A Woman at the National Gallery

Recently, during a break l went into the National Gallery in London and spent time in my favourite section on Italian paintings. I thought I would have a bit of lunch in the restaurant. I got the food and found a newly vacated table with two chairs, pleased that l had managed to get peace and protect myself from the madding crowd. I wasn’t hungry for table fellowship. I’d just settled myself into my new comfort zone when a woman came up and pointed to the empty chair opposite me. “Is anyone sitting there?" she asked. My heart sank. I looked at the empty chair and had to admit the obvious, that there was nobody actually sitting in it.

When she sat down she let out a deep sigh and proclaimed to the room: ”Art is tiring, isn’t it? All that walking and looking. Exhausting, don’t you think?” I mumbled agreement and lifted my hamburger to have my first bite. She looked at what I was about to eat and announced, “I am a vegetarian myself" Dear God, I thought, what am I supposed to do with this piece of useless information? I looked at her plate piled high with greens.

She said, “I come up to town every week to go round a couple of galleries and look at paintings.” I said something about having a break for a few days to do the same. “A break,” she said, “A break from what? What do you do?” I thought, O God, tell her you are a trainee serial killer and she might go away. “I am a priest,” I said. “A priest? Really’?” she said. “Goshl” She looked at me: “You don’t look like a priest.”

“We come in all shapes and sizes,” I said.

“I used to be religious,” she said, “sort of but I’ve given up on God. He’s a bit of a disappointment, really. I mean he’s never around when you need him - too busy sorting out the big bad world, don’t you think?"

“Yeah” I answered. “You’re agreeing with me.” she said, looking disappointed.

I said, “Look, I’m no expert on God. He puzzles me as much as he puzzles you, and no doubt we return the compliment and puzzle him even more. We probably don’t communicate well. We usually talk to God only when things are bad and our world is collapsing and we go screaming for help, madly hoping that he will make a difference. Distress telegrams are what God usually gets.” She smiled politely and tucked into her Spinach and Caesar salad, all the while measuring me with her eyes. I watched all the healthy green food disappear into her healthy system. I was dying to escape for a smoke, but thought she would disapprove. I waited for her to finish so l could go.

She looked up and said, “I’ve just finished reading a wonderful book – twice – called The Colour Purple. Do you know it?”

“Very well,” l said. She said, “My favourite bit is when two of the characters are discussing God. One of them says something like, ‘I think God gets mad, gets really mad if you walk past a field of purple and don’t notice it. Everything, including God, wants to be appreciated. We, oh we sing and dance and talk and smile and give flowers, trying to be loved. Did you ever notice that trees do everything to get attention we do, except walk‘?” She laughed. “'That’s good,” she said, "really sharp."

I said, “I remember that bit.” And I looked at this woman for the first time and I saw a tree trying to walk, and I felt ashamed of my selfishness and my unwillingness to pay attention. So I decided to stop looking at the exit and listen to her, this vegetarian stranger, as she talked about her miserable life and her miserable husband and how they had settled into a wilderness world of sharing nothing but their common space. They had no children, four dogs, three servants, and a Grade I listed mansion, set in grounds the size of Kensington Gardens. For all their wealth and security, she said she felt like a plant you leave up in the attic to cheer up the room, but then you forget about it. Months later you come across the withered remains of what once was shining. “That’s me,” she said, "dried up, all dried up.” She went on to tell me she came up to London to visit an art gallery one afternoon a week to look at paintings and borrow other people’s dreams for a couple of hours, paintings that commanded more attention in an hour than she would ever get in a lifetime. I asked her what kind of painting she liked. “Still life,” she said. “I like still life paintings because they remind me of my own life. Nothing happening, really, just stillness. Things caught for ever, things that will never change, but in a funny way they have their own beauty, I love them.” I said nothing “Just imagine,” she said, “what it would be like to be a famous painting for one afternoon of the world, and have all these people come to look at you and admire you and appreciate you. Oh, just imagine what that would feel like! Imagine the attention! I could feed off that for a lifetime.”

I said, “Well, I have been with you longer than I have ever looked at a painting.” She looked at me with those eyes. I looked away, around the restaurant, which was now almost empty. The crowd was gone, there were plenty of empty seats, plenty of space, plenty of still life.

“Can I see you again?” she asked.

“What would be the Point?” I asked. “We live separate lives. It’s been good talking to you, let’s leave it at that.” She sighed, adjusted herself, her hands smoothing what did not need to be rectified. "You will forget me, won’t you?” she said.

“No,” I said, “I won’t."

She smiled and, with her collected parcels, walked away, without saying goodbye, back to her civilised wilderness.

A reflection by Father Denis McBride.

What new possibilities are opened up to us when we “step out of our bubble” or let someone else in?