My Idea of Beauty by Jane Warrick

BOMB 26 Winter 1989
026 Winter 1988 89
Philip Henry Delamotte & Joseph Cundall, Rivaulx Abbey, Interior of the Choir, 1856, albumen print, 11 × 9". Courtesy of Christine Burgin Gallery.

Philip Henry Delamotte & Joseph Cundall, Rivaulx Abbey, Interior of the Choir, 1856, albumen print, 11 × 9”. Courtesy of Christine Burgin Gallery.

Looking back on it, I suppose it was obvious there might be trouble, but at the time I really hadn’t thought so. We’d slept together once and although it was good we both knew it wouldn’t happen again. What I didn’t know was that she’d told him everything. She’d told me she hadn’t but she had. I’d never had gone off with them if I’d known. So I thought everything was fine as we wandered in and out of those beautiful churches, ate those wonderful meals, and turned that lovely rich brown. I enjoyed their company. I found it restful being with a couple. That lack of intensity—like coffee with too much milk in it—which in the city I found irritating, in the country relaxed me. I didn’t have to bother about them. They were each other’s responsibility. They made their little demands for attention, endlessly discussed who was going to drive, calmed each other’s nerves, and generally used each other as a shield against the world. But while I was oblivious, he was intercepting every glance between Laura and me, and not only intercepting, but imagining. In the city I’d usually pick up that sort of intrigue immediately. In the country, though, I no longer related to people. The landscape trivialized human beings, reduced us to what I really thought we were: inconsequential, little detached things moving around on the surface.

I did notice John appearing whenever Laura and I settled down to talk. He didn’t want to miss anything. There’d be a weird sort of insistence in his behavior, nothing I could put my fìnger on exactly, but our ease would evaporate.

Whenever he appeared like that she would touch him, ruffle his hair, somehow appease him. And he’d get that little inward smile he always got when our attention was on him.

I tried to give them as much time alone together as I could. It wasn’t a hard thing to do because I adored wandering around alone. I’d find the life of a place in its back streets. I wasn’t really interested in the famous or the known. I preferred hardware stores, markets, or cafes for workers. I felt a sort of vibrancy when I was by myself. A pulse. I picked up the sense of a place, its feel. I didn’t like planning where to go or marching off in any particular direction. I liked the delicacies: the conversations from windows, the light falling on a wall, the plastic strips you push through to get into the grocery store.

They didn’t want to be left alone, I gradually realized. At first I thought it was politeness, good manners, but then saw it was a sort of need. They were bored, they needed the intrigue. They’d both put their arms around me and say, “You will come with us, won’t you, it’ll be fun. We miss you.” But it was exhausting after a while, all that navigation, having to work out what was and wasn’t permissible.

Laura would come into my room in the morning sometimes and get into my bed with me and we’d talk. I slept in an old iron-frame bed next to the window. My room was empty except for a small writing table and a wicker chair pulled up against it. There was an elaborate tin cross mounted on the wall opposite the bed and next to this an alcove with two shelves. On the lower shelf sat a small fat-bellied jug. It was the only decorative object. All my clothes were in a closet in the hall.

This was how I liked to live; waking up in rooms bare of the inessential.

One morning Laura came into my room early, at dawn, and after talking a while we fell asleep. I forgot she was there. Later when I woke it was to morning light, solitude, and a bare room. As usual. As usual that is until I turned my head, and there, lying next to me, was a vision.

It was so unexpected, this young smiling face on my pillow, so unexpected, it struck me to the heart. I turned away again, my face to the window, and closed my eyes. If only she hadn’t had lipstick on it perhaps wouldn’t have been so piercing, so poignant. I fell in love with beauty, with intimacy, and with artifice.

During the rest of that day I felt odd. After Laura got out of my bed and went back to his I got up quickly and went out. I felt foolish and abstract. It didn’t belong to anything, this feeling I now had for Laura, it didn’t even belong to Laura.

I went to a cafe, drank three cups of coffee and watched the activity in the square. It was still early and not too hot. I watched people greeting each other and going to work. I half listened to the men’s voices coming from behind me and I watched what I finally realized was a car park attendant, placing tickets on the cars in the square. His manner was so languid and his progress so apparently random that I realized he knew every car, where the owners were, how long they’d be, and probably much more besides. He didn’t need a system.

Later in the day they caught up with me. “We know an old monastery,” they said, “we’ll take you to it. You can break in with us.” Everything was about to close for the afternoon so I went. I was going to have to spend time with them anyway, regardless of my earlier experience.

