Mr Harold’s Gift

story about an artist

They were sitting at Harold’s kitchen table under a harsh light. Outside, the London of September 1965 weighed grim and heavy, and rain pelted against the sitting room window. Phillip took a long drink of his scotch.

‘Look,’ he said, ‘it would be easy enough to find another one.’

‘But she left me without any warning – none!’ said Harold.

‘She had a right to, you know.’

‘Yes, but it leaves me completely in the lurch.’

‘Well, why don’t you use mine?’

‘Could I? Would she?’

‘I don’t see why not. I’ll ask her,’ said Phillip.

‘Thank you.’

‘Don’t mention it.’

‘But she mustn’t touch the studio.’

‘No, of course not. You can leave instructions. Or you can tell her yourself. There certainly won’t be much to do here. I mean, look at this – it’s immaculate.’

‘No, there’s dust everywhere. I can’t bear it.’

Phillip laughed.

‘What’s funny?’ Harold said, and poured another scotch for each of them.

‘You don’t see any contradiction?’

‘None whatsoever, no.’

‘But there’s a layer of dust in your studio three inches thick. How could it possibly bother you if there are a few specks in here?’

‘That’s my studio; this is not,’ said Harold. ‘I prefer my living space to be clean – scrupulously clean at all times.’

‘Ah, so your studio is a sanctuary of filth and chaos.’

‘Well, that is grossly overstating it, Phillip, but it doesn’t entirely surprise me that you would call it that.’

‘What shall I call it, then?’

‘Don’t call it anything. And as for the dust, I use it. In the paint, you know.’

‘I didn’t know. Do you really?’

‘Yes, I do,’ said Harold, and he leaned forward over the table. ‘Do you know the painting of the man in the grey flannel suit? Man on Bench Number Three?’

‘Yes, of course I know it.’

‘That effect of the flannel – that particular grey, and that texture—’



‘That’s extraordinary, Harold.’

‘No, it isn’t, not really. I simply use whatever is at hand – any old thing that may be lying about – scraps of paper, lint, toothpaste – that mess up there is really quite vital to me.’

‘I see.’

‘But it’s not something I choose to live with. You see the difference?’

‘I do, yes.’

‘Then when can she come – your cleaning lady?’

‘I’ll ask her.’

‘Good. What’s her name?’


‘Is she efficient?’

‘Yes. Very.’

‘I hope she doesn’t climb the walls.’

‘No, but she does have a tendency to take root,’ said Phillip.

Harold laughed long and loud.

‘It’s not that funny.’

‘No, but I’m drunk. Aren’t you?’

‘Not very. Not enough. I am never drunk enough.’

‘That is a serious problem, Phillip.’


Ivy telephoned Harold the next morning and arranged to come and see the flat on Thursday morning at 11.

She arrived at 11am sharp, and when Harold opened the door, his first impression was that she was too old to be efficient and too fat to climb the walls. She reminded him of a tomato in her red woollen coat and green scarf.

‘It’s very kind of you to come,’ he said.

‘Oh, it’s no trouble for me, sir. I have from eleven to one free of a Thursday, if it suits you.’

‘It suits me very well, Ivy. And you must call me Harold.’

‘Alright then.’

Harold showed her the flat and where all the cleaning supplies were kept. She looked around at everything with a critic’s eye.

‘It’s a lovely flat, if I may say so.’

‘Thank you.’

‘And this is all there is to it, then? Just the sitting room, the kitchen and the bedroom and loo?’

‘Yes, that’s it, that’s all. But – but I must admit, I am a bit fussy. Neatness is an obsession with me, Ivy, so I hope—’

‘Oh, well, it’s my obsession too, you might say.’

‘Oh, good. Then we agree on the standard of neatness to be kept up in the flat?’

‘We are in absolute agreement on that subject, Mr Harold.’ And she smiled a generous smile that suffused her round face and dark eyes with warmth; to Harold, it looked like candlelight illuminating her features.

‘And what about up there?’ She pointed to the narrow staircase that led to a closed door at the top.

‘Oh, never mind about that,’ said Harold. ‘It’s just my studio. I take care of that myself.’ He welcomed her into his employ, offered her a generous salary and looked forward to seeing her the following Thursday.

She arrived promptly at 11am and went straight to work. Harold was pleased. She cleaned everything perfectly, even polished the kitchen table and the stove top, and dusted the ceiling corners, and when she left, everything was exactly as it had been when she’d arrived – nothing was out of place. She finished early since – just as Phillip had said – there wasn’t much to do.

