, can I have my other glove back? Surely you can swap in a different glove to the same effect?’
‘I'm afraid it's not that simple. The art belongs to the gallery now. It's not for me to say. They commissioned and paid me for a completed work...’ Barbara trailed off at the sight of tears welling in Juliette's eyes.
‘Please,’ Juliette pleaded, clutching at a silver locket at her throat.
‘That's pretty,’ observed Barbara, seeking a distraction, her artists eye drawn to the intricacies of the engraved pattern. ‘You must have been very close to your mother. What was she like?’
‘Oh, she was just wonderful. Kind, funny, beautiful. It was just the two of us. I never knew my father, but I was so lucky to have her as my mother. Would you like to see her? When I lost the glove, I felt like I'd lost her, so I've carried a picture of her with me ever since in this. Here...’ Unclipping the chain from around her neck, she passed it over.
Disbelief etched itself on Barbara's face. ‘I'm sorry, what did you say your name is?’
‘Juliette. Juliette Swann. Why?’
‘I know this woman. I've been looking at her for nearly my whole life. She's in a photograph with my father. It was his favourite. I have it in my workshop.’ Barbara looked at Juliette again. Studying her face properly for the first time, slowly, painfully, acknowledging an uncomfortable truth.
‘I don't understand. What are you saying?’ Juliette was confused. All thought of the gloves momentarily suspended, she reclaimed the grief contained within her locket.
‘My father's name is Henry. Henry Swann. And you look just like him.’
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