As with most things that shake up a way of being, the news came to Mary by accident. On the day of the discovery she had left work early, which wasn’t something she had done regularly. In fact, looking back over her long days and years at this particular insurance firm, she was fairly certain she had only daydreamed about it. It wasn’t that Mary had entered an obedient streak in early middle age, but rather it was her fear that she would one day leave the office and never come back that kept her rooted in a dusty, ill-fitted office chair 7.5 hours a day, 5 times a week. This accounting of time excluded the frequent bathroom breaks Mary built into her day despite only drinking the occasional glass of water. She would go into the women’s toilet and stand with her face just a few inches from the mirror, examining her makeup and her lines; after which Mary would take one giant step back to give space enough for a complete 360, all the while checking out her tired clothes, her changing physique. Only sometimes Mary would actually use the toilet. This routine of hers was simply to shave minutes off the clock and luckily no one in the firm noticed the discrepancy between glasses of water consumed and time Mary spent away from her desk. She was grateful that more or less the powers-that-be at the insurance firm left her to do her own thing.
Mary had been warned but still found the London winter especially hard. It started in October when wet colourful leaves papered the pavements making every journey outside her flat one in which she genuinely marvelled at the fragility of the human body. These leaves that mottled London’s streets were this city’s version of black ice and each autumn their appearance reminded Mary again of all the other beautiful things in the natural world that could kill her. She learned that during the two months of the darkest, shortest days it was prudent to watch your thoughts as Mary had seen even those without a propensity for melancholy finding it hard to ignore the passing of time, that sense of loss this time of year provoked so effortlessly. It was true that Mary had lost track of time and ambitions like so many others, but what gave Mary some hope was that she already knew this on some semi-conscious level, otherwise that solitary Thursday afternoon would have hit her much harder.
So on the day of the discovery after Mary abandoned her desk two hours early, what she was really doing, though she did not realize it herself, was implementing her own winter coping plan. When the sun was out you sat in it. This bright Thursday afternoon was too compelling for Mary not to work the circumstances in her favour. Her line manager was called to a meeting in what her colleagues called the “castle”, a stone fortress of an Oxford building in which no mobile phone carrier could penetrate. So it was relatively easy for Mary to walk out at 2 in the afternoon under the guise of a blinding headache without anyone saying anything more to her than their obligatory – but meaningless – well wishes. To be safe and because she liked to play it straight, Mary drew on the one time she actually suffered a real migraine. To make her charade believable she knew enough to fake an impaired vision. Stumbling out of the office and shielding her eyes from the harsh fluorescents and feeling the wall to her right for balance, Mary acted too disoriented to comment on the likelihood of her being back tomorrow. Here was not just another discrepancy in Mary’s office behaviour, it was a downright fabrication, but again, no one in Mary’s office cared to notice.
It had been at least a year since Mary had been to the National Portrait Gallery. But again it was circumstances, rather than some deep burning desire to see art that led her through its doors. It was Thursday, their late opening, and despite the sunshine that had tempted her out of her office, it was now “pissing it down” as she learned the English liked to call an unrelenting rain that ricocheted off the pavement, splashes from every direction soaking her wardrobe. She remembered another thing she was told upon arriving in London those many years ago was that it was quite common to experience all four seasons in one afternoon. Mary misjudged the depth of a puddle and water poured into the small gap in the leather of her right boot that she had until now forgotten about. Mary chose not to interpret this flood now drenching her sock as a sign of punishment for leaving work early, which was real progress she thought, because even a few months ago she might have done. With her vision of wandering through the sunny streets of Covent Garden now in tatters, the National Portrait Gallery seemed like the only reasonable way to spend her truant afternoon.
