‘All Dressed up for the Palace’ A short story by Jan Bengree

‘It’s a Palace…Bishop Lloyd’s!…so you’d better dress up when you go, my girl!’

I never know whether my grandmother’s joking or not. She’s spraying Mr Sheen over her mahogany tabletop, but scrutinising my artfully torn jeans, t-shirt and battered boots at the same time. She’s pursing her lips, a bad sign, and now she’s pausing to say more.

‘The Talk, Martha, is entitled Rayner and Caldecott: Victorian Artists in Chester. In a nutshell, Rayner painted places and Caldecott created illustrations and cartoons. This ticket for the Talk is my treat. Happy Birthday, Martha! You’ll soar through your Art exams after this!’

Gran’s no artist herself. She readily admits even her doodles are rubbish, but she’s an avid attendee at any Art Appreciation class within ten miles of Chester. Gran believes in improving herself. Always has. But I think she’s just right as she is.

‘Wow! Will Rayner and Caldecott be there… in the Palace?’ Joe, my twelve year old brother (fledgling cartoonist) is suddenly less captivated by the gaudy graphics on his phone. ‘Ridiculous, Joe! They’re entombed for eternity in separate graveyards! And Caldecott cartoons bear no resemblance whatsoever to yours!’ Gran bends to stare at herself in her table’s glossy reflection, titivates her white hair, lets rip again with Mr Sheen. She’s laughing, eyes twinkling at Joe. Gran has lovely eyes. They’re that faded blue you see in rather beautiful old people. Now she’s polishing her table with passion. Joe and I giggle, dodge out of her way.

‘They’re gone but not forgotten! Louise Rayner in 1924, Randolph Caldecott in 1886!’ Gran peers at a leaflet containing info about this Talk.

‘Cool name, Randolph!’ says Joe, but Gran wrinkles her brows: ‘I wonder if those artists ever met, strolling the Rows perhaps, buying fish, having their boots mended by a cobbler? I suspect we’ll never know’. Then she turns to me: ‘Intriguing, Martha, to hear about Artists who went before you: creative people who carried their paintbrushes aloft down the ages, so to speak!’

She swirls a duster as her final flourish. Her house is immaculate. Ours is less so.

‘Martha, you’ll learn about Rayner, who painted pictures of the Rows, and Caldecott, born in a house on them!’ Gran beams. ‘Perhaps one day someone will talk at a Talk about you!’

I’m doubtful. Very! I’m OK. Average. There’s Leah in my class, who’s outstanding. And Josh exhibits collages somewhere in Liverpool. I tell Gran to take off rose-coloured spectacles. And she shrugs: ‘We’ll see! Have confidence. Confidence is the ticket!’ then she laughs: ‘So here’s the ticket!’ and we laugh as she passes me the Talk ticket.

So I’m heading into Chester to Bishop Lloyd’s Palace in best jeans, new hoodie. Gran’s furnished me with lots of “background”. George Lloyd was Bishop of Chester, 1605 until 1615, but as his Palace was only finished in 1615,it’s possible he may never have actually lived in it. Poor guy! What a special place in which to have only nearly lived.

I clatter onto Watergate Row up steep narrow steps from the street. Our family has history in Watergate. Gran met Granddad in a coffee bar on the Rows by the Cross: he, a beefy biker in black leathers, she, a skinny waitress with beehive hairdo, pink lipstick. Years later, my mum and dad married in the Registry Office, followed by a Conga down Watergate to the Roodee, and just last month, Will Fraser…yes!… kissed me as we lolled on the Rows by Rainforest shop, watching passersby in the street below.