The flat was austere. The walls were bare and there were no ornaments. She was surprised there was no artwork anywhere – no statues and no paintings. She knew Harold was a painter, and after all, Phillip’s house was chock-a-block with artwork, and he was an art person – a critic. She thought the flat cold without personal touches of any kind, quite like a hotel room – one of the more common kind. In other houses and flats she was able to learn a lot about her employers from the photographs, the china and the knick-knacks they kept, and from how they decorated their rooms. But about Mr Harold, she could learn nothing – nothing at all.

Still, she was happy to work for him. He always paid her on time, was always pleasant to her and never treated her as if she were someone of less importance than himself, which was exactly what all her other employers did, including Mr Phillip – in truth, especially Mr Phillip; she reckoned he was the worst of the lot. But then, he had the loveliest house of them all, up in Hampstead, by the heath as it was, with its white walls, high ceilings, modern lighting and paintings everywhere – several of them large enough to take up an entire wall – and the strangest statues she’d ever seen – long, twisted, jagged-looking things that were clearly meant to be people but didn’t look anything like people. Mr Phillip’s house was a museum, really, and she took great care when she was there. But this – this little hovel of a flat was the easiest place to clean in the world! She began to wonder why Mr Harold was living in such a stark and uncomfortable flat. He had money – that was clear enough from the wages he gave her. It didn’t make any sense. There was even a bare light bulb over the kitchen table. She must speak to him about that – such a harsh light would cause damage to the eye, cataracts at the very least, and she would say so the very next time she saw him.

She didn’t always see him every Thursday, as he was often out by the time she arrived. He left the money on the kitchen counter for her, always with a nice little thank-you note. Several weeks went by before she had a chance to mention the naked light bulb in the kitchen.

‘But it doesn’t bother me, Ivy,’ he said, ‘I’m used to it, and I like the light it casts.’

‘But it’s a terribly harsh light,’ she said.

‘Is it? Is that how you see it?’

‘I’m not the only one who would see it that way, Mr Harold. Everyone else in the world would say so, I reckon.’

‘That’s interesting,’ he said. ‘I don’t see it that way at all.’

‘I could easily pick up a plain fixture for you, at the BHS.’

‘No, no. I shouldn’t like that at all – but it’s very kind of you to think of it.’

‘But your eyes in that light – can’t be good for you.’

‘Oh, never mind my eyes. They’ve served me well enough up to now.’ And he asked her to sit down in the sitting room and have a rest. He made a cup of tea for her, which she immediately refused, but he insisted until she finally had to accept it, thanking him again and again.

Whenever he was there on a Thursday, he always asked her to sit down and have a rest. She appreciated it, as she did sometimes get very tired. None of the others ever asked her to sit down – certainly Mr Phillip never did. And as for the tea, Mr Phillip would sooner fly to the moon and take up residence there than make her a cup of tea, she knew that.

Some Thursdays, though not very often, Mr Phillip would be there in the flat with Mr Harold, and they would sit at the kitchen table under that harsh light, with a heavy reel-to-reel recording machine on the table between them. And they would have long conversations which she couldn’t help overhearing from time to time. They spoke about painting and canvases and textures and paintbrushes and photographs. And sometimes, they argued about these things.


These interviews had been going on for months. At times – when there was a lot of drink, and when the tape recorder was turned off, and when Ivy was not there – the discussions became heated. Harold would suggest an idea and Phillip would always take the opposite side, or he would pretend he didn’t understand just to goad Harold into saying more. And sometimes Phillip would sit there and say nothing, which was even more irksome.

‘You’re trying to lure me into saying something I will never say.’

‘Will never admit, perhaps you mean,’ said Phillip.

‘No, I don’t mean that; I mean “say”.’

‘And what is it you will never say?’

‘I will never say – you will never make me say – that I know where my ideas come from or that I have control over what I do.’

‘But at some level…’

‘This is not an intellectual pursuit.’

‘I never said it was.’

‘All my choices – every single bloody one of them is irrational, and most often, what happens on a canvas happens purely by chance.’

‘And you have nothing to do with it?’

‘Very, very little.’

‘And I simply don’t believe it, Harold.’

‘You believe whatever you fucking want to believe, Phillip, it’s all a matter of chance.’

‘Chance controlled and directed by you – by your vision, by your hand.’

‘No, that’s not it at all.’

‘What then?’

‘Directed, controlled by nothing. Emerging from somewhere, perhaps.’

‘From where?’

‘From the mess up there, Phillip.’

‘A carefully managed mess.’

‘No. I wouldn’t say that either.’

‘What, then?’

Harold drank and leaned back in his chair. ‘I would say the mess is a kind of organism. It’s chaos, and out of that particular chaos – exactly the way it is up there, mind – images appear.’

‘But you know where every single thing is in that mess up there.’

‘No, no I don’t. I would say that things up there find me out of the chaos, you know – but it’s true that in a way there is a sort of random order up there that creates and guides my work.’

‘That sounds mystical.’

‘It most certainly is not.’