Once inside Mary had forgotten how much the humans who frequented galleries could rival the beauty of its art. When she was younger and had more enthusiasm and hope for what being “cultured” could bring to her she used to go to galleries at least once a week, especially when friends could get her name on the guest list for openings, where the canapés could pass for dinner and the glasses of wine gave her more confidence to try out her opinions with the random strangers, usually men, who responded to her. She had been told she was beautiful then but distrusted it, and she had little photographic evidence of those days to now cast an older, more objective eye on her younger more insecure self. It was at those openings years ago that she first began studying the older, eccentric women on the guest list, with their wildly patterned and brightly coloured clothes. Mary would fixate on the ones who aged the way she hoped she would, wondering how they did it, how they stayed looking so bright and healthy. Did they avoid all dairy and wheat? Was it yoga? Tango? Mary had forgotten about all of this until now, and by all of this she meant her state of mind then, and how she had given so much thought to what type of woman she wanted to be at the age she already was now. This realization of her age. The weeks of short days that awaited her. And now the rain making more mottled pavements out of wet leaves gave Mary an isolating sense that she had travelled too far, that somehow this moment in this city was never where she was meant to be. But she could not imagine a way back, and she was hard pressed to understand where it was she came from anyhow.
Before her discovery that afternoon Mary lingered at Barbara Hepworth’s self-portrait as she had done years before. Since the first time she laid eyes on that portrait Mary had been mesmerized and in the time since she had done her research. This self-portrait of Hepworth came after the break-up of her long marriage and that seemed about right to Mary as she detected an overriding terror and anger in the face, but not without a sadness hidden deep but poorly, in Hepworth’s pupils. This portrait today was more real to Mary as she realised she had no recollection of when she last felt any of those emotions. The terror. The anger. The sadness. Today Mary would greet even negative emotions with open arms rather than have none at all to feel. Was art really about remembering how to emote? To remind oneself of the contours of a face full of feeling?
As Mary aimlessly wandered through more rooms of the Gallery she felt as though she was regaining some kind of confidence. She imagined it was the feeling one might have when travelling alone, roaming through a foreign space in a foreign land, pretending to be anyone you wished as strangers projected onto you their own fantasies. Mary even felt so bold as to consider dining alone at some place along the Strand once the Gallery’s late opening hours had come to an end and she was deposited back onto the glistening and treacherous pavement outside. Leaving work early had emboldened Mary because even a year ago she would have been worried about being seen, in a Gallery, without blurry vision and walking perfectly straight without any assistance from a nearby wall.
Mary eventually found her way into the rooms of the annual exhibit, which displayed the results of the Gallery’s open call to photographers from around the world. Each year it seemed to have a different title, depending on the corporate sponsor, and this year the exhibit and the prize were named after an international law firm Mary had never heard of, though to be fair, she hadn’t heard of many. The shock of the sheer size of dozens of faces hanging on the wall looking out at Mary made her pause for a moment in the center of the room, not knowing exactly from which direction to begin. She only realized her eyes were closed when she opened them and found herself drawn to the portrait of a young woman, sitting cross-legged on a floor, in some space in some time, laughing at the camera in a way that was almost in spite of its presence. Yet there was something about the way this woman guarded herself, clinging onto that territory inside of her that Could Not Be Known that was strikingly familiar to Mary. And as she moved across the room toward this magnetic portrait she understood why.
It was her.
Yes, there was not much photographic evidence of herself as a young woman and the beauty that people mentioned and that out of embarrassment and shyness Mary immediately dismissed, but there was indeed this photograph. It’s not that she had forgotten about it. Mary still had a very clear memory of Owen, the photographer who she met at a party soon after she arrived London from Detroit. He was everything that she imagined she would find in London. A tall, gentle and worldly man, who was born into a big city and who spoke with an accent and who was intellectual, and creative. Mary was so comfortable in Owen’s company that when he went away to France for the summer and did not keep his promise to write, she was at such a loose end that she had to return home to Detroit for six months before she could regain her strength. But when Mary returned to London and Owen was still no longer to be found things were not the same for her. Surprised by how many emotions a city could hold, every street corner seemed to cause Mary injury. Mary knew it was sad but accepted the fact that she could never look at the city through the same eyes again. That excitement you feel when a place still holds wonder, when you are intoxicated by its smell and never harassed by its annoyances – that excitement for Mary was gone. The time with Owen was short yet he uncovered as much about Mary as most people could only do after decades of marriage. Even now she was not certain she could look at London objectively or through her own eyes. Owen’s fingerprints were all over it. Mary could go for months without coming upon a place in her new city that they had visited together, then right in the middle of Kentish Town she would find one, forgetting they had ever ventured so far North.