Tonight, Watergate Row is quiet. It’s mid January, rainy, freezing. I’m wondering why I’m here. Why am I going to this lecture? My week’s been dodgy. I’m shattered because my baby brother, Sam, woke everyone on the hour. And my school Art project isn’t going well. You could say it’s disastrous. You could say I’m despondent. I love my Art but question whether I’ve talent and stamina to proceed, let alone succeed. Should I do something else? Leave school? My folks are busy with their own lives, so they haven’t a clue what’s happening in mine. But Gran would be shocked if I ditched Art. She says she’s got faith in me. She says stuff like: ‘Seize the day! Paint daily!’ and today she said: ‘Martha! I’d give my eye teeth to paint like you!’ But I’m not sure if she still has her eye teeth anyway.

I’ve ten minutes before the Talk. I stand at the top of the steps from the street, gaze full length along the Row, far as I can see. This really is an amazing place. I live ten minutes away and tonight, on my own, I see it anew. Where else has Rows like this? Gran will know! I text a friend. She says: ‘Speak later’.

I wander about. Gran says Watergate was gloomy when she was my age: 16, if you’re wondering. Watergate was dilapidated in parts. The City Council recognised potential, bought property to restore, but this proved expensive. But now! Look! Even though closed for the night, lots of shops invite me in. There’s a Turkish Kitchen with kelims, cushions in windows. There are cafés, bars, gifts and cards at Harriet and Dee, antique shops, a nail boutique. There’s Julie Colclough’s Art Gallery, a Fancy Dress and Theatre shop, a Tattooist. And the Rainforest shop, established over thirty years, is always magic. I came as a toddler with Mum, buying candles, tops from India, crystals, tarot cards. Colours and scents greet you and the owners welcome you warmly. I peer through its window, vow to call soon.

But it’s time. Nothing worse than my late arrival halting the Talk! My face looks sheepish the best of times!

I enter Bishop Lloyd’s via a door next to Rainforest. Bishop Lloyd’s is home to Chester Civic Trust. Fabulous place! I’ve often gawped at this black and white building from Watergate, seen carvings telling stories about beasts, angels, biblical characters like Adam, Eve, Abraham and Isaac. I’ve never been inside though.

Going in, there’s a staircase immediately before me. At the top, a man beckons. I’m on a landing. People mill about, pass over their tickets, chat.

‘Art Lecture?’ the man says, ‘Welcome! First half is Rayner, Caldecott after Interval’. He ushers me into a spacious room. ‘Coffee? Find a seat! Enjoy!’

So I sit beside a woman in a row near the back of the room. I stuff my gloves in my pocket. The woman’s hands are clasped in her lap. I notice how pale they are, nestled like white doves. I almost offer her my gloves.

A drawing of the girl at the talk sitting next to an empty chair, looking surprised

She’s chuckling: ‘John Wesley was right! One certainly stays dry in any weather walking the Rows…one end of Chester to another!’

Wesley, the famous Methodist? Will this woman be quoting stuff all evening?!

The audience settle in their seats. There’s a scraping of chairs, a buzz of conversation, chink of coffee cups, occasional bursts of laughter while coats are draped over chair backs. There’s even a booming hoot of recognition between two men, busily slapping each other hard across their ample backs. I hope it’s a friendly greeting.

The woman beside me bends to lace her boots. They’re ankle boots, scruffy, but seriously cool. Wonder where she got them?

‘Do you paint, dear?’ she asks. Her voice is gentle, almost musical.

‘I do. I like painting’.

‘I started drawing at your age, on holiday by the sea. Herne Bay.’

We lapse into silence. I think it’s companionable.

This room is gorgeous. It’s calm, cool, dignified. It’s spacious with dark oak walls, a high ceiling decorated with amazing plasterwork. And there’s the largest, most beautiful fireplace I’ve ever seen. I suddenly surprise myself. I want to grab a pencil, sketch it. Haven’t felt this inspired for ages. Only problem: no pencil.

People wave across the room at friends. A woman in the row just in front stares at herself in the mirror of her powder compact. It glitters as she curves on lipstick. The lipstick’s red. Great with her gingery hair! She catches my eye in her mirror and her smile is kind and wide. Someone heaves open the heavy window curtains and I see the beauty of the latticed windows at the end of the room. The glass in the windows sparkles with raindrops outside. And there’s a heavy scent of perfume as two women hug, both declaring: ‘Must meet soon!’, then proceeding to sit different sides of the room.