‘But it is an organism – so it is alive.’

‘In a way, yes.’

‘Are there things growing in it? Like spinach or yoghurt?’


‘Then how can it be alive?’

‘Don’t be so thick, Phillip, you know exactly what I mean.’

‘Well, I think you’re just saying the mess is crucial to your work – would that be accurate?’

‘Yes. More than crucial, really. That mess up there is my work, do you see? It’s taken ten years to create that mess and I am as proud of it as I am of any painting I have ever done.’

‘Even Portrait Seventy-nine?’

‘Even Portrait Seventy-nine, which, by the way, happened because a photograph of that gentleman got stuck to my shoe and I peeled it off.’

‘Oh, now you’re going to say your shoes paint your portraits.’

‘I will say no such thing. And I will never ever say that I know where my ideas come from.’

‘Apart from the mess.’


‘Well,’ said Phillip, and he drank the last of his scotch, ‘I concede defeat.’

‘I am so glad. But you don’t understand the slightest bit of it, do you?’

‘No, you’re right. I don’t.’

These conversations always left Harold exhausted afterwards. Sometimes he even went to bed after Phillip had left, put a pillow over his head and didn’t get up until one in the morning when he went out to his local club in Soho. It seemed to him that every time they got together now, they argued and fought, though at one time – at art school and for years after – they’d agreed about almost everything. Harold regretted the change, and above all, he regretted having agreed to do these interviews for his friend. After every session he swore he would never talk about painting again – he hated talking about his work and would rather talk about almost anything else. In this he found relief in two ways: at the club where he talked about football and actors, and at home, when Ivy came to visit.

He began to look forward to her company. Her visits became more like real visits than appointments to clean his flat, and he began to find himself at home on a Thursday when she was there. He’d put the kettle on at about 12.30 and they would sit down and have a cup of tea in the kitchen before she left to go to her next engagement, as she called it.


They chatted about everything. She told him about her family, how they had always lived in Putney, and how her mother had worked in a fish shop in Earl’s Court, and how their house came close to being bombed in the war. He told her about his father, who was stern, and had once locked him in his bedroom because he had hidden a book. He described to her how he had moved to London when he was seventeen and was lost and penniless, worked at a newsagent’s selling papers and sweets, and lived in a tiny basement flat in Chalk Farm, where the bed was in the kitchen and you had to climb a ladder to get to it.

‘No, really?’ said Ivy. ‘That must have been uncomfortable for you. Dangerous to boot, I should think, what with the gas in the kitchen. You oughtn’t to sleep on top of it like that.’

‘It wasn’t so bad,’ he said. ‘When you’re young, you know, you can put up with these things, can’t you. It’s when you get old, everything becomes impossible.’

‘You’re not so very old, Mr Harold.’

‘Old enough to see how impossible it will be to get any older.’

She laughed at that, and he was delighted that he’d made her laugh. Her laughter was shrill and gasping and contagious, and he found himself laughing with her.

They talked about how difficult it was to lose the people you love – he had recently lost his best friend and was now alone, and she had lost her husband and her son in the war; she said that she still thought about them in the same way she did when they were alive, which most didn’t do. And he agreed with her. Sometimes he believed his friend hadn’t died but was still there in the flat with him, and Ivy nodded. ‘Happens like that with me all the time,’ she said. She understood him, and he loved to listen to her. Their chats always left him feeling uplifted and in high spirits. He began to miss her when she was not there, and realised that her company was becoming something special to him.

For her part, Ivy worried about Harold. He was all alone in that drab, empty flat – it must be so depressing – and he must be so lonely. Mr Phillip was there at times, but he could be no comfort to him, she knew that – Mr Phillip was not the comforting sort. When she was working in other houses or when she was alone at home having her tea or listening to the wireless, she thought about him and wondered what she could do to bring a little cheer into his life. Perhaps it was just a question of something nice to eat with their tea – Eccles cakes – or some funny story she might tell him? What about that boy on their street who collected broken dolls and switched the heads round? Or the chicken that got loose in the market, and how Mrs Lamb screamed? Or he might like to know about Mr and Mrs Courtland whose house she cleaned. Perhaps she ought to buy some little thing to decorate his flat. Yes, that would do it, wouldn’t it? Brighten up the kitchen a little bit, add some colour and some cheer. He could do with that. She could start by getting him that light fixture – nonsense not to have one. He might protest, but she could easily convince him it was for his own good. She’d pick up a nice one tomorrow.

She bought a round one of frosted white glass with a gold button in the middle of it. Harold hated it. It was the first time he frowned in her presence.

‘But I thought we discussed this. I thought I said – not to say it isn’t very kind of you; it is, but you know, we talked about this. I like the light bulb, and I can’t use this. Not at all.’ And he held it in his hands as if it were a dead cat or a severed head.

