I thought that I was meeting Mrs Hattersley for the first time. My grandmother had often spoken of her (‘my good friend Mrs Hattersley’), but I couldn’t recall ever actually meeting her.
‘Yes. You must have been only six or seven last time I saw you.’
‘Well, that was a while ago,’ I said. ‘In fact 15 years ago. At least.’
She nodded. ‘Yes. I suppose it must be. How time flies.’
From the way in which my grandmother had spoken about Mrs Hattersley, I was expecting a bookish middle-aged widow. I expected her to be wearing a sensible granny-type skirt – probably in lovat or navy blue – and maybe a floral blouse or even a twinset. The fact that she answered the door wearing what appeared to be lime green silky pyjamas was a complete surprise. As was her pink hair.
‘Well, come in,’ she said. ‘Come in.’
I followed her into the tiny entrance hall. ‘Just leave your bags here,’ she said. ‘We can take them up later. But first I expect you’ll need some refreshment. Was it a long journey?’
‘Not too bad. About four hours. Well, maybe five, I guess.’
She nodded and looked me up and down again. ‘Yes, you’ve certainly grown.’ From her expression, and the tone of her voice, I got the impression that she considered this to be a good thing. Perhaps I had been particularly small when I was six or seven. Although I don’t remember being particularly small. In fact, I thought that I’d always been reasonably tall for my age.
I followed Mrs Hattersley through a happily-cluttered sitting room and into an equally-cluttered kitchen-cum-diner. ‘Perhaps we should have a cup of tea,’ she said. But then she peered at the clock on the wall. ‘No, no. Too late for tea. We’ve only missed it by a few minutes. But, nevertheless, we have missed it. I think it is now time for a gin.’
I had only ever tasted gin on a couple of occasions and, even diluted with lots of tonic, it wasn’t my favourite tipple.
‘Pink,’ Mrs Hattersley said. ‘As you may have noticed, I’m going through a little pink phase at the moment.’ She went to the freezer and took out two cut crystal glasses. ‘Cold glasses, that’s the secret. Some people – well, most people, I suppose – start with room temperature glasses and add two or three cubes of ice. But that just dilutes the gin.’ From her expression, it was clear that Mrs Hattersley did not approve of diluting the gin.
Next, she splashed a few drops of Angostura bitters into each of the glasses and tilted and turned the glasses, allowing the bitters to coat the lower inside surface, before tipping the surplus bitters out into the kitchen sink. ‘And now for the gin,’ she said. ‘My father – The Commander – an old Navy man – always insisted on Plymouth gin. Personally, I prefer Tanqueray. Proper London gin.’ And she poured a generous slosh into each glass. ‘Cin Cin,’ she said. ‘Bottoms up.’
I took a sip. It was not at all what I was expecting. As I said, I’d only ever had gin with tonic. Mrs Hattersley’s little concoction was very different. It was cold – but not too cold. In fact, as it crossed my tongue and slipped down my throat, it seemed, for a brief moment, almost hot. And there was a bitterness. And a definite taste of juniper and (I thought) liquorice.
‘Perfect,’ Mrs Hattersley said. ‘So … when does your course start?’
‘Monday,’ I said. ‘At least, I have to go and meet my tutor on Monday. I don’t think that we do any proper work until Tuesday.’
Mrs Hattersley nodded. ‘Oh well, that gives you a couple of days to catch your breath. If you like, we could take a stroll over there on Sunday. So that you can get your bearings. It wouldn’t do to have you getting lost on your first day, would it?’
‘No,’ I said. And I took another sip of my Pink Gin. I still wasn’t completely sold on the taste. But the more I drank, the less it seemed to worry me. In fact, the more I drank, the less anything seemed to worry me.
‘All right?’ Mrs Hattersley asked.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Yes. It’s … umm … quite interesting, isn’t it?’
‘Is it?’ she said, frowning. ‘Interesting? Yes, I suppose so.’ But she didn’t seem convinced. ‘Now … supper. My mother was a Roman Catholic – not that I am – I’m an atheist – but old habits die hard. And so Friday night is usually fish night. I’m thinking a smoked haddock and prawn kedgeree. I know that some people consider kedgeree a breakfast dish, but I rather enjoy it for supper. All right?’
‘Whatever,’ I said. ‘Yes.’ Or at least I tried to say yes. My tongue seemed to have developed a mind of its own. Yes came out as a sort of ‘yow’.
‘Right. First, I’ll get the other half organised. And then I’ll start some prep. Come on. Drink up. One of my house rules: we don’t refill glasses that are already half full.’
‘Thanks, but I’m probably OK,’ I said.
