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When my mother was a student, she was sketched in the nude by one of her room-mates. She is sat with her back to the viewer, in a ball, the line of her spine and dimple of her buttocks and her hair in a high bun executed with only single, quick lines of the pencil. The sketch is an almost exact replica of Picasso’s Blue Nude of 1902, though made on notebook paper rather than canvas. It’s not signed or dated but my mother and the artist cannot have been much more than nineteen at the time. There isn’t a lot of skill or feeling in the picture. It’s not erotic or shocking or sinister. If anything, there’s an innocence about the whole thing. The simplicity of the sketch shows only a young woman on the edge of adulthood, unashamed but also modest, or rather not yet confident enough to reveal all to the world.
Although my grandmother is an accomplished artist, I believe this to be the only artwork that depicts my mother, nude or otherwise.
We were always naked at home. Naked is the word, not nude. To me, nudity suggests something artistic, something artful. Nude is a step up from naked, a reach for beauty. There was certainly nothing beautiful about the nakedness at our house.
From quite a young age, I slept naked and, following my parents’ example, would comfortably walk around the house without any clothes on. The bathroom doors were never locked so I’d often walk in on either my mum or dad taking a bath to have a chat or a pee while they washed their hair or read a book. It wasn’t that there wasn’t any privacy allowed at home, more that nakedness was not something that we particular thought of as private.
We lived in a big, Georgian town house with enormous windows in the kitchen that looked out onto the London Road. It’s the main arterial road into the town and was often blocked with traffic. The washing machine and dryer were by the window in the kitchen and so I would frequently stand before the passers-by and fetch pants or socks.
Once my mum returned from work and told me that one of her colleagues had been scandalised by seeing a nude man in our kitchen. Mum had laughed and said, ‘Yes, that’s my son.’ I didn’t change my routine.
Nakedness was something funny to us. The pretence of clothes, the false neat lines that a shirt or a good pair of jeans presents, were made ridiculous by the bumps and bulges of our inartistic forms. I think this is why I have always preferred the rough, globular portraits of Lucian Freud to the perfections of the classical artists. I can see myself in his nudes—although I would always be smiling and his models never do.
My mother was quite a womanly woman. By that I mean, she had fairly large breasts, wide hips and a fleshy bottom. She’d been quite a skinny looking student but never on the scale of the waifs of today. She always said that she would have been fat if she hadn’t worked out and swum at least three times a week. This seemed absurd as my sister and I never saw her eat, except on Sundays when she would only have a little. Every night she would cook us a proper dinner but herself would make do with water biscuits and a bit of cream cheese. I was always slightly surprised if a friend’s mum sat down at the dinner table and ate with her family. It was something I’d never seen before.
She had a round moon face and thin reddish hair. She described her hair colour as strawberry blonde, although had we lived in Scotland, she would have been simply ginger. Her hair was incredibly thin, the result of childhood ringworm apparently. She’d lost her hair entirely as a young teenager and it never grown back to its former thickness. When she again lost her hair, this time due to the chemotherapy she received for cancer, rather than suffer the indignity of a wig, my mother opted for a blue scarf that she wore round her head like a gypsy.
I never saw my mother’s naked scalp and I don’t know what I would’ve felt if I had.
Other peoples’ attitudes to nudity have often bemused me.
I have friends who have never seen their parents or siblings naked. I have one male friend who, on accidently spotting his mother returning from the bathroom in the nude, was actually smacked. These are often the people who themselves find nakedness impossible, even with their partners.
I once had a holiday romance with a woman who never let me see her naked. I couldn’t understand it. She was beautiful, far more attractive than I could ever hope to be. Yet even when we were in bed together, she’d almost always have a layer of clothing to hide her body. As if to encourage her, I would often walk around her hotel room in the nude, hoping that by my example I could somehow unwrap her sense of shame. It was only much later, after I’d returned home and letters were exchanged that the full misery of an eating disorder was revealed. I suddenly understood. I’d been stupid. Worse, I’d been cruel. I can only imagine the sort of impossible torture she felt when looking at my calm nakedness, the agony of seeing another so confident in their skin.
To her, nudity was painful.
I don’t remember when we began to cover ourselves up. There wasn’t an exact moment. I imagine that it must have been about the time when I started having sex. Once the naked body of another human being has become sexualised, that’s it. Nakedness becomes nudity. I knocked on the bathroom door before entering. I pulled the curtains. I bought a pair of pyjamas.
The simple, honest nakedness of our family retreated into the past. If ever there was a door left open or a towel dropped by mistake, I would turn my head away.
A few weeks after her death, I spent a few hours looking for the sketch of my mother. I had a vague memory that it was hidden in her chest of drawers but I couldn’t seem to find it. The smell of her clothes was too much for me, however, her scent embedded within them to such a degree that I felt that at any moment she would walk in and catch me. I shut the drawer quickly and, to this day, I have never looked for it again.
I don’t know whether my dad still has the picture or whether it even exists anymore. It’s possible I invented the whole story. A false memory that I have written into my mother’s history to sharpen her fading image. As if the story of the sketch could give breath to a small moment of life when she was young and pretty and unafraid of what lay ahead. In my mind’s eye, there is something sombre and serious about the sketch which perhaps strikes a false chord.
My mother was many things but never sombre. She was brave, unembarrassed about most things and had the best giggle of anyone I’ve ever known. She always enjoyed the ridiculous in life.
Although you can’t see her face in the sketch, my guess is, if you could, she’d be laughing.