The woman beside me studies her programme, laughs to herself. I’m wondering why. ‘I’ve charcoal!’ she says, passing me a stick.

Then, there’s a sudden, fabulous crashing sound. It’s the beginning of the 1812 Overture on someone’s phone and a flustered woman turns beetroot red, apologising profusely, while a man in front of me mutters: ‘Blasted twenty- first century gaffe!’ I shuffle in my seat, try not to giggle, remember the “Strictly” theme disrupting Uncle Jack’s funeral.

The woman next to me smiles. I wonder how she knows!

Now a very old man squeezes in front of me. He’s desperate to be seated before the Talk, but the bottom of his silver topped walking stick… Victorian heirloom?! …pierces my toes as he passes. I squeak ‘Ouch!’ as politely as I can. The man glances at my feet, murmurs: ‘Ah! Alas poor toes!’, smiles benignly, carries on. The woman by me whispers: ‘Nineteenth century gaffe, do you think?’

The woman beside me has lace on the cuffs of her dress. It’s delicate, fragile. It’s beautiful. But the Talk’s beginning.

‘Good Evening!’ A man is ready to make introductions. Everyone claps. The Speaker comes forward. ‘Welcome, Juliet Brown! A Cestrian lady, long interested in Cestrian Artists! She paints herself, teaches locally!’

She does! She teaches me! I hadn’t read the programme properly. What a surprise! She sees me, waves. Bracelets clink on her wrist.

And the woman beside me is sketching in charcoal. She’s drawing Miss Brown. ‘Lovely cheekbones’ she murmurs, ‘I rarely do portraits, but given my time again, I would!’

She stares at me: ‘Headache, dear?’ I fish in my bag for paracetomol.

The woman puts down her sketching pad, pulls her coat round her. ‘There’s a chemists on Watergate. Mr Shearing’s’ she says, ‘My sister and I lodge with him just outside the city. We give painting lessons there.’

Now Miss Brown screens some paintings: our unique Rows, Watergate, Bishop Lloyd’s. Most are new to me; some, magical.

The woman beside me says softly: ‘I alter perspectives a little in my work. Not always approved of! I move the odd building around, receive some unsavoury comments, as you’ll imagine!’ the woman chuckles. ‘But all in the cause of creating a pleasing picture! And many folk ARE pleased!’

Luckily the woman whispers quietly. I’m listening to her, also Miss Brown. Not easy!

‘I persevered at your age and it was worth it,’ the woman muses, ‘Never left things unfinished. I had a jog-trot disposition, succeeding through hard work like Charles Dickens!’ She sighs happily. ‘My most treasured moment came when the Queen commented favourably on my painting in St George’s Chapel, Windsor!’

The woman’s almost rambling. I consider getting her coffee. Has she heard any of Juliet’s words?

‘I like detail, intricacies. I paint people in doorways, in the distance, babies in arms, ivy on walls, sunlight dappling flagstones, carvings on houses, much loved buildings, lovers in a street…people living their ordinary wonderful lives…’

I shiver. This woman thinks she’s Rayner! I don’t know whether to giggle or shudder but Miss Brown’s tapping my shoulder. Must be the Interval? Coffee? The woman next to me was right. Miss Brown really has fabulous cheekbones.

‘Martha! Are you OK?’ Miss Brown’s saying, ‘You’ve been dozing, off and on, all the while!’

‘No, I haven’t! I’ve loved every minute!’ I say, ‘But where’s the lady next to me?’

Juliet Brown looks perplexed: ‘Martha, love, what lady? Are you OK? That seat was never occupied!’

© Jan Bengree

Jan Bengree is a Cestrian who writes stories, plays, monologues and smatterings of poetry. Her new play Glut! is a tragi-comedy set in the 1920s. It runs at Chester Little Theatre in April.

Illustration: © Tim Foxon