We were on an escalator, moving slowly upwards from the depths of the underground towards daylight. The adverts were placed on a horizontal slant accompanying us on our journey. ‘Leonardo Da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan’ - The National Gallery. I commented; ‘Leonardo Da Vinci- I would have loved to see that exhibition. It’s sold out now.’ My husband said nothing. I wasn’t even sure if he’d heard me, but it didn’t seem worth the effort of repeating myself. I sighed inwardly as we continued to travel upwards. In my head I was thinking; pre children, I would have known about that show, I would have noted in my diary when the tickets were to be released; I would bought some before they sold out, we would have gone.
It wasn’t that I just wanted to go on a whim. I had a special reason for wanting to see this particular exhibition; I’d spent three years at university studying the renaissance, I’d written a dissertation on the court of Milan and Leonardo Da Vinci. I wanted to see Lady with an Ermine not as a picture in a book, but with my own eyes. I wanted to bear witness to the biggest collection of his works ever bought together under one roof for public viewing. Alas, it was not meant to be.
Or so I thought. On Christmas morning, my husband handed me an envelope. Inside, two tickets to see the Leonardo exhibition. He had bought them at the start of November. That day on the escalator, they were already safely hidden in his sock drawer. He’d played it with a straight bat. If the situation had been reversed I would have been whooping inside with joy; my laughing eyes would have revealed the secret; ‘I’ve got you some tickets. Hurrah!’ but no, not a flicker from my husband. There is a reason that he plays a good hand at Poker. Of all the gifts I received for Christmas last year, that present meant the most; it was a well considered, pre planned, thoughtful gift. As I held the tickets in my hand, it was not lost on me how lucky I am that after all these years, my husband still cares enough to make the effort. It also meant that we would get to spend some time together, alone. Time that since the birth of our son, has been increasingly rare. We might snatch a couple of hours away for an evening meal if a visiting parent is willing to babysit, but days out together alone are scarce.
Last week, after lunch in a buzzing brasserie near Trafalgar Square, we made our way to the National Gallery. Despite all my years in London, I couldn’t remember visiting before; there was no sense of deja vu, everything felt as though I were experiencing it for the first time. There’s something wonderfully calm and peaceful about the place. The dark wood floors and the leather and mahogany benches in the centre of the vast rooms reminded me of the film ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’. It also seemed to me, that galleries are wonderful places to conduct a romance; their contemplative air lends itself to it.
We perused some of the bigger galleries for a while, and then arrived at the entrance for the Leonardo exhibition. I felt a wave of emotion flood over me. Suddenly, I felt unable to speak, and I felt my eyes start to prickle slightly and well with tears. I’m not a pretentious art arse. It wasn’t that. I wondered what was wrong with me as I stood in the hubbub of the entry hall. Then I realised, it was the sense of time passing; the many days and nights eclipsed. Inside my head, I flashed back to age 21, to the days of studying the things I was now about to see. Then suddenly fast forwarding again; now here I was in the moment, fifteen years later, standing with the man I met then, now my husband, the man with whom I now shared a small son, the man, who way back when, had stayed up all night with me in the computer room, to help me format the final pages of my dissertation. The sense of all the years that had passed since seemed overwhelming. It was a fleeting moment, one that passed unnoticed by my husband. We entered the exhibition; it was crowded and busy, but it did not detract. I looked at Cecilia Gallerani; the Lady with the Ermine, and the gallery lights cast a warm glow over her wonderful portrait, and I had a sense of how much my life had changed and how far I had come since those early years of adulthood when I had that same picture taped to my wall.
As we walked around that afternoon, it was not however the work of the great Leonardo that I marvelled at the most but in fact, the man beside me. Sometimes people can surprise you in ways that you did not think possible. I thought that possibly, my husband would not enjoy the exhibition, that he would show polite interest and come with me, but it would not really be his ‘thing’. This wasn’t the case. I watched as he meticulously viewed each and every picture, how he marvelled at the fact that Leonardo wrote from right to left, and how he tried to decipher what the additional letters or numbers around some of the pictures might be. And I thought; is this a part of you I’ve not seen before or a glimpse of a forgotten man?
That afternoon I felt fingertips stroke my back, a warm arm around my shoulders, he twice enquired; ‘ would you like to get a cup of tea or coffee’? (he knows me so well.) It felt different, like a date - a proper date, like before we were married. Later, as we made our way in separate directions, me for home and he, back to work, we sat on opposite platforms at the tube, the tracks between us, and smiled at each other. One train later, he was gone. I tried to work out in my mind, what had been different about that afternoon, to try and capture the essence of it, but the answer eluded me. Instead, I was left pondering the words of Audrey Hepburn, who said; ‘The secret to a good marriage is falling in love with the same person, over and over again.’ I’ve read that quote a thousand times, but I was never really sure I believed it. Yet, as I stepped on the train for home, without question, I felt as though I were a little bit more in love than when I had arrived earlier that day, and in that sense, my gift was priceless.