Ivy closed her eyes and seemed to shrink. ‘I see,’ she said. ‘I only thought—’

‘I know, and I do appreciate it, but – but – couldn’t you take it back? Exchange it, perhaps?’

‘I suppose I can,’ she said, and took it from him and wrapped it in the tissue paper and put it back in its box. She never said another word about it.

She wasn’t upset for long, and Harold was glad to see that by the following Thursday she was her own cheerful self again. She brought a Battenburg cake for their tea, a favourite of his, and he peeled off the icing exactly as he used to do when he was a child. He told her a story about a monkey. They both laughed – it was a true story he’d heard at his club about a monkey that was thrown in prison for impersonating the Prime Minister.

Everything was back to normal; the little cloud about the light fixture blew over and left no bad feeling behind it. There was only one minor change: Ivy began to bring little trinkets and decorative items, which she placed around the flat. Harold realised later he should have put a stop to these little gifts as soon as the first one appeared, but he didn’t. Since he’d refused the light fixture, he now felt he had to accept these little decorations – he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. So when he discovered something new in the flat, he simply thanked her and left it at that. These things were not so very much to put up with after all, and he could see the pleasure it gave her to give them to him – although she never did really give them to him, she simply placed them where she thought they ought to be.

The first was a white china teapot which she left on the kitchen counter. The second gift was a cushion brightly embroidered with sunflowers – she left it on the settee – and the third was the one she was proudest of and the one that caused Harold the most distress.

Ivy bought a picture at the Oxfam shop in Putney. It was an original oil painting in a wooden frame, about eight by twelve inches. In the middle of it was a boy in a sombrero playing a guitar and sitting against a tree. The sky was a mawkish blue, the eyes of the boy algae green, and beside the boy on the lime-green grass was something that looked as if it wanted to be a dog. The painting was hanging on the wall of his bedroom. He stared at it for a long time. Ivy was smiling as they stood there looking at it. He could see she was thrilled.

‘What do you think, Mr Harold?’

‘I think – I think – it’s very pretty, Ivy. Thank you.’

‘Oh, it’s no trouble. It does brighten up the room a bit.’

And they had their tea as usual. He tried to suggest that she was far too kind, far too generous to buy these things for him, and she really must stop, but she brushed it aside, saying it was a pleasure for her and gave her something to do on a Saturday.

Every Thursday afternoon after she left, he took the painting down. And every Thursday morning before she arrived, he put it back up again. It was a strain having to remember to do this – and flip the dreadful cushion, put the teapot on the counter, and put back the little china penguin on the kitchen table. Once he forgot to put the penguin back, and Ivy looked puzzled and worried.

‘I washed it,’ he told her. ‘It was – I dropped some jam on it, I forgot to put it back, I’m sorry.’ She seemed satisfied, but he was becoming more and more anxious. He knew he had to put a stop to this, but he didn’t know how to do it. In the end, he decided to go and see Phillip. He might know.


Phillip’s house was a marvel. Harold had been there many times over the years, and was in awe of it each time he visited. Cathedral ceilings towered above white walls and perfect lighting, and the house was strewn with sculptures. There were at least six Giacometti, an Epstein and a Moore in the front hall, and a stunning Richier at the top of the stairs. On the walls, Freud, Auerbach, and three of his own – Man Sitting Number Three, Man Beside Plant and Portrait of Man Drinking Two. But what was this? A new addition in the front room, an abstract in fat red and maroon panels.

‘For God’s sake, you must have paid a fortune for that,’ Harold said as Phillip poured him a scotch and water.

‘I did.’

‘What on earth persuaded you to buy it?’

‘I like it.’

‘You – what?’

‘I like it.’

‘But – why?’

‘I see intensity in it. And clarity.’

‘I don’t see how you see anything in it at all.’

‘It is one of the most moving paintings I have ever seen, I think.’



‘In what way – in what way moving?’

‘It is emotionally intense.’

‘It is nothing of the sort. It is emotionally empty. It is merely – fashion, Phillip. That’s all it is. You’ve been duped. I never would have thought it possible.’ Harold drank and then held his knees, rocked back and forth, looked away from the painting, glanced at Phillip and then looked away from him, looked at the floor.

Phillip smiled. ‘Did you come here to sit in my Le Corbusier chair and insult me?’

‘No, but it’s – it’s – so unlike you, that’s all. It’s not at all you.’

‘Perhaps it’s just a side of me you don’t know.’

‘But I thought we always agreed that – even years ago – that—’

‘I changed my mind about him several years ago. Now I find him both moving and eloquent.’



‘You can’t be serious?’

‘I am.’

Harold was silent. He held his glass and stared into it. ‘Are you alright?’ he said, glancing up, ‘How is Elena – and the children, how are they? Is everyone – alright?’