‘OK? Nonsense. You can’t fly on one wing.’
I sculled the rest of my drink and meekly handed over my glass. In the blink of an eye, the glass was returned to me with another generous slosh of the slightly oily, aromatic pink potion, and Mrs Hattersley set about preparing the kedgeree. Once she had the haddock gently poaching, the eggs boiling, and the rice steaming, she suggested that we should take my bags upstairs.
‘This will be your room,’ she said, pushing open the door to a surprisingly large bedroom. ‘I’m just next door.’
There was a double bed, a wardrobe, a small chest of drawers, and a desk with a captain-style swivel chair. And – a bit of a surprise – covering two of the walls, there was a selection of vintage erotic photographs. Mrs Hattersley must have noticed the slight look of surprise when I first spotted the Victorian – or were they Edwardian? – threesome above the desk. ‘Ah, yes,’ she said. ‘Milly, Molly, and Mathew. A Jan & Dean moment, I think. Two girls for every boy?’ And then she frowned. ‘No? Well, probably a little before your time. It was a big hit back in the late ’60s. But, still, I’m sure that you get the idea.’ And she trilled a little six-note ditty. Mrs Hattersley was full of surprises and I started to wonder just how well my grandmother knew her ‘good friend’.
‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘I’ll leave you to sort yourself out. Supper should be ready in about 20 minutes.’
Supper was proof (if proof were needed) that Mrs Hattersley’s talents ran beyond mixing a mean Pink Gin and singing old surfing songs. The kedgeree was delicious: smooth, tangy, creamy, and yet surprisingly subtle. And, even though I’m not sure that I needed more alcohol, the spicy, slightly-sweet Gewürztraminer that she served with it was also delicious.
I must confess that when I woke on Saturday morning, my head was a tad fuzzy and my mouth was rather dry. I put it down to the long train journey.
When I went downstairs in search of a glass of water, Mrs Hattersley was already there. ‘Ah, William. How did you sleep?’
‘Umm … pretty well – I think. To be honest, I don’t really remember much about it.’
‘I expect that you were tired after all that travelling. I know travelling makes me tired. Now … what would you like for breakfast? Some eggs, perhaps?’
I noticed that she already had a packet of cornflakes on the side, and there was the smell of freshly-made toast wafting around the kitchen, so I went with cereal followed by toast and marmalade.
‘I’m going to go into the bookshop this morning,’ Mrs Hattersley said. ‘I don’t know if you’d like to come.’
My grandmother had told me that Mrs Hattersley owned a small bookshop. I guess that’s how I had conjured up the image of a bookish, middle-aged widow in a sensible skirt and a twinset. ‘Yes. That might be fun,’ I said. ‘I quite like bookshops.’
Mrs Hattersley smiled and nodded.
Triple X Libris was a rather Dickensian-looking establishment squeezed in between a Thai Massage Parlour and a dry cleaner’s. When we arrived, shortly after 10 am, a younger woman, dressed rather more in the manner that I had expected Mrs Hattersley to dress, was just in the process of turning the sign on the inside of the glass-panelled door from Closed to Open.
‘Oh, good,’ Mrs Hattersley said. ‘Muriel is here already. Muriel, this is William. I think I mentioned that William is going to be camping in my spare room while he attends a course at Central St Martins.’
‘Ah, yes! The artist,’ Muriel said, smiling and raising her eyebrows.
‘Well, it’s more of a curatorial course,’ I said. ‘My undergrad degree was in art history rather than in doing clever things with paint brushes and welding equipment and stuff like that.’
‘Nothing wrong with a bit of welding equipment,’ a voice behind me said.
‘Ah, Orpington. Meet William,’ Mrs Hattersley said.
As I’ve already mentioned, I’m quite tall. It’s not unusual for me to be the tallest person in the room. However, when I turned around, I found myself face to neck with a man who looked as though he would have been more at home as an NBL basketball player or, maybe, a fast bowler for The West Indies’ cricket team.
‘Wotcha, William,’ Orpington said.
As I looked around the store, the first thing that I noticed was a display of Tom Poulton’s ‘The Secret Art of an English Gentleman’. I was well acquainted with Tom Poulton’s erotic drawings. They might well have been ‘secret’ when he drew them; but, 50 years later, I’m pretty sure that all of my fellow fine arts undergrad friends knew them as well as they knew the drawings of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Augustus John. Sharing the same table as ‘The Secret Art of an English Gentleman’ were several more of publisher Benedikt Taschen’s racier offerings. And on further tables, a good selection of other R18 publications.
