|From Pick Of Punch, 1982|
She Used to Like Waltzes
by JACK TREVOR STORY
SHE used to like waltzes.
That was her tune, he thought. It was long before her time. When would that time be, do you suppose? Not Marina's time, but the time of the tune. The Fifties? She used to like waltzes, so please don't play a waltz. She danced divinely, and I love her so, but there I go . . . "Don't cry, eh?" she used to tell me. And when I stopped, she would say, "All better, Basil!" Why did I cry?
Marina sculpted with her feet. That was her thing. You may even know her. When we first got introduced − that was at Queen Mary's − she was living in The Avenue, Chiswick. Did you ever see an enormous mermaid carved in figurine white from holly wood in the garden of a bay‑windowed Victorian villa? When I mention it a lot of people remember it. It is because drivers get lost coming off the M4. It is difficult getting to London when you are already there.
"I passed that bloody statue three times!" one of my clients told me. Many people remember Marina's big mermaid. It was sixteen feet tall and weighed three‑and‑a-half tons. Or a hundredweight. 1 know it was very heavy. And she carved every inch of it lying on her back with chisels and knives in one foot − grasped by her toes − and a mallet in the other. The spokeshave, which is for scraping hollows, was more difficult and she finally managed to get it into her mouth by removing two teeth on each side. Well, of course, she was a dedicated artist.
Tonight, tonight I must forget, no more memories, he thought. I thought, that's what I mean. Who am I fooling? They told me that one should write treasured memories in the third person, especially when another is involved. I think about Marina and I think about that tune, which she sang while she was working. Except of course when she was using the spokeshave. Or had tied herself to the top of the ladder in order to achieve a difficult contour. She was the only sculptress in Chiswick − and later on in St Ives, where she moved with the aid of an Arts Council grant − who could work upside down.
All I can say about Marina's face is that it was pretty. My work as a physiotherapist brings me into contact with a great many pretty ladies. One or two have been prettier than Marina. None has had her sweetness of character. It contrasts in a strange way with the iron discipline of her will to achieve perfection. A spirit lit her smile − genius, perhaps. Her concentration was frightening to watch. Although she loved music she would not have it playing when she was
working. The critics praised her work and called her the Lady of the Holly. That was her medium. Holly wood, as you may know is replacing ivory in sculpture.
"Every tree I carve is another elephant saved," she once told me. She was lying on her back drinking a cup of tea through a baby‑bottle tube. She would not stand on her feet for fear of weakening her toe‑grip. When we danced, as we did sometimes in her Chiswick studio, I held her tightly in my arms so that her feet rested lightly on my shoes.
"Play that haunting melody," she would sing. Her missing teeth gave her voice the kind of fascinating lisp Glynis Johns had. Do you remember Glynis johns as a Mermaid? Perhaps I have a thing about mermaids. They usually have no feet. Glynis was engaged to Tony Bartlett the film producer and I sometimes rubbed his back and so on. He had a beautiful portrait of Glynis underneath glass on his dressing table, I remember. Eaton Place. This was about the time when everybody was singing that tune; the London salad days before this awful cock‑up.
One day Marina took me into the studio with my eyes blindfolded. This was during the Ideal Home Exhibition at Earls Court, our busiest time for slipped discs and so on, as you can imagine. The year 1977. What she showed me was on page 9 of the Guardian two weeks later − half a page of picture, the sculpture that is, with Marina hanging from it and still at work. I've got it on this wall as I write. Marina Mercolli With Hammer − enormous letters. Feature by Michael McNay, photo Peter John.
"What is it? That is the question!"
Miss Mercolli refused to say. When it was finished she promised to make an announcement. Meanwhile readers of the newspaper were invited to send in their guesses. I forget what the prizes were now but my slumber was disturbed on many a night, both at home and at the clinic in Brompton Road where I sometimes make myself available to Chelsea police station. Everybody who had discovered my close friendship with Marina wanted me to divulge the secret. Of course, she would not tell me and I would not dream of asking her. I have a number of celebrities as clients and this is because they know I don't talk.
"I saw Peter O'Toole lying on his back covered in Guinness again last night," my friend Ernest says. I say nothing. Ernest is maitre at The Ivanhoe in Bloomsbury. He won't last.
"Get me down, Basil!"
She had finished it! I had come in and found this chap stood standing there watching her. That's funny, I thought. Marina is a recluse as you may have gathered. It turned out she had got a new winch and tackle man from Bermondsey and was getting an estimate for transporting our mystery to a public place. She was hanging with her knee crooked round where the handle, as it were, of this giant holly wood sculpture, joined the head of the hammer. I lifted her down. I don't know what she's doing now, mind, in St Ives. They call it an artists' colony but I think they're a lot of phonies. I mean, I took her. And she made me an offer but I couldn't stay. One chap painting rainbows at a thousand quid a go and another on oranges.
"You're silly, you are," I told Marina. I mean that grant was worth about five thousand. She could have gone to Corsica. I like Corsica.
"I don't want to be too far from Louise," she said. Louise! She never comes. That's this friend out at Eddie Chapman's health farm on the Barnet bypass. Loaded down with mascara − she'd never get to Cornwall. `You'll lose your integrity," I told Marina, when I knew she was making the move. I mean hanging upside down with a spokeshave in your mouth is all right in Chiswick but not in St Ives. "You'll be the laughing stock," I said. She cried. Oh dear, I don't like hurting her but it's for her own good. I give her a rub.
Anyway, to get back; the unveiling. It was a hammer.
"I know it's a bleeding hammer," I said, when she announced the non‑startling news. I felt such a fool. Journalists, TV camera, the cream of the art world. George Melly. That girl Ford. Lot of year of the handicapped people. They were ever so disappointed but being polite. You damn well knew it was a hammer. It couldn't be anything else, could it? Resting on a sort of plinth, shaped like a cracked egg. Well, that's what I took it to be. You don't really look at it, down there, out of centre, what the blessed thing is hitting.
"No, it's not a cracked egg," said Marina. And suddenly she was wearing that spiritual smile. My God! The hammer wasn't the puzzle at all. It was the chiselled target that was the enigma.
"Not a cracked egg, Basil! Golly!" she cried. "All that work on a cracked egg!"
She got the crowd instantly. People bending closer. "What the hell is it then, Miss Mercolli?"
"It's a head!" somebody said.
It was a head. Once you took the trouble to look properly it was beautifully done, finely detailed, part face, part skull − part brain. Blood, grisly bits − one dead eye looking up, surprised. "You bugger," I said. "It's me! That's me. That's my eye with the bit of skin on the eyelid." Well, I am rotten to her sometimes. Or I was. But she put her face up to me and smiled and I hugged her tight, the ladies and gentlemen from the media puzzled, Marina humming. I wish she was still in Chiswick. How much I need her, so Mister Leader...
And at last she said: "It's a person."
"It's God," I said, trying to keep me end up; her a cripple.
"Not God, Basil."
There were no more guesses; she wouldn't let it get vulgar, Marina wouldn't. The head was plural, that's what she said. It was the head of the team that evolved thalidomide and all the deaf salesmen and blind millionaires already searching for the next good money‑spinner. Did you see Marina's hammer at the Royal Academy? It's called The Tranquilliser.
Tonight, tonight I think of her. I don't half miss her.