‘Everyone is perfectly fine,’ said Phillip. ‘And don’t look at me like that. I haven’t lost my mind, you know. You are taking this far too personally, Harold. It is only art.’

‘Only art. Yes, of course, you’re right. I must go. Goodbye.’ And he stood up.

‘But – you asked to come and see me. Surely there was something you wanted to discuss? Something of importance?’

‘Yes, there was. But I don’t know what it was now.’

‘Well, stay and have another drink – please don’t go.’

‘No, I must.’

‘This is not so very important, Harold. Please don’t be offended.’

‘I have a—’ said Harold and ran down the stairs and out of the house.

He walked all the way from Hampstead to Camden before he realised where he was and hailed a cab to go the rest of the way home. Slumped in the back of the cab, he remembered why he had gone to visit and what Phillip had first said about Ivy having a tendency to take root. And now here she was doing exactly that, but it was he who was climbing the walls. He was at a complete loss. And he would have to sort this out on his own.

It was late in the afternoon. He went straight to his club and drank until he was drunk, then staggered home and collapsed in the front hall. The next morning, he went out and wandered the streets of Soho and Mayfair and found himself on Bond Street, looking in a shop window. There in the window was a beautiful full-length black woollen coat with a fur collar and cuffs. On an impulse he went into the store and bought the coat for her – at least it would be an improvement on the horrible red coat she always wore.

When she opened the box and unfolded the leaves of tissue, she was stunned. Carefully, she lifted the coat out and held it in front of her. ‘You shouldn’t have bought this for me,’ she said. ‘It’s far too dear.’

‘Not at all. You must have it. You’ll look lovely in it.’ He lowered his eyes, couldn’t look at her. She was so terribly affected by it, he thought she might cry at any moment. ‘Try it on,’ he said quickly, and she did. He told her she looked lovely and that it suited her very well.

‘I don’t know how to thank you, Mr Harold,’ she said as she folded the coat back into its box.

‘You needn’t thank me at all,’ he said. ‘I am glad you like it.’

‘It’s – it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever owned.’

Oddly enough, the result of this gift turned out to be exactly what Harold had wanted in the first place – it couldn’t have worked out better had he planned it. Ivy stopped bringing trinkets to the flat every Thursday, and life returned to normal. He was delighted. They continued to have their tea together and to tell each other stories, and she seemed genuinely pleased with the new coat. She wore it every Thursday, and he always hung it up for her and helped her into it when she left.

His life seemed to him to be perfectly ordered and under control, and in some ways, he was happier than he’d been in years. But for one thing. Harold usually worked in the early morning and in the afternoon, and sometimes also at night if he had to. But just now, the painting he’d been working on, which was of a man carrying an umbrella, was not… emerging, was not taking shape in any way at all. At night he sat in his studio and stared at it, picked up photos, pinned some on the door, tried out new shades of paint on the walls, leafed through books. In the morning when he tried to paint, he found himself too aware of an effect he wanted to produce to be able to set brush to canvas. Why was this happening? He was desperate – this was not like him at all – this was a disaster.

He got drunk now every afternoon, and one evening he was so drunk he ended up telling one of his friends that he wore too much make-up. His friend was mortified and Harold feared he had insulted him irreparably. That night he decided he had to get out of London.

He decided to go to Tangiers, where no one would know him, where he could forget about the painting and clear his mind. Ivy said it would be no trouble for her to clean the flat while he was away. He was to be gone for three weeks, and she was glad to be of use to him, she said, and ever so pleased that he was to enjoy a well-deserved rest.

He left on a Tuesday, and on the Thursday, Ivy went to the flat as usual to hoover, dust and clean. But this time, she was not wearing the black wool coat with the mink collar.


When she had brought the coat home for the first time, she took it out of its box and hung it up at the back of her wardrobe with a white cloth over it. She would have to wear it every Thursday, of course, but she would never wear it on any other day, or for any occasion. She loathed the coat – it was so very black, made to be worn at a funeral, and she hated the feel of the satin lining and the fur. When she put it on, it felt like a heavy black sack weighing her down. But Mr Harold couldn’t have known she never wore black, and it was so generous of him to buy the coat for her – she would never tell him what she really thought of it.

But – how on earth was she to thank him for it? Her little trinkets would not do. They were nothing but cheap baubles. She must save up her money and buy something really lovely for him. But what? What could she buy? She worried about it every day and on Saturday went window shopping on Oxford Street and even in Knightsbridge. But the shops these days seemed to be selling outrageous things, and she could find nothing suitable for him, nothing good enough by half. It had to be something special.