I’m sure that my grandmother had no idea of the nature of Mrs Hattersley’s bookshop. She probably had a vision of our local Book Nook transported to central London: a few current best-sellers; a good smattering of classics; an ample supply of family board games; and lots and lots of stationery.
At the back of the shop there was a door marked ‘The Gallery’. ‘The, umm, interesting stuff is out the back,’ Mrs Hattersley said, nodding in the direction of the door. ‘I just need to have a quick chat with Muriel and Orpington, but go on through and I will join you shortly.’
I pushed open the door and found myself in what could have been just about any modern art gallery: polished oak floor, white walls, and enough LED track lighting for almost every eventuality.
Covering two of the walls were what I first took to be small-format etchings – some monochrome, others with a dash or two of colour – but which, on closer inspection, turned out to be mounted and framed examples of Ex-Libris bookplates. But not just any old Ex-Libris bookplates. Oh, no. Each was, in its own way, a page-sized erotic gem. There were satyrs mounting nymphs, swans mounting maidens, and maidens mounting maidens. And there were chaps mounting chaps. Yes, there was something for everyone.
The older plates often alluded to classical themes. ‘Don’t blame us if the ancients had dirty minds,’ they seemed to be saying. While many of the plates from the mid-20th century tended to be rather more saucy that pornographic. ‘Just a bit of seaside fun, Guv.’ But scattered throughout there were plenty of examples of pure unadulterated and arousing filth. At least I found it arousing.
I was just studying a plate that looked as though it might have been the work of the Swiss-French artist Félix Vallotton when Mrs Hattersley joined me. ‘What do you think?’ she said. ‘Some rather amusing little scribbles?’
‘Amusing? Well, yes – among other things,’ I said.
She smiled. ‘These days, most of our sales are via the internet. But I like to have a selection for our real life customers to peruse. And in the next room, we have some larger works covering similar themes. They’re mainly just commercial prints, but …’
I followed Mrs Hattersley through an opening into a second display space. The larger works were generally less explicit than their more compact bookplate cousins, but they were still explicit enough to stop the conversation when the vicar came to tea.
‘Is that a Picasso?’ I said, looking at a depiction of what appeared to be an angular damsel being mounted by an older chap wearing a goat’s head mask.
‘Picasso? Umm, well, a print,’ she said.
‘But signed. By Picasso?’
‘Oh, I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘The signature is just part of the print.’ And then, after a moment or two, she added: ‘Or at least I assume it is.’
I took a more careful look. ‘Are you sure that it’s not signed on top of the print?’
Mrs Hattersley frowned. ‘Is it?’
‘I think it might be. Do you have a glass?’
‘A magnifying glass? I have one at home. But, no, not here.’
For the best part of a minute, both Mrs Hattersley and I peered at the lower right hand corner of the print. It was hard to be certain. And, even if it was signed on top of the print, it was hard to be sure that the signature was Picasso’s. Although it certainly looked like Picasso’s signature. ‘You never know, it might be worth getting it checked out,’ I said. ‘How did you come by it?’
‘An estate sale. I went to buy some books, and the woman whose husband had died was throwing out a folder of what she called “his filthy, disgusting pictures”. There was this one, and three or four others. In fact, seven altogether. I asked her how much she was looking for. She said “Oh, I’m not trying to sell them. I’m just going to burn them.” I told her that I could save her the trouble. “OK,” she said. I felt a little bit guilty. But she seemed really pleased to be rid of them.’
‘Well, as I say, it might be worth getting someone to look at it.’
Mrs Hattersley frowned. ‘Well, you’re sort of in the business. Do you know anyone?’
‘Not really,’ I said. And then I remembered: one of my former tutors was working at Sotherby’s in New Bond Street. He was supposed to be a bit of a Picasso expert. ‘I suppose I could give Mark a call. He seems to know a thing or two about Picasso’s works.’
‘Would you?’ Mrs Hattersley said. ‘You know … if you think it might be worth it.’
We got the number; I phoned; and the woman who took my call said that Mark was there, but that he was with a client at present. ‘Could someone else help?’ she asked. I said that it would probably be better if I spoke to Mark personally, and I left my name and number. Fifteen minutes later, Mark returned my call. I briefly explained the situation, and Mark said that he would be right over.
‘Don’t get too excited,’ I said. ‘It’s probably just a commercial print; but … well, you know.’
At art school, Mark had been famous for his long flowing locks and his loud shirts. When he arrived at Triple-X-Libris sporting short hair and wearing a black suit, white shirt, and charcoal grey tie, I almost didn’t recognise him. But he clearly recognised me. ‘Tallyman! How the fook are ya?’
Mrs Hattersley raised an eyebrow. ‘Tallyman?’
‘It’s a long story,’ I said.
