The company of strangers can often provide a much needed warmth in ones life. Such was my experience yesterday on a cold and grey Melbourne morning.
‘Hello, my name is Judith” Her lined face which had weathered some 85 years, was strong, vivacious, almost what one would call handsome, seldom used to describe a woman. And the huge black framed glasses and short grey hair gave her an air of nobility. In actual fact she was born in South Australia, not known for any nobility as far as I am aware.
‘I’m Lloyd, and it is a pleasure to meet you”. ‘Richard has spoken fondly of you and it is nice to finally meet you Judith” She appeared at her front door, a woolen cape in deep red covered her fragile frame. Richard had known her since he was a small child, she was a close friend of both his late mother and aunt. Three octogenerians, and she the sole survivor. She was a painter and it seemed appropriate that we were taking her to see the Archibald Portrait Exhibition in the Yarra Valley outside of Melbourne. She began dabbling in pottery and had moved on to painting. I instinctively knew we were in for an interesting excursion.
With age comes physical deterioration and for Judith it meant both a walking stick and a walking frame, but of course, not at the same time. Richard, whose technical knowledge has always impressed me, had some trouble trying to fit the walking frame into the boot of his car, but, as always, he persisted and the three of us were soon heading out of Melbourne’s bayside suburbs into the wine growing areas of The Yarra Valley. I respectfully sat in the back seat and allowed them to chatter as it had been some time since their last meeting. The warmth of the car heating and the motion of the slick Mercedez sooned lulled me into a semi state of sleep.
I had been lucky enough to have been taken to the Archibald Exhibition in the previous year at the same place so I knew what to expect. A Tuesday morning with a full car park and many of the people my own age, retired, grey, heavy coats and scarves greeted us as we drove up and were dropped off at the door while Richard parked the car. All I really knew about this years Exhibition was the winning entry by Tim Storrier, a noted painter. We removed the walking frame for Judith and headed towards the entry. The gallery has a semblance of cloister about it. Long and narrow walkways with large openings, not unlike those one sees in Europe only this building is comparatively modern. Grape vines stretched out from the building across large tracts of land. Art and wine make comfortable companions.
Stark white walls were lined with the entries into this now famous exhibition. Canvases painted with known and not so known Australian identities. There is always a kind of hush inside galleries, there is no need for the raising of voices, but more a low whisper of people dissecting and analysing the art work as they walked around the large exhibition spaces. Judith set off alone mostly. We regrouped from time to time but there was no order, no procedure, one wandered into spaces where you could get up close to the canvases and admire. I gave up reading the rather small descriptions of the works. It was too much of an eye strain for me. I had heard the names of some of the artists before but most were unknown to me. Nothing jumped out at me like the previous year. I was somewhat disappointed. In fact the winning entry did not grip at either head nor heart. I left it until the end to get up close to see it more clearly.
It was not until we began to leave that I was able to spend some time chatting with Judith. We went off to an old dairy for coffee and cheese platters. So early in the morning it seemed to be eating such produce. The coffee was my delight. The three of us were perched on high stools at a window that overlooked the cold, rural, Victorian countryside. I think we almost took home more of the cheese than we actually ate at table. Richard would be ‘cheesed-up’ for some time by the look of the size of his ‘doggy bag’
‘My great grandfather was German’ Judith said. I looked at her face and yes, one could sense a Teutonic bone structure in this delightful woman. She and her late husband, Archie, were childless. She had worked as a stenographer in The Department of Repatriation, he was a business man. They had travelled, Bali in the 1960’s, later in Japan. Within a short space of time I had warmed to this stranger and with it came a comfort. She was born a few years after my mother and was the same age as my father when he died. Memories of both became present, though neither of them had any interest in art.
We returned to the bayside suburb where Richard had grown up and we drove past the house of Judith and Archie where Richard used visit as it was only a few streets from his own childhood home. It must have evoked much for him, but little for me. We were invited into Judith’s home where she has spent the last 20 odd years. The walls were lined with her abstract paintings and landscapes. Full winters afternoon light flooded into the sitting room where we sat, Richard and myself with a beer in hand, Judith abstained. There was a wonderful collection of Japanese Wood Block Prints which I found so beautiful. She was aware that she would soon need to move into special accommodation and she spoke of divesting herself of most of the contents of the family home which she now shared with ‘Sam’ the cat. It was an exceptionally wonderful day. It was the day I met Mrs Lidgerwood, the woman in the red cape.
It is only now that I saw the irony of the day, her late husband was called ‘Archie’ and we had been on an excursion to see the Archibald Exhibition. Life is humorous, sometimes bitter and sometimes sweet.