She was fretting about this the second Thursday after she finished cleaning the flat. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t think of a single thing to buy him. In despair, she sat down on the bottom stair of the staircase that led to the third floor, and put her chin in her hands, her elbows on her knees. Then she turned and looked up the stairs. Perhaps she could buy something for his studio? But she would have to see it first. He wouldn’t mind, she was sure of that – she’d just take a peek. So she climbed the stairs and tried the door to the studio. Of course it was unlocked – he trusted her – and she hesitated for a second before she opened the door. But it was only a peek, and it was for his sake. She pushed the door open wide.

What greeted her gave her such a shock that she gasped and reeled back. She held onto the door frame and stared into the room. She’d never seen anything like it – the poor man! No wonder he never asked her to clean up here, no wonder he had to get away! Old newspapers littered the floor; paint was splashed all over the walls. Books were tossed about, some open, some closed; empty marmalade jars and tins stood all over the floor, bristling with dirty paintbrushes. Torn canvases lay in pieces on top of the papers, and photographs were scattered everywhere, some stuck on the walls, most of them ruined – torn, bent and folded. A large mirror stood in one corner, but it too was covered in paint. And old squashed tubes of paint were strewn amongst the old newspapers and empty paint cans and milk bottles and coffee jars. The walls were a disaster – completely covered and layered with daubs and streaks of different-coloured paint. At least six easels were in the room – folded, upright or broken into sticks – and only two canvases were intact. But one of them had a big black smudge in the middle of it, so it too was ruined. Stacked chairs lay against a big chair by one wall, and there was a chest of drawers in the far corner – covered in paint, the open drawers filled with ruined photographs. And the dust! Good lord! The dust was more shocking than anything else – it covered everything in the room. It was unhealthy – dust like that would invade the lungs and cause real trouble. It was all… dreadful. He must be so ashamed – he couldn’t even mention it to her. He had never ever spoken of it. The poor, poor man! No wonder he was so miserable. She closed the door and went back downstairs.

That afternoon, as she cleaned a two-storey house in Shepherd’s Bush that belonged to a gentleman at the BBC, a plan began to form in her mind. She began to wonder about the original colour of the studio walls, and if the floor was wood or tile. And she couldn’t remember a window – was there one?

There was. She saw it the following Thursday early in the morning when she arrived at Harold’s flat, having cancelled her two other cleaning appointments for the day. In her arms she carried empty bags, two empty boxes and two bottles of turpentine. She marched straight up to the studio and began. This was to be her gift to him – she needn’t buy anything at all, apart from the cleaning supplies. This would be the best gift she could possibly give him.

As she cleaned – and it took a long time, three days – she cancelled all her other cleaning engagements except Phillip’s house, and as the studio began to look clear and empty, she felt more and more invigorated. She couldn’t wait for Mr Harold’s return. How pleased he would be. She would transform the room for him.

She threw out all the old newspapers and torn books, all the ruined photographs and dirty paintbrushes, the broken easels, the paint tubes and torn canvases. It took many trips, but she carried it all downstairs to the rubbish bins. By the end of the second day she was tired and out of breath, but the task itself inspired her, and the thought of the look on Mr Harold’s face when he saw his new studio spurred her on to new accomplishments. She threw herself into her work and had never been happier.

Once she’d thrown out all the rubbish, she spent hours dusting and hoovering and cleaning. She discovered the floor was dark wood and almost free of paint since it had been covered with newspapers. She stacked the remaining books on top of the chest of drawers. The room was almost empty now, and there were only a few days left to paint.

She was worried – she’d never painted a room before. She bought three gallons of a lovely warm apricot-coloured paint, and brought them in one at a time together with brushes and a roller and tray. But the walls had to be sanded before she could paint, and this was something she knew she didn’t have the strength or expertise to do. She asked Mr Phillip if he knew of someone who could do the sanding.

‘What is it you need to sand, Ivy? Have you taken up building furniture in your free time?’

‘No sir, it’s – a special engagement.’ She was longing to tell him her secret, but thought Mr Phillip would be just the sort to ruin the surprise. ‘It’s a private matter,’ she said.

Phillip gave her the name of a handyman – Tim, it was – and he came to the flat on the Friday before Mr Harold’s return the following Thursday. Tim was pleasant enough, though a bit too chatty for his own good, she thought. Still, he did a good job of the sanding, and she gave him ten pounds for his work. After Tim left, she began to paint the walls. It took her until Tuesday to finish, and when she’d painted the last stroke, she stood back to admire her work. The room looked lovely. The walls were warm and light, the room was airy, and with the chest of drawers in one corner and the wooden floor quite clean, it was ready for an added touch or two to make it feel a bit more lived in. She covered an old wing-backed chair in a beautiful violet fabric, put a vase of cut flowers on top of the chest, hung pretty chintz curtains on the little window and bought a lilac-coloured rug from Heals and put it in the middle of the floor. Now, just three more touches.

