Frida and Picasso arrived in London on the same day. Frida’s pass to freedom came courtesy of a twenty-first birthday present of a round-the-world air ticket from her Aunt Jean. Picasso’s works were on their way to the TATE for his first London showing.
Frida Alexander was escaping her floral childhood and her birth name, Florence. Until recently, her life had been lived like a prize flower in her mother’s carefully ordered and tended garden; pruned to determine its shape. Yet she had managed, despite her mother’s best efforts, to grow beyond the cement border, and here she was in the Qantas 707 jet saying goodbye to Sydney. Through the frame of the window she viewed the Harbour Bridge and the new Opera House with its unique design. In her mind she was already in London viewing the Spaniard’s paintings, and thinking of her new life. Picasso’s work was exciting. Exhilarating. Every time she viewed his works in art books, their energy filled her. She quivered with anticipation.
“Miss Alexander? A refreshment?” Frida’s attention came back to the confines of the cabin. The hostie’s rounded tones suggested a large investment in elocution lessons and a private school. Frida thought the voice, along with the hostie’s slim figure (a requirement for the job), accentuated in the pencil skirt, was a hook for unsuspecting single male passengers. Frida’s outfit was similar in cut, but in a pale peach. It was her mother’s choice at her pre-flight shopping spree at Grace Bros on Broadway. Frida had acquiesced over its purchase knowing she would shed it like a chrysalis once she landed in London and replace it with a caftan: a free flowing dress rich with colour that bared her knees. It was no husband-catcher. She wouldn’t need the girdle she was wearing that contained her shape under her suit. Frida sipped her Barossa Pearl letting the bubbles tickle her nose. She slipped her feet out of her court shoes, stretched her toes and settled into her seat for the first leg of the eight-leg flight.
Unsurprisingly, there had been no argument from her mother, Grace, when Aunt Jean suggested the birthday present. Frida accepted that for her, it was a relief to have her North Shore-turning-Bohemian daughter sent to the other side of the world for a year. Grace had become increasingly concerned about Florence’s (for she would always be Florence to her) late nights. She presumed her daughter was spending time with her art school friends in some dim lit café furnished with laminex topped tables and chrome legged chairs.
“I’m not sure what they’re teaching her at that place,” Frida overheard her mother talking to her father in his study. She straightened one of the paintings on the wall. “All those strange shapes and images. I would rather she did these – lovely watercolours – like Monet.” Grace almost caressed the frame. “I simply cannot hang the ugliness she paints on our walls. Our friends will think she’s smoking that … what is it called? That marijuana!”
Frida knew her mother hoped a year in London and Europe would reshape her thinking; that perhaps Aunt Jean’s long time friend, Alistair would introduce her to a suitable young man. Her mother had made it clear that there were no eligible, nor even moderately suitable, young men in the group Frida mixed with. Grace met some of them briefly at one of the student exhibitions in a small gallery in Surry Hills. In their black garb, she told Frida quite firmly they looked more like art thieves than artists.
Frida was grateful Aunt Jean had been adamant that along with the ticket she should have a regular income to be able to concentrate on her art. She had also organised accommodation with Alistair in Kensington Gardens. Aunt Jean never revealed the nature of that friendship, telling Frida only that they had met while travelling through Europe, through their mutual interest in art. Frida knew it was also this interest that gave her a much stronger connection with her aunt than with her mother.
“Come with me. Come to London. I’m sure Alistair would love to see you,” Frida had urged when they went on a clandestine shopping trip for underwear.
“Darling, I’ve had my overseas adventure,” she said as she lifted a deep indigo mini- length slip from the rack.
“Alistair?” Frida asked aloud as she imagined an illicit affair; her aunt draped in silk on a chaise lounge in a boudoir in a chateau in France.
Aunt Jean ignored the question and held the slip up to Frida. “What do you think of this?” “It’s beautiful, but will clash with the peach suit mother chose for me,” Frida frowned playfully. “And … if she sees it in my suitcase … she’ll promptly unpack it!” Frida lifted her hand in a mime of Grace removing the slip and dropping into a bin.
