Happy 200th Birthday Eve
(thanks to Edward Hodges Bailey)
For two centuries I’ve sat stark naked in all weathers peering into a fountain with thighs clamped and a hand shielding nipples that could cut glass.
Before that a million years of pressured heat changed softest white limestone into crystallised marble when, in 1811, Edward Hodges Bailey wrought me free.
I’m not complaining. It’s warm as toast hauled into the museum. Fountain is long gone of course; no more staring at goldfish. Instead the pond life’s pooled downstairs in the lobby and shoals up to me.
It’s my 200th birthday and another fleeting day starts with gulls calling over this still quiet space.
Listen for cars; a milk float rattling, posties at the door, then rush hour’s screeching brakes and sirens.
The cleaners come. Heavy-breathing treasures bristling with keys and zero interest for us dust-gathering antiquities. Their sensible shoes squeak pushing wheelie bins and mops on gleaming floors.
May is frostiest. She hates her job. All bustle, she puffs up the sweep of stairs, grubby j-cloth on the go. She’s at me with a frenzy and her breeze-block breasts bump mine. She picks black fluff from my milky toes and a purple Quality-Street wrapper shoved under my rear. She tuts and sweeps damp hot hands over my belly before heavy-duty cleaning calls her to gilded picture frames.
Staff arrive next, ping on computers tip-tapping their way back to the future with emails, strategies and multiple meetings. Breathe, I’d like to say, life’s over so quickly.
The doors open to a steady creep of damp pensioners steaming through galleries anticipating the warmth of Weatherspoon’s value pints and pies for lunch. Their brief time passes.
One man presses a hand to my thigh and says; ‘I remember this and the trouble it brought’. His corpulent wife waddles past and he mouths ‘shaped like a bloody barrage balloon.’
Next it’s schoolchildren. They’ve shot through Egypt’s dead, virtually stripped a mummy’s bandages, and relished brains removed through noses. Up they run.
Then slow at me. The boys’ computing three-D nakedness. One tweaks a nipple; another dips a hand at the top of my legs takes a photograph and scrapes his fingers over my arse.
‘Tiny tits,’ he laughs: “Mum’s were like that and she had ‘em done. Hard as steel now’ and off they career as Sir catches up.
The school girls’ embarrassed, with padded flat chests they tug skirts like belts and pull at leggings that turn limbs into stolid black puddings. I was never carved for fashion.
The teacher would like to linger but not today or any other in the near future, with twins and a toddler at home. Life slips by.
A couple next. She must be 50 and softening at the edges. He is younger. She strokes my arm and says to him about a photograph she found of herself at 21, smoking a joint, glossy auburn hair falling down her back, skinny thighs, perfect bum and breasts defying gravity.
She sighed ‘I never knew how hot I was. I only saw the bloody flaws but I was gorgeous!’
He pinches her bottom: “You have remnants. And you wouldn’t have looked at me twice then. Now I have you.”
She laughs and kisses him as they walk away.
The next woman stiffens at the sight of them and me. She is dressed in a sea of Marks and Spencer’s brown and beige from head-to-toe, carrying a Sainsbury’s bag-for-life with floral tea flask and crust-less tuna sandwiches.
Her husband of 30 years would rather be Anywhere but near her. Preferably golfing. He admires my polished beauty and imagines the wife pushed headlong downstairs, through the heavy doors, rolling down Park Street and splashing like lead into the river outside the Watershed.
The sun dazzles through the gallery. Lunches are eaten and coffees swirled, toddlers climb me, poke my belly, and pull my nose, put up arms and place smeary chocolate-covered lips on mine before their bored mothers with endless shopping lists in their heads peel them away. For them one day feels the same as another and another; drifting by.
Here's Adam at last. White shirt, curly black hair and stubble, carrying paper and pens. The crowds have ribboned away and the stairs cast a soft yellow light on me. I am at my best for his artist’s eye.
He puts a hot hand on my cool hips. His fingers trace the small of my back where a faint bloom of iron oxide, sand and clay surfaced a million years ago - mineral impurities that thread like veins through my marble flesh. He loves these.
He cups the cheek of my buttocks as if to feel the solid heft of them.
He measures my cool spine like a string of pearls, rubbing ridges to the back of my neck and stops as if he’d like to tip my head back.
His hand falls to my fleshy belly and he writes; ‘Legs like a horse, strong thighs, ankles pared-thin and good high-arched slender feet’. He tickles the pads of my toes and notes the flex of Achilles heel.
Across my knees he shades the crease of hip to shadow-stippled leg and long porcelain fingers; the way one arm shields a breast as my palm flares across the exposed nipple. At a distance I am all discretion but close-up; exposed.
He traces the parting of my Cupid’s mouth; carefully pencils loose coils of my waist-length hair and closing his bag whispers ‘Happy Birthday Eve’. He places a glittery pink cupcake by my hand and leaves.
Shapes shift as darkness falls, the hubbub gone and a last security guard picks, sniffs then drops the cake in the swing bin. Dust sifts and settles; the museum eases into ticking silence.
The last one to leave says ‘Goodnight’ to thin air. Alarms burr as doors close then bleep like hearbeats.
A gull skitters on the roof, busses wheeze past, drunks sing, a fight peters out and in this pearly moonlight two centuries vanish without a blink of my eyes.