She covered the naked bulb in the room with the light fixture she’d bought at the BHS, which she’d never returned. He might argue about that light fixture, but she would convince him he oughtn’t to work under such a light. Now the room looked really warm and comfy, tidy and perfectly clean. It was a room she could even live in herself.

And as it was an art studio, she set up an unbroken easel in the corner and propped the last remaining clean canvas on it with two clean paintbrushes on its ledge. Her final touch was to take down the painting of the boy in the sombrero from the wall in the bedroom. She hung it on the far wall of the studio, where it looked perfect. There. It was done. The room was finally ready.

She sat down on the violet chair and looked around. It was then she felt a slight, ever so slight twinge, a misgiving. Had she gone too far? But no, she didn’t think so. He would be amazed at the transformation, and of course, if there was anything he wanted to change, he could easily do so. She felt at peace and slept deeply that night.


Early on Thursday morning, Harold returned from his trip. He felt well again – rested, refreshed and ready to begin work on the painting. And he was looking forward to seeing Ivy. On his way home, he stopped and picked up a Battenburg cake for their tea. As he opened the front door, he was shocked to see Ivy standing there in the front hall.

‘You’re early,’ he said.

‘Yes. And how was the trip?’

‘Marvellous,’ he said. ‘It was very hot. I have a sunburn.’

‘Then I shall buy some camomile lotion. That will do the trick. I expect you’d like a cup of tea now, wouldn’t you?’ she said, and took one of his bags.

‘Yes, I’d love a cup of tea – but why are you here so early, Ivy?’

‘Oh, it just – I had an idea I might be here for your arrival – as a sort of welcoming party.’

‘Well, it’s very kind of you – what’s that smell?’

‘What smell?’

‘Turpentine – and fresh paint…’

‘You’ve spent too much time away from London in the fresh air, I shouldn’t wonder. I don’t smell anything.’

They had their tea and Harold told her all about the hotel room he’d stayed in, which had a blue-tile split-level floor. He gave her a little packet of coffee.

‘Oh, it’s very kind of you to think of me,’ she said.

‘And how have you been?’ he said.

‘Quite well, thank you,’ she said, and she covered her mouth with her hand.

‘Is something wrong, Ivy?’

‘Not at all, Mr Harold. I have a little surprise for you, is all.’

‘A surprise?’


‘What sort of surprise, Ivy?’

‘Shall I show you now?’

‘Yes, please do,’ Harold said, and to his horror, she led him out of the kitchen and up the stairs to the third floor. The Hoover was standing in one corner of the small landing. He stopped and stared at it.

‘I left that there for the convenience of it, in case I might need it today. I shall take it back downstairs in a moment.’

Ivy opened the door and stepped first into the studio. Harold followed her in and stopped dead just inside the door. He stood there not moving, and Ivy stood beside him, her hand to her mouth and her eyes bright with excitement. She could see he was so thrilled he couldn’t speak.

Finally, he whispered, ‘What have you done?’

‘You mustn’t thank me. It was no trouble at all.’

‘No trouble at all,’ he said.

‘A matter of a few days,’ she said.

‘A few days…’

‘Do you like the chair in that corner, or do you think it might be better over there? I wasn’t quite sure about the colour of the walls. What do you think?’

At last, he turned and looked at her. The expression on his face was confusing to Ivy. Tears were welling up in his eyes.

‘Are you alright, Mr Harold? It really was no trouble at all. You mustn’t take on so. It was easily done. I’m used to the work, you know, and it was scarce more of an effort than usual.’

But he was beginning to bend over, and she reached over to hold him up.

‘I must sit down,’ he said.

‘Right, come along then,’ she said, and led him over to the violet wing-backed chair and helped him to sit down. He sat motionless, his hands on his knees while Ivy sat in the wooden chair opposite him.

‘You see, Mr Harold,’ she said, ‘it all began with an idea to buy you something special, and one day the thought just occurred to me – and once I started – well, it was a good deal of work, I shan’t deny it. There was quite a mess in this room, if you don’t mind my saying so, and even the walls needed doing.’ She leaned forward, sharing her secret now. ‘Mr Phillip helped me find a handyman to do the sanding and Tim made easy work of it, so he did, and I was the one picked out the colour of the paint and it took no time at all – not a bit of it – once I got started, it went like a…’

Harold was still staring at her and began to tip forward slightly in his chair.

‘Are you alright?’ she said.

‘Where – where is the painting?’

‘What painting?’

‘The man and the umbrella.’

‘What umbrella? Wasn’t no umbrella. Damaged canvases were what I threw out, Mr Harold, no paintings, just rubbish is all. No good having that lying about.’

‘Why – why did you do it?’ he whispered.