“Perhaps I can post it to you in a care package with those?” Aunt Jean pointed then linked her arm through Frida’s and guided her toward a magenta silk bra and French knickers set.
In Kensington Gardens, Frida’s bedroom faced the gardens full of spring blooms trailing and tangling unhampered by concrete edging. Her room was simply decorated with pieces collected during Alistair’s travels: a patchwork quilt of vividly coloured geometric shapes covered the bed and a tapestry throw swathed the deep armchair. On the floor, an oriental silk rug of deep reds and golds, welcomed her feet and she took delight in curling her toes into its softness. The summer light too was so much softer than at home, making the colours Frida wore appear even more vibrant than their real hues.
Alistair had encouraged her toward her colour-filled purchases. In his early sixties, he had traded his collared shirts and tailored pants for turtlenecks and corduroys, and turned out to be as good a fashion consultant as Aunt Jean.
On their first shopping trip, Frida found her Picasso-inspired patterned caftan and white mod boots in a tiny boutique on Carnaby Street. Alistair steered her toward two simple black shifts in the same store and later surprised her with his knowledge of the range available at the hosiery department at Harrods.
“You’ll need these,” he said handing her a pair each of red, purple and deep mustard coloured tights to go under her shifts. Later she bought skivvies in the same colours.
“One more stop,” Alistair announced as he led them down a tiny lane to a chic hairdressing salon. He took her shopping bags as she was shown to the white leather chair. Afterwards, back at Harrods as they sat and drank their coffee from delicate Royal Albert china, Frida ran her fingers across her newly bare neck, and tilted her cap toward one heavily eyelinered, purple eyeshadowed eyelid.
The conservatory doubled as the studio Frida and Alistair shared. Pot plants gradually gave way to more paint pots, brushes, water jars, easels and canvases of different sizes. Frida watched a little jealously as Alistair’s white canvas disappeared beneath strokes of colour that transformed into shapes evoking buildings, waterways and people. He was preparing for his tenth exhibition and it was reported everything would sell. With Alistair as her tutor, Frida decided art school was a waste of time and money. Also, she preferred his company to that of students of her own age. She enjoyed her less formal education, and it also meant her allowance from Aunt Jean went further allowing her to buy the best art supplies.
At Alistair’s insistence, she wrote regular aerogrammes to her parents. Their limited writing space allowed her to keep her correspondence short. In reply, her mother sent her at least ten pages of news, written with a fountain pen on the finest air mail paper, of the plays they had seen, (We saw this awful play, “One Day of the Year”, that desecrates our Anzac tradition. Apparently it is to go to London. I wouldn’t bother with it if I were you! ), progress on the building of the Opera House (Why they needed some foreigner to design it, I don’t know.), her father’s golfing achievements (We have another crystal jug to add to the collection) and that her Aunt Jean was well (I do hope, after all she has done for you, that you are writing to your Aunt.) Frida did write to Aunt Jean – long letters full of gratitude for the life she had, Alistair’s tutelage and a thank you for the “care package” that was delivered six weeks after she arrived.
When I wear the magenta, Frida wrote, I feel I should be lying in some artist’s studio on a velvet chaise lounge. (Frida still had visions of her aunt in that position.) I know Mother would be shocked! I love London so much. The double decker buses, the roundness of the police cars, the Bobby’s hats, even their truncheons look soft! I am sure they are just for show. But mostly, Aunt Jean, Alistair is giving me great confidence in my work. He wants me to develop my own style of course, but just yesterday he introduced me to the work of a friend of his from Australia, Dick Watkins. Alistair said you know him. Anyway, I was struck by how like some of Pablo’s work his is. (Alistair has told me I can call Picasso by his first name.) Did I tell you Alistair is taking me to a private viewing of Pablo’s exhibition at The Tate? It hasn’t opened yet, but already the traditional art-going crowd is getting quite het up about the whole thing. There are plans to cook a giant paella for the opening. Can you believe it? Word is the trustees, (apart from Alistair), are still unsure about this, oh, but Aunt Jean I cannot wait to see Pablo’s work … and to be viewing it before everyone else. By the way … please don’t let on to Mother that I am not at art school. It can be our little secret. Love and kisses, Frida.
