“Mellow fruitfulness,” said Amy.
“I love the autumn,” I said.
It was all around us, even though we were in Chinatown rather than some gently deciduous forest.
“Mellow fruitfulness,” said Amy again, prodding absent-mindedly at a durian available for purchase at the side of the street. “Keats & Shelley.”
I had not seen Amy for too long, but it was apparent that her study of English literature had progressed from novels to the poets.
“Keats & Shelley my favourite English poet,” she said. “You know Blithe Spirit?”
I admitted that I did.
“I make a new translation, using iPhone translation ‘app’. You want to hear?”
She adopted a declamatory mode of delivery.
“Hi Blithe Spirit!
Not a bird –
Small rough growth.”
She looked at me expectantly.
“It’s very good,” I said. “An improvement, without a doubt, on Keats & Shelley’s rather limp phrasing. But what’s the small rough growth?”
“Wert,” she said. “The ‘app’ translates. ‘Bird thou never wert.’”
“I don’t think you need the small rough growth. I think you could lose the small rough growth.”
“No. ‘Wert’ is last word of the line. Emphasis. Very important. The lecturer said.”
“Trust me,” I said.
As soon as I’d said I knew it was a mistake. Like many women of my acquaintance Amy always knows best and trusting me simply doesn’t come in to it.
Her brow darkened.
“You’re probably right,” I said, and changed the subject.
Someone had offered me the chance to see the Egon Schiele show at the Courtauld before it opened and I invited Amy to come with me as I hadn’t seen her for too long. We talked instead about the Viennese Secession, about which, I am ashamed to record, Amy knew nothing and I knew little more.
This is no place to record my reactions to the extraordinary work by Egon Schiele on display at the Courtauld, except to say that you should see it. I shall stick to the point. Suddenly I found myself standing in front of a small watercolour: a female nude seen from behind. A shock of recognition coursed through me.
“It’s my neighbour’s bottom.”
Amy pretends to read this blog, but often she skims it. She had no idea what I was talking about.
“Your neighbour’s bottom,” she said. “How you know your neighbour’s bottom? Anyway, all European bottoms look the same. In China…”
I cut her short. I explained what I had inadvertently glimpsed from my window the other day.
“It’s exactly the same. It was only a moment, but I can’t be mistaken. It could be the very same woman.”
Amy, unsurprisingly, was sceptical.
“Characteristics of bottoms in the Austro-Hungarian Empire often remarked by scholars…”
“Of course. Of course. I’m not stupid. This goes beyond generalisation. Far beyond generalisation.”
I started to make little gestures at particular gluteal details, but these were lost on Amy, who had of course not seen the original.
“She have a name? Schiele’s woman?”
It was a good point. For reasons that will become apparent I will not identify the painting, but there was no personal name attached to it, nor did the catalogue give any further clues.
I was so shaken that my attention to the remaining rooms was perfunctory; I promised myself that I would come again. I asked if they had any postcards. They hadn’t been delivered yet, but I got permission to photograph the painting in question with my iPad. We left the gallery.
“I think strong drink is called for.”
We sat on the terrace by the river, one of the many delights of Somerset House. I had a miserly double whisky and Amy, who avoids alcohol, had an apple juice. There was no green tea, which of course is the best thing for those who have just sustained a shock.
“So,” she said. “What’s this nonsense? Egon Schiele’s woman not your neighbour. Egon Schiele’s woman very dead. Bottoms come, bottoms go. Dead bottoms decompose, new bottoms born. No big deal.”
“You don’t understand. It’s not just a resemblance, it’s uncanny. There is a connection. I have to follow it through.”
“And how,” said Amy, “are you going to do that? You going to [she actually said ‘gonna’ and I suspect that that is how, encouraged by her translation ‘app’, she thinks it’s spelt] take your photo to your neighbour and ask her take off her knickers? She send for police.”
“Good point, Amy. But I have special victim status, because of my mental frailty and my sexual encounter with the DJ in Shallow Assets. I’m in with the police.”
“Still not take off knickers. She think you a dirty old man. Mental frailty no help at all. Make it worse. She’s good Eastern European girl. She just happen to have typical bottom of Austro-Hungarian Empire. She never heard of Viennese Secession. She’s never heard of E. Schiele. She send you away with a flea. Good neighbourness in your street suffer terrible blow. Ijaz will have his face like a thunder cloud.”
“Everything you say is true, Amy. And you’re right: I couldn’t bear to upset Ijaz, whose good opinion I value…”
“So, I thought you could come with me. You can vouch for me. You can be my representative if need be during the all-important but sensitive business of the comparison of the bottoms.”
Amy sat over her apple juice with her face like a thunder cloud. I ordered her another.
“Very busy,” she said. “Great Secret Miss not run itself.”
“Of course. Of course.”
“Maybe comparison of bottoms not necessary…”
“If she has things to tell you; family history.”
“Absolutely. Amy, what would I do without you.”
“I haven’t said yes,” she said, but she had.
She grinned. It had become an adventure.
“You know Chapman’s Homer? What that mean? Crap.”
I thought of telling a Keats & Chapman story, by Flann O’Brian, but decided against.
“You want to see my bottom?”
She laughed coarsely.