‘Why? It was for you, Mr Harold. A gift.’

She frowned as he continued to stare at her. She turned away.

‘Now the curtains was a difficult choice, mind. It’s true I wasn’t entirely quite sure or – or certain about the chintz. Perhaps it is a bit fancy like, but it fits in nicely, wouldn’t you say, when you see it with the violet chair and the rug. It’s a nice match – though the colours aren’t exactly the same, it’s as near as green is to cabbage-looking, in’t it?’

She smiled brightly and stood. ‘Well, would you look at that!’ she said. ‘The hem’s come down at the corner.’ She went over to the curtained window. ‘Must’ve caught on something. They don’t make fabrics the way they used to when I was a girl.’ She lifted the edge of the curtain. ‘I shall have to mend this.’

She fussed about the chintz curtains as Harold sat in his chair, staring at the Hoover on the landing just outside the studio door.

‘They used to make a fine lace in Manchester, you know. Don’t know if it’s still up to standard, but…’

As she chattered away, Harold pictured himself picking up the Hoover, gripping it with two hands, swinging it and hitting her in the back of the head. He could see her collapsing to the floor, then lying there like a squashed tomato.

Just then she touched him on the shoulder. He flinched.

‘Come along,’ said Ivy, ‘I’ll make you another cup of tea.’

He shrank into his chair and looked up at her. She was standing in front of him, a grotesque giant in a bright red apron, looking down at him with her large, brown, smiling eyes, her round face suffused with the light of sympathy, which looked to Harold like a raging inferno, as if her head were stuck in a furnace.

‘Come along,’ she said. ‘You look poorly. You could do with another strong cup of tea, I’m sure.’ Gently, she helped him up out of the chair and led him out of the studio, closing the door behind them.

She held his arm as she led him down the stairs and helped him to sit at the kitchen table. She was troubled. Clearly, he was not feeling well. For the first time, it occurred to her that he might not like the room. Was it possible?

He sat with his arms stretched out on the table, his hands open, while Ivy made a fresh pot of tea. As she poured the tea for both of them, she glanced at him and smiled.

‘I should think you’re feeling a bit the worse for wear after your long journey, Mr Harold.’

A tear rolled down his cheek.

‘Have another lump or two. Do you good.’ And she plopped two more lumps of sugar in his cup and stirred vigorously, watching him closely.

‘I – hope you like the look of your studio, Mr Harold.’

Harold closed his eyes and opened them again.

‘It was a bit of a fright, you know,’ she said, and smiled.

‘I – I must lie down. I’m suddenly… extremely tired. I must, if you’ll excuse me.’ And he stood up, wobbled, held on to the table for a moment and left the room.

Ivy emptied the pot, cleared the dishes and left a little note on the kitchen table before she left. Thank you for the coffee, it said. See you next Thursday.

As she left the flat, she was still worried about Mr Harold. But on the way home on the bus, she reckoned he was so sensitive that the long trip and the new studio all together like that must have been a bit too much for him. He was overcome was all. She’d go to the chemist tomorrow and pick up some Milk of Magnesia, that would do the trick. And next Saturday, she would buy him something really lovely for the sitting room, perhaps that porcelain figurine of a lady with a flower basket she’d seen at the Oxfam shop – he’d be pleased with that. Yes, he’d come round soon enough after a good rest.


But Harold didn’t come round. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t sleep. Nor could he bring himself to climb the stairs to the third floor to survey the damage. Ivy continued to come every Thursday, but he was quiet when they had their tea, and had little to say.

He went to the club and drank and drank and continued to drink and continued to drink continually, until one afternoon, drunk, he went to see Phillip.

He sat in the Le Corbusier chair and stared at the abstract painting.

‘What happened to you?’ said Phillip. ‘You look awful.’

Harold couldn’t speak.

Phillip pulled up a chair close beside him. ‘For God’s sake, what is it? What’s wrong?’

Harold was silent.

‘Look, if it’s about the painting, let it go. It’s not important.’

But Harold never said a word. Phillip pleaded with him, but after sitting there for twenty minutes, his friend got up and left the house. It was the last time Phillip saw him.

Harold walked to a little pond by the heath and sat under a willow tree and stared down into the murky water.


In the books about modern art and in the catalogue raisonné and exhibitions curated by his friend Phillip Hutchinson, it has always been a mystery why, at the age of fifty-seven, the painter Harold Townsend suddenly stopped painting in 1966, and died only one year later.


Ivy attended the funeral. There were so many people there. She sat at the back. She cried and cried and cursed the trip to Tangiers. He’d never been himself after that trip. It was that trip that was the cause of his decline, she was sure. She pulled out one tissue after another from the pocket of the black woollen coat she was wearing, the gift from Mr Harold that had finally found its proper occasion to be worn.



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