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Jun 062013

Joan Byrne

It’s Friday afternoon and I’m in the sanctuary that is Tate Modern Members’ Room. I’m enjoying an elevated feeling of oneness with life and art, and loving the view of the City with St Paul’s at its centre. Sipping a coffee, I watch people come and go. Many of them are works of art themselves, but not this man. He’s dead ordinary, mid-sixties, impassive face, bland dresser. With him is a girl, aged about fourteen. He directs her to sit at the table next to mine. She could be up from the country; no make-up, pudding-basin haircut, pressed jeans and blouse. He sets down a pot of tea for himself, a fruit juice and cake for her. She shuffles along and he sits between us on the long leather sofa.

Grandfather and granddaughter? Uncle and niece? There’s not much to observe, except the silence, which lingers. Usually the older person will fill the gap, seek to entertain or draw out the young one, might say: Did you like the Miro? What did you like about it? Shall we look at something else after this? Or catch the boat to Tate Britain…

“What’s the cake like?” He picks up her fork and helps himself to a mouthful. “Good,” he says, and pushes the plate back to her. She resumes eating the cake using the fork. I remember how pernickety I was at her age. The idea of someone else’s saliva getting into my mouth was anathema.

She sits back. Then I notice that his hand is resting on her knee. The middle finger absent-mindedly makes a circular movement. That’s okay, isn’t it? But his arm lies along her thigh.

Suddenly it’s like my nerves have developed filaments of extra sensitivity. Is something going on here? Is it me? Is it them? Is it him? The hand has moved onto her thigh now and the fingers are curled around the inside of it. Is this hand accidentally doing what it’s doing? Am I misinterpreting? Is there something I should do about this? About what? A bad hand? I try to catch her eye, but we’re not connecting. And, if we did, what can I offer? They look ahead. I look askance.

At that age your body is tetchy and tender. You want it left alone. I begin to stare as hard as I can at the hand and at his profile. I’m willing my senses to convey to him that I can see what he’s doing. He takes a sip of his tea. The bad hand holds the cup. Normality is resumed. I relax.

She says, “Will we go to the shop afterwards?”

“The shop?”

“Yes, can we go to the shop?”

“We’ll go there on our way out,” he says, grudgingly.

I pick up my notepad, make notes, try to think. When I take another furtive look I see his hand is behind her neck, his fingers moving up and down. I look away, then back. Have his fingers moved to caress her cheek? They have. Are they independent of him, not under his control? Like a Tourette’s hand? Her face appears pinker. Their silence persists. As does mine.

What of my own dad? What would he do? He might hug or chastely kiss a daughter, a granddaughter, a niece, but he wouldn’t rest his arm on her thigh, his elbow close to her most private part. He’d keep a respectful distance.

The man shifts. My fingers drum the leather of the seat. I’m bursting to say: What do you think you’re doing?

And to her: Sorry. Sorry, for failing you.

He stands up, and she follows him to the window to take a better look at the view. I glance down at their table and see a ten-pound note folded lengthwise placed under a Tate receipt; they make a shape like a cross. As I stare at it, a guy comes to clear the things away.

I won’t touch that, he says to me, someone will come back for it.

I shrug. It seems unlikely. He hadn’t looked like a careless man.

The man and the girl pass my table on their way out. Was that my moment? I could have said: Excuse me, you appear to have left this money behind. And, by the way – because now I would have his attention – stop what you are doing to that girl. Quietly, so only he could hear.

Before going I handed the money to the Tate guy and told him to keep it because the man who left it would not be coming back. He said he’d put it under the counter just in case. I asked if they ever got such big tips. Never, he said. It’s your lucky day then, I said.

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