My mother never mentioned in her letters that she had been given a very private tour of Picasso’s body of work. The master, despite his insistence of having no interest in seeing his paintings hung, had organised with Alistair to travel from France to London. For three days he stayed at Kensington Gardens and my mother learned that, despite his age, his reputation as a lover was as real as one of his sculptures.
In her letters, my grandmother made it clear she assumed my paternity belonged to Alistair, even though in the photos sent to her there was no resemblance to my mother’s mentor. Perhaps she attributed my olive skin to an earlier Mediterranean ancestor she would refuse ever to acknowledge. She politely thanked my mother for the yearly photos. My grandfather seemed content to know that his daughter and granddaughter were well and happy. It was Alistair and my great Aunt Jean who we had to thank for this.
Despite my parentage, of which I wasn’t aware until I was eleven, I had no natural artistic ability. I was more interested in the few plants in the conservatory that grew than the palettes, paints and easels that still crowded the space. As he had with my mother, Alistair encouraged my interest with outdoor excursions that also served to get me out of my mother’s way as she prepared for her exhibitions. Mostly, she was steady in her work and her output, but occasionally I would feel a different energy about her. She would go on what Alistair called her ‘painting holiday’ to France and would return settled and resume her work. She had only recently returned from one of these holidays when I came home from school to find her, paintbrush in one hand and cigarette in the other, with black tears running down her face.
“Oh … Maria. Is school over already? Sorry.” She used a piece of cotton cloth as a handkerchief managing to smear the black across her face.
“Here.” I offered my own white linen handkerchief. Alistair always made sure I had plenty of them, freshly laundered.
“Sit down.” I perched on Alistair’s stool. “Your father is dead,” she said simply. It was unlike her to be so blunt. She normally wove a story, or made me a painting when she had to tell me something that might upset me. I still have the painting of my cat she made for me when I was six. Vincent slipped out of the front door and ran onto the road into the path of a car. Would she make me a painting of my father or at least show me a photograph? I didn’t know how I should react. My mother was upset, so perhaps he had meant something to her, but how could I grieve for someone I didn’t know? Alistair had always been my father.
She didn’t hug me, or kiss me, or make me a painting. She took me to the Tate.
When Alistair died a year later I learnt that grief could be the absence of the smell of after shave mixed with turps, or the aroma of bacon and eggs on a Sunday morning wafting up the stairs to my bedroom, or not seeing Alistair looking like a version of Mary Poppins in his white frilled apron as I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes.
I thought my mother would miss him more than she appeared to, but maybe she submerged her grief under her busyness. She completed the works for her exhibition, organised Alistair’s funeral and his retrospective. Aunt Jean, now in her eighties, made the trip to London. She greeted my mother with a kiss on each cheek. With arms linked they disappeared into Alistair’s study.
Alistair had left everything to us. With the death in the coming years of Jean and my grandparents we were wealthy, but how we lived didn’t change. My mother still loved to catch the London buses.
That morning my mother left the house excited about her own retrospective at the Tate, but she never arrived. Pieces of her, spattered with purple, yellow and red from the tubes of paint in her satchel and the blood of others, were found amid the carnage. I imagined how my father would have reassembled her in one of his paintings.
Hanging in her wardrobe is the caftan that she still wore with a pair of her colourful tights. She had told me how she had imagined this dress, even before she bought it. I take it from the wardrobe, carefully fold it and place it gently in my suitcase next to the small brass urn swathed in a golden scarf. On top of the dress I place her yellowed round-the-world ticket I found among her papers.
Frida is leaving London today.
The Secret was first published in four W twenty six NEW WRITING – 4wPress
You can download the PDF of the story here.