Mary walked closer to the portrait to check the small placard beside the portrait to see if it was indeed him and indeed her. Yes it was. To both. Mary was anonymous on the placard which had only Owen’s name and the title of the portrait– Once.
Now face to face with her younger, and what she thought was her more beautiful self, Mary saw for the first time what it looked like to be loved. Softer. Relaxed. Transcendent. It seemed impossible now to remember how she had trusted Owen. How did he make her comfortable enough to sit for his camera? She could not imagine ever feeling so at ease. Also gone were the powerful emotions she had once felt for him. Rather she felt for herself, stupid that she hadn’t at that age recognized her power. That she hadn’t realised how much she had to give the world. That she had found her feet for those three brief months with Owen, then lost them.
Mary sat for a while at a bench near her own portrait, curious to see if anyone who passed through the room would notice the resemblance. She had to be told by the security guard that the gallery was closing in 5 minutes and that she was to make her way to the exit. There she was losing track of time again.
When she walked out into an illuminated and now dry Trafalgar Square she wasn’t hungry anymore. She descended the stairs of the Tube and began to make her way home, her right sock still squishing from the earlier deluge of water.
On the tube she saw Owen everywhere. After forgetting him for over a decade she could now not stop remembering him. Mary made eye contact with any man who bore the faintest resemblance to Owen, hoping to discover him again. His – her – portrait was in the Gallery; surely he must still be in London. Perhaps Mary had already passed him many times over the years without any notice.
The next morning Mary woke at a time that was on the borderline, meaning she could have just as easily stayed in bed as gone to work. The same inertia that kept Mary in her ill-fitting office chair kept her comfortably, if not somewhat over-heated, under her duvet. She drifted off again without effort but not before making a conscious intention to dream of Owen. She had read about lucid dreaming once and thought that if a good enough reason presented itself to try it, she would give it a go and hope that her discipline to keep it up would follow.
It was over an hour before Mary woke again and this time she had the sense that Owen was out of her reach as he probably always was. If there was one thing that troubled her still about their short time together it was that she didn’t make a strong enough impression on the man who made her feel so at home. Friends at the time –where were they now? –assured her that was unlikely the case, that it was only a defense mechanism that he had slipped off into the French countryside with no further word.
Mary couldn’t have made it in time for work now but there was still enough time to responsibly call off. After sending a short and somewhat disorientated text to her boss (keeping up the ruse of a tenacious migraine) Mary decided to return to the National Portrait Gallery. She positioned herself on the same bench as the day before, hoping someone would take notice of the resemblance between her and the woman in the photograph not thinking what she might say if someone did indeed make the connection.
After some time in the gallery still seeing Owen everywhere and nowhere, she was beginning to think that her faked disorientation was becoming real. Mary went outside the gallery and sat in Trafalgar Square, pulling a sandwich wrapped in foil from her bag, prepared hastily before leaving that morning. On her way back into the Gallery, into the same room, towards her same bench the security guard stopped her.
I’ve been meaning to ask you…
Mary froze. This is what she had been waiting for.
Are you the same woman in that photograph, pointing very clearly to Once.
Mary surprised herself by smiling.
I’m so sorry, he said.
The security guard noticed her stunned silence but didn’t fill it in with small talk.
For the photographer, for Owen, I mean I heard the story. The short illness, his death.
Mary was paralysed now. She could not move her feet.
I’m sure you know that he was most proud of that portrait. At least that’s what his partner said. You must feel special having been part of that moment. So much feeling, intensity there. It just reaches out and grabs you by the throat.
Mary looked away so as not to betray she was hearing this all for the first time.
Then without any conscious effort at all, as if her voice came from some other body in some other space and time, Mary said:
I do feel special, I really do.