‘So … where’s the patient?’ Mark asked, sceptically scanning the displays of xxx-rated publications.
Mrs Hattersley led the way, through the door marked ‘The Gallery’, past the mounted and framed erotic bookplates, and into the space where the larger works were displayed. ‘It’s this one,’ she said. ‘I’ve always assumed that it was a commercial print. A nice example of, but no more. However, William here – Tallyman – and you must tell me the story – thinks it might just possibly have been signed by Picasso himself. What do you think?’
For two or three minutes, Mark paced about in front of the picture. Then he removed it from the wall and turned it over. ‘May I?’ he said.
Mrs Hattersley told him to go ahead and do whatever he needed to do.
Mark removed the print from its frame and studied it closely, first with his naked eye and then with the aid of a magnifying glass. And then he paced again. ‘Well, it’s not a commercial print,’ he said. ‘It’s an etching. From a copper plate. Perhaps a proof copy – since there’s no edition number. And there doesn’t seem to be too much wrong with the signature – although I’d like a second opinion.’
‘So, it’s a real Picasso?’ I said.
‘Or a fooking good knock-off.’
‘Well, well.’ Mrs Hattersley peeled the price sticker from the corner of the glass. ‘So I may have priced it a little on the light side?’
‘I think you could add a couple of noughts – at least,’ Mark said. ‘Do you have any more of these?’
Mrs Hattersley opened a concealed cupboard and took out a large folder. ‘These are the other ones that I rescued from the fire,’ she said.
Mark picked his way through the small pile. ‘Paul Avril. Mihaly Zichy. James Morton. Franz de Bayros. It’s a nice little collection. The James Morton drawing is particularly nice.’
‘I didn’t realise,’ Mrs Hattersley said.
Mark said that he would organise for a second opinion. ‘But, in the meantime, you might want to advise your insurers.’
For several minutes after Mark had left, Mrs Hattersley just stood there looking at the fanned out selection of ‘filthy pictures’, smiling, and occasionally shaking her head. ‘Well, well,’ she said. ‘Well, well, well. Who would have thought it?’ Eventually, she glanced at her watch. ‘Eleven thirty. Close enough,’ she said. ‘Come on. I’ll buy you a brandy. You must need one by now. I know I do.’
I helped Mrs Hattersley to return the pictures to their folder and, along with the probably-Picasso, we returned them to the concealed cupboard. And then, leaving Muriel and Orpington in charge of the shop, Mrs Hattersley and I wandered up to The Toucan, where Mrs Hattersley had a large brandy and I had a small Guinness – just to keep her company.
‘So what are your plans for this afternoon?’
‘I thought I might go to The National Gallery,’ I said. ‘It’s not far from here, is it?’
Mrs Hattersley shook her head. ‘Just down on the north side of Trafalgar Square. A five-minute walk – if that.’ She took another large sip of her brandy. ‘I think I’ll go and give them a hand at the shop for a while, and then I’ll see if I can rustle up some bits and pieces to make us a paella. I know we had rice last night, but paella is different. I hope you like paella.’
‘I loved it when I was in Spain last year,’ I said. ‘But my attempts to recreate it when I got home were not very successful. It ended up as a sort of gluggy porridge.’
Mrs Hattersley smiled. ‘I expect you stirred it. Paella is not risotto. Once you’ve added the stock, you just have to leave it alone. Let the rice absorb the liquid. But you like it, that’s the main thing.’
‘Oh, yes, I like it a lot,’ I said.
‘Then I shall make some.’
‘Perhaps I could get some wine,’ I suggested.
‘If you would like to. Something pink perhaps. But don’t spend a lot of money.’
I assured her that I wouldn’t.
I had been really looking forward to spending some time at The National Gallery – not just to see some of the notable artworks there, but also, in light of my upcoming course, to look at how the collections were structured and how they were presented. Nevertheless, after a couple of hours, my senses had had enough. I went back outside and spent 20 minutes or so just watching the people and the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. And after that, I walked back up Charring Cross Road and wandered in and out of a few bookshops. Eventually, I had even had enough of bookshops for one day. I went into a wine shop and bought a medium-priced bottle of Spanish Rosado before heading back to Mrs Hattersley’s.
‘Ah, William. Perfect timing,’ she said. ‘I was just about to make a round of Pinkers to kick off the evening. How was The National Gallery?’
‘Excellent,’ I said. ‘Oh, and I picked up a bottle of Rosado. I hope that will be suitable.’
‘Perfect,’ she said. ‘I’ll pop it in the fridge – but we must be careful not to let it get too cold. I find with paella, it is best to have the wine chilled but not too chilled.’