The drive was uneventful. When we got there we had to follow a path through some fields. We passed a young couple asleep on a blanket beneath a tree. We moved quietly so as not to disturb them and not to be seen. They looked so perfect there in the shade with their arms around each other. I imagined they’d come from a village near by and that they too were on an illicit quest. But wherever they’d come from they looked as though they belonged.

Laura led us into the first building and up some stairs. This must have been where the monks lived she said, pointing to a sink in one room and the remains of a bathroom in another. We walked down a long corridor, the ceiling of which had fallen in pieces to the floor exposing the rafters. The walls were very thick. Part of the building seemed even older than the rest. One room in particular seemed almost to have been hollowed out of the structure like a cave.

I lagged behind them until they’d disappeared. I prefer looking at things alone. Other people interfere somehow, not with the looking as much, but with the feeling of a place.

Laura came back to find me and led me to another part of the building. Look what I’ve found she said, pointing to a dead animal, its fur collapsed over its ribs and its teeth exposed in a grimace. John’s head appeared in the doorway. What are you doing? Come and see this.

We followed him along a corridor which linked one building with another. We climbed over cement blocks that had been used to wall up the entrance and that someone had knocked through.

I watched Laura as she walked in front of me and I wanted to touch her back. Often during the day I’d felt this urge to touch her, but it wasn’t desire. It wasn’t that.

John kept looking behind him to make sure we were all right picking over the debris. But not really, he was intercepting; was he being left out, were we exchanging intimate looks, was there something he should know about? Yes and no was the answer to that.

We climbed down narrow steps that led us to a small room behind the altar. Two doorways led out into the body of the church. They went out through one and I through the other. We were in an enormous domed structure, empty but for a mosaic of broken roof that had fallen to the floor. The altar was complete and on the wall above it was a fresco of a Madonna and child. We saw what looked like earlier frescos, two of them, facing each other on opposite walls.

In one two men stood imposingly at the foot of some steps. The older of the two wore the robes of an important official and a crown, his hand raised in a gesture of silence. The other was a youth and wore a simple short tunic. He held a spear with its point to the ground. Between the two men, raised up on three steps, stood a Madonna and child, their faces obliterated by decay.

On the other wall the Madonna looked down on us with detachment. The child standing on her lap pulled at the neck of her robe.

The two walls were separated by an enormous wooden door, barricaded, but which let in three piercing shafts of sunlight.

John studied the frescos. Laura picked over the shards on the floor looking for something recognizable to take home. I climbed back up the stairs to return to the living quarters. I made my way back to the cave room and sat on the window ledge. Hanging from the rafters was a bundle of dry branches wrapped around with wire. Suspended from it was a round piece of tin, ridged like the top of a can. A short piece of wood kept the tin in position. The wire twisted around itself and then opened up to form a loop.

I wondered what on earth it was and why it was there. I’d noticed others, not as complete as this, but consisting of the same elements: branches, round or square pieces of tin, and twisted wire. I couldn’t think what practical use they had but they had quite as much presence in these rooms as did the frescos in the church below.

I sat there wondering how old the buildings were and thinking that we must appear transparent, almost, to the room, our passage was so temporary.

I could hear the hum of traffic from the motorways the monastery sat between. It had been stranded on a piece of ground only two hundred yards wide which must have been the cause of its abandonment. In other rooms, beneath the windows, I’d come across piles of cigarette stubs. Painted on the walls are political slogans and homosexual graffiti. Scattered on the floor were the torn pages of pornographic magazines. This was how the rooms were used now.

I heard John and Laura yelling for me. I didn’t want to be found but I could hardly avoid it. The thing was, every time I thought about Laura’s face on my pillow, my stomach lurched. I knew if I didn’t get away soon I’d begin to attach myself to that moment.

I like doors and windows. I like things framed. When they came through the door I could shoot from the hip. Bang. Bang. But I wouldn’t.

Later we’d have dinner at our hotel, on the terrace, and look out at the hills until they disappeared into the darkness. We’d eat wonderful food, drink lots of wine, and talk about the day. I’d wonder what they were thinking. Who knows, they’d probably wonder what I was thinking. And we’d all be thinking different things about events seen in different ways. And in two days I’d be leaving on a flight alone, to a different destination. It didn’t really matter what he thought, or what she thought, or what I thought.

When I went to bed that night I’d stare at the little jug I liked so much. It was my idea of beauty.

Jane Warrick was born in England. She is currently living and writing in New York. Her work appears regularly in BOMB.

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Originally published in

BOMB 26, Winter 1989

Jon Robin Baitz, David Cronenberg, Harry Mathews, Richard Martin, Peter Ackroyd, Annette Messager, Javier Vallhonrat, Jodi Long, Christian Boltanski, and Kenji Fujita.

Read the issue
026 Winter 1988 89